Literary Fraternity In Nigeria Today Tends To Be More Political Than Literary – An Interview With Gimba Kakanda By Hussaina Shabafu

Gimba Kakanda is a poet, writer and public affairs analyst. The Abuja-based writer and social entrepreneur has contributed to a vast array of local and international media in various genres, and currently writes on politics and life for Daily Trust and analyses foreign policy from the African perspective for Aljazeera. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE), and is an alumnus of the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program. He was listed among the 100 Most Influential Voices in Nigerian Politics by YNaija online magazine in June, 2020, for influencing and driving conversations around Nigerian politics.

LitVo: Congratulations on your recent parlour wedding. It was said that you betrayed the Nigerian association of bachelors despite being a frontline member for a long time. How does it feel to be married impromptu? Did you foresee it?

Gimba Kakanda: It’s indeed a parlour wedding, and surprisingly unforeseeable. I also think I overstayed my welcome in that association. Looking back, I’m glad I saved so many loved ones the trouble of travelling down to Abuja or Minna to honour our invitations. For the record, I’m not against loud or opulent weddings. Marriage is a milestone and, for many, it’s the only time they are ever at the centre of any fanfare, so I believe it’s okay to do it in grand style. We only get to live once. In my case, I just had to adhere to the quiet version preferred by my father-in-law. But there’s no regret whatsoever. I married the most patient woman I’ve ever come across. Marriage, sincerely, is inviting your friend over to stay with you forever, and that’s why patience is the most essential virtue in marriage. So many marriages crash for lack or short supply of patience. If my wife were as annoying as her husband, God knows we would’ve since resorted to sleeping in different rooms. But I’ve been making things easy for her. I had lived alone for about a decade before I got married, and so I feared that adjustment may take a while. But look who’s happily settled. A happy marriage, for me, is akin to learning to love your partner’s favourite songs and compiling a catalogue of mutually loved songs.

LitVo: Do you mind sharing any experience as an African during your residency at the University of Iowa? Was it a pleasant experience or there’s more to be done in our race relations? How has the program aided your career as a writer and journalist?

Gimba Kakanda: Iowa City is a predominantly white place, and so it’s understandable when a black visitor from the most populous black place on the planet feels racially alienated in his early days there. My experience as a minority there may differ from others, but the city defied the textbook stereotype of certain white American cities. The relative tolerance may be because Iowa City is a university town and has a sizable demographic of educated and enlightened residents. It’s a city of books and readers. My initial challenge there was difficulty in finding a barbershop. Once, Google Maps led me to one managed by white barbers. There, a greying white barber with a gentle stoop approached me and said, “It takes some education to cut black hair.” It’s confusing that a barber in his late 60s or older still needed more experience to cut black hair. Perhaps he began late. We shared a laugh, and then I left. I had my first haircut at a place called La James College on the University of Iowa campus. It’s a learning centre that offers students first-hand experience of the beauty industry, and my barber, a student beautician in her late teens or early 20s turned out to be a white girl. I managed to find a black-managed barbershop for my next haircut. Another nightmare for a black person in Iowa City is the lack of African restaurants, which are found in cosmopolitan white cities. When I visited Chicago, which was nearby, I realized that my homesickness was not a longing to return home, but driven by the absence of familiar food.

As a writer, the residency in Iowa was my most productive phase. I worked on my novel manuscript, wrote a few short stories and managed to write poems enough to make three collections. It also offered me an opportunity to learn from rising and established writers from more than twenty countries, and in realizing that we are no different. For instance, grieving in Abuja feels the same as it does in Brussels. We are all sacks of red, no matter the colour of our skin.

LitVo: What can you say has been your most controversial post and how did you calm the tide in the end?

Gimba Kakanda: I’ve never ever regarded any post I shared online or position I took in my public commentaries as controversial. Perhaps the most suitable word is “unpopular,” and that’s because I’ve never functioned in any herd. It’s also interesting that nobody has ever succeeded in bullying me to take a position that doesn’t align with my moral sensibility. On social media. I’ve been equally opposed by both northerners and southerners and Muslims and Christians severally. I will never sacrifice my individuality to appeal to any mass sentiment. The world just has to learn to live with some of us.

LitVo: Most Nigerians perceive politics as a dirty game and that has kept the same circle of old people in government. What’s your take on Nigerian politics? Should we expect to see you running for an office anytime soon?

Gimba Kakanda: Politics isn’t a gentleman’s game anywhere on this planet. And contrary to the thinking that our politics has been exclusive, it’s actually been open for both the corrupt and the self-styled morally upstanding citizens. Pick up a magazine from even as recent as 2000, you may get what I mean: our political or public offices have been occupied by even fierce government critics like Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka and the difference isn’t exactly clear. Even Shehu Sani has just had a taste of the pie. We often tell ourselves that the same families have been in charge of Nigeria since independence, but that’s not true. Aside from the Class of ‘66 who’ve managed to remain relevant as a result of their unusual longevity, membership of Nigeria’s political elites has been inclusive. Some rode on their education to the circle, some through their businesses, and others through friendship with the powers that were.

About running for any office, I think that’s a misreading of my civic vigilance or political commentaries. The essence of criticism isn’t that the critic is better or would’ve done better, but an assertion that the status quo is flawed. It’s a way of maintaining the balance and sustaining the quests for a change or improvement. Left unchecked, we all have the potential to become what we criticize and worse. I do not believe that an individual is capable of fixing Nigeria, our revolution rests on the enlightenment of the citizens. A nation can overcome and neutralize the conspiracy and mindset of its leaders, but no nation on this planet can ever rise above the thinking of its citizens. What we have in place today as our civic stance is a frightening collection of divisive thoughts.

LitVo: Your journalism journey has taken you through thick and thin, what moment can you describe as your most profound moment?

Gimba Kakanda: Aside from editorial stints with various media platforms, my public engagements have all been driven by my individual demand for answers as a social critic. This is a life or attention you can have even as a banker or medical doctor. You may be surprised that I’ve functioned more behind the curtains in the development world than I have in the media. Currently, I work with a political risk assessment firm and manage my own consultancy firm. But the danger of holding the government to account or being loud in initiating or driving conversations is, you are forced to leave what you do for a living in the shadow.

LitVo: What is your opinion on people that have the habit of suggesting what topic or language you should write on?

Gimba Kakanda: Art is an interaction, whether we agree or not. The audiences have the liberty to engage your work and react, and what you do with their feedback is your business. But the moment you allow your writings to be dictated by your readers, you’ve become a part of their agenda, and you may end up as a slave of their sentiments.

I think the only time I’m ever moved by the subject or theme of an artist’s works is when it comes to poverty porn, which is an old debate. This is partly because we’ve all suffered the consequences of poverty porn abroad or online. As much as I want writers to tell their stories without filters, our overt and intentional fixation on the continent’s poverty to the point of fetishization is dangerous. It’s unfortunate that some of our artists partake in institutionalizing such poverty porn based on the recommendation of their white clients or to qualify for some foreign grants. What they write to sustain their hustle has, sadly, become the identity of all Africans and the basis of measuring our worth in social circles, so much that even a janitor in London, someone you can have on a lifetime payroll, pities your poverty.

There’s nothing wrong in telling your African story, but this squalor in the literature or art of our brothers and sisters—many of whom are from economically advantaged families—is one single story told too long. Poverty porn pays, but so are we all paying for them, and persistently dehumanized.

LitVo: As a columnist, how do you achieve objectivity seeing that certain crops of readers may consider certain of your opinions skewed, flawed or biased? How do you handle the backlash?

Gimba Kakanda: I’ve been a columnist since, I think, 2012. I was a back-page columnist for the Blueprint newspapers before I took a short break, and now I’m back with the Daily Trust. It’s not been an easy ride, dealing with a cocktail of labels and name-calling week in, week out. Sometimes I pleased the readers, other times I annoyed. But, despite the bursts of toxic and flattering feedback, I never wrote one piece to appeal to mass sentiments. I don’t apologize for seeing things differently, but I must appreciate those who tolerated me even when they felt I was spectacularly unreasonable.

LitVo: You wrote your first book Safari Pants in 2009, which is way more than a decade ago, after which you are only seen featuring in anthologies. Any reason for this long hiatus?

Even for anthologies, I stopped contributing. I got to a point that my economic well-being took the front seat, and then I realized that there’s a calling, or so to say, nobler than this business of stringing metaphors to entertain a small audience. I felt that I had the flair for writing, so why reduce my protest to entertaining a few scholars, writers and literary enthusiasts? Since leading a protest in Minna in January 2012, I found purpose in holding the government to account.

But I never stopped writing poetry or fiction, I just stopped publishing them to focus on other businesses. Since you are asking, my books may start hitting the shelves this year. My friends may laugh this promise off, having failed to persuade me to publish over the years, but you can take this to the bank.

LitVo: You are extroverted and have a great sense of humour, but I observed that you don’t seem to belong to a literary association. Is there something about these associations that stops you from joining or just a preference?

Gimba Kakanda: In 2012, I renounced my membership of a literary association for a reason I don’t want to revisit. What qualifies as a literary fraternity in Nigeria today tends to be more political than literary, and it’s a shame. Most of them have become lapdogs of the government. I don’t oppose government support for writers, but once that becomes a basis for refusing to hold the politicians to account, then there’s a problem. The once-glorious Association of Nigerian Authors, which ought to have been an umbrella for writers, has become an avenue for toxic fights lately and such feuds are a red flag and a genuine reason for any sensible person to keep a long distance.

LitVo: As a social media influencer, I see your zeal in imparting knowledge on social media and eagerness to satisfy inquisitive minds, do you intend to create a masterclass to mentor in the nearest future?

Gimba Kakanda: I feel uncomfortable when referred to as an influencer. I’m rather a social media user with a loudmouth. About a masterclass, the thought of it alone makes me cringe. But thanks for the kind words.

LitVo: There is a saying that the best way to learn is through mentorship. How do you plan to keep the stream of the art running as a writer and how do you intend to pass down your knowledge to those looking up to you?

Gimba Kakanda: Okay, I think I subscribe to this version of mentoring. A lot of us rode on the coattail of established writers to get here. As for me, my journey has just begun. I’ve to push out more works to earn the right to mentor. We’ve no short supply of mentors, and the ones we looked up to, from Mallam BM Dzukogi and Barrister Ahmed Maiwada, are still active and making a difference. I think Nigeria is yet to acknowledge the sacrifices the duo have made in promoting literature.

LitVo: Writers can sometimes be biased and tend to see the world from their point of view. If you are given the wand to change something in the art of writing, what would it be?

Gimba Kakanda: What makes art thrilling is this subjectivity you call a bias. If anyone wants a lab-tested theory of the world, there are various academic disciplines to explore. A literary book is not a dissertation; it’s an imaginative lens for escaping our banal realities.

LitVo: You once mentioned that you don’t want to be profiled, even though as a writer the quality of your writing takes you places and that stirs up interest in who you are. Can you shed more light on the type of profiling you meant?

Gimba Kakanda: I’m glad you brought this up. It’s really not about being profiled, but being in the spotlight I find too bright for me at the moment. The reason I agreed to have this interview is because it was mediated by someone to whom I couldn’t say no. I felt terrible that you asked to have this for too long and I was reluctant. So, well played, Hussaina. If you go through my emails and text messages, you may be shocked by the number of invitations or requests I declined, either an invitation to be a TEDx speaker or a request for an interview. It’s confusing. Like, who am I, really? I only oblige when friends ask or intervene to have me at their events or programmes. The truth is, it makes me feel important and I don’t like the feeling. I’m not there yet, and so I’m resisting these attempts to be turned into an impostor.

LitVo: In what ways do you think budding writers should go about seeking guidance from established writers without being seen as a pest?

Gimba Kakanda: For writers, the most essential mentorship is reading. Young writers are eager to get published and so they want their favourite writers to have the time for their first drafts, and the most sincere feedback is always devastating. We’ve all been there, misled ourselves to think we are the next big thing and feel the established were merely envious. But it’s not an easy journey. Write, erase, read, write, read, read and write. Your talent isn’t enough. Almost all the stories we intend to explore have been told by others, but the skills to retell them differently can always be honed. Your mentors can only point you towards the road, they can’t do better than your commitment to reading well-written books and mastering the aesthetic strengths.

LitVo: Thanks for making this a success and may God bless.

Gimba Kakanda: You are welcome and sorry for the time it takes to have this done.



Hussaina Gimba Shabafu is a graduate of Biochemistry from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She is a poet and a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Abuja. She writes from Minna, Niger State, Nigeria. Email-gimbahussaina@gmail.comInstagram-Hussna_g, Facebook-Hussaina Gimba Shabafu, Twitter;HGS