There is a certain resemblance between Chuma Nwokolo and the Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo who in 1967, abandoned the pen and took to the battle field to fight for a cause he believed in; forty-eight years later, what we have is Chuma Nwokolo, writer and lawyer, who also seems to be retiring from writing fiction in pursuance of a more realistic and disturbing situation.
With over six books to his name, Nigerian Chuma Nwokolo is taking a break from literature as he seeks to solve, directly, the persistent issue of corruption in Nigeria through the BribeCode. He speaks to Praxis about his writing life, his books and of course, the BribeCode.
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What does writing mean to you?
Writing and thinking go hand-in-glove, and my first writings were a teenager’s way of making sense of a strange and difficult world. Today, it’s still a way of freezing perspectives of reality into text that can be reexamined at leisure. Writing has grown in many ways, but it is still basically therapeutic for me. I cut life to size by boiling it down into inspired paragraphs.
So you have been writing for a long time then?
Yes, I published my first novel in my teen years.
Interesting! But you seem to live quite a reclusive life as a writer; away from the bustle and fame that come with acquiring literary prizes. I would like to know what you think of literary prizes and their impacts on writers.
I suppose I have the practised derision for literary prizes of a writer that does not win literary prizes. I am comfortable in the freedom of that reclusive ghetto where I work as documentarian to a certain imagination. Literary prizes are great fun for the winners. They can gift a writer both a living and an audience – which are sometimes critical to the future output of the writer. They do come with their gilded cages: I imagine that prize winners thereafter have to write like prize winners… but that is a small price to pay.
But like every other competition, they can also be soul-destroying to those who set their hearts upon them, and fall short, and for those who measure their own success by the contents of their prize cabinets. So the impact of literary prizes extends beyond the annual winners’ rolls to the volume of prize-tailored-books in a canon, and the cynical, if theoretic, ability of a billionaire who slaps down a literary purse to say to a generation of writers, ‘write like this’, of publishers, ‘publish like this’, and of readers, ‘read like this’.
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You were a guest at this year’s Hargeysa International Book Fair (HIBF). Why do you think you were selected from Nigeria and what was the experience like?
I had been, what you might call, a frequent flyer to Hargeysa and Somaliland in the sense that it was my third invitation in a row to the festival. This most recent edition of the HIBF featured Nigeria as a guest country so in a way it probably seemed logical to the organisers to ask me back as a member of the Nigerian delegation, along with poet Niyi Osundare and novelist Okey Ndibe. The book fair offered us an open window into Somali literature but through it, we also glimpsed the generous soul of the people. For us, it was a look into an alternate universe of an African country with a vigorous and unapologetic literature published in an African language. The Somalis are a famously poetic people and their public response to literature, both theirs and foreign, simply has to be witnessed. I was impressed at the flowering of their culture in song and dance, in poetry and performance.
In what other ways have you contributed to the growth of African literature?
Christopher Okigbo said to wake his corpse at the altar to finish a poem. Even if you woke mine up at the same address, I still couldn’t answer this question!
Ha ha. What then would you say is lacking in African literature today?
A lot of great things are happening in our literature, but the ground floor is also broken. We need better infrastructure across the board in fundamental areas, in the publishing process, in printing and distribution. There are also deficits in our craft, in criticism, in translation, in the writing and reading of popular literature.
How can this be handled?
Our governments can deliver 99% literacy over the next generation. Literature is written to be read. Apart from enriching the minds and lives of their citizens, universal literacy fleshes out the ground floor for popular literature which is foundation for everything else.
We need to break the Berlin Conference language borders across Africa with structures for reading and translating one another. I am illiterate in the official language of my neighbours to the west (Benin) the north (Niger) and most of the east (Cameroon) and that’s a shame. The next generation of writers and readers must be multilingual in African and received languages. We need to deepen scholarship in literature by making it interdisciplinary at an organic level. We must fertilize our sciences and commerce with the creativity of the literary. We should professionalise publishing once again, to improve the literary, editorial and production quality of the books appearing in our schools and shelves.
Talking about books; from your One More Tale for the Road, Diaries of a Dead African, Ghost of Sani Abacha to How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. 1; humour, sarcasm and satire, are predominant devices explored in these books . Did you choose to adopt and be associated-consciously so-with these styles?
I suspect that when anger simmers with the flavours of the Nigerian street what emerges, after many, many, years, will be a satirical kind of humour. No conscious adoption, I think. But it works for me in the same way that bitter leaf – when washed long enough – becomes the base of a particularly delectable dish. I write for myself, and the only reason to reread a sad story, whose ending you still remember, is that it is beautifully told, in a funny kind of way.
There are also hints on your social media posts of how you’re slowly quitting fiction to face the real world because of your agitation over the state of things in Nigeria. Book readings; which you used to have frequently all over Nigeria, have declined. And your readers are still waiting for the second volume of your book, How to Spell Naija in 100Short Stories. What can one make of this? Are you retiring from writing fiction for real?
It boiled down to the question whether I was practising fiction or farce. The system is too broken for self-deception. Why should a writer on the road to a school reading find more child hawkers on the streets than kids in the classroom? What does fiction have to say to that farce? There is a rank immorality at the heart of our gentility. The purity of writing is a privilege that the drowning cannot indulge. When your roof begins to burn, there is a moment of decision whether to reach for the pen and write a novel on fire, or seek water. I’ll never stop being a writer, indeed that’s what I am doing, answering these questions. But right now, I’m also fetching water.
The second volume of How to Spell Naija in 100Short Stories was ready last year. Indeed I did begin to release some stories via okadabooks.com… before the argument and timing for the BribeCode became irresistible. How to Spell Naija Vol. II will come, it is bereft of a single-minded champion, but it will choose its time. It will come.
Is this saying then that writing doesn’t impact much change?
A book has no chance of changing you, if you can’t read it. Too many pupils leave our secondary schools without functional reading skills. We have 35 million officially illiterate adults. There are millions more functional literates whose situation is too desperate for books. And the scenario will not get better without drastic intervention because with 10.5 million children out of school, we have the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. We break records like that.
So this could be the reason why, earlier this year, you introduced the BribeCode. Could you please say more on it; what exactly is the BribeCode?
Our most grievous problems in Africa revolve around Governance. We are campaigning for signatures for the BribeCode, a Corporate Corruption Act which we are proposing for the National Assembly. When it is passed into law it will make serious corruption offences by companies punishable by liquidation rather than mere fines – there is a modification of this punishment for public companies. It will reward whistle blowers with a percentage of the liquidated assets, and it will make the liquidation proceedings enforceable by any attorney general in Nigeria. The law will create a zero-tolerance environment for grand corruption. All the details are available online at www.bribecode.org.
You do believe that if corruption is wiped out, Nigeria would be transformed; become a less violent and a peaceful place?
I do. And we do not even have to ‘wipe out’ corruption to achieve true transformation. It is enough to dethrone it as the operating principle of state policy. Right now, ethical companies are endangered in our endemically corrupt society. We can reverse that. Right now our major political offices are client to godfathers and special interests. We can change that. Good leadership can mean the difference between war and peace, between development and stagnation, so yes: I believe that we can transform not just Nigeria but Africa if we tame corruption and elevate good governance above impunity.
Why should everyone be part of the BribeCode?
Because the public should understand that their interests do not always coincide with the personal interests of their lawmakers. The Office of the Citizen in the new dispensation is as critical to a viable democracy as that of the President. We have to be involved. The BribeCode is designed to eliminate godfatherism from politics and public administration so legislators sponsored by godfathers cannot be enthusiastic about this law – unless a vocal public makes its position clear, especially with the Recall provisions in the constitution. So the BribeCode will pass as a ‘public-supported bill’ or not at all.
What makes the BribeCode different from other laws against corruption; if those are not working, why do you think the BribeCode would?
The other laws, are just that: laws. The BribeCode is a system which works together with the other laws to create a self-regulatory system of anti-corruption enforcement. Every government usually has one or two officers at the helm of anti-corruption enforcement and once such public officials are corrupt, inept, or in a godfather’s goody bag, it is business as usual in Naija Plc. The BribeCode creates an enforcement system that cannot be pocketed by a godfather, party or clique: Any of Nigeria’s 37 attorneys general can bring action and liquidate a company guilty of serious corruption, so there is no hiding place. Secondly, it monetizes information, creating a system that propels secrets about corruption deals from beer parlours to the authorities. Thirdly, it creates a penalty that cannot merely be written down to ‘business expenses’ and passed on to the Nigerian consumer by way of higher prices. All in all, the BribeCode creates a self-regulatory system which brings the efficiency and energy of private enterprise to the solution of our most existential problem in Africa.
How has the reception of the BribeCode been so far?
Public reception has been incredibly positive. My own enthusiasm has been put in the shade by the passion of the supporters of the BribeCode. I think that what makes a difference is the knowledge that even though we were born into this anomalous environment, it is not inevitable; there is in fact something relatively straightforward we can do about it.
How can people sign up for the BribeCode?
They can visit here. Alternatively they can send an email message with their details (name, address, and an indication whether or not they have a Permanent Voter’s Card) to firstname.lastname@example.org Again they can text that information to +234 817 8200 382.
What are your hopes for Nigeria?
I hope for a people-oriented nation that calls out the best from her citizens. I want a state that considers every last street child, every vulnerable person, an intimate member of its extended family, and acts accordingly. I want a country that plays its manifest role as a trigger and enabler for Africa’s development.
Thank you, Chuma Nwokolo. It’s such a great pleasure talking to you.