B.M. Dzukogi is a creative and non-fiction writer based in Minna, Niger State. The founder of the Mua’zu Babangida Aliyu Literary Colloquium, among other literary initiatives in northern Nigeria,  is the brain behind NIFESTENA, a festival for Nigerian teen artistes, which started last year.  He told HENRY AKUBUIRO, in this interview, the imperative of mentoring young Nigerian writers to hit stardom in a competitive literary world.

I understand that the NIFESTEENA, your Foundation inaugurated in Minna last year, has moved to Kaduna this year. Why leave Minna after investing so much in literary fortune of Niger state?

Well, as artists, we are not limited in operation. Wherever attracts us, we go. It is true that Niger State, at some point in the recent past came to assume a destination for Nigerian writers. This was due to the numerous activities we pioneered which had taken the profile of national and international scale. This was possible, because of the unending support the government of Dr. Babangida Aliyu gave in several fronts. Niger became a subject of envy for many states. Only Port Harcourt and Ake Book Festivals stood up to us. Meanwhile, Porthacourt and Ake were the only flourishing book festivals in Rivers and Ogun states while Niger had what appeared to be uncountable literary activities. So, we were on top of all the states in the country. Even the apex literary organisation in the country, ANA national, almost relocated to Niger. Today, Niger is no longer on top. It not because we have exhausted our artistic ideas, but the current government is not interested in our affairs. The only man that cares is the chief of staff to the governor. He did a few things for us. But to hit Talba scale would require the attention of Mr. Governor. So, in the absence of the tremendous goodwill of the past administration, we had to move to Kaduna to ensure that NIFESTEENA, which is a new product from us, survives. Kaduna became imminent, because the Governor of Kaduna sounded a note of accommodation by introducing something similar to Aka tagged KABAFEST which writers attended and enjoyed. Art does not know Niger or Kaduna State. It is a universal phenomenon. So, we have brought NIFESTEENA which is universal to the Nigerian teen artists to meet a universal character, the governor of Kaduna state. Simple.

What is this NIFESTEENA?

It is a festival for teen artists comprising of contest that is not the usual secondary school literary and debating society or quiz contest or those little stories and poems. Indeed, it is a festival for secondary school students, but bearing all the elements of professionalism. Only the best are required here. It is for great thinkers of tomorrow who will want to make a career out of various artistic expressions. It is something that should launch up tomorrow’s inventors and creators right from secondary school age. It comprises of six categories with three carrying two items of contests each. So, in NIFESTEENA, there are about nine items to be completed for. They are poetry, short story, painting, photography, spoken word, performance poetry, contemporary song in English, folksong and cultural dance. This is why it is called Nigerian Festival of Teen Artists.

I have followed your activities for decades now, why are you so concerned about the appropriation of the creative spirit of teenagers? I mean youth and students bother you so much, why?

They will forever be my concern. The young ones should be everybody’s concern, all the time. The youth should be what the adults should focus on in terms of development, education, ICT, shelter, job creation, leadership, science and technology, art and everything about society should take account of where the child should fit in. Why do adults live of not for the good of children? I am a teacher; I know that children can do many things correctly. They need serious mentoring, tutoring and guidance for excellent and worthwhile adult life and as functional members of society. We have experimented with creative writing that students whose potentials in art have been discovered, could be mentored to become excellent writers. That exactly what we have done with Saddiq, Halima, Maryam and students like Paul Liam who was discovered in JSS 2. They are all flourishing writers today. These are young people you have seen them grow for the last one and a half decades. This is what we thought should be exported to other parts of Nigeria through NIFESTEENA.

So, how did you convince Kaduna  State to fall for it?

With all sense of modesty, the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation has an overwhelming proof of our journey into teen arts in which we used to convince them. We started from our sister organisation that runs programmes similar to ours in terms of creative writing for students. I think that Yasmin El-Rufai Literary Foundation (YELF) is a distinctive art organisation in Nigeria that focuses on teen arts and women programmes, and being founded by a lady makes it more believable. I facilitated a workshop for teen authors for them, last year. The pioneer graduates of our Foundation in Minna work at YELF. We didn’t need to stretch ourselves, it true that there is no organisation in Nigeria that runs teen authorship like ours. In 2016 alone, we published eleven teen single authors with a book each. We have exported our programmes to other states and national art organisations like ANA. So, we didn’t need to labour to prove ourselves. Even the Special Adviser on Creative Arts Development of Kaduna State; Halima Idris was so impressed with our credentials that we I told her we are considering bringing the 10th Anniversary of Northern Writers for which I am the Chairman, she said yes, we should come to Kaduna.

Where exactly do you want to get to with the promotion of teen artists in Nigeria?

We are seeking to achieve many things with it, using the child. However, the core reason is to get the creative child attain fill potential at adulthood. This year’s theme is on Teen Authorship as a strategy for child-to-child advocacy for behavioural change of the society.  The founder and initiator of Yasmin El-Rufai Literary Foundation, Hajiya Hadiza Isma El-Rufai, would be delivering the keynote address at the opening ceremony. If you look at the theme, you will discover that we are seeking a deliberate shift from the prevalence of adults writing stories and poems for children in the name of children’s literature to children/teens writing for their peers. It is more believable to themselves what they talk about in their story books. So, the popularisation of the genre of teen authorship is one target we set to achieve. We are not necessarily saying adults should stop writing for children, we are saying children should not just write for themselves but should write for adults as well so that society can understand them better. So, bringing them under the platform of NIFESTEENA is to help us accelerate the realisation of such goal.

Similarly, Nifesteena seeks to promote the creative spirit in the child as primary element for developing society, to bring about many critical thinkers who will challenge the existing norms with quality alternatives, to provide a national platform for unifying the Nigerian child, to attract the attention of society to understand the high benefits in institutionalised mentoring of young ones; to share creative, educational and cultural experiences among students to enhance academic programmes for a useful, functional life in the community; to provide a platform for showcase quality creative products by teen artists which will attract quality support from the public and government; to help the student artists to strive for professionalism in the art from school age; to teach the teen artists the ideals of good citizenship and patriotism; to assist them with a platform where they can dissipate their creative energies that takes away their minds away from vices; to promote friendship among Nigerian child; to identify tomorrow’s creative geniuses; and make the young artists happy through creativity.  These are some of the profound paths we want the young artists to follow.

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Are all the states aware of the festival?

Yes, they are. We have sent letters with participant guide to our state coordinators for onward transmission to the ministries of education since January. Similarly, the Coordinators have selected five schools on their own and given them separate invitations to participate. In fact, schools can contact the foundation through electronic mail at [email protected] seeking to participate and we shall forward the documents to them. We are already foreseeing an explosion in the number of schools participating. So, from 2019, we may have to begin elimination at state level to produce just one or two schools for the finals.

What’s the situation at the Niger State Book Development Agency?

The agency is in a state of lull and inactivity. They are doing nothing to promote book. The leadership lack initiatives. Government cannot establish an agency and you expect the governor to be the one to bring up ideas. In our time, we were the ones taking the lead faster than the governor. It’s our agency, we are the ones who called for it, therefore, we are the ones who know what should happen there. But when you have someone who is not of the art, everything come to a standstill. That’s the situation. They are there sleeping, unaware of how Larat, Makama and I struggled to get it retained during rationalisation of ministries by the Niger state government. We almost lost the agency. It’s pathetic how our agency has become. Then government too has refused to release the budgetary allocation for three years.

Does it mean you have abandoned the Niger State international literary colloquium that raised the profile of literature in Nigeria, and projected Niger state as a centre of book production?

The current government has abandoned it, and not us. It one of the items the book agency should promote annually. It all depends on what the governor wants, sadly, when it ought to be what the people want. As Writers in Niger state, we are losing everything to Kaduna state. I feel terribly bad.

What’s up at the Northern Writers Summit where you are the chairman?

We are seriously planning. For ten years now, there has never been an executive council for the group, we are the first to be constituted. So, virtually, there is nothing on ground, no structures, no fund, nothing. So, these are what we are designing. We are also making series of contacts to institute programmes bothering on serious book production in Northern Nigeria. Very soon, we shall witness literary activities on high scale in the region.

What about ANA, with all these at hand, are you winding down your activism on that front?

Of course, not! ANA is the broader vision. It is all a single journey. It is all art administration. Indeed, I am only going to do one thing at a time but there is always a junction where everything meets. My primary concern now is to ensure that we grow the book business in Northern Nigeria both in writing, production and distribution. We seriously need to reorganise the sector to focus on the young ones. We need to reset today if anything quality could come out of the north in terms of literature in Northern Nigeria, tomorrow. I am a child of ANA; there is nothing like winding down.

Finally, is the FG doing enough for the literary art?

Not at all. They, too, are not concerned about book production. We are just left alone as individuals in this country. There is no any grand plan for literary development in Nigeria. We have no grants, opportunities and dedicated institutions exclusively set up for book development. The effort at setting up an agency for the book in Niger state is coming to nothing since this administration came on. Adult writers in position of influence have been unable to push for concrete platforms for growth of literature in Nigeria. They are just concerned about themselves.