One of the messages I intended to pass across is the importance of education. I’ve since realised that education is a key factor in every person’s life, so in all my writings you will find that in one way or the other the importance of education is the central theme. The Undesirable Element in particular is a reflection of what obtained in the Northern Nigeria of that period. The situation was that older men who were well-to-do were marrying young girls. And some of these girls were in school. They had to be brought out of school to marry. That was the social trend that time. It was money. Marriage were based on "I’m rich, I can marry young girls.’’ Once you were rich you could do anything in the North at that time.
By Sumaila Isah Umaisha (May 19, 2007)
Muhammed Sule, author of The Undesirable Element, died in his sleep, Monday morning, 12th, Feb., 2007. Not many people, even within the literary circle, knew him as a person. I, therefore, present here an interview I had with him in my 'Nigerian Writers Talking' series, in 2004. It contains facts about him, his works and his experience during his 17-month detention by the Abacha regime.
NNW: Though your name is well known as a writer and the author of the popular novel, The Undesirable Element, not many people know you as a person. So let’s begin by knowing the man Muhammed Sule.
Muhammed Sule: I’m from Kano, I was born in Kano in 1957 and was brought up there. The schools I attended include Kofar Nasarawa Primary School and Bayero University, Kano. Then I went to U.K to study Motion Picture Production and Script Writing and Directing. I worked with the Kano State Television Service (later taken over by the Nigeria Television Authority, NTA) and then Kano State Ministry of Information. I retired in 1988 to set up my own business; Incorporated Links Films Limited. Presently I live in Kaduna.
How did you get into writing?
I was motivated by my love to communicate with people. I would have loved to have been a teacher. So as that opportunity did not avail itself to me, I ended up writing. And I think that has in some ways satisfied my zeal to communicate and contribute to the development of the society at large.
When did this motivation come to you, was it when you were a student?
Yes, I was a student when I began to write. I wrote The Undesirable Element in secondary school; Government College, Kano. I started it in Form One. And by the time I got to Form Four I had finished it and sent it to Macmillan for publication. It eventually got published after I had left secondary school. I was actually in London when it got published in 1977.
At what point did you write the second novel, The Delinquent?
I wrote it soon after I had finished writing The Undesirable Element. I think I wrote about seven chapters before I graduated from Government College. I completed it later on and gave it to Macmillan even when I was yet to know the fate of The Undesirable Element, whether it would be published or not.
How did you go about publishing the books?
I didn’t know how to go about it at that time. But fortunately, I took the right course without anyone telling me. You know, when you work on a book, eventually you get bored with it because you probably have read it over a thousand times. When I reached that level I felt I had done enough and wanted to get rid of it. So I sent the manuscript to the Northern Nigeria Publishing Company (NNPC) in Zaria. At that time Macmillan was running the NNPC as co-owners. The management was provided by the Macmillan. The NNPC then had no interest in publishing English works. So the MD, Mr. Taylor, a Briton, took the manuscript from me and gave it to his wife, who was teaching at the Government Girls Secondary School, Zaria, to go through. And when she had gone through she decided that since it was the first book in English they had received and since there were no such writings from the North, they would take it to London. Luckily, she took it to Macmillan office in London at the time when it was planning to start the Pacesetter Series. They decided to include it in the series.
Let’s look at The Undesirable Element closely. What messages is it meant to pass across?
One of the messages I intended to pass across is the importance of education. I’ve since realised that education is a key factor in every person’s life, so in all my writings you will find that in one way or the other the importance of education is the central theme. The Undesirable Element in particular is a reflection of what obtained in the Northern Nigeria of that period. The situation was that older men who were well-to-do were marrying young girls. And some of these girls were in school. They had to be brought out of school to marry. That was the social trend that time. It was money. Marriage were based on "I’m rich, I can marry young girls.’’ Once you were rich you could do anything in the North at that time. It was so.
Is the trend increasing now or decreasing?
Socially the North is a bigger trouble now than that time. Now they are not marrying the girls, they are abusing them. The situation is compounded by the fact that the quality of education has collapsed. So even though many girls now go to higher institutions, they are not intellectually and morally sound enough to maintain self-discipline. And so they are more liable to the evil machinations of the rich men these days.
The Delinquent is centred more on how the children of the rich easily get spoilt by the riches. How would you compare the level of such behaviour in those days with these days?
It has reduced drastically because these days children from rich families no longer think they have automatic ticket in life. They no longer think they don’t have to go to school, their parents’ money would see them through life. That has changed over the years as a result of many instances where children from poor background become rich and influential through education. So it is only in isolated cases that such mentality still exists.
Apart from these two books, what other books have you published?
I have published two other books: The Infamous Act and The Devil’s Seat. And I’m writing another one which will soon be published by Macmillan. The working title is The Libertine.
Is the theme of this one different from your usual theme of corruption?
No, it cannot be different because the situation in the North is still very alarming. As long as the situation persists in the way it is, a committed writer will continue to pay attention to the social dynamics. We have numerous problems in the area of education, health and so on. And there is poverty everywhere due to the misuse of wealth. I have never seen a place where the rich of that area misuse their wealth like the North. It is a tragedy. You can’t see concrete investments that are capable of relieving the social tension as well as translating into a huge economic benefit to both the owner of the business and those who lean on the business in terms of working or trading in the product of that business. So the North is a human failure in terms of the wealthy Northerners utilising their wealth for the economic sustainability of the area.
Are these problems the theme of The Libertine?
Not exactly. It is still the same problem of social education. You can view The Libertine as an indirect sequel to The Undesirable Element, it is along the same line. But here we are not dealing with a secondary school girl. We are talking about a young lady in the university who has to drop out due to poverty. But not simply poverty, she also got herself involved in so many other things. Yes, she is also a delinquent, but in her own case she came from a poor family. And because the society is uncaring so many problems that would have been avoided happened. Nobody cares. And that is the most unfortunate thing about our society.
The criticism against most African writers is that they merely expose the problems rather than propound the right solutions to them. Is this new work in the same old expository style?
Well, whether a writer propounds solutions or not is not the issue. The most important thing is to expose the problem. When you expose a problem and people appreciate the fact that they have the problem, you have achieved about fifty per cent towards getting the solution. People must be made aware of the problem before they can solve it. So I think anyone who exposes the problem has done a good thing. The process of bringing about a solution is vast, everybody will play a part in bringing about the solution. In The Libertine I’m very critical of our society’s lack of respect for merit, where very hard working people could not make it anywhere because of certain reasons. Charlatans, idiots, praise-singers and bootlickers can succeed to no limit because they know the people in the power circle. And the real people could be dammed because they don’t have any link-up to who is who. It is very unfortunate. A situation where the best could not take his or her right place is a terrible situation and we will continue to be in the loo. But the moment we are able to find our way, whereby people will be given their due, so many of the problems will adjust themselves.
Given our reading culture in this country, where those who are creating these problems have little or no time to read, how could the writers really change the ills.
The people who are causing the ills are in the minority while those who are reading are in the majority. So if you are able to reach the majority, if you are able to reach about a million people, they may have different perspectives about the book, but your preaching will get through. And then we are moving forward. Of course, I’m also aware of the poor reaching culture. When I was in primary school, we had a library where we could read. It was the same in secondary school. And we read a lot. But these days, even some university graduates hardly read. So it is a fundamental problem. But I don’t believe the problem cannot be solve if all those concerned wake up to their responsibilities.
To be able to write novels while you were in secondary school, you must have read hard and wide.
Of course, we used to read a lot those days. We were dedicated to our studies and were always thinking of what we wanted to be in life. From the start I have always wanted to be a writer. And I was able to commit myself, and God in His mercy has made me realize my dream. You see, it is important to have a plan. As at the time you put down the plan there maybe no prospect of achieving your goal. But if you diligently and patiently dedicate yourself to it, someday you will be near it, one day you will be in it and one day you will go higher above it. But young people of these days don’t want to strive. They just want the money. But I don’t know how you can get the money without working for it. Some people say there is no such thing as success in life because you have to work every minute of everything you want, so that by the time you achieve it, it is not success, it is what you are due for. Unfortunately our own society don’t encourage that. But still that is not enough reason not to strive. It is just like when you are on a journey and you need a free ride. You don’t stand by the roadside, hoping that one of the motorists would just stop and give you a lift. You have to keep on moving, displaying a placard announcing your destination. Eventually someone will recognize your effort and stop to offer you a helping hand. That is how the world operates.
Did you read literature in school?
Yes, I did. But that is not enough motivation for one to become a writer. You see, writing is very difficult, you need to have very strong motivating factors to be able to write. It is so demanding that with simple commitment you can never write, the commitment must be very overwhelming, and there must be interest, pleasure and other factors. The Libertine, for instance, I started writing it since 1993. I planned it for over one and half years, then I went to Jos to write it, and I was able to write it within a month. I should have published it by now but my editor wasn’t comfortable with some aspects so I had to change it.
What was wrong with the aspect; was it against the government?
It was not against the government. It was against social order, according to my editor. And the publisher agreed on that. And he decided to send me just the chapter involved. Unfortunately, the chapter got lost in transit. For me to replace that chapter, it took me seven years.
Yes. Because I have other things to do, and when I decided to write it, I wrote two chapters instead of one. Now I have finished it. The reason why it is yet to be published is because I want a particular person in U.K. to go through the new changes and she hasn’t got the chance yet.
So how soon are we expecting it?
I hope to go to U.K. soon and get it published.
Were your subsequent novels published in the same way The Undesirable Element and The Delinquent were published or they were self-published as it is the vogue these days?
It is the same way; not self-published. I can understand those who do self-publishing. If you don’t have the opportunity of being published in the traditional way, why not. But if you have a publisher you are likely to reach out to a wider audience than when you do self-publishing.
How have your efforts in writing been rewarded?
The Undesirable Element and The Delinquent were among the best-selling novels in the Pacesetter series, and they still are today abroad where the series are still being sold. And I do receive my royalties regularly from the sales. So, definitely I have benefited from the books. Though the benefit is not as much as I used to get before due to some problems. One of the problems is that of the inability of Macmillan to bring the books here due to the problem between the headquarters in U.K. and the Nigerian office. Secondly, the economy has restricted the importation of books; the cost of the books have gone so high due to high foreign exchange. So, even if they are imported here, readers can hardly afford them. And thirdly, piracy has wrecked havoc on the book industry so much that the benefits that should have gone to the writer have been diverted into the pockets of the pirates.
Popularity is one of your major benefits. But you would have been more popular especially in the academic circle if you had got your works into the school syllabus. Why were they not read in schools?
So many schools had The Undesirable Element and The Delinquent on their reading list. Sometime ago Ambassador Kabiru Rabiu who was a commissioner in Kano State during the Third Republic tried to see that my books, as a Kano indigene, is put in the syllabus, at least, in Kano State. Well, I didn’t know what went wrong but somehow that initiative fizzled out when he left the Ministry of Education. But all the same the books have found their levels as best-sellers. So many people I meet tell me they have read the books.
I read them while I was in secondary school.
We thank God for that.
Some writers talk a lot. But it seems you let your works speak for you. Is that a deliberate policy?
Well, by nature, I’m a very private man. And I feel if one has taken the trouble to write, he should let the writing do the talking and create the desired impact that would change the society for the better.
Are you saying that though you are a radical, a moral crusader, you are not an activist?
Well, I don’t know what you mean by an activist [laughter]. But I am a man who simply wants to live in a very good surrounding, and who likes to contribute to his society the little he can. I think it is a sacred duty. If you are in a society where there is a lot to be done you have to contribute the little you can. At least that will console you. But if you are always getting angry at all sorts of things happening and you are not doing anything to advance any course toward the realisation of the solution, then you are part of the problem. And that is what most of the activists in this country are - part of the problem. They are just noise makers. But sometimes it doesn’t require noise, it requires positive actions. If we were making more positive actions than noise we would have changed the society by now.
Does this mean your encounter with the Abacha regime some time ago has nothing to do with activism?
Well, it was in the line of business. Since my leaving the civil service I have been running the business of television documentary. So, what happened was that I was arrested while I was doing a documentary on the political and socio-economic aspect of Nigeria. I was interviewing the late General Musa Shehu Yar’adua when I, together with five others, was arrested.
When did this actually happen?
It happened on the 8th of February, 1995. You see, the documentary is not only on the politics of that time. I had shot materials from way back; the Shagari period to June 12. Abacha regime was not the only government I was trying to portray. And I was fair. I allowed everybody a say. Whatever is said against a personality I would go to that person for his own side of the story. The producers who sponsored the project made it clear that they wanted something very objective, and I tried as much as possible to do just that.
Who are these sponsors?
My friends in the UK. I had a sponsorship and support from an organisation in the UK. A friend of mine called Neil, who is a media expert and has a radio station there is the man behind it. He insisted it has to be objective. And like I said, that is what I tried to do. So my arrest was a surprise to me. However, I won’t go into details about it.
No. I’m not going into much details because I have been making my own notes. So at a later date, God willing, I will be able to write a substantial account of what happened. But all the same I must say I was shocked by what I saw that day and the days after. Violence and brutality was brought into a matter which could have been simply sorted out. We had to spend 17 months in detention.
What were the allegations leveled against you?
There were so many allegations, some of them very wild. So you don’t know which one to believe. The main thing is that they thought I was being sponsored by Yar’Adua to portray the regime in a bad light abroad. But it was share stupidity, for Yar’adua didn’t even know when the production started. His only relevance to the documentary was that he happened to be a political actor at that time.
Seventeen months in detention is definitely a hell of time. Does it mean all these while none of your friends came to rescue you?
Which friend can rescue me from Major Hamza Al-Mustapha? (the Chief Security Officer to Abacha). Mustapha was responsible for it and he was like a tin-god; nobody could talk to him about anything of that nature.
Who were those who stood by you in your days in detention?
So many people and organisations readily come to mind. Military police cell guard Corporal Oneya now Staff Sergeant who received me at Yakubu Gowon Brigade of Guard’s camp, my detention centre with human courtesy. And who a week later outrightly refused to take over duty because I was not given access to medical treatment for my uncountable open bleeding wounds by no other person than the officer in charge of the Guardroom, Military Police Major Adamu Argungu, who has since been retired for his excesses during the alleged Diya coup. I was destined to survive the rigour of those unfortunate days when, by some twist I met police S.P. Dr. Charles Ugbomah also detained for something to do with late Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Dr. Charles saw the state of my bleeding wounds and warned me that I need Anti-tetanus injection. He agreed to write prescription for me but refused to inject me. I got injected with ATS a week later through the intervention of Corporal Oneya. Only then did Major Adam came in person to escort me to the next door clinic for the treatment. I cannot help but compare the incivility of the great Professor of Law, Awalu Yadudu, who was then Legal Adviser to late Gen. Abacha. Yadudu was brought to the ceremonial gate of the Aso Villa where I was kept after my baptism with brutal torture on the expressed order of the CSO Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, CSP Abba Suleiman, who I did not recognize then brought me before Prof. Yadudu, the human right gladiator of that regime. My disappointment to date was that the Professor of Law could not even ask me why I was there? My pleasure of seeing him in my very woeful condition was shortlived as he looked at me with hatred and disgust, saying, "shine wannan?" meaning "is he the one?" in Hausa. Abba Suleiman confirmed in affirmative. As we stood there his eyes were smouldering as though he would spit on my face or I believe if he had a dagger in his hand, he would have mercilessly stabbed me to death, going by his expression. Only for me to meet Corporal Oneya, the following day and see the difference between a decent man of the other rank, not an officer, yet behaving unsavagely. That episode was an eye opener to me in my behaviour towards all people ever after. I must thank people like General Magashi; he really showed interest in helping us out. But, of course, the power-that-be did not allow him even though he was senior to those people.
Also Mandy Ganner in collaboration with Babara traba of SWISS-German Ren Centre that arranged for me to leave through the NADECO route for exile. And also Civil Liberties Organisation contacted Toucher International Switztland who provided tickets for me and my family to leave but I did not.
Olu Akerelle, late Chief Abiola’s Personal Assistant joined us at Yakubu Gowon camp detention centre and we remained together for months. He was later to shoulder so much burden for me and many others. My professional associate in the UK Mr. Neil Kenlock was a formidable support. So was my publishers, Macmillan, who approved so much money as advance for me at that time, apart from their moral support. Mandy Ganner of international Pen London was a source of enormous inspiration and support to my family in my absence. Most of the awards I received came through the activities of Mandy Ganner. So was Mr. Innocent Awachukwu of Centre for Law Enforcement, Mr Richard Akinola, Tunde Rahaman of Centre for Free Speech, which I am in its Advisory Board, Clement Nwankwo of Constitutional Right Project, Barrister Okoye of Human Rights Law, Umaru Apai, Kabir Yusuf Ali and a host of other great humanitarian minds that I will ever remain grateful and thankful to. And finally I must mention a man of tremendous courage and guts, Umar Faruk Musa, former B.B.C Abuja correspondent now with the Bureau Chief of VOA Hausa Service, as the man who brought me out of the doldrums to the real world. This is a man I cannot find words to ever thank.
In general, who were those responsible for your succeess in life?
First of all, I am thankful to Allah for being alive and in good health and the many more of His endowment to me as a person and the humanity. I am also indebted to my parents for all their good work towards making me a decent person; their sacrifice, their endurance at difficult times and their patience had all rubbed on my person. We were so close that I will certainly never free myself from the nostalgia of missing them until my own death. May Allah grant them eternal rest from an appreciating son. My teachers at all the levels of my schooling are also worthy of mentioning.
Career wise, I recall the wonderful contribution of Alhaji Mohammed Ibrahimn, former NTA Director-General. He is the traditional ruler of his area now. He employed me as the then General Manager of Kano State Television Service and he was instrumental to my winning Kano State scholarship to study abroad. There was also Alhaji Mahmoud Yazid, my Director of Information in my days at the Kano State Film Unit and Mr Edet Uno, the then state director of Information who gave my career a real push. It was a rare privilege to work with Alhaji Ibrahim Ismail, a post Second Republic Information Commissioner. I have learnt a great deal through the confidence he had on me as we worked very closely at that time and even afterwards.
In terms succeess as a writer, my family has most of the credit for their support and understanding, especially my wife and children who were deprived of my company due to my chosen passion to write. Over the years I have also built good relationships with a number of good people in the Macmillan outfit. My friend and co-writer, former executive of Macmillan Nigeria, Mr Agbo Areo. Ms. Lizmet, the first Macmillan official I met in 1976 to discuss my royalty contract, Ms. Ann Price who edited The Undesirable Element and The Delinquent. Ann is still a good friend who was so kind to come to London to greet me after my ordeal with the Abacha regime. The MD/CEO of Macmillam, Mr Christ Harrison, a kind man and a long term supporter of relationship with his company, and indeed Mr. John Weston who took so much trouble to locate me in my most difficult days. Aman, who makes it a point to meet with me whenever I was out there in the UK or when he comes round here. And he does that often. I remain grateful to all of them.
How would you describe the literary scene especially in the north?
I think there is progress. All over the country new writers are coming up and many of them are doing well. There are a lot of potentials. There are so many writers in the North also. But many of them will never get published in the system we operate now. Things can only get better when the system is changed and the big publishing companies come back to play the roles they used to play. But for now, writing is only an aspiration to so many young people. It is unfortunate. The most terrible tragedy of writing in the North is that there are so many educated people; professors, doctors etc who would have at least by now flooded our schools with their works, but because of lack of organisation what we read in the North come from outside. If the system were working, local governments could decide to introduce in primary and junior secondary schools syllabuses books by writers in the locality. And this would have impacted positively on our children because their understanding would be enhanced as there is an interelationship between the writer and the reader. The benefit is all-round. The writers will benefit, the local publishers and bookshops will benefit, and the students too.
Amidst this chaotic situation, what is your advice for young writers?
Well, it is good to have the ambition. It is good to write. I’m sure soon the situation will improve. Nothing is forever, change will come somehow. And it is better to be found there waiting for the change. So writers must find a way of nursing their talents.
Originally appeared in EverythingLiterature.