The NLNG Endgame: When The Gift Is A Curse — Remi Raji

Let me preface this additional comment about the latest Nigerian ailment with the first stanza of “Counsels” by Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature:

If I were in the place of young poets (quite a place, whatever the generation might think) I would prefer [not] to say that the earth is a madman’s dream, a stupid tale full of sound and fury.

In another age, this should be a time to celebrate the coming to maturity of Nigerian literature but the verdict is too venomous to inhale. To return to the unfinished matter, the calculus of corruption has run full circle, and Nigerian literature is the worse for it.

Against other wisdom, I opt to return in order to put some matters in proper light, in order to poke the heart of the matter. I opt to return because, as a member of “third generation” Nigerian writing, I feel a need to exorcise the siege.

Indeed, the euphoria of a shortlist beclouded any dispassionate engagement with my measured reaction to the disqualification clause that saw the ouster (some now say, fortunately) of Gather my blood…. The euphoria caused at least two sudden conditions: 

some who were not directly involved had vocal lethargy syndrome, for they could only grumble against the action in silence; of course, the hope of a future entry beclouded good reasoning and appropriate intervention by a few who read the deftness of the doublespeak; and sadly too, the culpability was mutually assured in others who were too involved to see anything wrong. This group suffered from amnesic moral myopia; those who spoke too soon now eat their words, and the winner actually is the inactive stock of the NLNG, the house of gas which desperately seeks relevance out of the misfortune of the ordinary man.

The sad fact that we must realise is that any multinational, private or federal corporation may opt to disburse its social responsibility fund in any direction that it chooses, especially in a society where there is very little respect for accountability, in a society where moral turpitude is pride. It is not, at present, an actionable matter to challenge the management of the NLNG on some of its CSR value; but it is time to begin to query the ethical correctness of the sobriquet “Nigerian Literature Prize” tainted as it were by extra-literary consideration and boardroom politicking. 

A truly “Nigerian Literature Prize” should be preserved and powered in the cultural and literary industry; an abdication of that duty by such organisations as the ANA, NAL and other related institutions has made this prostitution and disrespect for the Nigerian author too feral and doubly insulting. Other African countries, the best example being South Africa, have lessons to teach the Nigerian nation in how to make things work without recourse to blatant acts of robbery and foolery.
For the avoidance of deafness or misquotation, what I noted after the announcement of the shortlist was that the action of the panel was in bad faith, and it lacked integrity. I repeat it here because I want to differentiate between the descriptive qualification of an action or conduct, and the direct accusation of person or character. Once quoted out of context, I needed to re-state that the management of the NLNG has a political judge in its house who encouraged the disqualification of my work, and who chaperoned the plangent deflation of other writers’ dreams. Thus, on both counts, the actions of the management and that treacherous finger of the arm of its panel lack integrity. 

I do not need the gift of a prophet to know; it is about being natively prescient: you cannot sustain a lie forever.

Now, it is on record that nine helpless writers were led in tethers to the house of slaughter. How many of them knew the game was up? How many of us expected to be served the wine of a truly damning verdict, a sad commentary on the sludge in the conclave of contemporary Nigerian literary tradition? How many would wager the scenario that the political judge in the house of gas would be foolhardy to play with fire, he who has for long been known to be philistinic and discourteous to a section of the emergent generation of Nigerian poets, the one whose only claim to letters rests in the publication of, alas, a collection of previously published poems by other writers, the one who is neither critic nor writer of grace. This creature we speak of is forever silent but vindictive; as a literary consultant to NLNG, he led other more respectable colleagues to take the wrong step, one left foot after the other left foot. In another moment, 

I will be forced to share the tale of this national disgrace with nine other poets drawn from Namibia and Argentina to Canada and Romania, in a worldwide poetry festival in Berlin, with the German President in attendance.

How many of the surprised NLNG 9 saw the hangman’s noose closing in? Is this not déjà vu? How many of them went to dinner with the fork rightly held? And how many offered their works for symbolic disqualification on account of having the PPP virus - previously published poems - in their collections?

So as the legendary poet would say, we are all the casualties. Those who spoke in favour; those who abused; those who were silent; those who cried more than the bereaved; those who missed the point of the outrage; and those who laughed at other people’s shame. We, all. But the real shame goes to spineless writers, some actually hack writers, still cutting their teeth on the nib of the pen. This group was the one that put a semblance of seriousness to the lie of the nlng. Truly, the whiff of money is robed in the deafness of many dogs, especially those who set their eyes not on the significance of the prize but on the material potential of the prize-money.

The logic is in the calculus. Worked out conservatively, NLNG’s $50,000 is the exponential value of one thousand barrels of refined oil, which is only a dismal 0.05 percent of the total number of accounted daily production of petroleum products in the country. A period in the middle of two noughts: that is all this gaseous company prides itself in breathing into the life of the Nigerian literary tradition; in the process, it makes it a point to generate needless hot-air controversy; and each time, the breath has been toxic. Truly too, the NLNG is the winner every year if we go by the avant-garde theory in public relations and marketing that even bad publicity is good advertisement in the long run. Except that in the case of the NLNG, the deliberate slur on the body of Nigerian writing has caught up with a section of Nigeria’s academe, and no perfume of late remorse can cure the smell.

Clearly, I knew about the endgame by the evening of August 16, 2009. The pattern on the chessboard was too clear, too predictable that I pity those who even staged a walkout at stalemate time. People have roundly accused the Nigerian Academy of Letters for complicity but I said, no, we must differentiate between someone’s errors from the character of a statutory institution. NAL, the body some of us aspire to, will not go down because of this, but the white-maned dark horse in the panel, who played a similar role in the killing of KSW will not survive this shame. In fact, the panel’s report will be a good material for my students in the Literary Analysis class at Ibadan. We would be interested in determining the disjointed syllogism of the text and the many stylistic sleights that cover the dirty page.

But unlike other justified outrage, I would not ask the Nigerian writer to boycott the NLNG charade because that would be counter-productive. In the next plague, make it a point to rush some forty tattered verses to the printer; secure some acolytes to rub and bloat your ego, if you can pay the fee; or go, bribe your god and promise the priest a pittance in the event you win the horn of valour; bring all to the buffet except your craft and pretend you just fabricated a thousand poems in the millisecond of two years. The pallbearers are waiting, because it will be another vain death.

The horseman of shit will be there next time, but I will be shocked if the more respectable arm of that panel remains to legitimise the joke again.

Consider that I have no other job, like the character in Amos Tutuola’s classic, than to drink the gourd of words, roll the sparkles in the crevices and roof of the mouth, sing it, chew it, turn the word into a plane of tales, and in the track, tell the truth or catch the liar in prone nakedness, I close with some lines: “It is you” (beware, a version of these lines may just be another “previously published poem” gathered in another book!):

It is you who told the toad how to spit on the lion’s grave. It is you who stole the wind from the parrot’s breath. It is you who craved the gust of ash on our valiant forge It is you. Where the wind is absent the charcoal burns slowly, to its own death. It is you who brought the weevil into the cotton yard. Oh, the weaver’s fingers pine in the absence of yarns It is you it is you… It is you the toad in the grave, the weevil in the barn. 

You burst into the market like Sonponno, god of pox Only the sacrifice remains in the square. It is you who brought locusts and silence to the ceremony. Now the pyramid of words is a trapezium, is a trap in the open museum. It is you The singer must seethe his tongue in the medusa moment It is you Snakes spikes and nails in the path of dance. It is you who brought this gift of a curse.

—Dr. Raji is Assistant Professor of English, University of Ibadan.
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