By Anote Ajeluorou
On a calm evening last Wednesday in Lagos, the over-spill of emotions and seeming bad blood that had characterised relationship between the community of writers and the National Committee on the Nigeria Prize for Literature was set aside for a true spirit of camaraderie. The disagreement had followed outcome of the last Literature Prize competition as endowed and sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG) in which no winner had emerged. The session tagged Dialogue with Writers, held in the garden of the NIIA in Victoria Island and had members of the Literature Committee sat face to face with about 30 of the writers drawn from Lagos and about five states in the North. It ended up as session of fertilisation of ideas as disagreements were thrashed out and good feelings exchanged.
Perhaps to top the feeling of camaraderie, Prof. Zainab Alkali’s birthday was celebrated with a cake made for her, which was cut as part of the ceremony. The famous female writer, Professor Alkali is member of the Literature Committee.
Earlier on in the morning session, the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Science, Professor Nok had been formally presented to the Nigeria public represented by eminent citizens drawn from both political and economic circles. Impressively too, there was a good representation by pupils invited from as many as four schools from around Lagos. The event had earlier been scheduled for the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where Prof Nok is a senior academic but had to be shifted to Lagos “because of the current tension in the northern part of the country due to the recent religious riot in Jos, which is reported to be spreading to other cities in the axis”, according to a staff of the LNG.
Commenting on the purpose of establishing the Literature prize, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, a member of the Literature Committee, said the aim was primarily to “stimulate and advance the development of Literature” in the country.
Therefore, the prize was not necessarily a recognition of achievement of Nigerian writers as that has never been in doubt. The professor of English reminded that even before the establishment of the LNG prize, Nigeria Literature had made all the point it ought to make about its accomplishment; with Nigerians winning nearly all the prizes available on the international literary circuit; including the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker, the Man Booker and the Caine Prize and others.
On his part, Prof. Ayo Banjo, who sat in as head of the Literature Committee (in the absence of Prof Theo Vincent) assured that the Committee existed to serve the greater interest of Nigeria Literature and the writers. Though, he stressed that he was not a member of te jury, the professor of History and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, threw light on why the judges arrived at the decision not to give the prize money of $50,000 to any of the nine shortlisted writers for last year’s competition. He, however, assured that the Literature Committee had not been “impervious” to the various criticisms from the writers.
To this end, he announced that some changes had been made to principles of the Prize; however without compromising the credibility of the competition as an international project.
One crucial change is the fact that the judges’ identity would no longer be shielded. He promptly announced that judges for the 2010 competition will comprise Prof Dapo Adelugba Chairman, with members including Professors Kalu Uka (Calabar), John Illa (Jos), Titi Kolawole (Ife) and others. They will, unlike in the past, serve for only one year.
Also the very controversial Residency Clause, which had pitched the Prize organisers against some Nigerian writers abroad as well as been the basis of acrimony between some home based writers and a section of their colleagues resident outside the country, has been reviewed as a way of stimulating, and harnessing all the creative writing talents that the country has to offer.
Among the writers that spoke, Dr. Musa Idris Opanachi from Maiduguri, one of the nine poets shortlisted for the prize last year, who was obviously still smarting from the fiasco, said “Nigerian Literature was not on sale!” and that if the organisers felt “the prize money was too big (to be given out to one individual), they should reduce it”.
Mrs. Mobolaji Adenubi charged LNG to do more than award prizes to help Nigeria Literature grow. She tasked the company to look into the areas of editing books submitted for the award (in the manner of the Ugandan female writers’ example), book marketing and other supporting avenues that writers lack in Nigeria.
Culture activist Mr. Toyin Akinoso sought to know what the Academy of Letters, the unintended beneficiary of the Literature Prize that was not given last year, was doing with the $50,000 prize money to develop Literature as was intended. He, however, absolved LNG of the burden Nigeria Literature faced. “LNG can’t be burdened by the problems of Nigerian Literature – editing, marketing, editing, publishing; it’s a prize-giving company!” he said.
Mr. Ben Tomoloju took on literary journalists and their roles in promoting Literature in the country and declared: “Nigeria has had a dearth of support from literary journalists,” he charged. “They have become partisanship.” He also disclosed that the committee for the prize consisted of a journalist, a financial expert, a business administrator, and a professor among others. Finally, he charged literary journalists and all parties to literary business “to support a good cause” as LNG was doing to promote Literature.
Earlier in his welcome address, Mr. Ifeanyi Mbanefo of the corporate department of Nigeria LNG had said the gathering was designed to continue the discussion of Nigerian Literature that started some seven years ago. In his closing remarks, Mbanefo said his company could not thrive on a failed environment hence the determination of his company to see to a successful prize award. But he was quick to point out that awarding the prizes for Literature and Science was not a publicity affair for his company.
On the question of structures to support Literature, Mbanefo said his company was a prize-giving one, whose involvement did not include nurturing writers in the elementary rudiments of learning the craft of writing as was being suggested. He reiterated the commitment of his company to Literature, saying that Literature “is at the core of who we are as a people; it’s part of our history”.
Both the morning and the evening programmes also featured performances by IjoDee Dance Company as well as poetry reading by Jumoke Verissimo and Akeem Lasisi.