Public interest has taken flight in governance as the country’s National Library is still operating in the rented apartment it moved into since 1995 when it relocated to Abuja from Lagos. The permanent site construction has been stalled, 11 years after the contract was awarded. It is an anomaly that underlines the fact that our national values have so ebbed that reading and matters of the intellect no longer count.
This national embarrassment resonated on the floor of the Senate recently, when Gbenga Ashafa, a senator from Lagos State, brought a motion to this effect. The contract, initially worth N8.59 billion, was awarded in 2006 to Messrs Reynolds Construction Company, and billed for completion within 22 months. But this could not be as it was not deemed a priority. In 2009, its original eight-storey design was inexplicably reduced to five, and the contract sum spiked to N17 billion, instead of reducing. A new 21-month project timeline was given with effect from July 2010. Again, effective funding was lacking.
An inscrutable disorderliness waffled out of the Presidency in 2012: a letter dated October 11, requested the contractor to revert to the original plan of eight-storey building. Ashafa explained, “By then, the contractor was about concluding arrangement for roofing at fifth floor.” The senator went on: another contract review of N23.1 billion was done, but it was not looked into; then another one of N48 billion followed in quick succession, all in early 2013.
The eight-year Umaru Yar’Adua/Goodluck Jonathan Presidency oversaw this contract muddle. Sadly, the two presidents ought to have appreciated the project’s importance given their academic antecedents. With the depreciation of the naira, it is apparent the project’s cost might double when eventually completed.
This project has become a shameful national caricature that should attract President Muhammadu Buhari’s attention. His administration should complete it, against the background of his recent awareness that the education sector is in a mess for which the Federal Executive Council held a retreat on the matter last week.
A library is a powerhouse of knowledge that promotes research, reading culture and innovation. Apart from housing books and journals, it collects legal deposit materials, renders subpoena and summons services and also carries out virtual or information communication technology services, among others.
While the Abuja permanent site of Nigeria’s library has been reduced to a pawn in the chess game of ignorance and anti-intellectualism by the authorities, its branches in the states are in a more pitiable condition. Whereas it ought to be in each of the 36 states, the National Librarian, Lenrie Aina, a professor, says branches exist only in 25 states. Last October, an approval was given for the completion of its branches in Gombe, Katsina, Taraba and Oyo states. When these projects would be delivered, given the fate that has befallen the head office, is anybody’s guess.
Inappropriate structure or setting, whether in Abuja or at the state level, is not the only challenge facing the National Library. It has an out-of-date books collection. Less than 10 per cent of books published annually in the country are collated by it, making it impossible for the library to know the number of publications in Nigeria, unlike their counterparts in the West. Aina says a commercial publisher by law should submit three copies of every book it publishes, state agency 10 copies, and a federal agency 25 copies.
But most organisations hardly do so; an action that violates a 1970 law. “To make things more terrible,” Aina laments, the penalty for non-compliance is N50 – a substantial amount then, but laughable today. Since the law has not been amended by our indolent National Assembly lawmakers, it will, therefore, be fool-hardy for the library authorities to institute a legal action against an errant publisher just to recover a pittance. With epileptic power supply in the country in an age of e-library, government’s habitual underfunding of agencies and operating from less congenial setting, the National Library is anything but a 21st Century intellectual monument.
If Abuja is disoriented in erecting a national library, the condition of state-owned libraries is best captured by the outcome of a recent media survey: if you have seen one, you have seen all. Many of the book shelves are empty and dusty; and denuded of professional librarians. A disconcerted civil servant in Jigawa State observed of the public library thus: “There is virtually no electricity here. Imagine how uncomfortable it is for one to be reading and sweating; that is enough reason for one not to come back (here).”
An environment such as this encourages youths’ obsession with watching home videos, football matches, television, social media and playing video games, instead of reading. This is a debilitating sub-culture that requires concerted response from both the family and government. Nolue Emenanjo, a linguistics professor, therefore, was right to ask two years ago: “How Safe is the Book?” It is indeed, an endangered species in Nigeria. For evidence, Nigeria’s 142 ranking out of 160 in literacy index in 2015, speaks volumes.
In active or socially conscious societies, a public library is guarded jealously. The United Kingdom is a notable example. Public protests follow underfunding of libraries or when any of them is to be converted to other utilities. In 2016, public library funding dropped from £944 million to £919 million. Each community library got £4 million as annual grant, a decline a British commentator, Philip Pullman, described as “witnessing the slow death of civic decency.”
It is a shame that communal consciousness on such a challenge here is non-existent. As a result, let the April 23 World Book Day annually sponsored by the UNESCO to celebrate book, promote reading culture, publishing and copyright be taken seriously from now henceforth, if the country is to raise a new generation of cultivated minds, with a passion for knowledge.