Even at 72, Nike Osofisan, wife of the foremost playwright, Femi Osofisan, remains an ideal African wife and quintessential hostess.
Although visitors to the home of the professor-couple in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, are always assured of a treat whenever both or either of them was at home, they got a better bargain if the Professor of Computer Science and the first Nigerian female to study the discipline in a Nigerian university was around. You got served some chops along with an offer of a drink, a bottle of liquor, or soda the iconic dramatist would certainly make.
And if it should be mealtime, Mrs Osofisan eagerly offered to dish some food for you, regardless of her being older than or unfamiliar with you, so long as you were her husband’s guest!
Two days after an evening of presentation and signing of his latest book, Gamaliel Onasode, Classicus, An Honourable Life held at the expansive premises of Booksellers, along Magazine Road, Jericho, Ibadan, renowned for hosting many of Nigeria’s leading book publishing firms, I was at the Osofisans’ Bodija home for a booked interview. I arrived mid-morning as scheduled and met another professor of Theatre Arts at Osun State University, Osogbo, Muyiwa Awodiya, and his wife, Sade, having a discussion with the eminent scholar-artist in the living room.
Brief moments after, Mrs came in from an inner part of the house and after exchanging pleasantries asked us all which brand of tea – green, black or Aloe Vera — we would like served with ‘Covid Chinchin’ that she described as the new house special we would love to savour!
“Covid what?” we, the guests, chorused in surprise.
Laughing, the woman of the house explained that the snack was specially made and fortified with spices including ginger and other immune-boosters to prevent and fight the dreaded coronavirus. It was sugar-free and yet tasty, she added, encouraging us to have some bite, which, she stressed, made a great match with lots of health benefits, taken with the Aloe Vera tea.
I instantly voted for her recipe, while her husband opted for the green tea with honey.
The Awodiyas, particularly the man, squinted doubtfully at Mrs Osofisan’s suggestion at first but agreed to give it a try after a brief lecture on the health-promoting Aloe Vera herb to which I chipped in a bit of what I knew on the subject.
But just as his wife turned triumphantly to go prepare and fetch the victuals, a shout of protest rang out from Mr Osofisan’s direction:
“Don’t let her give you that bitter thing o!”
We, the visitors, turned our gaze on our host and asked why.
Hardly caring to hide his revulsion, Mr Osofisan repeated the warning, scoffing at how distasteful he found the beverage. Served together with meals it was a sure appetite-killer, he alleged.
I burst out laughing as the celebrated writer kept raging and trying to dissuade his colleague against taking even a sip of the draught. He cut the image of a mother scared stiff watching her innocent child stray or play with flame,
“Babafemi Osofisaaannn!”, his wife rebuked with evident fondness, as she strolled in to plug the tea kettle: “Please, don’t infect others unafraid of taking bitters with your own phobia.”
I felt compelled to caution my elderly and revered friend on the danger of his apparent ‘sweet-teeth’ addiction at his age (76 years), with the risks of diabetes, cancer and other sugar-causing ailments.
“But, Prof,” I started: “you know you should take less sugar and embrace more bitters in your diet now because of old age health conditions…”
The old thespian interrupted me with a terse reply that both silenced and sent me into a bout of laughter at the same time: “I agree, no one is saying taking bitters is not good, no one is running away from doing so. After all, I regularly and dutifully take my Guinness Stout!
The answer provoked general mirthful laughter among everyone in the room, save Mr Osofisan himself.
The spontaneous breakfast skit provided a comic prelude to the more serious and profound conversation Mr Osofisan and I settled down to on his latest literary engagements, concerns in the cultural sector and sundry national issues, as the Awodiyas took their leave after the sumptuous meal.
Fabowale: What, Prof, have you been up to in the past year?
Osofisan: Well, it’s Covid (laughs). We have been battling with Covid. It has paralysed and completely changed all the plans. I’ve not been really doing much. I taught a class. That’s all and then we did a dramatised reading of my last play, “Medaye”, which we took around the (Ibadan) city.
Fabowale: Yes, I remember there was a promise the play would go on stage as a full production by the end of last year. What happened?
Osofisan: Again, as I told you, this Covid thing disrupted so many things. But it’s still coming on stage. We just had to postpone it. Tunde Awosanmi who was directing it also had other projects to do, particularly, the play on Bola Ige. So the students (cast) were not around… when you shift things before you know it, too many months just rush by. I felt by now we would have done the production, but it’s there and we are still planning to do it. If we can raise all the money we need.
Fabowale: Unlike in the 80s and 90s, stage productions have become a rarity if not altogether non-existent, COVID-19 or not. Aren’t you concerned?
Osofisan: I am, but nothing really remains static, particularly in the cultural area. Things continue to change, to evolve. I think, first of all, once the video and the social media thing came up, they were bound to affect the traditional way. What we need to do is to evolve a way of getting around this and this was what we were trying to do before Covid happened. That is, re-inventing the theatre or means of doing things. Remember when the cinema came, people felt the stage was finished and yet, it survived. I’m just thinking that maybe what we need is another (Hubert) Ogunde. Remember that Ogunde had to invent the tradition. He started what became a prosperous theatre tradition. When he came, they were doing church activities and then he resigned and started his troupe, tried to get women but they wouldn’t come and then he changed it so that he wanted secretaries and they flooded the place (chuckles). He employed them and when he found that there was a problem again, he married the women. Maybe that’s what we need now. We find somebody who would invest in this thing, create a new theatre audience and so on… It’s not as if people don’t want theatre again, at least if we decide to do a play now and throw the place open free of charge, the place will be filled up. It’s not as if there’s no audience, but it’s just that the way we used to do it in the past can no longer work.
Fabowale: Are you proposing a return to the travelling theatre tradition of the Ogunde, Ogunmola, Ogungbe and Duro Ladipo you just said flourished and then collapsed with the advent of the cinema? How will it be different this time?
Osofisan: It’s not exactly the same thing. What I’m saying is that the circumstances have changed and, therefore, we also have to devise new means of doing things. We need someone who has the vision and means to invest in this. For people like me, it doesn’t really matter, because we have always done our own plays mainly for the academic community which is still there, even though we’ve also had problems with the academic community. It is for those who are doing popular theatres… the Ogunde people would just get themselves in a bus, travel to a place, sweep the floor and perform and spend the night there. They put themselves on the bus again and they are gone. Well, we cannot do that anymore. First of all, insecurity is so bad now that you can’t just take a troupe now and sleep outside and travel. So, it’s the insecurity, the difference in the quality and character of lifestyle that has made for the death of the live theatre. It is not that films came and supplanted it. No, in fact, the films came and saved it. People were already deserting the theatre because of insecurity. You can’t go out at night anymore to go and watch a play. Then, the lack of means, people couldn’t afford the tickets anymore. Because of the cost of live productions they had to charge thousands of Naira for tickets and yet people were poorer. Again, if you take a place like Lagos, the frenetic lifestyle and the traffic situation alone could be discouraging. By the time you come back from work, who is going to persuade you to go out to any theatre again? So, the traffic situation, the insecurity and the people who have moved from the rural to urban areas have flooded the cities and increased the audience quite alright, but a poor audience who couldn’t afford evenings at the theatre. So, there are many things bedevilling the theatre.
Fabowale: Can we conclude then that the theatre is dead?
Osofisan: (Musing) Temporarily. Live theatre has been knocked out for now. But the audience is still there. The demand is still there. The question is, how do we now meet that demand? Obviously, night performances don’t pay anymore. What pays now is Pentecostal vigils. People are going to stay there all night anyway, so they are not bothered about whether they are going home or being robbed. In any case, it seems better to stay in the church rather than staying at home where robbers can come and attack you there. The church offers some kind of sanctuary that the theatre cannot. We cannot perform now and say you should come and stay with us all night.
Fabowale: If you are suggesting day-time performances, then we need to build more theatre houses, invest in infrastructure –lighting, acoustics, toilets, parking facilities, eateries and other facilities that would guarantee theatre patrons’ convenience seriously lacking all over the place.
Osofisan: You’re already thinking about the task ahead. These are the problems. With what’s on the ground, it means you cannot stage performances all week- long because people have to go to work. On weekends, perhaps? If it is only at weekends we can perform, what time during the weekend? How much do people pay? We need to work around that. But I think that a determined theatre person can still do something, working along those lines. Don’t forget that some theatres in Lagos already do this anyway, Tera Culture promoted by Austin Peters, for instance. So, it’s not like it’s impossible. You have to now think of how much will you need as support, because the way I see it, you can’t have done these things without substantial support either from the state or private sectors. Look at private companies like MTN and so on, they support cultural shows, but you know, of this type that brings in celebrities… (Chuckles) Maybe some of them can be used to persuade them.
Fabowale: Will you, sir, be willing to lead the charge of this effort at reorienting theatre practice?
Osofisan: It will be wrong to think of it in personal terms of myself because at what age am I going to start? I’m 76 years old already, but there are younger ones we’re producing who could be helped to follow up on these things. What I’m saying is that the situation is not hopeless. It’s something that we have to think about. How to do theatre in the present circumstances? When there is a need you can begin to think of positive ways of meeting it. Part of the crucial issue is how do we now get people who are rich to fund this project?
Fabowale: From your experience, Prof, are the Nigerian elite disposed to supporting the arts?
Osofisan: Most of them are not, obviously, but some are… until we check. The state can be persuaded to fund it because it’s part of the state’s duty to fund the promotion of the arts and culture. It’s a question of somebody driving it. Somebody in Ibadan can start the process for instance and begin to push. It’s not going to be easy, but he needs a determined effort. There are not many cultural places in Ibadan, but you can go for some kind of enlightened entertainment resort apart from drinking bars. We can start it. Many weekends I see children just going to the zoo and some of them have been there many times because there’s no alternative. The parents want their children to go somewhere and it’s always the Zoo because it’s the only thing available. They would want an alternative and if there is, we could start to play performances and from there, you can begin to build a clientele. The Agodi Gardens, for instance, there’s nothing there; it’s just empty, pathetic…if people can start shows in such places, that would be good. But like I said, it’s going to need a lot of support because the troupes themselves have to survive, to put a play together now, they’ll have to be paid.
Fabowale: With its limitations, the theatre is unlikely to yield immediate and substantial returns as the cinema. Do you think any investors of this age, focused almost always on the financial bottom line, would want to put their money down?
Osofisan: There is no investor that does not want money. If you invest money, the thing is that you want to profit from it. But the kind of business that we’re into is not the type that will bring in quick money. So, we have to find a way of persuading people to put their money there. For some people, it is not just the money they want. They want their name to be promoted as patrons of the arts.
Fabowale: Have you spotted someone who can spearhead this campaign?
Osofisan: No, but we have all these young boys and girls nowadays interested in that. But the pressure of life doesn’t make them last longer. Girls have to marry, boys have to find employment, but I’m not pessimistic. I’m sure we will get there eventually as long as there are people who are interested in performances. You’ll find out that even some of the actors of the cinemas are not satisfied as they are when they act on stage. It’s not something that will happen in one day. But you know Nigeria, once it happens, everybody will want to do the same thing. So we need determined people. We need to concentrate on publicity. For instance, the idea that companies who come in to support can get XYZ tax rebates from it is something that needs to be explored. People like me have never written for commercial purposes. So I’m not in that market. I write for academics, for youngsters growing up and schools. The school market is still there to some extent. It’s being killed, but again, you still have so many universities now studying theatre arts. That market is still there for us. But for the outside groups, it’s the new market they have to develop. And I think some people are trying – the Lagos Theatre Festival, for instance, we got support from the British Council to run it. We have a place like Freedom Square that helps them to promote it.
Fabowale: Did you envisage the present situation in the culture sector a decade or two back?
Osofisan: It is not just the arts and culture sector. Look around. Is this what we envisaged in every sector of society? It is everywhere that decay has set in and corruption has killed all values. This is not, of course, what one expected but that’s what is happening. And while people are fighting in general politics, there is fighting in the arts sector too. The general quality of life has declined so shabbily. It’s depressing. But at the same time, we have made some progress. It’s just like where you take two steps forward and carry six steps back.
Fabowale: Some suggest that we have actually made progress in other forms, now that globally, Nigerian artists are raving in movies, music, comedy shows and so on. We aren’t expected to stay at the level of people clad in animal skins or batik prancing about on stage, they say.
Osofisan: (Laughs) I’m not sure that anyone has ever promoted that people should just be prancing about the stage in animal skins and batik. No. There is progress in some ways and then regression in some other ways. For instance, one thing that pleases me is that the airwaves nowadays are crowded with Nigerian artists. In our days that we talked about, it was the Top 10 American or UK songs. I mean, we sang songs of these stars from abroad. Even though we knew some of these Nigerian artistes, they were not, for us, as important as their foreign counterparts. Now the reverse is the case. Foreign artistes are even trying to copy Nigerian artistes. That’s some considerable achievement. It is not a triumph.
Fabowale: Some people criticise the contents of the works of these African artists as vacuous, base and immoral.
Osofisan: Forget content for now. What we are saying now is that, at least it has its long term economic implications. Artistes are selling and people are looking at Nigerian music and so on. That is in one sense. But in the other sense, there is no content. It is all superficial and just a celebration of quick wealth. The question is how to build upon that to evolve and make it more edifying. The Fela influence has been very strong and Bob Marley’s too, among others. So that’s what to build on, you have to start from somewhere. Now, people are looking at Nigerian artistes now, but very soon people will get tired of this “Zah zuh zu zu zu!” Nothing in it and you’ll now have serious artistes who are now able to do serious work because the ground has been prepared.
Fabowale: But if superficiality is so pervasive in society, as you noted, how do you see artistes and the audience transcending that level to embrace works of more noble taste and appeal?
Osofisan: If you cave in for pessimism, then you’ll not go anywhere. We don’t know. One can only hope, but I don’t think this superficial age would last, because everything now is just tinsel. It’s just artificial. It’s just money, money, money. But it’s going to backfire very soon. There is this culture of sex and violence. My fear is that it may even go to the other extreme to the point where you have a backlash that if it is possible you won’t even listen to music again. It is a possibility and it’s a possibility that could evolve into a more serious thing. That’s it. On one side, some gain and on the other, some loss. Now with theatre, it’s not all theatre that is superficial and not all are positive. You are still going to have this kind of mixture perhaps to get the audience. They’ll do superficial pieces, as we have in stand-up comedy. But once the audience is there, you can then use that to create more. But obviously, because of these other opportunities, the alternatives that people have don’t make them talk so much about theatre now. They go to social media and other platforms. In spite of that, there are still some people who want theatre. Maybe there won’t be theatre for everybody, but theatre for special people who want and like it. Maybe that’s the direction we will go, rather than hoping everybody will come or trying to please everybody.
Fabowale: Do you mean like MUSON Centre was originally and exclusively built and dedicated to music and music lovers? What’s the guarantee the vision won’t be distorted as it happened with MUSON which now hosts theatre shows and sundry events outside the initial mandate?
Osofisan: I was intimately connected with that thing. You saw how much they invested in MUSON; big names, big people, corporations to try and create a place for pure music. Now it is stranded and that is because of the management that came to run it. People like Awodiya and so on, who had a much wider vision, gradually persuaded the management to look further. You’ve got a point there. That’s the kind of thing that can happen. You’ve got a place an institution funded and runs; they are now also supporting theatre. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Using my position as Emeritus Professor, what I’m trying to do is to see if we can resuscitate the life of the theatre here at the University of Ibadan because in those days the university itself had a troupe that was supported. The question is, how can we get that again? You can’t get the university now to fund the thing completely.
Fabowale: Have you thought of working with the Alumni association? UI has a lot of old students who can support such projects in a big way if you harness the association’s clout.
Osofisan: Well…maybe. We need a lot. We need a full-time director; we need to raise a troupe whose members can be paid and all kinds of other things. But with my schedule, it is not possible for me as half of the year I’m out of the country. But it is not impossible. We just need somebody to take up the responsibility at least to get back the university performing company, see if we can use Saturdays for instance for children’s theatre. It can even be for profit. It will take years to establish the audience as people used to know that when they come every weekend, something was in the theatre for them to see. The time also has to change because right now with the situation, any play after nine is wasting time. Let me even say by 8 o’clock everything should have ended, unlike those days when you can even start by nine. We have to get somebody who can give us the outlay first of all. Now because of the way it is, I think the department rents out the theatre on weekends to raise funds. You need a permanent place for a theatre that would not be encumbered. I’ve been looking for money to build a new theatre. If I can find it I’ll be very happy. But so far, I haven’t been able to do that. We need money to fund and build a new one. And so there’ll be a permanent troupe there which will be like a kind of laboratory where students training can take place – the department working with the troupe and doing productions with them. What did it cost to do a play in those days? Some of us were not paid anything and we did not expect to be paid. You join them, you join them yourself. Nowadays you can’t get actors and actresses to perform without paying. Building a set is just like building a house; buying planks, doing painting, etc. So to do a production now, you need money. It’s not just free. Then the students we are teaching also want to be paid. If you use them in production and they get acclaimed, they’ll start feeling like stars. You can’t get them in the next production anymore. They’ll send you an agent next time. Gbogbo ẹ kì se ofe mo! (Nothing is free anymore) If you have a makeup artist, she’s off tó do another job! So it is no longer like the past innocence – to build a set, to rehearse properly, and the actress, she will feed her family too. So if I tell you the cost, you will find it discouraging. And how much can you sell the tickets for? In Lagos, they are used to paying Twenty Thousand Naira. Put it at One Thousand Naira in Ibadan here. How will the theatre make it?
Fabowale: Why is it so, I thought Ibadan is the cradle and hub of the arts in the country?
Osofisan: We are talking of economic reality. There is no factory in Ibadan. Most of the people in Ibadan are civil servants, priests, students and how much do they make? That’s not where the money is? In fact, it’s like gratuitous charity (chuckles) because it’s comparable to how much those traditional drummers in Ibadan make? The audience has moved to Lagos because of its cosmopolitan nature, which Ibadan used to have but has lost. Once they started creating states and people started going to their own states and other universities were created, the situation can’t be compared to when it was only one university. When it was one university everybody was here and it was the centre. But like I said we can’t do it without subsidies. We have to go through some of the institutions like the University of Ibadan to give us at least seed money. Just as people do abroad, the local governments give you something like grants if you want to do something and all you need to do is apply to the arts council.
PT: Why can’t we have such a scheme here?
Osofisan: How many times have we argued about it? Even the artists themselves will be the first to argue that you just want to collect government funds. What do you want to do with government funds? (Laughs). Then we will argue saying this is wrong. The way they construct roads is the same way they should construct art theatres. It is not a privilege but a right. So unlike here, over there you apply and once it’s granted, you start. After that, you’re expected to be able to tell them you want to start on your own.
PT: Let me take you away from a little from performing arts. Why has it been difficult to develop or improve on the physical aspects of our culture, our indigenous musical instruments and building technology like Rukuba (dome-like) architectural designs in the Middle Belt, for instance, which had been talked about since NAFEST 1998 in Bauchi.
Osofisan: That’s a general question of development. We have derailed. This is one of the big disappointments one way or the other. There have been initiatives again and again about how to become autonomous in some of these infrastructural developments. And they have been discarded. Nobody has listened. Designs… Those are some of Demas Nwokolo’s passions. He was one of those who pioneered this. There was a time when we were growing up when that was a big thing – to be authentic. To use local materials and ideas to design. And then something happened. We discovered oil and the soldiers came to power and everything changed. There was so much money to import. Why need to create something when you can import it. It was so easy, the import mentality. And from there the idea that what’s imported is better came. Even when shoes were made in Ibadan, nobody buys them. Take the same shoes and remove the label and say ‘Made in Italy’, you’ll begin to sell. A friend of mine was so annoyed that we were spending so much money on these imported things when we could actually make them. So he decided to make them here and proudly opened his shop in Ikeja. After one year, he had to close it because nobody would come. Somebody then advised him on what to do and within a year he reopened the place and immediately, the thing was flourishing. So you can see our kind of mentality. But it is not for lack of ideas or lack of people trying to. But if you’re not in power and you don’t control power, you can’t do anything. You don’t control the means of production; you don’t control the means of consumption. That’s the unfortunate thing we have.
Fabowale: But why do we like to hang the Europeans, Americans and now even Chinese for our alleged exploitation and retardation when we have displayed no capacity or initiative to take our fate into our own hands and advance it? Do we expect them to stop the continued domination and plundering via neo-imperialism aided by technology, the imbalance in world information order and the Bretton woods institutions as they did with slave trade and colonialism, in the absence of any direct move by Africans themselves to end the heists?
Osofisan: I think some of your questions will have to be reframed because it is as if you’re not dealing with the reality of power. It is not that people are stupid or anything, but power relations determine how people act or react. In those days if I tie your two hands and legs then I blame you for laziness. What is the person going to do if the colonial peoples have their own interests to promote and again and again they suppress rebellions? There were serious cases of rebellions and suppression. People fought against slavery but this news was completely suppressed and they were savagely punished. So those who don’t want to suffer punishment will quickly collaborate with the people and make their own profits – something which is still happening today, but it doesn’t mean there were no rebellions or no moves to resist the whole thing. When the military was in power you saw how they suppressed the leftist movements. They put people in jail and promoted those who were very happy with the importation and putting their money abroad for them. We cannot blame ourselves as if there were never people who resisted. Now they talk of our indolence.
You grew up here. Will you ever say that our people are indolent? Have people not tried to do it? Think of Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere. What has been their fate? Take the story of Nigeria for instance; people are complaining that the Hausas are in charge. Was that by accident? I mean, (Frederick) Luggard said it clearly, these are the people (Hausas) they wanted to continue governing because they will now serve them perpetually. Did they not rig the elections? They rigged the census. Rigging started with the British. They made sure that power was in the hands of people who said they didn’t want independence. And all those who cried for independence ended up in the opposition. In fact, the case of the Francophone countries was even worse because even after independence there were even more French people in control than before in the Ministry of Finance, for example. What kind of independence when people were trained mostly as priests, teachers who knew nothing about economics, technical sciences? That was why I wrote the play Kolera Kolej. When people were saying Africa is this or Africa is that; if you give people independence when they are already diseased what kind of blames are you putting on them? You wrote the conditions that they mustn’t do this or that. The damage the UAC (United Africa Company) did here! They forbade Africans to produce anything. There was a flourishing shipping company in Epe. Do you remember they were taking them to Sierra Leone and back? They broke everything. They went to England and got a franchise that it’s only the British that could do it here. Anything that doesn’t stand for them (the British), they’ll blow it up and punish people. They said we must not manufacture ammunition. They criminalised it. We can’t manufacture ‘ogogoro’ gin. We have to buy theirs.
When Nkrumah won the election from prison in Ghana they felt something was on them. They decided to have puppets in power especially when they found out that it was cheaper that way. And that’s what they did. They empowered those in support of their cause. And unfortunately for us, people hadn’t quite developed. I’m trying to write an article now, if I can, on what you call ‘impunity’, because democratic principles were not there in colonial life. Maybe we can talk of social justice, not democracy. And then even the colonial scheme did not allow democracy to thrive. Feudal lords were empowered to collect taxes from the people.
Fabowale: So, what’s this whole idea of France, the UK, the U.S., UN’s interest in helping Africa?
Osofisan: Isn’t that what the Chinese also used to come in now? Take this money and use it to construct your roads but the company must be Chinese and when it is completed, for a certain number of years, you’ll continue to pay. And in the end, the road will not be built. When I was in China we went to this conference and they said they will build the road but you’ll pay, unlike the British, they will never build the road but will make you pay. I thought in that circumstance it is the black countries who don’t know how to negotiate. As Transport Minister, Rotimi Amaechi said he did – that they are going to build our infrastructure here but must train certain numbers of Nigerian engineers who will know how it’s done. So when they (Chinese) go they can maintain it. Not like a country where I was performing and all the lights got spoiled and because it was China who installed the system, they had to send to China to buy bulbs to come and replace the spoilt ones. In fact, that is what the colonial man will do. It is now left to you to negotiate. But they don’t want clever people in power. So they undermine them. The CIA, the KGB… people who are ready to threaten the status quo. Look at how Sankara was killed.
Fabowale: Talking about that, in the last eight months there have been at least five coups d’état in the West African sub-region – in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad How do you view speculations that they may have been sponsored to trigger instability and unrest that could see European powers in a fresh armed contest for influence in that sphere of Africa. This cannot be dismissed given the increasing influence and role of Russia in some of those countries?
Osofisan: It’s obvious. Africa is going to be the next field of contestation between the colonial powers. As we can see, Africa is still rich in mineral resources. And these countries are already getting poorer despite these resources. The result, of course now, is that there is a lot of agitation here now in Africa. Because many of us are not even aware of what is happening. The poverty level does not allow people to think beyond their own countries. But look at what is happening in Ukraine now. France is fighting for its life and the kind of independence they negotiated with the African countries…horrendous! All the (revenue) money must be paid to the French Central Bank). So now, all that is about to change. People are complaining and contesting it. They know they are in serious trouble. And Russia too. We should wait and see a different strategy from China. They are going around making you sign treaties that will commit you forever. Russia too is busy looking for where it can come in. But the affected nations are just countries in names, however. Most of them are desserts. The ones that are lucky are the ones with mineral resources. But in terms of land, nothing. Now others like Russia want to go into those places and chase out the French so that they can now… It’s just like the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. It is back! Because they need all these places by the time their own resources dry out. We have to think fast, but unfortunately… You know the kind of government they have out there anyway. How did they come to power anyway? We are so weak in terms of infrastructure because many of these leaders have acquired ill-gotten money which they have stored in these foreign countries. So, I’m afraid, we are very much endangered.
Fabowale: NAFEST (National Festival of Arts and Culture) was held in Ekiti last November, but it was hardly publicised or attended. How can we attract the needed public awareness and participation so the festival can meet the objective for which it was instituted?
Osofisan: Well, obviously it is not having an impact. But again, the practice must continue in spite of that. You know, it is at NAFEST you see all the traditional activities, a lot of ideas, of rejuvenating the society and the indigenous traditions. That’s the idea. The reality, of course, is that the government is not interested. They don’t really care. So the festival has just become a routine. Last year’s edition, for example, should have been postponed because of Covid. There was Covid infection and a lot of concern too. There has been a lot of disruption and a lot of security challenges. So it wasn’t really a time for people to pay attention to a festival. Left to me, I would have suggested that it be postponed. But I’m saying there is an attitude in us, we are not really interested in our cultural heritage. That’s why the attention to it was sparse. But we must continue it because if we stop it, we are just aiding the killing of ourselves, we must continue NAFEST, whether the government pays it attention or not.
Fabowale: What would be your advice to make it effective post-COVID-19 in terms of organisation, funding and even intellectual content?
Osofisan: I think that is decided by the ministry. The people decide the emphasis each year and I don’t think we should stop that. It has to go on. They should take the initiative. But as you said, publicity is very important. If they don’t give it publicity, nobody will come. That’s the world now, publicity is almost everything and so they have to rethink the strategy of running NAFEST. Unfortunately, they are also…ministries, government agencies. They are hampered by red tape. Maybe they’ll have to go out and search for private sponsorship to create more awareness.
Fabowale: Two days ago, we had a public presentation of your latest book, a biography of boardroom guru and iconoclast administrator, Gamaliel Onosode, here in Ibadan. That’s coming on the heels of another you did on the renowned poet, late John Bekederemo Pepper-Clarke. Why the seemingly pronounced interest in biography writing?
Osofisan: I have said, biographies are important, particularly in a country where history is not taught. A lot of information about the past is not available to us. Now you talk to some of these old people, particularly some of them who are men of integrity and you get a lot of information about what has transpired. I believe you can also learn from people who have been notorious. You really learn when they begin to talk, even when they are lying. You can analyse it and you’ll know this is not the truth.
Fabowale: Do you mean, a personality like the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu, for instance?
Osofisan: Well, I don’t want to talk about any particular personality. You know, Adedibu is in the popular imagination, in politics, he is something, with friends he’s something and with his family he’s another thing. I don’t know enough, but it would be fascinating doing the biography of such a man. To ask him questions and hear him talk. We have the old generation disappearing. I believe anyone who has survived the past 60 or 70 years has a lot of stories to tell us because such a person will give us his political history or adventure. And yet we know little. Even when you think you know, you get a different insight when they begin to talk. I’m fascinated and that’s why I’m doing biographies. And some I have treated in the form of plays. Dramatic form is the best form, anyway, to express things. You know if you’re able to put it in a drama, of course, many people will have access to it. So, I’ve done that of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther and I’ve learnt a lot from him. I’ve done about three plays on (Kwame) Nkrumah and I’m sure I’ll still do more because of that period in West African history when the black diaspora had a lot of keen interest in helping us develop the countries. Nkrumah encouraged them to come to Ghana and settle there. But now we seem to have lost touch with them in the diaspora. And it’s a pity because just knowing what role they could play because over there, they are more exposed to events. Meanwhile, down here in our country we think that’s the whole world. We lose touch with the wider dimension of our actions. So it’s a fascinating period. What legacy have they left? What lessons have we learnt from it? How can we revive that?
Fabowale: What’s been your experience on the latest, Gamaliel Onasode, Classicus, An Honourable Life?
Osofisan: When you read the book you’ll see that he’s a man of integrity who was involved so deeply in the politics of this country. Even in the boardroom nobody knows what he did but most people just have a few ideas about his personality. It is good to know much about such people – the trials they faced, how they overcame them. For example, he was once a presidential candidate… He is someone who will not bend at all, compromise, but he is also generous. The companies once gave him one million dollars to celebrate and he gave it all to the University of Ibadan, his alma mater, where he served as Pro-Chancellor. Can you imagine? Many of the Pro-Chancellors we have now are trying to take away money from the university. He ploughed his money in there. These are the heroes, not the negative ones we promote all the time on social media and make people lose faith in this country. The people believe nothing good can happen again, whereas there are still some good men whose examples are there to stimulate and encourage us. Onosode was a member of that age.
Fabowale: From the little I heard read, one tends to notice what one may call an intrusive voice of the author as a participant- narrator in the narrative. It also bears this journalistic dialogue (interview) format wherein someone interviewed kept talking and referring to Onosode as ‘uncle’. Can you tell us about this style you adopted for the biography?
Osofisan: Well, I’m not really the kind to pass any comment on the style but to wait for you to tell me whether it works or not… I’m certainly trying to look for a style that will make it easy for you to read, that will make you want to read and to get engaged with the personality, the subject, not one that is just fastidious with facts. With Clark, I’m dealing with a poet and wanted the poetic personality more to come out. Here we are dealing with somebody who is composite, a strict businessman, he studied Classics and I think that’s why he became a philosopher; a humanist. That touched me very much and I wanted to reflect that. I look at the personality of the character – the subject and I try to reflect on him or her to bring out that personality in them. So you can know this is the person you’re dealing with.
Fabowale: There has been a shift of the literary market and readership too from the traditional platform to cyberspace. Will you approve of digital summarisation and dramatisation of your works as some do now to make it more accessible and social media user-friendly to the present generation?
We can just say yes, fine you can do that, but as long as the fundamental message and features are not distorted. So, one has to see the way the individual wants to treat the work before you say go ahead because it is different from what you’re imagining. And then some producers don’t want to do their work and so they just (do) shortcut and harm the artistic impression of the work.