The annual literary tradition of rewarding writers embodied in the NLNG Prize for Literature will run its course this year as the spotlight falls on poetry, writesYinka Olatunbosun

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept were toiling upward in the night,” says a famed American Poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To a very large extent, those words have remained powerful and true, even when taken out of moral context. That is the power of deep thoughts, insight, sound thinking and economy of words which are some of the hallmarks of poetry. Undoubtedly, poetry played significant roles in literary history and humanity. Hence, today, it is still appreciated in its variants namely performance poetry, published anthologies of poetry, rhythmically applied poetry, amongst others.

To reward the mental perseverance and artistry involved in the production of poetry in Nigeria, the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, sponsors of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, has recently declared that 184 entries will compete for the whooping sum of $100,000 for the 2017 edition. That prize money remains the largest African literary prize since 2011 when it was so declared. Last year, the author of Season of Crimson Blossoms, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim won the coveted prize for his first and only published novel.

In a convivial gathering of journalists at the Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, the entries were formally handed over to the Chairman, Advisory Board of the NLNG Prize for Literature, Professor Emeritus Ayo Banjo before lunch hour.

Another interesting discovery about the NLNG Prize for Literature is that though there is a concerted and conscious effort to seek out a winning entry, it is not every year that a deserving winner is found. For instance in 2015, no winner emerged from the competition where 109 entries were received for the Children’s Literature category. Some of the reasons given for this include grave editing and publishing errors.

This year, 184 entrants will wait in phases till the final announcement of the winner slated for October. Usually, there will be a long list before a shortlist is revealed. At the formal handing over of the entries, the NLNG’s General Manager, External Relations, Dr Kudo Eresia-Eke, disclosed that the prize has inspired some 1,630 books of which 533, representing 32%, were submitted in the poetry category since the inception of the prize in 2004.

“The number of entries for the 2017 edition exceeded the 2016 numbers, showing a six percent rise in the number of entries received and increasing interest in one of the biggest literary prize in the world. This has been the trend since 2005,” he observed.
There’s no denying the fact that some writers actually set out to win by writing. This has made the competition very stiff and Eresia-Eke didn’t seem to mind.

“We believe that the prize has inspired writers to want to deliberately win the prize. This has led to the proliferation of books and increased the quality of books. The spiralling effect of this is the boost to literacy and education in the country, the foundation of cultural and socio-economic revolution. The impact of the prize is easily discernible and we believe that it supports our vision to help build a better Nigeria,” he remarked.

The organisers revealed that the entries, which came in response to a call for entry published in the national newspapers as well as the online platforms in February 2017, will be examined on their merits of excellence in language, creativity and book quality.
The panel of judges led by Professor Ernest Emenyonu, also received the entries which will be subjected to close scrutiny. That shouldn’t evoke fear in anyone, by the way for they are in good hands. Professor Emenyonu is a Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. Prior to that, he had served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Calabar between 1988 and 1990, and Provost (Chief Executive) Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, between 1992 and 1996.

Other judges are Dr. Razinat Mohammed and Tade Ipadeola. Dr Mohammed is an Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Maiduguri. She teaches African Literature with specialisation in Feminist Literary Criticism and Theoretical Approaches. She is an accomplished writer as well. Incidentally, Tade Ipadeola won the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2013 in the Poetry category with his third volume of poetry, The Sahara Testament. A poet and a lawyer, Ipadeola has won several awards and is a resource person for the Rockefeller Foundation around Africa on building resilience.

Invariably, these judges might also “toil in the night’’ to examine each text against the benchmarks. This year’s award will run concurrently with NLNG’s Prize for Literary Criticism for which only five entries were received for this year’s competition. Introduced in 2013, the literary criticism prize is a yearly award and carries a monetary value of N1 million.
The Advisory Board for the Literature Prize, is well-decorated with names such as Prof. Jerry Agada, former Minister of State for Education, former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors; and Professor Emeritus Ben Elugbe, former President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters and President, West-African Linguistic Society from 2004 till 2013.

Since 2005, The Nigeria Prize for Literature has rewarded eminent writers such as Gabriel Okara (co-winner, 2005, poetry), Professor Ezenwa Ohaeto (co-winner, 2005, poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2006, drama) for his classic, Hard Ground; Mabel Segun (co-winner, 2007, Children’s Literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008, prose); Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock; Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sister’s Street; Tade Ipadeola (2013; Poetry) with his collection of poems, Sahara Testaments and Sam Ukala (2014;Drama) with Iredi War.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Africa’s most prestigious literary award rotates annually amongst four literary categories of prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.