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Jerry Agada: Lai Mohammed is unfair to writers

Professor Jerry Agada’s name resonates for many reasons: he is an acclaimed writer, filmmaker, bureaucrat and an academic. A former Minister of State for Education and President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), he is currently a visiting professor at the American-European University, Ghana. Agada isn’t delighted with the non-inclusion of creative writers during the recent Creative Nigeria Summit organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture and the minister’s latest moves to checkmate copyright violations in the creative industry. Hence, he feels the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, is not carrying along an important section of the creative industry which has brought Nigeria fame all over the world:  HENRY AKUBUIRO interviewed him in Makurdi, Benue State, where he also talks about his obsession with the scribal art.

You are currently involved in many things: you are on the Advisory Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature; you are the Chairman of the Benue State Civil Service Commission; you are on the Presidential Committee on Debating. Do you still have time to read?

I read a lot. I am currently reading the Politics of Biafra, which I bought recently in Lagos. You can see, with the number of books on my table that I read and also write. As a writer, any point you find yourself, you will always jot things down and return to it later to begin the writing process.

People read for different purposes. What do you read and what determines what you read?

For me, I read for self-emancipation. What I mean is that I want to be myself and to be well-informed, because, if you read, you are well-informed; and you can always contribute to whatever discussion you find yourself, for you are knowledgeable in that area. I read widely. I am not a student to say that I only read textbooks. I don’t read because I want to sit for exams. Generally, I read for interest; I read for knowledge and, of course, I read for the purpose of being well-informed.

You have been involved in the Nigeria Prize for Literature for quite a while. How has the prize impacted on Nigerian literature?

It has tremendously. Before we started and since we started, you must have seen improvements in Nigerian literature. If you consider the different genres of literature –poetry, drama, fiction and children literature –there have been improvements. The production of the books have improved, too. The very first point of judgment of books is the elimination of books that do not meet the basic standard of a book. For you to say that this book is the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature worth 100,000 dollars, that book should stand the test of time anywhere in the world. The books that make it to this prize are books you can be proud of being a Nigeria. This is what the prize has done to Nigerian literature. And it continues to improve as the days go by.

There is recurring insinuations by some members of the literary community that the prize has continued to produce one-book-authors, who fizzle out after winning it…

That would be wrong generalisation. For instance, Chika Unigwe was a previous winner of the prize and, when she entered for the prose prize during the next circle, her book even made it to the shortlist. Members of the panel say what they are looking for is excellence in the Nigerian book. They don’t bother how many times you enter. If you win last time and win this time and still want to win tomorrow, they don’t bother as long as the work can stand the test of time. In other words, nobody prevents you from writing after winning the prize. Of course, I am not doubting that somebody won the prize some time ago and hasn’t produced another book. It could be that the book does not measure up to the standard of making the first 50 books or 25 or 11 for the prize. It could also be that the person doesn’t meet up with the basic requirements for the entries.

What do you expect ANA as the largest body of writers in the country to do to improve the lot of writers, considering that other members of the creative industry, like musician and actors, have been getting more visibility than writers?

I was surprised when I watched on the television how the Minister of Information and Culture organised the Creative Nigeria Summit in Lagos and didn’t mention creative writers. ANA has done a lot to say, “This is where we are”, and adding value to the creative industry in Nigeria. When we talk of piracy, it is not only in film; they also pirate books. Maybe Nigerians are no longer reading. That’s why they don’t know the value of creative writers are adding to the creative industry in Nigeria. In the international community, Nigerian writers are making waves. People are reading their works, and they are getting accolades. You are here in Benue to read from your novel, Prodigals in Paradise. If it were a reading public, everybody should be asking for the book to read. Rather, it is the film and music where people dance that they call their own creative industry. In the first place, before you produce a film, you have to write the storyline –I am a filmmaker myself. It is the writer who writes the storyline before it is acted. Writing and moviemaking have a symbiotic relationship that you cannot separate them easily, but government, on its own wisdom, is separating them. That is not a correct step at all.

You are right in a way, because, these days, when the minister is talking about the contributions of the creative industry to the economy, his focus is mainly on the film and music industries. Don’t you think the writers’ body isn’t collaborating enough with him, for I understand the recent Creative Nigeria Summit sponsored by the Ministry of Information and Culture was the byproduct of a proposal sent by those in the film and music arms of the creative industry?

There is no harm in reaching out to the minister and saying, “This is who we are”. It was the late Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who said you should learn to be blowing your own trumpet, because, if you don’t do, nobody will do that, because the other person may be busy blowing his own trumpet. It is the duty of us in ANA to say, “This is where we are and this how we can contribute to the creative industry in Nigeria; we want to synergise with you and be part and parcel of what you are doing.” I think it is food for thought for the writers’ body to send proposals to the ministry. It is either they accept it or they don’t. This is necessary so that the ministry knows that this is an important part of the creative industry.

Likewise, you are involved in the Word Debating Championship. What are the imperatives?

We have the World Debating Project and we also have the Presidential School Debate Nigeria, and all the countries all over the world have that Presidential Committee involved in organising world debate in order to enhance democracy among people, catching them young, that if you teach these schoolchildren how to debate at a very young age, they will grow to do it well, even up to become members of the parliaments of countries. In 2001, a proposal, like the type we are talking about now, went to the presidency in connection with having a right to be organising school debate to conform with the requirements for the Word Debating Championship. Since then, it has been done. Nigeria has been represented in different parts of the world. This year’s own took place in Bali, Indonesia. But, then you have to bid to host the world. We are talking of over 100-and-something countries coming to the host country. This year, we have submitted our bid to host the world in 2019. We had sent a bid earlier, though we didn’t win the hosting right. This time around, we have done our homework properly, and we are optimistic.

What keeps you going as a writer, considering that it is not as lucrative as showbiz?

The basic thing that keeps me going as a writer is self-satisfaction, because it seems to me, as a writer, nothing bothers me more than my writing. And once I see my book coming out in print, it is as if I had won the world. But, outside that self-pride and self-satisfaction, of course, if your book is good, you are okay. Writers don’t believe in amassing wealth. As long as something is trickling in, you are satisfied. Your major satisfaction is that your book is out there and your books are rubbing shoulders with the best in the world. As a writer, you can go places, because you know your onions. I don’t write specifically for my books to be used in schools, because, if you say you want to write for schools only, it means you are limiting your audience.

You recently became a professor, and some people are wondering how it was possible since you don’t teach in the university…

That’s their lack of understanding. A professor professes what he does. I became a professor of a university. It’s not only when you are the professor of the University of Lagos that you only become a professor. A university (American-European University, Ghana) found me worthy of that professorship. I am a visiting professor there, and I am doing well. You see me going up and down to the university to present lectures.

Somebody surprised me recently when he asked how did I became a professor when I wasn’t lecturing at Benue State University. I had a good laugh. Must I teaxch at Benue State University to become a professor? People become professors for various reasons. What matters is whether the professionalism is there and a university finds you worthy of becoming worthy of that professorship.

How are you coping with the new professorial demands, having being a bureaucrat for most part of your life?

Don’t forget I have always been a teacher right from the secondary school where I rose to become a principal. I have been lecturing here and there, also. It is even good for me, because it makes me read widely to be well-informed. If you are a professor, you can’t be found making silly mistakes. You have to merit what you are professing. You, as a journalist, can’t even assess me –forget the number of books I have written. I find it very interesting and very challenging.

How do you combine writing with your new portfolio given that the life of a writer is very demanding?

As a writer, anywhere you find yourself, as long as you have the inspiration, you can always write. Though my table is always busy, I always have pieces of writing going on. Once that inspiration comes, I will always put pen to paper. In order words, writing is not something you keep elsewhere and you forget it when you travel to another destination. If you that, you are not a writer. It’s like reading: I can’t sit down anywhere for two minutes without having something to read unless I am having a discussion with somebody else. If not, I am not distracted by noises by anybody. Writing is a passion, and you cannot separate yourself from your passion. If as you are going along the road, you are thinking of what you are going to write as long as it doesn’t make you derail. As the chairman of this commission, I do my work. It is not a continuous thing. But inspiration is continuous; passion is continuous. I am a very busy person, who doesn’t have time to while away. I manage my time well. There is nothing that I will do that will take me away from writing and reading.

So, what’s your advice to up-and-coming writers?

   A writer should write on anything. Writing is like a bottomless pit; you keep fetching the water from the pit, yet it never runs dry. You creative ability doesn’t dry up. You always have something to write. You can’t be discouraged because other writers have written about something you have in mind. Not at all. As long as you have the inspiration in you, even if somebody has written on similar topic, the way you write yours brings out the best in your creativity, even better than the other person. You can always make your name through your writing. I remember in one of our ANA conventions, a vice chancellor of a university, Ejiofor, defined an author as somebody who is everywhere at the same time. Take your novel, for instance, you have read at different places and the book is everywhere, yet you are sitting here with me. That’s the beauty of writing. If you are a writer, there is nothing that is more satisfying than being everywhere at the same time, in world libraries and on the internet. So, I pride myself as a writer.

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