Interview ~ ANA would be the loser if we all stick to our guns ~ Odoh Diego Okenyodo

Odoh Diego Okenyodo is a poet and editor who serves as Country Director of the Splendors of Dawn Poetry Foundation. A former National Publicity Secretary (North) of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), he was appointed into the National Electoral Committee of the ANA at the Annual General Meeting held in October 2019 in Enugu, the place of birth of the foremost literary association. The AGM ended in chaos, as for the first time in the Association's 38-year history it did not elect an EXCO. Okenyodo, author of the collection ‘From A Poem to Its Creator’, and a former literary journalist has played a key role in the events that have unfolded after the Enugu debacle. In this interview with Paul Liam, Odoh Diego Okenyodo sheds light on some of the actions he and some other members of the ELCOM took and why he thinks ANA should explore appointing a Caretaker Committee before holding an election:

Thank you for accepting to speak with me despite the very short notice, sir.
Thanks for the opportunity.

The ANA Convention held in Enugu last year came crashing down when the election could not be completed. How would you describe the build up to the cancellation of that election?

It was the most charged electioneering I've seen, probably after the one that brought in the late Abubakar Gimba as President. It was needed, though, because it was an opportunity for the members to know their association more properly. Questions were being asked because the members seemed to have been blindsided for very long by the leaders. It shows us what might happen in Nigeria someday.

As a long-standing member of ANA, where did ANA get it wrong to have found itself in this embarrassing situation where an out-gone executive couldn’t conduct an election thereby leaving the association in turmoil?

It is the mental and intellectual laziness of our members that would be blamed. We wanted freedom and independence without responsibility. I believe that ANA has always prided in being a free-for-all space. We have not built our membership with any sense of responsibility but members would always assert their rights, and we willingly indulged them. In no space do you speak of rights without responsibilities.

On the one hand are branches that keep no records of members and do not insist on their members paying for their memberships dues. They sometimes do not pay registration fees nor do they pay annual dues. On the other hand are members who feel that they do not have to be affiliated to branches for them to be recognized at National Conventions and they are indulged by National Executive members who need such errant participants. It is my belief that what happened in Enugu took too long to happen. ANA had too many second chances and we didn't take them.

Will ANA survive this phase?

ANA will. Of course, that depends a lot on what she does, what its stakeholders do. For instance, after the postponement of elections in Enugu, we have had reckless interventions from members at the high and low levels. They looked only at their entrenched positions. Parties to the dispute who profess to love the Association have gone on to issue statements in the media that can simply be described as reckless or immature. There is a level of desperation that has made the mouth of many a member ajar in surprise.

The ELCOM was constituted by the Congress at Enugu to conduct a free and fair election for one of Africa's largest literary bodies. Although the election was botched, would you say that the ELCOM was partly responsible for the failure of that election considering that it was in its powers to give the association a new national executive?

Not really. Some individuals in the ELCOM started working against what the congress had mandated the ELCOM to do. But that was because of the 5th columnists who held sway in the Association, and there was nothing that could be done without the support of members. Don't forget that the ELCOM was set up without any physical tool to work with and we have had to run with our own commitment as the main resource. I think the unclear nature of the task in the mind of members was also responsible.

What is the current state of the Electoral Committee?

It remains. An Electoral Committee is traditionally dissolved by handing over the reins of leadership to the executive whose election it has conducted. The election was not conducted, and the Congress, through the Committee of Chairmen, mandated that the ELCOM go ahead and do what is necessary to conduct the elections. Though one member of the ELCOM has resigned, and two are of the view that the Congress acted in error, they have not resigned, so the ELCOM remains, with one member down.

Could you shed more light on the development that led to the resignation of a member of the committee?

Well, that's what I just explained. One member having resigned is just that--one member needs to be replaced and the Chairman of the ELCOM, Prof Adimora Akachi Ezeigbo, should be asked for a progress report on the assignment we have been given. In all honesty, she maintained right from the outset that she would not have the time to lead this committee, due to her academic engagements. My only concern is the appearance of being willing to serve in the committee named by Prof Femi Osofisan, our revered former President, author and academic. I think it is a contradiction that Prof Akachi Ezeigbo would be silent on that offer, instead of rejecting it, and also remain in the ELCOM. Nonetheless, I choose to look at all this positively, given that it shows that ANA is still a strong brand that we all want to identify with. I recall that I also threatened to resign from the Electoral Committee, but here I am still answering questions from you as a member of the Committee!

There is also the debate about the legitimacy of the Advisory Council and its decision of setting up a new electoral committee as was sometimes announced by Professor Femi Osofisan who is also a member of the Advisory Council. Many are of the view that since Congress is the highest decision making body of the association, the electoral committee mandated by the Congress reserves the legitimate powers to conduct the awaited ANA election. What is your take on this matter?

Right now, many positions being canvassed have an appearance of validity. If we continue along that line of sticking to our guns, we would not be near resolving the matter. For instance, as you know, I was a great proponent of the illegality of the Advisory Council because the Council was never constituted and presented to the Annual General Meeting for ratification, and the Council is supposed act in advisory capacity, which a unilateral dissolution of any organ isn't. I had also argued that the constitution of ANA says the Advisory Council should advise an EXCO, which mean that since the EXCO was dissolved and only an ELCOM was in place, the only organ empowered to exercise discretion was the Congress at the AGM, and that Congress did take a clear and unambiguous stance, thus no other power could step in.

But, as the Association tries to forge ahead, I put these arguments to rest on the basis that we still need all parties for ANA to remain strong. People have to come with clean hands and know that ANA members are aware of all the antics in the underbelly of the Association now. They cannot be hoodwinked any longer.

Given all the challenges that now confronts the ELCOM, do you think it is still possible to have an election in the constitutionally stipulated 180 days? And is there really a way out of this quagmire?

If an election is the issue at stake, it can be held within two weeks. However, the issues at stake are bigger than an election. Here we have lack of transparency and a clandestine approach to running an organization clashing with a greater yearning for openness by a more enlightened crop of members. It is also a contest between rights and duties. What should a member be entitled to and what should a member do? Before those two questions is that question of who a writer is. Our other former President and member of the Electoral Committee, Odia Ofeimun, has made the latter argument very succinctly in his insistence on a membership audit before an election can hold. But, even if we take his extreme position insisting on a membership audit, which I argue that the Electoral Committee was not given a mandate to conduct, we can utilize simple technologies to deliver these in one week. We can create an online form for members or Chapter executives to fill in the information about each member, including scans of book covers, ISBN, names of publishers, dues paid, and previous National Conventions attended and we would have a membership audit. Many things are not as complicated as the members have chosen to make them.

What do you think is the role of the state chairmen and secretaries at crucial times like this? Do they have any concrete roles to play in all of this?

They are the ones who hold the hammer and axe now. The Congress particularly transmitted powers to them. The fact that the ELCOM was given the authority to continue and conduct an election in 180 days is clearly hinged on this. Truly, they are the ones who hold the future of ANA right now. It's the vacuum they have created that is allowing any other person or group to lay claim to anything. And this is one area of leadership we need to explore in the future, a kind of capacity building for those taking on positions of leadership in ANA to know what leadership entails. It's not about calling regular meetings to read poetry or short stories, but about taking hard decisions in a time like this. They have to have a sense of the moment they are in, and how their actions or inactions shape not only the moment but the future.

You and one other member of the committee signed and released a tentative time table for an election in spite of the challenges in the ELCOM. What necessitated that decision and how legitimate is it?

It is just what I talked about, knowing what you are enmeshed in, and what your silence or a single wagging of a finger would do. Yemi Adebiyi and I believed that the efforts of the Congress should not be rubbished. We all who went to Enugu could not have paid to participate in an AGM, only to have what we did termed illegal by people who did not attend, when the Congress had not said we contravened the constitution. We knew that the ELCOM was still standing, despite the resignation of Prof Remi Raji. We saw what we were doing, in releasing that timetable, as a speech on behalf of a whole of ANA, on behalf of which we felt slighted by such condescending attitude.

What is the actual role of the constitution on matters like this, and do you foresee this issue heading to the courts?

The constitution is being tested, but most importantly, the power of those who gave the constitution life is being tested. This is the beauty of the current situation. Those who have enjoyed fiat in the past do not like what is happening, understandably; and those of us who have always had the short end of the stick feel that it's time things rocked a bit. Fortunately, no one is really thinking that the courts would be a choice anymore. Calls are being made and there are talks ongoing to calm tempers and forge compromises in the name of ANA. Like I said earlier, the Association would be the loser if we all stick to our guns. That does not mean making silly compromises, either.

What do you advice as the best solution to this crisis?

Transparency. Members need to know some hard truths. Some people are not members; they're not qualified to be members. They need to be told and made to leave. Maybe they can go and form the Association of Book-less Authors, or something like that. There are members who do not write, nor engage in creative writing. They should be asked to leave at some point. We also might require a Caretaker Committee charged with doing some of the hard stuff. A Caretaker would resolve three main problems for us. One, it will clean the stable for the incoming EXCO by conducting membership audits and doing some of the hard and dirty works that need to be done. Two, it will bridge a silent problem that would emerge when we elect a substantive EXCO at any time other than October/November because our EXCO is constitutionally mandated to vacate the seat after two years. That means, if we elect a new EXCO in February 2020, ANA's Annual Conventions would start holding every February instead of every October/November. This would shake the literary calendar in Nigeria. Even though, I personally prefer an earlier schedule since all our creative events tend to cluster around the last quarter of the year from NANTAP, through The Nigeria Prize for Literature, the Etisalat Prize, and many others. A third problem a Caretaker Committee would solve would be that of taking ANA out of the limbo it is in at the moment. Right now, stakeholders do not know who to deal with when it comes to ANA issues. For instance, the developers of the Mamman Vatsa Writers' Village in Abuja need supervision but who is doing that now? Some international organizations are trying to collaborate with ANA at this point but there is no substantive person or persons to talk to. These are potential losses for ANA, before we talk of the overall public relations disaster that our raucous conducts have been.

Thank you for your time, I look forward to talking with you again.

Thanks a great deal for this comprehensive grilling!