Shehu Sani is a denizen of three worlds: he is a serving senator, an activist and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. In the stormy days of civil rights activism during the military era in Nigerian politics, he stood tall on the totem pole as a resilient voice, and was repeatedly jailed for his rebellious streak. Last year, he was elected a senator in Kaduna State. However, the least talked about of his enviable profile is writing. He has published 14 books of non-fiction in politics, history and society, as well as novels, plays and poetry volumes. HENRY AKUBUIRO interviewed him in Abuja recently on his writings, and the senator takes us on a pilgrimage on the writer in politics, the bill he is sponsoring in the Senate on Literature and Arts, the travails of reading and writing in Nigeria and this year’s ANA convention in Abuja, which he will be playing a major role.
Looking at your scribal profile, you have published 14 books of non-fiction and five books of fiction. What determines the writing mode you adopt at a point in time?
I developed my writing skill and interest when I was in prison. Then, as a political prisoner, when I was locked in the cell, we were not allowed to read newspapers. I was in the cell during the Babangida era in 1993 and during the Abacha ear from 1995 to 1998.
So, which period in the national sad annals did your literary career start blossom?
Both periods. As an activist, each time I found myself in cell, I became free from the distractions and the daily issues of life. So, I would pick the available pen and paper and start writing. And, within that period, I was able to write a number of books: some plays; some fiction; some poems and some on politics and history. It was that very serene environment that assisted me mentally to develop my writing skills. But, before then, I simply love reading books.
How did you manage to write in a closely guarded place like prison?
You will be shocked that the prison system in Nigeria at that time didn’t allow prisoners to own papers –you could only go to the welfare office to write what you wanted to write. For political prisoners, it was even worse. It was easier to allow other prisoners to possess pen and paper than allow political prisoners like us to do the same. The rules were tightening on me when I wrote an article that was published in foreign newspapers, which was against the government that jailed me. What we did was to smuggle in papers through some of our contacts through other inmates who were allowed to go out, work and come back. They would bring pen and papers, and I would jot my ideas down. When the prison officials come to search us, we should hide those things. By the time they left, we continued again. That was how I was able to build up a manuscript.
Did you ever think you would come out considering the atrocities of the despots?
As a human being, who was fighting a good cause, I had two options: either I come out or I die. And I had no regret if any of them happened in my life. We thought we would be in prison for as long as 20 to 25 years, but, by providence, Abacha died in 1998, and we were released. So, I never had an idea I was going to come out so soon. So, I simply preoccupied myself with writing and reading. That was able to keep my mind healthy than any other thing.
Phantom Crescent was your first published play in 2009 before you published Thugs at Helm. In writing these plays, what tickled your artistic consciousness?
Thugs at the Helm, first of all, was a play I wrote to describe the situation we found ourselves under military rule. The thugs represent the brigandage, the lawlessness and the arbitrariness of the military at the helm. Being at the helm, they had no respect for the fundamental rights and freedom, and they were tyrannical as a government. Now, it is that book that describes the role being played by different elements in the society: what the police, unions, right activists, and the media do during military rule. The book defines the role played by liberators, as well as what those who oppress the country do. So, it is a play adaptation of a reality: how journalists were arrested and jailed; how activists were arrested and jailed; the behaviour pattern of the military in terms of extrajudicial killings; all sorts of human rights violation, and how cowardly some sections of the political class also behaved. It also defines the role played by the student unions and groups. So it was a play I wrote to document the reality in a theatre and to awaken the consciousness of the people on how to stand up and fight for their rights.
Did you ever stage this play?
I staged it in a very local scale in a secondary school and a very small stage. That was when I came out from the prison. But I have gotten a lot of feedbacks from different people showing interest in staging the play. I wrote the other play, The Phantom Crescent, when I came out of prison on how some people have, in the past, used religion to influence the consciousness of people, and the precarious mix of politics and religion. It is about defining the role of religion and also about defining the thin line between your role as a citizen and your obligation as a believer. It is about describing the harmony and the conflict that exist in a society that has been placed with the option of having to play the role of freedom and democracy and also having to respect the religious identity of the people.
Your poetic adventure was heralded by Prison Anthology in 2007, another political work. Is there any therapeutic effect that comes with poetic exploration in detention? What was your writing regimen there?
The Prison Anthology is a collection of poems that I wrote that touches different things. Some are sonnets inspiring people to stand up for their rights and restore their freedom, which have been taken away. It touches different aspects –from the role of bravery to visionary to cowards to fence sitters –all directed to sending a message on the role we need to play. It was written in a jail whereby you have enough time to write; also, you have enough time from distraction to write intelligently and academically on vital issues. The anthology is meant to inspire people who are outside to keep on fighting for freedom and also to people who are inside to boost their moral that, once the cause they are fighting is genuine, you will certainly triumph. Also, it is a missile against people who are in power that you cannot operate for so long and deny them their rights. So, it is using poetry to fight the cause of the common man, freedom and justice.
Do you think it was effective then?
It was effective in the sense that, when it was written, I smuggled it out from prison to most pro-democracy groups and NGOs at that time, of which many of them were very inspired by it, and they were encouraged to see that most of us who were behind bar, still had our spirits high on the cause that made us go to jail.
second poetry volume was The Poem of Peace in the Season of Bloodshed. This title strikes a powerful contrast. Can there be peace in a season of bloodshed?
It is another set of poems to denounce violence, extremism, condemn terrorism, to tell people to stand up for peace and unity. Some of the poems target the terrorists themselves, telling them that you cannot kill the spirit but you can only kill the body and the soul. It also sent to those who are victims to know very well that the nation is with them and they are on the right part. And some of the poems also are sent as a general message –I came from a society that is partly Christian, partly Muslim (in Kaduna). So that very poem is meant in inspiring our people to work for unity and tolerance. The Poem of Peace in the Season of Bloodshed is that we shouldn’t give up in the search for peace and unity in the face of intolerance, bigotry, violence, conflict, terrorism and insurgency. It is a call for our people to serve for peace and unity or we fall.
Nowadays, we don’t see new creative works from you again. What’s happening?
I have them in manuscripts, and am yet to publish them. The problem is that politics takes a lot of your time. Now, I have most of my time spent trying to meet up with the promises and pledges I made to the people I represent at the National Assembly. I consider myself a poet, novelist and writer of nonfiction after being a civil rights activist. But I could not be known to be a great writer because politics has taken a louder voice than my books, and, for people like you to come and discover my literary significance that has been shrouded is quite wonderful. But I can assure you that I enjoy literature, reading and writing more than I do politics.
By reading you are adding to your mental weight. By writing, you are also improving on your mental state. But, in politics, you simply have to give out, and nothing comes in –and that is the problem. And one of the problems we are having today is that the deficiency in our intellectual and academic discourse in Nigerian politics, compared to the 1960s and ‘70s, is directly impinged on the lack of literary interest by members of our politics. You can see that the quality of campaigns and debates by our politicians in the 1st republic are unmatched by those of the second, third and even 4th republic. Hardly would you see a politician speaking publicly or granting an interview without quoting in those days. But, here, it is about contemporary issues, local problems, local politics and national issues that are on the front pages of our newspapers and online, and you don’t find those persons who can really match up their political perspectives with a reasonable word of wisdom from writers of the past or even contemporary ones.
Most books written by politicians today are written by ghost writers. They don’t have the mental composure and intellectual stability to write books. And you also find that the last thing a politician does today is to buy books, and some of them that have libraries don’t even have enough time to go through some of these books and read them. So, libraries and books in the houses of politicians today simply becomes part of their furniture.
Your first book of nonfiction was entitled Killing Fields in 2007. You went on to write thirteen others on politics and society. What is it that constantly makes you restless to put pen to paper and be so prolific?
Killing Fields is a book that documents in details the inter-religious violence that happened in northern Nigeria in the last 20-30 years. It is a book that has the recorded incident in causalities and implications of the religious violence in Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Plateau, Benue, Kaduna and Benue states between Muslins and Christians that have consumed thousands of lives, and stands to be forgotten. The Boko Haram insurgency has been able to diminish our memories of that violence that happened at the beginning of this century and even the ones that happened in the late 1970s to mid-’80.
So, the book is now a research material for researchers and those interested in history. Hatred for Black People is a documented incident of racism against the black person and also a research on the origin of the black man and interracial disharmony. The book on Political Assassination is a book on the high profile assassination of doctors, lawyers, politicians, traditional rulers, religious men that happened over a period of time. It probes the thinking and missions of the killers and the impacts of killing prominent people in the society. There is Protest and Freedom, a book I wrote documenting the different uprisings, peaceful and violent, that have freed people from the chains of oppression; it is a book that studies protest as a subject and also as a means of liberation and societal conscientization and awakening.
I also have a novel entitled The Beast Empire, a book I wrote to describe the situation which we found ourselves then. It contains also some short stories. It is our own adaptation of George O’well’s Animal Farm. So, my writings sometime take the course of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Jean Paul Satre and, in some cases, philosophical in the sense that it touches the thinking of Plato, Socrates and other Greek philosophers. It is wide-ranging, and touches on our lives
Do you think writing still matters in Nigeria? For the book to influence society, it has to travel from house to house. Are you not disturbed about the plight of the book in today’s Nigeria?
There is a cause to worry in the sense that leadership is going down like our economy, even patronage to libraries. But I could have wished if it was true that e-books would replace hard books, but it is not true. People don’t even read e-books. When you ask them why they aren’t reading books or going to libraries, they will give you the alibi that they can now read books on their handsets. But that is not true –they spend most of their time on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Snapchat, etc. So, you can see the effect of the decline on the reading culture is evidently clear in the rise of hate speech. Hate speech is encouraged by the death of literature.
When a young man cannot engage you intellectually in an issue, he resolves to hate speech. If I speak as a senator, I will like to be challenged by young people from my constituency. But the challenge is the one in which a superior argument will be given, and you can’t give out a superior argument if you don’t read. The decline in reading literary texts has effects on the political class, business class and on young people, which is why the intellectual standard of a young man in the 60, 70s and 80s is not the same with that of the young man of today. Young people of today have an edge on technology and time. Their contemporaries of the ‘60s, ‘70 and ‘80s had an edge on leadership and intellect. When you want to respond to an issue which you are ignorant about, the only way to cover the ignorance is to make a hate speech or to insult. So, most times, hate speeches, hate posts and hate tweets are products of a society on intellectual decline and leadership decline.
Who is to blame?
I think a number of factors are to blame. First is the economy. The economy is so terrible now, and people are angry; people are struggling for the daily lives than to spend 10 minutes reading a book. The economy was better in the 1960s and ‘70s, and that gave the people the mental and intellectual stability to read. The second factor is social media impact, in the sense that people can now get their messages from Facebook posts and twits rather than spending their time reading a book of, say, 300 or 400 pages. Another factor has to do with the fact our government has not invested much in that aspect, which has seriously led to where we are. Most of state libraries have not had new books since 25-30 years ago. Recently, I donated books to a library in Kaduna, and that was not something they had ever seen. Nobody has ever donated books to the library.
Between writing and politics, which is your first love?
You would have added activism, which is my first love, followed by writing and then politics. But I can tell you my spirit is more in activism and writing than in politics, because, in writing, you express yourself, and in reading, you add to your knowledge. And there is a spiritual fulfillment that is in fighting for the rights of others. When people are oppressed, I get so uncomfortable and unsettled until I do something about it. I am a writer by nature and also an activism by fate, and politics comes third. But, if you represent people, you are bound to compromise some of your beliefs and ideas. You have to adapt it to their interests and needs. As an activist and a writer, you are not bogged down by such encumbrances. But, as a politician, you have to move up to certain cause to which the people that elected you want you to go
You won many hearts last year in Kaduna during the ANA convention when you promised to host this year’s ANA convention in Abuja, because it was rare to see an individual making such a generous offer. What motivated your gesture?
Today, within the circle of Nigerian writers, arguably, I am the highest political holder in the country, and I believe that I should be able to take responsibility and the bulk of the support needed to realise that convention, looking at the challenges the last convention faced in lack of funding. We want to revive interest in reading and writing. To do that, we have to financially contribute, and that’s what I want to do. Right now, I have a bill in the Senate, and it is going for a second reading, on Literature and Arts Endowment Bill. The bill is about setting up an endowment to assist writers to write and publish their books.
Why the emphasis on writers and arts?
We have many writers with good manuscripts. But, most times, those manuscripts are left to waste, because the writers cannot publish them. So, by settling up this endowment, the federal government will look at the quality and relevance of the manuscript and fund it to be published. The endowment will also look at research and university thesis and see the ones to be published and be given to schools. If you go to departments in our universities, you will see volumes of research works by masters and PhD students, which simply end up in dusts. So the endowment will be empowered by law to go through some of these research works and fund their publications.
What’s the assurance that this bill will scale through, because others before it died prematurely? Do you benefit from kindred spirit in the house?
As a member of ANA, I believe with the collaboration of members who were once authors, we can do it. We have very few of them, but it is all about lobbying other senators to try to convince them. Some bills get shot down when those who draft them don’t take their time to meet senators one to one to support them. I have been reaching out to other senates to support this bill, and I have been getting very positive responses.
Has there been any progress made on the bill so far?
Immediately we are back from recess, it is going to go for second reading, and, from there, we take it up.
What legacies do want to leave in politics, activism and writing at the end of the day?
As a politician, I want to leave behind a legacy and a memory of serving the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. As an activist, I want to leave behind a memory and a legacy that I have always spoken out when there is a need to speak out and stand up where there is a need to stand up and fight whenever there is a need to fight. As a writer, I want to leave behind lifetime books that will inspire people to stand up for justice and freedom that will awaken the society, raise their consciousness and also serve as a manual for their emancipation and progress of human beings. I want to leave behind books that will promote peace and tolerance and also serve as documents to inspire people to fight hate, intolerance and terror.