NLNG Literature Prize: Can This Award Be Trusted?

Let’s not mince words about this, the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Literature Prize, since it berthed on the peripheral of our literary landscape five years ago, has always worn the cloak of controversy and short on the credibility. Now with the questionable and phony decision of the prize jury not to choose a poet laureate for this year’s literature prize, choosing, instead, to rubbish an entire generation of Nigerian poets and their works, the prize has begun to plot its own death knell.

Recall, that the first of this annual literature prize itself was heralded in a blaze of controversy with its insistence on rehabilitating individuals who hitherto were the bane of the flourishing of ideas and scholarship through their decimation of the entire clan of Nigerian intelligentsia- writers, poets and academia lost to brain drain and other perils making them “the original Nigerian endangered species”.

Why would writers condescend to have themselves rubbished by an award that is just an opportunistic corporate social responsibility from a firm that is desperate to shore up its reputation through endorsement of Nigerian writers whom their promoters so despised? How sad and ironical that the clan of Nigerian intelligentsia would now sit side by side with the vicious arrowhead of regimes that saw to the capitulation of the institutions that produced those whom they now honour?

The excitement that followed the announcement of the nine poets that were short listed for this year’s award was felt beyond Nigeria’s literary borders. At the Book Party organized for the short listed poets by the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) in Lagos last month, the poets took time to read their poems to a large audience and it was with bated breath that this year’s NLNG awardees were expected.

It was also supposed to be a special prize because it was the first time poets are predominantly singled out for the prize, thus giving hope to upcoming poets who one day look forward to being so recognized.

But what was most intriguing was why the poets and their works were short listed in the first place and later to be ignored? What are the criteria for the shortlist? Is it just the aesthetic of the print rather than the content, themes and relevance of their piece of art to the jury’s criteria? So how did the poets and their poems scale the shortlist and on the night found unworthy of the prize? This is a classical Nigerian phenomenon. I think the jury has shot itself in the foot.

Their credibility now is the subject of furious but well-meaning criticisms bothering on utter shock. Very much so as the least they could have done was to share the prize money for all the nine poets because if they had actually scaled the hurdle of being nominated, then they were as good as winning the prize.

That decision could have been more honorable. Given the number of entries for this year’s award, and the eventual pruning down of the entries to the final nine poets, it beggars belief that the poets were now found unworthy in their arts not to be considered for sharing the prize money as joint winners of the NLNG Nigeria’s Literature Prize 2009.

The administration of the award is also puzzling. Why would the NLNG be directly involved in the prize? One would think the gas giant would instead endow it and hand it over to credible literary organizations like the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA); Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) etc who are known nationally and internationally working to promote scholarship, writing and book publishing in Nigeria?

Why is the award also being rotated among the genres? Why can’t the NLNG split the prize money among the genres annually- as in Best Nigerian Prose 2009, Best Nigerian Poetry 2009 etc? The award night looks to me like a political gathering rather than a literary award. Too many political speeches.

The night looks more like an exercise in self-glorification. It seems to me this yearly gathering which the award presents has become a forum for erstwhile political gladiators to meet, hug the klieg lights and make speeches while dwarfing the writers for which the night was meant to celebrate.

The Managing Director of the organization Chima Ibeneche seems to be the one carting away all the awards. If this is about writers, why this excessive hugging of the limelight by a Managing Director who also referred to writers as “ordinary men” in his speech? “Ordinary” writers? Common, why would writers think this award is about them. Would it not have been more appropriate to invite authentic and respected Nigerian artists like the internationally known Asa to perform at the award rather the unknown wife of the Managing Director?

This award is not about writers, this looks more like an attempt at political correctness and corporate razzmatazz, a playing to the gallery of sorts in the Nigerian political firmament.
Is this prize also not supposed to be a pan-Nigerian literary award? Why all the pandering to Niger Delta literature? Should a Nigerian work of art be essentially Niger Deltan in theme to get short listed, not to talk of winning the prize? Of course there are pressing themes to be explored in the Niger Delta milieu but judges should look beyond this. Or is this the mandate of sponsors, NLNG? Since they prize money is sourced from the degradation of the Delta?

And what is the place of Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) in this prize? How come this year’s prize money will now go to the Nigerian Academy of Letters? Why were the nine poets absent at the award? Lindsey Barrett, one of the shorlisted writers wrote that no invitation was extended to them but the management of NLNG said they should come to the venue and identify themselves to be let in. More like gate crashing if you ask me. This is the ultimate insult on the collective psyches of Nigerian writers.
Given the cold shoulder meted to the poetry genre in this year’s award, a genre in which pioneering works of great Nigerian poets have won us international acclaim trough the enduring poems of Christopher Okigbo, Niyi Osundare, Wole Soyinka etc, their decision have left many to question the jury’s appreciation and understanding of the genre and its place in Nigerian literature.

Considering the chequered history of this prize and this year’s gaffe, it is time for writers to take a second look at the prize and consider their reputation while submitting entries for future awards. It is also time to scrutinize the composition of the jury and also for the management of NLNG to hands off this prize while endowing it to known literary organizations to sustain its credibility (after all the prize money belongs to Nigerians, it is not a favour) otherwise there comes a time in future where no serious writer would be willing to submit entries. Will this yearly NLNG prize qualify as the authentic Nigerian Literature prize, a corporate gathering or a cash bazaar for favoured writers? The jury is definitely out.

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