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Ahmed Yerima: “I Have Found The Commonalities of African Society …. We Have Everything In Common.”

In the world of Nigerian theatre, the name Ahmed Yerima carries much weight.
February 19, 2024
8:43 am

As a versatile playwright, producer, academic, and the former Director General of the National Arts Theatre and National Troupe, Ahmed Yerima has made a career out of exploring the complex issues facing his country through the medium of drama. However, it was his tenure as head of the National Arts Theatre that brought him national attention, as he fought to save the iconic institution from being sold off by the government of Olusegun Obasanjo because of mismanagement and disrepair.


In this interview, Yerima discusses his time at the helm of the National Arts Theatre, the challenges he faced, and how he managed to salvage the institution for a while. He also delved into some of his topical plays and his controversial revisitation of the Oba Ovonramwen saga.


TNR: What was your title in those days at the National Arts Theatre?

Yerima: I was DG.


Of both organizations?

The Director General of both the National Troupe and the National Arts Theatre. They merged into one organization.


Can you talk about the period that you were most proud of during your stewardship?

I think saving the National Theater, from being sold. This is what I’m most proud of.



I didn’t do it alone. I had the grace of having officers who believed in me. I felt we could take on, in a manner of speaking, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, who wanted an outright sale of the place.


And so, we had Lagos state government under the present president, Ashiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to argue that since they leased the ground to the federal government, if the federal government wanted to sell, they should be given the first chance to buy.


In addition, we had people who were interested. A company called Daddy’s Trust, who wanted to take possession of the place and develop it into a university, an American university made me to realize that it meant that the arts totally was not going to be respected, was not going to be given opportunity to be able to participate or use the place that was built for them.


As a result, I called out to the other societies of artists, the music society, especially the Yoruba Troupe led by that time, by Jide Kosoko, who was their president. So, we had to rally around.


One of the requirements that President Obasanjo needed us too meet was that we should justify why Nigeria needed a place of that nature, and why we should spend money to revamp the place. And this is where Ford Foundation came in.


Marjorie was then their programs officer; I was able to convince her, and she went to the President in Abuja and spoke with him.


I must remember Oba Olusanya Adegboyega Dosunmu, who is late now – may God rest his soul – who was the Olowu of Owu Kingdom, Abeokuta, Ogun State, where President Obasanjo comes from. I first met him when he was a TV producer, and I invited him to the National Theatre. He spent the day with us, and I wanted to use the opportunity to justify the significance of the National Theater. He saw a performance. He had lunch with us. He saw the place and the potentials of the place and the repairs which I had done while I was DG. And that convinced him that there was a need for us to stay.


And, even at that time, the body which had been set up to sell the government property under one, I think, Dr. Chikwe or so had even sold it. They had sold it for about, I can’t remember now, 32 billion naira, and they said it had made money.


Thus, I also had to fight that kind of agreement. I took it to the House and, thank God for the people in the House at that time who stood their ground. And that was how it was revoked.


So, I think it’s something I’m incredibly pleased about: that we still have a National Theatre today that belongs to the country. I think that’s a very opportune blessing from God given to me to be at the center of activities at that time – to be able to convince the government otherwise.


Besides, I had good ministers. One of them was at the top of it all, who went ahead to appoint me as the Director General. Before I was appointed, Femi Osofisan oversaw the National Theatre, and I oversaw the National Troupe. What the minister at the time did – for us to be more formidable – was to combine both the National Theater and the national Troupe. With that, we became strong. In fact, we shared the same governing board, and we also shared the same decree, Decree 47, which said that there shall be a National Troupe which will be housed in the National Theatre. So based on that angle, he was able to establish and get the approval of the president, for the merger, and the appointments.


But looking back now, looking at all that happened to the theatre even after your intervention, would you say it makes business sense to keep the theatre under government ownership or should the management be handed over to individuals outside government?

I think at the time it was built, it was beautiful, it was wonderful. I remember as head boy of Baptist Academy, I led the team that went for the official opening. The same General Obasanjo was the then Head of state. And I was marveled.


However, after the opening ceremony and after FESTAC 77, the major problem was the government didn’t know what to do with it, and there was no program on the ground. So, the mistake they made was to see it as an office space. So, they located the Ministry of Culture and Tourism there. When you use a place as offices, and you do not use it for the purpose that it was set up for, you have a problem.


For instance, depreciation set in even though the then Director of Culture, Garuba Asiwaju, who was also the first man in charge of the National Theatre, was taking care of the place. In fact, he took personal interest in making sure that the place was well kept. But when Garuba Asiwaju left, and I think the great Aig Imoukhuede took over, they ran it down.


The government was supposed to have agreements of maintenance with the company that built it. They were supposed to have five years or 10 years of maintenance agreement. All those things were not done. And so, by the time someone like me took over, the place had been totally run down.


I remember having to bring the late Yusuf Grillo to install his glass door, which was a magnificent work of art. Most of the artworks had gone, the roof was leaking, and the hall, which was supposed to seat 5,000 people, the main bowl, had become depreciated because government officers, who are not theatre people, did not appreciate the facility. There is a full radio and television station in that place. All of them were run down because nobody bothered. In fact, it was when I came that I asked them to open the door and the door had not been opened since 1977, after FESTAC. And when I looked at the place, beautiful, but it had depreciated. So that’s the major problem that we had.


Well, why I’m grateful is that I remember as DG National Theatre, when we were at the peak of discussion, I had to take one of the ministers to Ethiopia. And when we went to Ethiopia, I had to convince the minister. This is Ethiopia. We are performing in a theatre which was built in 1520 something, which is the National Theatre. They have two. And this one was built, so so so so so, and it was sponsored by the great great grandfather of Emperor Haile Selassie. And, tomorrow night, we’ll be performing in the second National Theatre, which was built by the father of Emperor Haile Selassie.


And he said, “Really?”


I responded, “Yes. It is about maintenance.”


He Minister further inquired: “So where we are standing is about 100 or 200 years?”


To that, I said, “Well, it was just a thousand years ago. The secret is that they have continued to maintain the structure; they have continued to update the facility, new equipment, new this, new that. And so, it gives a refreshing breath of air, and that edifice becomes an instrument of longevity.”


And this is why it’s most important. And that’s why I’m happy because each time I drive past the National Theatre, I just say, “Oh, thank God it’s there. Whether government has now realized how to run it, whether government has decided on how to run it, at least we now know that it still exists. And by the grace of God, it will outlive people like us, and outlive people who are even yet to be born so that they will know, like the Ethiopian legacy, that this thing is a house of culture. It’s a house that documents the essence of the culture of the people.


I remember when I was DG, somebody came to me and said the reason the National Theatre is in a sorry state is because there are too many sacrifices that were done there, and I said, “My dear, yes. They will kill animals there when they do performances. Orisha people come there to perform. I’m a pastor, and I don’t think, I’ve ever been hunted by any animal or what you call it. I’ve even been on stage playing Oba Ovonramwen. So, I don’t think that’s the issue.”


I went ahead and told the person, “If you have money and you want to give us, let us repair the place. But looking at the extraneous reasons why you think that the place is bad does not assist or help the place at all.” So that’s the kind of thing. But it’s an attitudinal problem which I think is beginning to get sorted out. And, at the end of the day, I hope by the grace of God, that it will be restored. And in being restored, it will come out as a beautiful place of heritage. So that we can continue to celebrate our heritage from there.


That Ovonramwen you mentioned is something you cannot escape talking about. But, before then, I want to examine the maintenance clause that was in that contract. Did you revisit that maintenance clause when you were DG?

Yes, yes. We reviewed it. We sent our papers there. And I was incredibly happy that before I left Techno Exporstroy had been recalled under the then minister to come and fix it. And they fixed the roof, and it became easier now, after fixing the roof, to fix the internal structures. I haven’t been into the main hall. I’m hoping one day I will just go there and see the place when it’s open to the public. My good friend who is there, Sunday Ododo, says that it’s total refurbishment, and I believe him. He’s a man of integrity.


Oba Ovonramwen

I’m thinking that part of that sustainability because sustainability must include the idea of viability. Because that theatre was supposed to be, well, making some money. Maybe not to the tune of private enterprises.

Yes. Money was coming in. In fact, I think, I don’t know if other DGs have done it. There was a year I made 640,000, which was a lot of money then. And I paid it into the government coffers. And if you check the papers, you will find the receipt there.


But that wasn’t even the issue. The issue was, at that time, the halls were run down. I had to refurbish all the halls, including the banquet hall, and we started making money again. Then I had to bring in Coca-Cola. I think while I was DG there was this celebration Coca-Cola used to do every Christmas, where they would build the tallest Christmas tree that one has ever seen, and people would come and gather around. And then I got Ruiz to redo Abé ígí, which is like a relaxation center, but under the tree. It was lovely. I don’t know whether the place is still there now.


We made some money, which we were spending, because at that time, the budget allocation was exceptionally low. One, we had been taken off the budget list because the government had said that they were going to sell it. They had given it to BPE. And BPE had listed it. There was no way we were going to escape. We were listed with Stadium, with the one in, what’s it called, the FESTAC area, the Trade Fair, and Tafawa Balewa Square. There were four or five major big government projects that were listed. And once we were listed, the subject of budgetary allocation was gone. All they were now doing was paying salaries.


And so, we were still making money. And then we were also given powers to reinvest what we make into the theatre. So, what we were now doing was trying to use it to buy cars, fix the halls, fix the toilet that had been abandoned for over 25 years, and all that. And so, performances came all over again. And then we built a police station, beefing up security, and built new gates to fortify the place.


And so, we were making money. But we were now prying it back because we had been removed from the budget. Whatever we were making from the plays of Ade Love, all those other actors, Baba Suwe, and all those ones, the Ogunde group, was just to keep the place running.


You must also court the people who would perform. And then our major target at that time, because of the security problem there, you couldn’t find people with flashy cars who had money. They were all going to, what’s it called? Muson? Muson became our major competitor. Even as DG National Troupe, I used to take my plays to Muson if I wanted the other side of the people, the divide, the bourgeois, to see the plays. We would go there, we would go to Muson and Alliance Francaise, we would do some performances, and then we would still come back and perform in our home-based place.


And at the same time, we had Terra Culture, who was just emerging but doing quite well. And then we had the French Alliance Francaise group also, with their own theatre practices.


I was personally surprised that you spent only four years there. One would have thought that eight years would be the minimum.

I spent 18 years at the National Theatre because, when I came in, I came in as Deputy Artistic Director to Mr. Bayo Oduneye. And he served for nine years, so I served as his deputy for nine years. And when he left, I became Artistic Director after him. And then after being Artistic Director, I had to do, I was Artistic Director for four years. And then they now merged both to become a bigger part of the theatre, so I became Director General.


At that time, I needed just the remaining four years to complete my tenure. And when the tenure was completed, they split it again, and now said that I should go back to the National Theatre. At that time, I’d had enough. I also wanted to become a professor. So, I thought, look, I’ve done a few years here, let me go start the teaching career for which I read the PhD. So, I went back. Thank God.


I don’t want to query your decision there. It’s like you hung your cap of patriotism because that place would have used your enterprising spirit to stay afloat.

Yes, but the problem is, you know, there’s also a lot of politics that went on at that time. And so, one had to be incredibly careful. I know when the time is up, especially when people start to wag tongues, like, “Oh, is he the only one, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I just told myself it’s time for me to take a bow.


And like a good artist, you know when to take a bow. And I had education in my academic career to look out for. I always wanted to be a professor, so I started looking. And I wanted to put some of these things I had done down on paper and pass them on to students so that they can learn. That’s why I excused myself.


In all this talk about the National Theatre that I’ve listened to, what nobody mentions is the cost, the initial cost of putting up the theatre by that company.

They just say, oh, the contract was signed. Nobody has, not even the National Archives, a clue how much participated in that contract.


Why is that? Are there no documents?

Don’t forget that that was during the military. And the military did most of the things on impetus, on sudden motivation.


The whole idea was that the then Minister of Information, Chief Anthony Enahoro travelled out to visit Bulgaria and saw the National Theatre there, which he fell in love with. In fact, it was a sports Centre in Bulgaria. And then he came back and said, since we are going to host the world, why don’t we host the world in that type of theatre? So, the theatre was designed.


I read that in your document, the one that you shared in your university. But it’s not accurate. The government assigned a couple of guys to go and scout for a suitable kind of design. Instead of calling for designers, they went gallivanting. They went to the US, they went to Europe and, eventually, they saw that one in Bulgaria and decided that that’s what they want. But you were not involved in that gallivanting.

The project was on. They had sent people out to go and look for a design that would be befitting. You know, Nigeria never does anything small. So, they wanted to host the world because the festival would soon start. And they wanted to host the world, and what they wanted was something grand and big. And these people were travelling up and down, but when Tony Enahoro came, he diverted all the attention, all the groups that went out scouting to go to Bulgaria and see what he saw.


And so, they came, they went there, they did all their homework, they came back and made their drawings. And it was befitting, and the plot of land was chosen, and they started building. So, it’s a merger, you have half of the story, I have half. Imagine we have that now.


So, we are in the same team.

Yes, we are on the same team. The committees had been sent out. They were asked, please go to America, go to Britain. They even went to the embarkment, the National Theatre of Great Britain. They went to the different theatres in America. Another group went to Europe, France, and all. But when he went to Bulgaria for an official visit, he saw that place and liked it. And I think that’s why he liked it because of the cap, the cap head, which in our own became more pronounced like a military cap head and the army gave full support because that cap and the badge looking like a military head of state cap. The army also wanted a little symbolic representation that they built during their time, and it’s been like that.


I like the criticism by Soyinka that it was that kind of copy mentality that gave birth to that structure.

That shape retaining water was why the roof started to leak. That curvature there does not encourage water to flow out, flow off the roof. That’s why the roof started to cave in. However, having worked there directly and being in charge when the roof was caving in, there were two things that made the roof cave in.


The first one was that yes, it was built with certain materials that needed to be changed. The routine changes needed to be checked. In fact, while I was DG, the company that built it came – Techno Exporstroy – they said, “The material we used, your sun dries it up during the day, which makes it firm. And in the evening, it enlarges. In other words, the material expands and contracts and that cracks the roof.”


I remember there’s a story I read once. The rich Nigerian brought in a Rolls-Royce, when we had no roads for the Rolls-Royce; so, he had to ship it back. So that’s the kind of thing we do in Nigeria. We go, we like a thing, we buy it, and we forget the maintenance culture, the maintenance needs, and our responsibility, even to be property or to the equipment, if we should. And so that was what happened to the National Theater.


No other country has had the courage to host FESTAC because we made it so grand. The National Theater was so beautiful! In fact, as head boy of Baps Academy, I got lost. I was dazed. I was just walking up and down. It was 8 or 9 o’clock at night, but it looked like 2 p.m. And I then realized, “Oh my God, I brought boys here. Where are they?”


However, when I came back in 1991 as Deputy Artistic Director, the TVs were gone, the lights were not working, the whole place had started depreciating. So, it was really the absence of a maintenance culture that destroyed the National Theater. Like the analogy I gave you about the Ethiopian Theater, the theater was built in 1423. It was still standing, looking beautiful. We performed there, we danced, we did everything, and we came back home.


The minister was overwhelmed and was convinced. But, by the time we came back to Nigeria, right at the airport, when I thought I had won him to our side and he was now going to defend us, he was posted to the Ministry of Health. You know, in 18 years, I served 18 ministers. So, every year, I was telling each minister, this is what to do, just at the peak of it, you find that the minister is gone, another one comes in, and they were bringing ministers who were not even interested in culture and tourism itself.


You know, so they even saw it as a bush posting. So, they tell you this is punitive. I don’t understand what you’re saying. So, you found as a DG, most of us at that time had to say, “Look sir, this is what it’s all about.” By the time he begins to appreciate what you are saying, he’s gone. That’s the point. I even had a minister for three months, you know. So those are the kind of things that created the problems of the National Theater.


Let’s go to the classrooms. I’m interested in the classroom. Your students are extra blessed because you have been on the field: you are a writer, you have performed, you have been an administrator in that area, and now all that experience and knowledge is available to them. So let me take advantage of being your student today.

I was speaking with Joke Silva, and she said you interrogate national issues and then put them on stage, you know, to further the education.

So, I would like to know what the whole idea of interrogating national issues means, and then I’ll put it in context by discussing a play like Ovonramwen. Kindly share what you were trying to interrogate with that production because you didn’t only write it, you also put it on stage. I know Richard Mofe-Damijo was in that performance. So, yes, I’m waiting for a lecture on what it means to interrogate national issues on stage.

Ovonramwen came in out of a need for interrogation; that is, placing the play and the persona within a critical perspective. The interesting thing, and God bless his soul, the great Ola Rotimi, who was a great inspiration to me, had written his own version, which is called Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, and the play was commissioned by Oba Akenzua, who was the great-great-grandson of Ovonramwen. And so, when he wrote his play, it was wonderful. Everybody took it as an authoritative play, even I read it in school.


But by 1987, Oba Akenzua had passed on – God rest his great soul – and his son, Oba Erediauwa wanted a total revisitation of the past. And, about that time, I was coming in as a consultant to Edo state on tourism. And, I think, the great governor, Adam Oshiomhole, wanted to change the face of Benin. He wanted Benin to look good.


And when I came in – I always ask, if it’s a historical play, the owners of the history, what do you want me to do with your history? – the Oba told me Oba Ovonramwen never gave the five chiefs, whom he gave the job to go and tell the white men to go away, the  order to go kill the white men: Captain Phillips and the others. I was shocked because in the other things that I have read in the past, they said it was Oba Ovonramwen who ordered their killing. So, I asked, “Do you have evidence?”


Oba Erediauwa through his brother – Prince Edu Akenzua, who was my editor and the man I spoke with at the palace at that time, God bless him – gave me the handwritten document of the court proceedings, which somebody in England had sent to the Oba. I read it, and it shared a unique perspective to what Ola Rotimi had written and what I had read in the history books.



It was there in black and white … in ink! There it was in incredibly beautiful cursive writing that proved that the Oba of Benin, Oba Ovonramwen, did not order the killing of the white men. They found that General Ologbosere executed the white men without an order by the Oba, and that’s why he was the only one hanged after the incident. So, I wrote another play on that, when the family of Ologbosere asked me to do a play on their grandfather.


And so, what I now did was to write a play. And that’s why I call it The Trial of Oba Ovonramwen, and I used most of the documents that emerged from the statements which were said by the white man. And what made me believe this document was that the white man for the first time was not condemning Oba Ovonramwen.


But Oba Ovoramwen was sent to Calabar because of two things. First, because of the Obaseki family. Agbo Obaseki, who was then the chief, oversaw Oba Ovonranwen’s business and he wanted to continue to run the business. And so, Oba Ovonramwen had to go for him to take charge and run the place properly. Besides, he also had his eye on the throne. The other reason was because Oba Ovonramwen was worshipped as a god. If he stayed there, in prison or whatever, there would not be peace in Benin. And so, if you look at those two reasons, I had to write a play that would bring a balance into it.


History is fantastic to know, but sometimes you get carried away with the shenanigans and forget the concrete element that creates a history. So, I wrote my play and you pressmen are very brilliant people.


My friend, who later became my best friend, went to Ola Rotimi, and told him, “How can … how dare Yerima write his own version?”


And, unfortunately, my great father Ola Rotimi believed them and then took offence. If you read one of my books, I wrote a chapter on the story of the two Ovonramwens. The basic difference between Ola Rotimi’s play and mine is that Ola Rotimi treated Oba Ovonramwen as a Greek tragic hero whereas the Benin people do not see their king or the Oba of Benin as a tragic hero. They see him as a spirit. They see him as a god. Once you look at that difference, then you understand what Oba Ovonramwen all is about. And that’s why, you know, I was commissioned to write the play. For the 100th year celebration of the king, it was a beautiful play.


But now, I like it when people call me and say, “Sir, we want to ask you questions. We want permission to do your play.”


My response is always, “Please go ahead.”


Is that a blank check for us to go and start performing your play?

No, you will send me a cheque. I’m now an old man. I need money to take care of myself.


But talk about the play you did about the Niger Delta situation. What was it about? And what were you interrogating in that play?

I was interrogating … In fact, I’ve started writing another one. I wrote three. I wrote Hard Ground, which won the Nigerian Prize for Literature. And I wrote Little Drops. There I was looking at women. Hard Ground was the expression of my fear because, at that time, the Niger Delta problem was coming up. In Nigeria, we don’t look at the wider ramifications or future ramifications of such issues. We just say, “Oh, it’s the Niger Delta thing. It doesn’t concern us. We are okay. We are in Lagos. In fact, we are in Kano. How can it touch us?” But the problem is, gradually, the thing begins to explode and expand, and we get caught up in the smoke of the issue. And it becomes a problem. And then I wrote Ipumu. And, in Ipumu, I was looking at the whole idea of the Amnesty with which people say, “You can collect my guns and give me the money.”


As a university professor doing the accreditation work for the university, I was always being sent to Bayelsa, to all the riverine areas. And so, I was able to get all the materials together. And it was easy for me to look at them and discuss them. And these are national issues. These are national questions.


Look at the place of women in the riverine area. And look at the Niger Delta area. And look at also the issue of attitudes.


Ola Rotimi

In your opinion, sir, how important is it for artistes, particularly playwrights to engage with and comment on national issues and historical events through their works?

This is a question about art for art’s sake and the other camp. Which camp do you belong to?


I think, first we need to know that art is not for art’s sake.

Art is not also for just the personal satisfaction of the writer. Art is for the people. I always teach in class. I would say the society gives birth to the playwright. The society nurtures the playwright with information, with ideas, with their food, with everything. And so, you become culturally aware of your society. And the child who becomes the playwright grows up observing the society and learning from the society. He now takes what he has learned from the society and goes ahead and produces a play – his reactions – because a play is an individual reaction of a playwright to what he has observed in society.


And therefore, he cannot afford to let it be just a story. The society will come and laugh and go. Especially having been trained by people like Wole Soyinka, who are most critical of society. In fact, Soyinka, in one of his papers, asked: for whom does the writer write? Are you writing for Iya Bisi, the one who is selling groundnut in one corner or are you writing for the ogogoro seller or are you writing for society to change?


And so, the playwright must understand that he is writing a play for the society to learn the mythic because the playwright is an observer. He watches the society, he takes care of society, he comes down, he watches them, knows their nuances. Some of them are his father, some of them his mother, some of them his aunties. And then he now comes to put it in the play. And how realistically described, how realistically presented is how it affects the society.


Don’t forget that the society is also on the defensive. So, if you do not write a play that the society can recognize themselves in, I always say that you are a failure as a playwright if the owners of the story do not associate themselves with the play that you have written about their story.


And you don’t have to. And that’s why I have people saying that, where are you from? Are you Yerima from Bornu? Are you Yerima from Edo? Are you Yerima from this? And I say I’m just simply Ahmed Yerima. I’m Yerima. That’s it. I’ve gone beyond my name. I’m now looking at Nigeria. So just see me as a human being who is concerned with the society. And that’s what you find. And that’s why I can be multicultural because what I do is look at each culture and then write a play. I’ve found the commonalities of African society. That especially Nigerian society, we have everything in common. You find that the same hero in heroic characteristics of Ovonramwen are the same heroic characteristics of Attahiru and Ameoboni of Igarra. So, it’s just the circumstances, the place and the languages that become different.


So, when you look at that, you now look at Nigeria, you find that it is easier for you to begin to look at these commonalities of existence and begin to share the problems. Why do we have these problems here? Why do we need to do this? Why do we need to do that? And that becomes what your character takes away from the rest of the world.


Iba dance drama performed in Cuba

Is there any reason any of your plays has not been made into a movie, a film?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m hoping that they will make them into films one day. But one Benjamin tried putting Attahiru on film, which I liked. He sent me pictures. He was a student at the film school in Jos. So, I liked that.


But I think with time, people will come to it and then begin to understand the reason. They are still giving me time to mature and write plays, so I’m still writing.


They are afraid that you may not like their interpretation of celluloid, because celluloid is a different medium. Or that you may want to be paid a lot and all of that.

No, I don’t think so. Well, I just hope that they find that there’s no need to be afraid because they need to understand that each play is my own interpretation. For instance, the Jaja of Opobo play that I wrote, it’s my own interpretation of who Jaja of Opobo was, based on the facts that I had. So, if you want to praise Jaja of Opobo, you go ahead and praise Jaja of Opobo.


That was why I laughed when Lancelot Imasuen, who had come to see me in Ilorin and spent some time with me, came to discuss my The Trials of Ovonramwen. When he wrote the script in 1897 and did the film, he had a launch in England and they asked him, “Professor Yerima has written something like this. Why did you choose to do it?”


And he said, “We wanted a script that was written by a real Edo man.”


And I laughed. And I said, again, he’s a joker if he doesn’t know where I come from. Do you get the point? Is he more Edo than I am? And if the late Oba Erediauwa knew Imasuen was alive, and yet he came to ask Ahmed Yerima to write the play. So, what is Lancelot Imasuen about? So, I just laughed.


And I think that was what the viewer in England saw. And he said, “Look, I read this book in school. This play has three or four themes of Ahmed Yerima’s play. So why won’t you give him credit?”


And Imasuen said, “Yerima is not a real Edo man.”


At what point does a real Edo man need to write a play or at what point does a real Rivers man?


It is the pertinent relationship, the sharing of ideas by the playwright with the society that matters. And so, if the playwright is not talking about rubbish ideas and presenting society that do not exist within the concrete realities of the society, then I don’t think there’s any problem with that.


I think the problem with us is that we find it difficult to assume and to accept that the perception of the playwright cannot be your perception.


And if we come back to how we started, I’m quite ready to accept the play, a filmmaker’s perception of those plays. And I would like to, it would be interesting.


I saw a film of Orisha Ibeji, which they did in, I think, Tai Solarin University and only two things pained me. Instead of saying written by Ahmed Yerima, they said, based on the story by Femi Osofisan because they didn’t believe that Ahmed Yerima could write Orisha Ibeji. And so, then the director credited a Yoruba man, and I’m still looking for the director. When I find him, then I will sue him, because I want to know the script he used since he used every word of my play. And yet, they could not believe that a man with the name Ahmed Yerima could write such a play.


Wole Soyinka


So, let’s dive into your present engagement as a scholar and how it ties into your previous work as National Arts Theatre and Troupe DG and, of course, and your writing. Not every lecturer in drama, I think, writes clean.

Well, currently I’m the acting Vice-Chancellor of my university, Redeemer’s University. And each time I sit on that chair, there’s nothing new in it because, when I sit there, I am thanking God, and thanking the federal government for having exposed me to the entire process of administration.


And so, you find that, whether you like it or not, the paths are the same, the issues of administration are the same, the experiences are the same. And all I have is a wealth, a bag full of these experiences. Thank God, to be able to pull out and then relate it to society.


And I think what the government job also did for me, and the books I’ve written and the plays I’ve written, is that they are giving me a name to sell. I find even the characters that I’ve created in my plays, I find them coming alive in different forms.


So, life has become something that one is grateful to God and the authorities and those who own my school for. Me, my humble self as a human being there. And then the attention you draw to your school, and that is the most important thing, where you draw attention. And then you thank God that while you were growing up, you did not create problems that would judge you or become issues that would work against you in your older period. And I think God has been incredibly grateful and has been extremely helpful to me, and I’m so grateful to him.


You are bringing out your pastoral leg a lot in this response … and being a Soyinka student, that’s surprising because Soyinka is an atheist, or a self-confessed atheist. I don’t know. The apple is falling extremely far from its tree.

I think I’ve always been a moderate Soyinka student. In fact, I think when I met him, I loved his being handsome, which I was not, so I accepted my loss. I loved his eloquence, which I wasn’t as eloquent as him. And I loved his brilliance, which I don’t think I’m that brilliant.


But what I liked most about him is what I took time to learn from him because, for a year, I was his only playwriting student in 1977. I wanted to know how he writes plays. I wanted to see how he did it. And then my friend, Bukwatai and Chokmai, all of us were between directing, and we were all around the same age group. And so, it was nice for us to always go around him when he was very relaxed. And we would sit down and learn.


I didn’t have the power to stay in prison. I was always afraid of prison, being the son of a policeman. So, I knew the effect of going to prison. And so, I didn’t have that kind of energy. So, what I did was to calm down and try and perfect the skills. We read all his plays. Some I wanted to direct, which I have done, like Swamp Dwellers and Death and King’s Horseman. All his plays, I have directed them because as I read them when I was young, I found a perspective to them which I wanted to ask. And that was what I did. And I respect him. I love him. He is my father, whether I like it or not, and my great superior. But I only took what I think I can manage.


You are quite humorous sir, but you have not written any comedy.

I have. I wrote The Lottery Ticket. It’s even in pidgin. It was extremely popular. It’s still immensely popular. You still find schools telling me they want permission to do The Lottery Ticket.


As a scholar, what are some of the key research areas for you, topics in Nigerian art and culture that you are particularly interested in exploring and contributing to?

I think I’ve explored everything that I need to do because there’s a book, which I wrote called Politics, Culture and Historical Something, and there are all my essays there. I think I have written two books now on politics and culture. And all I’m looking at is the issue of politics and the issue of culture and I’m looking at how to put these ideas into plays.


An area which I really like is when you look at the complete process of iconoclasticism. You look at the whole idea of new historicism. And you are looking at people like Homi Bhabha, my late friend, Teju Olaniyan and Bradley J. Foe. And Soyinka himself. And so, these are the kind of people who have kind of guided my consciousness. Colonialism. I still look at colonialism because I think most of the problems which we have are rooted in the colonial experience. We’ve failed to go beyond that.


I never like my plays to be classified. But I like classification, which a lady told me in her PhD thesis. She said she classified my work as social realism. And I said, why? And she said social realism because they deal with family. And honestly, I never thought of it.


But I now read all my plays and I found that really the problems with Nigeria, especially as a country, are the problems that start within the family. And what we have done is to take them beyond and blown them up.


Even my new plays, Kejiku, Kaakulaye, all those plays that I’ve written in Ede, and I’m looking at them from a point of view of my very strong Christian belief now, I find that the problems are the problems of 419, problems of family sacrifice, all these things that we now do, blowing, you want to be rich, you don’t want to go to school, you need the head of your mother, the head of your father, these are very sacred and very damning things within society. But they all started with the family.


And so, when I now write plays, I write plays based on family and then take the issues and allow the society to recognize themselves within the issues. We look at a nationalistic identity in which they themselves will be able to recognize themselves and then say, “Ah, this element that this man is trying to say, I share in it.”


There’s a play of mine called Tutti, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. And after each performance, the audience cried because when they realized that the man who’s been confessing all these things is a ghost. And confessing to his daughter, having stolen church money, and sending the daughter to school, the twist in the play creates a problem for them to manage. And so, they cried. In fact, one time I had to apologize at the University of Lagos: “I’m sorry I wrote the play; I promise not to write another one. But, but, but, but, and I went on to write The Wives and it’s a very sadistic play.


So, I think, for me, these are the things that I like to do. I like the nature of drama.


I’d like to respond to part of what you said. These people wanting to use this idea of blowing. I mean, as a pastor, wouldn’t you give some of that blame to the new generation of pastorates?

Who so emphasize this idea of blowing, as if that is the whole of the Kingdom of God, is to get prosperity, I mean, financial prosperity. You know, aren’t they also responsible for escalating the “money on my mind” mindset?


Yes. But also, one thing is for the pastor to speak.

But the other thing is for you, in your mind, to be able to know your limitations. Like I just told you, that even as a young man, I looked at Soyinka, and I looked at my limitations, about if I want to follow this man, and I want to copy him, where will I get into trouble? And how will I, I think there’s a need, and that’s what my play tells you.


There’s a need for you to understand that, look, this is where your power can go, and this is what you can assimilate.


Yes, the pastor can come and talk about the process of making you to be successful, blah, blah, blah. And then you look at your own limitations. I think the critique must start from within. You must critically analyze yourself and do not get yourself easily influenced.


You know, like I told you, when I saw the system in government and I saw the entire process around, I voluntarily stepped down. I told them at the National Theater, “Thank you very much. I went to the office of the minister, and I said, “Sir, please sign ‘approved.’ I want to go. I want to go, I’m a teacher.” And he said, “Well, why are you going?”


I said, “I’m going. And I’ve gone.”


It becomes easier for us to be able to survive within the reality of being functional animals within society. But the moment you decide to say, ‘No, I want to take on this,’ then you should be prepared for the worst. Ambition also has a role in the degeneration of society.


These aspects of human nature are in all the characters I put in my play, like my new play, The Twins. The main characters are sisters, and one is determined to destroy her sibling because she does not believe that her sister should have children and have all the goodies. But she is rich! The other sister is not rich. The rich sister takes the children from the poor sister but the children’s mother, who is also seeing the opportunity not to have responsibility of taking care of her children, hands over the children to her twin sister. And the woman destroys all the three children.


One child joins a militant group and comes back wounded. The other one, she goes into prostitution. And the last one, you know, we do not observe. We allow our ambition to overshadow and take over our understanding of society. That is the problem that we have as a society. We’ve produced, “I want to make it at all cost” mentality without thinking about the limitations of making it.


I think that’s what the new playwrights must also write about because if you glorify that, then you begin to understand that you are also, like the pastors we are talking about, giving erroneous information, and making it glorious and beautiful and, at the end of the day, you have a problem. Look at it now, parents are afraid of their sons.


In fact, there was one film I watched where the child cuts off the head of the mother and carries it about. And, when he was asked ‘Why did you kill your mother?’  he says, ‘my mother gave me bad luck and that’s why I’ve not been rich. So, I have cut her head so that I can become rich.’


I mean, look at the thinking process of that child. So, we ask the pastors, we say whatever they want,



Now, as an accomplished playwright, what advice would you give to emerging Nigerian playwrights who aim to use their work to address the social and political issues?

I think they should observe the society that has given birth to them. They should know the history of their society. They should understand the character from the uncles who come to visit, from their mothers whom they sought advice from, from the father who was barking orders and trying to make them straight.


The playwrights must understand society to be able to answer the question that Soyinka asked: ‘For whom is the playwright writing?’


It’s not enough to have stories that are so abstract from the reality of the society for which they want to write. They must also know that the society has a mind of its own. Therefore, playwrights must critically look at their works.


I remember a play of mine, which had to do with a husband and wife. One of my friends said to me that he took his wife to see it.


On their way home, the wife said, ‘Stop, are you trying to tell me something? Do you have a child outside? Why do you have a child outside?’


Her concerns were provoked because at the end of the play, I think it’s The Sisters, the audience discover in the play that the house girl was the first child of the ambassador who owned the house. But out of shame, he could not tell anybody that this girl was his first child. So, unbeknown to others, they treated the ambassador’s first child as the house girl in the family, who was taking care of his three daughters. It is only in his will that he revealed that he has a first child, which the three girls must look for. Without the consent of this first child, the three girls won’t be able to get the monies that he has promised them: a million pounds for each of the three girls.


The girls sat down and thought about their predicament. When they could not find an answer, they called the girl and said, ‘Come, you knew our father before, and he always carried you everywhere. Who is our father’s first child?’


And the house girl said, ‘Me.’


And on ‘Me,’ I end the play.


Playwrights must know the intended effect their plays must have on their audience. Beyond entertaining the audience, the playwright must be able to say things to the audience that will be lasting. In addition, they must study the progressivity of society.


If you are still writing plays like J.P. Clarke’s Song of a Goat or Femi Osofisan’s Midnight Hotel, and then Wole Soyinka’s Strong Breed, or The Lion and the Jewel, you will be wasting your time because the audience are not static. The audience has moved beyond that. The issues in society have moved beyond that. But a new playwright must be able to log in, plug in, understand what he’s writing.


I am a member of the advisory board of NLNG’s The Nigeria Prize for Literature, and in some of the scripts that are submitted for the competition, we find that some of the playwrights are still thinking of and writing on similar themes by the earlier Nigerian writers. Listen, the society has gone beyond that. Playwrights should be looking at the issue that bother contemporary society. For instance, oil bunkering, how does it affect the society? Boko Haram, what stage has it reached? Playwrights should be interrogating the subject of ranching and the Fulanis. They must know the history of their society. These are the issues they must look at. But what is going on?


I would like to see a new play that looks at the claim of the Igbos to Lagos. And why did they make the claim? Who owns Lagos? And then it would be nice to do a play like that, and let’s know what it’s all about. But Nigerian playwrights, most of the ones now, they don’t have a story. They don’t do their research. Research is particularly important, which is what I teach in my playwriting class. If you don’t do research, you don’t know anything.


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