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The KABAFEST Dilemma By Gimba Kakanda

July 4, 2017

Our usually polarised literary community was chaotic this week as a tribe of writers entered the final lapse of its campaign for boycott of Kaduna Book and Arts Festival holding in Kaduna from July 5 to 8, 2017, with US-based book reviewer and irrepressible humorist, Mr. Ikhide Ikheloa, describing the proposed event as “debauchery” and the participants “rented” to deify Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. The campaign was instigated by their assertion that Kaduna under El-Rufai is an unresolved “murder scene” and that it’s against the intellectual tradition for supposed scribes and voices of the society to accept funding from or be hosted by, its government. 

Ordinarily, there's nothing wrong with writers attending an arts festival organized by the government; it's mischievous to equate that to legitimizing the politics and infractions of Malam el-Rufai. KABAFEST isn't morally out of place, so faulting the state government's financial support for a festival designed to promote literature in a society stalled by poor reading culture and dwindling relevance of books, is personalizing this antagonism, taking our political differences too far.

El-Rufai is organizing the festival with public fund, and I do not see where it's written that a taxpayer must be indebted to a politician for benefiting from a government's use of resources for a beneficial public project. It's his or her (country's) money. Even if one doesn’t like E-Rufai's handling of a political situation, calling for the boycott of the festival undermines the protester’s civic education. One does not owe a government anything for participating in an event it sponsors. It's a fundamental right. The same event, I emphasized, can be a platform to address December 12, 2015, extrajudicial killings of those Shiites in Zaria, which was the central argument of the boycott advocates.


My attempt to explain this centrist perspective to them has made me a target of misapplied counterpoints, with my excuse interpreted as a hungry writer's sycophantic alignment. It didn’t matter that I shared with them a certain view of the Governor, which is enough to join them in calling for the boycott. It's not only that I'm yet to forgive Governor el-Rufai for his hard-hearted handling of the massacre in Zaria, it has to be for the amusing pettiness of a key member of the organizing team, Lola Shoneyin.

Ms. Shoneyin and I had a fallout on Facebook – a cause of which is embarrassing to share here – sometime in 2011 and then, being Wole Soyinka's daughter-in-law, she also couldn't stomach – or misunderstood? - my satire on the Nobel laureate. She's not only blocked me on all social media platforms, she blocked me from following the Twitter account of Ake, another arts festival she manages. In fact, she once revealed her hatred of me to a mutual friend and the messenger indeed delivered that "Lola said if she catch you eh…" caveat. That amused me. When I eventually saw her at a session of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival in 2012, she left a group photograph when I was invited to join. She was 38 then!

This experience of Ms. Shoneyin’s peculiar courtesy should've been a guise to ridicule her event. Only that I don't operate that way. That she blocked me from following the Twitter account of her event, even though I've no memory of engaging with the account, is a scary syndrome I elected to take as personal, instead of allowing it to guide my assessment of her art and public engagements. 

The same Ms. Shoneyin once had me, along with writers B. M. Dzukogi and Ahmed Maiwada, delisted from a cliquey Yahoo listserv of Nigerian writers, Krazitivity, for airing dissenting views. And it did not come as shock that neither of these two influential writers received invitations to KADAFEST, an arts festival in a region they have high stake in. In the past two years, no Nigerian writer, north or south of the Niger, has promoted literature among teenagers as Dzukogi has, as co-founder of Annual Schools Carnival of Arts and Festival of Songs (ASCAFS) held in Minna since 1995, and founder Hill-Top Arts Foundation dedicated to mentoring aspiring young writers, poets, painters and thinkers. The foundation organises the Nigerian Festival of Teen Authors (NIFESTEENA), a new literary festival for teen authors and artists from all the states of the federation and the FCT. But I was impressed that both Dzukogi and Maiwada, a foremost arts patron, poet and novelist, have also disagreed with the boycott advocates. 

I also explained my opinion of Ms. Shoneyin to the boycotting writers, and restated my support for her event despite that. We need more attention to these dusty shelves of our society, and philistine perception of literature as an inessential luxury by our policymakers. When a diseased citizen boycotts a hospital funded by the government he or she disapproves of, what’s misapplied isn’t emotion, it’s wisdom.  

Writing may be a vocation of cliques, but their politics shouldn’t determine one’s participation in literary events. One can only be rattled by being a persona-non-grata if a proposed event had been declared open only for members, or strictly by invitation. A grudging event planner only matters to those idle, what should really do is convenience. And it’s this that determined, just this week, my confirmation of an invitation to the prestigious Iowa International Writing Program, "the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world," a competitive three-month residency annually hosted by the University of Iowa, United States. This year, as though the organisers had tracked our conversations – and pettiness – the program, as hinted in the letter, will also explore our dilemma: 'Vital Role Writers Play in Civil Society.'" 

So, Ms. Shoneyin or Malam el-Rufai shouldn’t be the reason for your absence at KADAFEST, the reason must be convenience or interest. Even Fela Kuti, who lived a life of perpetually uncompromising rebellion, was more practical about government-sponsored arts festival than the impulsive hardliners. When, in 1976, he was invited to a meeting of the national organising committee set to by the military government to deliberate on the hosting of Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC '77), he didn't decline. He went all the way to Kano to attend the meeting, which took place at Bagauda Hotel.

His resignation came later, and not for the fact that government shouldn't host a festival to promote arts, but his realisation, having interacted with the organizing committee, that "FESTAC was just one big hustle, so a whole lot of little military men and useless politicians could fill their pockets. They chop plenty-plenty naira." This was a legitimate excuse for his boycott. 

Though under Mr. Ikhide’s Facebook post, a commenter called KADAFEST too a “hustle,” called Ms. Shoneyin a serial contractor for government after government, and cited her role in former President Jonathan's short-lived Bring Back the Book project which he dismissed as a profligate propaganda, none has come as hard as Fela, and with an evidence, in charging the organising team of self-enrichment. 


Gimba Kakanda

@GimbaKakanda on Twitter