5th March, 2013
Renowned academic and dramatist, Professor Femi Osofisan tells NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI about the problems impeding a flourishing playwriting culture in the country and why he is convening a conference to tackle them
What informed the decision to organise a conference for Nigerian playwrights?
I’m a visiting professor at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Part of my research job is to look into the problem of playwriting, especially given my own experience in the past few years. I know that there are problems with funding, publishing, and all kinds of things. So, I wanted to get colleagues together, brainstorm and see what solution we can arrive at. I was thinking of about 20 people sitting down at a weekend, talk and find solutions to our problems. That was my original intention. But then the thing began to spread, before I knew it, about 150 people are attending and we are still getting requests from people who want to come. Normally, it shouldn’t be a problem because the terms were quite clear: Anybody coming must be prepared to take care of his or herself because we don’t have any funding yet. Once the number of people attending began to increase, the programme began to look a bit more serious. Since more people are coming, we now need to get a hall and be more organised. There is no free hall, the cheapest one can get is N75,000. We will need some kind of refreshment. This is where we are. We have to draw a budget for this. I never knew that kind of response would come. I’m really amazed, because I didn’t know that we have that number of playwrights in Nigeria.
The response you talk about gives the impression that people want to gravitate towards where they think there are solutions to their problems…
It certainly shows that people have been waiting for this kind of thing. They feel there is a need for it, which I must say, I didn’t quite realise myself. And because of that, we are putting some things in place. We will be running some workshops. There is need for something, apart from the meeting of playwrights; there will be workshops, probably two hours. Maybe later on, we will be able to plan something more sustaining.
Some young writers trace the problem of creative writing in the country to the wide gap between them and your generation which produced the masters of Nigerian Literature. Do you think that is the case?
It is both yes and no. Yes, some young writers have even accused us of deliberately trying to pull them down; to keep them out of literary circulation. This is surprising, though. If you have talent nobody can keep you out. Our educational system has gone through a lot of turbulence. We haven’t come out of military rule yet. There’s no way anyone can keep you out. You need to master the language. If you want to write in English, you must be fluent in English language. If you want to write in Yoruba, you must be good in the language as well. I tell my students that there is no language shortcut. But if you look at it now, the kind of English that people are writing is poor. So, because of that poor language, we don’t have good written materials now. I think it is unfair to accuse us of oppressing them because we tried to put structures in place for them. Take the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, for example; look at how many prizes have been instituted for them. Those things had to be fought for. Even the NLNG-Nigerian Prize for Literature, we wrote letters, even organised workshops and things like that to get it started. I think when it comes to playwriting, don’t think that anybody will come and organise anything for you. In my case, for example, I had to write, produce, direct and even source for funds by myself. It depends on what you want to do. I created Opon Ifa Books for people. Many of the people who wrote started there. Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare and others started from there. There was The Positive Review and others. People have to do these things themselves. But I think the generation that followed ours, the ‘Update Poets’ is the problem. Once they became known very well, many of them began to relocate. Most of them, including Sola Osofisan, Afam Akeh, and so many of them just left. Even Harry Garuba who co-ordinated them, where are they now? They are abroad. I think that created the kind of gap you referred to. They couldn’t mentor the generations following them. I think that is exactly what is wrong.
In the past, there were playwrights that belonged to different ideological backgrounds. Some wanted to be like Soyinka, Clark or Osofisan in their writing. Did this help the business of playwriting or negatively affect it in the country?
Ideology is always there. You must have a point of view in what you are defending or advocating. So, it can’t be wished away. People will always write based on their perspectives. I don’t think that is really the problem, than doing it well. You don’t have to be a political writer to write well. All that you are required to do is to master the skills, master the language, and do some good reading.
We came at a particular generation and we had a purpose. What we were trying to pursue was different from that of the generation before us. But again, you find that the older ones, too, had a political agenda – fighting against colonialism. And they used their art for that. We were postcolonial writers. We got to the scene when the military was wrecking the country; that was our own purpose. The key problem for us at the programme will be how to make democracy in our country to work and survive. This is not just a problem for Nigeria, but all of Africa. After all the tyrannical leaders, the problems we had with autocracies, presidents-for-life, how are we going to run the democracy that we have now? How do you make sure that the leaders do not continue to loot? These are the problems that we think any writer now should be concerned about. At the same time, there are social problems connected with globalisation. Look at the incidents of rape that have become rampant. One can say it is the influence of global popular culture. Popular culture is concerned about sex and things like that. The television is reporting issues of sex and this is already affecting our society, even our university here. These are social issues that writers, I would say, should be concerned about. If the writers concern themselves about these things, it would balance-up some things. They can also explore the technology of information dissemination. These are the questions. They will discuss these issues and we will share ideas.
You developed themes for the conference around the future of democracy in Nigeria and the country’s culture. What are the prospects that government will listen to what you say when artistes are relegated to the background by the same government?
It may seem that artistes are relegated. It is also a yes and no answer. A lot of artistes are involved in government activities. They have just started the Centenary anniversary celebration and many artistes were involved. It is not as if they are being relegated. What kind of artistes and what kind of art they are incorporating is the issue. Artistes who do government propaganda have never been relegated, you see them all over the place. They have been the ones who go about campaigning. The commercial artistes who work for big companies are also enjoying. You see them when they organise big jamborees to promote this or that. The only thing is, we are talking about the theatre arts. Where is the support for experimental art? Theatre or experimental art doesn’t get any support. How about support for literature? It is not sufficient to come and read in the public once in a while or when you feel like. I mean, that kind of thing is good but not enough. You have to put your money where your mouth is. How do you support publishing for example? How do you support the distribution of books? Even in publishing, if you are ‘fortunate’ to have your work put on the syllabus, one would think it will help to mitigate the cost of publishing. But that is where the problems begin. The pirates take everything and the author himself is left empty-handed. So, what are we doing about piracy? We have been talking and talking, what has the government done about it? Even Nollywood is on the verge of collapse because of piracy. And this is an industry that has helped to put our name everywhere, this is an industry that developed by itself. What are we doing to help it? That is why I say complexities. Don’t make a blanket statement by saying artistes have been neglected. Many artistes have become particularly prosperous, as far as they are ready to provide propaganda for the government or for companies.
Post-military democracy in Africa, one of the themes for the conference, takes me to The Ghost Of Abacha, a book that someone wrote. As someone who stayed back in Nigeria during those military days, do you think their ghost is still haunting us?
Very much. Inevitable. And I think we don’t have a choice for now, because once you are stuck with a certain form of democracy, then you have to live with the implication. I have always argued that this American-styled democracy cannot help anybody because it is predicated on money. Money is very important in the American system. Your are spending heavily on campaigns and so many other things. Here in Nigeria, if you want to go to an elective office, the first question is, “who are those who have the money?” They came from the military. Now you also have people who have money who were not in the military. They have stolen. You have those who are profiting from the oil cartels and so on. Go and look at factories, and see who owns them. It is the military people or their contractors. So, inevitably they are the ones who are controlling this democracy. Many of them still have that military mentality. Until – I don’t know how long it will take – we change the situation and I am sure we will have to do it someday, things will go worse. We cannot continue like this. It is too costly to run this democracy like this. It is just dependent on looting. They spend money to get to office and so want to make the money back. It is like a business; they invest their money and they recoup it. So, you have money for contracts to build roads, schools, ending up elsewhere. It is like that in every sector. That is why I say the military thing is still so much here.
The relationship between town and gown in some places in the country is not rosy. Bearing this friction in mind, are you inviting people from outside the educational system to be part of the programme?
Invitation is not based on the institution you belong to. In fact, we are not even qualifying the play, whether it is good or bad. But let me tell you this: the question about town and gown is not based on physical space. This is just a metaphor. It is to describe whether your thinking is tilted to an elitist perception of things or your thinking is broader than other people who are underprivileged. So, don’t let’s use location as an indication for invitation. Some people are located in the so-called Ivory Towers but are worse than the poor people, the people in town who have been corrupted by the ideology of the ruling class. Some of these people in the Ivory Towers and some in town share the same ideology which is: government exists to be looted. That does not indicate where they are located at all. Let us not use that as a criterion at all.
How has life in retirement been since you left the University of Ibadan, where you spent all of your teaching career?
I have been travelling a lot, so I don’t really know. I was away for a while in Germany. After that, I was invited to China to teach. I have been in China for a while. And then, I was in Kwara State University. So, I still haven’t settled down. What I can say is that life in retirement is even busier than in service. The demands are more. But I think I am enjoying it.
Do you have a kind of permanent programme for the playwrights, like annual or bi-annual meetings?
Well, let me say that the first moments of retirement were quite disorienting. It is not easy to get yourself together. Even when I was preparing for retirement I thought it was easy. It is not easy. After so many years in a place and then you leave. From belonging to an institution, you suddenly find out you are on your own. From being employed you suddenly have no employment or employer. Even your address, you just realise that you no longer have an address. You are so used to meeting with students at regular times, suddenly, there is no meeting with students any more. You then begin to create a new office and so on. It is quite disorienting. Gradually you get used to it. Yes, I want to create a centre, for example, to help practising artistes. I want to put something down, maybe in form of a journal or something like that. Many of these things are still at incorporation level. I am not used to certain legal things, now you have to take legal advice. Certainly, finance issue is there. In retirement you have to develop new schemes, you don’t have a salary any more, you have to look for something to supplement what you get.
Are you getting any support with logistics now that more people, beyond your expectation, are attending?
I want the co-operation of my old department here at the University of Ibadan. I want to start a yearly programme for aspiring playwrights. I am trying to put some money there. There are things like that in the offing that I want to do.
I asked the question in relation to the forthcoming conference you are organising?
You will be surprised that some of the people who want to come are sending the money already. It really amazes me. They say, “If there is no money, let us know.” They are sending money to help. It is something cheery about our country. I must say, I am very pleased and surprised at the kind of response that I am getting. You know people don’t usually go to conferences unless you give them some means of getting money. But here, people are paying to attend.