By Anote Ajeluorou
ALTHOUGH Nigerian men and women of letters and culture have won and been awarded some of the best prizes and honours on offer both at home and globally, critical affirmation for cultural production at home is still a mirage. It still needs validation and affirmation from outside (Europe and America) to make it acceptable at home. For instance, while Nigeria and black Africa’s first Nobel Prize for Literature was won by Wole Soyinka, largely for his dramatic output, the state of theatre production in the country is still poor, as it is still struggling to find a footing almost 30 years since Soyinka’s literary feat.
For award-winning journalist and latter-day writer Mr. Sam Omatseye, this situation has hampered the development of a virile literary culture, as it was still tied to the apron strings of the colonial masters, who continue to dictate the pace. Omatseye had the Honorary Fellow of Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) conferred on him recently at University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos. It was at the 17th edition of the eminent body’s yearly lecture and investiture, which had Omatseye and two other academics.
With three DAME and three National Media Award (NMA) awards in his journalistic kitty, Omatseye has since turned his attention to creative writing, with The Crocodile Girl (novel), Lion Wind and Other Poems, Dear Baby Ramatu, Mandela’s Bones and Other Poems (all poetry), The Siege (drama) and In Touch: Journalism as National Narrative, as his titles.
According to him, “To do well in literature, you have to first go back to our colonialists to be affirmed first by them, which isn’t a good thing. The literary establishment is still tethered to colonial loins. The winner of the Nobel Prize 2014, Mr. Jean Patrick Madiano, a French man, is hardly known outside France. In Nigeria, affirmation is difficult because you need the media to play up literature, which isn’t happening much in our media. It’s all about politics; that is what editors understand, which is sad. There’s more to life than politics. The school system is not helping out much by not feasting on our writers; the Ministry of Education - both state and federal - are too far from our writers. They need to work with the literary establishment, which is not even coherent.
“Our only Nobel Prize came from drama, but drama is patchy. There’s no special government funding to generate interest in literature; no book division in the Ministry of Education and libraries have become outdated things in our clime”.
The editorial chairman of The Nation newspaper also said prize organisers ought to generate a lot more media buzz for Nigerians to patronise the works being honoured. He also blamed the snail speed of literary development on the attitude of the elite, whom he accused of philistinism and a lack of interest and respect for an important cultural production like literature.
He noted, “If Nigeria’s elite showed enough interest in literature, we will all value our own”.
The continuing brain drain for greener pastures abroad that ensues Nigeria’s best intellectuals flocked to Europe and America is also a factor Omatseye blames for the poor valuation of literary output in the country. He, therefore, called for advocacy amongst the elites so they could actively promote, participate and openly identify and consume all forms of cultural productions. Omatseye said his last trip to London showed him how culture was being consumed voraciously by British citizens, as he could not get a ticket to buy as most of the theatres were sold out days before the shows, a far cry from what obtains in Nigeria.
Omatseye, whose literary side just began to emerge a few years ago, said he was only just beginning to pay serious attention to his writing career, noting, “Every writer needs a great mentor. It’s just a part of my life that’s beginning to take off; it has come off tangentially”.
ON his Honorary Fellow from Nigerian Academy of Letter, which was earned largely because of his journalistic career, Omatseye expressed how dazed he was at being so honoured. As he put it, “It was a real honour; I didn’t see it coming. It makes me feel self-conscious how I present myself as a professional. They (NAL folks, all university professors of distinction in the humanities) are people older than me; they are like my father. People like Chief Emeka Anyaoku and the Oba of Benin are among past recipients. So, it’s humbling for me.
“I was dazed by the citation about my feat in journalism; during the military, as a writer, we took on the establishment. I won three DAME and three Nigeria Media Merit Awards (NMMA) in a space of about nine years. My columns have generated a lot of attention, sometimes bordering on sacrilege and heresy. I’ve never missed a week or repeated a column. I was so right about former President Goodluck Jonathan towards the last election on his economic mismanagement. But everybody was so into Jonathan it was as if I was writing heresy”.
Omatseye said Nigerian journalists were still grappling with how to conduct their journalistic business in a democracy, as they had not prepared themselves well enough for the transition from military rule.
According to him, “There is a lot to said in turning this country into a democracy. At that time it was hectic, especially for political journalists. I had to go abroad on a fellowship. I couldn’t come back. In democracy, journalism is trying to find out the role it should play. Journalists have almost become part of it; its role should be that of being corrective without being a part of it. We tend to look elsewhere when wrong is being done. But with President Muhammadu Buhari, it becomes problematic. Our role is yet defined; it is still trying to find its foot and direction”.
He added that Newspaper Proprietors of Nigeria (NPA), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) ought to organise a meeting point to properly spell out the role of journalists in a democracy. He, however, noted that with some media owners not being able to pay salaries, the media seem unprepared for the task ahead. The demand of new technology was also a challenge, Omatseye argued, which the media was still trying to come to terms with.