There were no conceited films stars on parade, no pesky paparazzi trailing them and no yelling, wide-eyed fan angling for autographs. But Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas brought a dignified glow to a grand and well attended ceremony last weekend when intellectual superstars emerged in the Nigeria Prize for Science and Literature. MICHAEL JIMOH reports…
One after another, with the spotlight on them, they stepped up the podium to claim their prizes against a backdrop of the company’s crest and a giant screen showing the event unfolding to guests seated before them. First, it was Isidore Dialla, for the best essay on Literary Criticism, making him a second-time winner back-to-back. Next, it was Peter Ngene for the Science Prize and then Soji Cole for the Literature equivalent.
One after another, they received their plaques along with large, symbolic cheques to the exact amount – $100, 000 apiece for Cole and Ngene and a million naira for Dialla. Separately, they thanked the sponsors for the award, their superiors and colleagues for professional encouragement, family and friends who stood by them all through those punishing periods of mandatory researches in the lab or in contemplative seclusion mulling over a thought, an idea or action. Together, they posed with their prizes, Cole in the middle, Ngene to his right and Dialla on the left. Meet the 2018 laureates of the Nigeria Prize for Science and Literature endowed and sponsored by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas.
Thus did the gas company present the reigning intellectual superstars of science and literature in Nigeria to a sizable number of distinguished guests in the high-ceilinged, ample-spaced Convention Centre of Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island last Friday, October 19.
The venue itself was just perfect for such a high octane ceremony, the vaulted ceiling lending a cathedral ambience to the event as if something momentous was about to happen. Indeed, there was. As the gas company has demonstrated over time, it was a night of the Oscars to deserving scientists and creative writers, a time of the year when LNG congregates diverse businessmen and women, scholars and students, the media, the literati and educators, public servants and the diplomatic community in one of the most historic days in the company’s calendar “to celebrate excellence.”
Under the professional guidance of Richmond Osuji who has become something of an in-house master of ceremony for the company, the event began a little before 7 after a female artiste gave a solo and soulful rendition of the National anthem followed by LNG’s anthem. The bespectacled performer and her band would later delight the audience with a number of compositions as the evening wore on, thus evoking the musical interludes of a Hollywood diva at an Oscar night.
Leading LNG was the MD himself, Mr. Tony Attah, who, speaking for the company, pointedly noted that the annual prize-giving ceremony has become “a key event that brings professionals from all walks of life to celebrate excellence, to bring Nigerian scientists and authors to public attention.”
He couldn’t have been more correct. Near him were other company execs such as Sadeeq Mai-Bornu, his deputy, and many more from the media relations section of LNG, those directly responsible for the planning and logistics of the event that weekend.
There were more than a dozen professors in as many disciplines, starting with Ayo Banjo, chairman of the Advisory Board of both prizes, his colleagues, Ben Elugbe and Jerry Agada. Seated not far from them were the head of the panel of judges, Professors Esusu and Matthew Umukoro for science and literature, respectively.
The governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode, sent a representative in the person of Kehinde Bamigbetan, Commissioner for Information and Strategy. Engineer Adebayo Shittu, Minister of Science and Technology, sat all through the event but his counterpart in education sent a representative instead. A glancing distance away was former head of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Professor Barth Nnaji.
Joop Bekhout, boss of publishing company Safari Books shared a table with a younger man who looked like a literary agent. The diplomatic corp was ably represented, as well as the media, not counting guests from within and outside Nigeria. The external judge of the Prize for Literature, Jonathan Haynes, professor of English at Long Island University, Bronx, New York, flew in from the U.S. Lending his royal weight to the event was the Obi of Onitsha himself, HRM Nnaemeka Achebe.
Lacking the ostentatious flair and display of a typical Oscar night, the Nigeria Prize for Science and Literature is purpose-driven, it has depth, concreteness and profundity beyond the make-believe world the Oscars celebrate every year. It has a tantalizing cash prize and clout unrivalled in Africa. More than anything else, it has shown once again LNG’s commitment to supporting creative minds in the fields of science and literature.
For one, not many corporate institutions can confidently shell out $200, 000 every year to the best and brightest minds the country can boast of in those disciplines. But LNG has carried out that corporate coup for nearly fifteen years now, making stars of a growing number of innovative scientists and creative writers whose ideas may have perished with them and so remain in relative obscurity.
Determined to burnish them and celebrate their inventions accordingly, LNG has since given a nod to their creative energy and spirit for, as the MD remarked at the event, “it is because of our understanding of how indispensable literature and science are to societal development and how the time to promote them in a global economy that is fast leaning on innovation and creativity is NOW.”
The prizes, Attah said, were instituted because of their relevance to human development, insisting that “a quick check of human history and evolution of societies shows that the development of science and literature is synonymous with societal growth and success. The more science and literature are advanced, the more society grows in innovation, creativity and enlightenment which are essential pillars of civilization and human development.”
It is all very fitting that LNG decided, unlike before, to bring together the last dramatists and scientists standing in this year’s competition. Last year, for instance, and the year before, winners were congratulated by journalists present on the day the results were announced. This time, the nominees were all at the capacious hall of the towering, white-painted hotel by the Atlantic, thus making the edgy excitement and expectancy from them and their supporters all the more palpable and so notching up the dramatic tension.
And by the time Prof. Banjo strolled up the stage to announce the results, only his rich baritone voice cut through the studio-quiet silence in the hall, unhurried and dignified, all eyes focused on him in his traditional formal jacket and tie. Citing the judges’ overall assessment of Denja Abdullahi’s Death and the King’s Grey Hairs, Soji Cole’s Embers and Akanji Nasiru’s The Rally, the professor emeritus and two-time vice chancellor of the University of Lagos and Ibadan praised the “high literary quality of effective dialogue, good dramaturgical structure, skillful handling of suspense and credible characterization.”
Banjo himself demonstrated his mastery of suspense by literally making the audience hang on to his every word before announcing Cole as the winner. The spontaneous applause showed that the prize was well earned. In the spirit of gamesmanship, Abdullahi was the very first to congratulate his rival with a handshake and a hug, bringing to a climatic end that night another exciting chapter on big business’s romance with literature.
It was not always so for writers in the country until big business stepped in. Long before the Nigeria Prize for Literature, Attah said, “Nigerian writers had collectively bemoaned the fate of the literary industry. They were unhappy with the declining levels of education and literacy, unhappy with the loss of reading culture…sad that writing and publishing in a nation that gave the African continent its first crop of literary giants had all but become a lost art.”
Regaining that “lost art” is the primary objective of the prize. To date, dozens of Nigerian-born writers and scientists have won in a competition Attah described as “the gold standard” in literature and science on the African continent. There was Ikeogu Oke for the Literature Prize in Poetry in 2017. Past winners also include Tade Ipadeola in the same category in 2013. Kaine Agary and Chika Unigwe are past laureates in prose while Sam Ukala and Ahmed Yerima have won in the drama categories.
Since inception, the Literature Prize, Attah added, “has contributed to triggering the renaissance in the literary world today and we feel very proud of this achievement.”
The same can be said of the science equivalent, not necessarily because of the tempting cash prize but because of the functionality of the inventions of the scientists, innovations that are integral to the development of the country. “The science prize has metamorphosed into a real solution finder for the societal problems plaguing our nation.”
Attah also proudly declared before guests that “gas is our business but so is the success of Nigeria.” Given adequate support and funding, Ngene’s experiment on “Innovations on Electric Power Solutions” could very well mean a tremendous improvement in the irritating power outages in Nigeria. But development stakeholders will have to, as the MD put it, “take advantage of the groundbreaking work of science laureate’s prizes. They can be advanced by relevant development stakeholders who can apply them to activate development of our societies…to explore the possibility of commercial production of the research finds and also create avenues that promote optimum utility thereby realizing the main reason for setting up the prize.”
Around this time or before every October, Arts correspondents know too well not to sweat much blood (apologies the late Red Smith) in filling their pages that, sometimes, are unfairly spiked for late adverts in most media houses. Apart from Felabration which has become a constant in the cultural calendar, there is that other bigger news sure to land on their laps: naming a new laureate for the Nigeria Prize for Science and Literature.
In a couple of weeks, the winners will be stale news to correspondents. But what will forever remain in their minds and guests at the event is the nod by Attah to an immortal Martin Luther King Jr quote on the urgency of the matter at hand.
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”