By Prisca Sam-Duru
Professor Sam Ukala, writer and professor of Theatre Arts at Delta State University, Abraka is now a happy man. The Theatre Arts lecturer was last week, declared the winner of the prestigious Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas ( NLNG)-sponsored Nigeria Prize For Literature 2014.
He won the prize for ‘Iredi War’ a play with colonial subject. Prof. Ukala whose book beat a total of 124 others in this exclusive interview, shares his excitement while speaking on other sundry issues affecting the literary industry. Excerpts.
Congratulations, sir! How does it feel like winning the coveted Prize?
It feels great, fulfilling, reassuring that the quality of my writing is still worthy of critical acclaim.
I know you have won other prestigious awards, but what does Nigeria Prize for Literature mean to you?
It’s like the Nigerian crown for a beauty queen who had earlier won state and zonal crowns! The prize is much higher than the Association of Nigerian Authors’, British Council’s, and other prizes I had won.
So, naturally, the stakes were much higher, the demands stiffer. Winning it is like getting into broader limelight, getting more popular, which is good.
But it’s also like attracting more critical attention, having your neck stuck out for critical stones to be thrown at your head.
Luckily, though, Iredi War was declared winner by seasoned critics, who are also renowned theatre practitioners, both from Nigeria and South Africa.
Most well-meaning critics might agree with their findings in respect of Iredi War. But, hopefully, critical searchlights would now peer beyond Iredi War to my other publications, for good or for ill.
Of all issues troubling Nigeria, you chose to write the winning book on the 1906 insurgency of Owa (Delta State) kingdom against insensitive and highhanded British colonial rule. What informed your decision to do so?
As far as I’m concerned, Nigeria has only one issue troubling it, bad leadership. Every other issue – bad followership, corruption, poverty, squalor, disease, human and infrastructural undevelopment, ritual and political killings, cultism and examination malpractice, intra-country wars and militancy of different names, etc. – all stem from bad leadership.
Iredi War focuses on bad colonial leadership and the insurgency that it bred from a relatively small and hitherto peaceful kingdom, which had co-operated very well with A.A. Chichester, the substantive District Commissioner, who proceeded on leave and handed over to his assistant, Captain O.S. Crewe-Read.
Within a short period of Crewe-Read’s tenure as Acting District Commissioner, his insensitive, highhanded, racist, inexperienced, overzealous and overambitious leadership set Owa boiling over. Thus, the play is about good governance and might communicate to the Nigerian leadership, leadership in every sector.
What message are you trying to pass to the public and how relevant is it to present situation in Nigeria and Africa?
The central thought of Iredi War is that insurgency must arise, some day, against any misruler, no matter how formidable he/she might seem and how ill-equipped and vulnerable those he/she oppresses might seem.
And these oppressors, the bad leaders, the apostles of bad governance, are found everywhere in our nation and continent. For, good governance is not measurable at state houses alone, at the President’s office or Governor’s offices alone, but also at every public and private sector office, every home.
Similarly, insurgency, revolt, lethal disloyalty and treachery of the disgruntled are not raised only against a President or Governor or Local Government Chairman, but also against anyone who recklessly exercises authority over any group, no matter how small.
Africa is full of Iredi wars and African leaders need to work conscientiously towards purging themselves of tyrannical insensitivity.
They need to offer the kind of leadership they envisaged when they instituted African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a flagship programme for evaluating good governance in all socio-economic sectors.
Did you have this award or any other in mind while writing?
Yes, I had this award in mind. I had won other prizes, but had never entered for this. I needed my work to be evaluated in a contest that was larger than those I had won.
Because the prize money is high and many have attested to the integrity of the NLNG’s handling of previous contests, I knew it would be a contest for creative titans. I needed to assure myself that the quality of my work was still high enough for me to join the league of laureates of the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature.
This was my attraction, rather than the prize money, which, for me, was a factor only in so far as it raised the stakes, raised the demands, raised the bar for excellence. I seldom enter my work for prizes.
The two times I had done so – 1989 and 2000, I won: in 1989, ANA/British Council Prize for Drama, with Akpakaland; in 2000, ANA Prose Prize, with Skeletons: A collection of Stories. The prize for Akpakaland was getting it published by Heinemann at the expense of the British Council while the prize for Skeletons was a certificate and N10,000.
What I valued more than the substance of each prize was the opportunity for a public, critical appraisal of my work. My attitude was the same as I entered Iredi War for the Nigeria Prize for Literature.
How has your background affected your writing?
Significantly. My educational background, a bachelor’s degree in English and Master’s and doctorate in Theatre Arts exposed me to the works of great Nigerian and foreign playwrights, novelists, short story writers and poets; my birth and socialisation in Ika culture exposed me to the artistic patrimony of the Ika of Delta State, which triggered my research into the African folktale and its compositional and performance aesthetics, which influenced my theory of “Folkism” and influences my writing.
At what point did you become a writer?
I started writing while a student of Ika Grammar School, Agbor, Delta State. I gained the recognition of staff and student’s as a poet before my fourth year. In fact, my Principal, Mr. Eyo Ita, now popularly known as Eskor Toyo, created “Poet’s Corner” on the school’s notice board and encouraged me to post a poem there every Monday morning for everyone to read immediately after morning assembly before going to the staff room or classrooms.
I wrote my first published work, The Slave Wife, a play which some now describe as a “classic”, in my first undergraduate year at the Department of English, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and it was published by the then Oxford University Press (now University Press Plc), Ibadan.
Were there times you thought of given up literature due to pressure from parents or family?
Fortunately, no. My parents loved the arts.
Do you think young writers have a chance to win such an award, considering that they will be competing with professors and other well established writers?
Oh, yes. I have been a judge of several literary competitions and I know that judges who are worth their names evaluate the quality of entries, not the personality of their authors or their establishment as writers. This is why a number of young Nigerians have won awards with their first published works. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was only 25 when she won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. Ben Okri was 32 when he won the Booker Prize for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK in 1991. writers?
What do you think it will take younger writers to come out victorious in tight contests such as NLNG, Wole Soyinka Prize, etc?
What it took Chika Unigwe (another younger writer) and Tade Ipadeola to win the same NLNG prize in 2012 and 2013, respectively, what it took Ben Okri and Chimamanda to win the Booker Prize and the Caine Prize, respectively – talent, training, skill and practice.
Do you think literature has capability to solve national challenges? How?
It depends on what kind of literature and who and how many people are reading or seeing it in performance. In our oral cultures, the codes for living are entrenched in the verbal and mimetic arts – folktales, proverbs, masquerade performances; satirical skits and songs are effective tools for containing deviancy and transforming characters.
Hubert Ogunde’s Yoruba Ronu, 1963, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii’s Ngaahika Ndeenda, 1977, hit their respective erring governments like a thunder bolt and caused them to ban the plays and exile the authors. In all such cases, things never remained the same for long. So, literature does offer solutions to national challenges. Though it’s impossible to measure the extent a thought in a literary work can reform individual minds, it does reform the mind of profound thinkers.
What role has literature played in telling the African story?
A very significant role. The story of pre-colonial days, the story of colonialism, of neo-colonialism, of the dissatisfaction of the people in the manner their fellow Africans ran post-colonial governments – all have been told in African literature from the African perspective.
People don’t seem to bother writing in indigenous languages in spite of the clamouring for sustenance of local languages.
The reason is simple: how many educated people read what is written in English Language, our official language, let alone what is written in our indigenous languages, hundreds of which don’t even have an autography?
What percentage of educated Nigerians can read and write in their native tongues? A lot needs to be done to make writing in indigenous languages gainful to everyone, other than, perhaps, the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo, who have large populations.
You just referred to our poor reading culture, but then, more and more books are presented on daily basis. Does it make sense writing at all when no one is reading?
If our governments and all stakeholders work hard at it, if our governments to concrete steps to reduce the need for the materialistic struggles which consume all our time, energy and leisure, reading culture will be cultivated slowly and steadily. What is not read today may be read tomorrow.
With the feat of your having won this award, what’s your expectation of the reception of Iredi War and your other titles?
My expectations are high.