The Arts

April 23, 2024

Nigeria Prize for Literature: Celebrating 20 years of excellence

By Prisca Sam-Duru

The narrative of the Nigeria Prize for Literature which marks 2 decades since inception in 2004, has been that of excellence.

The esteemed prize considered the biggest and most prestigious literary prize in Africa, and one of the world’s leading and most reputable is sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited, NLNG.

The coveted prize comes with a mouth-watering reward of $100,000 cash award, and runs a four-cycle which rotates among four genres; Poetry, Prose fiction, Drama and Children’s literature.

For 20 years, the Nigeria book industry has enjoyed the support of the Nigeria LNG through the Nigeria Prize for Literature and other literary interventions.

Now in its 20th year, the genre in focus is Children’s Literature, and with great expectation, the best writer for children, if any, will be celebrated in October 2024.  The last winner in the Children literature cycle was Jude Idada in 2019. He won the competition for his work, ‘Boom Boom’.

Already, a total of one hundred and sixty-three (163) entries have been received for the 2024 edition.

This was revealed on Thursday, April 18, at a ceremony in Lagos to hand over the entries to judges for the commencement of the adjudication process. NLNG, represented by its General Manager for External Relations and Sustainable Development, Mr Andy Odeh, handed over the entries to the Chair of the Prize’s Advisory Board, Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, who, in turn, handed over the entries to the judges.

The Advisory Board also handed over 24 entries for The Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism which has a prize money of $10,000.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature is Africa’s most prestigious literary award, and the increase in entries for the children’s literature cycle this year, highlights the growing interest in Nigerian Literature. With this year’s edition particularly competitive, the judges and Advisory Board have their work cut out to select a deserving winner.

Speaking at the handover ceremony, Mr Odeh lauded the achievements that have been recorded by Nigerian writers in the past 20 years of running the Prize.

“This handover of entries is a celebration of the commitment and hard work put forth by every participant. It is a reminder of the importance of fostering a culture that encourages innovation, critical thinking, and artistic expression. It is also an opportunity for us to recognize the dedication and support of those who have mentored and guided these individuals, providing them with the resources and inspiration to achieve greatness,” he said.

Recall that at an event held during last year’s edition which focused on Drama, the General Manager, External Relations & Sustainable Development, Nigeria LNG Limited, Andy Odeh, disclosed that so far, authors of 17 winning works have received over $1million. This is how much the gas giant has impacted the Nigeria literary industry where it has celebrated nothing but literary excellence.

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“Nineteen years of successful administration has produced 17 winning works and over $1million has been won. This prize stands out as the biggest and most prestigious literary prize in Africa, and one of the world’s biggest and most reputable,” Odey stated.

So far, The Nigeria Prize for Literature Prize has lived up to the objective for which it was instituted in the first place in 2004- excellence. And NLNG has continued to sponsor the prize as well as promoting literature in Nigeria.

In a statement on its website, NLNG believes that “With The Nigeria Prize for Literature, it is expected that the quest for a prestigious prize will improve the quality of writing, editing, proof-reading, and publishing in the country with far-reaching positive effect on print, broadcast journalism, film and theatre production…” This has been greatly achieved too.

Stating further on the objectives of setting up the prize, it said, “Nigeria became the first in Africa to produce a Nobel laureate in Literature in the person of Prof. Wole Soyinka. The country also produced one of the most decorated authors in the world, Prof. Chinua Achebe, whose book, Things Fall Apart, translated into more than 61 languages, has been listed by Encyclopaedia Britannica as one of 12 novels considered the greatest book ever written. Then there are the great legacies of other Nigerian writers such as Ben Okri, Cyprian Ekwensi, Femi Osofisan, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Chukwuemeka Ike, Flora Nwapa, among others, whose writings were compelling and helped positively shape what people know about Nigeria.

To that, Odey adds, “For a company that prides on excellence, we believe this an opportunity to bring us back to where we were a long time ago. “From the number of entries we receive on an annual basis, which keep increasing, it means our intervention is working. Yes, we had years we didn’t have a winner and of course, it’s because excellence is key. That’s why we are happy that it’s happening the way we want it. Art/ literature is an aspect that can help build a better Nigeria; that’s why our invention is key.”

The success story continues. “Nigeria can now showcase great literary works published in Nigeria; works that portray excellent editing, proof-reading and publishing. Our library and bookshelves have been enriched with many great works by Nigerian writers”, disclosing that “the Nigeria Prize for Literature alone has received over 2,400 entries to date in the four genres and, many of them are top quality entries.” The number of entries has increased of course with this year’s additional 163.

It is also for the sake of honouring only the best that the organisers have insisted on the winner-takes-all in the literature prize. “The Advisory Board has insisted that it’s not just about the winner takes-it-all. We are rewarding the best work each year. If you check the winning works, they are sought globally. For now, we leave it the way it is. We will not do first, second or third prize.”

While the maiden edition which focused on prose fiction did not produce any winner, 2005 edition of the prize had two authors; Prof. Ezenwa Ohaeto and Gabriel Okara, smiling to the bank. They were the first winners of the prize as they jointly won for their works ‘Chants of a Minstrel’ and ‘The Dream, His Vision’ in 2005. Unfortunately, they are both late.

In 2007, the prize focused on children’s literature for the first time. A joint winner; Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Mabel Segun, was announced. They won for their works, ‘My Cousin Sammy’ and ‘Readers’ Theatre: Twelve Plays for Young People’.  Interestingly, Prof. Adimora-Ezeigbo became the chair of the Advisory Board of The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2018, a position she still occupies. The 2011 edition was again the turn of children’s literature. And Adeleke Adeyemi who writes under the pen name, Mai Nasara won the prize with ‘The Missing Clock’.

Disappointingly, in 2015 which was the next circle for children’s literature, no winner emerged, making it the third time the competition failed to produce any winner. Other years were 2004 and 2009. The reason for not announcing any winner, all boiled down with the need to keep faith with excellence. The year was not wasted however as the Nigeria LNG turned the 2015 edition of the circle into an occasion to help sharpen the writing skills of children literature authors. A workshop for children’s writers was held and it birthed a handbook embedded with tips on how to write for children.

The next children literature circle was in 2019 and it was obvious that the corrections the workshop intended to offer were taken. Jude Idada with his book, ‘Boom Boom’, beat Dunni Olatunji (‘Mysteries at Ebenezer’s Lodge’) and O. T. Begho (‘The Great Walls of Benin’), to clinch the prize.

For this year’s Literature Prize and the Literary Criticism competition, Professor Saleh Abdu chairs the panel of judges. Professor Abdu is an English professor at the Federal University of Kashere, Gombe State. He has taught courses mostly in Literature at various levels.

Other panel members include Professor Vicky Sylvester and Dr. Igudia Osarobu. Professor Sylvester is a writer who has been teaching at the Department of English, University of Abuja. Her prolific writing career has produced numerous award-winning novels, poems, and academic works.

Professor Christopher Okemwa, a lecturer of poetry and drama at Kisii University, Kenya, serves as the International Consultant for the 2024 edition of the Prize. He has published over 10 children’s books, winning the 2015 Canadian Burt Award for African Literature (Kenya) with one of the books. He is the founder and director of KICHLA (Kistrech Children’s Literature Association) of Kenya.

Other members of the Advisory Board are Prof. Olu Obafemi and Prof. Ahmed Yerima.