Denja Abdullahi

Literary sector in Nigeria treated like an orphan – UNESCO expert, Denja

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…Says Government support for arts and cultural industry should go beyond ‘occasional benevolence’

Playwright, novelist and poet Denja Abdullahi has engaged in the literary genre for three decades since graduating from the universities of Jos and Ilorin in the 1990s, and has 13 published books to his credit.

He is one-time practicing journalist and also a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Regional Expert (Africa), on Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH). Presently, a Director with the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), in charge of the Bauchi Zonal Directorate, Denja is the immediate past President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).

In this interview with Oracle Newspaper’s VICTOR NZE, the Kogi State-born culture expert assesses literary arts practice in Nigeria, as well as culture in general, his tenure as president of the apex authors’ group in the country, and other related issues. Excerpts:

Denja Abdullahi

The Nigerian literary arts industry has enjoyed its glory years stretching up to the time of your tenure as President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), we have to admit, especially with the seeming dominance of the performing arts presently,  what has been responsible for the wane in attraction of the writing genre in the society recently?

I do not agree with you that the writing genre is waning in the society. Rather, there has been an upsurge of attention paid to writing of all forms: memoirs, biography, fiction, drama and poetry. A lot of writings are being done and published daily. New publishers are springing up churning out good pieces from old and new writers. Writers that we all thought have exhausted their arsenals like Prof. Wole Soyinka, have turned out delightfully new writings. Young writers are not left out in pushing the frontiers of subject matter and form in their writings. Literary awards and prizes at home and abroad are not short of upholding new talents and new books for acknowledgment and reckoning. An example is the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature which has just received 287 published poetry entries for this year’s competition. Book fairs are also being held here and there.

From the level of production, the attraction to the writing genre has not waned but you may say the emphasis on the value of books to the society is still at its nadir. As a result of the poor attitude of the general society to reading, writings and its products, we encounter defective reasoning, half-baked government policies, lack of harmony and understanding among the constituent ethnic groups in the country, violence as a result of lack of education and loss of good values and ethics. The society is weighed down heavily by the problems and rigours of mere existence to pay the right attention to the finer and sublime preoccupation of writings, whether creative or factual.

You completed a second term of your four-year tenure as ANA President in 2019, would you say you were able to meet your own set objectives for the literary arts practice and the association? Also, do you think you were able to meet expectations of ANA members and other literary practitioners during your service tenure?

I remember saying at various fora towards the tail end of my tenure and even afterwards that out of the 15-point objectives I put forward during my campaign for the office of president, I achieved 14. This is clearly verifiable. I drove my steps in office with a widely publicized strategic plan (2017-2022) and I made sure I achieved all what was possible within the years of my presidency that fell under the strategic plan. I also left many legacy projects at the point I left office and the greatest of those was the development of the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village in Mpape, Abuja from point zero ( that is, from the scratch) up to about 70-80 percent completion before I left office in November, 2019.

ANA in 2021 held its 40th Anniversary International Convention in the 1,500 seating capacity Chinua Achebe International Conference Centre in that Village, and in a structure my tenure gave life to. Members who attended that convention and everyone could not believe their eyes and they all commended my executive for laying more than a solid foundation and the succeeding executive that saw to the completion of that structure. We are all clamouring for a financially solid, respectable and vibrant Association; I have done whatever is possible in putting the best foot forward for ANA which the present executive are building on as well as extending with their own innovation and dynamism.

Are you satisfied with the level of attention paid by the federal and state governments to the literary sector, as well as, also the level of financial support from the organised private sector and individuals to the local industry? Are there still grey areas for the governments to address in growing this genre, and by extension, the entire cultural industry?

Let me state here at the beginning that I am speaking as Denja Abdullahi, an ordinary citizen of Nigeria, not as a government official or an officer of ANA. I have been put to task many times by officialdom for having a contrary or adverse opinion on government’s involvement in the arts or the cultural industry. Yes, government has done so well over the years in funding governmental arts and cultural organizations, paying salaries and funding budgeted programmes and projects. But we should ask what has been the impact of this slew of government arts and culture agencies on the cultural space and the non-governmental practitioners in the cultural industry? What is the real public value of government activities in the area of arts and culture? We should by now be measuring and evaluating the real value of governmental cultural activities in the public sphere. There is still the problem of the literary sector not being captured by government as part of the cultural industry. That is why often when governmental interventionist schemes to assist the industry are designed, the sector is left out. Film, cinema, fashion, music and others, have all received one form of government support or the other but the literary sector is always treated like an orphan. Most players in the cultural industry have largely done their work without government direct support until government lately started intervening with funding scheme such as Project ACT and Bank of Industry funding for Nollywood and the CBN funding intervention for the creative industry.

The organised private sector operators are doing their best in funding shows and acts that will sell their products but their intervention are not as widespread as it should be and they are never directed at creative activities that are subliminal and not showy like the literary sector. In the past, the private sector used to fund great stage drama and even ANA competitions such as ANA/ Cadbury poetry prize award, and so on. I must also point out that ANA has in the past received substantial support from state governments and the federal government, often when States CEOs and some high officials at the federal level happened to be literary-friendly. What we in the sector are advocating is the institutionalization of this support through an endowment fund for the arts like it is done elsewhere where funding the arts is a matter of state policy. All other state policies such as the national book policy, film policy and a general policy for the creative industry should be instituted and driven by relevant agencies from the public and the private sector so that government support for the arts and cultural industry can go beyond the present situation of occasional benevolence.

How can we reclaim the lost glory years of the literary arts in Nigeria? Or should the attention refocus to the new and emerging ideas in the creative art industry?

The glory of the literary arts in Nigeria is not yet lost. Nigeria still brims with world class literary talents at home and abroad. The glory attending the display of talented artistry in the sector seems to be more available abroad now than at home. Our talented writers are daily fleeing the country to places where what they do is well appreciated and rewarded. The trend appears irreversible with even younger writers quickly giving up on their country and pursuing subjects and forms that will make them global citizens. In this scenario, the commitment to the homeland is being lost and respect for the country and what it stands for is being eroded. We all need to stem this trend by seeing writers and artists as important people who define the existence of a nation and who keep the cultural life and space of a country vibrant. The literary arts is part of the creative industry and must be treated as such by being supported, funded and recognised as contributors to national tangible and intangible wealth.

Denja Abdullahi

How were you able to juggle responsibilities and combine duties being a civil servant with the NCAC as Director for Bauchi State Zonal Operations, running affairs of ANA as President for four years, and in addition, churn out many literary works, all at the same time?

It has not been easy with time management but I have used the tools of technology to navigate effectively across the various responsibilities required of me in those tripodal engagements. Being a top public servant require you to be present at all time to attend to official matters and to give leadership to your subordinate officers. I have done that by ensuring all official works are done effectively, speedily and professionally. I do not tolerate the usual bureaucratic foot-dragging and slothfulness when I handle official matters and I delegate responsibilities where necessary. I always impress it on my staff that any work we do must have public value and that work should not be done just for the mere sake of being seen to be working; work must mean to the person doing it and those who are to be the beneficiary-the public.

As President of ANA, I impacted the same spirit of real public service into my activities as President. The spirit of impartial and even-handed administration where everyone must be carried along and the policy transparency of the public service I brought into ANA. I kept records and ensured panels and committees drove my major projects and activities to ensure decisions are broad-based to fit into due process and for effective implementation. These are ethos which only a thoroughbred public servant can import into running a non-governmental association such as ANA. As a writer, I have used my public service experience as a cultural officer to enrich the subject of the books I write, the last of such efforts being the collection of poems ‘The Road to Bauchi and Other Poems,’ which I wrote (2019) in Bauchi to etch my experience, feelings and thoughts in permanence, “Far from the madding crowd” of Abuja. That book was longlisted recently for the Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA) poetry Prize of 2022. I have other books I have written in this four years you have referred to. I can say my public service, private sector and creative sector experiences have rubbed off positively on one another as what I do in each sphere have been significantly the same. In the public service, I work mainly as a performing artist cum administrator, in ANA  I have been a literary and creative administrator and as a writer I write creative pieces such as drama, poetry and creative non-fiction.

Since completing your tenure at ANA, how have you occupied yourself in terms of new literary works? Any plans to venture into new possibilities after exiting the civil service?

I have continued with my work as a public servant in the cultural sector. I have been working on editing a major critical work another writer is doing on me which will hit the stands possibly before the end of the year. I am compiling my scholarly essays and articles that have been published over the years into a single book. I am getting interested in researching deeper into my people’s cultural heritage which I hope will lead me to pen another creative piece of book length and lead to some other kinds of factual documentation. There are other projects I am working on, such as co-editing  a creative non-fiction work to be tagged; “Nigeria Book of Miscellaneous Insults” and other writing ideas put down to be tackled sooner or later.

From all these you could see that my possible post-service engagements will surely be an extension of what I am doing presently on a more dynamic and independent scale and a return to the life of the mind, knowledge production and teaching in the formal and informal manner which I was doing even before I joined the public service.

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