By Reuben Abati
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pius Adesanmi’s “A Nigerian, Library and Lawmakers” (Sahara Reporters, December 24). I will like to add a footnote to what he has raised: hopefully, the likely beginning of a useful conversation around the subject of reading, literacy, politician-constituency relationship, and the normative/practical value of knowledge and research in governance. At the risk of over-simplification, Adesanmi’s argument is that Nigerian politicians, unlike their counterparts in Canada and I suppose elsewhere also, do not read. They don’t do research. Nigerian legislators don’t make use of libraries either for research or for any other purpose.
The average Nigerian politician does not connect with his constituents at the level of ideas. What drives Nigerian politics is the sharing of cheap envelopes, containing a percentage of stolen funds. Adesanmi laments in that elegantly comparative piece, but he does not tell us what can be done to get the Nigerian, not just the politician, to return to a culture of reading and research. I’ll probably also spend more time in the next paragraphs, lamenting. That is how bad and serious the problem is.
When I arrived in Abuja in June 2011 to take up appointment as Official Spokesperson and Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan, one of my first concerns was how to set up a library at home. It would have been difficult for me to move my libraries (in Lagos and Abeokuta) to Abuja. I needed to set up a new one, focusing majorly on the new assignment and its research requirements. I made contacts and asked for the big bookshops in town. I didn’t know I was fooling myself. I spent more than a week, driving around the city trying to locate bookshops. I was told there was a bookshop around the old secretariat in Area One. When I got there, the most important item on display was stationery and different copies of the Bible from King James’s version to the New International edition. I left the place.
I was then directed a few days later to Odusote Bookshop, Abuja branch. I was excited. Odusote Bookshop used to be a major centre in Ibadan in those days. Together with the CSS bookshop around Oke Bola, and the University of Ibadan bookshop, the Odusote bookshop served the city of Ibadan and its intelligentsia very well. This was before the arrival of Mr Kolade Mosuro’s Booksellers Limited in Jericho. I rushed to Odusote Bookshop. What did I find? A shadow. Old, worn out books. The Abuja branch looked like a run-down store. Books have a certain smell. Bibliophiles sometimes go to bookstores just to smell the books, have a feel of the new arrivals section and then take a cup of coffee and go home. A bookstore is a centre of culture; in London and Washington DC, some of my favourite bookstores truly fit that definition. A dusty, stale bookstore discourages you. I bought a few books from Odusote, but my search around Abuja continued.
I kept calling persons I thought would know, but no one could really help. Each time I asked for a bookshop and mentioned something about buying books, the conversation always ran into a ditch. The only person who paid attention was Oronto Douglas. He offered to introduce to me a gentleman who would help me set up a library. He would get the books from wherever and deliver them. I only needed to indicate subject areas. I didn’t think this was the way to go. I like to choose my own books. I enjoy moving from bookrack to another, engage the booksellers, examine the books the way a pimp checks out a prostitute, before making a purchase. If it is a recommended book, I like the experience of going after the book myself and when it arrives, nothing compares to the exhilaration of a new discovery.
I finally found what looked like a book section inside a Supermarket at the Abuja Silverbird Galleria. I walked round. The best books you could get there were “how to” books, those get-rich-quick-become-a-strate gist-and-an-achiever-in-one-we ek-type-of-publications. I read such books too, but in this particular bookshop, there was no doubt that the books were dollar-denominated. They were so expensive you’d be busy palpitating while reading the books later, once you remembered the cost. I tried other stores around the city, but these were mostly those stores where books are displayed next to groceries, cosmetics and toiletries. I wanted law books. I eventually found specialized bookshops, which sell only law books around the FCT High Court and the Corporate Affairs Commission. Building up a law section on my shelves was probably the easiest task.
I later stumbled on another bookstore at Ceddi Plaza. It was newly set up by a young man who knew what he was doing and who obviously understood the importance of knowledge. It was a neatly organized bookshop, small, but well-appointed. The fellow had read some of the books himself and he could recommend books of interest. It was always a delight going there to look at new acquisitions. One day, I went back there and found the place boarded off. I asked around. What happened? The bookshop had been transferred to another floor. The owner could no longer afford to pay for the strategic location he had chosen. I found the bookshop in a hidden corner of the Plaza. Six months later, it had disappeared altogether. The owner’s dream died. The gentleman is probably now busy running a pepper soup joint, a short-time hotel or he is at best, a harried investor in the MMM Ponzi scheme: these are far more profitable enterprises in Nigeria than the selling of books or ideas.
One day, someone took me to Biobak Restaurant for lunch, and in between trying to find a parking space, I saw something that looked like Booksellers in a place called City Plaza. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I rushed into the place. Booksellers: Abuja branch? It didn’t quite look like the big centre in Jericho, Ibadan but I established a relationship with the staff, and throughout my stay in Abuja, they helped me to source any book I wanted, if they could. But for the most part, I bought books from Glendora in Lagos, at the airport outlet and Awolowo Road, and from Amazon (by order) and Waterstones on Oxford Street, London: my favourite spot in London.
I have gone through this narrative simply to show that in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, nobody is interested in books or ideas. Abuja does not even have a public library, digital or analogue, that I know of. And yet it hosts about five universities (!), and just a few kilometres away in neighbouring Nasarawa state, there is another university in Lafia. Abuja is the home/workplace of probably the most important people in Nigeria from lawmakers to the big politicians, but it is also an ideas-person’s hell. The first day I went to the bookshop in Area One, the man on duty, sensing my agony, called me aside and told me:
“Oga, are you new in town?”
“The way you are looking for bookshops and books, I can figure it out”
“For me, books are important.”
“Oga, take it easy, nobody comes to Abuja to come and read. Everybody is here to make money.”
I was puzzled. He continued:
“I am telling you. This place is the city of government and contracts. People are looking for contracts and money. This our bookshop, we are just selling stationery and exercise books and religious books that the people will need, because anybody that comes here either has an alfa or a prophet working for them. With time, you will learn. I will advise you to forget about books. Look for contracts, Oga.”
Asking me to forget about books is like asking me to forgo oxygen. But the man was right and Pius Adesanmi put his fingers on it. And it is not simply an Abuja problem. Since the politicians took over governance, they stopped worrying about education, reading, research and ideas. We like to blame the military for everything, but ironically, under military rule, things were not this bad. I wrote my Ph.D thesis in those days visiting a local library in Imo, Abeokuta. It was owned, and managed by the local council as a community library!
That library was later moved to Ake, just behind the Centenary Hall. When the universities were shut down and we were all sent away, I ended up writing three chapters in that new library. This was in those days when we relied on index cards for research and those secondary school graduates who helped to type our drafts on manual, usually damaged typewriters, often insisted on correcting syntax and punctuation, instead of admitting that their typewriters were either faulty or that they did not understand what they were typing.
There were libraries in other major cities in Nigeria too. You could borrow books from the community library and return them later. Local councils built libraries. State governments encouraged reading and even bought books for students. There were national archives, with the most patronized domiciled at the University of Ibadan. In those days, when Nigerian lawmakers stood up to make a contribution in parliament, people listened because they made a lot of sense. They spoke like men and women who could think. Today, things have gone so bad we now have lawmakers who know next to nothing about anything. They want to ride the most exotic cars that money can buy. They import the prettiest girls from across the globe. They insult women. They don’t even know the history of Nigeria.
Abuja big men and women in fact employ assistants to read newspapers for them! While Abuja has no libraries, standard bookshops, or gentlemen, it is nonetheless very rich in hotels and napoi joints. Hotels have become the new libraries. They are the only places where any form of thinking takes place. As it is in Abuja, so it is in the states, and that is why government at all levels seemingly considers investment in education, an avoidable distraction. There is an Ake Arts and Book Festival. Before it, there was the Garden City Book Festival in Port Harcourt, but government no longer cares. Reading is anathema to the populace. Nigerians read to pass examinations, thereafter reading is abandoned. We are in the age of goggle-it-intellectuals.
Ideas drive and build nations. A country without a positive and deep current of thought is bound to run into crisis. So it is with Nigeria where the leaders only become animated when they want to share money or play partisan politics. The root of the crisis lies in the recruitment of wrong persons into power. Try and compare the cabinet list in Singapore with that of Nigeria, for example. The difference is clear. The message is clear. The answer lies in a re-configuration of the leadership recruitment process and the vigilance of civil society insisting on higher values.