‘A cultural scene as big as Nigeria’s without culture policy is banana republic culture scene’
‘Funding culture doesn’t allow for corruption, so those in government won’t do it’
‘What will save the African continent, and I’m very passionate about this, is non-fiction books’
As part of the build up to last year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2022), inimitable and quintessential journalist and culture communicator, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo sat with Mr. FOLA MARTINS of NTA2 Channel 5 on the personality programme, ‘Close Flow’, to review the impact of Africa’s biggest book and culture picnic that has held every year in 24 years and still counting. Though not focused on his person but the culture sector (with books as drivers of development) that he continues to help midwife, this incisive interview explores how the Editor of Editors and great culture mentor sees life in the frame of service to humanity, particularly his continent that keeps floundering. Friends and associates in the culture and media landscapes will gather ‘realtually’ today to celebrate him as he marks 60 years of a life of impact.
Why did you choose book over the other art forms as the best form of cultural expression? How did you come into books?
WELL, I’ll say we are all products of our upbringing and encounters. I think what brought me to books, the literary arts, as culture generally, is just a subject of encounter. That’s why we all need mentors in our lives. One of the key encounters I had was in secondary school. Coming out of secondary school and having a teacher, and I’m sure most people know him, Mr. Ben Tomoloju. He came for his Youth Service in my school, Saka Tinubu, and he forced me, really compelled me, to join the drama club, because I was playing football all the time. So I joined, and then when we were leaving school in 1979, he formed the Kakaki Arts Company. He was training us to be actors, performers and composers. We were taught to be good writers and consumers of books. Every Saturday, you must have read a book. Later his friend, Jide Ogungbade, continued it at Radio Nigeria. He also compelled me to write for Literature Society every week. That means I have to read books to review for Literature Society. So it was such that I didn’t go anywhere without books in my bag or in my pocket.
Some people say that there are five kinds of genres of writing: expository, descriptive, narrative, and of course, they also look at persuasive writing that is like political agenda, then journal for maybe keeping diaries. Are those the only ways we can capture the capacity to write?
I’ll streamline it. I’ll say you have fiction, non-fiction, poetry. My emphasis, or my preference, even for the festival I run, is that fiction is good. We all love to tell life stories. The next one I’m going to say is very controversial. What will save the African continent, and you know, I’m very passionate about this, is non-fiction – telling the whole story the way it is. Books actually interrogate power, leadership, environment, even the commonality of the human being. If we want to save our humanity, it is non-fiction for Africa. I’m not saying fiction is not good. People will like fictional account, because they also expose you to other realities of life, but at this stage that we are in this continent, it is the absence of questioning that (makes) followers not to ask questions. They just blame the leader, but do you question them? I always throw one simple example. Everybody knows about (President Muhammadu) Buhari, about the governor, but do you know the local government chairman? Your counselor? Because if you don’t go through that process, and that’s what other nations have done, they start from there, you cannot become a counselor if you’re not known by the constituents.
But many of our citizens don’t want to interest themselves in stuffs like that, why?
That is the problem. That’s why, now that everywhere is flooded, if you go and check, most of the local government chairmen in those flooded areas have relocated. They’ve moved upland and left the citizen (to their sorry fates), because they have no connection. They only have connection with you during election, and that’s why we’re saying that reading enlightens you to be aware, and when you are aware, you are empowered, and when you’re empowered, you start asking questions, but we are not asking, and that is why we are here.
Every year at LABAF, you host over 2,000 children and students at the festival. So this is post-Covid-19 and this is your first interaction. What theme are you adopting to fit the new trajectories of modernization?
We chose our theme not based on Covid, because there was a time when people were in lockdown, but the book festival continued online. We started doing what was called ‘Realtual.’ It’s a word coined by the performer, Segun Adefila, which involves real life and virtual. So, we said Covid will not stop our life of the imagination. It was Wole Soyinka, who said that the fear we put around Covid was killing people more than Covid itself. People were passing one information or the other, and there was an agenda and politics as well. Art is life, and art must continue. We chose our theme based on the trajectory of world events. We’ve had those themes that have been dark, and on the last day of the festival, I was consulting with Toying Akinosho, who’s the head of CORA. They decided on ‘Pathways to the Future.’ I didn’t like the theme, because I wanted something more poetic, but I went along with it. There was no #EndSARS at the time, and the overarching theme of #EndSARS is, what is the future of our children, so they don’t run away? What nation are we leaving for them? How do we make the right choice? We are looking for ways to use books to enlighten and empower. What’s going on that the people aren’t part of the governance (system)? People just meet in one country to decide our fate, and they come back and put it on our heads, then get economists to write economic blueprints and we don’t understand it. To save our own humanity is to say, “what is the pathway to the future, and how do we use the instrumentality of the arts?”
Which brings us to my question about metaverse, artificial intelligence and all these things about virtual reality. Don’t you think they’re a threat to our normal social interaction capacity? Culturally, how will these affect us in this continent?
I’ll be controversial again, because we are part of the human family. I always say that because we have not really built our country, advanced and enlightened our people, we’ve not mentally prepared them to be able to fit into that world. Those things will happen to us, but it won’t manifest here the way it’ll manifest in other worlds. We are slow on the development lane. We haven’t even gotten to the starting point. We will consume them the way we consume every new technology that comes. Look at what we have done with the internet. We will do it, but the human interaction here will not be so drastically affected. It will affect us, but it won’t be as sharp as it is in the other worlds. We will still have our human interaction because our culture gives us a basic ground to continue to thrive as human beings. Today, you can be with your family and everyone is on their phones; there is no more connection. Someone told me he had something on his face, and his son never noticed it because he was always busy with his phone. They live in the house together but the son never noticed or asked what happened. Our festivals are idealistic and done in open air, so no one is shut out. We will continue to have that; we must preserve it.
How do you describe the engagement of not just our social trajectories, but also our cultural renaissance? How do you look at that trajectory after this edition of the programme?
We can praise ourselves for achieving some measure of progress. In 2005, when we did a retreat for Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), we said we wanted Nigeria to become a cultural destination for Africa. We just said it, and we decided to use Lagos, because we thought once Lagos gets it right, then others will follow. Then, we had just two festivals in Lagos, but when Mr. Steve Ayorinde became commissioner, they did this mapping and they counted 18 festivals. Early this year, we had over 28 festivals in Lagos that were not existing.
So where do we see the future?
We will continue to try. Some festival funding are drying up, and they may be having their last edition, which is sad for me. We spoke of having a book festival in every street, and we’re having them today, but they are all threatened by funding. We’re not asking the government for money; we just want them to give us the environment. The first thing I wrote about as a journalist was cultural policy. My boss, Mr. Tomoloju asked me to cover it, and until now, we still don’t have cultural policy. A cultural scene this big without a cultural policy is a banana republic culture scene. People are spending money, but not for the common pool or the national endowment fund. Funding this (culture) will benefit us, but they don’t want to do that because it doesn’t allow for corruption.
As the chief responsibility officer for the festival, have you been discouraged by the responses?
So many times. We have a board that is chaired by Chief Kayode Aderinokun and Dame Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, and there’s the intention of going to the government, and I said I was not going after the government again after so many years. That’s not the kind of education I’ve been given, to be chasing after a commissioner who doesn’t want to see me. Someone suggested writing letters; I would rather write letters to artists every single day to come and perform at the festival.
We currently have 14 UNESCO Heritage Sites in Nigeria. Don’t you think it’s time we domesticated these anthropological assets in our curriculum, so that the Gen Zs can begin to understand the value of what we have as a nation?
I’ll approach this from a journalist’s view. It’s good to sign all those conventions. I’ve served on some of those committees, and it got to a point where I asked them not to invite me again, because it was as if I had become a part of the fraud. I write about something and nothing is being done about it. It’s now an ATM. The journalist’s perspective is that those heritage sites, we’re lucky they’re located here. I remember following Soyinka to look for a particular site, and we went deep down in Ijebu-Ode, because he wanted to bring it to the attention of the world and he was so disappointed when we got there. The whole place was audio, nothing was being done there. They only made noise about it. It’s just like the Osun Oshogbo festival, it’s an empty site, except for a couple taking care of the place and organizing Adunni Olorisha festival, and they’re the ones raising the funds. The government of Osun state is not interested. They only go to clear it in preparation for the Osun Oshogbo festival. There is nothing going on in those places.
Some of the conventions we have signed are to collect money. I was part of the World Heritage Fund launched in Abuja. I even presented a film. UNESCO was going in terms of vision, while Nigeria was going in terms of money. Lagos museum has the biggest collection of artefacts in Nigeria. With the Ford Foundation, Bolanle Austen-Peters, Engr. Yemisi Shyllon and others, we convinced Ford Foundation to convince their president to come, and they gave a donation of USD$2 million. This clamour for return of artefacts did not even come in. The Nigerian government was supposed to give counterpart funding to rebuild the museum. The government, or whoever the officer was in charge, kept demanding that the USD$2 million be paid into the government’s account. The people refused, said they would rather use the money to pay the contractor who would build the conservatory, which was the original purpose. There was so much foot-dragging. We even found out that the shopping mall beside the museum is a museum building. Why is it a shopping mall? Why can’t we reclaim it? We dragged this issue until Ford Foundation took their money and left. Look at the state of the museum now!
In our journalistic journey as a nation, are we fully incisive with our conversations?
We have not been. We are not even asking questions. The estate where I live, there was this guy who just came in, very serious minded, and all of a sudden he became a councilor. If I remember what that fellow did on the streets, in terms of us getting simple amenities, and he was a councilor. I was an editor at The Guardian then, and I wanted to meet him to ask some questions, and people on my street told me that he wasn’t going to fix our road because he thinks I’m an enemy for writing about it. So we’re not supposed to ask questions?
Some people are of the opinion that anytime we have a dissenting view, we are an enemy. Where did we get that from?
One of the reasons I had to advise myself, because I live a lot within myself, and I retired at age 50, because I was beginning to question my own sanity. I edit a newspaper and I wanted it to be interrogating issues and governance and serving the interest of the community, and then your employers, everyone starts asking: why are you making trouble? So I had to live through that trauma, asking myself what would happen if I published it. I went into journalism as an artist, and an artist does not ask for your opinion before he does his work. That’s the way I conceived myself as a journalist. I started having health issues, because my mental disposition was being affected, and I wanted to work. So, I just decided to stay out. Journalism in Nigeria now is doing a lot and you have young energies coming into the media, but media ownership is another issue, because many of the media owners are already compromised. They’re in the same beer parlor with guys who are ruining the system. So how are you going to ask questions? Even you as a journalist going there to ask the right questions can be threatened.
Do you think we have been able to track how fully developed our culture is face of western civilization?
If you deliberately under-educate your people, they will never be part of any development. How do you want to talk about nation building when they are out there on the streets? Students have been home for almost nine months, and the lecturers are refusing to teach because they got half salary. There has been a continuous, deliberate destruction of the educational system, and when you do this, you destroy the media, economy and every other thing that aids development. We started open air festival because we want people to participate in the democracy. I wish we had the power to stage festivals every month and go from one place to another. People are uneducated or under-educated, disempowered, unenlightened by the small cliques of elites who have been to school, and refuse to democratise the same privileges. People think that you’ve spoken to the whole nation when you write an article in the newspaper. Who is reading it? The only developed industry taking us to the next level is the creative sector. That’s the least funded by the government.
Last year’s edition of LABAF had Bruce Onobrakpeya and Wole Soyinka in attendance. Are we actually treading their footprints?
Onobrakpeya turned 90 on October 30, 2022 and we wanted to use the whole year to celebrate him. We wanted to look at his real essence. One of them was (to bring out) some of those works he created that people have not seen. He lives in Ladipo, by the spare parts market, and the traders dump scrap metal around him, and he would make installation art out of them. We are doing that because young artists always say there is no money or resources to work with, but this (old) man used what he had around him and started creating artworks. There was a story told on his birthday by Pa Fasuyi, the one who got him into St. Gregory, and they were just telling stories during the reception, and he said that he put Onabrakpeya in a car and drove around Lagos to Methodist Boys and King’s College, but there was no chance, so they went to St. Gregory. Onobrakpeya said what changed the trajectory of his life was that man (Pa Fasuyi) driving him around in his car. He has since started an organization (Harmattan Workshop) without any help from government.
What’s the impact of social media on reading. How do we bridge the gap to revive reader’s enthusiasm?
You have to meet them (readers) where they are. We’ve been having a session called the ‘Publishers Forum,’ which has been running for eight years or so, and now we changed it to ‘Publishers, Bookdealers, Writers, Readers Forum,’ because the whole essence is to get the book from the publisher to the reader. Most bookshops have books just sitting there and nobody is buying to read them, and the bookshops are not making money, so we decided to change the dynamics. Now we have the Network of Book Clubs and Reading Promoters in Nigeria, led by Richard Mammah. So, what they do is anchor the ‘Publisher’s Forum.’ The discussion is how we can get the book from the publishers to the readers and how we can engage readers using technology and even book clubs. There are over 200 book clubs in Nigeria now, being led by young people. Chief Aderinokun invited us to his house, and when we got there, the daughter brought members of her book club, and I was so impressed. Young people talking about books.
Are we sure the new digital environment is not a risk to the possibility of losing our heritage?
It should not be a risk. It depends on the approach to technology. We need to have our cultural background as a springboard, but if you just want to leap into the boat, you’d crash into the water. We need to start from culture so the people know where they are coming from. We want to be part of the global world, but we don’t want to go as Africans, and we think we will be easily accepted?
* CREDIT: NTA2 CHANNEL 5, Lagos