If you are banished to a desert where you are allowed to take only one thing, what will it be? Research has shown that many present-day Nigerians would go with either their television, radio or blackberry. The percentage of those that would go there with a book would be the least. No wonder it is said that if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book. On Monday, 20 December, 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan GCFR launched Bring Back the Book campaign in Lagos. The initiative was supposed to resuscitate reading culture among Nigerians.
On Monday, 17 January, 2011 the Banquet Hall of Eko Hotel and Suites, the Committee For Relevant Art (CORA) in furtherance of the President’s objective conveyed a meeting of stakeholders in the book industry – publishers, booksellers, authors, teachers, librarians, NGOs/CSOs, Corporate Donors – to work out a practical framework for the rebirth reading among Nigerians.
There were two divides. The first believed that many Nigerians do not read again. The second divide was of the opinion that Nigerians still read but that what they read should be the issue. Those who believed that many Nigerians no longer read were of the opinion that the ever-swinging tide of the economy has redirected people’s focus from the book to money. In the words of Erabor Okogun “The skill to read is lacking. The skill is the ability to sit down and let the book speak to you.” Potential readers these days are not patient enough to allow this happen. Some of the speakers went down memory lane to recall the years when Nigerians really read. At least one of the speakers accused the military of killing.
Some of the speakers said that the high cost of books is a deterrent to reading. So, they advised for government subsidy. On the other hand, it was made clear that even if books are sold at an affordable price, many people would still not find any interest in it. Some of the speakers were expressed the opinion that since many Nigerians can afford to buy phones, they can afford to buy books.
In the words of Chuka Nnabuife, the anchor of the third session of the conference, “Nigerians still read.” According to him, many Nigerians read sports papers, others read books that are either written or recommended by their pastors or imam. Since it is true that some Nigerians are reading, it may be wise to pay attention to the areas they focus on. For instance, if sports is what people are reading, then attention should be paid to sports. This is more so as other media have also been accused of complicity in the death of the book.
A high point of the event was when the poet, activist and social critic, Odia Ofeimun added his voice to the whole debate. Ofeimun’s opinion is that policy making is not the issue, the issue is policy implementation. In spite of the high number of literacy policies that have been worked on in this country, Nigeria remains one of the leading countries in terms of illiteracy prevalence. “Supporting the book is not just about the book, it is about infrastructure”, Ofeimun said.
The poet, Austyn Njoku, presenting a paper on behalf of the coordinator of the Abuja Writers’ Forum, Emman Usman Shehu, towed a line similar to that of Ofeimun. Citing the example of the detention of Okey Ndibe, he criticized the disrespect of writers. “You cannot bring back the book without respecting writers”, Njoku said. He didn’t fail to recall the fact that government in the past had embarked on similar campaigns, one of which was the READ campaign which was launched by this same administration. One must not forget what many have termed inconsistency on the part of Nigerian leaders. For instance, some have criticized the president for being the same person that wants to bring the book and the same person that has ordered the closure of schools for two weeks (This is arguable, though!).
At the end of the conference, it was agreed that everyone – schools, government, NGOs/CSOs parents – has a role to play. A draft document which would be sent to the president was drawn. One can only hope that this time around, this dream would not die as many of its predecessors.