Title: On his Turf: Collected Interviews on Arts, Literary and cultural Administration (Volume II)
Author: Denja Abdullahi
Publisher: Something for Everybody Ventures, Lagos
Reviewer: Professor Mabel Evwierhoma
An interview is a question and answer session employed to elicit responses, views and opinions on relatable and significant matters posed by the interviewer. This reviewer therefore commences this session with some queries. What was the ‘overriding principle’ at the foreground of Denja Abdullahi’s administration as president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)? This query hovers around the reader as he/she encounters the collection of interviews in ‘On his Turf.’ Two other major questions refer here: Are there writers who consciously weave sincerity, passion and unwavering hope with fervour into a tapestry that delights the reader? Should any writer-leader be deliberate about his/her superintendence over a group or organization? The answers definitely are in the affirmative and they reflect Denja Abdullahi’s sod of leadership of ANA, the apex literary body in Nigeria. The author agrees that self-assessment, rather than peer review seems immodest, but he declares to Ramalan: “you can seek ANA members honest opinion about our administration” (Pp26-27). The autobiographical impulse is clear in the book, especially as we see pointers to the circumstances of his birth, nurture and familial conditions. From its dedication to his elder brother Alhaji Abdulmumini Denja Abdullahi, it is evident that the author of ‘On his Turf’ is connected to folks who render service to the community. As we pay particular attention to the contents of the book, this reviewer makes bold to aver that the interviews are evidence that Denja led in different areas, served and continued to create narratives that intersect the human condition and creativity. The interviews first appeared in conventional and online newspapers and one was published in a journal earlier. In all, the breakdown of the artistic interrogations faced by the author from art and creativity journalists, are two in 2019, which constitute the least. The periods of interview as chronicled in the book are:
2016: March, August, October
2017: August 18 and 22,
September, 1, 14 and 15,
and October 15;
2018: April (twice), March, and
2019: June and July.
The opening interview is a tribute to the founding father of ANA, Professor Chinua Achebe and as a marker discussion, with Yemi Adebisi, it sets the target for most of what the Denja Abdullahi-led executive was to focus on during its tenure. A major aspect was the ANA land in Mpape, Abuja. This interview highlights the executive’s accountability sheet to which his manifesto of ‘The Pragmatic Deliverables’ is also tied. The next interviews conducted by Ibrahim Ramalan span issues on database of members, the intersection between ANA presidency, the authors role as cultural administrator and serving public servant, fulfilment of his campaign promises as well as the disputations within the ANA group. The ability to be frank in his responses channels the reader to pursue after commitment in service to the group that he leads. The strategic committees to turn around the fortunes of ANA and the internationalization bid were well-marshalled out to Ramalan. The dialogue with Evelyn Osagie further affirmed the planned intervention of the Denja Abdullahi leadership in ANA, most pertinently in the attempt to establish the impact of ANA “on the development of literature in the country and the continent” (p. 20). The author’s response to this enquiry is informative: “ANA through its numerous and constant programmes and projects has raised the banner of Nigerian Literature and has been an Association to emulate by writers in other countries of Africa” (p. 20). Nevertheless, the challenges of publication and distribution costs, piracy are yet to be surmounted. One should however state that Out of his Turf is an absolute scorecard for this executive in the areas of ‘A-Book-A-Child’ project’ (p. 21), that calls to mind the effectiveness of the Nigeria Book Policy where children’s literature is concerned (p. 33). Where literary prizes are in focus, the interview with Adeola Ogunrinde shows Denja Abdullahi’s scathing castigation of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for Literature: He affirms, “I was one of the fiercest critics of the NLNG prize right at its inception in 2004” (p. 35). He continues: “How much has NLNG invested in the arts and book industry in the country beyond doling out winning sum each year? The artist is a critic and primer for any agenda set to advance society. The proof is in the query of established systems by Denja Abdullahi, in a bid for the literary community to progress. Apart from the NLNG, the literary festivals and their fecund ways of birthing artists are in his opinion projects that should be ‘‘self-sustainable and should not be tied to the benevolence of an individual or a government in power” (p. 37). The debate around the Abuja Writers Village and the endowment fund for the arts retain prominent places in the book, as almost all the interviewers had one or two issues to question about them. Victor Nze asks the question pertaining to the land last in his interview, but it continues to generate disputes in the polity of writers (Pp 45-6). Edozie Udeze’s interview also dwells solely on the ANA land (Pp 85-90). One other hornet’s nest stirred by the author is the gargantuan National Library which he refers to as museum. Here, Anote Ajelourou draws the ire of the author who condemns and at the same time derides the government he is part of, for shirking in its duty to provide books, libraries, the latter as “sanctuaries for knowledge and the hallowed spaces where you can still go to think and write and come out with a sense of achievement” (p. 52). Writing is a sphere for knowledge production could also transcend to one for monetary profit. Henry Akubuiro, highlights the foray into the economics of writing in the interview with Denja Abdullahi. Boastful as the assertion may be, ‘We are set to Make more Millionaires’ is a caption that may alarm and encourage at the same time, though much focus is not diverted to it in ‘On his Turf.’ Of crucial note is the deserving attention that academic publications should get and the market for books in Nigeria. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s interview with the author is one of the longest in the book and covers an array of discursive matters like an assessment of his tenure, which had been earlier asked by other colleagues of his in the book. The Nigeria Writers Series as imprint of ANA, royalties for authors published in the stable of ANA, hosting conventions that reflect value for money and input of other resources, and grants received.
The interviews so far interrogate and boldly ascertain the value of creativity on the side of the government and the governed. The interview conducted by Onyekachi Onuoha, throws up the novel chance for Nigerian writers to broadcast their written or oral works in digital form as the cybernetic space is yet to be explored by them. The author advocates that this should be taught also. Putting the author on the spot, Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom takes him across time and the local and international space to focus mainly on the author’s poetry and his author’s leadership position in ANA. The interviews that bring up the rear of examination session with Denja Abdullahi are with Edozie Eze, and three others, the crux of whose intervention was the Yusuf Ali Literary campaign which commenced in 2012, with a yearly grant to ANA. Of the grant the author declares: “Many Yusuf Alis are not here today because people …are ignorant of where they can leave indelible memories for generations unborn” (p. 111). The heated poet continues “The corporate bodies are not different; they are forever in search of profit without thinking of responsibility to their communities”. He continues in the livid manner: “They commit huge funds to beauty pageants and Ajasco dance shows on the streets but avoid the theatre, film, literature and the likes because of their short-sighted thinking that nothing will be gained in return” (p. 111-112). This is a call to Corporate Nigeria for responsible duty and accountability to Nigerians. The next three journalists AbdullHafeez Oyewole, Nathaniel Bivan and Ibrahim Ramalan (Ramalan for the third time), focus on the endowment for the Arts, counsel for young writers, hosting rights, the National Examination Council (NECO) Teen Prize won by Ernest Ogunyemi and the politicization of the prize. Arguably, Denja Abdullahi’s angry outburst against Corporate Nigeria applies also to public institutions in the country, NECO being a case in point. Merit serves veritable causes across times and seasons and cannot be faulted when applied to sundry situations. The banishment of money, ethnicity and religion as basis for electing its stewards and other officers or granting hosting rights for ANA conventions become the crux of the last interview in the book. It functions as an assessment interview used to cap the views expressed by Denja Abdullahi in ‘On his Turf: Collected Interviews on Arts, Literary and cultural Administration (Volume II).’ One declares here that Denja Abdullahi must always be held accountable for the opinions expressed therein to gauge if he shall veer from them several years from now. Challenges are meant to be prevailed over and that he faced many of such during his tenure should not be refuted. What matters to the evaluators after his tenure is his score card. This book is certified as such.
In all, Denja Abdullahi has constructed a historical document with which the progress of his tenure would be tracked. It is worthy to note that his text sets the schema for his successors in office. Other leaders who would want to profile their goals, input and output in service have a trail to follow on Denja Abdullahi’s ‘turf’. One only hopes that the critical standpoints of his on the administration of culture would not draw punitive responses from his bosses in the sector. That ANA belongs to all writers is a sense of ownership that should be underscored by every leadership committee. He has given highlights of his next step after disembarking from the ANA leadership carriage, which thankfully, did not hit any roadblock.