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We’ll de-emphasise foreign books – Ofili

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WHO is Chike Ofili?

Chike Ofili  was born and bred in Lagos. He went to school in Lagos and  had his university education at University of Jos, where he read English before he later moved on to read Marketing and  Public Relations at University of  Nigeria, Nsukka. He has worked as a Journalist and has worked primarily as a brand marketing communicating person. He worked longer with Insight Communication GREY in Lagos, Worked with Sunrise  DMB & B, worked with Project Market International, among others The whole purpose is to use communication to solve problems, mingling it with research and creativity, either as advertising, as public relations, as event management or an integration of all to deliver on a product, a brand or a project.

I am here as a writer. Even in those capacities, I was there as a writer-  creative writer, copy writer. I have freelanced with The Guardian, Vanguard, This Day, essentially in the 1990s. So I am a published writer My first books was ‘ Our Unspoken Ties’. My second book is ‘The Weight of Waiting’. I have equally a completed book on Fela and I have a completed autobiography on Ambassador Shegun Olushola. I have worked on the Biography of Nollywood, what I titled ‘The Genius of the Indigenous: A Nosy Biography of Nollywood’. I have been on that research for about 16 years now. I had to stop because I couldn’t keep funding it by myself.

I have been Chairman of the Association of Nigeria Authors(ANA) in Lagos and National Publicity Secretary in 2001. I am presently hoping to be a National President of the Association.

What is the Association of Nigeria Authors about?

Association of Nigeria Authors was founded by Chinua Achebe and other big writers in June 27, 1981, at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. There  was the Nigerian Association of Writers before the civil war. Then, the civil war came and destroyed that. In 1981, Chinua Achebe hosted writers in Nsukka when he had left broadcasting in Lagos to become a lecturer in   Department of English. He got them together and ANA was born.  Since then, the association has sprout all over Nigeria and so today, it is a national body of Nigerian creative writers.

When is the election you are vying for likely to hold?

It comes up often in the last week of October into the first week of November. It hasn’t been announced but we know the period we always go for it.

Why are you contesting for presidency?

Like I have been making known all over the social media, I am contesting for the position of presidency because for too long, I have been canvassing. I have been more physically involved with ANA since 1995, though I have been introduced to it longer as a student in Jos, where I went to school at University of Jos. I want to contest for presidency this time because I realised that all the things, ideas that I have canvassed from the floor at conventions, from interactions with those in power, they have not really done it. You know you can’t do it until you are on the driver’s seat, and as I have stayed  in ANA for more than 25 years, I feel a need to go and bring about some of those things that I have in mind to do.

What are they?

First of all, I realised that everything begins with literacy. Without literacy there can’t be writing and without writing, there can’t be reading, editing,  publishing, printing, book buying, book making, book selling, book reading. So I found that literacy is fundamental and that we have taken it for granted too much. Anybody that knows how to read and write is said to be literate, but we also have another type of people that  people don’t talk much about; people who know how to read and write but don’t read and write. We call them alliterates, and these people are many and even among graduates. We have those who are functionally literate; people who by their very nature keep great companionship  with the book. They keep private library. You know it by their constant desire to read and write. So what we intend to do is to get people to move from illiteracy to literacy, and there is an agency of government that deals with that, even though we don’t see what they do. ANA is either going to partner with them or do it alone. Since we have chapters across the nation, we need to take people from alliteracy (those who are literate) to functional literacy. If we don’t do that, we will not have  readers, writers, reading society,  an educated nation and  a functional society.  So I believe that instead of doing our activism against government, If we have  more literate people, we have more people who we can transit into readership,  writing and primarily that  way, we will be able to  lay the foundation for writing,  reading and for having a reading society. But fundamental to what we do in ANA is having to publish our thoughts, mediated  through creative writing, through the imagination either as  poetry,  prose fiction, plays and sometimes,  biographies, autobiography and memoirs, but the point is;  what do we need to do ? We found that we have been disadvantaged as writers.The publishing establishments no longer pay attention to us. They believe that we are unprofitable to them by the virtue of today’s Nigerian society. When Chinua Achebe came out with ‘ Things Fall Apart’ in 1958; even when many people have not started going to school, it was accepted and people read it. When Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe came into Nigeria in 1930s and published his newspaper,  ‘  West African Pilot,’ it became the National Bible for Liberation before Chinua Achebe did his own in 1958. And even at that time, we don’t have as many literate people as we  are supposed to be  having now. But today, publishing companies no longer find it to be their pre-occupation. It is something that they want to do almost like social responsibility; almost like ‘an aside’. So, we have been  messed up by publishing companies and that has led to a lot of self- publishing.

Then with the newspaper companies  like yours, the Art Desk  that is supposed to be the promotional arm of what we do- that exposes,  reviews,  engages what we do, are no longer that interested. Most Art Desks may not be having more than one person for what requires knowledge in theatre,  film,  song , dance,  literature, etc. When that one person goes, they are not replaced and the desk is seen to be where they can sacrifice for advertisements and all of that. So you can see that both ways, we are disadvantaged. From the publishing companies and from the newspaper that is supposed to publish all we do and give us attention.  How do I intend to solve this problem? These are the solutions that I am bringing to the table. I am hoping to establish what I can call ‘ ANA publishing.’ ANA publishing will take care of these needs because in a publishing house, fundamentally you need just two critical departments- the Editorial Department and Marketing. ANA is an association that  is full of many professors, Doctorate Degree holders. I have categorized it as an association of creative, academics, professionals. Essentially, those three- creative, academics and professionals. It is in ANA that you can see a medical doctor like Gabriel Okaka, a poet, who is dead, among others.

This is what I hope to do – set up what I call “ Body of Editors’ at the regional level so that in the South- East, for instance, there will be the body of Editors that will  cut across the states, and those editors will be able to understand  the concerns, nuances and the cultural dimensions to their creativity. So they will edit at the level and will now recommend to those at the national level. So the body of editors will help us solve a lot of editorial problems. First of all, some of our members who go to publish with these publishing houses, who no longer wait to publish and pay royalty, will now want to publish, get our money and do what is called paid publishing. We are saying our monies will no longer go to them; our monies will return home to us and because we have the human resources amongst ourselves; we will get it done because we have those in languages, we have those in English, we have professors, we have professional editors among us. We have people – journalists who are also creative writers. So all of these people are going to be part of the body of Editors We are going to have body of evaluators who are  going to take care of  evaluating the work and decide if it meets the standard, before we can put our imprint ‘ANA publishing’ on it.

Then, we also have what is called “Body of Modern Marketers”. We are going to market. Before they market, they will also take a look at the work. All these human resources will be generated from ANA members because ANA is a rich house of people of different disciplines. We are going to pull them all together and then put them in beats beyond the creative writing that they do because that is the only way we can deliver ourselves from extinction.

Then, there is the body  of  defenders for lawyers, who are going to make sure that people are not cheated from their manuscripts to the market place; so that wherever anybody is being cheated, either  a publisher comes to cheat you, printers print your work and use your plates to go and do piracy or the book sellers sell your books and doesn’t want to pay back, or you went into a commissioned  writing and nobody wishes to  pay you as agreed; our body of defenders will be there to defend these writers. This is one major thing that I will be doing.

The other thing that I will be doing that is critical is that I want to be able to make the pen the ATM of writers. I want to see the possibilities of making the writers feed of their  pens and  not necessarily feeding of other sources and making  creative writing an indulgence. So we are going to have creative writing from indulgence into an industry. And how will these be done? This is what I am hoping to do. By the time we have taken care of the product which is publishing, we have taken care of the body of modern marketers not just marketers  but modern marketers and market monitors who will help to sell and see how  it does in the market . Then we would look at marketing in the broader sense. We are hoping to have partnership with the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) .  We are going to enter into an MoU with them and say for the sake of national good, national literacy, national education, national growth, for mental growth, that we want our Nigerian books which will be facilitated by ANA to be everywhere in Nigeria through the courier of NIPOST. I will get them to understand that they should see it like a social responsibility that they can do for ANA  and if they must take money at all, it will be at little or no cost because it is a national service, to make sure that books move about, travel everywhere.

We also hope to get into an MoU with logistics companies who are involved in technology. People like Jumia, Konga and other smaller types to help deliver the country from illiteracy and alliteracy.  We are going to get into arrangement with them so that our books can travel, but the biggest dream of my presidency is to get government across Nigeria, because ANA is in every state of the federation or almost every state of the federation. That way is to get state governments to give what I call “ANA house”- a duplex in every state. In these duplexes, the lower floor of the sitting rooms will be a bookshop, shelving only Nigerian books, book of only Nigeria writers. The upper sitting room will be a library, exclusively for Nigerian books or by extension, even for African books. We are going to de-emphasise foreign books because we want  attention given to our own. Then, the rooms will be used for stocking those books which will be coming across Nigeria. So                 ANA chapter in Kano can bring their own works to  the ones in Anambra, Lagos; the same way, your own will go. Just like in broadcasting. You know there is what we call exchange- they do programmes and regions exchange. That is what we want to do with books. By the time we have these duplexes donated by governments, the books will be there. e-library, physical library and ICT will be there. Then, there will be stocking and there will be a room or two for writers who want to get away looking for where to go and write at a little cost. Government will give us a cleaner, gateman and a librarian who will oversee the place in association with ANA.

ANA executives in  each of those states would be in partnership, so that the books can go across Nigeria. So that in your state alone, if you have one, you can have the books all over Nigeria because ANA chapters across Nigeria will be able to bring their books so that in every state, you will be exposed to books that are across Nigeria and the people that will help us to facilitate these are the NIPOST, people like Konga, Jumia, etc.. So when you have these ANA houses that have all of these,  our writers will begin to depend on their books being bought, being read, getting the right kind of review, which even the body of evaluators will also do; there will be reviewers and critics and recommenders.

These are fundamental to what I hope to achieve upon being president and apart from bringing the leadership dimension of making sure that ANA is no longer over centralized, we don’t want a leadership that hoards power. We want what I am calling shared leadership. I want to set up standing committees and sub committees, so that we can raise leaders from across. When we have so many leaders, that way, we can breed more readers, so that we have those regional editors, regional evaluators, we would have been raising people and we will have other bodies- body of volunteers, body of medics. If ANA members are sick for instance, they should have somewhere they can put a call through to say this is what is happening to them and be able to get an explanation to what is happening to the person and be able to  recommend what to do if it is minor and where to go as reference.

Most critical raw material and asset of the author is the reader and it is said that readership is dropping in Nigeria. Do you believe in that? What is your view on that?

I don’t believe that readership is dropping in Nigeria. I think readership has increased in a different direction. People have moved from books to phones, and there is a lot of reading on the phone. Even those who would have never read a book follow and hug their phones so tightly and do a lot of reading on it. What may be in contest is, what are they reading? They are reading things for their social well-being. You have said that they are not reading classic writers. They are not reading deep whatever. Even those things that they are reading are useful for their social existence,  social awareness and social interaction.

So reading has not dropped. In my own opinion, reading has increased. But serious reading has dropped . Book reading is very deepening because when you choose to read a book, you have chosen to give attention but when you choose to go through your phone, it is a causal relationship. Reading through my phone can be a very casual relationship because it may not be as deepening as when you take a book. So is reading dropping? No! We have  more readers, but people are getting also more alliterate. The alliterates are increasing among university people. The phones are taking them back. You may see them on facebook writing poor English even as graduates, but at least, the fact that they are now writing more constantly can improve them. So the facebook, whatsapp, all the social media  are all helping to enhance reading and writing unlike before now. So for me, those platforms are remedial centres for people who hitherto, never bordered to open any book because they only read for examinations. So i hope to make that a focal point of my operation, both as a social responsibility and as a policy to be operated.

So you intend to have a campaign to raise readership . If you raise leadership, will you also raise awareness?

You will first of all raise literacy because it is literacy that graduates into readership.

What about the writing skills?

Of course, that one is fundamental. Thank you for reminding me this. It takes me to a major part of my progarmme of action. I have seen writing in two dimensions – the creative writing, which is what we do through poetry, through prose fiction, through writing plays but I am also saying that we are going to be having workshop to get this done. Yesterday, I visited Chimamanda Adichie. I have told her  that we will need her services when I win. The international inputs and collaborations are more important. I have what I call “train to strive in the market place’. I found that creative writers have a lot of places that they can work in; not only in news houses. Writers can do advertising writing, public relations writing; there are bigger ones like industrial and commercial writings which we don’t even venture into. They can do proposal writing; they can do a variety of writing. They can’t do that if they are not adapted to it. If they are not trained to use their already skills and adapt it to that kind of writing, that is where my regime will be an employer of labour, because we are going to train people for the market place and market ANA as a place where you can source people for book writing and good writers. So, ANA is going to run some kind of consultancy that will make its members profitable and valuable in the market place.

Sir, you said that one of the goals you want to achieve is establishing ANA Publishing Company but we have African Writers Series. Don’t you think that this ANA publishing company will displace that?

It doesn’t belong to ANA. That is a private concern. That of truth was great but has now fallen and African Writers is now in a local hand and we no longer know what they do in Ibadan. ANA wishes to save itself from extinction, so even if they are existing, it doesn’t stop us from what we are doing. We are saying that our members will no longer go to do the abnormal and illegal thing of paying them to publish their works and taking their money.

We are taking back our money, doing it professionally and amongst ourselves, because we have the human resources and even if we have to get artists, who we may not have in abundance, we will still have people like your MD here who combine writing and art and there are many such people. We can pull them together and they will be helping us deliver  and what they will do for us is that these will be done at a reduced price so that the cost of publishing will reduce. They will get printers to go into negotiation and say we will be printing for ANA, so consider volume as slash price. When you ask the price at market place, it gets cheaper because the human resources will also  get appreciation. So at the end, we are building ourselves and making money on market place that can also be generally shared.

You said you would lay more emphasis on moving people from alliteracy to functional  literacy instead of doing things against the government and one of the reasons of venturing into creativity  is to be the watchdog  of the state. Can you throw more light on it?

Writers individually will take up their own subject of interest. You can’t determine for a writer what subject of interest is because his inclination drives what he writes. His social conditions, environment, productivity  provide him the subject he writes about. So it is not the place of ANA to determine for its members what they write.

It’s not as if we are not going to engage government when it matters but I will rather want to focus that energy to get more illiterate people know how to read and write. Perhaps collaborate with churches, because if someone can associate with the Bible, the person is close to literacy. If you associate with the Koran, the person is close to literacy, because he is already associating with the book. And so, if we can get them in their clusters and where they are always meeting; from there, ANA can bring them together under an umbrella and take them. Many ANA members are teachers and can  move those ones from illiteracy to literacy. Then, we begin to get the graduates, the educated, who do not read and who could not write to see how we can enhance them in something higher. There is already what is called Yusuf Ali Price for Reading Campaign. The man donates every year some millions to ANA. I am going to redirect that donation to something that is very primary, that even the country will appreciate. So it is not just ANA serving itself but also that government will understand that we are involved in nation building.

It has been observed that because people want to just answer authors, they go and publish any nonsense and bring to the market or get the Ministry of Education’s recommendations to sell these books to students. What do you have to say about it ?

We will have ANA publishing to take care of sub standards, because by the time you go through the editors and evaluators at your regional level, then the national level,  you must have written something of standard quality and even if you want to pay us off, we will still be able to say how well you have done. One thing that Nigerian writers have lost out on is that editor-writer relationship and that movement through and fro of the manuscript – where you write and they take and check, you look, you take it back, they re-write- you know that movement through and fro that leads to the production, the making of a good book is gone. You may just get one editor somewhere who does something for you- reads and sends back. That engagement is gone.

How do you check admissions into the association and disappointments in books?

The body of evaluators will have a lot of work to do. They are not also going to be intervening for us in quality. They are going to be for us the quality control that will do the checks. Take for instance, our children. Our children are reading very bad books. Children literatures are so infiltrated that there is this joke that they say that “the head is used for carrying load”- That the head (of all the functions), is used for carrying load. Have you not destroyed education? So children literature is the most abused and the teachers themselves are trading on our children’s future. One of the things that we are going to do is to get the body of evaluators to take a look at books in circulation, read them and do a critique of them and send to the Ministry of Education; perhaps the presidency. People are trading off our children’s future for gains by the kind of books they allow into the curriculum as  recommended text.

How many people are contesting for ANA presidency and what do you think are your chances?

There are four of us in the race now. One from the North, three from the South. But we have a kind of rotational presidency in ANA;  where in a particular year, if presidency goes to the North, the Secretary will go to the South, when the presidency is in the South, the Secretary should come from the North. But right now, somebody wants to disrupt what has been taking place since Abubakar Ginba and others. Denja. They are trying to contest now that the election is coming to Enugu and my camp is saying “not on our land will it be disrupted, not in Enugu and not in anywhere near it will we allow what has become a convention to be stopped because of a personal ambition and we are insisting that not in Igboland, not in the South will anybody attempt to disrupt that rotational presidencyt. So it is the turn of the South. The West has had its own turn, now it is the turn of the South East, South South or the entire South. So there are three contenders in the South- myself, Cornelius and Iyang. But  I consider myself as the real candidate. Apart from being the oldest- officially i am an old member of the association who has been around long enough; I pride myself in knowing the issues better. I pride myself in having superior solution, I pride myself in saying I am a Nigeria candidate because I am the only one who has schooled in the North, lived in the North, raised in the South and I say that I am the best Southern candidate who was born in Lagos and have been socialising in Yoruba land. I am Igbo. I am double honour Igbo because not only that my ancestor is from  Nri, here in Anambra State; my ancestors migrated as Uchi brothers to my home town in Okpanam, in what politically is called South South in Delta and I say I am Igbo of a double honour because I belong to Igbo both East and West of the Niger and I am saying if it is talking of mid Niger Delta, I am from the Delta itself and before the Delta is the Niger which the water must cross through before it forms a delta. So I am saying that either way, I am the candidate.

The outgoing president was short-listed for an NLG award, are you also going to hit that record or live up to that record or be in that record?

I don’t write for prize winning. You only hear that my work came out and I have to enter it. At least, I made it to the African prize, the one that is even bigger than NLG, which is across Africa. That was the year 2007 . Since then; I have not entered for any other work. So for me, it feels good when you are short-listed to win a prize. It is very good. I don’t think a real writer purposefully want to write to win. You may also write to win when you have been writing for a long time. Well, if he contests while in office, I don’t think there is anything wrong in that. He is not contesting for the ANA prize. That would have made it wrong. If it was ANA prize that he is contesting for and being the one administering the prize, then it will be wrong.

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