‘Ben Okri our best foot forward for PEN International candidacy’
By Anote Ajeluorou
Ben Okri canvassed for but lost PEN International presidency to Turkish Kurdish writer, Burhan Sonmez. One of his sponsors was PEN Nigeria, whose president Folu Agoi says his PEN centre is proud fof Okri for coming second and speaks about other critical issues within the PEN Nigeria family and writers and their craft
PEN Nigeria, PEN U.S., and English PEN sponsored Ben Okri’s candidacy for PEN International presidency, but he didn’t win. What do you think happened?
Well, I would look at it from another angle. At least, out of 147 centres of PEN International scattered all over the world, if Nigeria could participate in the election, and out of the three participants, Nigeria came second; to me that’s something; to have the boldness to come out and take part in the election. What could have happened is that we might have needed to have more aggressive electioneering. Maybe we were not able to reach out enough.
Another thing that happened, which was a bit unfortunate was the fact that a lot of African centres couldn’t vote, and that’s the problem. Because of status, most African centres were ineligible to vote. You have to pay dues to London to vote. I was campaigning to a particular centre, to their president, and the centre has existed close to 20 years. I was surprised when the president told me that they have never paid dues before. I just felt I’d been wasting my time and energy and everything, because if you’re not up to date, if you’re defaulting in payment, you wouldn’t have any voting rights; you’ll just be an observer, and that’s the problem.
A lot of African PEN centres are poor; so they just go there and watch. That’s one thing that Nigeria wouldn’t do, because it’s derogatory, not befitting of a centre, just watching on the sidelines. So, that’s one of the reasons why Africa doesn’t really have a voice in the activities within PEN International fold. Another reason could be that we started our campaign a bit late.
Some other aspirants started long ago, even before this year. We didn’t really enter the race until about one or two months to the election. Ben Okri was really busy and had not made up his mind to contest, so we had a very serious discussion before we could go ahead. Out of over 47 centres, Nigeria contested; we didn’t win the election but at least we saw everything.
Talking about payment of dues, how much does it cost in naira terms per year?
It’s actually in dollars, and that’s what the problem might be for some of us, especially in Nigeria here, considering the value of our naira to the dollar. So, we calculated per head and it’s five point something dollar per member. So, it’s stating that a centre should have at least 25 members, and that’s the minimum. So, if you multiply that sum by 25, which is the minimum that any centre can have, that will give you an idea of how much it is. I think, converted to naira, it should be around 60-70k, depending on the value of the naira at any given time.
I now see why lots of African countries are really defaulting…
The issue with the African centres might not be unconnected with the reality of things in African nations, the poverty. So, if you present the personality of an abject centre, of just waiting and expecting things from outside, I think that’s the issue. PEN International has been trying its best to come to the aid of various centres by giving us grants for the execution of projects and all that. So, that might be some of the reasons why some might just be lazy, since they still have those grants to execute projects. The way I saw it is that Nigeria could have really been tempted to be in that kind of situation, knowing that whether you paid your dues or not, at least you still have some facilities and all that, but a sense of pride was what really prompted Nigeria to really determine not to fall into this kind of trap, because if there’s any election, meeting or conference, if you’re not a financial member, you will not be given the chance to participate in the vital decision making activities, and that for me, wouldn’t speak well of a whole centre. If you are a debtor centre, you would still be able to get by; that is why some centres just decide to fold their arms without respecting that issue of international responsibility.
I’m sure a lot of writers in Nigeria expressed pride that Nigeria was at the forefront of pushing Ben Okri forward. But ironically, since he left Nigeria in the late 1980s, he has never come to Nigeria for any literary event. He seems to have cut off his Nigerian roots, but there he was also standing on the shoulders of Nigeria to contest for a global position. How do you respond to a thing like that?
Well, that was the initial reaction of a lot of writers, but if you’re close enough to him you’ll find out that though he’s a bit distant from his Nigerian environment physically, but psychologically, he’s been close in a way. We might not even consider the contents of his writing, you know, taking things from the roots, but things happening in Africa. If you remember the issue of Ken Saro Wiwa, he was the one that led a protest in London when he (Saro-Wiwa) was incarcerated and before he was finally murdered by Sani Abacha’s government.
So, he’s been here emotionally close, and then, what we really considered in PEN Nigeria was the fact that if you want to present a candidate for the election, it would be nice to present a credible candidate that has a chance of winning it. Because Okri has been a member of PEN International for a long time, and he’s been Vice President of English PEN; so, he’s not unknown to PEN, and is quite aware of the traditions of PEN, and he’s been in touch, not with the Nigerian environment physically, but with some of us; with PEN, he’s been in touch.
At least, people like Professor Wole Soyinka would not consider him distant. At least to some of us, he’s been close, but he’s not been here, but where he is in the UK, he’s been championing causes here, the promotion of free speech and all that in his writings and his dramatic productions. So, I agree that he has not been too close to us here physically, and someone has even suggested that he has the fear of flying.
But a few years ago he was in South Africa for the Steve Biko Memorial lecture which he delivered. No one expects him to come to Nigeria every year. I quite follow your explanation about his seeming distance but emotional closeness. I begin to see it as the fault of PEN Nigeria that probably didn’t tap into their global citizen-member. What programmes have you organised to say, okay Ben, we need you to speak, even now when there is the opportunity of non-physical meetings at a global level? So, did PEN Nigeria centre have any plan in the past to bring him and it probably didn’t work? Or now, is there a plan to engage him in the activities of PEN Nigeria?
Well, PEN Nigeria has been trying its best to bring him to our environment. I became president some few years ago and I know how much effort we have put into activities and events, moving from place to place, from school to school, to establish ourselves in the consciousness of the Nigerian environment, starting from home. And you must have known about some of those activities of ours, and before the pandemic, it was one scary part of the Covid-19 experience, because it was the pandemic that made us go inwards and start planning alternative means of reaching out to our members, and then to the world, and that was when webinars and online activities became popular. It was the pandemic that gave us that kind of idea, and since the pandemic came, we went online and that was when we saw the opportunity to reach out to distant people. We’ve been maximizing that opportunity and that is why we’ve been able to involve many people, members of PEN Nigeria scattered all over the world, including members like those in Canada, who have participated in some of our webinars; some in London have also participated.
So, we’ve been trying our best and reaching out. I would say that before the talk of election came around, we’ve known Ben Okri to be very busy. If you check his activities, you will know he’s always busy with one dramatic production or the other. We didn’t really mean to go for him particularly but we were reaching out to other members. It was when the election issue came up that we thought that Nigeria really needed to make a global statement, and that was when we looked around and we saw his worth, with all the credentials that he has and we reached out to him and he said ‘yes’.
What have you planned for the last quarter of the year?
This year is the year of celebration, the centenary year of PEN. The celebration started in January and it was also celebrated during the congress. We usually draw up our programmes, a calendar of activities every year. So, we’ve been following our calendar. I know that in December for sure we are going to have the International Day of Immigrants. I think is on December 18, because we take some of our programmes from the UN calendar. We were supposed to have an activity in September, but because of the congress we couldn’t do it.
How active is PEN Nigeria in terms of what it stands for? For instance, we had the case of journalists who were jailed without trial like Agba Jalingo and one other one in Kaduna, journalists and writers whose rights and freedom have been infringed upon. How much of that is PEN Nigeria really doing?
PEN Nigeria has been very active. PEN stands for promotion of literature, and then promotion of free speech or freedom of expression, and linguistic rights. First in literature there’s no doubt that we have been very active in publishing books. In the past two years, we’ve got three anthologies ready. We are on the third one now which is Anthology of Indigenous Literature, that’s literature written in indigenous languages, and that is where we have a bit of difficulty because a lot of writers cannot write in their mother tongue and that is something of concern.
In the area of freedom of speech, we’ve not necessarily been advertising ourselves, but we have been very active in our advocacy for the freedom of every writer to express themselves. The case of the journalists you mentioned, you may not be aware of it but we’ve had a series of write ups which we jointly did with PEN international in London, and we had letters written in conjunction with some NGOs to address the authorities. We make it our business that any writer that is in trouble with the authorities, we take up the issue, especially if they’re in trouble based on their status as writers or along the line of their duties as writers or journalists. If there’s a writer who has any problem with authorities, we send the details to London, to PEN International, in conjunction with the African network of PEN, the various African PEN centres, where we raise the alarm immediately and then start writing letters, and in some cases, we get in touch with their lawyers. There was a particular case of a journalist who was in detention for a long time. Before we take any action in PEN, we normally get in touch with those victims or their lawyers. There was the particular case of a person’s lawyer who said he wouldn’t want us to get involved, not to make any noise about the case; he was afraid of his client being victimization. Their lawyers just wanted to manage the case that way, so as not to further put him in trouble with the government.
We have seen the case of a journalist that was assassinated in the middle belt, and I quickly got in touch with the editor of Saturday Independent to find out what really happened, because what we want to establish is the circumstances of the injury. So, if it has to deal with being a journalist or a writer, that’s when we know it’s our business, but if it is something outside his journalistic duties, then we wouldn’t get involved. We got to find out from NUJ that it was a case of armed robbery or something like that. What I’m trying to say is that we don’t wait to get informed. The signal could even come from outside Nigeria. Someone from London could come and find out what happened and then we investigate. The only time we hold back is when the person’s lawyer or family members don’t want us to get involved. We don’t try to find out whether that writer is a member of PEN or not, because it’s our responsibility. I don’t want to say a lot of things about what we’ve achieved, but I can assure you that some journalists have been assisted even out of their immediate location and relocated to another place and settled there. A Cameroonian journalist was identified as a Nigerian, and the guy really got out of Africa and found himself in one of the Scandinavian countries and got a house and a job. Those are some of the things we do. PEN doesn’t make noise about what we do, but we are always involved in anything involving writers.
PEN has broadened the scope of those who fall under the umbrella of writers. PEN used to be acronym for Poets, Essays, Novelists, but now the scope covers bloggers, musicians, publishers; anybody that has business with words, whether written or spoken.
How do you go about your membership drive? Do people come to you or you reach out to those you see as writers?
We have not been attending enough to our membership drive, but we just started our events and some people might approach us and tell us they want to join. The major thing is for you to be seen as contributing to the environment and people that are interested in what we are doing will come up to say they want to join, and that’s how so many people have been coming over to enlist. We really have not been going out to invite people specially, but at least, people that have been close to us know what we are about and they come up to us to say they want to join. This is Nigeria where the socio-economic aspect a lot of people is really considered. To join PEN Nigeria, membership is N10,000 and annual due is N5,000. Because of the situation of things in this environment, we try not to scare people with financial issues, so what we look out for is the commitment. There has to be that literary interest, and then there has to be a commitment to our ideals and philosophy.
Like I said, apart from literature, we hold the freedom of speech and linguistic rights in high esteem, meaning that you don’t have to be a slave to be English language. We even encourage people to write in their mother tongues, so that we are able to function more effectively as writers and speakers. We believe people who are interested in joining, if they love what we do, they will come over, and you know there is sacrifice involved, that mindset of rendering service to humanity. Another thing to be said is that we really interact and partner with NGOs that have similar philosophy and ideology as PEN. CORA is one of them. We have our slots every year during the annual Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF) where PEN features; we have our own panels of discussion. This year, we are going to have two panels discussing various issues.
You mentioned the linguistic aspect of PEN. You said you plan on doing an anthology on indigenous languages but you find it difficult to get writers to contribute to it because of most writers’ deficiency in their mother tongues. What are you doing to drive this message home to writers and encourage them that they don’t really have to write only in English? Are there programmes to that effect?
Yes, definitely. Like I said, we normally take our programmes from the UN calendar, and you know the UN has been worried about the state of indigenous languages globally. Some languages are in danger of extinction. So the last week of January is tagged the Day of Indigenous Languages. As PEN Nigeria, we also celebrate that particular day. The last time we had it was at a physical gathering at a place called Vernacular Garden, somewhere close to the second gate of University of Lagos. So, it was just to draw attention to that reality that we need to consider our mother tongues, otherwise referred derogatorily as ‘vernacular’. It is something that should give us that sense of pride because language is an integral part of our cultural heritage and personality. We do that every year, but because of the pandemic, we couldn’t do it last year, but at least we still had online activities to pay attention to that.
And then we have a particular WhatsApp platform called ‘Free The World.’ You don’t have to be a member of PEN but if you have an interest in literature and what we do, we add you, even if you don’t have the money to join us. So, we’ve been reaching out to people. We always have enough materials to use for our anthology but this time around, some have asked us whether we take poems in pidgin and we tell them pidgin is not our mother tongue.
We have four committees in PEN. The first is the Writers Committee and Writers in Prison Committee, which takes care of writers in prison or in trouble. We also have Writers for Peace, and the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, which takes care of things about ethnic diversity, especially things related to mother tongue. We encourage people to write their poems in their mother tongues and some people are really coming up with fine poems. It’s really talking to a lot of people because they want to be part of our anthology, and there are constrains with the linguistic issue. I’ve written a couple of poems in Yoruba as well. We’ve been able to draw attention to it, but beyond that, we are just waiting for January where we will have another celebration of mother tongue. In many of our events, we don’t insist on the poems being in English. It could be in any language. There is a way poetry could be said to be like music, which is a universal language. I don’t need to understand your language to understand the rhythm of your poetry. That’s another way of encouraging that. We don’t insist on translation unless it’s in the anthology.