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?

Further Reading