I’m writing this from the Cultural Centre in Kuto, Abeokuta, Ogun State on the final day of the first edition of the Ake Arts and Book Festival, organised by poet and novelist, Lola Shoneyin, with the support of a wide range of partners ranging from The World Bank, British Council, Ekiti State Government, Miles Morland Foundation, the Goethe Institut and the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, amongst others.

Over the course of six days, Abeokuta has played host to an eclectic cast of distinguished writers and artists and intellectuals from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom. Panels on politics and democracy, corruption, and gender and sexuality mingled with book chats and stage plays and poetry sessions, back-dropped by plenty of food and drink and chatting and dancing.

I just finished speaking on a panel on “The Consequences of Corruption in 21st Century Africa” moderated by Dr. Wale Adebanwi, academic and writer, and featuring Michela Wrong, Teju Cole, Pius Adesanmi, and Muthoni Garland. On that panel, I put forward certain controversial theories on understanding and responding to corruption in contemporary Nigeria (which I have been warned might lead to newspaper headlines that might prove very unflattering) and which I hope to explore in this column very soon.

Prof. Wole Soyinka was the guiding spirit of the festival; his presence loomed large – from the launch of his new play, Alapata Apata: A Play for Yorubafonia, Class for Xenophiles; to the session in which he was interviewed by four young Nigerians on everything from his art to his activism, and even his hair maintenance routines.

The Ekiti and Ogun State Governments awarded N20,000 book vouchers to their students present at the festival, triggering the sort of buying frenzy that every bookseller dreams of.

Abeokuta seemed like just the place for a festival like that; the perfect mix of urbanity and rustic gentility for a festival of books and bright minds; the storied city in which Soyinka, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Olusegun Obasanjo and M.K.O. Abiola all grew up.

And there were memorable stories and observations at the Ake Festival, as one expects from the best literary festivals. Gen. Godwin Alabi-Isama, Chief of Staff of the 3rd Marine Commando of the Nigerian Armed Forces during the Civil War (the Commando was headed first by Benjamin Adekunle and then Obasanjo) noted the irony of staying in a hotel owned by a “rich” Olusegun Obasanjo (festival guests stayed at a new hotel within the sprawling grounds of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Complex) while an ailing Adekunle struggles to pay his medical bills.

Alabi-Isama also shared fascinating war stories, many of them recounted in his book, “The Tragedy of Victory: An On-the-spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre”.

Abeokuta holds a lot of memories for me, being the city in which I grew up, and in which I can claim to have lived the longest, on and off. To see all of these interesting people in “my” town was to feel deeply privileged; front-row-seat privileged.

There’s one thing that I can say with confidence; inspired by my experiences in bookshops and book festivals/events in Nigeria in recent years: the largely desolate literary and intellectual space in Nigeria still manages to redeem itself. Writing and publishing are alive and thriving in Nigeria. And the themes and points of view are being expanded, in exciting ways. At the Festival I came across Federal Permanent Secretary Tunji Olaopa’s three-book series on public sector reforms in Nigeria. I wasted no time buying it, and will be looking forward to reading it alongside Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s “Reforming the Unreformable”, which focuses on similar issues.

And I can also see that the seriously-approached and revelatory political accounts are growing in number, from Nasir el-Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant” to Segun Adeniyi’s “Power, Politics and Death”. Chinua Achebe’s “There Was A Country” also belongs to this category. As el-Rufai argued at the Lagos Arts and Book Festival two weeks ago, we need more people writing, putting forward their own versions of the “truth” of their stints in public office. The more the accounts, the likelier we are to get to the real truth, if that is ever possible.

The Ake Book Festival and the Lagos Arts and Book Festival (now in its 15th year) and the Garden City Literary festival in Port Harcourt are, in my opinion, enough reason to not give up on striving to create a culture of literary and intellectual engagement in Nigeria.

They are of course also a reminder of why we cannot afford to continue playing games with our education system, and with the drive to create a thriving Nigerian middle class.

For more Nigerians to buy books, newspapers and magazines in appreciable numbers, and treat themselves to the luxuries of attending book festivals and signings, we need to push literacy levels higher, and drive incomes upwards. We need a bigger middle class, and a basically literate working class who have room in their minds for a little more than the primal quest for food and survival.

There’s more to life than the quest for the next meal, or the hustle to survive from one day to another. Unfortunately for millions of Nigerians – and this is no fault of theirs – the reality is otherwise. Life is lived at subhuman levels, driven by the intimidating anarchy that is life here.

With 70 per cent of the population living in or near poverty, reading anything other than material that promises to bring a miraculous or instantaneous transformation to ones financial well-being becomes unimaginable. And so religious publications and motivational materials easily become bestsellers, while the novels, memoirs and newspapers struggle to shift a few thousands of copies – in a country with more people than all but a handful of countries.

We have a long journey ahead, towards mass literacy, and towards the reduction of poverty and the creation of a sizable middle class.

But we have to start that journey now. And we are starting from a very bad place. There are more out-of-school children in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. That is plainly unacceptable.

Ten million out-of-school children translate to multiples of 10 million unsold school books in the immediate term, and a ticking time-bomb for the near future. Ten million adults in 2030 who are illiterate, and unprepared for life; unable to partake of the joys of reading. Ten million adults starting out on a path that is not designed to end up in the middle class. Multiples of 10 million newspapers and novels and memoirs that will never be written or sold.

Nothing will happen suddenly. It’s the bed we lay today that we will be compelled to lie on in 2030, when there will be a quarter of a billion persons identifying themselves as Nigerians.

Depending on how we look at it, it’s one of the world’s biggest opportunities – or biggest nightmares. Two hundred and fifty million persons in a Nigeria as dysfunctional as today’s will be a monumental disaster. Two hundred and fifty million persons in a resurgent, visionary Nigeria will be heaven to book writers and publishers.

I’m optimistic, because any alternatives are currently unimaginable.

But the government somehow just keeps failing the country, helped along in its irresponsibility by you and me. We need to set off on a new course.

I’m looking forward to next year’s Ake Book Festival, and to the year-long 2014 World Book Capital celebrations in Port Harcourt (Port Harcourt is World Book Capital 2014, the first time in history that a city in sub-Saharan Africa is enjoying that honour), and to the Lagos Arts and Book Festival and the Nigerian International Book Fair, and all others I have left out.

May a thousand flowers bloom, writers, publishers, thinkers, and most importantly, readers; and may Nigeria give us all a chance to lift our gaze from the level of the hysterical and animalistic quest for survival, to a place where literary and intellectual endeavours become as much of a national obsession as our “owambes”, the seemingly immortal “national cake”, and the Super Eagles. Amen.

-Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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