Now in its 14th year, the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for literature, which rotates among the genres of poetry, prose, drama and children’s fiction, has been awarded 10 times. There were joint winners in 2005 and 2007, while in 2004, 2009 and 2015 no price was given at all.

Some critics claim that the NLNG berthed in the port of Nigeria’s literary landscape in a vessel built in a shipyard of schemes. They say the prize originated as a conciliatory gesture of social responsibility from a corporation seeking to anchor its reputation through its endorsement of Nigerian writers, perhaps in a bid to reduce the harm that these pundits of history could do through sordid tales of the NLNG’s exploitation of the Niger Delta.

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A closer look at the prize

There have been arguments about the outrageous sums being lavished annually to put the NLNG Prize together. A blue ribbon of USD100 000, which must be administered with a budget of USD850 000, is bewildering. I do not belong to the school of thought that suggests the prize money itself is outlandish, but I do think we can make better use of the funds assigned for administering it.

The NLNG Prize is not the only literary prize worth USD100 000 or more. In America, for instance, the Ruth Lilly, Kingsley Tufts and Wallace Stevens prizes offer the same amount of cash. However, the issue is that the US is a nation with a plethora of annual awards. How many do we have in Nigeria? In a nation that needs more viable systems through which writers of all ages and career levels can gain access to grants, fellowships, festivals, readings and workshops, I would say that USD850 000 yearly could transform Nigerian literature, raising it to a pedestal of global excellence.

Regarding the prize’s rotation between genres, the NLNG must begin to hand out awards for all the genres each year. Awarding just one book in one category means that the prize would overlook potentially great books in genres outside the stated category published within the year in focus. In this way, the prize fails to lead readers to amazing voices that need to be heard.

Everyone who understands the business of publishing, especially in Nigeria, knows that the life span of a book is about six months tops. How, then, can you wait to award these books only once in four years?

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Unlike other commentators, I am not just proposing annual prize money for each category currently being rotated; I am saying it is time the NLNG made room to shelter a wider range of works, including non-fiction, media and other hybrids of literature. For this to be achieved, a full bank of competent Nigerians in various fields must be selected to serve as judges of the different categories annually.

Who are the judges?

This takes us to another crucial issue, which is the composition of the judging panel, judging processes and competence of the prize’s jurors.

It is troubling that currently 90% of the jury and members of the NLNG Prize board are from the academia. The problem with this is that a great number of these academics cannot boast of works that excel in the fields they are judging. I think judges need to be people who have proven that they understand the subject matter they are judging. In this case, it means that volumes of good books, and not just academic papers, will be required. One can be great at theorizing about writing but still not be able to come up with a book of repute. Hence, I think it is time for the NLNG to restructure its judging panel.

While it is true that the dominant mentality across the nation is to define a person’s competence by the organisation they work for and the positions they occupy, this has not paid off for the NLNG over the years. Instead, there have been squabbles over the credibility of jurors and the merit of works chosen for the prize. Bearing these in mind, I think it is now appropriate to discuss NLNG’s history in relation to the 2017 long list.

Looking back

The poetry prize has been awarded twice in the NLNG’s history, first as a joint award to Gabriel Okara and Ezenwa Ohaeto in 2005, then in 2013, when Tade Ipadeola clinched the prize with his collection Sahara Testament.

In 2009, the NLNG failed to award a prize, even though nine poets made it to the shortlist. Five of the works – A Memory of Rivers by Lindsay Barette, Litany by Omo Uwaifo, Songs of Odamolugbe by Ademola Dasylva, and Eaters of the Living by Musa Idris Okpanachi – were labelled by the judges as ‘having explicit political concerns and social setting is never absent from their consciousness’.

The remaining four – From a Poem to its Creator by Diego Okenyodo, January Gestures by Nengi Ilagha, Love Apart by Hygenius Ekwuazi and Fossils by Ahmed Maiwada – were said to have foregrounded ‘a different poetic concern – the self as the starting point of knowledge and experience, with obvious consequences for social vision’.

The judges went on to say: “There is among this group [of four] poets, a greater consciousness of the poet’s resource and professional responsibility accounts for central attention [sic] to playful possibilities of the world and it’s implication for the relation of language to reality. These are the poet’s poets; they are often masters of word and form, and are useful models of younger writers.”

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Having said all this, I find it baffling that these same judges could have withheld the prize money that year. Were these professors really competent enough to have acted as judges for the prize? Did they fail to appreciate the high quality of works shortlisted? These were the questions raised in 2009 and, sadly, these same questions can be asked about the 2017 jury.

English literary critic Diana Birch noted that in judging the Man Booker Prize in 2012, judges read a total of 145 books in seven months. Birch stressed that each of the judges read the entire list in the same order. While poetry collections are not as bulky as novels, I would argue that poems are more tasking and more sensitive to handle. How, then, did the judges consume 184 poetry collections between 7 April, when submissions for the 2017 NLNG Prize closed, and 22 July, when the longlist was announced? If they had waited for the normal procedures of collation and handover by the board, it would mean that our judges had only about a month and few days to come up with the longlist.

Was this enough time to perform the reading efficiently, or could it be that the judges only read the names they were familiar with? Only the panel, led by Prof Ernest Emenyonu, or the board, led by Prof Emeritus Ayo Banjo, can disclose this information.

Regarding the merit of works on this year’s longlist, I am eager to know what the judging process of the prize entails. Maybe an error was to blame for the eyesore that the longlist turned out to be, because having read a couple of the works, I can attest that there are certain books on that list that were not deserving of this prestigious award. I am also shocked that a number of quality collections were left out.

Amongst the longlisted works, one newcomer stands out. It is not the fact that the author’s name would not ring a bell in some quarters that strikes me; it is the title of his collection. Garri for Breakfast by Seun Lari-Williams reveals a huge flaw in the judging process. Beyond the forced rhymes and sloppy expression of the poet’s ideas, I believe that this collection failed in its attempt to create a new mode, as some would argue.

I do not see how a collection like this can be compared with Hate Artist by Niran Okewole, or Amu Nnadi’s A Field of Echoes, or even Dami Ajayi’s Clinical Blues or Nine East by Uche Nduka. Perhaps, as some have inferred, it is an issue of morality and the poet, or the ‘un-seriousness’ of their themes – something the NLNG has accused poets of in the past.

The cover or Clinical Blues, a collection of poetry by Dami Ajayi. Image: Konga.com

Shortlist fever

Regarding the shortlist, I cannot hide my displeasure at the fact that Peter Akinlabi’s Iconography, just about the best collection that was actually entered for the prize this year, was denied a place in the top three, solely because one of the judges was directly involved in the publishing of the book. Why sit on the bench when you know a collection you published was entered for the award? Is it not a global rule that those affiliated with the publications nominated are exempted from judging such contests?

Millions have earnestly waited to know who the 2017 Nigeria laureate will be. But let me categorically state that none of the work by the finalists had a really mind-blowing effect on me. No book entered for the NLNG 2017 was worthy of the prize money. If we must compare, the Steven Wallace lifetime awards was recently given to Jorie Graham, for ‘proven mastery’ in poetry over a lifetime. I dare anyone to compare the works on the NLNG shortlist to her latest collection. Let themes, politics and cultural settings be an argument for another day.

In the light of these truths, I am one of those who proposed a split award between the finalists, so that each poet could return home with a share of the bounty.

If the NLNG prize is to remain a serious literary laurel, it must begin with a restructuring of the jury by including knowledgeable young Nigerians. But I fear, like many before me, that the NLNG will brush these criticisms aside. Even so, it is important that we should not sit back and watch Nigerian poetry conform to this nation’s parameters of generic mediocrity.

Congratulations once again to Ikeogu Oke on clinching the 2017 Prize.