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NLNG’s dialogue with writers

By JAPHET ALAKAM
Following the controversies that trailed the non emergence of a winner from the nine short listed poets for the 2009 NLNG prize for Literature which somehow strained the relationship between the writers and the sponsors of the Africa’s richest poetry prize, Liquefied Natural Gas of Nigeria (NLNG), the company last week at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs(NIIA) Victoria Island organized what it tagged a ‘Dialogue with Writers’ to look for the way forward.

The event which was graced by a large number of Professors, writers and members of the literary community featured talks, reading session and performances  followed by public presentation of the winner of 2009 NLNG Prize for Science, Professor Andrew Jonathan Nok , Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria for his scientific discovery of the gene responsible for the creation of Sialidase (SD), an enzyme which causes sleeping sickness, a critical link in the eventual production of Trypanosomiasis.

Nigerian Prize for Literature, the annual literary competition in honour of the author of the best book of the current year or the previous three years started in 2004. It is open only to published works, and it bestows public recognition and a monetary award of $50, 000 on the winner.

Apart from the maiden edition in 2004 when no winner emerged, last years’ award was the second time that the award was not given to any writer and  rather the money was according to Chima Ibeneche, Managing Director of NLNG given to the Nigerian Academy of Letters another action that received serious condemnation from the literary community as they did not see the rationale behind the giving of the money to such a body.

It will be recalled that the 2009 NLNG literature prize received what can be described as the widest publicity courtesy of CORA organised book party held at Gothe Institute where the short listed poets were presented to the public for the first time. After the book party there were a lot of apprehension on who will be the lucky poet that will cart home the prize. But as things turned out to be, it never be and the press went on to lash on the organizers and the panel of judges for their action, some calling for a possible boycott of the award.

It was on the basis of this that the management of NLNG organized last week’s dialogue for both parties to rub minds and deliberate on the way forward. Mr Ifeanyi Mbanefo spokesman of the company, recalled that issues discussed in a similar meeting seven years ago at Eko Hotels gave rise to the establishment of the literature prize.

After his speech, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, a member of the committee spoke on the journey so far. According to him, the prize came up after an interaction between the constituency of the prize the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and the sponsors of the prize LNG.

He pointed out that at the inception of the prize, Nigerian literature had nothing to prove so the prize was not given as a recognition of achievement of Nigerian writers, but the primary aim was to stimulate the development of literature culture including publishing in the country. He reminded the audience that before the establishment of the LNG prize, Nigerian writers had won international laurels like the Noble Prize for Literature, The Man Booker prize, The Caine prize and other international prizes.

Bent on  allaying the fears of the literary community, Izevbaye pointed out that there was no winner last year does not imply that there was no text or a deliberate plan to kill the competitive spirit, but rather to maintain a standard as according to him “the prize is better than the Booker prize.” He stated that the judges decided to raise the stake in order to make the writers aspire higher.

Pointing out that ANA as a constituency of the prize is not supposed to take over the award as judges. On the giving of the money to the academy of letters, he explained that it was because the Academy of Letters is a neutral body made up of eminent writers in the land and  in line with what the committee did to science prize when no winner emerged.

The chairman of the occasion, Prof. Ayo Banjo stated that the literature community has not been insensitive to the comments of writers. And in order to make the competition measure up to international standard and ensure that the best emerge for the prize, the committee made some adjustments that are likely to take place in the NLNG prize for literature in 2010.   According to him, after due consideration the body decided on the following:

First, that the judges will no longer be hidden from the public and henceforth every body will know who the judges are. He went o to announce the names of the judges for the 2010 prize as , Prof. Dapo Adelugba (chairman),while Prof and Kalu Uka, Prof. John Ilah, Prof. Mary Kolawole , Prof. Taminu Abubakar as members for the Drama genre that will be competed for  this year. Second, that the residency condition whereby the writers were confined to only those in Nigeria have been lifted. Henceforth, Nigerian writers outside the shores of the country are welcomed as the competition has been thrown open.

Prof. Jerry Agada, former Education Minister and ANA president toed the line of Prof. Izevbaye when he said that Nigerian literature has nothing to offer.  He pointed out that if we want to talk about Nigerian literature, we have to look back at the works of the old writers adding that Nigerian literature witnessed a drop as most of the writers relocated abroad for greener pasture. Nevertheless, he noted that there is room for improvement.

On LNG prize, he said that NLG has its own benchmark in awarding the prizes and that if the writers did not meet that, they should not crucify them but should rather  applaud them for their role. He urged LNG to partner with ANA and other writers’ bodies in order to move literature forward and advised them not to be discouraged by the barrage of criticisms.

In his reaction, Dr. Opanachi Musa Idris, one of the nine short listed poets said that “Nigerian literature is not for sale and that if LNG feels that the prize money is too big it should reduce it.”

Chike Ofili, former Lagos ANA chairman asked why the membership of the panel was dominated by academics as if there are no other people who can constitute membership saying that we have good journalists, reviewers and people from other professions who can do that.  He also called for the tenure of the judges to be reduced. Ben Tomoloju, a writer and member of the panel responded by saying that non academics and even professionals in other fields are also members.

Another member of the panel and a one time member and chairperson of the panel of African Commonwealth Prize, Prof Kolawole advised the writers to understand that “we are partners” and appealed to them to be committed in their works.  According to her “ my challenge as a judge is more stressful than that of a professor of literature.” She added that as judges ,they are always happy when people win, saying that she was happy when Chimamanda Adiche won the commonwealth prize.

Mrs Mobolaji Adenubi in her contribution canvassed for a body that will go through the books before publication and charged ANA to try and determine how many books to be published and when to publish them so that books that come to the market will be of high standard.

Speaking on the topic, State of Nigerian Literature- A cursory glance, Mr Tony Ujubuonu stated that “a people without literature is a people without life”. According to him “Nigeria cannot be described as people lacking life as we express ourselves anywhere we are”

The Ijodee Dance company added flavour to the evening with the performance of contemporary dance. Other events of the night was the cutting of the birthday cake of Prof. Zainab Alkali by the members of the literary world.


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