Yemi Ogunbiyi: Consolidating Scholarship

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It might seem cliché to say Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi has got the Midas touch in intellectual business but a peek into his publishing company in Lagos, Tanus Communication revealed how his personal contribution to knowledge economy in Nigeria is remarkably golden. Yinka Olatunbosun reports

The destination is Computer Village, Ikeja; a community that’s known for the sales and distribution of electronic gadgets and accessories. The last thing you might be inspired to do when you arrive there is read. Blaring sounds from speakers, frantic sellers in hot pursuit of patronage, pushers of fully-loaded wheel barrows and throngs of customers leave a little less than a leg room to move around freely as you commute from one point to another. In contrast to that world outside, the walls inside the Tanus Communications building in the heart of Ogunbiyi community protect the editors, graphic designers, proof readers and the CEO, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi from the noise and other environmental disturbances.

You can sense that sanity from the entrance to the building and in the way Ogunbiyi’s table is organised. But you may not say the same of his itinerary that is justifiably volatile. After several weeks of rescheduling, no thanks to this reporter’s forgetfulness on one of such occasions, Dr. Ogunbiyi spared about an hour to talk about his work, his vision for education and a few but well-intended digressions into prevailing socio-economic situations in the country.

He is a quiet but huge contributor to Nigeria’s knowledge economy. And that did not start with the printing and publishing of school textbooks. After leaving his job as a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), his sojourn in the academics was not protracted. But he left an indelible mark in the field of drama and theatre one that this reporter spotted as a student with a mandate to read Ogunbiyi’s Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book every semester. Unfortunately, the book was not available at many bookshops. The few students who had copies walked with high shoulders. The university had just a copy which was perpetually lent out to students. To cut the story short, the first thing this reporter asked Ogunbiyi was the whereabouts of this elusive book – a compulsory read. His instantaneous action was to ask for the reprinted copy of the book to be brought; and after appending his autograph, he presented it to this reporter who wished there was a photographer on standby to capture that gratifying moment.

“We now have two more chapters; one on new Nigerian playwrights and a brilliant chapter by Biodun Jeyifo on Nollywood,” he enthused. “I am really amazed that the book has such a staying power and such demand for it. Two of my students, Prof Coker and Prof Awam at NYU still use the book. Unfortunately, the book has not made me wealthy. But if I can sell more from the new edition, maybe I can make some money. When I went to see Ola Rotimi 20years ago in Port Harcourt he asked me to reissue the book. He told me then that the book was a very important one. I didn’t know how much it was. So, he called one of the students and said, ‘Go and bring me Ogunbiyi’ and I was surprised to know that that was how the book was called.’’

That was how the first visit to the office went. Of course, later that night, the reporter was torn between finishing the newly acquired book and Ogunbiyi’s interview with Richard Ikiebe. The latter was easier. At least from it, it was gathered that after his academic years, he joined Daily Times, an intellectual hub that birthed the likes of the late Dele Giwa, Dr. Dele Cole and Chief Segun Osoba who handed over to him as the Managing Director.

“It was purely an accident of some sort when I left my job at Daily Times,’’ he began, after informing this reporter that in his days as a journalist, he had executed high-profile interviews with Shimon Perez, Thomas Sankara, Kenneth Kaunda, Kamuzu Banda and Rajiv Ghandi. It couldn’t be any easier to hold his gaze after dropping such names. And the smile on his face showed that he must have enjoyed the job. So, this reporter got more curious as to why he left. Being at the helm of affairs at Daily Times during military rule was not a walk in the park for him or anyone.

“I decided to start an advertising agency,” he recalled. “But in between that, I was able to start a corporate publishing outfit meant for corporate books. But gradually, I found myself getting more interested. Some years ago, Donald Duke became the Governor of Cross River State and asked me to print some school textbooks for the state. I had never done school books before then. I was only printing corporate books. I said no. But he persuaded me. And there would surely be a payback time, he said jokingly.

“I took up the challenge. It was a huge contract and I couldn’t find a press that could do that for me. I then found a press in India and they did the printing for me. When the books came back and I saw them, I thought they looked very nice so I suggested that Duke should sell the books to other state government since the books were all based in the federal government curriculum. He said he didn’t think anyone would buy those books from him. I persuaded him by telling him that I would market the books for him for other states and that we would share the profit. He said, ‘Well, good luck to you. I don’t think you are going to make any headway’. That year, we sold about half a million text books to other states by merely selling those books that belonged to Cross River State.”

On his return to his office, he reflected on how he could make good fortune from selling textbooks to other states. And that he did. The textbooks on his stable, no fewer than 450, are spread across core and entrepreneurial subjects in the school curriculum by federal government including history, computer studies, civic education, catering craft, woodwork, store-keeping, garment-making, plumbing and pipe-fitting, painting and decoration, French and Nigerian indigenous languages. The Tanus Special Classic Series parades amazing folktales such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Tom Sawyerr, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers amongst others.

“State governments will ask for these books and if we don’t have them that will be too bad so we make them. I think today we have between 45 and 50 entrepreneurial subjects in our stable. I have decided to keep producing textbooks only although there is a lot of pressure on us to do more than just that. For now we are stuck with school textbooks.”

On his part, knowledge economy can be improved in Nigeria by ensuring continuous training for teachers and equipping the existing institutions. He argued that with the exception of Rivers State, under Gov. Rotimi Amaechi, no state government has invested as much as the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo did.

“UNESCO says 30percent of our budget should be dedicated to the educational sector. I don’t think any state comes close even to 20%. Also government should ensure that those who teach are well-paid. A primary school teacher in the US earns almost as much as the university lecturer in the US,” he said.

To complement the effort of teachers in schools, Tanus Books Limited is producing school textbooks are some of the best in the system, in terms of production quality and content. But when schools hire incompetent teachers, the pupils are less inspired to read. As Ogunbiyi pointed out, corruption has seeped into the educational sector, and merit no longer counts in securing jobs.

The fear that electronic books may bury physical books with time was also allayed by Ogunbiyi, who had recently attended the London Book Fair where the future of physical books was contemplated.

“A few years ago, they all thought that e-books will take over. It was thought also that newspapers will go extinct and everyone would go online. But that has not happened. In fact, what has happened in the last one year will surprise you. The figures have shown that for some strange reasons, people are going back to textbooks and books. And the sale of e-books dropped sharply worldwide. I don’t know what is responsible for that but I think people prefer to handle a book again. I have always preferred the physical books to e-books. But we make e-books. Only Lagos state has demanded for our e-books. No other state has shown much interest. Yes, Governor Amaechi invested in e-books. The problem of power is one of the issues facing the e-books patronage. I think e-books will stay but they will not in any way diminish the physical books.”

The cost of production may be challenging for a publishing firm today but with favourable policies in place by the government, it is hoped that raw materials needed for production would be procured at reasonable cost. Another lingering challenge is piracy. That is why Tanus Books Limited has limited the outlets for the sale of their books and the copies commissioned by state governments bear induplicable seals.

“We use outlets to market our books but our own textbooks are marketed through our team in various offices such as in Port Harcourt, Abuja, Calabar and Enugu. We target university book stores with the Drama and Theatre book. We also have a marketing outlet in New York,” he explained.

Today, some lecturers at various Nigerian universities recommend their own personal books, however poorly-produced, as compulsory reads. Sometimes, they insist that students come to class with the books. For Ogunbiyi, whose book became a compulsory read only after he left the academics, that sounded quite surprising.

“That is a pity. When I taught at the university, I didn’t even do that. My book was not even on the list of compulsory reads. I think lecturers are exploiting the scarcity of books. The fact that there are no books around to buy has forced students to buy the available ones. That shouldn’t be the case. Class discussions should provoke the interest in reading further. State governments should have libraries. We should fund education.”

A tour of Tanus work pool and offices followed the discussion. His team members worked assiduously, and occasionally glanced up at this reporter. One of them, in charge of Islamic Religious Knowledge text book, explained how the transliterations of Arabic text are cross-checked to ensure that the final copies are error-free.

Generally, the books, highly colourful, are designed to attract young children. And as they advance in age, their books get less colourful.

Though the Tanus building belonged to Dr. Ogunbiyi’s late mother, he has made the edifice a knowledge brewery, distilling works worth reading while constructing a legacy that will outlive its owner.