Members of the Abuja Writers’ Forum (AWF) gathered at the Terrazo restaurant, Garki, Abuja, for a critique session. The atmosphere was familial: handshakes, hugs, pecks and conversation. Meanwhile, the founder and president of the association, Emman Shehu, was on the phone giving direction to those on their way, to ensure no one got lost on the deserted Sunday evening streets.
In time, the conversation converged around the dedicated secretary of the association, Elvis Iyorngurum— renowned for his humongous but well groomed afro and gentle manners— who passed away a few days earlier, aged 31.
What happened to him? Someone asked.
When last did you see him?
He had died after an illness and the fact that no one had seen or talked to him recently filled the room with guilt. Someone sighed and it was taken as a cue for sorrow. Soon faces were contorted into sombre expressions of mourning.
When the venue filled significantly and the event was to begin, many thought it would start, naturally, on the subject of the deceased but Shehu had a different agenda. Iyorngurum would be discussed in the second half of the meeting (plans on attending his funeral and immortalising him), but first, the critique session must go on as it has, without fail, since June 2008 when the association was formed.
Shehu started the AWF after a fallout with the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), the national association of writers in Nigeria. He was dissatisfied with the way that ANA was managed.
“The fact is that at some point I had come to see that ANA was not maximizing its potentials as the umbrella body of Nigerian writers,” he said.
The AWF is thus a result of his quest to create a more effective writers organisation. But instead of starting a national association to rival ANA, Shehu chose to focus on Abuja, though it hosts writers from around the country and beyond at its guest writer sessions.
“I strategically took a different approach and just organized a group based in Abuja but with objectives that could be beneficial for writers within and outside the country,” he said.
Emman Shehu is in his late fifties. Average height and dark, he wears a modest afro that is beginning to grey. He is a journalist with experience across radio, television and print. Presently, he is the Director of the International Institute of Journalism, Abuja. He is a member of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) campaign, an advocacy group for the rescue of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls. Since the past one and half year, the BBOG sits out every evening at the Unity Fountain, Abuja. It is not rare to see Shehu at the fountain in red head-band, red t-shirt and blue jeans, dusting chairs or distributing bottled water. Last year, he famously declined his nomination to the national conference convened by the former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan.
“It was a very simple decision to make because everything about the conference smirked of fraudulence,” he said. “I was not willing to append my name to a fraudulent act, regardless of the millions being offered to participants.”
Shehu has published two collections of poetry, ‘Questions for Big Brother’ and ‘Open Sesame’, with a third, Icarus Rising, due out next year. He was the president of the Abuja chapter of ANA until he left to form the AWF.
Less than a decade into its existence, the AWF has devised a rhythm to its programming. The third Saturday of every month is its guest writer session, while the first, second and fourth Sundays are the critique sessions. Its events are quite to look forward to in a city where there is a dearth of literary activities. If there is a hot new author on the Nigerian literary scene, the AWF will certainly bring him/her to the Abuja book enthusiasts. Over the years, it has hosted upcoming authors like Sifi Asani Gowon and Grace Okpo, alongside established writers like Zainab Alkali, Gabriel Okara, and the late Abubakar Gimba.
“Our Guest Writer Session, where published writers are showcased on a monthly basis, has become recognized as the most consistent literary event in the country. It has been running non-stop since June 2008. Our weekly critique session is also unique and is an important highlight,” Shehu said.
Some persons have gone from their critique sessions to publish stories and books that have won local and international prizes including a Commonwealth prize, he revealed.
For an organisation that is basically self-funded, running these programmes has been a difficult task. By his own admission, the group has received some support from individuals in the form of provision of venues for its events (it must be noted that the AWF uses some luxurious locations- Terrazo and Nanet Suites), still, funding remains critical to the realisation of the association’s objectives. There are programmes, he said, that have been in the coolers for years, with insufficient funds to launch them, and others, like the writing competition, that were begun but soon rested due to lack of funds. Like the writing contest, the literary journals, Cavalcade and Dugwe were also launched but rested too soon. Igonni Barrett, Jumoke Verissimo, Elnathan John, Uche Peter Umez, and Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, now published authors, were at one time or the other published in Dugwe. Recently, there has been talk about reviving Dugwe.
“We have had to think out of the box and that has enabled us find resources for a few of our projects,” Shehu said. “However we are working on turning the tide and believe that proper funding will soon become regular, not only for the existing projects but also for all the others we have not been able to translate from the drawing board into the realm of reality.”
Perhaps part of his strategy was applying for training and mentorship programmes. The AWF was recently selected for the British Council Creative Cities training for culture producers and managers in Abuja and Calabar. The project, which is part of the council’s UK/Nigeria 2015-2016 programme, aims to help participants develop skills and networks in programming, marketing, audience development, technical expertise and, of course, fundraising.
Having the British Council on its team would boost the reputation of the AWF and perhaps make it easier to get the support of other organisations. Because, besides funding, Shehu has identified the difficulty of getting “organizations to see the need for investing in projects that are critical towards the development of literature and creative writing in particular in Nigeria” as another major challenge of running an organisation such as the AWF.
Though conditions may be unfavourable but the AWF has remained. Under peer review at a corner of Terrazo were three poems by an unnamed member. The poems were about love and death, one of which was set in a restaurant.
Elsewhere on its WhatsApp group, members of the AWF continue to interact, sharing information about literary opportunities, posting newspaper headlines, planning its year-end party, sharing tips for marital bliss.