Denja Abdullahi is saddled with the task of shepherding Africa’s largest writers’ guild, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO in Abuja, Abdullahi, who has been at the helm of affairs for two years, responds to some critical issues in the Nigerian literary community, especially the omission of writers from the recent federal government-sponsored creative industry summit, the new Nigerian Writers Series, the non-award of ANA prizes in some categories this year, developments in the ANA Writers’ Village and the preparedness of the association to host this year’s convention in Makurdi later in the month.
What’s the state of affairs regarding the hectares of land belonging to the Association of Nigerian Authors? One is wondering whether it won’t be better to sell part of the land to raise money to develop a writers’ village rather than giving it to a land developer. Which do you think serves a better purpose?
The current agreement we have with the developer is something similar to what you have just said. In development agreement –it is a common thing in Abuja –if you have land but lack the resources to develop it, you can get a developer, who will come into the land, and, with the funds that you lack, help you develop the land and give you the features and the structures that you want in return to some of his own interest where he will recoup his investment. All along, the land had been fallow because of the lack of resources to even do anything on it. And the agreement the association signed five years ago was to give the association structures that were definable with sustainable profit regularly for the developer’s interest in terms of recouping his investments by using some parts of the land for his own investment. So, it is a bit better than selling the land off.
The problem we have is that we don’t have the resources to go in directly to start building structures; we also lack the expertise in the association. Even if we have the expertise, we still have to engage them in commercial terms, because they won’t work for free. So, you have to engage somebody who is already into that. However, emotional responses have been ongoing concerning the ANA land for years, with some thinking some people are profiting from it. But all these are not true. Before the present developer came into the land, we couldn’t even enter the land, because we had no resources to clear the bush. Recall that ANA first entered into an agreement with a developer in 2001, who couldn’t deliver, and we had to take that developer out of the place. We only succeeded in getting him out of the place in 2012. With the present arrangement, ANA can have assets that can generate income for it so that our basic operation can be taken care of from the income we make rather than over dependence on sponsors, donours and insignificant dues members pay.
The Nigerian literary community has expressed dissatisfaction over the recent Creative Nigeria Summit organised by the Ministry of Information. What accounted for this omission?
When I saw that summit on financing the creative industry and I didn’t see ANA being represented anywhere, I was taken aback. I was thinking, had they redefined the concept of creative industry in Nigeria to the exclusion of writers? From what they were doing, which I watched on TV, I saw that they had broken it down to film and music, and the writers were excluded. My first thought was that they might have some other programmes for the writers after devoting this to Nollywood and the music industry. Does the federal government think the literary arts doesn’t need any intervention to encourage literary creativity? To produce a film, you must first write a movie script. If you don’t engage professionals like creative writers to write the scripts, the films won’t come out well. Again, when you study most film industries in the world, their basic foundation is the adaptation of great literary works. Nollywood started like that. Bollywood started like that. Every film industry begins by adapting outstanding novels, plays and poems into films. The classical films we have today are adapted from works of fiction. If you look at some of our members in the film industry in Nigeria, they are producing fantastic films. Tunde Kelani has collaborated with writers like late Adebayo Faleti and Prof Akinwumi Ishola, among others. Don’t forget the adaptation of Chimamanda’s Half of Yellow Sun into a block buster.
When you are talking of the creative industry, the writers are at the centre of it, because they are the concept makers; they are the ones who conceptualise what goes into film and music. Ours may not be that showy –Nollywood can easily appeal to most people because of the direct impact they make on the society –but I must tell you writers produce books that appeal to the intellect and promote our culture, and most of what we do stand the test of time. A film can also reign for a few months or years, but a good literary work can endure more than thirty years. Again, most of the people they paint on buses today as Nigerian icons are writers: Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie. These are people known all over the world. We have many of them respected all over the world. Why should government not pay attention to support this industry so that writers will write books that our children will read? If you want to reorient the society, writers are your best bet. I think the government should not leave out writers if they want to redesign programmes for the creative industry unless it tells us there is another programme for the writers different from what they are doing. If you are financing the creative industry and you are only financial music and films, who, then is financing the art galleries? Who is financing the theatre? Who is financing creative writing? Though writing is a solitary thing, to get the work published and out to the public, you need financing.
The inability of judges for this year’s ANA literary prizes to announce shortlists in some categories has continued to generate heat. What’s your reaction to the hullabaloo that the money meant for some of these categories of prizes has been diverted, which accounts for why there are no shortlisted writers for the affected categories?
(laughs) I am also worried about that. I have noticed some regularities in terms of what comes from the adjudication panels for some two, three years now. The judges have consistently maintained that some entries for some categories are not good enough to be awarded. The most recurrent is that of the children’s literature. The judges have been complaining that the writings for children today are not making any mark. They have criticised the shoddy storyline, the lack of imagination, and poor production output. NLNG did the same last time by refusing to award the children’s literature prize.
But, in those days, unpublished manuscripts used to win some of these prizes…
I will come to that. For the prize for critical works, the judges who adjudge this category are also scholars who write critical works for publication, and they have not been too impressed with the essays being submitted. The same thing happened in the NLNG. Apart from the prize won by Professor Isidore Diala, the prize hasn’t been awarded, yet our scholars publish beautiful articles in international journals. What I suspect is that Nigerian scholars don’t enter for this category of prize, because they feel it of no use; what they are after is to gain promotions, so they prefer publishing in reputable journals where they will be applauded. But I think they should redirect some of these essays to the ANA Prize to encourage our creativity.
It is not deliberate that we did not have shortlists in some categories of the ANA prizes this year. We don’t influence the judges in anyway so that the integrity of the prizes will remain. Maybe we have to redirect some of these prizes. ANA prizes, at the beginning, were meant to encourage new voices. That is why in the old manual, there was a provision that, if the a known author, a published text, is going neck to neck with an unpublished author and unpublished text, the prize should be awarded to the new author. This is the philosophy of ANA prizes. We have not changed this philosophy. That is why sometimes manuscripts do win some of these prizes. But we have come to a stage where we can upgrade on our prize philosophy. Those who criticize these prizes need to find out the philosophy behind these prizes so that when they are announce, you don’t go all the way to say something untoward has been done. Most times the politics people think are there are not there. It is basically the preference of the judges.
Two years into your tenure as ANA President, to what extent have you impacted the writers?
Along with my team, I have done my best to achieve nearly everything I have promised when I was aspiring to become the president of the association, and one of it is drawing a development plan for the association, and we are already implementing the plan as we speak. Then, I promised to restructure the association on internal governance by making sure chapters are more democratic, and I have done that by enforcing the conduct of elections in most of the chapters. I have also been able to do the documentation of the history of the association. I have also done the second edition of the Nigerian Writers Series. The latest edition is dedicated to Children’s Literature. I promised the internationalisation of the association by liaising with organisations that we can partner with some projects and programmes. I have been relation with Ghanaian Writers Association and the Pan African Writers Association very well, with ANA participating in their programmes and them, in ours. We encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas with other countries. I also promised to fast-track the development of the Writers’ Village. Last years’ convention, I took writers to that place, which had never been done before. A land committee has been monitoring development on that land on monthly basis, interviewing the developer and accessing what he has done so far. If you go there now, our structures are coming up.
As I speak to you, the first completed structure of the association will be ready in the next few weeks. We asked the developer to give us quickly a prototype office, which we can use as a national secretariat of the association, pending when the whole land would be fully developed, and that is about being completed. That was facilitated by the foundation laying ceremony five months ago where some of those we invited, out of their own volition (it was not a fundraising ceremony), decided to contribute some money to help us to speed up things. We got at least I million from Hon Jerry Alagboso, which I channeled to the developer to use as a seed, apart from what he had been doing already, that would lead to the completion of a structure, and he is now about delivering the structure. I have achieved about 70 percent of what I promised before the election. We can’t achieve everything due to limited resources and the recession we have found ourselves. We have achieved what we have done so far due to determination and passion.
The first edition was done with all good intention and ten titles were published, and schemes were laid out to ensure those books sold so that the series could be self-sustaining. We gave the titles to four publishers, who were mandated to market the books. But what affected it is still the same thing that affected the book industry in Nigeria. It is a general problem that books don’t sell in large numbers to warrant the authors getting fantastic salaries. The publishers make some modest sales and return to us some paltry royalties based on the economics of book marketing and sales in the country. So, there is nothing extraordinary that happened to the first edition of the series that should warrant anybody saying he is not getting royalties. The books are with the publishers, and they are being marketed here and there. From the sales, they are not that too substantial to warrant any author receiving fantastic royalties. We spent about seven million naira on that series, but what we have realised after more than four years is not up to 300,000 naira. When the money came in, I reached out to the authors to send their account details. Based on what we had and the agreement with the publishers to pay 10 percent, their royalties ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 naira. The authors refused to send their account details. They went to the social media to make all sorts of noise.
However, I am not saying that’s the picture we wanted with that series. I wanted a better picture were there would be heavy marketing of those titles; where schools and regulatory agencies would buy those books in large numbers so that we that invested in those titles, along with the authors, would smile at the end of the day; but that was not happening. It is nobody’s fault. Books generally are facing that problem. We should think of how to solve that problem so that we can smile to the bank. The way out is for ANA to directly take charge of those titles and market them, or we can think of innovative ways of marketing books. Despite the lack of profitability in book marketing, we have seen Nigerian authors who say their books sell in thousands. When I asked how they did it, they told me they directly marketed their books. So, if individuals can talk like that, we have to understudy what they are doing, and ANA that has bigger capacity than individuals can do better. I have seen a publisher who approached JAMB, and his book is purchased in millions. The author was even complaining that he got royalty of 30 million naira. If an individual could strike that kind of deal with JAMB, why can’t we, as an association, do better?
We chose children’s literature for the 2nd series, because children’s book, with contents, can sell. We intend to make these texts sell so we can recoup our investment and also make the authors get substantial sells in return. I am also trying to use these titles to power the A Book-A-Child Project nationwide. We are going to collaborate with individuals and corporate bodies nationwide who are going to invest in the distribution of some of these works beyond keeping them in bookshops for people to buy them, and we are talking of sales that will enter the school curriculum. We have already started marketing these books greatly across the country. We expect that when these books are maximally distributed, we should recoup our investment in them and also pay the authors substantial royalties and be able to permeate the educational psyche of our children, because the works are talking about ennobling virtues of education, empowerment and gender issues. Of course, we have a publishing imprint now, NWS Publishers. So, we are directly taking custodies of the books and its circulation. This is a way of overcoming the obstacles we faced in the first edition of NWS.
How prepared is the association to host this year’s convention in Makurdi?
We are very prepared. We have gone to Makurdi to inspect all the facilities we have in place for the convention: accommodations and venues. We have also seen an indication of the readiness of the state government to support that convention in spite of the general economic problem facing states in Nigeria. In spite of the environmental challenges currently facing the state; the governor has extended the hand of fellowship to writers. The Special Adviser to the governor and the commissioner for Education that is minding our business have assured us of the governor’s readiness to host us, and the governor has approved some money for the convention, which will soon be accessed. Benue is ready to showcase their culture to Nigerians. It has hosted the convention twice in the 1980s and the last in 2003.
Will you be running again?
In ANA, it is the convention for midstream election not to be contested. Once a regime has set out and it is relatively doing well, people would like it to finish the second term before electing new set of people. Midstream election can only be contested if those elected have performed below average, but I must say my exco hasn’t performed before average. And, if our performance has been above average, I am certain the ANA Congress will give us the full support before passing the baton to a new set of people.