Clinching The African Big Prize

Clinching The African Big Prize

Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:20 am

The fifth edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa holds amid fanfare in Lagos.

Nkrumah Bankong-Obi

For many people who thronged the venue, the purpose was not really to watch the prize insignia handed over to the winner. For such attendees, it was essentially about catching a glimpse of their role model speak and, of course, to share this unique  moment of his birth month with “The Conscience of the Nation”, as Africa’s premier Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka is affectionately called by his admirers.

Before the compere heralded his entry into the hall, guests who came from diverse backgrounds throbbed with anticipation. The shortlisted contestants waited with their delegations as suspense hung palpably at the event hall at the Civic Centre, Lagos.

The programme schedule got underway, following the arrival of the man after whom the prize is named. First it was Mrs. Francesca Emanuel, Chairman of Lumina Foundation, the sole administrator of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, who mounted the podium to set the tone for the event. In her address, Mrs. Emanuel told the gathering that this year’s award ceremony coincides with the 80th birthday of Professor Soyinka. She explained that the occasion afforded the foundation a means “to communicate, inspire and educate”, besides honouring some of the continent’s most creative writers. Besides, the foundation supports knowledge-based industry as it has done in slums like Ijora, Bariga, Ajegunle, Okokomaiko, among others through the provision of basic tools of learning and self-development for school children and the reading clubs and libraries it has established.

The prize, Mrs. Emanuel noted, is living up to the billing of its name because it has grown in prominence. She said the judges, chosen from among the best literary brains across the continent, as well as expansion in the number of entries received year after year, are indicative of the fact that “it has become our culture not only to celebrate literature but to also showcase the expanse of our culture. We have a rich programme that we will share with you today”.

Shortly after setting the pace for the evening, Professor Soyinka was invited to the platform to hand over an award plaque to the winning school of the Wole Soyinka TV Reading contest. At intervals, the Steve Rhodes Band performed beautiful tunes to standing ovation from the audience. Promise Ogochukwu, founder of Lumina Foundation and the radical performer, Segun Adefila, rendered poetry performances.

Speaking on behalf of Dr. Mike Adenuga, Chairman, Globacom Communication, Shamshudeen Shonibare, Head Corporate Marketing of the telecom outfit, noted that Professor Soyinka is an inspiration to many people globally, by virtue of his achievements and contributions to the nation, the world and humanity generally. Adenuga said: “In essence, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa is not only a potent tool for promoting greatness among the coming generation, it is also a solid contribution to efforts to achieve an Africa of our dream. Professor Wole Soyinka is passionate about this ideal.”

Then came the moment when literature, politics and society coalesced. In a keynote address, Professor Akin Oyebode recalled how as a student he honed his skills on producing The Trials of Brother Jero and The Lion and the Jewel, two of Soyinka’s plays that parody activities of misfits in the society. The renowned professor of International Law in a seismic analysis of the constitutional quagmire that the country faces, blames operators of the military-inherited constitution for Nigeria’s sclerosis in the march towards social, political economic advancement.

“For a country that gained independence for upwards of 50 years, it is simply unbelievable that we continue to chalk-up advances in the negative direction. It is indeed no exaggeration that we have accumulated growth in many areas but exhibited under-development whether politically, socially or in other areas,” he observed. Oyebode blamed the military for incursion into national politics for the developmental  drawbacks as well as the political class and the ‘operators’ of 1999 Constitution for the lack of will power to formulated a real constitution which would evolve from the people themselves. According to him, “When I attempted at the [ongoing] National Conference to suggest that the Abdulsalam constitution had expired, I was furiously attacked by beneficiaries of that constitution.”

The well-regarded advocate expressed worry that even the national conference is clay-footed and may yield no meaningful dividend, because it was programmed to fail hence it lacks the final legal framework that can confer legitimacy on whatever document is produced there from. He called on President Goodluck Jonathan to push it through to a logical conclusion because this could be the country’s last chance to an acceptable constitution making.

Without constant reference to the three authors whose books made the shortlist, the setting could have had the colouration of a political gathering. But Professor Olu Obafemi, chairman of the prize’s panel of judges, apart from asking Akin Bello, Toyin Abiodun and Othuke Ominibohs, authors of the plays Egbon of Lagos, The Trials of Afonja and Odufa respectively, who were the stars of the night to rise for recognition, listed language use, universality, contemporary relevance, dramatic value and effect, among others as the criteria used to assess the over 160 entries before arriving at the shortlist and eventual winner. Upon concluding the literary ritual of reading the resume of the contestants and performing the symbol of the prize, the master himself, Wole Soyinka, was invited to the podium.

Of course, he gauged the mood of the nation with an exact precision and his verdict was terse – soldiers, who, by the fact of destroying buses belonging to the Lagbus, a public-private transport outfit in Lagos, because of their colleagues who was killed accidentally on a Bus Rapid Transport, BRT lane, behaved like accomplices of Boko Haram. He wondered why the soldiers took the laws into their hands because of a colleague who died in the process of breaking the law, noting that many innocent citizens get killed extra-judicially daily by arms-bearing security personnel. He thanked the organisers of the prize for the honoured bestowed on him by naming the award after him.

Former chairman of Lumina Foundation spoke of the achievements recorded by the foundation and the programmes outlined to ensure the survival of the annual literary event. Governor Rotimi Amaechi spoke glowingly of his admiration for Professor Soyinka and how he had been a great influence on him from when he encountered his books in school. The Rivers State governor thanked the orgainsers for deeming it fit to recognise the strides made by Professor Soyinka and naming a prize after him.

By the time Professor Obafemi returned to the podium, attention was back again to the three finalists. But then it didn’t take long before Akin Bello, a former chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors’s entry, Egbon of Lagos was named winner of the $20,000 prize.

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