By Henry Akubuiro

Akubuiro celebrates Romeo Oriogun, the march of NLNG Prize for Literature and impact of the Prize on good writing in Nigeria.

From my recent interactions with some writers, the watchdogs on the beat and the literary Brahims, there seems to be a perception that the shortlist this year deliberately favoured the up-and-coming poets in order to redress perceived generational imbalance regarding the diadem.

Let me begin by congratulating the young bard, Romeo Oriogun, on his great feat last night, winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature with his poetry collection, Nomad. The runners-up, Sadiq Dzukogi and Sue’de Vershima, equally deserve commendations. The same goes for the other eight on the longlist.

At $100,000, the prize offers both validation and financial reward for the Nigerian writer, which explains why the longlist, shortlist and winning entry are always scrutinised by the literary community. To an extent, to be an NLNG laureate is an inch closer to literary canonisation or a sight across the courtyard of the pantheon of African greats. In 2005, I sat behind the eventual joint winners, Gabriel Okara and Ezenwa Ohaeto, as a cub reporter, watching with curiosity as their faces wore a crease of mirth as soon as they won, igniting the stratosphere at a drop of a hat.

But it isn’t all the time that winning the prize makes the winner feel hunky dory for the rest of his writing career beyond the momentary glee, as we have seen in some cases. It takes continuity to climb the rungs and lend oneself to veneration.
Expectedly, each year, some members of the Nigerian literary community play the Herodias, asking for the head of John the Baptist —the judges or the advisory board —for erring in their decision, rightly or wrongly. It is a given. “Why?” and “How?” are verbal tics associated with the inquisitive literary tribe. It adds glamour to the prize beside the regular hurrahs that trail the award nights.

From my recent interactions with some writers, the watchdogs on the beat and the literary Brahims, there seems to be a perception that the shortlist this year deliberately favoured the up-and-coming poets in order to redress perceived generational imbalance regarding the diadem. This, however, doesn’t take anything away from the trio from a neutral perspective. Some have even argued, if enthroning younger poets was the major aim or an afterthought of the judges and advisory board this year, why didn’t they announce it as part of the criteria from the beginning?

I don’t claim to have read all the works on the longlist to buy into this thread of argument or ascertain the veracity of the aforesaid complaints, though I have read some astounding works on the longlist that didn’t make the final shortlist. Be that as it may, not every writer is going to be a winner. In the next 10 years, NLNG may likely announce 10 new winners. Are the 10 fresh winners the best writers in Nigeria? The answer is both yes and no. No in the sense that there are probably over a thousand brilliant writers out there who may not win the prize, because the judges have to select just one at a time, given the criteria given to them, especially the social relevance of the work.
Yes, a good writer can lose the big prize here but can still win another big prize elsewhere where the criteria is different or where there is a different set of judges.

Even if you don’t win any big prize as a good writer, just concentrate on your craft and see how best you can get wider readership among the public, students and critics. Their verdicts on your works over time are worth more than gold.

Nevertheless, let’s congratulate the winner and, especially, the Nigeria LNG on sustaining this prize till this day. No doubt, it has improved the quality of writing over the years and made a number of writers millionaires. Everybody isn’t going to win at the same time, as I said. If you don’t win today, you may win tomorrow. If you don’t win tomorrow, there are more possibilities out there to explore as a writer. Remember, Chimamanda Adichie didn’t win this particular prize, yet she is up there. So, dear Nigerian writer, rise up. Envy nobody. Go and conquer the world with your pen!