Remarks presented during Mbari Series, a Special Edition in honour of the late Labo Yari, a former Trustee of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), with the theme “The Writer in a Climate of Corruption”, held at the ANA National Secretariat in Abuja, FCT, on Saturday, 29 April, 2023
WHO LABO YARI WAS
Alhaji Labo Yari (Baba) was born in the city of Katsina, on April 14, 1942. He died in the same city at 2 a.m. on Saturday, March 18, 2023. That shows he died at the ripe age of 81 years. Baba had been incapacitated for five years prior to his death. The last time I visited him at home, located at No. 124, Layout area of Katsina, last year, he could hardly recognise me, and I left with heaviness in my heart that I could not explain. Unknown to me, I had just seen him for the last time.
His real name is Usman, which was hitherto not known to the general public. Another hitherto unknown aspect of his life was the name of his father, which is Malam Abubakar. The reason why he did not use his father’s name as his surname was because in the early days of European incursion into northern Nigeria, children could not, by custom and tradition, utter the names of their fathers as it would seem to be disrespectful, so as an alternative the names of their hometowns, villages or wards were used. That was why you had Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa (the Nigerian Prime Minister) from Tafawa-Balewa village, Ahmadu Rabah (Sardauna of Sokoto) from Rabah town, Shehu Shagari (the Nigerian President) from Shagari village, etc. Likewise, because Labo could not use Abubakar as his surname, he was registered in school as Labo Unguwar Yari, indicating the quarters of Katsina City where he came from. The word, “Unguwar” (meaning Quarters) was dropped from his name when his first book was published. However, he continued to use his full name, Labo Unguwar Yari, in all his official documents and addressed himself as such.
Labo Yari attended the Katsina Provincial Secondary School. After passing out he joined the Katsina Native Authority Information Service. At this time he had a correspondence tuition with the London School of Journalism in which apart from learning the rudiments of the journalism practice he also learnt shorthand and typing, which were necessary tools for working journalists at that time. He also took a tuition in French because Katsina in particular and Nigeria in general were surrounded by French-speaking countries; he believed that learning that third language (the first and second being Hausa and English respectively) would help him in his work.
Hausa and English respectively) would help him in his work.
In 1965, at the age of 23, he granted an interview to the BBC Television, the video clip of which can be found online, Yari explained why he chose to be a journalist and described journalism in Nigeria as “a very good profession”. He also predicted that its future would be robust as, in his words, “there will be many newspapers and radio” stations.
Yari was also educated at the University of Oslo, Norway, which he entered in 1966.
By the time of his return to Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil War had broken out and Yari transferred his work from Katsina to the Federal Ministry of Information in Lagos where he served as an information officer. One of his responsibilities was taking journalists to the warfront in order to see things for themselves. After the war, he was appointed the Press Attaché in the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden.
Upon his return to Nigeria and retirement from the Federal Civil Service, he went into book publishing, becoming the manager of the Enugu-based company, Fourth Dimension Publishing Company, in Kaduna. Later, after failing to find manuscripts from northern authors, he joined the pioneer publishing firm in the north, the Northern Nigerian Publishing Company Limited (NNPC), an arm of the legendary Gaskiya Corporation, in Zaria, Kaduna State, as publishing executive. He was also to head Gaskiya Corporation as Chairman/Chief Executive.
In 1989, the Katsina State government appointed him its Government Printer and later, Director of the Film Unit in the state Ministry of Information. I must inform you that this last appointment was not a promotion, but a demotion of his status by the government, deliberately done in order to frustrate him. When I went to congratulate him in his new office, he characteristically smiled and asked me, “Do you think I deserved this appointment?” I shook my head and said, “You deserve more than this.” And he told me the back story of that appointment. Subsequently, he retired from government service from that office.
HIS LITERARY WORKS
In all, Malam Labo Yari wrote six books in his life. A modest harvest, you might say, but they represent a remarkable corpus of immense value to African literature. They are:
- Climate of Corruption, a novel (Fourth Dimension, Enugu, 1978)
- A House in the Dark, a collection of short stories (Fourth Dimension, Enugu, 1985)
- Man of the Moment, a novel (Fourth Dimension, Enugu, 1992)
- A Day Without Cockcrow, a collection of short stories (Informart, Kaduna 1999)
- Emir of Katsina Muhamman Dikko and His Times, a biography (Summit Books Katsina, 2007)
- Awaiting Gozo, a novel (unpublished)
Labo Yari’s sojourn into creative writing started when he was a student in Oslo where he studied Norwegian Literature. He was also a voracious reader. He started actual writing (short stories) when he was working in the Embassy in Sweden but could not publish any until he had returned to Nigeria. His stories were published in Spear, a very popular magazine. He wanted to have them published in book, but his friend, Mr. Lindsay Barrett, whom he had befriended during the Civil War, advised him to publish a novel first. So he began to write Climate of Corruption in 1975, completing it in 1976.
At that time, another friend of his, Arthur Nwankwo, had established the Fourth Dimension Publishing Company in Enugu and was looking for authors. Climate of Corruption happened to be the first novel Mr. Nwankwo published two years after it was written. Both of them may not have known at that instant that it was also the first novel in the English language by a northerner to be published.
Yari may be seen to be a pioneer of creative writing in English northern Nigeria as he is celebrated in the north today, but he actually came to the scene a bit late in the day compared to developments in other parts of the country. Climate of Corruption was published in 1978. That was a clear 24 years after Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard (adjudged to be the first novel in English in Nigeria) and Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (the first collection of short stories in English) were both published, and 20 years after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart came on stream.
However, this is not to downplay the significance of Yari’s pioneering and courageous effort. His decision to write, which was informed by his desire to affect society in a positive way, opened doors for many aspiring writers. In the first press interview he granted on his writing, which I conducted in 1997, he spoke about his passion for writing and how he had wished that many more books were written by northerners in the English language.
We should take note that the north was not actually left behind as a region in the field of creative writing. In fact, written literature in what is now known as Nigeria actually started in the north over a hundred years before the British came. That was even before the Fulani Jihad led by Sheikh Usmanu Danfodio in 1804 when the writers used the Ajami script to write poetry and fictional pieces like short stories in Hausa, Fulfulde and Arabic. Even in the area of writing in the Roman script, the first novel writing competition for Hausa writers the British organised in Katsina in 1919 was able to bring out seven winners. Those books were not published, though. But the next competition, held in 1933, brought forth five winners, including Abubakar Imam, his older brother Muhammadu Bello Kagara, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, Muhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida Wusasa and Rupert East jointly. So, Yari came from a cultural background with a long history of achievements on the literary field.
Labo Yari is a man of conscience. I saw that from his work place battles and I saw that in his books. I will leave the work place bit and say that his books, which represent him on the literary scene today, are full of morals. He doesn’t bore you with preaching in his books, of course, but he portrays societal evils for the reader to digest. As early as 1965 when Yari was in his mid-twenties, a BBC Television interviewer told him, “You obviously have a national consciousness and an African consciousness” and wondered if that was a trend among even the common people in Katsina. The young reporter answered no, the common people could not be considered to have consciousness because for one to have that, one must have education first and in Africa at that time (I daresay even today) not every common person was educated. He, however, predicted that “it will come, I’m sure”.
In that interview, he also spoke about the workability of democracy in Africa and its necessary ingredients, his federal rather than regional feelings, as well as his continental feeling. At a time when narrow regional feeling and chauvinism were the vogue among so many among the emerging elite, Yari told his interviewer emphatically: “I have a federal feeling. And moreover, I have a feeling of being more of an African rather than a Nigerian.”
That was a 23-year-old speaking way back in 1965, a couple of years before I was born!
INSPIRATION TO OTHERS
Unknown to many, Labo Yari has inspired quite a number of younger elements to take to the literary arts. Many who have read his books were encouraged to try and write in a manner that would make their literary works readable. He gave a listening air to many youngsters who visited him at home or office. He was a patron of the ANA in Katsina where he contributed his widow’s mite to the development of creative writing and other genres.
If you check the internet you will find some of the efforts he made to help young writers in Katsina and elsewhere to have a sense of direction in their chosen vocation.
In a tribute on May 18, 2023 (the day Yari’s death was announced), award-winning writer, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, had this to say: “His works helped clear the path that we followed”.
AWARDS AND RECOGNITION
Alhaji Labo Yari was a recipient of several honours and awards. Suffice it to mention a few:
– Men of Achievement Certificate of Merit, Cambridge, England, November 1983
– International Who is Who of Intellectuals, vol. 6, 1984
– Man of Achievement, 1984
– International Register of Profiles,
– Certificate of Honour by the Niger State chapter of ANA, awarded in Minna on May 6, 2008
– Special Honour of Recognition by the Kaduna State government
– KTFest Lifetime Achievers Award, Katsina – September 18, 2021
– Honoured at the Hausa International Book and Arts Festival (HIBAF), Kaduna
Baba Labo got married to his heartthrob, Hajiya Sabira Ma’aji, at the age of 35, and they remained together, the two of them, until death did them part. They had six children – four females and two males, namely: Binta, Haruna, Ruqayyah, Safiya, Hadiza, and Abdullahi.
CORRUPTION ON THE LITERARY SCENE
I would like to close these introductory remarks with a statement I made in an article published in the New Nigerian in 2007. It is generally believed that Yari was an achiever, and I believe that is even why we are here to celebrate him. No doubt, this event is a commendable initiative. However, it is my considered opinion that Yari was a victim of negligence by fellow writers, the academia and the mass media. A man of his stature on the literary scene should not have been ignored the way these three groups have done.
For one, Yari was a pioneer in the north. He was also a pioneer on the national scene as one of the three distinguished writers, the others being Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, who pioneered the founding of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in 1981. His name had sat on the letterhead of ANA for decades as one of its Trustees when I decided to interview him, his first newspaper interview, in 1997. Years later, I discovered that ANA Excos were not even inviting him to the national convention of the association. When I served as National Publicity Secretary of the association, I ensured that I brought him to the national convention held in Abuja in 1997. Before and after that convention, ANA never seemed to bother about treating Yari right even though he was one of its trustees (the others are Chinua Achebe, T.M. Aluko and, I believe, Mabel Segun).
On the other hand, literary journalists did not seem to care either. A combination of ignorance about the literary scene in the north and their fixation with south-based writers must be responsible for that. Up till today the situation has not changed in any significant way. Not many an arts editor or literary journalist from the south cares about what goes on among northern writers. I doubt if Yari had ever been interviewed by any newspaper or magazine from Lagos and other media centres in the south. This is worsened by the domination of the media scene by the south. As far as I can recall, Labo Yari was interviewed only twice, first by me and second by Sumaila Umaisha, and both interviews were published in the New Nigerian in 1997 and 2007 respectively.
The third group is the academia. There have been a few signs of concern for Yari by some universities and colleges in the north, and none by any institution in the south. For instance, in 2015, Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto, inaugurated the first annual national conference on “Northern Nigerian Writers/Literary Scholars in Focus”, under its Department of Modern European Languages and Linguistics. The focus of that first conference had as its theme, “Exploring the Creative Ethos of Labo Yari’s Narratives”. Several sub-themes were advertised and the date scheduled for the event was 30th- June-3rd July, 2015. I cannot report here if the conference actually took place. Even if it did, the proceedings were never published.
Should we now say that ANA, the media and the academia exist in a climate of corruption?
It is now up to all three groups, as well as the Katsina State government and the general reader, to rise up to the challenge of giving honour to who honour is due. Writers are said to be the salt of the earth, an important group of conscientious people who the society looks up to as its compass. Many writers have been given due honour by ANA and the others. This conference is a good starting point for honouring Alhaji/Baba Labo Yari Katsina.