I'VE ALWAYS VIEWED THE WORLD THROUGH THE POOR - FEMI OSOFISAN
Professor Femi Osofisan is a renowned dramatist, poet and award winning playwright. Arguably one of the most prolific writers in Africa, Osofisan is also one of the most regularly performed playwrights in Nigeria. The literary giant who was appointed Professor of Drama since 1985 at the University of Ibadan where has spent most of his adult career. He also served as General Manager and Chief Executive of the National Theatre, Lagos before returning to the university.
In addition to his work in the theatre, where he played diverse roles as actor, director, song writer, composer and company leader, Osofisan, whose pen name is Okinba Launko is also an outstanding poet, translator, critic and theorist of literature. He has equally featured as one of the regular columnists in Nigeria's leading newspapers.
Osofisan has written over 50 plays, many of which have been performed in various parts of the world, or commissioned by theatres in Europe and America. He was a Fellow of Interweaving Performance Cultures, International Research Center, Freie UniversitÃ¤t Berlin, Germany (2009).
Shortly before his retirement last September from the University of Ibadan, Sola Balogun and Henry Akuburio engaged Osofisan in a chat, which revealed, among others, his childhood, his foray into literature, his love for books and writing as well as his views about life, politics, family and society in general.
Your works fall into two major categories. You either sympathize with the poor and the less privileged or challenge certain existing traditions. What informed these literary engagements?
The engagement with the poor and the less privileged should, I think, be expected because of my background. I come from the poor so there is no way I can see the world except from that perspective. I mean that I would never have got to where I am today except by luck. You see, the majority of us who started out together did not end well, and not because they were lazy or unintelligent, but mainly because of the unequal arrangement of our society. So essentially I'm quite unhappy, furious in fact, with the iniquities and irresponsibilities of our ruling class. I tend to see the world from the perspective of the under-privileged, of the neglected and the exploited.
Hence I am always out to question the ruling ideology. We have to challenge it because, don't forget, the existing state of things is dictated partly by ignorance, and partly by the wrong orientations we have been given from birth, the superstitions which most of us have swallowed like unalterable truths. A lot of mystifications, a lot of wrong ideas are afloat which are being used to entrance and trap people, so as to keep them in perpetual subservience. So our duty as I see it, is to expose these falsehoods and continuously denounce and subvert them. Remember that nobody at the top would ever voluntarily surrender his privileges. Often for instance, what some people call tradition, or taboo, is just a tissue of fabrications to frighten people away from asking questions, from claiming their rights. And so those of us who have the means and the knowledge must constantly educate our people about the true position of things, and show them the real purpose behind these false ideas, and how to liberate themselves.
As one of the prolific writers of this generation, you have written over 50 plays and published many books! Where do you get your energy from? How easy is it to write books?
It's not easy at all. But I don't think, all the same, that I'm straining myself more than what other people are doing in their different professions. I don't think I'm different from other people; I think it just depends on where each person chooses to direct his or her energy. Some people prefer to spend hours drinking and wining; some give their time to praying at some church or mosque or shrine; others still would rather spend their hours in personal indulgence, womanizing or partying or gossiping. It's a question of what you like to do, what gives you your kick. I usually prefer the company of books and of actors. Reading or writing or working with actors on the stage, these are my own preferred drugs, which I dedicate myself to.
There are 24 hours in a day, and perhaps we sleep for eight of these. That means we have some sixteen hours at our disposal, sixteen whole hours! Even if you then write for just 2 hours out of these every day, that can translate to a considerable amount of writing, you know! And I tell you, there's never a shortage of topics and issues to write about in our society, especially if you have a conscience. The social situation is such that there's always a new crisis every day. And if there is not, that in itself will be a crisis! So it's impossible to be quiet, to be indifferent; you're bound to comment on those crises; to say something about them. And writing has therefore become my own way of contributing to the solution of these crises.
There's that one answer. In addition, you may say that I'm also obsessed by our colonial experience. I can't forget that one of the accusations against us, one of the reasons given by our foreign conquerors to justify their taking away our freedom, was that we did not have a written tradition! That because we did not have any written literature, we were primitive, uncivilized and bestial, and so deserved to be subjugated. Since I was taught that, I have been possessed, incurably I confess, with the mania of filling that alleged void. Writing for me has become a vital necessity, whether poems or plays or fiction or essays, whatever! It is something we must do without fatigue, if only so we are not conquered again, but also so we can keep a tangible memory of what we have been, what we are, and where we are heading. Literature is a marvelous weapon for self-preservation, a lasting monument of cultural identity. That's one of the reasons why I write, why I encourage others also to keep writing.
Between post-modernism and post-colonialism. How would you describe your movement from the Marxist theory to the realistic situation now?
Well, there hasn't been any change; our attitude is still the same. It doesn't matter which approach you use. Injustice is still injustice, hunger is still hunger, and exploitation is still exploitation. So the issue of -isms, whether Marxism or something-else-ism, is just a way of deliberately distorting things. I admit that we've gone through some unfortunate experiences recently in the world that you cannot ignore. I am talking specifically of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the corresponding rise of the capitalist ethos, of the American empire. All these things cannot but matter when you are considering your approach to things. We used to believe that state organizations, state companies, state control of the economy, was preferable to the private ownership of property. But we've now discovered that this can lead to serious problems when you're dealing with human beings. The Soviet revolution became corrupted into a bureaucratic autocracy.
Certain elites grew up and appropriated the gains of the revolution and led the country to the lamentable impasse we witnessed. And that for some people signaled the failure of socialism. How naÃ¯ve! Because of America, we tend to see only the positive sides of capitalism; the enormous energies it releases for instance for creativity in many fields. That is true. But what of the greed it encourages, the looting among the ruling class, the abject exploitation of the poor? All it means, I believe, is that we have to find a balance between the two options. And that's why we've never been dogmatic about any -ism, in spite of what our detractors allege. You don't need any -ism to see the present injustice in our society or to denounce it. The disintegration of the Soviet Union cannot make you, if you have a conscience, justify the continuous exploitation we see around, and the reckless behavior of our legislators.
Look at our economy, how It is almost totally sold to foreign interests. See how we are still senselessly importing, consuming and not producing, how our children are not even thinking anymore of such things as autonomous internal development. We are not producing and yet we are surprised at our crisis of employment. People who prefer to buy foreign things, to go and shop abroad, they are the same people complaining that there is no employment. How do you want to employ people when you prefer to consume what is produced by foreign people? When people cannot find jobs why would crime and violence not increase?
Do you have to be a Marxist to point out these problems? I mean, we are all victims or potential victims, for you can build the biggest house in the neighbourhood, and yet robbers will still come and get you. So what are we doing? We have to re-adjust our society. We have to make it livable for everybody. We have to turn our values back from materialism to simple, humane joys.
In your book of essays entitled Insidious Treasons, you did say that your disagreement with Professor Wole Soyinka at a point led to the discovery of your own style. That the disagreement spurred your own muse. At what point did you think that disagreement was necessary?
Ah, you are talking of several years back now; over 30 years. Today that disagreement is no longer there as such, for Soyinka and the others we criticized have made certain changes in their thinking, just as we too have undergone some changes in our orientation. But 30 years ago, when we started, these differences and disagreements were quite clear and necessary. The literature they produced had certain problems that we pointed out. One of these was the presentation of women, almost invariably as goddesses or strumpets, which we believed was distorted, and ideologically suspect. The issue is that women have always proven themselves to be equal participants in history as the men. They are not just objects, to be used and discarded at will by men; but living beings who can fight and suffer, in the flesh and blood, like men. It was on that basis that I criticized works like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka's Trials of Brother Jero, The Strong Breed and others by the first generation writers. And as a concrete demonstration, I wrote Morountodun. However, in reaction to that, Achebe has since written Anthills of the Savannah, while Soyinka too came up with works like The Beatification of Area Boy, where the gender issue is more equitably treated. So, we have to put these things in perspective.
Another area of disagreement, for me, concerned the issue of ritual scapegoats. Soyinka showed, very cleverly and appropriately, that this was nothing primitive or peculiar to Africa. Ancient communities everywhere had their various rituals to purge society periodically, and all used human or animal scapegoats; so it was nothing wicked or barbaric, as the colonialists claimed. On the contrary, these scapegoats were in fact regarded as communal heroes, as a 'strong breed', in Soyinka's words. So I have nothing against that. But what I object to are the people chosen to play this role. I mean, from our own perspective today, at least since the end of colonialism, all the atrocities we are witnessing are committed by our own black people. In that case, it seems to me obvious that, if there must be sacrifice at all, then we should sacrifice only those who are actually responsible for polluting society, the criminals, the treacherous leaders, the looters of the public purse. These are the people who should be used for the sacrifice, not some innocent people who themselves are in fact victims of these malefactors. If the society really wants change, wants genuine cleansing, then the people who are responsible for these crimes are the ones who should be used for sacrifice. This is all the disagreement with Soyinka's point of view. That's why I call his heroes in such dramas a 'wasted breed' because they have been wrongly earmarked for such tasks.
In some of your plays such as Morountodun, Yungba Yungba and the Dance Contest, and Women of Owu, you seem to have strong values projected by women. What is your position on the portrayal of women in Africa as reflected through your works?
My position is quite simple really-simply that there are good women and there are bad women; just as we have cowardly women and courageous women. So in my plays you'll see a combination of these varieties. In some works by other writers, particularly those before me, you'll find that the courageous women are hardly ever shown at all. It was as if women contributed nothing to history. In the stories we read of battles and victories, few authors remembered the women. Few mentioned the common people either as active agents. The famous dramatist, Bertolt Brecht, has a poem which is one of my favourite poems that graphically captures this distortion of history. It is entitled 'A Worker Reads History'.
He talks of how history sings the greatness of leaders like Alexandra the Great who conquered Egypt and Asia and built a vast empire. But, as Brecht asks, were there no simple workers, such as cooks or cobblers, in his army? Did they play no role in these victories? Why do we think the contributions of those small people are of no significance in the shaping of history? Why do we pay tribute to only the commanders, those who share the booty afterwards? It's the same thing with regard to the women, who probably make the largest sacrifice and suffer most during these wars and struggles. So I just thought that, well, someone should try to correct this invisibility. Someone should fight for the women, highlight particularly the courageous ones, if only just so that our young women growing up can have role models. So that they will know that they too, and not just their brothers or fathers or uncles can do brave things. That being female does not automatically imply weakness, or meekness, or helplessness. This is a strong point in all my writing, why some say my plays are 'revolutionary'.
But it is something I strongly believe in. Thus for instance, in my adaptation of Fagunwa's novel, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale which I made for the now moribund Chams Theatre Series, my original conception was to make one of the hunters a woman. But my director was so worried about this at the time, pointing out that the play was already quite loaded, that I agreed to shelve the idea. But although Fagunwa himself did not state this, we must not forget that we had women hunters too, some as courageous and daring as the male ones we hear about And when you think about it really, there is no reason why one of Fagunwa's heroes, especially the one called Olohun-Iyo, cannot be female! One of these days I will definitely return to this.
For many years, the arts and creative community have suffered from poor funding and lack of relevant resources. Government even proposed an Endowment fund for the Arts in accordance with the National Cultural Policy. But up till today no meaningful funds have been accorded the arts sector, except for the $200million which the Federal Government purportedly gave the sector but which has not been accessed by artistes. What is your reaction to this development?
First of all, I suspect very much that my fellow artistes will soon start a fierce fight among themselves over the money. It always happens that when you put money into something, all it does is stir up discord. All kinds of sharks will surface, baring their teeth; all sorts of crooks will become 'emergency artistes' overnight. So you will see. But seriously, the fact that government is funding the arts is not something spectacular; it is what is done without any fanfare in many countries. It is part of the routine responsibility of governance that a special amount of money be assigned to the arts under various policy instruments, either an Arts Council, an Endowment for the Arts, etc. And they don't put such funds down and then create difficult conditions to access them.
I have always said this, that the government has a duty, a moral and political duty, to support the arts, if they really want to develop the country. Because development is holistic; it is not just the building of roads and hospitals, but also of minds, of the intellectual, spiritual and cultural health of the people. Everything must go hand in hand. And the development of the creative arts is also not the same thing as the development of tourism, as some put it so simplistically. Yes, it is good to link the arts with tourism because tourism also generates money, when it is well handled. You can always use culture to promote tourism. But still, the creative industry is not necessarily for tourism; it is an autonomous activity in itself, and requires careful nurturing.
Take the so-called Nollywood for instance. This is a robust industry that has developed out of private initiative. It has created an enormous market all over the world, and become immensely popular, immensely influential. Which is where the problem arises, because the promoters of Nolywood are not thinking of culture, or of the country's public relations profile. All that concerns them is making money, and by the fastest means possible. Their first and primary concern therefore is to find what themes or methods will bring in the fastest buck. Now we know what the cost of this has been. Their focus almost exclusively on heroes who pursue material wealth ruthlessly, and always through recourse to witchcraft, homicidal violence, and gory money rituals has given the world a very negative, very pernicious image of the Nigerian man and woman. Most people I know are worried about this, and wish to correct this. But how? That has been the question.
A number of individuals, I know, have tried to intervene positively. Some filmmakers, script writers and others have tried to make alternative films. But they have nearly all been hampered by finance. No banks will support them without heavy interests. They are not like the Nollywood producers who make their money from the trade in motor spare parts. And those who have struggled and found the funds have met their waterloo in the battle with pirates!
So here, I think, is where the government can usefully come in. We need to create special banks for the film industry, somewhere potential producers and directors can benefit from low interest rates. We also need the National Endowment Fund, which has long been passed into law, but has never been implemented. There are possibly a hundred other initiatives that the government can take.
For instance, the government can itself become a film producer. It can create an agency for the exclusive purpose of making the kind of films we desire. I am not talking of naively patriotic and propagandist films such as is typical of the ministry of information. What I would do, for instance, if I ran such an agency, is first of all invite well-known story-tellers, the successful writers that we know, and pay them well to give me stories or imagine interesting scenarios. Then notable script writers would next be brought to translate these narratives into film scripts. After this, we would commission reputable directors to make these scripts into film, which we will then sell ourselves. You can see that it will be a costly process, but it won't be more costly than some of the jamborees we arrange at the moment. And I can guarantee to you that all the money will be recovered in full, and with a substantial profit. The box office success of the films of Tunde Kelani for instance is a telling example of what I mean.
The government can also beat piracy with its enormous resources. It possesses the means for instance to produce in such large numbers that the films will be cheap enough to put bootleggers out of business.
Similarly, I have suggested that we can give enormous spur to the book publishing industry by adopting a national book policy. The government would simply undertake to buy 20 to 50 selected titles each year, which it would distribute to say, 50 schools in each state of the republic. Think of the number of books that would mean, and how that would immediately boost the fortunes of publishers! Then, if we decide to pay royalties directly to the authors, just imagine what that would mean to their wallet and their ego! The book industry would immediately be galvanized! But these are just a few ideas through which I feel the government can assist the creative industry, without trying to exert any overt control over the imagination or the freedom of artists.
You once served on the board of the Nigeria Literature Prize organized by the NLNG. Incidentally, no winner emerged in the 2009 edition of the awards despite the fact that nine potential winners were short-listed. This has also made the NLNG prize controversial such that writers no longer feel encouraged to send their entries. Where do you stand in this controversy?
There are so many issues involved. The first thing to clarify, I suppose, is why any award at all for literature? I've said it before, that in my opinion no writer should write for prizes. But at the same time, I have also said that awards are good, that winning one can be helpful. Why this apparent contradiction, you will ask? The major consideration is simply that in our society today finding a publishing outlet for creative work has become an almost impossible undertaking. Publishing is business; the publisher wants not just to break even, but also to make profit also. But we live in an environment where books hardly sell, unless they are on some school syllabus. Hence most aspiring writers have no choice nowadays but to go into self-publishing, with all the risks that entails, and with the lack of proper editing.
Nevertheless, it is not always that self-publishing comes out badly. So those who can manage to win an award in the process should be congratulated. And more of such awards should be encouraged.
It is because of this that I have spent a substantial part of my career working for the establishment of literary prizes. Indeed, there must be few of such prizes now on whose board I have not served at one time or another, and helped to work out the regulations and modalities.
It is the same with the NNLG literature prize. I still believe very strongly in the initial guidelines that we laid out on the first board of which I was a member. And I am convinced that all the controversies that have arisen have come because of patent flaws in the management of the prize. That is why the laws need a review. For instance, for reasons which I don't understand, it has been difficult for the NNLG to explain clearly to the public the difference between the board of the prize, and the panel of judges that actually decides the winners. The latter is completely independent of the former, completely autonomous, but the public is largely unaware of this, that Prof Banjo, the board chairman, only reads out the decision that the panel hands over to him, and does not even know what or who it is until the very night of the awards! You can see how the ignorance of this stipulation has bred unnecessary controversies, even leading to unjustified attacks on the person and integrity of Prof Banjo himself! But perhaps the rules need now to be reviewed on this point, to make the board participate also in the final choices, as we do in the case of the Pat Utomi Prize.
Similarly the initial restriction of the competition to local authors was grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted. All we wanted was just to entice the people at home in Nigeria to write and publish, given the enormous crisis of literacy and publishing that everybody knows we are facing at the moment. We wanted something specifically to galvanize the writers and publishers on the local front, and being mostly established writers ourselves, nothing could have been more ridiculous than to imagine for once that we were jealous of our compatriots abroad who themselves are facing sometimes even harder challenges where they are. So was I really surprised, and shocked, that the NNLG management found it so hard to explain this to those who were complaining, but instead began to feel guilty as if they had committed some crime!
And then some of the decisions have not been implemented. For instance the suggestion that a substantial part of the prize be put aside for the authors to go on reading tours, and that some of the books should be distributed free to schools.
The greatest controversy however has been over the refusal in some years to award the prize, especially after a shortlist has been announced. Of course a shortlist implies that already there is a potential winner. You should not announce a shortlist, when there is no winning candidate. And in such cases the board should just have the candour to say so. There is no embarrassment in that. And perhaps in such cases we should simply agree to split the money into some consolation prizes for the best among the contenders, something to encourage them.
But it is also not enough, it is in fact unfair, for the press or the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) to burst into a storm of fury and unbridled expletives on this matter, because they too are guilty of shirking their duty. At which point did any of them do a critical analysis of their own, to assess the titles that were announced? Why should they be content to just accept the views of the panel without question? If ANA or the press had done their own analysis, perhaps they would have been able to tell us in advance that some, or all, of these books were seriously deficient, and not good enough to win the award. All I see, year after year, are merely celebratory articles, praising all and every work and extolling every mentioned author as a genius! All this must change, even as one admits that controversies about literary awards never end.
As I said, I am one of those who strongly believe that our literature needs these prizes. It is pointless therefore to keep embarrassing the donors needlessly. Errors can, and should be, pointed out without acrimony. The NLNG Prize is a most important and hefty award. It's a lot of money, the sort, frankly, that I can never dissuade any writer from competing for. At least the reasons have to be much worse than the ones mentioned so far. Just imagine the immeasurable boost such a prize would bring to the career and the ego of the lucky winner!
In Nigeria today, there is the issue of insecurity, owing to the resurgence of criminal activities in certain areas. In fact, many have accused the Boko Haram of terrorizing people and trying to destabilise government. What is your view on this?
It is always difficult to make suggestions to the government on issues of security, as you know. Still, the truth remains that the Boko Haram insurrection may be a very extreme instance of violence, but it is not an isolated or uncommon case. Violence is everywhere around us. And the reason for this is the rampant poverty and the pervasive social injustice in our nation. I mean, how do you explain this grotesque anomaly of the legislators we elected paying themselves the extravagant allowances we hear about, when the average worker has had to fight bitterly to earn a mere N18,000 a month? Think also of the millions of unemployed graduates on the streets, the frustrated youths and their desperate parents! Think of the hunger and the frustration everywhere, while a few wallow in brazen affluence, on money looted from our common purse. All these make the situation just ripe for potential explosion, for violent insurrection. We are all sitting on a smouldering keg of gun powder.
As long as all this social injustice exists, you know that terrorism will always be waiting just there at the door. All sorts of fanatics would be there to exploit the situation to fulfill their insane projects. Religious fundamentalism-from both extreme Islamic and Christian sects-will have a fertile breeding ground among us. And so will political discontents and anarchists. For, as our people say, unless there is a crack in the wall, no lizard can crawl into the house. If you create a society like this where there is so much poverty, Boko Haram and similar groups will spring up.
So for me, the solution to this crisis has to begin from a conscious, determined programme to redress the economic situation. The riots in the North may have been instigated by the bad losers at the last elections, but if so, the riots occurred only because there was a ready army of disgruntled elements waiting for someone to recruit them. It is the same kind of situation that led to the so-called 'Arab Spring', and let us watch out that things do not escalate like that here. That is why the imposition of a state of emergency, as some are advocating, cannot solve the problem, can even be self-defeating. We need a more creative approach. Urgently we must put in place policies that will promote social justice, policies that will massively increase employment, create the possibility of hope for the people.
We should ask ourselves the question why, for instance, why these Boko Haram people are still thriving against all the attacks by the security forces? Obviously they have support, they have sympathizers, from a large part of the populace. And guerilla wars are notoriously difficult to fight. How do you spot a man who goes around with a bomb in his pocket, before he does his harm, especially if he is ready to sacrifice his own life too in the process? So I don't think we can solve the problem with violence. Our best option will always be to try and solve the glaring economic problems and create justice. If people are suffering and they see that their leaders are suffering too, there will be few complaints. But if some people are suffering and some others are reeling in wealth, and especially unearned wealth, it will only create bitterness and anger.
You once spoke about a theatre project that can stop cultist activities in our institutions of higher learning, and which can gainfully engage our youths. What is that project about and how can it be implemented?
Well, it just occurred to me that the same thing like the NUGA Games can be applied also to the arts. In the theatre for example, one can start an intra-University contest involving the halls of residence, and then develop this to a larger inter-University competition. The private sector could support this. After all there are big companies that have been spending huge sums of money on these wild musical jamborees and so on. They can make as much money, I assure you, if they sponsor a literary and drama competition, which would involve the houses of residence in our universities. So much activity can be created around such an event to absorb the energies of these bubbling students. I keep hoping one can persuade some organization to buy the idea.
In a previous interview, you said you hailed from a poor family. How was your upbringing? Was it that terrible?
No, not terrible. Just lonely, if I may use that word. I lost my father while I was still a baby, and so my upbringing and that of my elder brother became the responsibility of the extended family. In particular I became the ward of an uncle who had to move residence very frequently because of his work. And so, moving almost every year from one school and one neighbourhood to another, being here today and being at another place tomorrow, I had no chance to develop long or permanent friendships. By the time I went to the Government College, Ibadan, I had attended some six or seven primary schools! This instability naturally had its pains as well as its gains. But the major thing I felt then was the loneliness, the absence of solid roots. Plus the fact that I did not have the means to do what others were doing, no money and all. All this drew me towards books, and the books became my companions. And in Government College, they were in abundance. They made me into a writer.
Today you can say that you are an accomplished man. Your wife is a professor, you are a renowned professor, and you have successful children? Did you have any strategy or something to achieve all these?
Ah I wish I had one! But does such a strategy exist anywhere? You can say that I have been extremely fortunate in my life. I was lucky to have found a good wife. She hailed from a decent background and a rich family, and so it took a lot of trust on her part to choose to marry someone like me. There were of course, as you can well imagine, serious objections from some members of her family, apart from the mother, who stood by her. So when you have that kind of wife, there are certain obligations you owe to that marriage, certain things you just cannot do! And she has been wonderfully supportive. In spite of her comfortable background, she chose to work hard to be somebody in her own right. What can be more encouraging than a wife who believes in the value of work?
Does she by anyway participate in your works?
Not directly. But her comments are quite incisive, more enlightening at times than those of trained critics! But she does not interfere at all, mainly because of my choice not to mix the family with work. I need to keep the two spaces separate.
There was a time you said your wife is more intelligent than yourself. How do you mean?
Of course she is; isn't that obvious? Just think that, in spite of having to raise the children, she has also studied to become the first woman graduate, and the first female professor of Computer Science! That is quite a formidable achievement. And there are other firsts, such as being the first female to be elected President of the CPN, the highest regulatory body in the Computer profession in the country. Not only was she head, but she left a record of solid achievements in the organization, as she does everywhere she serves. I am very proud of her, and of the children she has raised. Indeed, you can say that part of my success is due to my