OLATUNBOSUN TAOFEEK was a former national officer of ANA and has a firm grasp of the issues facing the association. In this interview, he argues that ANA’s goodwill is the main attraction for certain political interests who do not share the association’s core writerly values and would do everything to wreck it. He spoke with Anote Ajeluorou
How long have you been in ANA?
I can’t remember the number of years. I came in while I was an undergraduate at the University of Lagos, and that was many years ago.
And you’ve remained and haven’t had any reason to quit. Why is that?
In the first instance, I came into the association not for political reasons. I came to the organization because I see writing as my career, and that’s what I’m going to do till I die. So, with that kind of mindset, it will be very difficult for me to quit because I see it as a lifetime adventure which I have ventured into. If it was that I came in because I had an agenda of being the president or so, with the whole saga on ground, one would have left. So, I can’t precisely state the date, and it’s obvious; just like when one is born, you don’t know it, same way you won’t know when you’re going to die. Things that are inspirational, things that are natural, you don’t know when you start them, and you may not know when you are likely to end them. That is exactly what’s happening to me.
How well would you say your journey with ANA has been?
Well, it’s quite innovative and supporting, so to say. One of the issues about life is that sometimes, we jump into bumps and thorns, but the greatest of them is that you must understand that life is not without worries. So if one decides to focus on these worries, one may not live life to the full. ANA as a body has been very good to me. When I came in as an undergraduate, we used to go to the National Theatre, it taught me and made realise a lot of tools that are needed for the writing trade, and it was in a professional way. It wasn’t like classroom tutelage. You have mutual experience with the people practicing that particular trade. So at the National Theatre, we talked about the country under the tree, we talked about the writers village. Sometimes, we were at Onabolu Gallery, all those places. We had various kinds of meetings with different people. Sometimes, writers came from outside the country to do one thing or the other. So, it was a thorough process of learning. And you know quite well that the average Nigerian doesn’t like sitting down to learn. They always like jumping the gun and being at the front, and this is why we are having leadership crisis in ANA. If you are the type who has taken time to be schooled in the arts, you tend to be patient and understand the way the arts work.
Some of the people with whom I joined ANA have all left, because they came in with an agenda – some came to make money; some came to use the body to vie for political positions. Some came just to publish their books, while some wanted to use it to travel abroad, and some of them actually did. There were times when I was part of the executive of ANA Lagos. People came for a letterhead to submit to the embassy. It was as if these people were not really writers, like they didn’t have that spirit of the trade. They were just coming from left and right just like Jesus’ parable of the sower; you meet people like that.
That was how it was and still is for some people, but for me, I came in because I wanted to be a writer from day one, and I will remain a writer till I pass on. So no matter what the problems are, we just have to find a way around them. So, that’s why I don’t really bother myself about the problems.
So you believe ANA is still on course?
Exactly! I think it is for one person to start a mission; it is for others to help take it to where he wanted it to go. The founding fathers had a good vision for a writing body in Nigeria, and I think from what I could see from the beginning of my involvement, and even with the different kinds of challenges along the way, a lot people still don’t know about much about ANA.
The founding fathers had a noble plan for the body. They wanted it to be the kind of body that can put the country on the right track. Writers ought to be part of those controlling the affairs of this country, and by so doing their noble vision would reflect on the people. But unfortunately, just like we have it in the politics of Nigeria, some of the ambitious ones among us now want to bring that mess to the writers’ body, because they don’t have a good vision. Look at the land acquisition our founding father got for us; it was to make sure that writers have a place they can call their own. I don’t think anything could be nobler than that. The land we got in Abuja, it’s one of the largest assets any writing body anywhere can boast of across the world. Those who negotiated for that land don’t have houses on that land, and never got land for themselves.
So, that shows how objective they were in their intentions and visions. Our founding fathers tried their best, and they’ve done their part, but those of us here now and the next generation should be able to do more. We know there are a lot of hiccups here and there. We can still fight to put things back together and make the founding vision come to pass. So, I think we are still on track, though we might have all these issues here and there, which is natural with humans.
You said you joined as an undergraduate. Do you think ANA is doing enough to reach out to younger writers: undergraduates, secondary and primary school students in a bid to catch them young, since everyone is complaining about poor reading habit? Shouldn’t a writers’ body like ANA be at the forefront of nurturing these young ones, because they are the ones who will buy books and become writers tomorrow? Is ANA doing enough for this demographic?
I think ANA is not doing enough, because I won’t try to hide the inadequacies or weakness of our body. I’m one of them; we are not trying enough because some of the people who came on board have ulterior motives; I stand to be corrected. When I was working with (Mallam) Denja (Abdullahi), as the former president, I brought these issues ahead of time, when we started having all these funny mini-associations and bodies that were springing up among our own members. I don’t want to start calling names; some said they were heading poetry groups and so on. In our own time, what we went out and met people, we asked them to come to ANA. Unfortunately, all these political gladiators in ANA came to form different bodies and things like that. Even when they came for ANA meetings, they came to shop for writers and took them away to their own small splinter bodies and we started factionalizing. I don’t want to call them by names. They are all part of us; so they started that problem for us.
And I warned back then that this thing building up that we would not be able to handle it. Some groups said they were South West Association of Nigerian Authors; some said theirs was Northern Writers group. That was when I was the PRO of the national body. I warned that we needed to kill it. When you want to have a breakup of a larger body, that is when you start tolerating fractions within yourself, and when you ask some of these elements their reasons for forming factions, they said they wanted the people in that to have unity or oneness. They formed so many groups and they said they had reasons.
Unfortunately, rather than maintain a sense of decency, they would come to ANA meetings to shop for members, factionalize the members and take them to those various centres and even try to talk bad about ANA to these members and set them against ANA.
What do you think motivated these negative tendencies in ANA?
Some thought that ANA has a lot of money, and things like that while others noticed that ANA has a lot of influence. These were the works Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and the other had done, the goodwill that they had accumulated for us. These were the signals that some people saw and tried to form their own groups with which to penetrate the political class. That was where the problem started, and immediately they formed their splinter groups, they refused to leave ANA, because they wanted to borrow the name and influence ANA has and use them to attain their own mission. I’m a student of history and politics and I saw through their political interests in being members of ANA. They saw that ANA has a huge political capital in terms of goodwill and a lot of things and decided to cash in on it. Imagine what happened during President Goodluck Jonathan’s regime during the Bring Back the Book campaign, with our own Wale Okediran at the forefront of it; these people saw that the body has goodwill. So, it wasn’t because the body is having weakness; it’s because the Nigerian spirit came in and changed the writer’s spirit in them; that is, if they had one from start.
So how does ANA propose to bring in the young ones in its mainstream activities, since there are no programmes for them like book clubs in schools or libraries?
When young ones like some of us came in, ANA was not always present in some of the universities and things like that, but things have changed. But now students troop in to ANA meetings because most ANA elders are in the universities as teachers; they usually encourage their students and those who have shown some kind of interest to join the association for the readings. When I joined, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo was there for me; we became friends, even as my lecturer. So, from going for these readings, some of them get interested and become members of the body. But if the national body has a programme like that and they mandate the states, like they do with the Yusuf Ali grant, then this can be done. Even the state chapters don’t do it.
The Mamman Vatsa Writers Village will host this year’s convention. How would you want that facility utilized?
Just like you have pointed out about the children’s programme, if we can have a house that is called our own, then programmes upon programmes can be held there within the year and not just for our convention alone. For instance, after the convention, the place can be opened up and students can come from different parts of the country to meet writers, and the writers can make the place look more like a residency. I think that will have to be for the leadership of the association to decide. If they can structure that place well, people will come to that place from outside the country. There will be regular readings at every end of the month. The writers’ village can have two writers performing every month, so students can always come there to take part. So I want it used for such things
So 5-10 years from now, what vision do you have for ANA?
In the next 5-10 years, ANA should be able to produce writers that should get the Nobel Prize and ANA should be able to produce people that will get into Nigerian politics and get into positions, and by so doing, they will also elevate the association and the association can make the country sensitive to the ideals of writing. These are the kinds of vision we should have and encourage our members to imbibe. That way we awaken everybody to the reality that there is a task at hand and there is a mission, and the sooner we have that as our mission the better for us all.
Look at what the pastors are doing, look at the way they carry the whole country, exporting our country and everybody is partnering with them irrespective of their inadequacies and fallacies. Nigerian religious leaders are putting the country on a global religious pedestal. We as writers can also do same. We could even do better by trying as much as possible to be truthful to the society and make the society to know that writers are change-agents and we should be able to get into political offices and make the changes we always criticize the political class for.
How do you kill the apathy of writers towards politics, who see politics as being dirty?
One major thing we need to understand as writers is that as the saying goes ‘time changes and people learn to change with time.’ He who fights against the tide will be swept away into the ocean. It’s very simple logic. Gone are those days where you can sit your house and do your writing without engaging the world and they will let you be. We have come to an age whereby if writers decide to sit at homes without getting engaged, all manner of misfits will continue to preside over things that affect them negatively; this has to change.
The political gladiators we have in Nigeria today, they have little or no sense in their heads judging from the way they are leading us, and we have no option but to follow. But when we start to engage with them, and we start making our points, there will be a difference. They can’t even help our trade right now, because they know nothing about it.