‘Why ABU arts festival failed to happen this year’

Muhammad Gulani is the Creative Director of the Ahmadu Bello University Arts Festival (ABUFEST).
Muhammad Gulani is the Creative Director of the Ahmadu Bello University Arts Festival (ABUFEST).

Muhammad Gulani is the Creative Director of the Ahmadu Bello University Arts Festival (ABUFEST). He is a final year Archaeology student of the university and author of a collection of short stories titled ‘The Dream and other Stories.’ Here, he talks about how the festival was unable to take place this year, the guest line-up and more. Excerpts:

Bookshelf: What would you say prompted you to found the Ahmadu Bello University Arts Festival (ABUFEST) in 2017?

Muhammad Gulani: It was inspired by the first Kaduna Book and Arts Festival which took place in 2017. We found the discussions to be very important and we also needed to have such discussions. So we wanted to replicate it.

Bookshelf: What calibre of people did you invite in previous editions and how successful was it?


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Gulani: In 2017 we brought people like Abdullahi Ismaila, author of ‘Harvest of Hatred,’ and then in 2018 we brought people like Sada Malumfashi, Sumayya Ja’eh, and Hadiza Isma El-Rufai for book chats. We also had a poetry session with Hauwa Saleh and an art fair where we invited students who were good in painting or sketching to showcase their work. People appreciated this and bought their artworks.

Every year our plan is to grow bigger, so this year we invited Usman Shamaki, TJ Benson, Fakhrriyah Hashim and several more. But it didn’t take place.

Bookshelf: What was the response like in those two editions? How did students of ABU respond to the event?

Gulani: Within the school I believe we have been able to make an impact. It has been great. In 2017 when we started, we had over fifty people, and a hundred and sixteen people in 2018. Before the postponement and cancellation in 2019, we had about 260 people who had registered and were ready to attend. We get emails where writers, singers and other artists inquire as to how they can be supported, or asking to perform at ABUFEST. I believe we have been able to create a stage that is worthy of people’s admiration.

Bookshelf: How were you able to address the issue of funding?

Gulani: The Nigerian British Council said a festival without money is like a plate of jollof rice without pepper. We sent proposals to government agencies, but there was slow response, so we went to people I like to call the Nigerian patrons of the arts. Also, individuals like Mrs. El-Rufai, Lola Shoneyin and Kadariya Ahmed. They saw the legitimacy of what we wanted to do and our track record. Our host in the university is the Creative Writers’ Club, established in 1974 by Sir Abubakar Gimba. They have been very supportive.

A lot of people who have been in the literature and art scene know of the Creative Writers’ Club. So, having the backing of such a club as the festival’s host gives it legitimacy. In 2019 we partnered with JAIZ Bank, so corporate sponsors have also indicated interest. Going forward we would like to explore such opportunities, including that with individuals.

Bookshelf: So far how would you say the festival has impacted the university community?

Gulani: I usually tell the story about Hauwa Saleh, an amazing poet whom we brought in 2018 to perform at ABUFEST. After her performance, we started getting calls from associations we did not even imagine would want poetry as part of their line-up. Imagine the Muslin Society saying they were having a campus discuss and needed poets on board who would perform based on a theme. Some also call asking how to get in touch with poets and writers or getting critiques for their work.

After the festival, we gave out a post-event form, where people got to tell us what they enjoyed about the festival, also things and who they wanted to see. We had a session where people asked how they could become writers or join the Creative Writers’ Club. So, I believe in small victories.

Bookshelf: What prevented the 2019 ABUFEST from holding?

Gulani: The main issue that prevented ABUFEST from holding was that of security. At the festival we intend to create a safe space for conversations, and here in northern Nigeria there are certain conversations that we do not want to have, especially those that have to do with sexuality and individuals. I believe that in northern Nigeria we hardly separate the person from the brand. I heard that from Rahma Sadau, she said there is Rahma Sadau the artist who you see in films, and films have their own make-believe magic. There is also Rahma Sadau as her father’s daughter, who is an individual.

The issue is about differences. Part of the panels we were supposed to have this year 2019, was on the issue of consent. We wanted to talk about sexual violence with the rise of sexual and domestic violence in the university and around northern Nigeria. We believe that there are individual who are pushing this narrative, and in a way the conversation has started. We invited Fakhrriyah Hashim, and Maryam Awaisu among the 27 other guests that we brought to the festival. They have been front runners of the ‘Arewa Me Too’ movement.

People misunderstand the movement and say ‘they are too outspoken, we can’t have them here,’ and just like anything in northern Nigeria, we attach religion to it and say why would you want to talk about something like that? Are you clean or a saint yourself?’ Meaning, if you aren’t you don’t have a write to talk about such issues.

So, because individuals brought religion into the discussion and threatened to disrupt it, we felt we didn’t have that safe space to bring in our guests. As a result of the kind of toxic reaction we got from a certain quarter in the university and the social media space, we didn’t believe we had a safe space. We felt that if we couldn’t guarantee the safety of even one individual among our over twenty guests, we couldn’t have the festival.

Bookshelf: Why didn’t you drop some guests?

Gulani: Other guests felt uncomfortable. Also, we believed it was hypocritical to have a festival where some guests have been denied access and then you come and speak about individuality.

Bookshelf: How was the management able to come in at such a time?

Gulani: The management is very careful. You have an undergraduate population of about fifty thousand students, postgraduates, lecturers and professors. You would expect the university to be very careful about the people they bring and the kind of discussions that are held. That is my idea of them telling us to drop some people.

Bookshelf: What does the future hold for ABUFEST after you graduate?

Gulani: One of the goals of ABUFEST is to create and sustain a platform. The dream starts with creating the platform. We need more platforms because there are very few in Nigeria, especially in the north. We need more for artists to thrive. We hope to hold ABUFEST as long as we can. I like to believe it’s bigger than myself. I am the Creative Director for now. I hope someone would later take the wheels, but for now we will try to sustain it.

Bookshelf: Why was the chosen theme for this year ‘Far from Home’?

Gulani: The theme for last year was ‘The Loud Echoes,’ which implies that where there are few artists, they still make some noise. After that, we accessed our impact and decided that since it’s 2019 and election year, we were going to have panels on writing, with the Chief of Staff and the Governor of Kaduna State on how to promote northern Nigeria and writing. We are far from where we need to be as a region and we need writers to know that their job isn’t just to write and make money, but also to reflect society. So, that is why it’s ‘Far from Home,’ because we are far from where we are supposed to be, and with little victories, we will get there.

Bookshelf: You have a collection of short stories titled ‘The Dream and other Stories.’ What are you working on at the moment?

Gulani: I’m writing another collection titled ‘Stories of Love and Hate.’ I’m trying to explore how we love easily and hate passionately. I am also trying to write a novel, which is harder.

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