Chido Onumah is a soldier, fighter and writer. For the widely-travelled journalist and activist, his pen is the ‘AK 47’with which he sues for change. For decades, he has used his weapon to seek change in the polity within and outside the country. This struggle gave birth to the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) which he co-ordinates. His book: Time to Reclaim Nigeria is now on sale. He shares his experience as an activist and journalist in this chat with EVELYN OSAGIE.
Congratulations on the launch of your book! What’s its thrust?
The book is a collection of essays entitled: Time to reclaim Nigeria. It draws attention to some happenings in the country in the past 10 to 12 years, especially events in the political arena. The essays were published in newspapers within and outside Nigeria. Aside political, some of them address social issues such as violence, gay marriage, abuse of human rights and collapse of infrastructure, among others. Fifty-two years after independence and in the 21st Century, why have we found ourselves in this situation are some of what it examines alongside proffering solutions.
How long did it take to put it together?
If you see the book and the amount of work that went into it, you would probably think that I must have spent the last one year working on it. But no! From the time the idea first came to me, on October 31, last year, till when we got the first copies of the book from the printers, it was just about five weeks.
It came to me while I was lying down on the bed and there was no light: and I was beside myself with anger. I called a few of my friends in Abuja that we should organise ourselves to join the Global Occupy Movement that was taking shape in the US in solidarity with struggles of the masses of the world. They declined.
Amid the frustration, it dawned on me that I have written a couple of essays about Nigeria and had even put them together; they were to be published but, unfortunately, they were not. I mentioned it to a colleague and friend of mine, Chiedu Ezeanah, a literary person, and he volunteered to edit the book.
Under two weeks we had finished editing and made contact with some senior colleagues who wrote the blurb. My former editor at The Insight Newspaper, Accra, Ghana, volunteered to do the introduction; and Prof Harry Garuba, in South Africa, agreed to write the foreword. By the third week, the blurbs were in; and by the end of the month, the book’s layout was ready. The following week it was sent to the printers.
The challenge wasn’t so much in putting it together but in writing the essays. Once, they were there all we needed to do was to put them together.
On reclaiming Nigeria, is Nigeria lost?
At the public presentation of the book in Abuja, Governor Rauf Aregbesola, the guest speaker, said you can’t reclaim what you didn’t own, adding that Nigerians haven’t really owned this country. While I subscribe to his view, it is one half of the problem. The other is: Do we even have a country called Nigeria? Some of the essays touch on the issue.
In the true sense of the word, Nigeria is just a country in name. There is no indication in the way the people feel. The definition of a country goes beyond having international recognition or geo-political boundary. It is a collection of people who share certain things in common: it doesn’t necessarily have to be religion, language or culture; but as members of a country there must be something that we can extrapolate from our diversities.
Many years ago, we were told stories about how the Europeans came and took away our great grandparents and turned them into plantation slaves. Then, they were forced, brutalised, killed and dehumanised. Today, if you put a ship as big as the Titanic at Apapa Port and inscribe on it Slave Ship, Nigerians (young and even old) will struggle to get into that ship. Some people will even drown while struggling to get in.
So, what is your opinion about ‘true federalism’?
Nigeria is supposed to be a federal state, but of course, it doesn’t practice what some would refer to as ‘true federalism’. It still works as a unitary state. The Federal Government controls everything. We really need to go back to what the constitution used to be in the 60s when the regions were quite strong and powerful. While I advocate for zones to control whatever they produce, I am aware that people focus too much on the issue because of cheap money.
Is Sovereign National Conference a way out?
I think the Sovereign National Conference (SNC) is the minimum requirement to save this country. The alternatives are wars: and they are too grim for anybody to ignore. SNC occurs where the country has reached a stage where the internal contradictions have become so sharp that those that are ruling and trying to solve the problems do not have the capacity or are not in a position to solve it. You now go to a higher platform which is SNC to attempt to resolve them. As it is now, no group within the political class can solve the problems of this country. If they could, they would have so that they can continue looting and stealing but they can’t done. It is clear with the way things are going; the characters that form the leadership of this state are not in the position to resolve the problems of the country. So, we need a new platform that would be all-encompassing that can address these issues.
What role do writers have in the reclamation process?
A very important one! Prof. Chinua Achebe has repeatedly talked about it in his book There was a country. Also, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and so many others have shown that the writer, firstly, ought to be the mirror of the society he/she lives in, in order to tell truth to power and reflect. This he does in an amusing or harsh way, while reflecting the realities of his/her society in a way that is beneficial to all. Any writing that doesn’t do that is a pure waste of time. I see a lot of time wasting when people just write because they have many degrees or to impress; but are not communicating to their audience. For me, writing is political. It is politics by other means. Being a journalist, for me, was not to earn a living. Writers have a responsibility to reflect in their writing, what is going on in the society in order to bring about change. It is like a soldier going to war; the pen is our AK-47 (machine gun). If it doesn’t serve that purpose then it is useless.
How has it been practising journalism within and outside?
It has been a varied experience; but I have enjoyed it all. I am a very restless soul. I started off writing on campus at the University of Calabar (UNICAL). I remember those days of ‘campus journalism’ in 1987. I rose to become the Editor-In-Chief of our campus press. While we were there we were all struggling amongst ourselves to get national attention writing as students for national papers like The Guardian, Punch and papers that were in existence then.
Even though I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to do more of essay writing. I felt the journalist ought to go beyond reporting to proper analysis of the events they report. I worked at The Sentinel, The News, travelled outside the country: worked in Ghana with African Global Magazine, became the Associate Editor for The Insight Newspaper. From there, I went to Canada where I did my graduate studies in journalism. And while a student there, and after graduation, I reported and wrote columns for the London Free Press; and newspapers in Canada, Europe, America and Nigeria such as Tempo, Punch, and others.
You must have been greatly engaged then, so, how was the experience?
In the process, I did a lot of travels to the Caribbean: Haiti, Dominican Republic; worked in India with India Express Newspaper and so on. It has been exciting and given me the opportunity to experience various journalistic cultures across the globe. I spent almost three years as a journalist in Ghana. It was a different climate from what I was used to in Nigeria. I saw how robust the media is in Nigeria compared to Ghana. The experience I gained working for different media came in handy. Coming to India, you’d wonder how people manage with a situation like this where there are thousands of voices and opinions every day. There are a million media (print newspapers, magazines) with superb production quality, and books everywhere. And you’d go to other places like in the US where there are loads of newspapers owned by every community, city and states with free papers. In terms of how the media has affected politics in the US, UK and Asia, my experience has helped me, coming back home, to put into perspective the role of the media in nation-building. The Nigerian media has always been in the forefront of the fight for the betterment of the society. Journalism is a very noble profession but the situation in the country has taken its toll on journalists. You have a situation where many newspaper houses do not pay salaries. So, the journalists are dependent on trying to survive in their own way. Consequently, the structure of the society has also affected the performance of journalists. They are not isolated from the problems of the society. They are no longer accorded the kind of respect that they deserve. They owe themselves a responsibility to continue the struggle because if this society becomes better, ultimately, they would be the better for it.
At what point in your journalism career did you delve into activism?
I was actually an activist before I became a journalist. Journalism became an extension of my activism. And I owe a lot of it to my dad because he wanted me to be a lawyer, well-read and a popular person in society. By the time I started reading my father’s books, newspapers, and listening to what was going on globally, my world views started opening up. It was at that stage that I became politically conscious and paid serious attention to what was happening around me. By the time I got into the university, I just looked for political movement on campus. So, it was a good platform for me to groom myself and cut my teeth as a radical student/activist.
We hear of the effect of Western influence on African children, how have you dealt with that?
With regards to values, it may be a bit difficult because of the society they find themselves. But parents owe themselves and their children a duty in that regard. So, for us, it is a conscious effort. We made a conscious effort that nobody has an English name in the family but Nigerian names. And the kids like it. No matter how their foreign friends try to distort their names, they are proud of and know the meaning of their names, even though they don’t speak any Nigerian language except the oldest that understands a bit of Yoruba but can’t speak a word of it.
Were there people who influenced you along the way?
Three major people influenced me while I was growing up and all alive today. Firstly, Soyinka, the mathematician, historian and more, Prof. Chiweizu, and Dr Madunagu, who used to be on the Editorial Board of The Guardian. Dr Madunagu has been the greatest influence in my life.
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