The Lagos literati should propose a resounding toast to this long-awaited publication, Lagos Review of Books and Society. This preview copy is the very first edition. If it is an indication of what is to come, then the toast should continue as long as the publishers never disappoint.
Some years ago, a Nigerian writer now teaching in an American university told this reporter how he’d like to pool together some of the finest minds in Nigeria to do a purely literary publication, something as good as Times Literary Supplement or New York Review of Books.
The writer himself had followed closely The Guardian Literary Supplement as a student back in the eighties and even contributed to The Post Express Literary Supplement and Glendora Review as a journalist in Lagos in the late nineties.
On a holiday visit to Nigeria then from a London residency, endowed after he won a prize for creative writing in 2001, he more than felt the gap left behind by the moribund TGLS, GR and PELS. Much of the literary criticism he read on his visit were perfunctory reviews by overburdened Arts journalists expected to proffer expert opinion on everything from exhibitions to book launches, film premieres and even concerts as they happen.
Harassed by editors anxious to pass their copies, left with little or no time to read up and thus deepen their knowledge, and kept constantly on their toes to meet up in an economically challenging environment, it is no surprise poorly-paid Arts reporters in Lagos underperform where they should excel. It is no surprise, also, that however much the literary set in Lagos pinned for local equivalents of TLS or NYRB, it had always remained a mere wish - until now.
Odia Ofeimun, publisher and editor-in-chief of Lagos Review of Books and Society, has filled that lacuna. And he did so grandly on no less a significant day than his 62nd birthday on Friday, March 16 when copies of the preview edition were given away for free at the Muson Centre, Lagos.
Mr. Ofeimun is one Nigerian writer who aptly fits the description of Tennyson’s romantic hero in “Ulysses”; a character thirsting after “knowledge, like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
From his days as a university student at Ibadan, Ofeimun distinguished himself as a writer of note. He has variously been Secretary and President of the Association of Nigerian Authors. For one who started reading at a young age, Ofeimun’s commitment to writing is as legendary as his specially-woven Aso Okes. The talk about town is that if you have a brain teaser – literary or otherwise – he would have an idea. One day some years ago, this reporter was deep in argument with a friend and there was some matter to clear up. My friend wouldn’t budge, andneither would I. We decided to call Odia. He provided the answer promptly, as he may have to scores of journalists, writers and even politicians who frequent his residence in Oregun.
Ask any young or old writer today in Nigeria and Ofeimun is often described as a link between the two generations, although he has consistently denied belonging to either. It shows in the motley selection of contributors in Lagos Review of Books and Society.
Thus, there are contributions from the grandees of Nigerian literature, Achebe and Soyinka, juxtaposed with engaging entries from younger authors like Adesokan, Adebanwi, Ogunlesi, Wood and Uzoatu, some of who were tutored by them. There is fiction from Kole Omotoso, professor of literature who made it all the way from South Africa to grace Ofeimun’s birthday.
But it is not for the age difference alone this particular edition stands out. The contributions are as detailed, well written and well researched as any you would find either in TLS or NYRB. In short, it is vintage Odia.
Take his lengthy essay titled “Awolowo and the Forgotten Documents of the Nigerian Civil War.” Though published in snippets before, as the author himself admits, this is the first full account of what transpired between the major players in the heady days before, during and after the civil war.
The documents in question are two, one written by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Nigeria’s prime athlete in the ‘56 Olympics in Canada, shortly after the five majors struck. The other is by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of Action Group and later Federal Commissioner of Finance during the war.
Reading Ofeimun’s account of the Ifeajuna manuscript recalls flipping through a John Le Carre spy thriller: poets (Christopher Okigbo and John Pepper Clark) smuggling Ifeajuna dressed as a woman across the Nigerian/Dahomey (now Benin Republic) border; publishers in Lagos and London turning down said manuscript; invitations by the Special Branch of the Nigeria Police and even planting a relation of the then IG, MD Yusuf, to snoop on the poet in his house; manuscript mysteriously disappearing from a baby’s cot in the poet’s house, etc.
Lost in transit at one time but recovered somehow, the Ifeajuna manuscript is an insider’s account of the five majors’ intention after they shook the political establishment to its very foundation that cold January morning in 1966. The other document possessed by Awolowo didn’t witness such peregrination as Ifeajuna’s, but it is of equal historical relevance. It is a documentation of the meetings between leaders of the soon-to-break-away Biafra and a delegation of peace makers led by Awolowo for the Federal Government – the delegates from both sides, what they said, what they wanted, up to the last hastily-convened meeting between heads of the two delegations.
Together, the two manuscripts lay to rest some of the misconceptions about the protagonists in the 30-month war in Nigeria. Quoting copiously from the documents, with his own engaging and flawless analysis of events at the time, Ofeimun neatly explodes the myth of victimhood, trumpeted by the Biafran hierarchy to this day.
It is a must read, especially for Igbos who have been made to believe they were truly betrayed in a genocidal conflict that should not have been in the first place. In fact, it is this brazen propaganda that disturbs Ofeimun most.
As recently as 2007, at a Christopher Okigbo International Conference at the University of Harvard, intellectuals of Igbo origin told of how Awolowo supposedly betrayed the Eastern region by reneging on an earlier agreement with Lt. Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to pull the Western region out of Nigeria if the Eastern region was allowed to go.
Before then, in 2003, Nigeria’s current Minister of Finance, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared as much in a publication entitled Achebe: Teacher of Light which she co-authored with Tijan M. Sallah. So well known is the myth of Awolowo’s supposed betrayal that Igbos of a certain generation recite it off the cuff. You can still hear such sentiments expressed in bars and private homes anywhere in Eastern cities and towns, in markets with predominatly Igbo population anywhere in Nigeria.
To Ofeimun, it rankles. It is also a well-worn tale in contrast to documented facts. So, he deploys his ammunition – the manuscripts - at his disposal to blow up the myth such that even the most dyed-in-the-wool Oriental brother will be more than convinced.
“Forty years after the civil war,” Ofeimun writes, “you would expect that some formal academic decorum would be brought into play to sift mere folklore and propaganda from genuine history. But not so for those who do not care about the consequences of the falsehoods they trade. They continue to pump myths that treat their own people as cannon fodder in their elite search for visibility, meal tickets and upward mobility in the Nigerian spoils system... Post-war reconstruction should normally forge the necessity for returnees from the civil war to accede to normal life rather than lose their everyday good sense in contemplation of events that never happened or pursuing enemies who were never there.”
To say that Ofeimun’s piece is a tour de force is understating it, even though it was first delivered at a lecture in honour of the late Mallam Aminu Kano years ago. It is as fresh and revealing as it was on the first day.
To be sure, some of the contributions are not new. This is the major drawback in the preview edition. For instance, Adebanwi’s “How to provoke a Conversation” was first published in The News magazine of January 2007. Even so, the pungency of the interview between Adebanwi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria’s foremost female novelist, is not lost on the reader, particularly those who missed the encounter five years ago in The News.
Adebanwi’s interview focuses on Adichie’s prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, a story of love, passion and betrayal using the civil war as a backdrop. In one pathetic moment in the book, the author has the General handing out sticks to young conscripts to defend the Biafran cause. Indeed, Adichie’s book shores up Ofeimun’s view in his essay that Biafra’s preparedness to fight the war was not only inadequate but sheer “emotional grandstanding”.
Only the unwise today will accuse the all-powerful marketers of Nollywood films of grandstanding, as Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s contribution, “Transition from Onitsha Market Literature to Home Movies,” shows. They may be rightly accused of dabbling into a profession they know little or nothing about. Yet, they call the shots, and also bankroll films. One by one, some of them tell their stories to Maxim from their 51, Iweka Road operational base in Onitsha.
Most revealing is that those who laid the very foundation of the industry were not professionals as such. One is described by Maxim as an “incipient failure”, on account of not making it to university to study law as planned. Some were paid pittance and movies were often produced on shoe-string budgets. Maxim traces a similar history of the literature that preceded the movies. Despite its uncertain and wobbly birth, Maxim writes that the future of Nollywood is limitless in an interview with one of best African American film producers, Sharifa Johka, who spent years studying Nollywood.
How can the first edition of Lagos Review of Books and Society not have anything on or about the city by the lagoon? Excerpts from Kaye Whiteman’s forthcoming book “Lagos: Struggling for the Spirit of the City” reminds readers of what the city once looked like under colonial rule: how the British administrators encouraged segregation by creating reserved areas for their citizens; how colonial civil servants not only looked down on natives but ensured there was a glass ceiling concerning employment. There were few exceptions like Herbert Macaulay.
There is hardly any of the contributions that won’t pique the reader’s interest. If you are a fan of the older writers, say, Achebe or Soyinka, there are offerings from both. With no contribution himself, there are two reviews of a recent biography of John Pepper Clark Bekederemo written by Adewale Maja-Pearce. Judging by the reviews – Adesokan’s and Ikhide’s – the project ended badly for the biographer. To Adesokan, it was an incongruous pairing from the start. To Ikhide, Maja-Pearce’s pecuniary concerns ruled out other motives.
For readers interested in poetry, there are quite some choice selections in this issue. There is a lamentation for what was once the pride of Africa; Mogadishu, a place of attraction for Italian expats and soldiers back in the days and which is now a haven for bandit rulers, religious zealots and undernourished pirates. Lyrical and satirical, Adebanwi’s “Mogadishu Blues” traces the port city’s rise and fall through the ages, and wonders what will become of it in the end: “Like a lady,/ Mogadishu waits for the dawn/ of a new order, not of bullets/ but of ballot boxes,/ waiting for a voice, for votes,/ rallies of citizens, for citizens and by citizens.”
Lesego Rampolokeng and Okello Oculi, are two poets that their Nigerian readers will enjoy. Rampolokeng, a South African poet, combines satire, humour and wit in his “Longo Dongoa in the Cracks” while Oculi, a Ugandan poet and novelist, evokes the wildlife of East Africa in his poem, “Kambarage and Kilimanjaro”. Though shorter, Ismaila Bala’s “Sunday Morning” is as irreverent as it is full of unexpected windfall, a loud knock on his door on a Sunday morning (worship time for Christians) announcing the arrival of a fetching maid!
The cognoscenti in Lagos will no doubt feel the same way about Ofeimun’s Lagos Review of Books and Society. Though long-awaited, it came most unexpectedly. With the team of writers on hand to help produce the journal, the intellectual might of the contributing editors, coupled with Ofeimun’s undying love for literature, it is not hard to see that readers will have a sumptuous dish to feast on for a long time to come.