Some years ago as a youngster, I fell into a group renowned for their reading ‘achievements’. Instead of talking about football or the economy or bad government, we talked books. Membership of that group had nothing to do with your age or your height or who your parentage was but on the number and kind of books you had read. Therefore whenever we meet, we gist about the central characters and protagonists in those books we had read. I would not be hard put to elicit a knowing smile from anyone reading this who may have read R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Jules Verne’s Round the World in eighty Days, Sir Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It after we had read theses books that we moved on to much more before moving on to much more matured reading such as Sydney Sheldon, John Grisham, Mario Puzo, Agatha Christie, Obi Egbuna, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Wole Soyinka.
Among these nuggets of gold, one of them – Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File – caught my fancy. The book was about a hunt for a file that contained the names and ranks of the senior Nazi officers who participated in the plan to exterminate Jews during World War II. The file existed but it was made to look as if it didn’t – making it public would have exposed many of the key participants of that crime who had morphed into the comfort of retirement, and led respectable lives as philanthropists and sponsors of humanitarian activities.
Now, before the year 2000AD my country Nigeria was in the grip of leaders who had never been to university. As a university undergraduate, you read books to be who you become. So, when those who had never seen the four walls of a university classroom were shutting down universities at whim, of course we understood why, didn’t we? We knew that these people could shut down libraries and universities because they had never felt the power that a good book transmits to you.
So, in 2010 when there was an interregnum from the unfortunate demise of late Yar’Adua I was a champion for Goodluck Jonathan becoming president. In an article published by Daily Independent Nigeria, titled Run, Jonathan, Run…! I urged the president to run for President. Our assumption then was that for once in our lives as a nation, we would have another doctorate degree holder and a university teacher at the helm of affairs. But were we mistaken?
At the inception of the administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, he initiated a ‘Bring Back the Book’ programme – the assumption once more was that our people had replaced the love they once had for books for love for money and the acquisition of material wealth. Therefore we welcomed a supposedly enlightened and an educated Mr. President the way we would welcome a Knight in shinning armour who was going to do the chivalrous thing by bringing the book back.
But since the fan fare of that Bring Back the Book jamboree wore, the rhetoric behind the programme wore as well. Investigations I carried out indicated that since the inception of Doc. Jonathan’s ‘Bring back the Book’ Initiative, the programme has no official document or office. Plainly, there is no file or document reflecting the seriousness that an initiative of that sensitivity ought to have. So my organisation did the needful to get in touch with an official in charge of the project. But they don’t respond to calls or texts messages. So we ask now: is there indeed a file for the Bring Back the Book Initiative of Mr. President? If there is, where is it?
There are big problems with the non-availability of good books in Nigeria. Let me discuss one of them briefly. As a Nigerian author, poet or dramatist, if your book gets published abroad, it immediately receives a stamp of disapproval as soon as it gets here in Nigeria. People who know about books tell you that publishing abroad is expensive and in effect takes the books beyond the reach of the average Nigerian reader. Indeed, would you blame me for publishing abroad when the technology I need to get my books to international standard are just not there? And would you blame me if I transfer the high cost of publishing abroad to my readership? Okay, you would, wouldn’t you? So I decided to publish another of my book, Secrets of a Diary, here at home. We did our best, within the limits of available resources to get the book out so we could sell and recoup our monies. It was an unqualified disaster. Because of that, nobody would touch the book now wholly locally made. Many potential readers preferred the high-tech ones but which they cannot afford in the first place. So we had to run abroad again. What it cost to bring the latest book back here is nearly equal to what it cost to publish and print.
And that is why it is a shame that what could’ve been a laudable programme as Bring Back the Book initiative exists only on the pages of newspapers. There is strong speculation that this initiative does not have a file in the ministry of education or elsewhere to match the seriousness that we all thought that it should have. And that is why I want to appeal to Mr. President: please bring back some of those books we read as children for our children by partnering with stakeholders and the authors and support them. Support them by buying books from authors and giving them free to civil servants to help improve their reading culture and therefore increasing their productivity.
This can be done. It has been done before – when we were growing up a certain man, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, gave us free books, pencils, maths sets and biros until we left secondary school.