Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review of the NLNG Prize

"The reason we are here today is to see that theNLNG continues the prize, in particular the Literature award."

On Wednesday 29th August 2007, The Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) held a Stakeholders' Workshop at the Oceanview Restaurant, Victoria Island, Lagos. The purpose to review the prize at the end of its fourth stage. Participants included artistes, culture enthusiasts and workers, writers and corporate executivers. The Theme of the workshop was "The Social Environment of Business: Cultural Promotion As Corporate Social Responsibility (The Nigeria Prize Experience)". Papers were presented at the workshop, and there was a panel discussion moderated CORA's Deji Toye, a wrtier. Panelists included: Mobolaji Adenubi; Wunmi Raji, a writer and lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University; Toni Kan, writer and Bank executive; Nike Adesuyi, Poet, Literature activist; Grace Daniel, ex-chairperson Women Writers of Nigeria,WRITA; Folu Agoi, Chairman ANA Lagos; ChikeOfili, poet, Journalist and Marketing Specialist and Ropo Ewenla, member CORA and a Culture Activist.

Some Contentious Issues about the Nigeria Prize For Literature

The Name of the Prize - At the onset of the award, the name of the prize was NLNG Literature Prize. However the decision by the NLNG to register the name of the Prize as The Nigeria Prize for Literature generated some controversy in certain quarters. While two former ANA Presidents, Professor Femi Osofisan and Professor Olu Obafemi did not see anything wrong in this move, another former ANA President, Odia Ofeimun kicked against the decision. In his well publicized article 'The NLNG Literature Prize Controversy; Before The Nigerian Prize', Ofeimun referred to the decision to register the prize as "selling national patrimony for a mess of pottage". As he put it, "Even if we are all now in the age of liberalization, privatization and deregulation, our identities have not yet been so privatized, liberalized and deregulated to the point where we must celebrate a private company's right to use the state apparatus outside the dictates of market forces to over-ride the capacity of other companies to compete with it." In saying this, Ofeimun emphasized his belief that any organization that has excelled in the promotion of a country's literary prize could be chosen by that country as its prime definer of that country's interest. This however in his view should be done after 'the proof' of such excellence and not 'by a crude resort to legislation outside due process'. In looking at both sides of the argument, it seems to me that what the critics of the Legislation of the Literature Prize as epitomized by Odia Ofeimun wanted was an input by all Literary Stakeholders before the final legislation. This to me will be akin to the Public Hearing that is usually conducted by the National Assembly before a bill is passed into law. My take on this issue is that since members of the advisory council on the prize represented to a fairly good margin a cross section of the Literary sector in the country, one cannot accuse the Gas Company of having not consulted this very important sector of the Nigerian public. Secondly, before a company or name is registered by the Corporate Affairs Commission in Abuja, there are certain procedures that must be closely followed. One of these is the placement of a notice of intention in two national newspapers for a certain period of time in order to allow any criticism against such a move. It is also expected that the names of the Board of Directors and other officials of the proposed Prize body should also be listed. Once this is done as I expected it must have been done by the NLNG and no opposition was raised against the registeration exercise, then, the Gas Company can be said to have followed due process in registering the prize. Not being an act of parliament, registeration of names of companies and organizations are not expected to involve anything more than the aforementioned.

Limiting Contestants to Writers Based in Nigeria - Another contentious issue about the prize was the decision of the organizers to limit the prize to writers resident in Nigeria. A sizeable number of Nigerian writers and critics have advocated the inclusion of foreign based writers in the competition. While such arguments may have their merit, it is an established fact the world over that many Literary Prizes are instituted and administered for specific groups as such, the NLNG cannot be faulted for adopting its present stance.For example, a cursory look through the Writers and Artists Year book in 2006 showed that out of the 180 prizes advertised for that year, more than 150 (about two thirds) were for specific writers writing in specific countries. An important prize such as the Orange Prize for fiction is awarded for a full-length novel written in English by a woman of any nationality and first listed in the UK while the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize is given to an English Language writer of any nationality under the age of 35 years. The Somerset Maughan Awards are also for writers under the age of 35 who are British subjects by birth and ordinarily resident in the UK and Northern Ireland. This same specificity exists in the Literature, Marketing and Places, the American version of Writers and Artists year book. Closer home, the Olaudah Equino Prize recently inaugurated in the US is meant forNigerian writers based [abroad / outside Africa]. If part of the aims of the NLNG to endow the Nigeria Literature Prize is to encourage and improve the local content of Nigerian literature, why must be the prize be opened to writers who are not based in the country?

Composition of the Advisory Panel - At the initial stages of the prize, some stakeholders in the Literary and Arts sectors were involved with the planning and subsequent execution of the prize. However, as time went on, some of these early collaborators soon left the fold under certain circumstances. This development has generated the assumption in certain quarters that the prize has been hijacked by the Gas Company. However, since some notable Nigerian writers, critics and teachers of literature such as Professor Ayo Banjo, Prof Charles Nnolim, Prof Theo Vincent, Abubakar Gimba, and Prof Zaynab Alkali, among others are still involved in the annual selection of the winners, it is obvious that the prize is still worthy of its name

The Panel of Judges - Just as it is done by the some organizers of some Literary Prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature among others, the name of the judges in the Nigeria Literature Prize are still being kept secret. This has been done in order to protect the judges from being influenced by the contestants. Again, this decision has generated some degree of controversy. It is my humble belief that in order to maintain the confidence of writers in the prize, that the names of the judges be made public. This way, their competence and abilitywill not be in any doubt while their noble pedigree is a good antidote against protection....

The Aborted Reading Tour - At the inception of the Nigeria Literature Prize in 2004, about thirteen writers on the 'Long List" were taken on a reading tour of the country. Apart from the publicity that the tour gave to the competition, the tour also enabled members of the public to become more interested in Literature. In a country with a perceived poor reading culture, the tour improved to some extent the interest of the public in Literature. Unfortunately, this aspect ofthe competition has since been discontinued. It is hoped that with proper repackaging, the reading tour if reconvened, will go a long way in improving the overall success of the prize. It is also important to mention the issue of the Poor Reading Culture in the country. Literary observers have given several factors for this development. These include, high cost of books, disconnect between the writers and the reading culture as well as competition between reading and other recreational pursuits among our youths such as football, home video and the internet. In the last few years the ANA as our own contribution to stem this ugly development a few years ago organized some Literary Campaigns all over the country. The project which involved reading sessions among secondary school students in the country as well as donation of books to school libraries unfortunately could not be sustained due to financial constraints. It is hoped that more stakeholders will continue to assist the government in this onerous duty of improving the reading culture in the country through the provision of books to schools and community libraries as well as organization of Literary campaigns all over thecountry.

Prize Endowment - Having gone so far in running what has come to become one of the most successful Literature Prizes in the country, it will be advisable for the NLNG to put aside enough funds as a form of endowment for the continuation of the Prize. Apart from the fact that this will generate some additional funds with which to run the prize over the years, it will also insulate it from the vagaries of Company Managements which may not be very interested in continuing with the whole exercise.

Conclusion - It is obvious that the Nigeria Literature Prize as being organized by the NLNG despite the teething problems and a few shortcomings is a welcome development to our Literary milieu. As James TarTsaaior of the Centre for General Studies, Lagos State University put it in the June 2005 edition of The Ker Review, "In a fundamental sense, the institution ofthe NLNG Literature Prize constitutes a veritable testament of committed corporate citizenship on the part of the Gas Company and represents a rite of affirmation for the efflorescence of NigerianLiterature." It is the belief of Tsaaior and I agree that The Nigeria Literature Prize has come to challenge, stimulate and enrich the literary enclave and to send the imagination roaming wild on the vast landscape of our literature. As stated earlier, even though the main essence of writing is not to win Prizes, the NLNG Prize has come has "transformed the lean fortunes of Nigerian Literature just like an oasis in the Nigerian Literary desert. More importantly however, is the fact that the Prize has been able to identify some of the problems militating against good Literature in the country. It has also inspired the birth of a new wave ofLiterary Prizes in the country such as the Soyinka Prize, the Utomi Prize and the Olaudah Equiano Prize among others. The organizers of the Prize have also been able to stimulate authorship, reward creativity and bring Nigerian writers to public attention. In its bid to improve the quality of writing, editing, proof reading and publishing in the country, it is hoped that the NLNG along with other stakeholders in the writing profession bring to the attention of government and other industrialists the urgent need tomake the publishing industry viable and pro-creative writers. This way, the well identified self-publishing craze which has been identified as one of the causes of the poor quality of many of the entries for theLiterature Prize will be substantially tackled. The NLNG can also collaborate with other stakeholders especially the Association of Nigerian Authors in the organization of regular Writing Workshops which will also assist in improving the skills of Nigerian writers.
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