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A Look at Literary Festivals in 2015: The Rise and Death of Two Literary Festivals


The 2015 election did not just engender a change in government, it also led to the death of at least two prominent literary festivals in Nigeria- the Mohammed Babangida Aliyu (MBA) Literary Colloquium and the Port Harcourt Book Festival-.These two festivals not only helped to educate and inform the public, they also helped in improving the standard of reading and literature in Nigeria, as great writers from within and outside Nigeria usually attended to rub minds with not just readers across the country but school children in Niger and Rivers states. Correspondent ADEOLA OGUNRINDE looks at the literary festivals in 2015 and the growth of Nigerian writers globally…

The year 2015 witnessed new beginnings particularly for Nigerian writers, from Chigozie Obioma, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the United Kingdom, to Igoni Barret, who is having a strong hold on the International scene with his second novel Blackass released in 2015. Also, Lesley Arimah won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize with her story entitled “Light” while Elnathan John welcomed his first novel ‘Born on Tuesday’ after he was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2015. Teju Cole and Helon Habila were awarded with the Windham Campbell Prize worth $150,000 in the early months of 2015. But all these didn’t affect the fortune of some Nigerian literary festivals.
…Port Harcourt Book Festival
In Africa, Port-Harcourt Festival was a festival every writer on the African soil yearned to be invited to. It all started when Hon. Chibuke Ameachi became the Governor of Rivers State and then book reading began to take different forms and shapes in and around Port-Harcourt. The idea was that of Koko Kalango, Chief Executive Officer of Rainbow Book Club, and former Governor Ameachi did not only give birth to it, he also nurtured what would eventually bring a world book capital for the very first time to Sub-Sahara Africa.
Port Harcourt Book Festival first held its inaugural festival in 2008. The festival brought many African writers to Port-Harcourt to discuss the happenings around the continent. Past and present writers and those aspiring to be writers all looked forward to this literary festival. It became a foremost festival, which many African literary giants and emerging writers across Africa looked forward to, hoping and wishing that organisers would get them to participate in the event every year. The festival brought many notable African writers such as Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chimamanda Adichie and many more to Port-Harcourt, known as the Garden City. Port-Harcourt residents welcomed to the city strange faces who only know the city by pointing at its location on the world map while school children in Port-Harcourt were opportuned to meet writers who they may never meet in their lifetime except through the writers’ work or if the school children happen to travel abroad. The students bought books at affordable prices during the festival while the writers had interactive sessions with some students at the event. Port-Harcourt Book Festival aroused and awakened the book spirit in many other Africans within and outside Nigeria who were surprised at the crowd the festival brought into the city year after year with the increasing flights in and out of Port-Harcourt during the festival.
This partnership between Kalango and Ameachi created different reading groups, springing from one end of Port-Harcourt to the other. UNESCO became aware of this literary flowering and by 2013, UNESCO declared Port-Harcourt World Book Capital 2014. Prof. Soyinka was invited to pronounce the commencement of the World Book Capital in 2014 where the Caine Prize 2014 shortlist was announced. Many literary minds across Africa were delighted about this development owing to the fact that Port-Harcourt was the first city to be so recognized in Sub-Saharan Africa by UNESCO as a book capital. But those who were happy at this development in literature, education, etc didn’t know the festival would not last. They did not know it would only hold for a while like that of the MBA Colloquium in Niger State. Many writers across Africa were looking forward to the 2015 edition but the Port Harcourt Book Festival did not hold in 2015 perhaps due to the hot political climate in Rivers State occasioned by the 2015 election.
…MBA Literary Colloquium
MBA Literary Colloquium was a well-known literary festival in Northern Nigeria, which lasted for four years. It began during the second term of Dr. Mohammed Babagida Aliyu as Governor of Niger State. The festival brought writers within and outside the country with Prof. Soyinka and the late Gimba among the writers usually invited when the literary festival flourished. The festival was a meeting point for readers, writers and school children particularly from Northern Nigeria who have read several works of the writers. At the colloquium, they had an opportunity to not just meet the writers, they also discussed the works of the writers. Regrettably, the seedling, which was planted with much enthusiasm, was not given much watering for it to grow. And so it went down in 2015 just like the Port Harcourt Book Festival.
Speaking with literary critics and writers on whether projects like the Port-Harcourt Book Festival and the Colloquium should be tied to a governor who has a short tenure in office, former Chairman of Association of Nigerian Writers, Dagar Tolar, said since the collapse of Ife Book Festival, Port- Harcourt Book Festival drew the attention of the world back to Nigeria. Tolar is of the opinion that political rivalry shouldn’t lead to the end of great festivals, which does not only benefit Nigerians but Africa as a whole.
Publisher Parresia Books, Richard Ali, in a phone conversation with WESTERN POST, said the sponsorship of Port-Harcourt Book Festival shouldn’t be a personal project of any governor. While commending Ameachi on the giant step he took by giving birth to the book festival, he noted that the mindset of the people should be changed from regarding such a festival as a personal project, noting that the Department of Culture and Tourism in Rivers State should have a budget for the festival.
Ahmed Maiwada was a regular participant since the commencement of MBA Literary Colloquium in 2011. A lawyer based in Abuja, Maiwada believes the MBA Literary Colloquium would have further encouraged the reading culture in the North especially as the Boko Haram insurgency rages. According to him, “for the short time the festival was held, I saw young school-children come in to meet great writers. On their faces I saw a hope to become something, which was greater than insurgency.”
…What Next?
Looking at literary festivals outside Nigeria and even in Africa, there are many festivals celebrating partnerships and growth every year which has not only improved education in these countries but has also helped to create jobs. Frankfurt Book Fair is the biggest literary festival in Germany where the Nobel Prize for literature is announced every year. The job created by this festival every year runs into thousands for the German citizens.
Apart from the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Convention, Lagos Books and Arts Festival and Ake Arts and Books Festival are the only major literary festival, which bring writers and readers in from within and outside Nigeria. During the 2015 Ake Arts and Book Festival , the pan-African literary prize,  Etisalat Prize for Literature, announced the 2015 longlist and this has set tongues wagging across Africa that Africans may have begun to rise to the challenge in book festivals. But the question in the lips of many remains – how long will literary festivals like this lasts with the death of two literary festivals in 2015 due to lack of commitment to it and funding?

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