I first met Muhtar Bakare in January 2006, when I travelled to Lagos to ask if he would publish my manuscript of short stories. Before then, we’d exchanged a few emails, as he’d accepted one of my stories for the website of Farafina, the literary magazine he had founded. His emails were terse yet casual, while mine, as I read them now, were fussily formal. I was a 26-year-old university dropout who was desperate to remake himself as a writer, and it was crucial to me that Bakare take me seriously.
Bakare is a man of many parts. He was born to parents of two ethnic groups, a Nupe mother and Yoruba father. He grew up in the Epetedo area of Lagos Island, known for its crumbling infrastructure and slum-like congestion, but now lives in Victoria Island, home to some of the country’s most prized real estate.
He attended a free public school, but, based on his performance in the entrance examinations, was later admitted to the prestigious King’s College, where, he says, the fees were remarkably cheap. “Everything I’ve been able to achieve has been due to the largesse of Nigeria,” he reflects, referring to the free education he benefitted from but which, today, no longer exists.
At 16, Bakare entered the University of Lagos to study chemical engineering. A year later, he switched to architecture at the then University of Ife (where Wole Soyinka was teaching), partly because the lecturers had a reputation for being progressive.
In 1982, he won a prize in a children’s short story competition organised by Longman Nigeria. This publisher released his book in its Leopard Series, a range of children’s titles that still exists in the market today.
Money and books are the easiest words in the puzzle that is Muhtar Bakare. Finance and publishing: The two industries in which he’s proven himself.
His first job out of university was at Citibank Nigeria, where, within 10 years of joining, he had become an assistant general manager. But, in 2004, he left the sector to set up a publishing company, Kachifo Limited. He began with Farafina magazine, in print and online; and then, in 2006, Farafina Books announced itself with a splash whose name was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her debut book, Purple Hibiscus, was Kachifo’s first.
Kachifo Limited has grown since its early days in a two-storey colonial building at the corner of Military Street on Lagos Island, when Bakare played the role of founder, editor, foremost investor, managing director, head marketer, and chief accountant. It is now based on Lagos mainland, and while Bakare remains a director and shareholder, the company is run by Eghosa Imasuen, a medical doctor and writer whose two novels were published by Kachifo before he took the position as its chief operating officer.
In the 11 years since its founding, Kachifo has published some of the biggest names in contemporary African letters, like Binyavanga Wainaina, Nnedi Okorafor, and, at the political end of the spectrum, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo. The company also administers a non-profit with the broad mission of promoting “literature and literary skills in Africa”. To this end, Farafina Trust has, since 2009, organised writing workshops directed by Adichie. Some of its alumni include the journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, the novelist Jowhor Ile, and the current COO of Kachifo, Imasuen.
Filling a gap
When I reached Bakare’s office on that afternoon in 2006, all my anxieties were allayed by the older man who rose from his seat to greet me, then grasped my outstretched hand as he said: “Call me Muhtar.” He rejected my manuscript with disarming civility. Two months later, after he published another story of mine in Farafina, I met him for the second time to pick up a 5,000 naira cheque (about $40 in 2006), my first-ever writer’s fee.
One year later, in March 2007, while on a short visit to Lagos to collect money owed to me by booksellers who had stocked my first book – the same collection of stories that Bakare had rejected but which had now been published by my father – I received a phone call from Bakare offering me employment with his publishing company. I turned him down on impulse, but agreed to meet at his office the following day. I remained in Lagos as his employee for the next two years.
When Bakare entered publishing in 2004, there were few surviving literary journals in Nigeria, and even fewer that paid their contributors. The major book publishers in the country had long-since jettisoned fiction in favour of textbooks, which had a captive market.
As Bakare stated in a 2010 interview with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting: “I went into publishing to fill a gap, because at that point I noticed that all the stories that we read while we were growing up had kind of ceased. All the companies … had stopped publishing them.” And two years later, in an interview with The Guardian, he explained: “But setting up a publishing company was always going to be a challenge. And it still is: We have no distribution network and there is blatant piracy – infringement of intellectual property.”
At a panel discussion in Oslo in 2009, Adichie introduced Bakare as a “keen capitalist eager to prove that publishing can be a viable business”.
But in that same year the ex-banker lost several of his private investments in the global economic meltdown. As he struggled to raise money to keep his company afloat, at one point even selling his car to pay his employees’ salaries, he was forced to suspend publication of the loss-making Farafina magazine. The closure caused the exit of many of Kachifo’s in-house editors.
That same year, Bakare left Kachifo for Timbuktu Media, the parent company of NEXT, the fledgling newspaper founded by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dele Olojede. Entrepreneur Fola Adeola was an investor in Timbuktu Media, and got involved in Bakare’s talks with Olojede. The two men built a relationship that has lasted to this day. In fact, Bakare later became a founding trustee of KOWA, the national political party whose existence Adeola helped finance.
In July 2009, Bakare joined NEXT newspaper as its editorial director. But he resigned in June 2010, and, about a year later, the paper ceased publication due to financial troubles. Bakare reflects on that time: “Dele Olojede is an honourable man. I’m proud of what we achieved.” Key among those achievements was the training NEXT provided to its journalists and the reputation for editorial integrity it gained during its two-year run. Today, many of the country’s best journalists have NEXT on their CV.
Answers for the future
Bakare was born in April 1966, three months after Nigeria experienced its first coup d’etat. He lived in the country through the four successful, three alleged, two abortive, and one attempted coups that followed. This is perhaps why he’s so passionate when he says: “If the military hadn’t intervened in this country, things would have worked themselves out.” His eyes flash, his hands wave about, and his tone rises as he describes the ways in which he believes military rule has damaged the country’s social fabric. Martial words fly: “We must arrest this culture of impunity.” And yet, even as he laments the past, his mind seeks answers for the future. “Nigeria will not change until we figure out how to educate masses of our people. If government doesn’t do it, then the private sector will find a way to do it. We must invest in our people.”
There’s a political side to Bakare that he’s reluctant to talk about. The lawyer Olajide Bello, who met Bakare in 1996 and struck up a friendship with him based on their common interest in books, explains: “He’s a politically committed individual, committed to positive change.”
Bello remembers the time they worked together during the turbulent dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. Many prominent figures in Nigeria’s intellectual and political class were either being driven into exile or thrown into prison. Bakare was a banker then, and yet, to Bello’s surprise, he got involved in clandestine committees to raise money for political detainees. “We were taking food to them in prison, printing posters, printing magazines, and organising seminars to teach the wives how to visit their detained spouses,” Bello says. They also sent money to exiled members of the outlawed National Democratic Coalition, which was the foremost symbol of resistance against Abacha. For that act, if caught, they would have been imprisoned as traitors.
Bello says that Bakare was one of their most effective and tireless fundraisers, but his involvement went even deeper, as he also wrote anti-military pieces for publication under pseudonyms. “I did what I had to do,” Bakare says of his pro-democracy activities.
In the run-up to the national elections of 2011, Bakare again did what he believed he had to do. The opposition party that controlled southwest Nigeria at the time, ACN, had nominated Nuhu Ribadu – a man who formerly headed Nigeria’s most respected anti-corruption agency – as its presidential candidate. Fola Adeola was announced as his running mate. This was the same man whose involvement in NEXT and KOWA had influenced Bakare to join that newspaper and political party. When Adeola crossed from KOWA to ACN, Bakare and many other KOWA members openly supported him. “I worked for the Ribadu-Adeola campaign committee,” Bakare says. But the effort he put into that campaign had little impact on the electoral results, and Ribadu was defeated by a wide margin.
“I learned a lot from that experience,” he says of his foray into national politics.
His scepticism about Nigeria’s electoral process has deepened, but he has always voted. “Angels are not going to come down to fix the process,” he says, and then some minutes later, on a related topic, adds: “The system is broken. We elites are not stepping up. Countries don’t grow like trees. You can’t buy civilisation, you build it… We have a lot work to do.” His voice throbs with passion, and his words follow each other like a trail of exploding firecrackers. When Bakare is discussing ideas, he approaches his purest form of political action.
After the 2011 elections, Bakare returned to Kachifo, where he no longer had an organisational role. In his absence the company was run by Simidele Dosekun, a 29-year-old Harvard graduate employed in 2008 as the editor and project manager of Social Studies for Primary Schools, Kachifo’s inaugural textbook series. She had been in Nigeria for a short visit when she heard of Bakare from mutual friends. The first time they met was by chance at a book reading.
“He asked me what I studied, and when I said social studies, I could see his eyes light up,” she remembers. Bakare offered her a position on the spot, and when she refused, asked her to meet him at the office the next day. “He hinted at a surprise.” She arrived to find him preparing to go out to lunch with Adichie. He invited Dosekun to join them, and by the time they’d finished their meal, Dosekun had agreed to work for him.
“Muhtar sometimes has these big ideas that don’t seem to have any basis in reality,” she reflects now. But Kachifo would never have existed if he wasn’t impetuous. For one, no serious banker would have invested in a publishing outfit that planned to profit from serious fiction. Dosekun also remembers the disagreements they used to have over his constant championing of technology as a tool for mass education. “He was fond of saying that we need to put e-books in schools, to create digital content, and I would tell him that it was too soon for all of that.” Now, however, she admits that Bakare was right about how quickly Nigerians would adopt new technology.
Another thing he was right about was the need for Kachifo to compete in that most lucrative of publishing markets, the textbook business. He found his opening in 2006, when he realised the private school his two children attended, one of the most respected and expensive in Lagos, was teaching social studies from foreign textbooks. The Nigerian textbooks for that subject were seen as substandard. So, Bakare proposed to create the quality textbooks the school wanted, but based on the Nigerian curriculum. The school agreed. Since its release, this textbook series has been, year after year, Kachifo’s best earner.
Brushes with failure
“I’m not perfect,” Bakare says. “I’ve failed at many things. But I’m a happy person. I’m aware of my shortcomings and I try to live with them.”
One of his closest brushes with failure came just last year, when the movie adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, was released in the UK and Nigeria. The Nigerian edition of the Adichie novel was published by Kachifo, and is among its bestselling fiction titles, having sold about 40,000 copies so far. Bakare was the movie’s executive producer, as was his wife, the banker Yewande Sadiku. For the sake of authenticity, they agreed with its director Biyi Bandele that the movie should be filmed in Nigeria, and took on the daunting task of raising funds within the country.
At a Lagos preview of the movie in early 2014, Sadiku described the difficulties they faced in getting investors for the project. The money they eventually raised from their personal savings, friends’ contributions, and investors within Nigeria was about 80 percent of the budget. International Movie Database IMDb estimates the final budget as 1,270,000,000 naira [about $6.5m], which would make Half of a Yellow Sun the most expensive movie ever made in Nigeria.
But their real problems arose later. At first, in a decision that was announced just days before the theatrical release, the Nigerian film board refused to certify the movie, citing regulatory issues that were “likely to undermine national security”. In short, they wanted some scenes cut. While talks to resolve this were still ongoing, the movie was released in other countries, and local criminals took advantage of this opening to sell pirated copies on the streets of Nigeria. None of the movie’s backers has yet made any return on their investment.
Taking the initiative
When Bakare speaks of Nigeria, he stresses how, for those multinationals targeting large groups of middle class people, the country is one of the frontier markets. Not only is Nigeria situated at the heart, or geographical hub, of Africa, it also has everything it needs to become a major economy: crude oil, coltan, coal, copper, uranium, gold, fertile land; essentially everything that people go to war for. And the kicker: a population of 160 million.
In his view, Nigeria has a natural and growing sphere of influence. “Wherever you see large congregations of black people, you will find Nigerian enterprise taking root and thriving.” He believes that policymakers need only follow the routes ordinary Nigerians are carving out for the country across the continent and throughout the world. “Governments are not as smart as the people,” he says, and laughs.
Sometime in 2011, Bakare read in a newspaper that Pearson, the multinational publisher, was divesting from Longman Nigeria. He assumed they wanted to sell the business, and thought he had a good chance of raising capital from the banks to buy it up. He had learned from experience with Kachifo’s textbook series that the local educational market could be profitable, and Longman Nigeria was one of the major players on the scene.
He contacted the UK office of Pearson and expressed his interest in purchasing their 51 percent stake in Longman Nigeria. They responded by inviting him to a meeting in London, where they informed him they weren’t selling, but in fact giving up equity to the shareholders. However, they had something else to discuss with him. Pearson, the largest educational company in the world, had finally decided to establish a wholly owned subsidiary in Nigeria. At the time Bakare got in touch, they had been looking around for someone to run it. He was offered the job.
Getting things done
For nine years I’ve heard Bakare talk about his ideas, and with every year that passes, he takes another step towards making them happen.
“I’ve always been a bit of an autodidact,” he says. “I don’t think schools helped me that much.”
Yet his abiding passion is mass education as a means of empowering ordinary citizens.
He is now the managing director of Pearson Nigeria, and seems to be in the right place to affect the change he wants. But he disagrees with that assessment: Change must start from within, from Nigerians themselves, and when that happens, Pearson and many others will line up to collaborate in developing the systems to implement it, he explains.
That is why he’s toying with a plan to start a school himself. “We don’t lack for ideas,” he says. “We just don’t seem to be very good at getting things done.”
When I resigned from Kachifo in 2009 to focus on my writing, Bakare told me he knew I would get where I wanted because I was dedicated. He could have been talking about himself.