BREAKING NEWS: Nigeria Government still placed My Name on a List of Enemies of the State -Dr. OKEY NDIBE, foremost author, scholar, Shearing Fellow at University of Nevada, Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, English Department, ST. Lawrence University … Buhari administration will be remembered as unrelieved, unmitigated disaster *‘Each time I arrive at the airport, whether coming into Nigeria or leaving-I’m detained for questioning. Often, the detention lasts between thirty minutes and an hour. But on one occasion, I was held overnight, for more than ten hours, at the DSS’s airport facility’ *‘I have chosen not to be afraid when I travel to Nigeria or any other country in the world. When I’m in Nigeria, I bask in the warmth and affection of relatives, friends and fans. I hardly have time to consider the possibility of threats to my safety or life’ *‘If Nigeria were a nation founded on law, Nnamdi Kanu would not still languish in detention after a court had ordered his release. The Nigerian government is the greatest and most powerful agent of criminality in the space called Nigeria’ *‘Peter Obi is promising in terms of physical conditioning, engagement with the issues as Nigeria’s in-coming president’ *Discusses secrets behind the success of his best seller novels, plus evergreen moments as Chair of judges for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African writing *BY GEORGE ELIJAH OTUMU/AMERICAN Senior Investigative Editor

BREAKING NEWS:

Nigeria Government still placed My Name on a List of Enemies of the State

-Dr. OKEY NDIBE, foremost author, scholar, Shearing Fellow at University of Nevada, Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, English Department, ST. Lawrence University

Buhari administration will be remembered as unrelieved, unmitigated disaster

*‘Each time I arrive at the airport, whether coming into Nigeria or leaving-I’m detained for questioning. Often, the detention lasts between thirty minutes and an hour. But on one occasion, I was held overnight, for more than ten hours, at the DSS’s airport facility’

*‘I have chosen not to be afraid when I travel to Nigeria or any other country in the world. When I’m in Nigeria, I bask in the warmth and affection of relatives, friends and fans. I hardly have time to consider the possibility of threats to my safety or life’

*‘If Nigeria were a nation founded on law, Nnamdi Kanu would not still languish in detention after a court had ordered his release. The Nigerian government is the greatest and most powerful agent of criminality in the space called Nigeria’

*‘Peter Obi is promising in terms of physical conditioning, engagement with the issues as Nigeria’s in-coming president’

*Discusses secrets behind the success of his best seller novels, plus evergreen moments as Chair of judges for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African writing

 

HE IS A HIGHLY CELEBRATED AUTHOR, Scholar, Journalist and Academic don. OKEY NDIBE has become a giant in the literary world, with a specialty in African writing. A busy man and far traveling media professional with a busy schedule. In this rare exclusive interview with GEORGE ELIJAH OTUMU, AMERICAN Senior Investigative Editor with NAIJA STANDARD NEWSPAPER, this great novelist touched on various burning national issues pertaining the ‘Nigeria 2023 election, his unforgettable experience as Chair of judges for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African writing, appraisal of the Muhammadu Buhari administration in respect of performance and Department of State Security Service flagrant disobedience of court orders and secrets behind his best-selling novels’, among others. 

Ndibe worked in Nigeria as a journalist and magazine editor, and came to the United States in 1988 at the invitation of famous Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. In the United States, Ndibe helped to found African Commentary, a magazine described as “award-winning and widely acclaimed”. Ndibe holds both an MFA in writing and a PhD in literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He continued to write for magazines and papers in the United States, winning the 2001 Association of Opinion Page Editors award for best opinion essay in an American newspaper for his piece “Eyes to the Ground: The Perils of the Black Student”.

Ndibe has worked as a professor at several colleges, including Connecticut College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Trinity College at Simon’s Rock, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and Brown University.  He is currently the Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Also, Viebranz Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, English Department, ST. Lawrence University. Ndibe is an author of short fiction, novels, poetry and political commentary. He is a regular columnist for NEXT, a Nigerian newspaper. He also contributes to many other publications

NAIJA STANDARD: You served as the Chair of judges for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African writing. A Kenyan writer, Idza Luhumyo, won the prestigious prize. What criteria informed the choice of this winner in the keenly contested competition?

OKEY: The panel of judges read a total of 267 submissions, from which we picked a shortlist of five. The shortlisted stories demonstrated sophistication, elegance, and ambition. So, yes, we had a magnificent pool of contestants. Even so, the judges felt that Luhumyo’s entry, titled “Five Years Next Sunday,” was a cut above. The story combined winsome writing, enchanting craftsmanship and thematic breadth.

NAIJA STANDARD: What are the objectives and aim of the Caine Prize for African writing?

OKEY: The answer to this question is available on the website, caineprize.com. Let me quote it in full: “The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is a registered charity whose aim is to bring African writing to a wider audience using our annual literary award. In addition to administering the Prize, we work to connect readers with African writers through a series of public events, as well as helping emerging writers in Africa to enter the world of mainstream publishing through the annual Caine Prize writers’ workshop which takes place in a different African country each year.

“The stories written at Caine Prize workshops are published annually alongside the Prize’s shortlisted stories in the annual Caine Prize Anthology by Cassava Republic Press in the UK and publishers African countries including, Jacana Media (South Africa), Cassava Republic (Nigeria), FEMRITE (Uganda); Gadsen Publishers (Zambia), ‘amaBooks (Zimbabwe), Langaa (Cameroon); and Mkuku na Nyota (Tanzania).

 

“It is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker Plc., who was Chairman of the ‘Africa 95’ arts festival in Europe and Africa in 1995 and for nearly 25 years Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee. After his death, friends and colleagues decided to establish a prize of £10,000 to be awarded annually in his memory.”

NAIJA STANDARD: Are there ways African writers may use their various platforms to write thought-provoking short stories that could help shape positive policy formulation for the entire African populace or write literary books to hold corrupt African leaders accountable?

OKEY: The answer is at once obvious and nuanced. Yes, any writer who so wishes can put her or his art and platform to the service of any vision, including a struggle against corruption and other abuses, or in favor of any specific policy goals. I’d like to add, however, that the way a creative artist pursues this sort of goal is often advisedly subtle. A poem, novel or short story is, first and foremost, a work of art. True, the aesthetic product we call art, a short story or poem is broad and elastic, capable of extension in different directions, including as a means of exploring ethical issues. Yet, once a work of art fails at the aesthetic level, chances are it won’t even engage readers enough to have any political impact or moral purchase. Of course, a creative writer has options. She or he reserves the right to use other modes of expression – for example, an essay or lecture – to advance policy ideas or political causes.

NAIJA STANDARD: Your books, Arrows of Rain (novel, 2000), Foreign Gods, Inc. (novel 2014), and Never Look an American in the Eye (memoir, 2016) remain best-selling books till date. What inspired these various book titles?

OKEY: The title of my first novel, Arrows of Rain, was inspired by a folktale that’s central to the novel’s theme. A people beset by drought hope for – and supplicate – for rainfall. In moderation, rainfall is an amazing gift. It awakens and enriches the soil, teasing it to yield a rich harvest that sustains a community. Yet, there’s malevolent rain. It comes in the form of fiery storms. These storms often precipitate destructive floods and other ecological disasters.

At the center of my second novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., is a strange, imaginary gallery based in New York City. This gallery, which bears the name of my novel, buys and sells the statues of traditional deities and other relics of animist practices. In the novel, I set out to demonstrate an absurdist angle to consumerist culture – a situation where the wealthy in the US, Europe and Asia have taken to collecting the statues of gods as well as other sacred objects. It’s a tragicomic novel that also portrays the price immigrants often pay in pursuit of that elusive but tantalizing thing called the American dream.

The title of my memoir came from advice my uncle gave me just before I left Nigeria for the US. Having watched several Westerns with sharpshooting cowboys, my uncle had formed the impression that every American carried a gun – and would shoot you if you looked them in the eye. So he warned me never to look any American in the eye!  

NAIJA STANDARD: Looking critically at Africa, why do you think good leadership has been so difficult for public office holders to attain in making life easier for the masses?

OKEY: This a complex issue, worthy of a deeper level of analysis than can be made in a brief interview. Clearly, part of the problem lies in the very nature of the organization of African countries. Close to fifty of the countries in Africa were created by colonial fiat, with zero volition by the various people caught within disparate national boundaries. From the outset, there was little or no sense of a shared national identity. In too many African countries, inept politicians frequently secure public office by trading on religious or ethnic sentiments. The populace – in other words, the masses – are often susceptible to the illogic that ethnic identity trumps ethical considerations. It’s easy for a corrupt politician or bureaucrat to get away with impunity by appealing to his or her ethno-religious base.

We have to cultivate moral principles and energize patriotic ethos in many parts of Africa. Public education is key. When the masses realize that bad leaders impoverish everybody, including those who belong to their ethnic or religious groups, they will begin to enthrone visionary leaders and resist wretched ones across the board.

NAIJA STANDARD: On several occasions when you visited Nigeria in the past, you were allegedly questioned by the nation’s secret police, Department of State Services (DSS) at the airport. Why was that when you are an accomplished academic who has brought glory to Africa globally? 

OKEY: When the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua occupied Aso Rock, his administration put my name on a list of enemies of the state. I believe I earned that designation because of my principled stance – clearly stated in my column at the time – that Yar’Adua was not legitimately elected president. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo had first imposed Yar’Adua on the PDP as the party’s presidential candidate, and subsequently illicitly enthroned him as president. Yar’Adua himself admitted that the election that produced him was irregular, but claimed he would have won in a credible contest.

 For me, that made it worse. If you would have won legitimately, why rig -or allow Obasanjo’s machinery to manipulate the polls on your behalf? Anyway, I was defiant that he wasn’t my president. In my columns, I called him resident or occupant of Aso Rock, sometimes Usurper, but never addressed him as President Yar’Adua. In response, his regime added me to a list of enemies of the state. I know that former President Goodluck Jonathan ordered that my name be expunged from that list, but the DSS never carried out the order. As we speak, my name is still there. Each time I arrive at the airport – whether coming into Nigeria or leaving – I’m detained for questioning. Often, the detention lasts between thirty minutes and an hour. But on one occasion, I was held overnight, for more than ten hours, at the DSS’s airport facility.

NAIJA STANDARD: Was there anytime in the past or till now your life has been under any kind of threat by Nigeria’s Security Services operative?

OKEY: I happen to believe that fear is a choice. I’ve chosen not to be afraid when I travel to Nigeria or any other country in the world. When I’m in Nigeria, I bask in the warmth and affection of relatives, friends and fans. I hardly have time to consider the possibility of threats to my safety or life. It’s not in my nature. At any rate, I believe that- as James Baldwin once said-you can’t live well if you’re terrified of death.

NAIJA STANDARD: Recently, Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian political activist agitating for Biafra’s emergence, has raised an alarm that his health is failing fast inside the DSS dungeon where he’s being detained. Why do you think the Nigerian government on several occasions disobeyed court order on the release of Kanu?

OKEY: Let’s be clear: the Nigerian government is the greatest and most powerful agent of criminality in the space called Nigeria. Brazen defiance of court judgments by Nigerian governments and other entities is not a new phenomenon. If Nigeria were a nation founded on law, Nnamdi Kanu would not still languish in detention after a court had ordered his release. Whether one agrees with the agitation for Biafra, or not, is immaterial. I happen to believe that the Nigerian state is not sacred, and its boundaries are not immutable. Kanu has a considerable followership precisely because Nigeria has failed to serve the dreams of the vast majority of its citizenship. His continued detention helps make his case that Nigeria is a lawless, nightmarish country. It’s wrong, plain and simple.

NAIJA STANDARD: The incumbent presidency of Muhammadu Buhari administration is coming to an end soon. How will you remember the eight years of his tenure under the All Progressives Congress (APC political party)?

OKEY: There’s no point garnishing what should be self-evident truth. The Buhari administration is – and will be remembered as – pure, unrelieved, unmitigated disaster.

NAIJA STANDARD:  In February 2023, almost 39 million Nigerians will vote to elect a new president to lead the nation. From Atiku Abubakar (PDP), to Bola Ahmed Tinubu (APC), Peter Obi (Labour party) to Rabiu Kwankwaso (NNPP): whom among these aspirants do you think deserve to lead the nation and will make life more meaningful to the people?

OKEY: Nigeria is in such tragic shape that I have called for the cancellation of next year’s election. In its stead, I have proposed the setting up of an emergency interim rescue government-mandated with determining whether Nigerians wish to stick together as one polity, and under what terms; drawing up a new constitution; fixing the country’s non-existent or dilapidated infrastructure; tackling the country’s manifold security crises; and setting healthy ground rules for future political activities. That remains my position. Under the current conditions, I don’t see any new president making much of a dent in tackling the country’s crippling crises. In terms of those considered leading presidential candidates, there’s no question that Peter Obi is promising in terms of physical conditioning and engagement with the issues.  

NAIJA STANDARD: Finally, what is your message of hope to Nigerians at this very challenging period of inflation, scarcity of basic amenities in a Yuletide season? 

OKEY: Things are so bleak in Nigeria – an unprecedented, ferocious level of insecurity, runaway unemployment, uncontrollable inflation, the collapse of healthcare and education, a widening scope of misery etc, etc – that it’s near impossible to find a way of dragging hope into the grim portrait. Still, Nigerians are a resilient, creative people with a can-do spirit. They have weathered numerous storms in their past, and have acquired a capacity for withstanding adversity. That’s the best I can do to put a smidgen of hope in the equation.

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