The Trouble with the Nigeria Prize for Literature

The richest literary prize in the world, the Nobel Prize, carries a US$1.1 million purse. The richest lit prize in Africa, the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, doesn’t quite match up, but it does guarantee the winner a whopping US$100,000. It’s been around since 2004, with the purse increasing from $20,000 to $40,000 in 2006 and finally to $100,000 in 2008. The latest prize, awarded at the start of November, went to Chika Unigwe for her novel “On Black Sisters Street.” Though there has been widespread praise for Unigwe across the Naijanet, talk of the politics of her win has been muted.

These politics have been addressed before, but critiques focus mostly on the kinds of novels — those that confirm Westerners’ pessimism and faithlessness about Africa’s future — that tend to win. Thus far, talk of who sponsors the prize and why that matters has been nonexistent.

In the case of the $100,000 attached to the Nigerian Literary Prize, the money comes from Nigeria LNG Ltd. NLNG is one of Nigeria’s petroleum sector giants, producing around 10% of all liquefied natural gas (LNG) consumed globally each year. The notoriously corrupt Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation owns a 49% controlling stake in the company; the remaining shares are held by Shell (25.6%), Total (15%), and Agip (10.4%). Reports on NLNG’s role in individual spills and human rights abuses are hard to come by — maybe because Shell works overtime to cover up its wake of destruction — but there exists plentiful hard evidence of NLNG’s shady business practices. Of course, any company with direct links to Halliburton should be watched with a careful eye.

Activists in Nigeria have long insisted that firms operating within Nigeria’s impossibly complex oil economy must be held accountable for the murkiness that characterizes the sector’s business deals. So too must they answer for the lack of jobs and poor living standards that have continued to define life for most Nigerians, all while their country’s oil wealth seemingly vanishes into thin air.

To what extent has NLNG used the illusion of corporate philanthropy to clear its name in the eyes of the public writ large? The always-reliable Arundhati Roy recently addressed similar questions in a piece for India’s Outlook Magazine.

Her article is mainly focused on the vagaries of Indian electoral and “civil society” politics, but halfway through she shifts her attention to India’s big businessmen and their foundations. She writes them into an account of business’ links to philanthropy as it emerged first in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. While these foundations were initially attacked as distractions or as whitewashing attempts — “if companies had so much money,” the argument went, “they should raise the wages of their workers” — over time the material gifts that corporate foundations provided, and the real good they did, muted the criticism. Roy reminds us of the real intentions behind corporate giving:

Like all good Imperialists, the Philanthropoids set themselves the task of creating and training an international cadre that believed that Capitalism, and by extension the hegemony of the United States, was in their own self-interest. And who would therefore help to administer the Global Corporate Government in the ways native elites had always served colonialism. So began the foundations’ foray into education and the arts, which would become their third sphere of influence, after foreign and domestic economic policy.

What’s behind NLNG’s decision to offer such a large annual award for literature, as well as its equally large prize for scientific research? Is it a coincidence that, as the company’s corrupt practices came under increased fire in 2008, it increased the value of the award by over 200%?

And what of those who accept the prizes? One can easily argue that artists and scientists, perpetually squeezed for cash, need the money (at least if we buy the stereotype of the starving artist). And because winners are not censored in any way, what’s the harm in accepting the prize money, especially if it helps them to create more affecting art or to make new scientific breakthroughs in the future? Roy addresses these questions toward the end of her article, excusing those poor young Indians that accept grants from foundations with questionable origins and intents. “Who else is offering them an opportunity to climb out of the cesspit of the Indian caste system?” she asks. It’s a fair question. But Unigwe isn’t stuck in the cesspit of a caste system. She’s not even crawling through the urban chaos of Lagos. She’s in Belgium, far from the tainted oil that paid for the prize.

It is reasonable to expect that NLNG uses its awards as marketing tools, to distract Nigerians from the issues it creates on the ground, in real life, every day.

Should that matter to prize winners? Should it matter to Unigwe?

4 thoughts on “The Trouble with the Nigeria Prize for Literature

  1. If Unigwe’s book was the best choice because of the sheer quality of it, who are we to question the choice of the jury? My point is: Unigwe living in Belgium should not matter if her book was the best book in that year.

  2. Chika is a serious writer but the prize itself is a sham. It is grossly disproportionate for the local economy, and it does not engage with any serious issues Nigerian writers and publishers face, and the books that have won in the past have been suspect. It should be $10k max.

  3. Why not make it a $1 prize, since we’re setting limits. Look, no one should invest in Nigeria, let’s just start again from ground zero, fence off the country and each geo-political zone, leaving the indigenes to sort it out themselves, we’ll achieve a better result. Let’s also awaken the ghosts of dead Nigerian billionaires past and ask them to set up endowments for the sciences and arts, that’s the only way we can get a pure focus on our advancement. I find it hard to take this piece as anything other than a bitter rant. Healthy scepticism has its place, i think this anarchist, “everyone is a devil in disguise” approach is unproductive. I admire the Nigeria Prize, warts and all, and posts like this have only one good outcome, at least we are all discussing Nigerian literature, maybe Chika’s book sales might be boosted by this controversy. Next time please throw in a few other names, perhaps those in the shortlist as well? By the way the Haliburton scandal didn’t taint NLNG or have anything to do with NLNG as a company, it was all government, at very senior levels, the usual story, and even if NLNG isn’t a corporate saint, so what? Even the MAN group has had its scandals. We don’t dismiss the MAN booker prize as a sham for that. And really, think about it, what you are saying is that Shell must be doing a better job at covering up for NLNG than it is doing for itself. Go figure.

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