Soyombo Opeyemi is a literary critic, media practitioner, educationist and public affairs commentator. A former member of Editorial Board, Independent Newspapers Limited, he has been guest analyst on Nigeria’s prime TV stations. The writer, who describes himself as “an occasional communicant at the temple of arts”, is currently the Special Assistant on Media to Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State. He is the author of the nonfiction, Ogun State: The Golden Years and Buhari vs Yar’Adua: Facing the Future, among others . He is at home with the literary art, especially creative writing, as evidenced in this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO, where he analyses the problems facing the Nigerian literary community. He also responds to questions on his works of nonfiction.
Nigerian authors undergo many challenges that are peculiar to them. What are your suggestions on how these drawbacks could be overcome to set the tone for more works?
Most people don’t actually know that writers are public servants. They ought to be accorded such recognition officially and supported accordingly. They render fundamental and crucial service to the public; they write for public good. They document events so that people and generations can learn from them and be well guided. Without writers, the society such as ours will thrive on distortion and revisionism. What with our adversarial nature of politics!
Generally, writers have some tinge of activism running in their blood. We don’t just mirror our society, we try to influence it positively; otherwise, there will – ultimately – be no society for us to mirror. Imagine the impact Wole Soyinka’s works, especially those revues, exerted on the polity, especially in the 1960s. I reviewed Achebe’s opus, There Was a Country, a couple of years ago and offered ways of bringing a closure to the Nigerian Civil War. That, to me, is still the path to tread for a nation in search of cohesion.
Writers are actually hard hit by the economic situation of the country, especially since the 1980s. There’s progressive decline in reading culture. And if people don’t read, what becomes of your works? You have the problem of piracy; and now in the current age of ICT where the majority of children and youths are only interested in Whatsapp, Twitter, and all such stuff – their abuse anyway – writers really need a lot of support and encouragement. There’s the need to improve on the quality of books, however. Publishers really have a lot to do in this regard. I’m not sure it will be possible in this clime for a writer to depend solely on his works as way of making it in life. Even Wole Soyinka doesn’t depend on books alone. He teaches and delivers lectures all over the world. Some of his books have been pirated. It is the same for Achebe and a host of others – other people making money on your sweat – clearly not a tolerable situation. Government should do more to curb piracy. But, as I often say, a writer’s solace should be in the fact that he can, through his works, mirror and influence his society, indeed generations, for good.
You are also a reviewer and a critic. What do you consider the ingredients of a good review? Do reviews really matter in book promotion?
This touches on your likes and dislikes, literary leanings and preferences. It also depends on what genre of literature the work is. For me, a book must be invaluable to even consider investing my time in it. And I can easily know that from its blurb. As you can see, I review books of literary giants and notable personalities, topical-cum-historical books. It must equally worth the time of readers. A review should add to the readers, not leave them “dry and drained” after reading; it should better their minds. The language of a review is, therefore, important. A review may be as good as the reviewer. It should highlight the literary worth of the book in one way or the other. Above all, it should make the readers to want to buy and read the book. It should promote the work, not-withstanding you might have to point to one or two errors or omissions, because no work is perfect. A good review is also short of being a summary of the book, should exhibit scholarship and point to its societal relevance. I must confess many reviews I come across are superficial; they even do discredit to the labours of the authors. It is as if some engage in perfunctory reading in order to be the first to review a book. I don’t rush to review any book. I can review a book published long ago and I can read a book for one or two months, day and night, before I review it because I actually “eat” books, I don’t “read” ; that’s why I’m a discriminate reader. I don’t have time for run-of-the-mill books. In one word, reviews help a lot to promote books especially in the midst of so many. The psychology of a reviewer is to promote the book not to critique it for marks as you have in academics.
Some believe reading culture is dead in Nigeria. Do you share the view?
I touched on that earlier. But, frankly speaking, I think this matter is over-flogged. The problem is there; no one disputes it. What we have not done is to establish the root cause. For a “Yes” or “No” options, my pick is “Yes”. Reading culture is a function of the economy. When the economy was good up to the early 1980s, there was the culture of reading. To be prudent with words, reading culture progressively collapsed with the economy of Nigeria. Once the economy is revived through political stability founded on the rule of law and constitutionalism, the culture of reading will be revived. People can only engage in intellectual pursuits when there is food on the table. And children learn by example. If you recall, ministries, departments and agencies of government used to buy newspapers daily. But that stopped, I think, under Abacha because of poor economy. People like Dr Kayode Fayemi got a good literary foundation by reading newspapers brought home by their parents. How many parents are rich enough now to buy newspapers? At the peak of Daily Times in the late 1970s, it sold about 500,000 copies daily. That was just one paper. But by the year 2000 –long before the advent of social media craze –the daily sales of all the newspapers combined was a far cry from 500,000, yet the population of the country had almost doubled by then. You can appreciate the link between the economy and reading culture.
Compared to fiction writers, nonfiction writers in Nigeria don’t enjoy the same public stardom. What do you think has given fiction the advantage?
First, one doesn’t need to write to court stardom. And I think Prof Soyinka took exception to such suggestion. “Competitions in the world of creativity are meant for the young, or early adulthood, not for the mature self-cognising being.” That is his position. Is Soyinka a nonfiction writer? Is he a fiction writer? Where do you place him because he excelled in both classes? Two works of Prof Achebe stand out. Things Fall Apart and There Was a Country. One is fiction, the other is nonfiction. They are both great works of the arts.
Are you thinking of writing a work of fiction soon?
I have a manuscript on fiction. I wrote that many years ago but yet to be published. I also have a few poems that I have not sent for publication. The fiction is set in the military era. But I need to update it only when I have the time. Writing is never an easy exercise, especially if you are the type that always insists on the best. It’s so strenuous. You also need to study widely in order to better your mind and offer your readers new perspectives. Intellectual fecundity is a product of sacrifice. You’ll need to burn the midnight oil. Above all, you also the grace of God.
Recently, your new book, Buhari vs Yar’Adua: Facing the Future, was presented to the public. What is the work about?
If you look at elections and electoral cases in Nigeria from the angle of an intricate dramatic or narrative plot, then Buhari vs Yar’Adua: Facing The Future constitutes the denouement: the Head of Government should not appoint the Chairman and Members of the Electoral Commission; election petition is civil in nature; an Election Tribunal is not a Crime Tribunal; a petitioner does not need to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt; the standard of proof required is simply the preponderance of evidence or balance of probabilities; it is the bounden duty of the petitioner to prove substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act, the onus is on the Electoral Commission (INEC) to prove that the substantial non-compliance so established (by the petitioner) did not substantially affect the result of the election as to warrant its invalidation by the Election Tribunal or Court.
That is one and the major leg of the book, the second aspect, which is expected to spark off controversy, is the argument in Chapter Two. Simply put, since the Code of Conduct Bureau is not a creation of the National Assembly, therefore the Attorney-General of the Federation lacks the constitutional power to take over or discontinue a case instituted by the body. Again, this will constitute a landmark denouement on the powers of the AGF. And just as I defy, in Chapter Five of the book, the arguments by eminent legal luminaries like Prof Ben Nwabueze and Chief Mike Ahamba that the presidential assent is required for an amended constitution to have the force of law, the powers of the AGF are largely circumscribed as regards the Code of Conduct Bureau. And the last topic treated in the book, The Electoral Avatar, will surely interest literary minds or lovers of the arts in general. On the whole, the aims of Buhari vs Yar’Adua are to ensure the sanctity of elections and that the judiciary will never by design or default endorse electoral heist in Nigeria.
There have been several election disputes in Nigeria terminating at the Supreme Court, why the choice of Buhari vs Yar’Adua?
It is safe to actually say there were no elections in 2007 if you consider the degree of wilful violation of the Electoral Act, 2006 by the Iwu-led INEC. That’s unique on its own. Of course, we had cases such as Buhari vs Obasanjo (2005,) Awolowo vs Shagari (1979) and so on, but you will agree with me that Buhari vs Yar’Adua (2008) is in a class of its own, for it was the first time in Nigeria that the apex court was so polarised in its decision. It was 4 to 3 justices in favour of Yar’Adua. But much more than that was the language employed in the lead and dissenting judgements. Justice Niki Tobi who read the majority decision agreed, reluctantly, that Buhari proved substantial noncompliance but failed to establish that it substantially affected the result of the presidential poll, even when in the early pages of his ruling, he had said it was INEC that ought to bring exculpatory evidence that the noncompliance so established by the petitioner did not affect substantially the result of the election. But Justice George Oguntade and two others took a diametrically opposite position. They argued that there was no valid presidential election held because the most sensitive document used for the said election, the ballot papers, were not serialized and bound in booklets as required by the Electoral Act. Section 45(2) of the Electoral Act, 2006 says the ballot papers shall be numbered serially and bound in booklets. The word “shall” is mandatory. Besides, serialisation of ballot papers was a condition precedent. If processes A, B and C are to lead to D, then A, B and C are conditions precedent and once you fail to carry out any of the processes before arriving at D, then there is no D in the eye of the law.
I argued in the book that, if you asked INEC to tender, as evidence, ballot papers used in Kaduna during the 2007 presidential election, how would the court verify that what the Commission brought before it were not ballot papers used in Kano, Enugu or Lagos since they had no serial numbers! But we had a worse-case scenario in that counsel to Atiku tendered evidence to prove that Prof Maurice Iwu actually gave orders for the ballot papers not to be serialized! How Prof Iwu got away with such a brazen infraction of the law without a word of rebuke in the lead judgment beats me hollow! But the coup de grace in Buhari vs Yar’Adua was the inconsistency in the majority decision of the apex court. The magnitude of double speak in that ruling makes it sui generis; that is, in a class of its own.
You are a media practitioner, how were you able to achieve this feat of writing a book on legal matters?
First, you need to agree that media is the melting pot of all professions. And I think for you to be a good journalist, you need to have some good knowledge of law. Good education provides you the foundation but personal development will take you anywhere. With self-development, which of course, comes with a lot of sacrifices, the sky is only your limit. I guess you are aware that I used to contribute to the Law Page of my paper before my present appointment. And I have taken positions on legal matters in other newspapers as well. When I take a position, it is only in an area I have devoted a lot of sleepless nights to understand very well, therefore, I entrench myself. I just cited above my position on presidential assent. Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN) once took me up on that but I wrote later to reiterate my position that for a constitutional amendment exercise, no presidential assent is required. And through the latest book, I think I’ve just sparked off a debate that the AGF has no power over the Code of Conduct Bureau. I know the widely held notion and in other jurisdictions. The Code of Conduct is not in the same bracket as the EFCC, ICPC, etc., which are mere products of ordinary or subordinate legislations. You cannot transfer clear-cut constitutional provisions into a subordinate legislation; there is a world of difference between a constitutional law and ordinary legislation. And nothing really extraordinary when you consider the fact that most of our writers actually had backgrounds in sciences; even the legendary Chinua Achebe studied science in secondary school; in fact, he only changed to arts after a year or so at the University College, Ibadan. TM Aluko, Elechi Amadi and so on all studied sciences. The Master of the Rolls himself, Lord Denning, who initially studied Mathematics before Law, is acknowledged to have contributed a lot to Literature. A lot of hard work, a lot study, a lot of personal denial for you to achieve your dreams.
Let me quote from the foreword to the book written by the Secretary to the Ogun State Government, Barr Taiwo Adeoluwa: “As a lawyer, I appreciate the enormous challenge in putting together a book on a technical subject outside one’s professional calling. Soyombo has demonstrated that the challenge can be defied by one who believes in his task. Else, this rich intellectual work would never have been produced. I recommend this book to those who take a stand against injustice in all its forms and those who believe in the future of Nigerian democracy.”