The Nigeria Literature Prize, which has given the Nigerian literary scene a much-needed shot in the arm, has been unfairly criticised and reviled by habitual critics, argues Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Isn’t it about time the local literati met its latest poet laureate, Ikeogu Oke? For a much-anticipated reading planned by the organisers this month would be the first since he clinched the highly-coveted winner-takes-all $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize. This first reading, which holds at the Roots-Ethnic Heritage Centre along Raymond Njoku Street in South West Ikoyi, Lagos, starts by 2 pm on Sunday, March 25.
Recall that his entry, The Heresiad, clinched the last year’s prize – which received 184 entries – after beating two other contenders on the shortlist, Ogaga Ifowodo (A Good Mourning) and Tanure Ojaide (Songs of Myself: Quartet).

Meanwhile, the prize, which annually rotates among its chosen four literary genres of prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature, plods on into its 14th year with another call for entries. This time, the focus has shifted to drama. This was after the spotlight for this fourth cycle had expectedly been beamed on prose fiction in 2016 and on poetry in2017. The competition, as usual, is open only to published works by Nigerian writers wherever they may be resident and will not accept books published before January 2014.

To reflect the genre of this year’s contest for the prize, the Professor Ayo Banjo-led Advisory Board for Literature has appointed a judging panel consisting of Professor Matthew Umukoro (chairman), Professor Mohammed Inuwa Buratai (member) and Dr Ngozi Udengwu (member). But an international consultant is yet to be appointed.
Since 2004, when it was instituted by the Nigeria LNG Limited, it has consistently chanted the mantra of “promoting literature and recognising excellence” and maintained its tradition of rewarding credible writers. Hence, the prize’s hall of fame glitters with such literary luminaries as the iconic 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 fiction) with her novel, Yellow Yellow; Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his drama book, Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock; Chika Unigwe (2012, prose fiction), with her novel, On Black Sister’s Street; Tade Ipadeola (2013, poetry) with his collection of poems, Sahara Testaments; Sam Ukala (2014, drama) with his drama book, Iredi War; Abubakar Adam Ibrahim with the novel, Seasons of Crimsons Blossoms (2016, prose fiction) and Ikeogu Oke with his book, The Heresiad (2017, poetry).

Not even the howling mob of habitual social media critics can discredit the pedigree of these past winners. Nor can they discountenance the allure of the prize’s cash value, which has been twice been upped, first from $20,000 to $50,000 and eventually to $ 100,000. Indeed, it is a known fact that its initial prize money of $20,000 had made a lot of waves in a local literary scene that had until then been reeling from poor funding.

But even with the best of intentions, the organisers’ discretionary decision to limit the prize to locally-based Nigerian-born writers turned out to be a “faux pas”. And pronto came the riposte of the hordes of Nigerian talents in the diaspora. Their retaliatory verbal sally was acerbic as it was uncomplimentary. A “ghetto prize”, they called it then. But they temporarily held their fire after the organisers opened the prize to all Nigerians resident anywhere in the world.

Still, this would be just one of the prize’s many venial sins. Its every other step, especially its failure to award prizes for the 2004, 2009 and 2015 editions (and that qualified as mortal sin to many), attracted arrow darts of criticisms. This was even when good reasons had been adduced for the non-award of the prizes. In 2015, for instance, the judges said they were perturbed by the “inappropriate prominence” given to “violence, eroticism, mediocrity, cheating in examinations, bullying, exploration in mysticism and negative peer-pressure” in the 109 entries (out of which 89 failed to meet the preliminary criteria for assessment). Expectedly, the Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo-led Advisory Board’s no-winner announcement for the 2015 edition of the prize – “because none of the 109 entries received met the levels of literary excellence worthy of Africa’s most prestigious literary prize” – ratcheted up the din of dissent not just among the sparse gathering of literary enthusiasts at the venue of the announcement, but also in the wider literary circles.

Also, despite the non-award of the prize in 2004, three authors (Bina Nengi-Ilagha, Omo Uwaifo and Prof Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo) received honourable mention for their efforts.

Yet, not even the organisers’ repeated rapprochement with the literary community’s stakeholders and willingness to auto-correct some of its perceived flaws could exorcise the spectre of dissent that continued to haunt the prize and assume more grotesque forms. And more recent criticisms seem to chide it for having only academics in its judging panel. Indeed, it as though they would want the prize to be cast in the image of renowned literary prizes in the West.

Behind the fusillade of these criticisms lurks the propensity for cheap self-aggrandisement through discrediting the efforts of others. For here is a literary prize, whose cash value has turned around the fortunes of not only the locally-based writers, but also of those in the diaspora. Curiously, vigorous participation from among the latter had seen two of these diaspora-based writers emerge as past prize-winners (one of them, albeit, posthumously). In addition, it says so much about the prize’s widespread acceptance that the last year’s edition’s two runners-up were diaspora-based.

Expectations swirling around it the hint at the organisers’ burning desire to improve the quality of writing, editing, proof-reading as well as publishing in the country with far-reaching positive effect on print and broadcast journalism. But, alas, it takes more than a prize money, however attractive, to effectively tackle these issues plaguing the industry.

Of course, being among the world’s elite prizes and the continent’s most prestigious has its advantages. Indeed, just as the NLNG’s General Manager (External Relations) Dr Kudo Eresia-Eke’s noted “the prize has inspired writers to want to deliberately advance the cause of Literature and win laurels”.

Perhaps, it might not have led “to the proliferation of books” or “increased the quality of books”, as he also said. But it surely has given the book industry a terrific shot in the arm.