The just concluded maiden edition of the Kaduna Book and Art Festival was a gathering of literary giants, writes Peter Uzoho

The maiden edition of Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST) has just ended but those who missed the four-day programme would be yearning and counting down for the second edition. Kaduna, with its peace and serene atmosphere, not minding its security challenges, attracted accomplished and budding authors, filmmakers, novelists, poets, visual artists, and journalists to the state to participate in the programme.

Guests in their numbers, from within and outside Nigeria registered their presence. Corporate organisations in love for education and arts were on ground to show their support – in words and action. Students of literature (both secondary and tertiary), and indeed, lovers of books and arts made their way to the venue to see and hear from their literary idols. Traditional rulers and chiefs in their normal regalia showed up. Beautiful Fulani maidens were everywhere and, really, added more glamour to the ‘feast’.

The festival was organised by the Book Buzz Foundation under a strong public private partnership (PPP) arrangement with the government of Kaduna State and the Gusau Institute, the first of its kind in the state. The festival was aimed at providing a safe and conducive avenue for thinkers and creatives to tell Nigeria’s stories without inhibitions. It was also targeted at helping to anatomise the many crises in the country, especially, as it concerned the Northern part of the country. As obtained in such festivals, KABAFEST was headlined by a Sudanese author and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Leila Aboulela, who is also the author of ‘The Kindness of Enemies’, a book featured in one of the sessions.

Activities began in full swing with the opening ceremony which took place at the Arewa House, a venue that has gained more popularity among Nigerians and foreigners for the right reasons. Unfortunately, it was at the Arewa House that the meeting of a coalition of Northern Youths that issued the October 1 quit notice to Igbos residing in the North was held. With this in mind, attendees initially had feelings of anxiety and fear of the unknown, but this was doused by the heavy presence of security agents mobilised by the state government to ensure seamless peace and order throughout the duration of the programme.

The governor of the state, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, who was on board with his team, gave a nod to the commencement of the event by officially opening it. This was after the Bazobe Cultural Troupe; a Hausa/Fulani dance group, would perform as a show of welcome and hospitality to their visitors. Poetry performances by Titilope Sonuga, Maryam Bukar Hassan, Efe Paul Azino and Aminu Alan Waka were rendered and savoured; even as singer and multi-instrumentalist, Jeremiah Gyan, would climb the stage, clutching his beloved guitar, thrilled the audience as he led out one of his beautiful tunes. Ingratitude would not be said of the Festival Director and Founder, Book Buzz Foundation, Ms Lola Shoneyin, as she did the needful, welcoming all in attendance for coming, through her welcome address and, that was accompanied by goodwill messages from other partners. The opening ceremony also featured the display of a documentary on activities of the Yasmin El-Rufai Foundation, a brainchild of the First Lady of Kaduna State, Hadiza el-Rufai.

Screams filled the hall, noise rent the air, walls quaked and claps overtook the atmosphere as a foremost Nigerian writer and septuagenarian, Tabo Yari, was given an uncommon ovation, after an alternate reading of his citation by the duo of Denja Abdullahi, and Wale Okediran. A Lifetime Achievement Award was conferred on him for his immense contribution to fatherland through his writings, which was presented to him by Kaduna State governor, el-Rufai.

With the ceremony officially opened by the Kaduna State governor, a declamation contest involving 20 secondary schools in Kaduna State ensued, moderated by Shoneyin under the eagle eyes of an impartial panel of judges. Queen Amina College, Kaduna, finally emerged winner having outclassed their competitors in the contest and were rewarded with one tablet each, and a mini library for their school.

Activities at the Arewa House came to a closed after the contest, resulting to mass movement of people to the Gusau Institute, where all other sessions for the festival were held. From the main hall to the overflowing room, book stand to photo stand, to media room, the institute was beehive of happenings; there was no dull moment at all.

In a book lounge the following day, Dami Ajayi hosted two young writers, Edify Yakusak, Lawyer and author of ‘After They Left’, and Maryam Bobi, joint winner of ANA Prose Prize 2015 and author of ‘Bongel’. The focus of the discussion was ‘Finding Your Voice in a Dark Room’. Both talked about incidence of early child marriage, particularly in Northern Nigeria which is the main theme in Bobi’s ‘Bongel’, and the effects of the insurgency in the North, which Yakusak explored in her novel, ‘After They Left’.

Bobi posited that poverty and illiteracy were the major causes of early child marriage rampant amongst the people in the North. According to her, the upper-class uses the lapses created by poverty and illiteracy to take advantage of the poor. “I come from a part of the country where sadly, girls are married off early,” she said, adding “The patriarchal structure of the North is cause of the illiteracy of the women. Once the literacy level of women improves, it will reduce suppression of their rights.” She sees the implementation of the Child’s Right Act as the solution to the problem. However, Bobi noted that the passage of the bill was being delayed because government “is still trying to adjust it to suit the cultural realities of the country.” She observed that the reason why such crimes as murder, rape and the likes, against vulnerable people in Nigeria kept going on was because the perpetrators were from the upper-class.

Speaking on the crisis in the North, Yakusak sees it as a massacre and not a war. “It’s not a war because if it’s a war, it’s understandable- people will die, there will be victims. But what is happening in the North is a massacre, a cleansing and genocide. She stated that government needed to be more focused in handling the situation. Yakusak revealed that she was inspired to write the book ‘After They Left’ because people were being killed in the crisis and nothing was done about it.

Contributing, a member of the audience, Saudatu Mahdi, suggested recourse to psycho-socio support as part of the solutions for early child marriage in the North. While concurring that poverty was part of the causes, she added that religious misrepresentation was also responsible. However, refuting Yakusak’s position that nothing was being done about the problems, Maldi stated that a lot was being done but there was under-reportage of those efforts by the media.

Later at night, Kenneth Gyan’s film, ‘Blood and Henna’, was screened and Pearl Osibu engaged the young talented filmmaker and director in a discussion about the film. Produced in 2012, the film, a political love story, is set around the 90s (period of military dictatorship) in Nigeria, fraught with economic, political and rebellious turmoil. It tries to narrate the ordeal of the 1996 Pfizer Clinical Test in Kano during the outbreak of meningitis which resulted in the deaths of many.

Discussing the challenges of publishing in Northern Nigeria, Richard Ali hosted Nur’din Busari and Professor Zakari Muhammed to dissect the issue in a panel discussion session. While noting the opportunities in publishing especially in this digital era, Busari revealed that the North does not consume its products in terms of books, pointing out that they rather patronise books from the South. He listed lack of electricity and funds, religious and cultural misrepresentation as challenges in publishing in the North.

He also said: “There are no children books written by Northern authors who were born and bred in the North- people who will tell the stories of their root. We are looking forward to have this happen.” Busari also revealed to the audience’s shock that Northern women read more than their men. For Mohammed, the issue of culture continues to be a problem and nothing seems to be done in that area. He sees the revelation that women in the North read more than their men as a good development, noting that it is a way of helping to empower their women and liberate them from the suppression of Northern patriarchy.

In a panel discussion on ‘Religious Violence: Picking Up the Pieces, activist and writer, Chitra Nagarajan, hosted a four-man panel made up of the Editorial Board Chairman of THISDAY Newspapers, Segun Adeniyi; Author, Andrew Walker; a Lecturer of African Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Maiduguri, Dr. Abubakar Othman; and Associate Professor of Feminist Literary Criticism and Theatrical Approaches at the University of Maiduguri, Razinatu Mohammed.

Othman while recounting the religious violence in the North and alleged government’s inability to address the problem, said “Nigeria is a failed state.” He explained that since there was nothing people could look up to for help, they had to take recourse to religion. “If you can’t come to your Governor or your President or your Senator for salvation, ultimately you come to God and that is religion.”

He explained that over the last 16 years of the crisis, gender was never an issue as there was hardly a distinction between men and women. Even as government boasts of decimating Boko Haram, Othman said the insurgents were gracefully edged out of the Sambisa Forest instead of being cleared.

“I come from Madagali in Adamawa State. Madagali is still under the control of the Boko Haram miscreants, not minding the fact that they have been flushed out of the Sambisa Forest called Ground Zero. But the Boko Haram miscreants in the Sambisa Forest were actually gracefully edged out of the Sambisa Forest instead of being cleared. They were gradually edged out, gradually escorted out of the Sambisa Forest. To where? They were let lose into the society and the safest area for them was Madagali. Madagali is in the centre of nowhere. Politically, it is in Adamawa State. But it is at the tail of Adamawa State,” he said.

Othman said his young daughter and other children now play with guns rather than toy because their generation “is a gun slinging generation.” “She got used to it now. Children in Maiduguri now don’t play with toys, they play with guns. They play military hide and seek, and I encourage them to do so. I said to them, learn the military tactics. The society that we are facing is a society that has been militarised psychologically, physically and politically. If you are afraid of the gun…I said learn to overcome the fear of the bomb blast. Learn how to handle the gun. Your generation is a gun slinging generation. So if you don’t do it you will miss it. So I’m now teaching them the psychology of the military,” he explained.

Contributing, Mohammed attributed the proliferation of churches and Islamic sects; political and cultural structure of the Nigerian society as causes of the crisis, pointing out that it was not so in the 80s. However, she singled out poverty as the “major cause of the great violence that erupted in the North-east. So with the level of poverty; with the low level of education; all these put together bring about violence,” she noted.

She corroborated Othman’s position saying, “Nigeria is a failed state. Look at what is happening in the Senate with the recall process of Senator Dino Melaye. The Deputy Senate President (Senator Ike Ekweremadu) stood up in the Senate and said ‘don’t mind them, they have already failed’. Can you imagine our lawmakers calling a lawful process by the voters a waste of time? Why will there be no violence in Kogi State. They are trying to recall him and it is his brother Senators that have refused that to happen. They make laws and they don’t allow the laws to work. So there must be violence in the country.”
Also speaking, Adeniyi said the same crisis going on in the North was also happening in the South, citing the Niger Delta militancy and kidnapping, especially, the recent kidnapping of school children in Lagos.

He described the level of violence currently going on in the country as “scary”, adding that, it is the same pattern in both the North and South. “And when you look at it there is a socio-economic dimension to it. It’s everywhere. Young people everywhere are carrying guns. There is no violence that you can talk about in the North that you cannot talk about in the South.

Kidnappers are everywhere. It is difficult to go to school in Lagos now. You have a situation where kidnappers actually go to classrooms and carry children. Even at the height of Boko Haram we didn’t hear of that kind of violence. But that is what is obtained in several theatres of the country now. This issue of violence is not a Northern problem. It’s a Nigerian problem and we have to deal with it as a national problem,” Adeniyi said.

He stated that failure of government in dealing with some of the issues was the reason for the problem. “This culture of impunity has been with us over a decade. After every crisis whether religious, communal or whatever, there will always be a commission of inquiry and that will be the end of it. Nobody will publish; there will be no sanction. Nothing will happen until there will be next crisis, and you have this again and again. When you have that kind of situation, it will only embolden these entrepreneurs of violence.”

Reacting to a point made by a member of the audience who made a reference to messages he had been receiving on Whatsapp about the health of the President, Adeniyi advised that people should delete such messages when posted. “When you see them, delete them. And I believe that the social media has become a danger.”

However, Walker has a different opinion. “Let me say very quickly that I disagree that Nigeria is a failed state. It is not. I believe that Nigeria is a state that is working but only for a few. So, you still have all the apparatus of a functioning state but the system is not working for the majority of the people.”

In picking up the pieces, (suggestions on how best to address the problems), Walker enjoined Nigerians to be more responsible citizens by paying more taxes. He said that’s the only way they can challenge the government and make them accountable to them. “Individuals, you need to pay more taxes. I know no one wants to do that. The only way you can make them responsible to you is by paying your taxes.”

Mohammed on her part urged the government to be more responsive to the people. “They should be more honest in the execution of policies. In the educational sector, they are dishonest; they are not being truthful to the populace. Health-wise they are not honest; our roads are bad; there is no power. Let the government respect its population.”

For Othman, “If the country can guarantee us that this is our country we will all be loyal to it and love it as our country. Let’s try to forget the past and look up to something that will hold us together and, that we can call our own. But for now, the hunter’s war song is more assuring, more melodious to my ear than the national anthem.”

According to him, the song was used by hunters, mobilised by former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar to dispel Boko Haram from their town when Abubakar saw that his business in the area was being targeted by the insurgents. “But for that to happen leadership must be responsible. We must have hope and confidence in the government and in the system so that we can love the country.”

The festival headliner and Sudanese writer, Leila Aboulela, was engaged in an interview session by Kola Tubosun, where they discussed her book, ‘The Kindness of Enemies’. Apart from Sudan, her country, and the UK, Aboulela explained that Nigeria and India are the other countries she had read more literature from. “So I was so excited to come and quite happy to be here,” she said.

According to her, the book would have been written earlier than it was written but was because as a historical book, it needed a lot of research to be able to achieve its purpose. She said the purpose of the book ‘The Kindness of Enemies’ was to in a way “response to the terrorism that is happening in the name of Islam. The most important part is to create a distance between the concept of Jihad as a self-defense and the violence that is happening.”

Advising on the concept of Jihad and its practice by adherents, Aboulela said: “They have to be sincere to themselves; they have to be true to their values and not being hypocritical. And they have to be matured in that they take on battles they can win and not enter in a battle you’re going to lose because there is courage in that. The courage is that you choose your battles and you gauge your strength properly. And I think a lot of young people make this mistake. If you overestimate yourself or underestimate yourself you’re so making a mistake either way. She revealed that “Natasha is the most challenging character in the novel.”