NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature governed by group of old brains – Writers

Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for Literature appears to be in the eye of the storm as writers across the country have continued to register their dismay over the way the prize is gradually veering off its original intents and purposes; IBRAHIM RAMLAN writes.

The NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, worth US$100,000 for the winner, is the richest prize in African literature. The prize was founded in 2004 to honour Nigerian authors in the four genres of literature; fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature, repeating the cycle every four years.

The Prize is part of the NLNG’s corporate social responsibility being administered by a panel of judges who are mostly university professors appointed annually by a three-member Advisory Board.

The members of the Advisory Board are emeritus Professors Ayo Banjo, Ben Elugbe and a former Minister of State for Education, Prof. Jerry Agada, who were drawn from the Nigeria Academy of Letters and Association of Nigerian Authors respectively.

Over the last few years, winners have included Soji Cole for drama (2018), late Ikeogu Oke for poetry (2017), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim for prose (2016), Sam Ukala for drama (2014), Tade Ipadeola for poetry (2013), and Chika Unigwe for prose (2012), among others.

Blueprint Weekend can report that this year’s prize goes to Children’s Literature and Literary Criticism. The panel of judges includes a professor of Semiotics, Stylistics, and Creative Writing, Obododinma Oha, professor of Oral and African Literature, Asabe Usman Kabir and Dr Patrick Okolo, a specialist in African postcolonial literature, gender, and cultural studies.

Impressive as it is, however, many writers who interacted with this reporter have expressed various degrees of resentment over the prize, especially their perception that the prize only seeks to throw in money into the pockets of writers who are either loyal to the judges or Advisory Board or who represent the ideologies or vested interest of some individuals.

One of the writers, who doesn’t want his identity on print, stated: “I have since stopped paying attention to the NLNG Prize because it has become so parochial in its administration process. Year in, year out, winners are being rotated from the Northern part of the country to the southern part. The judges seem to have thrown merit to the dogs.

“Take for instance the panel of judges announced for this year, which is for children’s literature. Who knows them as far as children’s literature is concerned? We can’t continue to subject this noble prize to this jejune treatment,” he added.

Another literary enthusiast who has authored dozens of books, but doesn’t want his identity revealed, described the members of the NLNG Advisory Board as having overstayed their welcome.

“These are a group of old and retired men who can no longer think well. They have virtually lost touch with the current realities of Nigerian literature.

“The Academy of Letters has produced other prominent professors, so also from the Association of Nigerian Authors, many presidents have been produced. Why can’t they be replaced with fresher bloods in order to infuse fresh ideas into how the literary prize is administered?” he rhetorically asked.

Sharing in the same grouse, the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Denja Abdullahi, stated that the Advisory Board for the prize has deviated from its original intent. 

He said: “The Advisory Board has been “colonized” by a group of persons, mainly from the Ibadan axis, and the adjudication and administration of the prize every year for some time now have developed a bias for writers or books coming from that axis.

“I make bold to say that it is high time for the Prof Ayo Banjo group to quit that Advisory Board and make way for fresh persons in tune with contemporary literature and prize administration. Because of the narrow-mindedness of the board as it is presently constituted, they have been appointing judges for the genre for which they cannot be called experts.

“Even the present panel of judges just announced is faulty as I cannot find any expert on Children’s literature on that board. You also find them recycling judges because they cannot consult widely or go beyond their fixations for some people or some archaic process. They also do not carry along the biggest stake-holding group in the administration of the prize, which is ANA.

“In the letter they wrote to ANA during the initial set up of the Prize advisory board they asked ANA to nominate someone and that was how Prof Jerry Agada got on that board. Prof Ben Elugbe of the Nigerian Academy of Letters also got on that board through that process. But presently, they have disconnected their operations from the bodies that nominated these persons and kept a permanent seat for some persons in their private capacities on the board.

“The Nigerian Academy of Science is fully integrated into the administration of the prize for science. Why is ANA and NAL not playing any role in the administration of the literature prize? What CSR initiatives have they extended to these stake-holding communities from which they have derived a lot of mileage to garnish their corporate image?,” Abdullahi queried.

According to him, there were many other extraneous and extra-literary tendencies that were part of the judgment or administration process of the Prize for years.

He further recalled that in 2009, the prize Judges and their advisory board came to a funny decision that out of about 9 -11 long-listed poetry entries.

He stated that it was embarrassing that, of the best of Nigerian poets at that time, none was deserving of the prize.

The president, whose book: ‘Death and The King’s Gray Hair’, made the NLNG shortlist last year, emphasized that he had been a critic of the prize since inception in 2004 and was part of those who assisted the prize to get some buy-in within the literary community at inception.

“If I say anything against the prize now, it will be tagged a “sob story” or that It is a “sour- grape” narrative, but I can confidently tell you that the prize needs another surgical intervention now in its administration and procedure to shorn it of extraneous and extra-literary tendencies that are again creeping in.

“However, the fact that I have been a critic of the prize does not mean I should not enter for it. In fact, we were part of those who fought for Nigerian writers in the diaspora to be allowed to submit works as they were previously excluded,” he disclosed.

The ANA president, therefore, advised the NLNG to begin to overhaul the process and administration of the prize, warning that: “If NLNG will not amend the way it is currently administering the prize, the writers’ community will dissociate itself from it.”      

Speaking in the same vein, another fiery literary critic and Professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies, E. E Sule of the Department of English, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University,IBBU, Lapai, stated that the amount of money attached to the Prize is too much to be given to one person, adding that, “since, by all standards, 100,000 USD is a huge amount of money, I don’t see why the money cannot be split into three so that the two other runners-up should also have a fair share.”

Prof. Sule, therefore, called on the NLNG to consider a more holistic way of assisting to improve the quality and output of Nigerian literature.

“The way to go, in my view, is not only to have a prize with a huge amount of dollars dangling on it, but to establish and fund writer’s resource centres that will have more effects. If they channel half of the 100,000 USD into establishing and funding writers’ residency where established and budding writes can meet and write, where upcoming writers can be mentored by older writers, I think the impact will resonate more.

“I have always remained grateful for the experience I had while being mentored by Ayi Kwei Armah in Senegal, a residency that was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. There is no magnitude of the prize that can replace that experience as far as I am concerned.

“I, therefore, think that organizing and funding centres of resource and mentorship for writers will have a greater effect than putting money into a prize. The other aspect is the publishing industry. We do not have a publishing industry in Nigeria and I think the impact of the NLNG will be far more felt if they put their money into it,” he added.  

When contacted by the Blueprint Weekend, one of the members of the NLNG Prize Advisory Board, Prof. Jerry Agada, swiftly rose in defence of the board, denying all the allegations and concerns raised by the writers.

He said: “There is nothing wrong with the Prize, as far as I am concerned. The process of selection – from the longlist to the shortlist – is so rigorous. Traditionally, we select judges from the far-northern, eastern and western parts of the country to ensure equitable representation.

“Aside from having to always look for renowned academics from various reputable universities across the country to judge the entries, we also have to always engage the service of an external consultant who usually comes from abroad. That person would look at judgements made by the appointed judges and make recommendations to the Advisory Board.”

Speaking on the allegations of perpetuating themselves in the Advisory Board of the Prize, Prof. Agada said: “I didn’t appoint myself, neither did Prof. Ayo Banjo or Prof. Ben Elugbe. I believe the NLNG is looking at it from the perspective of ‘the older, the merrier’ because we were appointed purely on excellence and merit.

“For example, I was a one-time minister of education and Prof. Ayo Banjo was a two-time vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Besides that, I think we are not the type that anybody can control or be used for selfish interests. We regard our integrity and I think that the NLNG is also relying on our integrity that is why they are still holding onto us,” Prof. Agada emphasized.

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