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The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and the Nigerian Love of Exclusion

The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, awarded biennially, is, to many, the most prestigious prize of the fiction genre in Africa. Touted as “Africa’s NOBEL prize,” it is supposed to earn the recipient the much treasured recognition among his/her peers globally. The activities constructed around the prize giving ceremony make it an envy of every writer and connoisseur of African culture. This is a prize that, given the name of the patron and targeted excellence, has the potential of becoming one of the ten culturally relevant literary prizes in the world.
Like the Nigerian (NLNG) literature prize, Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature is though not without a genetically debilitating snag. While the Nigerian national prize in literature is open to only Nigerians resident in the country, a condition that has attracted considerable controversy, the Wole Soyinka prize excludes books “that have won any other awards.” This is a major pitfall that will deny the prize the grandeur and global relevance that it deserves.
To understand the contradictory logic inherent in the prize, it is helpful to ponder that it is established to reward excellence, but systematically excludes any book whose excellence has already been recognized by other agencies. What the exclusionary clause suggests, put in a very simple language, runs thus: This is a prize for excellence; if your book is excellent, please do not apply.
It is important to note that I am not particularly against the books that have won the prize (indeed the two books rewarded so far have their individual merits). I am worried by the spirit of exclusion that has accompanied it. It is just difficult to believe that the prize that is awarded to books that haven’t won any prize at all, is, or will ever be, a trailblazer. Nor can it be an ultimate confirmer of the literary value inherent in a work in the manner of Nobel Prize, which it ironically emulates. It will forever be known as the prize for “the best of the rest.”
This being said, it is mind-boggling that a continent that has still a lot of spaces to make up for in excellence, smuggles through the backdoor silly exclusionary clauses that end up making parts of its constituencies feel unwanted.
At the inception of the Nigerian Prize in Literature, (NLNG Prize), in 2004, many Nigerians abroad protested their being excluded from the prize. Some even termed it outright disenfranchisement. To be sure, one of the entry requirements states that Nigerian authors must be “resident in the country.” It goes on to define residency as “minimum of three of the four years covered by the competition” (Website). Given the name of the prize, Nigerian Prize in Literature, it is no surprise that Nigerian writers living abroad, be it in Ghana or Germany, in Canada or Cameroon, feel excluded and reduced to aliens in their homeland. The truth though is that there is an unwarranted anxiety that those who reside outside the country would dominate the prize because they are said to have better opportunity to write and publish. The thought that merely being outside of Nigeria regardless of where one is or what one does already puts one at an advantage is not only empty, it is also unfair.
But the calculated tactic of exclusion in the two major literary awards held in Nigeria is only symptomatic of the moral workings of the culture we inherited from our ancestors whose world was largely characterized by sharp binary oppositions. The world of our ancestors was one guided by a form of “Us” and “Them,” a world where the meaning or the sanctity of “Us” is guaranteed by the mere fact that the other group, the “Them” is excluded. That world, however much we embrace it as part of our heritage, entertained no grey area, no in-betweens, no threshold. That, of course, means that reality is already molded, and cannot be negotiated. There cannot be discussions and compromises; you either accept what is given or you just walk away. Any society that operates in this way has very little chance for growth from within. This is because exclusions cement its realities into unshakable essences. Perhaps a few examples could help us understand my thinking here.
Growing up in my village a relatively weak boy, I was made to feel important when I was finally initiated into my village’s masquerade cult. From that point on I lived with the belief that I was superior to some people: women; I was superior to my mother and my sisters and all those girls who might have laughed at me as a weakling. I was superior to women because they have been excluded from something special, from the cult of men.
As a son of the soil of my village, (a few Kilometers from the city) I was also made to feel superior because I knew that a particular group of people we called foreigners (never mind that most of them had been living there before I was born) was excluded from certain claims to the reality of that part of the world. These people were not sons of the soil; they couldn’t lay claims to any aspect of our reality. In short, they were inferior. Their putative inferiority made me superior. It should surprise no one to know that this is an essential pillar of every racist, feudal and oppressive society. Their logic is that of exclusion. Just exclude and feel comfortable with the rest. Wasn’t this what actually brought about the falling apart of the Umuofia community?
Our twenty-first Nigerian society is also a direct progeny of military culture whose mentality is branded by exclusions. Nigeria experienced more than thirty years of brutal military regimes which notoriously ruled by fiat edicts calculated to suppress reason and dissenting voices and above all kill excellence. The army uniform confers on the wearer the feeling that he is more valuable than the rest who are excluded from the club.
With exclusionary clauses appended to most of our otherwise modern and universal activities, and in our thinking, we, unfortunately, demonstrate our affection for the traditional, oppositionary categories even when our times and cultural idioms have changed. In so doing we reveal our inability to expand our moral imaginations and to really make room for excellence and democratic spirit.
At this stage of our history, we need excellence from any part of the world as long as it bears even the remotest hint or link to Nigeria. Wole Soyinka stands among other things, for global world outlook. Any prize bearing his name must entertain no exclusionary clause or measure.

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3 Comments

  • This is a great essay. Please tell them. At least this could help stem the tide of mediocrity that our prizes encourage. I love this.
    Isaac Attah Ogezi

  • I agree completely that the prizes should be open to all. But another pet peeve of mine: what do you thunk about the rotational policy of the NLNG prize? I think it’s madness; human beings think in a certain way. Any book published in a genre that’s going to be awarded 4 years later will suffer the obscurity resulting from the deluge of books that will be published in that genre a few months (read days) to the deadline for submissions. Have you noticed that – apart from Yellow-Yellow – all prize winners have been published in the year of their respective awards? For an award that comes up every four years? Come on!
    And the big elephant in the room that everyone ignores is this: should the NLNG prize do away with genres all together and just reward the best piece released that year – just as the Pulitzer does, will drama, poetry be able to compete with prose?; should it stick with prose only – like the Orange, Booker; or should it reward a body of work, ala the Nobel or the MAN Booker?
    But I agree with you. In order to expose the organizers to the proper way to do things, in order to lift the prize from its current provincial reputation, from its celebration of mediocrity, there should be no exclusions of Nigerians on the basis of where they live. Hell, according to this rule someone living in Gabon, Gambia, or Benin cannot present himself for the work. Why? Because he has an undue advantage? It’s disgusting.

  • I did prefer an outright separation of the entire prizes, and let every genre have their prize. I did also prefer an annual competition if that can be organized.