By Sanusi Sanusi, Carl Terver and S. Su’eddie Agema
Benue Book and Arts Festival successfully held its 2022 edition in a week-long jamboree featuring leading writers, artists, development workers and art lovers from all over Nigeria in an effort to diversify and democratise cultural festivities across the country
BENUE Book and Arts Festival (BBAAF), one of Nigeria’s top literary and arts festival, successfully staged its 2022 edition with the theme ‘Art and the Convergence.’ Notable authors and literary administrators Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima Agema and Oko Owi Ocho directed the week-long hybrid edition from June 20 – 26, 2022. While the virtual sessions were held on Zoom, the physical venues alternated between Metro Prime Hotel and Steam Lounge, Old GRA, Makurdi. The festival was organised by SEVHAGE Literary & Development Initiative and SEVHAGE Publishers, in partnership with the University of Sussex, Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (ESLF), University of Sussex, Sussex Writes, Writers League of Benue State University, Purple Shelves, Adinya Arise Foundation, Sankofa Initiative, and Mr. Tine Agernor. The festival also had support from Goethe-Institut Nigeria.
The festival was packed with a rich line-up of creatives, critics, artists, readers, and development workers from all over the country. The physical line-up included heavy weights including award-winning serial author and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Bingham University, Professor Dul Johnson, foremost literary critic and renowned writer, Professor Sule Emmanuel Egya (aka E. E. Sule), award-winning poet, Bash Amuneni, prolific stage producer and founder/director of Arojah Royal Theatre, Jerry Adesewo, Director-General of Radio Benue, Dr. Charles Iornumbe, National Secretary of ANA, Maik Ortserga, Legal Adviser of ANA, Bentex Torlafia, Publicity Secretary of ANA, Umar Yorgiza, Uthman Qasim, Sam Ogabidu, and Bizuum Yadok. The virtual cast included foremost Nollywood scholar, multiple award-winning poet, playwright and children’s author, Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi, Sri Lankan author and professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, Minoli Salgado, lead at Sussex Writes and lecturer at the University of Sussex, Dr. Emma Newport; Dr. Eghosa Imasuen of Narrative Landscape Press, and Amarachukwu Chimeka of Purple Shelves publishers.
The festival featured three power-packed keynote addresses by renowned professors, various engaging panels, a book unveiling, an evening of palm wine plus great cheer, a book fair, two festival plays and a poetry slam, among others. There were also awards given to the President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Camillus Ukah and Benue State Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors.
A pick for audiences of the festival were two highly-engaging international virtual sessions, ‘Art and the Convergence of Editing, Publishing and Sales’ and ‘In Search of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared.’ The former featured publishers and booksellers in Nigeria, Ghana, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It was moderated and chaired by Amarachukwu Chimeka (Purple Shelves), and featured Dr. Eghosa Imasuen (Narrative Landscape), Nana Awere Damoah (Book Nook Store), Tobi Eyinade (Roving Heights), Azafi Omoluabi (Parresia), Ray Anyasi (Naphtali Books), Bibi Ukonu (Griots Lounge) and Agema (SEVHAGE). The panel looked at the process, output, sales, challenges and successes of West African publishing at home, compared with its international counterparts, using Canada and the U.K. as case studies. It also zeroed in on contextual instances through the lens of panellists from Nigeria, Ghana, the U.K. and Canada. In addition, a segment also touched on the editing process and its values. One of the key takeaways from the session was the need for collaborations to help make the publishing sector more vibrant. In this regard, it was revealed that there is a ‘Book Fam Group’ which currently exists as a WhatsApp group with members drawn from all over Africa who work collaboratively to share ideas on programmes and projects of interest to publishers and writers.
‘In Search of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared’ session featured a conversation by Sri Lankan author Salgado, a Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University and Newport, with introduction and input from Agema. The conversation largely concentrated on Salgado’s literary journey, particularly as seen in her latest work, Twelve Cries from Home: In Search of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared which “speaks out against Sri Lanka’s official silencing of war crimes, reclaiming the stories of survivors who insist on being heard.” The honest conversation explored Salgado’s writing process, her challenges in putting the book together and the current state of Sri Lanka which leaves room for more.
The first keynote was a virtual session presented on June 22, 2022 by Professor Ekwuazi, titled ‘Convergence and Divergence in Hearing with the Eyes & Seeing with the Ears: Narrativity in Film.’ It was moderated by Dr. Tosin Gbogi. The over two-hour lecture discussed the Nigerian film story with modern undertones, depicting what is obtainable with the precepts of what ought to be. The deeply insightful presentation that also drew from experiences of Hollywood gave the listeners much to think about on how the Nigerian film industry can be made better.
Away from the virtual aspects, there were casual conversations every evening at Metro Prime Hotel from June 20 – 22, 2022 in a calm, unmoderated atmosphere with topics ranging from literary arts to politics. The various attendees had a chance to generally acquaint themselves with each other and have room for quality talk in a relaxed environment. A palm wine evening, tagged ‘Palm Wine Drinkards Forum’ on June 23, 2022 featured readings, performances and a critical conversation on education, politics, theory and the general literary sector. It had ‘Deconstructing the Canon’, as theme, and was a reflective session with a panel consisting of Professor Johnson, Professor Sule, Agema and Ocho that looked at issues of falling standards of academics with remedial solutions, gatekeepers in the literary canon and their traditional positions, plus how they are being dismantled, prizes, politics and the place of theory in contemporary times.
Chair of judges for the NLNG-sponsored The Nigeria Prize for Literature and multiple award-winning poet, novelist and critic, Prof. Sule gave insight on many of the topics from his experience, with Prof. Johnson tapping on his vast knowledge of filmmaking, academic administration, literary writing and much more. Agema and Ocho kept the conversation flowing with stimulating questions, and an exciting, receptive, participating and interactive audience.
Professor Johnson delivered the festival’s second keynote address on June 24, 2022 at the festival’s first full day of events at Steam Lounge, Old GRA, Makurdi. T itled ‘The Convergence of Things’, which looked at physical and spatial convergences, that of sight and mind that focuses on the power of art in several situations. This was followed by a Q&A session with about issues he raised as well as his career generally as a creative, moderated by Shachia Oryila. After a brief interlude of music and poetry performances, the first panel began.
The panel “Arts & The Convergence – Past, Present & Future” was moderated by ANA Publicity Secretary, Uthman Qassim, with panellists Bizuum Yadok and Dr. Chika, where the discussion was dominated by the subject of nudity in art, namechecking the recent EbonyLife Studios, Biyi Bandele- and Kenneth Gyang-directed Blood Sisters.
In the evening, there was a book unveiling titled We Will Sing Water by Oko Owi Ocho; it was moderated by Owoicho Victor Adaji. The event was well-attended, including Associate Professor Maria Ajima, Bridget Achie, and Igba Ogbole. Dr. Iornumbe, the Director-General of Radio Benue and former Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State chapter) spoke at the event, giving his goodwill message and also showering encomiums on Oko, as well as SEVHAGE and the organising team for all their work in sustaining literary growth. The DG also supported the book launch, and much later, hosted some festival guests for a night out with Dr. Tivlumun Nyitse, Chief of Staff to the Benue State Government and Atom Lim, personal assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The evening session continued with a panel session with Prof. Johnson, moderated by Agema called “A Melancholia on Why Women Won’t Make it to Heaven Across the Gulf.” The session focused on his life and writing, artistry, and scholarship. Immediately after this, the Benue Troupe enacted the festival drama, an adaptation of Johnson’s Melancholia, written and directed by Agema.
THE final day of the physical sessions of the festival, Saturday, June 25, 2022 was filled with several activities. As early as 9am, the Steam Lounge main hall was overflowing with students from various schools who had come for a competition in the categories of drama, short story and poetry writing. The drama competition saw participation from six schools, including Temple Gate Academy, Government Secondary School, Makurdi, Government Girls College, Makurdi, Brainstorm Academy, Baptist High School, with Government Girls College, Makurdi, emerging the best performers in the competition. Awards were also given to top actors and actresses in the competition.
Other panels were simultaneuously happening with a larger turnout of literary and art enthusiasts. ANA National Publicity Secretary, Yogiza Jnr., moderated a session on ‘Arts, Social Media and Development’, with panellists that include Haneefa Abdulrahman and Sodiq Alabi, followed by another engaging panel on editing that was moderated by Carl Terver with Mike Ekunno, Maik Ortserga and Aondosoo Labe as panel members.
Professor Sule’s keynote address ‘Literature, Activism and the Contemporary Quest for a Leadership Revolution in Nigeria’ began the evening session, which was followed by a Q&A that was moderated by Agema on issues Prof. Sule raised. Thereafter, a panel discussion on ‘Art & The Convergence of Politics’ followed, with panel members that include Ogabidu, Yadok, and Bentex Torlafia. They spoke on a generality of personal issues they had all had as artists practicing politics in various facets.
Much later, the Arojah Theatre troupe performed an absurdist play titled Waiting For Her. A brief interlude ensued which featured an art exhibition by Mfangu Baki, after which was a discussion by Bash Amuneni on ‘For Stage and Country’ with Oko Owi Ocho.
A key highlight of the evening and indeed the week-long festival was the establishment of a new prize for literary criticism worth N100,000, instituted in honour of Prof. Sule. The news drew cheers among attendees and solemn appreciation from the honouree. In announcing the prize, Agema called several notable writers on stage to celebrate Prof Sule, an outstanding writer, academic and critic whose writing has been visionary and patriotic in their literary concerns.
Then followed the poetry slam competition that was anchored by Anselm Sanusi, with Bash Amuneni, Jerry Adesewo, Creative Director of Arojah Royal Theatre, and playwright Stephanie Abughdyer, the secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter) as jury. Eight spoken word poets partook in the three-round slam including Hafsat Abdullahi, Ejiga Michael Jigs, Ogabor Rebecca, Nasirudeen Mohammed Ridwan, Younglan Talyoung, Igbudu Ternenge, and Kedenojo Umoru. Ogabor Rebecca and Igbudu Ternenge were eliminated in the first round while Ejiga Michael Jigs and Nasirudeen Mohammed Ridwan were dropped in the second round. The third and final round featured Hafsat K Abdullahi who took first place and the cash prize of N100,000, with an extra N10,000 provided by Amuneni and Torlafia. She won with 29 points to beat Younglan Taylong who got 28.1 points. While Taylong was the judges’ first runner up, he was a clear audience favourite and won the Audience and BBAAF Team award worth some cash and extra gifts. Elizabeth Kedenoju Umoru came third with 23.5 points. All the participants, outside the top three, also got consolatory gifts presented by the judges and the festival directors.
An air of hilarity and celebration filled up the hall as the festival gradually wound to a happy end with the smiles on people’s faces showing fulfillment. Photo sessions soon followed. And more photos. The organisers announced that though the main part of the festival for 2022 had ended, there would be some extra sessions conducted in the coming weeks ahead. As the final remarks and vote of thanks was given by Festival Director, Agema, people began to depart the venue.
Festival Director and convener, Agema, a Chevening Scholar and award-winning writer, said Benue Book and Arts Festival is a recurring commitment to contribute meaningfully to the literary and intellectual development of Benue State and Nigeria as a whole. He pointed to the passion and enthusiasm of the team members and the significant attendance from across the country as a clear reflection and result of the efforts.
He also noted, “The festival keeps getting bigger, from a three-day event in 2019 to an entire week this year. More keynote speakers and more engaging sessions can and will only keep improving. We want to ensure that we do not compromise on quality even as we make it increasingly inclusive, enriching and uplifting. The overall goal is to bring in all spheres to create sustainable impact and development in our direct environment and beyond.”
When asked what the future holds for the festival, Ocho re-echoed Agema’s words, stating, “The plan is to keep growing the festival beyond the literary. We are actively working towards incorporating all art forms, continuing our development projects and panels. We will always have theoretical and practical dynamics of social development into this project so that our people and everyone will be positively impacted.”