A letter is often a method or means of communication between two or more persons. Once penned and signed by the encoder, a letter becomes an extension of the soul of an encoder seeking to connect with another soul or entity or institution. Because of the indispensable role it plays in our lives – be it in business, religion, and etcetera, we did our best to let some of our students then know when we were teaching, that far from being a mere method or means of communication between two or more persons, a letter is a veritable ambassador plenipotentiary carrying the portfolio of a messenger. Plenipotentiaries hold briefs for their employers and principals. Once one makes a statement, it is seen as made on behalf of the country whose brief they hold. Once they take decisions, those decisions are seen to represent the welfare and interests of the plenipotentiary and of his country. Letters have that awesome power. The reach of a letter is often long and it can survive from one generation to the other, as we have seen from the letters that the apostles wrote to the brethren from the time of our Lord and Saviour Jesus, and which are reference points that still have profound effect on our lives.
Most genuine letter writers use letters as instruments of social change. I recall first reading Martin Luther Kings’ Letter from Birmingham Jail, to realize that a letter is worthy of its name as a catalyst of social change. Certain pastors who were uncomfortable with the work of Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign of civil disobedience wrote him a letter denouncing the campaign. You may get a morsel of the full gist of Luther’s response to these pastors with his solid philosophical and cerebral slant. According to Luther, there are usually just and unjust laws and a citizen can exercise his civil responsibility and potential whenever he disobeys an unjust law.
But in the hands of a mischief maker, a letter is a deadly weapon. All that it would take an adroit letter writer to get a recipient to walk into a minefield and get blown away is for the letter writer to deploy certain words in a certain way. I may be wrong and presumptive but instead of putting words in a letter, the people who killed Dele Giwa connected wires and electrodes and made a bomb disguised as a letter to dispatch a man of letters. If the irony is lost on us, let us first realize that the usual suspects in the death of Dele Giwa by letter bomb were military and former military people. And therefore, when a former military man penned a letter to Mr. President and made that letter public recently, I was not among the populace who expressed an opinion on the motives of that letter. That first letter triggered a flurry of other letters from other military men. I had held my breath and peace because all I had to do to know that that letter brimmed with sinister political motives and focus was to juxtapose it against the modus vivendi, the motives, focus, vision and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr’s.
But of late, some letter writers have taken a bold step from scrawling a few pages to their recipients by writing ‘books’ which are indirectly addressed to perceived traducers. Now, a letter is a letter but a book stands at the very top in prose writing. Three things separate a letter from a book in my estimation – the number of words involved, the time, energy and money involved in the process leading to the production of a book and most important is the idea behind the book. You can write a letter at a sitting or in a couple of days but you cannot write a book worth the effort at a sitting or in a week. Even though you may have the time, energy and money to knock a mountain of words together, or get a ghost-writer write a book for you or get the publishers to drape your effort in gold, a book will not stand the test of time if the idea behind it is wrong and serves an interest that does not promote what is universal, what helps humanity or what prepares the mentality of the next generation for the future. Anybody can write a book and become a best-selling author yet I cannot refrain from expressing some of the thoughts that tug at me at the graduation of some of our letter writers to authors. One of them is that one of the reasons why politicians are writing books in the twilight of their lives and on the eve of the 2015 elections certainly calls to mind the least reason for writing a book. Look around you and you would find a thousand and one of our young writers, poets and dramatists seeking sponsorship, help, and motivation with their writing from some of these letter writers and pseudo authors. These Nigerian writers seek to use the instrumentality of their writing to advance our culture, customs and domestic institutions more for developmental purposes rather than for the self-centered reasons for writing a book.
In the course of the life span of the administrations that I can remember – Gowon, Shagari, Buhari, IBB, Abacha, Shonekan, Abdulsalaam, Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and that of Jonathan, none has stood out as a promoter or champion of the Arts, of writers and authors and poets and dramatists. These administrations that have done little or nothing to help authors and writers and dramatists are often very quick to acknowledge the recipients of international book awards as products of the policies that they introduced and pursued in the course of their administrations. On several fora, we have argued for the government, public and private institutions to establish residencies and endowments for the Arts, writers and poets and dramatists in their names. Doing that is doing what civilized people and economies and individuals do to establish their names. It is very good way for a politician to establish what he or she stands for rather than writing a book that addresses a political and personal grudge.