The Missing Link*
Views on the Nigerian International Book Fair held in Abuja, May 2002
Niyi Osundare is a poet and Professor of English at the University of
New Orleans, LA70148, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Mary Jay of African Books Collective told
me last year that an international book fair was to take place in Abuja,
Nigeria, in 2002, my reaction was that of surprise and disbelief. In
the first place, so long after the last major one at Ile Ife, after
so many years of brutal military dictatorship coupled with the resurgence
of illiteracy, the idea of an international book fair in Nigeria had
begun to sound so strange, even quixotic. The second puzzle was the
proposed venue of the fair: Abuja. Abuja and the book have never collocated
in the Nigerian mind, for Abuja and culture sound very much like unlike
In the thinking of most people, Abuja is the city of contractors, businessmen
and women, federal bureaucrats, and pugilistic, prodigal politicians.
It is the city of Julius Berger and gold-digging foreign construction
companies. What space is left for culture in a formerly stunningly beautiful
landscape now defaced with ill-executed tabernacles and hurriedly assembled
assortments of structures, where the brotherhood of rocks gazes helplessly
as bulldozers tear through the belly of tender mountains and the steam
shovel scoops the innards of green valleys? Abuja looks very much like
a city with little rhyme and littler reason. A book fair there would
be like a flower show in a desert, I thought.
When I voiced this scepticism to some of the organizers of the fair,
all kinds of rationalization assailed my doubt: it had to be Abuja so
as to get the fair closer to the seat of the federal government, whose
gracious donation had aided its financing: Abuja it must be so as to
enlist the participation of the top brass of Nigeria’s political
leadership, who would attend in all their majesty and dazzle the guests
with the panoply of Nigerian power. The president of Nigeria, the president
of Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives were all
being invited, I was told.
Ah, how the ground would shake under the cavalry of Nigerian power!
To as many people as gave me this line, I registered a warning: if you
want your function to go well and as planned, don’t invite the
Nigerian politician because he/she will almost surely dampen your enthusiasm
with his/her absence, or disrupt your programme by coming majestically
late. Perhaps the fair planners never thought about this; perhaps they
thought that the immensity of an international gathering of this kind
would get Nigeria’s political leopards to change their spots.
Well, that never happened. None of the invited powers showed up. None
sent any apologies. Only the minister of education sent a representative
in the person of Peter Okabukola, executive secretary, National Universities
Commission, whose presence brightened up two of the sessions.
So, for a whole week, an international book fair took place in Nigeria’s
capital city, but those in the ‘Three Arms Zone’ betrayed
not the slightest awareness of that important event. Absolutely in character.
To the grabbers of political power in Nigeria, the book is still very
much a foreign object, strange, mute, and uncannily hostile.
This pervasive bibliphobia notwithstanding, Nigeria’s first really
international book fair in many years did take place in Abuja in mid-May
2002. Never to be overlooked or underestimated is the dogged courage
and tenacity of the organizers who made it happen in spite of Nigeria’s
daunting infrastructural problems. We saw a fair sense of organization
and commitment, a heroic striving to succeed. However, although the
fair organizers demonstrated a staunch commitment to the book, alas,
they displayed no such virtue towards the writer. If the truth be told,
in the book chain of the Abuja fair, the writer was the missing link.
All the foreign (and most of the local) participants I spoke with wondered
why there were so few Nigerian writers at the fair. They had come not
only to see books but also to have the rare chance of interacting with
those who wrote the books, ask them questions, obtain their autographs,
exchange ideas and addresses with them. Unfortunately this was not to
be. The Abuja fair was unfairly dominated by publishers and booksellers
in the fervent belief that the books which formed the centre of their
business must have dropped from heaven in effortless circumstances.
This is painfully at variance with the spirit of the book fair in other
parts of the world where publishers ensure the presence of their authors
(especially old, established figures and new ones making a remarkable
debut), take care of their welfare, organize autograph and meet-the-author
sessions for them, promote them and their works in all kinds of ways.
At such book fairs, the most looked-forward to, most heavily-attended
sessions are those in which authors read from their works and take feed-back
questions and comments from the audience – a mutually enriching
process for both sides.
There are also author-author dialogues for which the audience serves
as both listeners and umpires. I remember with delight one such dialogue
between Derek Walcott and the late Joseph Brodsky at the 1993 Gothenburg
book fair in Sweden. Both Nobel laureates, poets and writers with remarkable
reputations (who also happened to be good friends), these unusual public
interlocutors talked about themselves and each other, each about his
works and the works of the other, other writers, spicing it all up with
crisp humour and literary panache. Two poets, two friends, but also
two different personalities: one belletrist, voluble, somewhat aristocratic
in his literary idiolect, the other elliptical and somewhat self-effacing.
The audience lost no chance in picking up the fallouts from this intriguing
battle between friends. Needless to say, the event went beyond the venue.
Why couldn’t the organizers of the Abuja book fair think about
such author-centred events? Why did the publishers come with a retinue
of salesmen and women but not a single author? The answer is as Nigerian
as the ‘Nigerian Factor’ itself. Author-sourcing, author-cultivation,
author-promotion, and author-welfare have never had a place in the priority
list of most Nigerian publishers, many of whom think they have done
the author a lofty favour by publishing his/her work.
As a matter of fact, the majority of Nigerian publishers are in gross
violation of the salient aspects of author-publisher relations: they
never tell the author how many copies of his/her works they have printed,
how many they have sold, and what royalties are due, or when they will
be paid. Strange but true: there are publishers in Nigeria who have
not issued royalty statements nor paid their authors one kobo for ten
years, though their books have been consistently on sale! If this is
not criminal, I do not know what else is. The recently published The
African Writers’ Handbook grappled comprehensively with these
issues, but even many of the Nigerian publishers who participated in
the making of that historic document have flouted every letter of it.
No hyperbole intended, but there is every reason to believe that many
Nigerian publishers enjoy seeing their authors in rags.
Without a doubt, our publishers have been acting in tune with the spirit
of their age. For, frankly speaking, this is still Nigeria’s age
of resurgent illiteracy. We live in a country which slams taxes on books
and book-related materials, a country that puts every conceivable obstacle
in the way of literary creativity, and yet has the immoral effrontery
of extorting hefty ‘withholding taxes’ from authors’
royalties (in the unlikely event they are paid!). Surely, a country
that can put the National Theatre up for sale in the name of some fuzzily
defined ‘privatization’ can hardly lay any credible claim
to genuine culture. How many of our rulers read one good book in a year,
two years, five years, and ten years? How many of them are literate
and knowledgeable enough to personally write the speeches they try to
impress us with on every important (or unimportant) occasion? What do
they know about culture, genuine culture, not atavistic recrudescences
of raffia-clad dancers titillating ogling guests at state banquets?
What do they know about the book beyond those ghosted hagiographies
which haul in millions of naira at public launches, then vanish into
dusty oblivion soon after?
Nigeria has never cared about creativity and the creative person. Consider
the billions being squandered on the mindlessly sited Abuja stadium,
and ask how many theatres are being built in this unreal city, how many
museums, how many studies, how many libraries? Consider the billions
spent on soccer jamborees, and ask how much is being spent on the overhaul
of crumbling sporting facilities in our educational institutions all
over the country?
When Darego Agbani (this is without prejudice to her well-deserved recognition)
came back to us as ‘Miss World’, the National Assembly stood
to attention; she was a distinguished guest at the State House where
top political rulers jumped over one another to shake her hand. Then
ask: when Helon Habila recently came home with the Caine Prize, how
many of our rulers spared one moment for that achievement? And yet this
is the country of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and other literary ambassadors
whose works and reputations have gone a long way in repairing the damage
done to Nigeria’s international image by criminal dictators and
politicians, 419 scam experts, and drug pushers?
No, Nigeria is not yet a country for the creative person. Nor is it
a country that is in a hurry to encourage creativity and benefit from
its virtues. We are too busy consuming the products of the creative
efforts of other peoples in our proverbial role as ‘importers,
forwarders and manufacturers’ representatives’. Afflicted
with a chronic tokunbo pathology, we are too content with squandering
our resources on the second-hand, fifth-hand products straight from
Europe’s technological scrap yard. Those who call Nigeria an ‘independent
country’ have invented the most audacious oxymoron of the 21st
And so, for the better part of one week, we were
camped in the Berger-built, Babangida-commissioned international conference
centre (a futuristic leviathan with its failing power supply and erratic
air-conditioning). But there were silver linings in the cloud.
Abosede Emanuel’s tremendous book, Odun Ifa, and its publisher
received the prestigious Noma Award; Heinemann UK marked 40 years of
the African Writers Series with Okey Ndibe reading from his new novel;
there were wonderful reminiscences by Aig Higo, Cyprian Ekwensi, and
Henry Chakava. And every day of the fair, students trooped in from Abuja
high schools for writing workshops and other intellectual activities.
I directed five sessions of this workshop, and was struck by the enthusiasm,
intelligence, and imaginative faculty of many of the participants. The
Book Fair Trust, Wale Okediran, workshop co-ordinator and rallying force,
and others in the children’s programme committee deserve our gratitude
for this initiative, which was for me the most meaningful engagement
at the Abuja book fair. By their promise and abundant talent, those
young workshop participants left me with the sanguine impression that
in the book fair of the future the writer will not be the missing link.
*Reprinted with permission from
Newswatch, Lagos, 29 July 2002 [end] [BPN, no 31, 2002, p. 6.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 31, 2002>>