Pomp, drama as Soji Cole wins 2018 Nigeria Prize for Literature

The new laureate, a theatre arts teacher, emerged at a colourful, well-attended awards night last Friday in Lagos

IT was a return to an excellent tradition Friday last week, when the Nigeria LNG Limited, sponsors of the prestigious The Nigeria Prize for Literature, The Nigeria Prize for Science and The Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism, held a colourful award presentation ceremony for the winners of the three prizes at Eko Hotels, Victoria Island, Lagos.

It was a pleasant return to the old way of celebrating the winners with pomp and circumstance as against the formal presentation format the company introduced some years ago. Suspense, which had also been missing from the new model as the winner of Africa’s most significant literary prize, would have been announced at a press conference before the formal presentation was restored.

The winner of the Prize for Literature, Soji Cole, a lecturer in the Theatre Arts Department, University of Ibadan only emerged that night.  Though he was the only one in contention for the Prize for Literary Criticism, Professor Isidore Diala was only just confirmed as the winner on the night too, while the winner of the prize for Science, Dr Peter Ngene had been announced previously.


The fierce urgency of now

In a keynote address after a documentary on the company and its milestones, including the planned plant expansion project, had been screened, Mr Tony Attah, Managing Director of NLNG, expatiated on what he termed “the fierce urgency of now” and how it relates to literature, science, NLNG as a company and Nigeria.

Referencing Martin Luther King Jnr, who said, “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action,” Attah held that there indeed comes a time in “history when a lack of fierce urgency can be extremely costly and no matter the field of human endeavour, when the time to actualise, leverage or deliver great results is ripe, alternatives to vigorous, positive actions must never be accepted.”

He said that the fierce urgency of now is one of the reasons NLNG is driven to continue rewarding excellence in literature and science. It is also why the company believes it’s time for gas, a clean and cheap source of energy that catalyses development through power generation, industrialisation, manufacturing, and agriculture.

On why the NLNG remains committed to honouring writers and scientists when its primary business is gas, the MD said: “It is because of our understanding of how indispensable literature and science are to societal development and how the time to promote them in a global economy that is fast leaning on innovation and creativity, is NOW. More so, a quick check of human history and the evolution of societies shows that the development of science and literature is synonymous with societal growth and success. The more science and literature are advanced; the more society grows in innovation, creativity and enlightenment which are essential pillars of civilisation and human development. Indeed, gas is our business but so also is Nigeria’s success. No business can exist in isolation and be sustainable. No organisation can deem itself successful if it operates in a failed society.”

He expressed happiness that the Science Prize had metamorphosed into a real solution finder for the societal problems plaguing Nigeria while the Prize for Literature has produced winners that have become national icons.

Attah noted further that there had been a literary renaissance of sorts since the Nigeria Prize for Literature was initiated with the emergence of new literary stars, new literary awards, more book festivals and thousands of book clubs established in schools, homes and offices across Nigeria.

In spite of this, however, he said it was not time to relent. “We believe that more can still be done and should be done with a sense of ‘fierce urgency’ and Now. There are more opportunities in the book value chain which are still untapped,” he stated.

The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, who sent a representative, urged Nigerian scientists and writers not to despair as more of their efforts would be recognised.


Climate change, erosion, drought and desertification

A former Minister of Power and member of the Advisory Board for Science, Professor Barth Nnaji, talked through the process of the science prize winner’s emergence and also read the judging panel’s statement on the 84 entries received. He announced the theme of the 2019 contest as Climate Change, Erosion, Drought and Desertification.

Speaking, winner of the Science Prize with his entry, ‘Nanostructured Metal Hydrides for the Storage of Electric Power from Renewable Energy Sources and Explosion Prevention in High Voltage Power Transformers’, Dr Peter Ngene, expressed surprise at how much the gas company was investing in corporate social responsibility initiatives. The assistant professor in the Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis group of the Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, to thanked God, the NLNG, three Dutch professors that mentored him and his late dad for teaching him honesty, hard work and integrity.


Diala repeats 2014 feat

Drama skits from the three shortlisted plays; Denja Abdullahi’s Death and the King’s Grey Hair, Akanji Nosiru’s The Rally and Soji Cole’s Embers as well as a documentary on the three writers and Professor Isidore Diala preceded the address by Chair of the Advisory Board for Literature, Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo.

The Emeritus Professor and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan explained that though Diala was the only contender for The Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism, one of his two entries was considered excellent enough by the judges to take the prize. With this, Diala repeated his feat of 2014 when he won the same award with his essay, ‘Colonial Mimicry and Postcolonial Remembering in Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me By My Rightful Name.

Giving his acceptance speech, the professor of African Literature in the Department of English, Imo State University, Owerri said he was honoured to be the recipient of the prize for the second time. He also thanked the NLNG for instituting the award and realising that literary appreciation and criticism are complementary to writing. Diala also showed his humorous side by poking fun at himself while commenting on the sizes of the Prize for Literary Criticism, Literature and Science respectively. He said the prize for literary Criticism worth N1 million was modest compared to the other two with $100,000 cash prizes, hence “it keeps the critic on his toes while the winners of the science and literature prizes can go to sleep. Winning once whet my appetite, so I wanted to win the second time. I can hardly wait to take the prize home to my family. They have sent up to 20 text messages asking if I’m bringing the prize home.” Professor Diala appreciated his teachers, Professors Ben Obumselu and Dan Izevbaye and thanked the Advisory Board for Literature “for awarding me the prize even though I competed against myself.”

ALSO READ: 184 poets vie for 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature

For the ‘unseeing’ prophet

Though he is well advanced in age, Professor Banjo showed he is still a master of suspense with the dramatic manner he eventually announced Soji Cole as the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature. After highlighting the merits of each shortlisted work, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan kept guests waiting before announcing the winner selected by the judges and international consultant from the total 89 entries received. The judges were Professors Mathew Umukoro and Inuwa Buratai, and Dr Ngozi Udengwu. Professor Jonathan Haynes was the international consultant.

Cole, who teaches playwriting and theatre sociology at the University of Ibadan and who had made the long list of 11 for the prize in 2014 with his play, Maybe Tomorrow stood and held his head in disbelief as he was announced the winner.  As he made his way to the stage, dazed, some of the guests started asking him not to faint because he had jokingly said in the documentary that he would faint and would be revived with about five million naira if he won.

Cole expressed regret that he didn’t bring his family along while coming to the award presentation because he didn’t know if he would win. The new laureate thanked his young publisher who accompanied him and had identified the manuscript as a prize winner when he finished it. He then dedicated the award to his students, family and an unnamed prophet who told his parents education won’t be his pathway to success when he was 12 years old.

“When I was 12 years old, I was a street boy; I had criminal intents.  A prophet came to our house and told my parents education is not my pathway to success. I spent two years as an apprentice before I used that prophecy as a motivation. In 2016 when I completed my PhD thesis, I dedicated it to him, and I’m also dedicating this to him wherever he is,” he said before the enjoyable came to an end with more music and hearty congratulations.

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