Festac 77 brings back good, fond memories to my family - Paul Ukpabio's Blog

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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Festac 77 brings back good, fond memories to my family

Professor Duro Oni, Dep-Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos

In many ways, Professor Duro Oni is a top rated academic with a difference. He is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Management Services) of the University of Lagos. He readily tells you, “I like to look good, not necessarily expensive. I don’t have a bulging stomach and most of what I wear fit. My dress sense is a little eclectic. I love wearing Western suits, Chinese suits and traditional wear. Casuals also look good on me. At least that is what people say!” One of the egg-heads in the nation’s ivory towers, Prof. Oni was once the Director General of the Federal Government cultural arm known as the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) which, this month, will be celebrating 40 years of existence.
In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO and JUMOKE OWOOLA, Prof. Oni shares with us the value system that took him to the upper echelon of the ivory tower and the cultural values that would likely see Nigeria out of the recession into a greater nation.

WHAT does it feel like to be the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos? And more importantly, how does management control the peace on campus?

It certainly feels good being DVC. One is one of the top three people in the University management; the VC being first and then two DVCs. It is an influential position, but essentially a supportive one: One that supports the Vice-Chancellor to succeed. Peace can sometimes be elusive, but what is important is continuous dialogue with all the four staff unions (ASUU, SSANU, NAAT & NASU) and also the students union. We meet regularly to anticipate problems that may occur and try to find solutions within the capacity of management.

Let’s talk about your early life, how did your early life influence the person that you are today?
I recall growing up in our large family house in No. 66, Bosso Road, Minna, Niger State. My parents were very enterprising and I learnt a lot from them. I was not forced to study at home, because I always came 1st in school. I had a nickname: “Ori ni iwe wa”! – meaning that the knowledge was in the head … that the knowledge that I would gain from reading at home was already in my head. While the other kids were compelled to study at home, I was left to study as I deemed fit. I see myself as a very enterprising person with solutions to most problems that prop up.
Tell us a few things you remember about your childhood and a few about your parents.
I grew up in the railway town of Minna and my mother ran a restaurant in the Railway Station and also one in our St. Peter’s Primary School. So, there was always plenty to eat. My father traded in Shea nuts which he bought from the Gwari women, dried them and shipped them to Lagos and on to Liverpool. And because of my father’s constant travels and my apparent “brilliance”, I was his manager and accountant rolled into one. I ran his business when I was in the primary school and he even taught me how to sign his signature if we needed money in his absence. He had of course introduced me to his friend, the ACB Bank Manager. My father was fond of spending brand new coins then and later brand new notes and was known as “Sabon Kudi” – meaning new money! I took after him in that regard and usually have new notes.
What influenced your choice of being an academic?
I trained initially as a professional and enjoyed my work thoroughly. I also made a little money designing and consulting for the NTA, NBL, Guinness, Xerox and so on. Then, circumstances changed, and I had to get more into academics and later took a Ph.D from the University of Ibadan. Now, I have the rare privilege of being an academic and also a professional.

So, who influenced you most in life, your mom or your dad?

My mother did, more than my dad. This is usually the case in a polygamous home. We did not lack much, though, as my father was very well off. We lived in our own house and my father drove us to school. But my mother was so much more caring and practically ensured that I didn’t lack any essential things.

Which do you prefer, working in a place like CBAAC and working in an academic community like this?

(Laughs) There is no basis for comparison. I am an academic and I have worked in the academic system, literally all my life. And what you must also know is that when I went to CBAAC to work, I was on leave of absence from the University of Lagos. So after that assignment, I quickly returned to my base. At CBAAC, what I did was trying to re-engineer the sector, make my contribution and return to base. We have a very vibrant department of creative arts which I initiated the idea of, and was head of the department at some point. I was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at some point too and currently the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the university.

You were at CBAAC, what would you say were the gains?

What we did with CBAAC was to essentially internalise its function, that it is a parastatal that goes beyond Nigeria, even though after Festac 77, Nigeria opted to keep all the materials that were used at CBAAC. But it is not keeping them as artefacts of museum pieces but to use them in understanding art to the present and projecting to the future. That was why during my time at CBAAC, we tried very hard to intellectualise the activities of CBAAC. We had lot of emphasis on public lectures, seminars, colloquiums and so on. All that helped put CBAAC on a pedestal. And of course, Professor Tunde Babawale took over from me and he also raised the bar at CBAAC. So that is what CBAAC is; it goes beyond looking at artefacts. In fact, we even went as far as digitalising the materials because that enabled us to save them from eventual decay. By this January 2017, the country will be marking 40 years of CBAAC. So whatever method that has been used to preserve a document for 40 years, must have been a good preservation method. And for a while, CBAAC was at the National Theatre. And there were problems with the National Theatre: humidity, power problems, and all of that.

For those that do not know, what would you say has been the benefit of CBAAC over the years?
What you must understand is that there are between 10 and 13 parastatals in the Ministry of Culture, each of them with their various functions: the National Theatre, National Troupe, The National Institute for Cultural Orientation, the National Council for Arts and Culture and so on. CBAAC is the intellectual arm of the culture sector, it is the one that generates ideas for the sector and propels the cultural sector in the direction that they should be going. That is why a lot of emphasis is placed on those activities of an intellectual nature that would propel the black man and the black race to catapult them to a place where ideas are generated towards the benefit of mankind. And that is the emphasis and relevance of CBAAC. The other parastatals have their roles which I believe they are doing quite well, but CBAAC symbolises the intellectualism of the black man, the black race, and highlights his contribution to world discourse and world development.
You said CBAAC will be celebrating 40 soon. As a stakeholder, in what ways would you have liked

CBAAC to celebrate at this time?

That would be a good one for the CEO of CBAAC to take on. But I would have laid a lot of emphasis on the intellectual contribution of CBAAC to human development, to Africa, to the world and of course to Nigeria. It is not an occasion at this stage for carnival dancing. The world is shifting away from that, we have got issues relating to Nollywood. When they started, it was about poorly produced movies but they kept at it, and it has improved tremendously. Now there are quite a lot of discussions around the world on the contributions of CBAAC and how low budget films can be made to tell the stories that are being told now. There is hardly anywhere in the world now that our Nollywood movies have not got to, and I have been to quite a number of countries. You get to some far away places and someone stops you and upon finding out that you are a Nigerian, they ask you for Nollywood movies. So these are some of the things that I believe that CBAAC should be contributing to the intellectual discourse about the black man and his place in the world that we all live in.

In what ways can one say Nollywood is a blessing?

In many ways, it may have had its issues at the beginning, with errors here and there, but the industry has been re-hauling itself. The story lines have got better, the practitioners themselves have from time to time got together to advise themselves on ways to re-jig their industry and they have formed themselves into groups to better their lives. Though there are still more problems to be solved like the issue of ‘the medicine man’ and so on, but quite a lot of research has been done on Nollywood; works of Hyginus Ekwazi, Onokome Okome, the Late Foluke Ogunleye, some foreigners (Jonathan Haynes) too have done some work; even I have done some works too. It is an on-going exercise. We have been engaging the practitioners at different fora. Sometimes we invite them to our discourse. Sometime ago, you probably would have noticed that some of the movie translations from Yoruba to English or vice versa were so terrible. But those issues are now gradually being addressed. There is a lot of improvement but there is still some more work to be done.

In a state of recession like this, what role can agriculture play in revitalising our cultural values?

The government is trying to promote agriculture in the country because food security is very important to existence and nature. Look at the word ‘agriculture’. It also has culture in it, which is more about how you grow your food within the culture of the society in which that food is grown. Within that framework, to get food security means we must get organised and go beyond the production of one man who has a hoe and cutlass, lives in Benue State and has a farm where he grows yams, or plants mangoes in Taraba State or Jalingo, or in Minna with all the millet and so on. We must get into mechanised agricultural enterprises and that will have to relate, in my view, with a co-operative arrangement whereby the farmers are not on their own trying to grow food for themselves and for subsistence and a little bit of trying to sell.

During the time of the Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he organised a lot of people in the community to get into cooperative farming. So, this is the cultural aspect of our ability to grow enough food. We must grow above each farmer trying to grow for himself alone, in which case they will be able to rent equipment so that the job that 50 farmers can do in a day, mechanised farming would do in one hour. That is the relationship between culture as a way and life of a people and the way they grow their food and other agricultural practices.

How do we curb our appetite for foreign products?

These things have been on for some time in Nigerian society. People tend to like what is imported even when it is second hand clothing that they don’t know the sources of. But the government must continue to encourage local production. Recently, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi gave a lecture at the University of Ibadan where he pointed out that a country that spends billions of naira in importing things like tooth pick cannot develop. So the issue of importation of rice has become a culture that is undesirable. I recall when I was growing up, rice was food that was cooked on Sundays or only on ceremonial days. We had our own staple foods; in the morning it was akara, moimoin and ogi, that is, pap. In the afternoon, we had boiled yam and in the late evening, it was pounded yam. So there is a need for a resurgence of that culture of consuming what we produce. I know that there is now the new culture of fast foods. But one is happy that some of the tendency of these fast food joints has changed direction. In those days, all they sold was foreign pastries. But now, there is a lot of emphasis on jollof rice, which is very Nigerian and then they have Nigerian section with pounded yam, amala, bitter leaf soup, ogbono that also has grown; it is a revolutionary process.

Is our art attractive to foreigners?

I have always maintained that it must first be attractive to us. You cannot generate foreign tourism when you do not have domestic tourism. We must first like what we produce before we can offer it to some other persons. If you ask a few wealthy Nigerians what Ikogosi Warm Spring looks like, they do not know. But they can tell you how the Eiffel Tower looks like in Paris; the Big Ben in London, they are very familiar with those. If you look at the countries that have developed rapidly within the last few decades like China, Korea and others, you will find out that they take a lot of pride in their countries, in terms of the things they eat, the things they wear. Of course within the Nigerian context and even worldwide, you see a lot of Chinese restaurants around the world. But what gladdens my heart is that all around the world too these days, you see a lot of Nigerian restaurants. There are plenty of Nigerian restaurants out there and they are doing well. That is why culture is a dynamic phenomenon. It is not static. So, we make certain losses here and gain some there too.

Talking about gains and losses, our products are indeed going outside, but how about inside? And then also, how about the food insufficiency that we are hearing these days?

Yes, we ought to be consuming a lot of the things we produce. But again there is some dishonesty in the part of some organs. They say they are selling fertilisers to farmers and all that, but as it is, I was in Abeokuta for the Ake Festival and there was a panel and a gentleman who said he has driven across Nigeria and what he saw is that we do not have arid land, that we have land that we can do nothing about! The entire western region during the time of Chief Awolowo was developed based on locally produced commodities. And everything was going on so well. In the north, they had the groundnut pyramids; then cotton and so on. Then, the oil boom came and everyone seemed to have abandoned those essential commodities that made us great people. We all became dependent on oil. And all we needed was a crash in the oil price and Nigeria went into recession. Now, there are talks that if we are not careful, the recession can degenerate into depression. But I believe that we are still a great country.

Why is it that our government does not support research?

No, government supports research. I am in a university system, so I know government does. There are a lot of researches that have different access to lot of research funds. There is the university fund that is given to researchers depending on how much they need; then there is the Tetfund, the tertiary education fund. You can have an individual research fund or a consortium that cuts across several disciplines in terms of research. You can get funding sometimes up to N30million or N40million. Then, there are also the international funding agencies. It depends on what you are doing. I have a research group, we are doing work on contributions of Nollywood to nation building, and it is a huge project, peace building and integration in Nigeria through Nollywood films. This is a proposal beyond the Tetfund, it cuts across a few universities in Nigeria; it also involves a university in the United States and will take about two years to complete what we are looking at. And that is the kind of things that those who sponsor researches are looking for. Tetfund is a Federal Government parastatal, which has done a lot of good to the university system. They have been involved in capacity development, physical structure development, with most of the structures on university campuses being funded by Tetfund at the federal and state universities.

From what you are saying, there is still hope for Nigeria.

Of course, there is hope for Nigeria. The country has great potentials. I tell people that if there is anything like reincarnation, I want to return to Nigeria. Once we sort out the leadership and corruption issues, we will be okay. We may not be where we want to be, but we are coming up. We also have to get the issue of power right.

Some say a man is not complete without a better half, we hear you met your wife during the Festac 77 celebration in Lagos. How has the union joined by Festac 77 been?

My wife is from Ogoja in Cross River State. For me, it has been a pleasant feeling; the marriage has been blessed right from that Festac 77. Though we met at Festac 77 but we didn’t get married until 1984. We have two young men and two ladies who are all now university graduates. My wife’s career progressed, and she retired as the head of the Nigerian Film Corporation in Ikoyi, the Lagos office. So, her career blossomed to the point that she retired and my career too blossomed to my present position. So we continue to thank God. In my home, we usually recall Festac 77 with nostalgia. And I am lucky to still be around to talk about this.

Can you describe yourself?

I am someone whose life is devoted to helping others.

If you were not what you are now, what else would you have loved to be?

I would have loved to be a professional Lighting Designer for Theatre, TV and Film.

To have been in marriage this long tells a lot about your personalities, but how have you been able to handle
attraction from opposite sex to survive this long in marriage despite working on campus?

I have been married for 32 years plus. Attraction would always be there, from all angles, especially when you are perceived to be doing well. Certain things are no go areas to maintain your sanity and integrity. The higher you go, the more care you need to take.

What do you value most?

Hard work; integrity, loyalty and dedication

Are you fulfilled?

Very much so. I have a lot to be grateful to God for.

How do you spend your holidays? Do you have memories of a particular holiday you enjoyed most?
I enjoy international and local travels. I have been to some 60 countries in the world and have been to all the states in Nigeria. I once went to Bermuda and the experience was exhilarating.

What inspires you?

Hard work that leads to deserved achievements and good leadership.

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