By Anote Ajeluorou
THREE days before the formal opening on Friday last week, CORA Secretary-General, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, had set the tone, when he stated that ‘Narratives of Conflict,’ the theme for the 14th Lagos Book and Art Festival, LABAF, encapsulates the nation’s body polity and how very fitting most of the books under review capture the perplexing complexity of Nigeria’s politics.
The art activist, Akinosho further stated that LABAF is different from other festivals because its organisers always insisted on talking about texts and not just ideas, adding, “we must be addressing texts and examine Nigeria’s issues, situations through texts”.
This premise appropriately set the tone for the various discussions that eventually took place in three days of intense conversation on various books and personalities in the book and culture industry.
FIRST on the bill on Friday was the Bishop of Sokoto Catholic ArchDiocese, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, whose book, Witness to Justice brought to public domain afresh the Truth Commission set up at the inception of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999.
While the commission popularly known as Oputa Panel spiritedly worked to unearth the sundry abuses Nigerians suffered under military rule, its work never went beyond the prime time soap opera it was at the time. For wanting Nigerians not to forget that dramatic episode, Kukah sifted through the dense volumes and brought out a book both for the reader's enjoyment and enlightenment.
Kukah was concerned that Nigeria’s general amnesia and willingness to forget so quickly had already caught up with the commission he served as secretary, hence his book, Witness to Justice. The Catholic priest and public intellectual, is not happy that Nigerians have not engaged the recommendations of the commission with the seriousness it deserves. What has irked him most is that while he had been invited to several other countries to talk about the commission, it has generally been forgotten at home.
In his conversation with writer, arts manager, Tolu Ogunlesi, Kukah restated the importance of the Oputa Panel and its result, saying, “The book makes a lot of difference; that’s why we are here talking about it. It has sold well beyond the average. But it has come to me as a great disappointment that there’s no invitation, especially from nigerian universities, where constant research and reflection on the state of the nation ought to be taking place, to ask me what really happened”.
He confessed to approaching the job with cynicism at the time of his appointment. He said he did not believe Nigeria had the courage to withstand the truth to be unmasked by a commission of such magnitude. He noted, “The book is not about power or here and now; it’s about the future and to address the anti-intellectualism in our society. You get a sense that people are in the universities because they just want to be there.
“In this country, people come into politics without the barest idea what politics is about. So, the Truth Commission validates the saying that if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book. No one has done anything about the report ever since”.
On the question of victimhood occasioned by the long years of military rule, Kukah argued that the strength of the panel was its ability to have brought together many people of diverse backgrounds to one spot to talk about the evils done to them by the state and its apparatuses. He stated, “What held these people together was that Nigeria was a basket of injustice and evil had become so pervasive. Nigerians now knew that the military had been so corrosive nobody wants it any more; and dictatorship diminishes humanity.
“Now that we are free, let me put it that way, let’s treasure it and ensure that the military does not come back. Some of us take our freedom for granted. So that when a man says that he became born again in prison, don’t laugh at him; it’s a serious matter. When people have gone through those traumas, they need to talk about them. Unfortunately, we don’t have the platform to tell their stories; no therapy to help them heal their traumatic experiences”.
He noted that in writing Witness to Justice, he has been able to lend his voice to the voiceless people that came to the commission. He said the commission was as a result of an environment where power runs amok, as it once did in the country, and even in a democracy. He also argued that some of the problems plaguing the country were because of impunity, noting that from the legal, law enforcement to the system all had been compromised.
Kukah expressed opinion that it was the vacuum of uncertainty and systemic failures in many areas of national life that religion was filling, with its many wrong-headed variants assailing the psyche daily.
Bishop Kukah also spoke on Chinua Achebe’s controversial book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, saying reactions to it were that of “a people not ready for things of real value. I have read the book and I don’t agree with some things in it but if you disagree with somebody based on the things he has written, then write your own. But like everything in Nigeria, people are talking about the book because of hearsay. This is why our country will not be able to overcome the troubles of yesterday. Today, our democracy means ability to agree with you always; if I disagree with you, it becomes something else”.
Sitting with Ogunlesi, on the Concert stage (once a gallow) of the Freedom Park -- which was a Colonial prison on Broad Street -- Bishop Kukah also entertained questions from the public on the state of the nation; and he seemed very much pleased with the enthusiams shown by the secondary students who were in the audience, saying it shows that it is possible for Nigeria to have a politically conscious citizenry in the future.
THE colloquium, which was on ‘Narratives of Conflict’, explored some relatively new texts that highlight the nation’s recent historical march and the part played by these participants in the shaping of the democratic space. The texts include Open Graveyard by Wale Osun, Out of the Shadows by Kayode Fayemi (now governor of Ekiti State), Rose and Bullets by Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo and There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe. The session had Dr. Niran Okewole, Tade Ipadeola, and Deji Toye; it was moderated by Tunji Lardner. One of the authors, Ezeigbo, who was present was also invited to join the panelists.
These four books dwell on some critical phases Nigeria has navigated in the cause of its 50 years of existence. The books explore the many high dramas Nigeria and Nigerians have undergone; how a promising nation soon found itself floundering shortly after independence and the spirited efforts made to reshape it ever since, with the ubiquitous military that hijacked it for a long time. The stories are accounts of individual encounters with the state might under military rule and the not-so-pleasant results of these encounters both on the psyche of the individuals and society at large.
For Ipadeola and the other panelists, Nigeria’s failure produced its shock waves on these writers with the result that they have attempted to narrate this same story in their own unique voices that often differ from each other to the point of conflict. So much so that the reader is left open-mouthed as to whether it is the same communal experience, of military rule and dictatorship and the democratic struggles that left many wounded, maimed and dead -- the writers are writing about.
How then can Nigeria’s story be properly understood if there was no one unifying, single story by the many writers telling her story? Is there a thing as a grand narrative to tell a country’s story?
Ipadeola submitted, “Achebe, Kukah and Fayemi all seem to be asking: How did a promising country become unprepared for the calamity that was coming? Whether it’s government, civil society, religious structures, things didn’t just happen as they were supposed to. We’re at the danger of isolating the 1990s (the military era) as the dark period of Nigeria’s history, but there have been crises since the 1950s. There’s a lot more that Nigeria can gain by closely studying the writers under scrutiny who were there when these things were happening.
“Achebe’s a great book but it falls into the error of arguing and not clarifying. I think Achebe knows how powerful his prose is and uses it to argue. Why was there no charge of genocide laid against anyone for the dead or living? Until we begin to have biographies, we will not be able to break out of the traps of untruths,” remarked Ipadeola.
The lawyer, poet, and president of Nigeria chapter of Poets, Essayists and Novelists, Ipadeola also argued that although Achebe’s book is an important one, no African author had risen to write a book as well as Russia’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 to make issues that had been nebulous clear.
On whether there could be a single, unifying narrative about the country’s history, the panelists differed significantly. Okewole asked: Is there a single narrative in all the stories of conflict? He noted that there could be some flaws in Achebe’s book because it depended on memory, which lapses over time and that memory is also selective. “Now, we should be looking at many narratives rather than a grand narrative and to take a decision as a nation to look at multiple narratives.
“So, why did the Nigerian project fail? Why did it not happen? Why was the project hijacked? We have to hold the political class responsible for not doing what they ought to do!”
In her intervention, Ezeigbo said she believed in subjectivity. She argued that people are different and respond differently to common issues. To the Professor of English at the University of Lagos, there is no such thing as a grand narrative of a country’s history, as it might seem limiting. She noted that the “Nigerian Civil War had generated a lot of controversies. Everybody is entitled to his own view. Achebe’s interpretation is his own memory; my narrative Roses and Bullets, though fictional, is based on fact as I saw it during the war as a young schoolgirl in her teenage years”.
Ezeigbo believes that There was A Country has stirred controversy because it is an Achebe’s. She said “Many individuals have written volatile books that have gone unnoticed. This is his own interpretation of history. Write your own book if you disagree”.
The lawyer, poet and dramatist, Toye finds Achebe’s view of Igbo victimhood based on hatred from other ethnic group out of sync with the reality. He noted that rather than a deterministic view of history, virtual history should be the guiding light, adding that multiple narratives of history should be encouraged.
Indeed, Nigeria, like an over excited monkey, has been dancing on the precipice and neared its tipping point with its many devious acts that have denied it true nationhood. However, Okewole stated that the country's turning point could be just as dramatic as its tipping point. The nation’s turning point, stated the medical doctor, writer, could be the “coming together of a few people who have the courage of conviction to act” in a particularly positive manner for the good of all.
STILL in literary discourse at the festival, under the theme‘My Story, My Country’ the author of Power, Politics & Death, the journalist, Segun Adeniyi took the hot seat and was taken to task on issues surrounding his explosive book, a memoir of his years as spokesman to the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. In what was apparent defence of the position he took during Yar’Adua’s ill health and final death, Adeniyi shot off on an emotional note and highlighted the politicisation of a president’s ill health and death.
Adeniyi, a former editor of ThisDay newspaper before he took the job of Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media, admitted to having taken some crucial decisions to either avert or set in motion certain events that would have worked negatively or positively to affect the nation or power equation as it was then. First, Adeniyi asserted, “I had no regret taking the job; I never knew my stewardship was going to be that dramatic. The book took me six months to complete at Harvard University where I did my Fellowship”.
The former presidential spokesperson said he fell out of favour with President Goodluck Jonathan, then Vice President, for failing to call him Acting President at a point when it appeared Yar’Adua had become incapacitated. But he insisted that he didn’t even know the exact state of health of the President to have acted appropriately. But that when he realised his mistake by the unfolding events the following day, he acted quickly by calling a press briefing where he corrected himself. But by then, the political mood had been soured and a purported 'cabal' theory had gained ascendancy.
In a rising tone laden with so much emotion, Adeniyi avowed, “Nobody knew what was going on; everybody was apprehensive. I didn’t know anything either. It didn’t make any sense to call Jonathan Acting President when the President was in the country. But when I realised it, I corrected myself. There were all sorts of dynamics -- politics, religion; people wanted power to stay where it was. But next day, I called a press briefing and called Jonathan Acting President and because of that thing, people thought there was a cabal and people called me all sorts of names”.
Adeniyi blamed the uncertainty at the time to apparent lacuna and inability of the Office of the Attorney-General and the National Assembly to advice the President appropriately and promptly on what to do but none of them did anything. He, however, noted that he would rather not blame anybody because of “the nature of our country; next time, we will learn from it. We have learnt from it. The deputy Governor of Taraba State is now Acting Governor as a result of the Constitutional amendment.”
Now that we are free, let me put it that way, let’s treasure it and ensure that the military does not come back. Some of us take our freedom for granted. So that when a man says that he became born again in prison, don’t laugh at him; it’s a serious matter. When people have gone through those traumas, they need to talk about them. Unfortunately, we don’t have the platform to tell their stories; no therapy to help them heal their traumatic experiences.