Benson Omowafola Tomoloju, popularly known as Ben T, is an award-winning multi-talented artist: playwright, producer, director, music composer and doyen of arts and culture journalism in Nigeria.
Former editor of The Guardian Literary Series, his works, Askari and Aminatu, have been produced into movies. He believes Jankariwo, Amona and others will equally be produced into movies at the right time. He has composed over 200 songs, and his album, Song for Nigeria, which he released in 1992, aimed to draw the attention of the citizenry to the gradual denudation for the corporal quality of the nation and nationalism. Damiete Braide chatted with him in Lagos, and he speaks on why his plays celebrate the rites and rights of the posterity with the child, his inspiration, among others.
How do you find time to write despite your tight schedule?
I think the tightness of the schedule is also constituted partly by my writing, so it is a normal engagement for me; it has to have its own time. Inspiration can come at any time, but, specifically, when I am alone. There are some occasions when I am particularly moved to write, such as when it is raining; I can feel the shower of the muses coming and, sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night when some phrases jump into my head; I wake up to record these ideas, and elaborate on them at my spare time. For me, writing comes any time the inspiration comes.
Why do your plays celebrate the rites and rights of posterity with ‘the child’ at the centre of their philosophical articulation?
It is about the lives we live and how we observe what is going in life. I have always felt concerned, particularly, as a Nigerian and, generally, as an African that, since I was born, values were diminishing. Yearly, things kept going down. These contradict the African worldview of the past informing the present and the present taking care of the fortunes of the future preparing legacies. When I was born in 1954, things were much better than in 1964 when I was in Primary 4. Also, things, in 1964, were much better than things in 1974 when I completed my Higher School Certificate in Ibadan. In the same vein, things, in 1974, were much better than in 1984 when I was an editor in one of the national dailies, etcetera. We had free education, which we enjoyed; we had a nationalistic outlook in our tutelage process. We lived an urban life without discrimination. The various areas where I went to school, anybody who was in Yorubaland, whether you were an Efik, Igbo or an Hausa, you would join in learning Yoruba language. All our mates who schooled in the north would also join and learn Hausa language. It just happened by the political genius of the leadership of those era without the imposition of any culture or discrimination. They made us culture centric children.
Specifically, when I was in the University of Ibadan, as a student or undergraduate, we started off with very little tuition fees; we had our meals at very low price, and every Sunday, we had ice cream and other things in 1975-78. By 1978, there was a big hike in tuition fees, and university education was getting very exorbitant, which led to a protest and the popular Ali-Must-Go riot. I was in the thick of it as a student union representative in 1978. I was invited to be the one to address the congress on whether or not to participate in the protest, and I endorsed that UI students should participate in it. It is a big story of epic dimension, but it was a struggle for the future. It x-rayed what the future was likely to be for the average Nigerian youth who wanted the best in education. It (that academic development) was envisioning a tragic turn of events for the young Nigerians. Some of our members were killed at ABU, Zaria and the University of Lagos, which made us to shuttle from Lagos to Ibadan to Ife axis and sent delegates to condole with the families who were killed. It was a nationalistic vision.
That was what we had as student unionist, and the whole vision was not out of place. You can see now what the lives of the young Nigerian is. We tackled and warned the leaders that they were pushing the younger generation of Nigerians to the edge of the cliff, but the ego of those leaders, particularly the military transiting into the Second Republic, was so bloated that they felt that young people should be ignored. The Obasanjo-led regime sacked the then National President of the Students Union, Segun Okeowo, from the Constituent Assembly, but where was the wisdom? I am now 65 years old, but am still as angry as I was when I was in my early 20s. These social crises impacted very much on my consciousness and, added to it, was the kind of home training and culture we evolved in. A Yoruba proverb says: ‘Omode gbon Agba gbon la afi da ile fi’ (the young is wise, the elder is wise). That’s the system through which the creation of Ile-Ife emerged. These, added to the social realities, the harsh realities of my days as a young person, compelled me to reflect very much on what tomorrow should enjoy in the life of mankind. Despite the fact that I was warned to stop coining words by my superiors, I felt that the future had a right, and the fulfillment or otherwise of the rights would have to undergo a rite. If you confer on and respect the rights of the young person, it would go through rites of redemption. If you deny the rights of the young person, it would go through the rites of condemnation. So these elements, looking at them from both banks of the river, inform some aspects of my philosophical rumination which are articulated in my plays. Unfortunately, one is vindicated concerning such perceptions. It is a rot –a whole lot of decadence into which the young Nigerians are plunged by their parent generation.
You wrote some popular editorials in the 1980s, which is more difficult to write –an editorial or creative writing?
Having been involved in both, each has its own yardstick. I would not think that editorials are easier to write than a play, although editorials are written within very short space of time and, sometimes, it gets to a point that you may be bored to even write an editorial that you just have to take a walk to get yourself together. It also happens in creative writings, only that one is writing history in a hurry in a short space of time, while the other one has a longer range of time. Editorials are shorter to deliver, while plays are longer to deliver. It depends on how the inspiration comes.
Can you give us an insight into Jankariwo, your play, which you performed in Italy in 1987?
The play was premiered on December 26, 1985, and had a lot of reviews in the media, and people of goodwill attended every show that was done at the National Theatre, Lagos. One of the guests recommended that the play should be performed somewhere, but, along the line, Prof Wole Soyinka nominated the play to be performed in Italy, in 1987, in celebration of his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. The play was a support drama to the staging of his own Jero’s Metamorphosis, which we also produced. In Italy, the newspapers said the play was very good, and could actually be staged in London or America, but it was like a fantasy, as there was no sponsorship to carry it out. Beyond that, we kept on writing and producing other plays, which were of equal quality.
What was the inspiration behind your play, Mujemuje, in 1990?
There was this contemplation of the social reality of the country as it was tuned against the wellbeing of the working class and the downtrodden and the manifest greed of the ruling class or political class, which was numbered then by the top brass of the military. Incidentally, while it was being written, we also formed National Association of Theatre Practitioners of Nigeria (NANTAP), which I chaired as the founding father. We were also contemplating establishing Art Writers Association of Nigeria, so I had to go into hibernation to be able to deliver, because I thought that play was a strong message that the media and theatre community needed to pass on to the Nigerian nation. Interestingly, I finished writing the play in a hotel in Bauchi overnight and, by the time I was finishing the writing at dawn, I wrote the date after my name, and found out that that day was my birthday. It was a play for casting the fate of the minority in the country. It spoke about government agencies seizing from the rulers for their own ventures.
Your plays, Askari and Aminatu, have been adapted into movies, do you see more of your plays enjoying such privilege?
Askari’s adaptation was part of the package of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva, and the Nigerian Red Cross Society (NRCS), Lagos, for the production of Askari. A movie came out of it, which was very successful and highly celebrated on Nigerian television networks. For Aminatu, we have tried to make a movie out of it, but, if you have been living by standards and worlds of standards, you want to know what you want to push out. The movie has been made. Little things here and there have made us to reserve releasing Aminatu. It was also produced in Hausa language, and showcased in some cinemas in Kaduna and Lagos. But, then, we can go further. We are also thinking that that kind of movie should not be limited to the Hausa language alone. If there are willing producers to produce the plays into movies, it is nice, and I welcome it, but there has been no signal yet.
How do literary prizes contribute to the acceptance of the writer against the backdrop of recent accusations that Nigerian writers now write for prizes?
Let us look at it in two ways. Literary prizes don’t just contribute to the public acceptance of the writer, but it is for the sake of it. It is the prestige and integrity of the prize that enhance the appreciation of the writer, not just any prize or whatsoever. Anybody can wake up, even with big money, and say he is instituting a literary prize; but, without the credibility, it will not make an impact on the reputation of the writer. But when literary prizes are well organised, copiously informed in terms of input by the administrators, the advisory board and the core of judges, as well as media critics, it tends to offer the writer a good opportunity for public acceptance. Then the issue that some people write for prizes is possible, but, if they write well, then it is worth it. There are also writers who don’t even send their works to administrators of prizes because they don’t care about prizes; they care about the integrity of their creative works. Anybody who is writing for prizes is just for a personal venture; it is not a universal criteria for estimating the worth of a writer.
You have won some awards…
Of all of the prizes that I won, I never made entries. I think some eminent people sat and looked at the options for the prizes, and decided that they had to go to this person. In fact, the prizes were usually in the media before I got to know that I won them. Like the Platinum Award for Creative Excellence in 1990 and the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) award for Professional Excellence in Arts Journalism, I was sent a flight ticket to come for the award (the latter). I appreciate the award, because NCAC is the foremost promoting institution in the country for all the influences in the cultural terrain. For other prizes, I never went all way to search for awards or prizes. Incidentally, I have been involved in the administration of some awards in so many areas. At a point, I was the chairman of Nigerian Music Awards in the late 1980s and early 90s. I was also in the adjudicating panel of Reel Awards in the movie industry. I was also in the advisory committee for literature in the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) award for Literature. Actually, I was behind the scene helping out to identify people who were qualified for laurels. I don’t see myself also getting into the whole scene in trying to cart prizes, but it is all inspiring and encouraging either as a prize winner or prize giver.