ANA – National had been founded in 1981 by Chinua Achebe and from available information the idea of going to the grassroots with chapters in every State of the Federation has been in the air since 1982. But it was not until 1991 during the tenure of Ken Saro-Wiwa as ANA president that this idea finally took concrete shape. For Saro-Wiwa had been elected president at the ANA annual convention at Ibadan in November 1990 and he had soon put the word out in writing circles that one of his top priorities was to take literature to the grass-roots by implementing the idea that every State in the Federation should have its own local ANA through which the population could more easily have access to the writing world under the ANA – National umbrella of course.
Lagos with its great concentration of writers, established and aspiring, and literary enthusiasts was naturally expected to feature strongly and it was no surprise therefore when notices started to appear on the Arts pages of the newspapers inviting all such people in the zone to a meeting to constitute the ANA – Lagos executive on March 10, 1991 at an address in Surulere.
I had gone along too, of course both as an observer and a participant but little did I expect the surprise that was in store for me! For when the moment had come to elect the Chairman I had been unanimously nominated and elected unopposed! This might have been because I had long campaigned for idea of carrying literature out of the exclusivity of the university campuses and taking it to the masses on the streets even forming an arts group the Nigerian Circle of The Arts (NACTA) as an instrument for attaining this goal.
Established figures in the writing world even related to me at this point in time by how they felt about this idea – the people who where open to it coming to greet me enthusiastically at arts functions and expressing approval of my activities while those who had believed such an idea would bastardize literature often sulked and walked by.
I had met Ken Saro-Wiwa in flesh for the first time at an international conference on African Literature organized and funded by the French Embassy in Lagos in 1988 and he had come over and greeted me warmly – of course, he had his Basi & Co comedy series going on television at the time and you can’t get more populist than that – hence it was no surprise to me at least that he should make carrying literature to the masses one of the principal planks of his ANA presidency.
But there was definitely initially an opposing camp generally to this idea in the writing world who felt that literature should be for the elite only – and here were all the different camps coming together so spontaneously to give me the Chairmanship for the Lagos – ANA so unanimously. It did indeed for me make the acceptance both a great challenge and an awesome inspiration at the same time.
The next step was the launching which was set for Saturday 13 April, 1991. It was hard work, but two people must come in for a special mention here in helping to make the day a reality Mrs. Bunmi Oyinsan, who was the treasurer then, later to become my successor as Chairman on my stepping down after completing my tenure, and Mrs. Phebean Ogundipe who was a sort of elder stateswoman in the background. It was Mrs. Oyinsan who had arranged for the hall, the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, for example, and Mrs. Ogundipe who had helped us create an awareness amongst the administrative elite. And of course, we had great cooperation from the arts media in announcing the event.
But also, that particular Saturday was a very busy one socially and most of the Nigerian elite we had invited had found themselves somewhere else – even Saro-Wiwa had been out of the country – and the donations we had hoped for to make a start were not forthcoming. The foreign Cultural Centres had been on hand however to lend their moral support, promising their cooperation in kind whenever the occasion arose. Artistically on the other hand, it was a roaring success, with writers coming in to Lagos from as far as Enugu and Benin City, and as distinguished a personage as Mabel Segun from Ibadan to join in the celebrations. And it is a measure of the artistic success it was the one newspaper had headlined its report on the event; ‘The Nigerian Writer’s Day Of Glory’. There were poetry readings and recitations, speeches and admonitions, and the sheer joy and glory of being a creative writer in the air.
Since one of the basic reasons for the creation of the association was the carrying of literature to the grassroots, I had proposed to the executive that we hold at least a monthly activity, alternating an internal literary reading – a forum at which any writer,-young or old, new or established, could come to read his work and sound out the opinions of other writers and critics on it – with an external symposium, or workshop, on a topic of literary interest, every first Saturday of the month, and this was accepted.
Goethe Institute had offered us its auditorium as a permanent venue, and our very first reading on 4 May, 1991, was chaired by Ken Saro-Wiwa. The readings were so successful that we soon had not only writers or groups of writers from the neighbouring states coming to join us on some days, but also complete strangers- writing enthusiasts who had read reports of our activities from their base, taking the opportunity of a visit to Lagos to participate.
And on some occasions, we had some really important guests from abroad. Like Professor Bernth Linalfors from the United States. Or the day Ken Saro-Wiwa had shown up with Earl Lovelace, a renowned Trinidadian writer whose books some of our members who had read literature had used for their courses. What was he doing in Nigeria? Well the Prime Minister of his country was paying an official visit here and he was in his entourage! Now this was something totally new to the Nigerian writers and they said so. A writer in a Presidential entourage! He was much more likely to be in his jail in Nigeria! And the general conclusion was that the political ruling class understood the importance of a writer’s role in society in even a much smaller country like Trinidad more than in Nigeria.
The external symposia were also an immediate success. I had suggested topics such as: ‘Prose, Poetry and Drama: Any Meeting Point?’, ‘African Writers in Exile: How Relevant?’ and ‘Journalism: Death Knell of the Creative Writer?’ and these too were accepted by the executive.
One member of the executive, however, deserves to be singled out as having contributed immensely to the organizational success of those symposia and this was the Assistant Secretary Sola Osofisan, a young writer at the time. And one of his greatest assets was his ability to keep time – for many a time I would arrive at the venue an hour before to get the place ready and he would be the only one around. Also we had a double – invitation system for the important guests which meant that apart from the general invitation we also sent them a specific letter- and it was Sola Osofisan who typed and sent these letters while I also went to see these personages personally a few days before the event to confirm they were coming.
And with all these combined with the wonderful cooperation we had got from the arts media in previewing the event we got full houses from our very first symposium. Anybody that was anybody in the arts came – connoisseurs dilettantes enthusiasts- and after our first two or so events quite a few important people even came without invitations. And sometimes known opposing camps on the issues even came just to take on each other.
Our goal in those days was to lay down a tradition that wasn’t centered around any individual Ôbig’ name but all our writers as a body. We therefore encouraged that if it was half an hour past our starting time and for some reason the bigger names were not around yet – they could be held up in a traffic jam for example – whoever was around and knew the procedure should take the chair for the reading to commence.
And the great legacy of ANA-Lagos from those days is that apart from the esprit de corps and the welcoming heart to new writers and enthusiasts, this tradition of the group being more important than the individual writer al these readings still survives. And the fact that it does is a great tribute to the chairmen that have come after me from, Mrs. Bunmi Oyinsan to Mr. Kayode Aderinokun and our present chairman Mr. Kunle Adebajo – and the democratic spirit of the Nigerian writer generally.
(Originally published 2001)