A case for writer-politicians in Nigeria

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By Mustafa Jamal

Only one Nigerian writer, Senator-elect Ekong Sampson, though less known, will be taking the oath of office on that day (May 29, 2023). Will others have a rethink and contest in 2027 and subsequent elections? The answer lies with the writers themselves

Chinua Achebe

THOUGH very visible on the international stage, Nigerian writers seem to have become expiring species in the ever so crowded political space in their own country. They seem to be leaving much to chance as far as running the affairs of the country is concerned by quite simply not making a stab at political office. On February 25 and March 15, millions of eligible adult Nigerian voters trooped to 176,846 polling stations in 774 local councils to elect those who will call the shots for the next four years.

According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body responsible for conducting elections, 93.4 million registered voters so far have collected their Personal Voters Card (PVC), thus giving them a chance to vote for those seeking elective office – from the presidential candidates down to those in the governorship race, lawmakers in both the state and federal houses.

Among these hopeful lot are accountants, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, farmers, even Nollywood wannabes and has-beings. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress, which is also the ruling party, is an accountant. His rivals in PDP and Labour Party, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, are businessmen. Funke Akindele, a popular Nollywood actress, is contesting as a candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party. She is a running mate to entrepreneur Abdul-Azeez Olajide Adediran, aka Jandor, governorship candidate for Lagos state in the same party. Hilda Dokubo is the chairperson of Labour Party in Rivers State.

Hundreds of the candidates seeking election or re-election are in one profession or the other – some are in business and sundry professions. Surprisingly though, there is not one Nigerian writer among these lot bracing up for the polls in the coming weeks, not one angling for political office even at the grassroots level. And yet, it was not always so.

At independence in 1960, for instance, writers were among those at the head of government. At the very top then was Nnamdi Azikiwe, journalist, poet and publisher, Nigeria’s first and only ceremonial head of state. Though a trained London lawyer, his contemporary, rival and Premier of Western Region, Obafemi Awolowo, was a publisher and writer. Awolowo’s counterpart in the Midwestern Region, Denis Osadebay, was himself a poet, not to mention Anthony Enahoro, a journalist who was also a top-ranking member of the Action Group.

The Second Republic tried to keep pace with the number of writers in government, and even as party leaders. The old warhorses from the First Republic, Awolowo, Azikiwe, Enahoro were still on board the political train, though they did more of politics than writing. Remarkably enough, the Second Republic produced a VIP writer in the person of Chinua Achebe, one of the pioneers of modern Nigerian and African literature and eponymous author of Things Fall Apart. Achebe was not only a card-carrying member of the Peoples Redemption Party, he was also the number two man (vice chairman) to a charismatic party leader, Aminu Kano (chairman).

Sensitive to Nigerian politics with a clearer understanding of it than many of the politicians themselves, Achebe knew better to settle for a party and party leader with more concern for the deprived, more concern for their welfare and wellbeing. Of course, no one expected the author of A Man of the People to team up with the obnoxious characters so very well portrayed in his novel, some of who were right on the political stage in the decaying years of the First Republic on which he based the novel that is also a political treatise on bad governance that has trailed the country since Independence.

Though not as high ranking as Achebe his senior colleague in the PRP party hierarchy, Odia Ofeimun, poet and onetime president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), belonged to the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) at this period, serving in a confidential role for years as Private Secretary (Political) to Awolowo, chairman and leader of the party.

Wole Soyinka

Subsequent civilian dispensations and parties from then on boasted no heavyweight writers among its ranks until 2003. In that year, a medical doctor cum writer Wale Okediran contested as a member of House of Representatives in his constituency in Iseyin, Oyo state. He won under the Alliance for Democracy (AD). But after a first four-year term, Okediran returned to his medical practice, leaving politics for good.

It will take more than a decade and half before any Nigerian writer of note would join party politics. In 2019, newspaper columnist and biographer, Reuben Abati, got the literary community abuzz after announcing his intention to run for the governorship race in Ogun state. Abati had been Chief Press Secretary in Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. For whatever reason, Abati did not have his way. But he became a running mate to a more grounded PDP party man, Buruji Kashamu who was governorship candidate in that year. They lost.

Four, five or so years before, Abati’s friend and colleague, Ofeimun the poet and former private secretary, made his intention known to contest for the governorship position in his natal Edo state. Ofeimun had no known political affiliation at the time. Like most writers who depend solely on paltry royalties from publishers, Ofeimun clearly didn’t have the financial resources to bring off his political ambition. The writing community knew that much, most of all Abati who put down Ofeimun’s pursuit as a Quixotian quest.

Odia Ofeimun

However, only award-winning poet and lawyer Ogaga Ifowodo (PhD) stuck his neck out and would seem to have stayed put in partisan politics for the long haul. He has contested twice, once for the House of Representatives for Isoko Federal Constituency in Delta State and the state House of Assembly respectively under the All Progessives Congress (APC). Although he lost each time, it’s obvious he has dug in and would continue to plot his electoral political fortunes now that his party has won the seemingly controverted 2023 presidential contest. His party looks set to give Delta State’s governorship election on March 18, 2023 a shot. If his party were to win the oil-rich contest and went on to perform well, Ifowodo’s electoral fortunes would most likely improve in subsequent elections.

Like Ifowodo, Uyo-based communications scholar, columnist and founder of Uyo Book Club and its four affiliates at Ikot Ekpene, Abak and Oro, Dr. Udeme Nana tried unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives twice in 2002 and 2006. Also, Dr. Martins Akpan, poet, novelist and former ANA Chairman, Akwa Ibom State tried chapter tried in 1999 but failed in his election bid, too. His experiences form the theme of his novel The Crumb Eaters. But thankfully, the Patron of Uyo Book Club, lawyer and writer with several titles to his credit, Dr. Ekong Sampson, served two terms in Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly and is a Senator-elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and will be sworn in as Senator on May 29, 2023! Perhaps, some might argue that Ekong is not a mainstream writer, an argument that is neither here nor there. What’s certain is that ANA, the writers’ body, now has someone in Nigeria’s powerful Senate to cry to and be heard.

In a piece headlined “Odia Ofeimun: The Man Who Would be Governor” published on November 30, 2015 in Elite, an online magazine, Abati pointedly noted that the poet had the least chances of success out of the near dozen aspirants angling for the same position. “Out of all the aspirants that may emerge, Odia Ofeimun is likely to be the most enlightened, honest and cultured, and the most articulate but it is also for these same reasons that he may not be governor of Edo state.

“Odia lives in Lagos, and goes home occasionally, when his busy schedule permits. I doubt if he knows the Senatorial Districts in Edo state or the number of wards and polling units. He has never had any cause to visit any traditional ruler, except maybe the Odionwele of his Iruekpen village, and he has certainly not bothered to distribute bags of rice across the clans in the state as a way of knocking on the voters’ doors. Odia’s qualifications: he is a poet, political scientist and author; he was Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Private Secretary, he has been Secretary General and President of the Association of Nigerian Authors and he is intellectually, a genius.
“But his gubernatorial ambition reminds me of those guys who sit in faraway America, or the United Kingdom, claiming to know how democracy works, and what is best for the entire world, who suddenly return home, paste posters all over the town and hope to become a governor just because they have faith that the electorate will appreciate their quality and look for the best man for the job.”

Lacking political godfathers and no financial inducements to woo potential voters as Abati presciently predicted, the poet’s political ambition ended as abruptly as it began. Ofeimun later conceded to a reporter that he only wanted to use the governorship election of that year in his state to “prepare for the next one,” in another four years, that is. Even so, the Labour Party he joined lacked the state presence and resources to dislodge the firmly entrenched ruling PDP in the state.

Wale Okediran

“I wanted to use that election to prepare for the one that came after,” Ofeimun said at the time. “But the choice of party that I made – I couldn’t join any of those other parties – the Labour Party that I picked, they do not have the resources to support a candidate who was also not well-to-do. A candidate who is not well-to-do who joins a party that is not well-to-do is asking for trouble.”

It is that same trouble Nigerian writers have been confronted with and may be facing now as their countrymen and women ready for the polls. For instance, the seven-figure sum some of the aspirants paid to their respective parties as expression of interest to contest is way beyond the means of writers publishers routinely deny royalties. That perhaps explains why no Nigerian writer – home and away – will be contesting or glad-handing the electorate at campaign venues.

As of now, INEC has no record of any Nigerian writer in the race. Even the writers themselves are not sure. Camillus Ukah, president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the umbrella body of writers in the country, says he has no idea. There might be some which the association is not aware of, or there may just be none. Editor of online literary magazine, The Lagos Review and www.thisislagos.com, Terh Agbedeh says he is not aware of any Nigerian writer running for elective office this time.

Founded in 1981 by Achebe in Onitsha, the River Niger-fringed commercial city in the south east, ANA boasts thousands of members across local chapters in all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Membership has increased over time from the initial fitful double figures in the early years to the five-figure digit it is now. Once every year, in late October and early November, the literary body holds its convention, pooling members to a designated state capital for a three-day reunion of mind and body, publishers, booksellers and sundry hangers-on in tow. At such fests, also, ANA gives out prizes to deserving authors and books, some getting honorable mentions.

For a literary association boasting of membership in the thousands, election periods during their annual convention draws the most crowd, from all over the 36 state chapters and Abuja, with busloads of designated state delegates disembarking at hotel lobbies, followed by longer buses of students of Department of English and Literature across Nigerian universities. ANA convention on election years is also a sort of mecca to professors in related departments in institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, the literary smart set in Awka, Bauchi, Benin, Enugu, Jos, Kaduna, Kano and Port Harcourt following apace. It is also a period when things literally fall apart for the writer’s body, when otherwise formerly comradely colleagues turn bitter enemies during and after elections.

In one election year, for instance, three candidates angling to lead the association claimed they won, forming factions almost immediately with a good number of supporters massing behind them. Though recognized as president of ANA in the last election in 2021, some of Ukah’s co-contestants thought the election was rigged in his favour. One of them, Ahmed Maiwada, lawyer, poet and novelist, took the case to court challenging Ukah’s election as the rightful winner of the poll. Another contestant, Chike Ofili, declared himself president of the association, only in name though because he was barred from parading himself as such and was also barred from ever setting foot at the association’s secretariat in Abuja.

While writers in the country battle one another fiercely and sometimes bitterly for elective executive positions in their own association, they seem to be unmindful of their own place in the broader national polity. So, why are writers shutting the door against themselves in Nigeria’s political space?

Ekong Sampson

For Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, senior journalist, playwright and poet, it isn’t that writers are working against themselves in the larger body politic they belong. In his view, the old canard by some purists from Europe that “politics compromise art” is hogwash. So, Nigerian writers are not apolitical for the very fact that they are human. Humans, Maxim suggests, “happen to be political animals.” The poet and playwright then takes his case further that some prominent Nigerian politicians before now were also writers.

“Nigerian writers,” Uzoatu maintains, “have from time been in politics. Zik was a poet. Dennis Osadebay was equally a poet. Chinua Achebe was vice chairman of Aminu Kano’s Peoples Redemption Party (PRP).”

Those of the First and Second republics even had successors, Uzoatu contends. “Wale Okediran won election into the House of representatives in 2003. (Okediran is a doctor, writer and onetime president of the Association of Nigerian Authors.) Reuben Abati was a gubernatorial running mate to PDP candidate Buruji Kashamu in the Ogun state contest in 2019.”

Anote Ajeluorou, journalist and writer echoes Uzoatu’s position. Alluding to PB Shelley’s submission that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world in the Romantic poet’s treatise “In Defence of Poetry” published in 1821, Ajeluorou suggests that by virtue of their profession, writers are already practising politics, because “no writing is innocent of politics. There’s no writing that does not have some political undertones.”

How true! Some of the writings of Nigeria’s leading dramatist, poet, novelist and only Nobel laureate in Literature so far, Wole Soyinka’s early plays revolve around politics. The Swamp Dwellers, for instance, is one such. Published in 1958, Soyinka used it to presage the independence Nigeria got two years later. There are more than a dozen publications – novels, plays and poems – by Nigerian writers dwelling on political issues about their country. But beyond that is an instance now cited by analysts when Soyinka himself was involved in governance as Corp Marshall of the Federal Road Safety Corp (FRSC) in the late eighties up to the early nineties.

Soyinka’s Sterling example
TWO years after winning the Nobel in Literature, Nigeria’s military president Ibrahim Babangida (IBB) summoned Soyinka to Dodan Barracks, Lagos, which was the seat of the Federal Government before relocating it to Abuja in 1991. The reason for the military summons was less because of Soyinka suddenly becoming a Nobel laureate and more because of his exemplary record in drastically reducing road accidents and fatalities in Oyo state where his friend and intellectual companion, Bola Ige was governor.

As one commentator recalled prior to IBB’s summons, Soyinka had taken charge of the Oyo State Road Safety Corp under pressure from the governor himself. As the chief security officer of Oyo state, Ige would have been briefed and seen firsthand the chaotic traffic situation in one of the states with the largest landmass then – of road users needlessly killing themselves, threat to others either by overloading, over-speeding, driving against traffic, driving vehicles not road worthy or, worse still, driving under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Soyinka was professor of Comparative Literature then at University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), but he obliged Ige’s request to head the newly formed OYSRSC. For the years the professor manned the agency, cases of road accidents fell to its barest minimum in the state.

Continuing, the commentator observed that, based on the “impressive score sheet, IBB mandated Soyinka to perform the Oyo state miracle on a national scale. He did. How Soyinka did it is now very well known – through the highly disciplined pioneer staff he initiated as FRSC. Soyinka didn’t have to look too far for trusted and committed personnel of FRSC. The story goes that he called upon and recruited some of his fellow Pyrates Confraternity to help put sanity back on Nigerian roads. They duly responded and, till date, FRSC has earned the respect of road users in Nigeria and even the military that set it up.”

Even IBB’s administration whose eight years from 1985 – 1993 had little or nothing to chest-thump about in terms of concrete development singled out FRSC under Soyinka for his exemplary leadership and achievement while the writer was Corp Marshall from ’88 – ’92. Speaking on the occasion of the agency’s 30 years anniversary and published in The Guardian of February 21, 2018, IBB himself proudly declared thusly of FRSC: “Our administration summoned Prof Soyinka to higher national service as the founding Corp Marshal of the FRSC. I am proud to say that the basic foundation of discipline, firmness and commitment to humanitarian service was laid at this period.”

For that period, according to records at the time, “sanity returned to Nigerian roads and highways: drivers drove within a certain speed limit because that FRSC official in a maroon safari hat or beret might just be around the corner; they knew better not to offer bribes because they will turn it down and even hand you over to the police for prosecution along with the initial traffic offence; drivers and their passengers began compulsorily strapping on seatbelts; interstate motorists didn’t dare put vehicles with worn tyres, malfunctioning break lights or faulty headlights on the roads.”

Moreover, FRSC officials set themselves apart from the itchy fingers of VIOs and traffic police ever ready to shake down motorists. With the writer as Corp Marshall, another reporter observed, “FRSC officials were more professional, always polite to motorists but firm in instructing them on what to do and how not to break traffic laws while on the way. And then, there was the ambulance crew – complete with medics – ready to apply first-aid treatment at the scene of accident or ferry victims to hospitals.”

More important, according to the journalist, was the swift turnaround in road carnage across Nigeria such that “staff in emergency units in some orthopedic hospitals joked that some of them waited in vain for weeks without seeing casualties as they used to.”

What was the reason for the reduction in auto accidents across the country?

It was the Soyinka touch, a demonstration of his competence as an administrator, his organizational ability in running a government agency and making it work, perhaps, more than any politician ever could. Part of Soyinka’s success as Corp Marshall was his singular determination to genuinely serve the public resulting from the “foundation of discipline, firmness and commitment to humanitarian service,” as IBB himself crowed in his testimony.

Of course, the writer’s imagination also played a part, of thinking out of the box for workable solutions to persisting problems, of coming up with far-reaching solutions to long-term problems and generally matching words with actions.

Ofeimun himself had shown the same predilection as a writer with great imagination for solving otherwise intractable problems. Long before the governorship elections in Edo state, Ofeimun had, indeed, announced to whoever would listen to some of the grand ideas and projects he had up his sleeves. One of them was to link up all the headquarters and major towns in the state by a modern rail line.

Ogaga Ifowodo

So connected from Benin City, the state capital, like arteries from the heart to the rest of the body in a state with the comforting motto: Heartbeat of the Nation, anyone could see the immediate and incredible advantages of Ofeimun’s dream project. Again, it was the imagination of the writer at work, several rungs above the average Nigerian politician’s pedestrian thinking concerning infrastructural projects.

Brilliant as it seemed, the rail project never got to be.

Another likely cause of Nigerian writers’ aversion to politics, in Ofeimun’s words, is that rather than engage in conspicuous public displays like distributing money to and back-patting potential voters, travelling from one state capital to the other during campaigns as most Nigerian politicians are currently doing, they prefer writing a line, two or three of verse in the cat-quiet solitude of their rooms or libraries. Ajeluorou adds somewhat contemptuously that the lowest form of condescension is “begging for votes like politicians do” which, to him, is a turn-off for most serious-minded writers.

However condescending “begging for votes” may seem to Nigerian writers, their counterparts in other climes most certainly do not think so. For some of them, maintaining a balance between writing and politics is as normal as drinking water and putting the cup down. President JF Kennedy wrote his way to a Pulitzer with Profiles in Courage in 1958 and then two years later to the White House.

Decades before, Winston Churchill proved that you could excel in both writing and politics: He won the Nobel in Literature and then, together with the Allies, defeated the frightening spectre of Nazism in Europe. Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia achieved fame in equal measure as a world-renowned playwright and as a politician, who guided the two countries he presided over – as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 – 1992 and then in the same capacity of the Czech Republic from 1993 – 2003.

Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were not only two of the most important writers of their time in the United States, they were also politicians. Mailer campaigned and contested as Mayor of New York while Vidal ran for Congress. They failed. Though he also failed in his quest for the presidency of his Andean nation, Chilean writer Pablo Neruda earned the moniker Political Poet for the very reason that he was both. One Africa writer who did not fail was post-colonial Senegalese president, Leopold Sedar Senghor who was also a poet. And then, there was Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, a novelist who ruled his East African country from 1964 to 1991.

For Nigerian writers, however, such lofty positions in politics is still a pipe dream. After the general elections this February and March, winners will be sworn-in on May 29, thus ushering in a new cast of political characters to run things for the next four years. Certainly, no writer will be taking the oath of office on that day. Will they have a rethink and contest in 2027 and subsequent elections? The answer lies with the writers themselves.

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