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On the 27th day of June 1981, at the scenic academic haven of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, with Ngugi wa Thiong’o as observer, 50 Nigerian writers converged at the bequest of the late novelist Chinua Achebe, to debate the desirability of an association of the Nigerian writers. Thence, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) was born.

The Association of Nigerian Authors will be celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The association is partnering with Praxis Magazine to publish interviews, essays, reviews, and other materials that highlight the essence and growth of the association. First in the series is the speech as delivered by Chinua Achebe, founding President of ANA, at the gathering of notable personalities in Nigerian literature:

June 27, 1981

I think it is appropriate to begin with the announcement of the death a week ago of our distinguished colleague, Dr. Abubakar Imam, the veteran Hausa writer whose presence at this gathering I had particularly looked forward to. Dr. Imam’s work in Hausa is analogous to Chief Fagunwa’s pioneering achievements in Yoruba and, to a lesser degree, Pita Nwana’s in Igbo; but I believe that Abubakar Imam explored a wider range of human experience in his fiction than his two contemporaries.

Although he was a living legend in literate Hausaland, and although he received the Nigerian National Merit Award “for the highest intellectual achievement” in 1979, I shouldn’t be in the least surprised if few people, even in this knowledgeable audience, as much as knew his name; so prodigious is our ignorance of ourselves and the things that belong to our peace!

I read of Abubakar Imam’s death at the age of seventy in a brief inconspicuous news-report in which his role as editor of Gaskiya was quite typically (and of course quite erroneously) given greater prominence than his enormous achievement as a fiction writer.

I knew Abubakar Imam only slightly but he struck me at once by his quiet strength and great wit. Shall we rise briefly in his memory?… May his work live after him!

After that sad beginning I want to move to more cheering news. First of all I must thank all those who have assisted us in various ways in bringing this occasion about.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Professor F. N. Ndili, deserves our special gratitude for agreeing to host the Convention. Those of us who know the physical, financial and other limitations under which this institution labours will fully appreciate this generosity born out of goodwill rather than plenitude.

We must thank the Federal Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture and, under his aegis, the National Council for Arts and Culture and its energetic secretary whose encouragement and initial grant facilitated the planning of the Convention. By his presence here, the Hon. Minister has shown that culture is perhaps not to be dismissed lightly as a poor-relation of Youth, and Sports.

Writers are by instinct and (one may add, experience) somewhat sceptical of governments. We fear them even when they bear gifts; even when their gifts are channeled through innocuous-seeming parastatals like the National Council for Arts and Culture. This scepticism is healthy and appropriate. But the West Indian artist and scholar, Professor Rex Nettleford certainly had a point when he told the Commonwealth Arts Association that we should be less worried about the Minister of Culture than by the culture of the Minister. I think we are lucky that Chief Amadike is a far-cry from that other Minister of Culture, Chief Nanga!

We thank you, Sir, for your words of encouragement.

I must conclude these expressions of gratitude by mentioning the financial contribution and logistic support given to the Convention by Heinemann Educational Books (of Ibadan, Nairobi and London) which has enabled our brother from Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to visit Nigeria at this time and observe our proceedings.

I am sure, ladies and gentlemen, that you will now expect me to explain why I have taken the liberty to summon this glittering array of writers and other distinguished people away from their homes and accustomed commitments to this out-of-the-way corner of Nigeria at this time.

The first reason is that I wanted you to experience how nice and easy it is for you to get away from your homes and usual commitments for a spell in unusual corners of Nigeria! As escapist corners go, Nsukka is not without a certain charm!

But seriously I believe that an association of writers should have been long in existence in this country. The fact that it is not may be due in part to the individualistic (some might even say, egocentric) shortcomings of writers. But the traumatic consequences of the first violent decade of our national history must also bear a part in this. For we did have the beginnings of a Society of Nigerian Authors (SONA) which met once a month at the Exhibition Centre on Marina, Lagos in the middle sixties. I recall vividly the last meeting we held on a certain Friday in January, 1966 during which J.P Clark who had just read an advance copy of A Man of the People, and bubbling over with excitement, said to me: “Chinua, you are a prophet. Everything you say in this book has happened except a coup,” or words to that effect. As it turned out that very night a coup did happen which, among other things, put an end to the Society of Nigerian Authors, and very nearly the Nigerian society itself.

But that is well behind us now. And I thought it was time we made a new beginning. And since ten years have passed and no one else has called this meeting, I have taken the liberty to do so. And before anyone attributes more to me than I care to lay claim to, let me say that my intention is limited to putting the idea of a convention to my fellow practitioners of the written words for their consideration.

Not everybody believes that such refractory individualists as writers often are wont or should be organised into associations. Not everybody who accepts the principle of an association will consider a national body (as opposed, for instance, to an internationalone) either necessary or desirable.

The point I am making, for the benefit of the press and others present in the role of friends and well-wishers, is that at this plenary stage (before our business meeting this afternoon) it might be risky to rush to conclusions. All we are doing is thinking aloud whether or not we should have a Convention of Nigerian Authors.

It would be dishonest, however, if I did not give any indication of my own preference in this matter. After all I had the temerity to call you all together!

I believe that an association is necessary for two very simple reasons. The first has to do with the business side of writing; with such matters as contracts, copyright, translations, royalty negotiations, etc., which most writers find uninterested and burdensome but still have to contend with. These and such matters as assistance to new and aspiring writers or help to writers in distress are best handled organisationally in the general interest of the profession.

The other reason is more grave and fundamental: the freedom and safety of writers in society. I have no doubt that in the long run the best guarantee of this freedom and safety is an enlightened and humane public opinion. But we are nowhere near the long run; we are very much in the short one. And in that condition enlightenment and humaneness are mere dreams for idealists. Therefore writers must seek some of their safety in their own organisation and numbers. In the cosy optimism in which most of us elite Nigerians live and move and have our being, danger may seem far-fetched. But behind the smiling façade of the present dispensation slouches the rough best of fanaticism – religious fanaticism, ethnic fanaticism and political fanaticism. Let me illustrate briefly with what I have read and seen in the last two weeks alone.

A columnist in one of our leading national dailies wrote approvingly of Iran as the one country in the Third World, which has successfully checked the onslaught of both East and West with the effective weapon of religion. This was about two weeks ago. This week we have all read and heard that among the strange things happening in Iran was the execution of a poet, Said Soltanpur, for crimes of “earthly corruption” and “war on God”.

It is hardly necessary to say more on the matter. Writers are natural sceptics and there is no way they can be safe in any atmosphere of religious fanaticism. I used to wonder why Bertrand Russell held that one of the greatest evils introduced into the world by religion is the notion of righteousness which, incidentally, the Jews must take the credit for inventing. But looking at the contemporary world and contemporary Nigeria infested with all kinds of dangerous lunatics who believe in their own righteous justification to commit crime in the name of God, we must understand what Bertrand Russell was talking about.

And now to political fanaticism. Do we need prophetic insights to see the deadly portents? And again the real source of worry is not the existence of fanaticism but the absence of any genuine force of public sentiment to check its manifestation and prevent a consolidation of incipient fascism. The other day a State Governor said to an airport press conference: “Damn it, I am the government!” and he received an ovation and delighted laughter instead of shocked silence. Louis XIV of France said precisely the same thing more than three hundred years ago. He not only ruined France but two reigns later his descendants paid for it with his head in a revolution that unleashed a horrendous blood-bath in that country. Perhaps an airport conference is not the ideal place to gauge the enlightenment and political sophistication of a country.

Perhaps things are better in the sober, intellectual atmosphere of the academe. If you think so, I have bad news for you. About the same time another chief executive told an audience at this University: “Politics is power, and nobody gives up power peacefully.” He was applauded. By academics! In a seat of enlightenment!

My concern here is not what politicians say or do but the absence of a countervailing tradition of enlightened criticism and dissent. I am not talking about our accustomed factional and inter-party squabbles that are largely devoid of objective ideas and principle. I am saying that in this situation a writer who must be free, whose second nature is to dance to a “different drummer” and not march like a Boy Scout, such person has no choice really but to run great risks. And we had better know it and prepare for it.

I shall say no more. Indeed I suspect that some of my friends may be wondering whether I have not said too much already for a plenary session. But I have no apologies. The business of writing has no truck with secret societies. What we say to ourselves as writers we can also say openly to our readers. We are one open fraternity.

One last word. When I said in my opening remarks that I had particularly looked forward to the participation at this convention of the late Abubakar Imam, what I had in mind was that his presence would have given a powerful and venerable indication on a new emphasis on, or even awareness of, literature in indigenous Nigerian languages. There are, however, I am glad to say, other writers here today who will represent in our deliberations the crucial interest of our native tongues, and who will display at the poetry reading tomorrow some of the literary harvest already garnered in the prosecution of that interest.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all for coming and for your patience.

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