Abdullahi Ismaila Ahmad: Portraits of the Writer, Teacher and Image Maker

Interview with Abdullahi Ahmad FIRS Director of Communication

Abdullahi Ismaila Ahmad is the Director, Communications and Liaison Department at the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). Before his present job, the critically-acclaimed writer was a lecturer at the Department of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. AWAAL GATA interviews him on his life as a writer, an academic and an image-maker.

From writing to the academia and now public relation; is that the routes you charted for your life or is it simply the manifestation of fate? 

I should say that the three things you mentioned about me are more of fate than conscious choice. I can say without equivocation that I am an artist by nature. Apart from having the gift of the gab, right from primary school I was involved in artistic production. You know in those days in primary schools in our part of the country handcraft was given much priority. We were made to weave all sorts of things including brooms which we designed as homework, we also did drawings. There was also seasonal inter-school art competition organised during Independence Day celebration when we produced varied artworks. I participated in building straw cars, aeroplanes, and the likes. I did this too during holidays especially cages for canaries. I was also good at drawing. In secondary school it was almost an obsession amongst us to draw the portrait of General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State and some governors. I developed reading habit from primary school where I read just anything from torn newspapers to detergent packs, etc.

As an academic, the story is also one of fate. I didn’t choose it. I was actually discovered by the late Professor Adamu Kolo, a professor of counsellingpsychology, may his soul continue to rest in peace. We were together in Project YES, the pet project of the wife of late Engineer Abdulkadir Kure. One Wednesday during a counselling session for the beneficiaries, when it was my turn to speak I got up to give my lecture and at the end of my talk Professor Kolo said to me that ‘you don’t belong in the civil service, you will do well in the classroom’ and he asked whether I would accept to teach in the College of Education where he was the Provost. I accepted immediately. That time I was with the State’s Ministry of Information as an Information Officer 2 while serving on the implementation committee of the Project YES. That was how I began my sojourn as an academic.

And as for the public relations part it goes hand in hand with my writing. I am not only a creative writer I also do promotional writings of both books and newspaper articles. During the June 12 pogrom when the Universities were shutdown I used the recess period to do a stint with the Newsline Newspapers based in Minna where I wrote feature articles on the political situations in the country. Alhaji Hassan Kolos was the Managing Editor then. I had the opportunity of working with some best minds that time like Olu Jacobs, Olu Osunde, Ezekiel Fajenyo, and Sunday Patrick. After my national youth service in 1999, Ezekiel Fajenyo and I were engaged by the late Abubakar Gimba to do an image laundering stuff for General Abdulsalami Abubakar shortly after he handed over power to President Olusegun Obasanjo. Part of this assignment was a compilation of quotes from his speeches, entitled Words On Marble. In 2003 I also wrote a book on the first term achievements of late Engineer Abdulkadir Kure. I followed it up with a book on Project YES, which I did in 2005. During the tenure of Dr Muazu Babangida Aliyu I was also one of the writers engaged to launder his image and write books on the activities of his administration. So as you can see the job of public relations comes to me naturally as a creative writer. This present appointment only put me on the big stage to engage more with the public.

How did you begin writing and are you satisfied with your outputs and the mileage it has so far taken you?

I started writing soon after I left secondary school in 1986. I started with poems. Some of the poems I wrote between 1986 and 1989 I eventually published as a collection in 1990 before I got admission into the University. The collection is entitled The Demons and Other Poems. On this collection I was interviewed by Eddie Ayo Ojo who was serving with the Newsline then. He described me as the youngest writer in Niger State at the time. Eddie went on to become a maverick writer but later died in questionable circumstances because of his investigation of Wole Soyinka’s past. The same year I was interviewed by Dul Johnson, now a professor, together with Pius Adesanmi, who died recently, as young writers then, for his television programme with NTA Jos. I recall one evening in 1987 when I was returning from a football field in company of some friends. One of us was holding Abubakar Gimba’s Innocent Victims, which had just been launched, and I collected it. As I flipped through I said to myself that one day I must write my own book. As an avid reader at the time I just knew that it was possible to achieve the goal. I derive inspiration from my reading and personal experiences.

So by the time I got into the university I already had sufficient mindset to pursue writing as a career. But as one from a humble background I grapple with a lot of challenges which sometimes come in the way of my writing. So far I thank God for the writings that I have done but I don’t think I have carried it to the level that I want. I still want to do more. In 2017 I put in my collection entitled Our Country Holds a Whip Against Us for the NLNG prize but that year there were about 180 entries for the competition so it was herculean. I have other manuscripts lined up for publishing which I hope to publish any time soon.

Among the three, which do you love the most?

I believe in destiny. Whatever it’s that fate has designed for me I accept. Since the three have been destined for me I can not now choose to like one over the others. I really would have liked to go far both as a writer and an academic. But the vicissitudes of life are constant drag on my efforts. However, like I said I have no regrets since fate designs everything for me. By my disposition I don’t haggle over expendable things of life. So I follow life as it unfurls.

Is your current job affording you the time to write?

I just got the job, and I am trying to come to terms with its demands. Of course, I will create time to do my creative writing outside my official work. Like I said I have some manuscripts, some of which will require reworking. Among these manuscripts is a play I am working on with a rather curious title, Emir Emeka. I want to put it on the stage before I publish it.

Indeed, a curious title. What is its thematic preoccupation?

It’s contemporaneous. It’s on an unlikely occurrence but highly probable. So it is portentous, quite ominous if you like. Let me not let the cat out of the bag.

But you are more prolific as a poet and essayist; is the play an experiment?

What you probably don’t know is that I have tried my hands on playwriting a few times. It’s just that I have not published any play text. When I was Chairman of ANA Niger I wrote a play entitled INERTIASIS, which was performed during the event of ASCAFS. The play was popular then among the members. Then I wrote another play for children entitled TROUBLESHOOTERS OF CLASS SIX, which I have now converted to a story with another title THE GARBAGE SCHOOL. Again during my Service year in Umuahia, Abia State, I wrote another play entitled, CIRCLE OF GUILT, which was adopted and performed at the Director General’s cultural competition. The judges adjudged it to be too intellectually inclined. So I have written some forms of play. This one is another of my trials. I hope it succeeds this time.

What ‘special touch’ do you intend giving your present job? The model PR strategies you will adopt to achieve the set goals of the organisation.

Well, I intend to adopt strategic communication approach. As you well know, communication is process driven. So strategic communication entails communicating specific concepts, processes, or data in such a way that fulfils the long term goals of an organisation. This is achieved through careful planning, deliberate and targeted message. The use of this approach allows messages to be conveyed deliberately using suitable media to reach targeted audience. The present management of FIRS has adopted certain cardinal objectives among which are, to reposition the organisation, to make it customer-centric, data-centric, and to engage with important stakeholders strategically. So our communication strategy will revolve around this cusp. Already, we have been communicating management’s engagement with the stakeholders. But beyond that it’s important to communicate also the shaping up of the perception of the organisation which has been marred in misconceptions lately and in line with the repositioning mission statement. Tax matters are usually viewed with skepticism especially in this country with low tax culture. So, in time, we are going to hand out deliberate messages that will make understanding of tax matters easy, and to make Nigerians, and the government, understand that effective tax paying culture can replace reliance on oil, which is currently under crisis. We are developing a module which we call the ABC of Tax Types which will be an easy to read document for Nigerian public; we are also working on a document entitled KNOW YOUR TAX OBLIGATIONS, which also explains some concepts and processes. In other words, we are going to employ purposeful communication which will be consistent with the mission, vision, and values of the organisation through the use of suitable media like the new media.

What sort of writer were you while growing up? Which are those books that are having lasting impact on you?

I was somewhat ideational, not necessarily radical. After reading some history of slavery and colonialism I felt a kind of resentment against the slavers and the colonial overlords. But, I quickly overcome such resentment. And instead of blaming the colonialists as most African writers were doing I later blamed the Africans. My initial resentment is featured in my debut poetry collection entitled The Demons and Other Poems. My changed view is contained in my second collection entitled Scourge of Earthworms. This is further accentuated in the poem Black is Not Beautiful, which attracted a comment from Professor Ayo Dunmore, a political science professor in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He had read the poem on the notice board of the Creative Writers’ Club and ended his commentary by cautioning me to tarry awhile. For me, as Africans we are our own problem regardless of the complexity of international politics and economics.

As for the books that have lasting impact on me, I would say among them are Olaudah Equano’s Slave Narrative and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I tend to like the survivalist instinct of the two characters. Life is a lot of challenges which requires such kind of determination, such resilience in the face of hardship. Maybe it’s because I myself have gone through a lot of challenges. Such books create impact on me really.

Who are your literary role models?

Well, as for literary models, in the poetry genre I should say I like Charles Baudelier, the French philosopher poet. I tend to like his use of simple diction to project sensuous experiences, the likes which are quite affective. I wish I could write in that fashion. Unfortunately, his works are not readily available. Then back home I like the writings of Osundare and Odia Ofeimun. What I like about their works is also the way they weave common parlance to make profound statements. In their works you will find words like verb, noun, ear of a leaf, sentence, etc taking on very portent messages. But I don’t always agree with some of their views and assumptions. My counter poem Poetry is Not to Osundare”s Poetry Is generated heated debate when I first presented it during a programme of the Creative Writers’ Club at the Abdullahi Smith Theatre. I have always delighted in writing counter poetry. It is in the same fashion I wrote most of the poems in Ellipsis, and my latest collection, Our Country Holds A Whip Against Us is also fashioned in that mode.

Are you satisfied with the way the Nigerian media is conveying your messages since you assumed office?

So far I can say the relationship is going on well. However, I am not losing sight of the fact that the media can be volatile at times, especially the very impulsive new media. I will continue to engage with them to fashion out the best possible way to carry on with the relationship.

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