AT THE START OF THE 2010s, a community of Nigerian poets had formed on Facebook, sharing links to poems, offering free critiques. Young and promising, they were in search of opportunities. In 2015, one of them, Samson Iruesiri Kukogho, registered Words, Rhymes & Rhythm, a publishing company operating from Ibadan, Lagos, and Abuja, meant to be a focal point for publicizing the work of new poets. The same year, the French former university lecturer Brigitte Poirson, who compiled poetry anthologies, founded an eponymous award. She knew Kukogho from their online activities, and so the Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest, designed to cater to the emerging but informal “college of poetry”—the name they called the Facebook group in which young poets received lessons—partnered with Words, Rhymes & Rhythm. Poirson’s Contest, which requires no entry fee, runs from February to October, each month’s edition themed, the top ten poems appearing in a print anthology at the end of each year. Every month, the winner receives ₦8,000 ($22), and at the end of every year, a literary festival, called Feast of Words, is held in the University of Ibadan, where attendees receive free copies of the anthology, and the winner receives the Albert Jungers Poetry Prize, named after one of the “college’s” early tutors.
The Contest is not “profit-seeking,” Poirson tells Brittle Paper in an email. “Not based on a spirit of competition but on one of emulation. The aim is to encourage and reward young artists, who generally badly need to come to terms with the challenges inherent in being a writer.” Poirson has an understanding with Kukogho, whom she describes as “a devoted publisher who understands the stakes of creating a friendly atmosphere for budding authors.” While she funds the monthly contests and the publication of the yearly anthology, he organises and pays for the festival—for venues, accommodation, feeding, transport for some attendees, and the overall prize—which, he says, costs “around a million every year.” The money for this comes from Words, Rhymes & Rhythm’s annual profit, all of which goes into funding the festival after the company’s staff is paid.
Meanwhile, two years before that, in 2013, in Lagos, Okechukwu Ofili had an idea that was poised to alter the book business in Nigeria. The terrain was difficult, books were expensive to release and distribute, and his answer was an online company, OkadaBooks, named after the Nigerianspeak for commercial motorcycles “because there was a traffic jam in the publishing industry. When there’s a traffic jam, okadas are the ones that can weave through the traffic.” By expanding publishing into a freer space, OkadaBooks democratised it, making it possible to sell and buy books at an affordable cost, along the way creating multiple opportunities for writers not only to make money but to be traditionally published in print. One of these opportunities is the Dusty Manuscript Contest, announced in 2018.
Inspired by the Kwani? Manuscript Project of 2013, the continental award that first brought to attention Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu and Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ofili secured as judges the author and publisher Eghosa Imasuen, the academic and Brittle Paper editor Ainehi Edoro, and the writers Toni Kan and Yejide Kilanko. He sent proposals and several brands got interested and Guaranty Trust Bank took it up, paying for everything—from publicity and judges to accommodation and venues to prize monies. More than one thousand submissions came in and Kukogho won; for his manuscript Devil’s Pawn, he received ₦1 million ($2,762); Onoche Emeka Onyekwena, for The Orchid Protocol, and Nneoma Anieto, for The Other Side of Truth, came second and third, respectively, and received ₦500,000 ($1,381) and ₦250,000 ($690); and all three were offered publishing contracts by Farafina Books. OkadaBooks followed up with another partnership, with another bank: Union Bank of Nigeria sponsored its Campus Writing Challenge, judged by the novelists Chika Unigwe and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and worth ₦800,000 ($2,209) to the top three entries.
Words, Rhymes & Rhythm’s arrangement with the Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest, small and limited in publicity but efficient for its purpose, and OkadaBooks’ ability to get banking institutions to the table, due in part to its commercial clout in an industry not known for that, offer different replicable models. But their successful partnerships have not been the dominant stories of literary prize sponsorships in Nigeria.
BACK IN 2012, KUKOGHO HAD entered for a new award called the Orange Crush Poetry Prize, organised by Youpele Alagere and worth $300. “[It] was probably the only known poetry-related prize for unknown writers at the time because not many people were interested in poetry as viable for awards,” he tells us in an email. He was announced winner and, on invitation, travelled from Abuja to Port-Harcourt, hoping to collect his money. “It didn’t happen,” he wrote in a Facebook post in May of this year. “Youpele promised to send the money the following week. It didn’t happen either. . . I didn’t say much because I felt the mere effort of organizing [it] was commendable.” Ken Efeh, who placed third for the prize, also confirmed in an email that “nothing has been said about the prize money since 2012.” The organizers “haven’t formally apologized, at least not to me,” he says. Both writers do not have the organiser’s email, and our message on Facebook to Alagere was not replied.
Did it affect Efeh’s and Kukogho’s decisions to enter for prizes in Nigeria? “I wouldn’t say it has,” Efeh says. “One bad experience can’t deter me from pursuing my goal in life. So, no, it hasn’t!” But for Kukogho, “It did. For years I refused to enter for any contests.” While he did eventually enter for the ANA Prose Prize in 2017, with the novel manuscript that went on to win the Dusty Manuscript Contest, in his disappointment at that moment, he chose an alternative: launching his own initiatives. It was a sharp curve; he had learned; it would not happen to him again; and yet, in 2014, after he announced the Green Author Prize, it did, right there in his own project.
The prize’s first edition had been publicized as a partnership, with a name that reflected that. Dollin Holt, director of Caprecon Development Foundation, was to provide part-sponsorship, to the tune of ₦100,000, with the agreement that Words, Rhymes & Rhythm would pay the rest. The publicity materials were circulated, citing Holt as a sponsor. “What the winners do not know is that I paid for it from my pocket,” Kukogho wrote in the aforementioned Facebook post. “Mr. Dollin Holt skipped on paying after sending just a fraction of the ₦100,000. That was why I renamed the prize after WRR published the book, transported the winners and hosted them in Ibadan.”
In an email to Brittle Paper, Holt confirms it with regret. “I remitted as much funds as I could but fell short of ₦40,000 as I encountered some domestic emergencies,” he says. “It made [me] feel bad that I could not live up to my promise, considering the reputation damage and disappointment caused to Mr Kukogho, a sincere and committed young man. It was truly due to unforeseen circumstances.” Asked if he took, or planned to take, public responsibility for what happened, Holt writes back that he is “most willing. I have nothing to hide. . . I made a pledge but could not live up to all of it,” and highlights his other sponsorships of literary initiatives, including essay competitions and a workshop.
Each sponsorship disappointment varied from the next, as does the reaction of said sponsors. In December 2014, the Tony Tokunbo Fernandez International Poetry Competition was announced, named after its organiser, an author and events consultant. Young poets flocked in, and three, Adedayo Agarau, Wale Owoade, and William Seun Alagba, were named winners of the gold, silver, and bronze awards, and were added to a WhatsApp group, which was, Adedayo tells us in an email, “a growing community of people in the diaspora, who are business partners of Mr. Tokunbo,” and then sent “e-copies of an award with our names edited on the image.” They heard nothing else.
When the non-rewarding of the winners first came to our attention, it was through misinformation that they were promised money, misinformation with which we reached out to the organiser Fernandez. “The online awards I have been organizing in the past have been completely a voluntary service,” Fernandez writes in an email, “no money whatsoever has ever been promised to any of the past winners. I am quite surprised by this mail.” Adedayo confirms, and we see in the announcement, that it was not money but “LOTS OF PRIZES, BOOKS, AND AWARDS” that was promised. When we write back to Fernandez asking if “an award j.peg file” was all the winners got, he replies that “any or every post I have put up online (in relation to the poetry online competitions I have initiated), either through my blog or either through the social media platforms that I manage, has no reference to Prize Money,” and that “just a brief insight into my profile & website as well as my present and past humanitarian initiatives will probably give you some indication into some of my selfless non-profit ventures over the years.” Like Efeh, Adedayo says that “it never has—it won’t” stop his entering for other prizes as long as credibility is guaranteed. However, “There is no making up actually” for the lost credibility.
The Facebook post in which Kukogho revealed the serial non-payment of winning authors by prizes was made in response to yet another incident that blew other instances into a disturbing context. Earlier that day, an 18-year-old secondary school student, Ernest Ogunyemi, who had won the ANA NECO/Teen Prize for Prose in 2018, took to Twitter to say that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) had not yet paid him the ₦100,000 ($276) prize money and had shut him out. The Association of Nigerian Authors is the country’s biggest organisation for writers. The sponsor of the prize, the National Examinations Council (NECO), is the country’s senior school certificate examination board.
THE STORY WAS SUPPOSED TO end, but instead changed, in October 2018. Having been named a finalist for the ANA NECO/Teen Prize for Prose, Ogunyemi, then an SSS3 student of Baptist Boys’ High School, Abeokuta, travelled to Lagos for the prize ceremony at Preston Hotel, Ikeja. He was announced winner, and there received a plaque and a bag containing a copy of the ANA’s annual publication, ANA Review, with assurance from the ANA president Denja Abdullahi that he would soon receive his prize money. Months passed, Ogunyemi tells Brittle Paper on the phone, and he continued to call and text Abdullahi. “We don’t have the money,” he recalls Abdullahi saying on one of their phone calls. Ogunyemi tells us that, when he asked why his query was being treated as unimportant, Abdullahi told him, “You are very rude. Never call me again.”
Eighteen and afraid, Ogunyemi spoke to his teachers, who called Abdullahi, who told them to “give us two weeks.” That time elapsed and he still did not hear from the ANA. Meanwhile, a call had been made for entries to the 2019 edition of the ANA prizes. It was at that point, in May 2019, seven months after being announced winner, that Ogunyemi went on Twitter. “If they have no money,” he tweeted, “where will they get the money to pay for this year’s?”
As social media raged, writers calling out the ANA’s poor handling of the situation, the Association’s president Abdullahi released a statement. The problem, it read, is one of sponsorship: the NECO’s continued failure to redeem its pledge. Because Ogunyemi did not yet have a bank account, it continued, Abdullahi had, after deciding to seek the money elsewhere, planned to send it to the Ogun State chapter of the ANA, which was closest to Ogunyemi and tasked with sending him the money, hence the delay. But it was the statement’s punishment-coded language that drew even more reaction:
I have been assuring Ernest and his teachers before his very rude call that he will eventually be paid even if NECO do not redeem their pledge. . . We are at this point before I was alerted on the campaign of calumny. . . I will request Ernest Ogunyemi to go tender an apology to the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) on twitter where he took the matter to or risk his prize sum being withheld until NECO pays up accordingly.
Backlash intensified—accusations of ageism, classism, intimidation, and a betrayal of the objectives for which the Association exists.
THE ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIAN AUTHORS was founded on 27 June 1981, at a meeting of writers at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The meeting became the first convention of the Association, and the convener of the meeting, the late Chinua Achebe, became the Association’s first president. In a 2013 interview with Brittle Paper, the Association’s then publicity secretary for the North, the novelist and publisher Richard Ali, describes it as “an organization to protect the interests of Nigerian authors and aggrandize their welfare and boost the prestige of our writing generally within and outside the country.” The ANA’s Objective III is “To promote the interest of authors in all that concerns their profession and well-being and to protect their rights as authors.”
All Nigerian authors, members and non-members, are eligible for the ANA Prizes, which recognize both books published in the preceding year and unpublished manuscripts. Requirements include a ₦3,000 ($8.29) entry fee and the mailing of six copies of the book or manuscript to the ANA Secratariat at Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village, Mpape, Abuja. Currently, the Association advertises six prizes: the ANA Prize for Poetry, the ANA Prize for Prose Fiction, the ANA Prize for Drama, the ANA Children’s Literature Prize, the ANA/Maria Ajima Prize for Literary Criticism, which is for academic papers, and the ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Fiction, for only published short story collections. The last is worth ₦200,000 ($556); the rest, ₦100,000 ($277).
In previous years, there had been more prizes, up to 17, some of them with post-win incentives, all of them named to reflect a sponsor’s interest. Some of their sponsors have been corporate bodies. The federal agency Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) once endowed four prizes: an ANA/NDDC Drama Prize in honour of J.P. Clark, an ANA/NDDC Poetry Prize in honour of Gabriel Okara, an ANA/NDDC Prose Prize in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and an ANA/NDDC Flora Nwapa Prize for Women’s Writing. The cable service Spectrum once endowed an ANA/Spectrum Prize. The food company Cadbury once endowed an ANA/Cadbury Prize. The multinational energy corporation Chevron endowed an ANA/Chevron Prose Prize for environmental issues. A few sponsors have been publishers: Jacaranda endowed an ANA/Jacaranda Prize for Prose Fiction, Lantern Books endowed an ANA/Lantern Books Prize for Children’s Fiction, Mazariyya Books endowed the ANA/Mazariyya Teen Author Prize for Poetry, and Funtime Publications endowed an ANA/Funtime Prize for Children’s Literature, for prose, with the winner receiving an advance to the tune of ₦250,000.
Some other sponsors have been individuals: former vice president Atiku Abubakar endowed an ANA/Atiku Abubakar Prize for Children’s Literature; the late playwrights Esiaba Irobi and James Ene Henshaw respectively endowed an ANA/Esiaba Irobi Prize for Playwriting and an ANA/James Ene Henshaw Prize for Playwriting; former ANA president Wale Okediran endows the ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Fiction; and former ANA prize winner Maria Ajima endows the ANA/Maria Ajima Prize for Literary Criticism. The ANA Literary Journalist Prize, in the years it was announced, had no sponsor.
The ANA has also been sponsored by states, or, to be more accurate, the personal generosity of state governors, like former Niger State governor Dr. Babangida Aliyu. Abdullahi tells us that former Ondo State governor Olusegun Mimiko hosted the 2010 and 2013 ANA Conventions, and that Benue State governor Samuel Ortom supported the 2017 Convention with ₦15 million ($41,436), money which traditionally went to the hosting ANA state chapter. There have also been individual sponsors, like the attorney Yusuf Ali, who regularly has since 2012. But for an organisation whose authors have to be encouraged to pay up membership dues, what the cast of sponsors and vanished prizes reveal is a solidly external dependence. In the absence of external sponsorship, some of the prizes are automatically affected.
In his response statement on the Teen Author Prize for Prose controversy, Abdullahi, who has been an ANA executive since 2001, details the Association’s struggle to get the NECO to redeem its pledge, a struggle predated by a once-fruitful relationship. In 2006, the NECO had approached the ANA with an offer of sponsorship for the prize. An agreement was reached and ran for four years, from 2006 to 2009. However, after the NECO’s endowment ended, the ANA “by default continued to award the prize in their name. . . without re-imbursement from them,” until 2012, during the tenure of then president Remi Raji. The statement reads that, in 2017, the NECO “wrote to ANA without our prompting that they want to revive the sponsorship. . . for the next three years (2018, 2019 and 2020).” The ANA was sceptical and, at its National Executive Council meeting, “hotly debated” accepting the offer. The NECO, on its part, “kept assuring us verbally that the issue was being treated administratively and that we should go ahead.” And the ANA executives went ahead, a decision “taken in the interest of encouraging young writers. . . more so since we have a written commitment from an organisation as large and credible as NECO.”
But after the call for submissions was made and a winner announced, the NECO, in the very first year of its revived sponsorship offer, became unreachable. In the three years since, letters had been sent and visits made, and “it was the same ‘E.S. is not on seat’ and other such bureaucratic language of deception.” Brittle Paper reached out to the NECO for a comment but got no response.
“FIRST OF ALL, IT IS important to state that the organizer of an event/award is responsible for the participants, not the sponsor,” Kukogho tells Brittle Paper. “No way [they] will expect a ‘winner’ to wait. [They] must prepare plans to pay outside sponsor pledges. In the event that all good intentions failed, the winner should be constantly assured of the process and made to understand the problem and probable resolution timeline, not disregarded and considered rude for crying out.”
“It smacks of childishness and a lack of managerial experience,” Efeh says of the Orange Crush Prize situation. “I would like to suggest that organizations, such as yours, that are saddled with the responsibility of addressing issues of this nature should compel the likes of Youpele Ayagere to pay the prize money, as it appears like day-light robbery.” For Poirson, “Funding must be a priority before initiating any contest.”
Two days after the social media backlash against the ANA, Ogunyemi received ₦100,000—not from the Association but from the social critic Ikhide R. Ikheloa and the legal professional Anthony Omokhodion. Ogunyemi is yet to hear from the ANA. In the ANA’s call for submissions to its 2019 prizes, the Teen Author Prize is omitted.
FORMER ANA GENERAL SECRETARY B.M. Dzukogi, who had initiated the NECO sponsorship, suggests that there are other, political reasons, and that the ANA president didn’t do enough to collect the money. “I contested against Denja,” he tells us in an email, “he didn’t like the idea. Therefore, I didn’t deserve that kind of credit.” Asked about this, Abdullahi calls it “a white lie.” Dzukogi did secure the sponsorship letter, he says, but it also had his, Dzukogi’s, name in it, and “instead of him to deliver the letter addressed to the ANA president to ANA secretariat, he put it on Facebook, claiming a kind of glory for it.” The offer was nevertheless pursued. “Now see where that has led us?” Abdullahi writes, and suggests that the letter was “a booby trap set for me by Dzukogi and his group,” who he says returned to the NECO and frustrated the funding. The opposing stands of Abdullahi and Dzukogi demonstrate, at the very least, the internal politics plaguing the Association. Yet this is far from its only internal problem.
“ANA’s members remember ANA only when it comes to either prizes or conventions,” the writer Umar Yogiza Jnr. tells us in an email. “We have media and social media ANA members only, but no one attends ANA events physically.” His solutions are direct: “If ANA members make ANA relevant, people and corporate bodies surely will. ANA elected officials should respect ANA members no matter how young, old, or poor they are. ANA should source for funds independently and should be close to government and private organisations.”
Dzukogi wants changes in the association as well. “ANA prizes at 100k across genres is ridiculous,” he says. “They should be aiming at grand prizes to attract the attention of Nigerians. To get that kind of sponsorship, ANA must modernise her activities, they must innovate instead of the traditional annual gathering of little effect they do.”
The ANA president Abdullahi points out that the Association carries more burden—paying judges, shipping entries to them, organising award ceremonies—than the financial aid within its reach can cover. “All these are often not covered even if the prize is under sponsorship,” he says. “In most cases the Association bears the whole cost. Annual hosting of literary contests is part of the Association’s developmental objectives of berthing new literary voices and whether sponsored or not it will continue to host literary contests and award prizes.” Problems with sponsors start, he says, “when the prize organisers start asking them to do it right.”
So would the ANA take further public responsibility for the Teen Author Prize controversy? “Ernest Ogunyemi will only be paid when NECO pays up,” Abdullahi reiterates. “ANA was only a midwife and will not pay for NECO’s reneging on a promise they made in black and white.” He wants the NECO to be “put in the shaming spotlight and be made to live up to their promises.” He offers an advice: “Literary organisations should not in their hurry to reward writers agree to float any prize that is not properly endowed to cover all facets of prize administration.”
There is, we find on further probing, another decade-old history here, an avoidable one that happened with a literary institution, or, more accurately, a multi-million-dollar corporation with a literary arm. In 2004, the Nigeria Liquefied and Natural Gas (NLNG) approached the ANA for advice on creating a new award. The result, the NLNG Prize for Literature, worth $20,000 then, was based on the ANA prizes template. But months later, the NLNG, Abdullahi says, “sidelined the Association in their support to literary bodies,” leading the ANA to “nearly instruct its members to boycott the prize,” which it did not do so as “not to deny writers the windfall that may come if they win.” Abdullahi tells us that he published a piece about it that year, as did other parties involved.
Twelve years passed and, in 2016, Abdullahi says, the NLNG came back to the sponsorship table, with a ₦900,000 offer for its logo to be branded on the ANA’s Convention bags. The ANA did this, and the NLNG “reneged in paying the money saying they have suspended the offer,” and the ANA’s letter of protest was not replied. Like friends for benefit one of whom never reaches orgasm, theirs is an on-again, off-again relationship, with the oil corporation dictating their points of meeting: a microcosm of the wider power structure between Nigeria’s politico-economic figures and brands and the country’s creative industries. In 2018, the year in which Abdullahi was shortlisted for the NLNG Prize, the company, he tells us, donated “₦5 million or less than that” to the Lagos State chapter of the ANA, which was hosting that year’s ANA International Convention, the Association’s 37th, with further support from Nigerian Breweries, Google Nigeria, and Pan Atlantic University, among others. “Many of these corporate bodies do not care a hoot about supporting literary bodies,” Abdullahi says, commenting generally. “They do it as if they are giving writers charity and we in turn do not countenance being treated like beggars.” Brittle Paper’s email and Twitter messages to the NLNG Prize for Literature were not replied.
Asked to respond to accusations of ageism and classism within the Association, Abdullahi replies that “ANA is not an Association for struggling writers or aspiring writers. It is an Association for established authors.” Nevertheless, it “has a lot of schemes and programmes for young writers and authors” and “has brought many writers old and young into literary reckoning.” What happened “is just an unfortunate encounter that people on social media feasted on without bothering to find out ANA’s own side to the matter.”
“The digital space,” he continues, “has made a lot of young writers impatient and irreverent and they do not want to subject themselves to the rigours of order and sobriety which belonging to an Association demands.” He has references. “Many of us leading ANA today started out as young writers who allowed ourselves to be mentored by the older writers we met when we joined ANA and look at where we are today.”
THE AWELE CREATIVE TRUST (ACT) Award, a short story initiative by the novelist Chika Unigwe, founded in 2013 and funded with money from her 2012 NLNG Prize for Literature win for On Black Sisters’ Street, doubles as an informal mentorship programme for young Nigerian writers. Its winners traditionally receive ₦50,000 ($138), and in its inaugural year, a formal online mentorship. But despite being fronted by one of the country’s most publicized writers at the time, and boasting a premier literary investment plan, the project, at inception, hit its own sponsorship wall.
“The idea had been to have it run concurrently with a residency program,” Unigwe tells Brittle Paper in an email. “A structure on the ground in Anambra State, a Writers House where both Nigerian and international writers could come for a few weeks to write, give writing classes.” There was also a third idea for an exchange programme, cultivating links to established, wealthier residencies in Europe and the US. That plan, she says, “fell apart for many reasons which I’d rather not get into now.” She eventually admits that “funding was a huge part. A partner we were relying on ended up not honouring any of their word. Again, goes back to the question of integrity.” While she still privately mentors writers, the ACT’s “role is more encouraging than mentoring now, sadly.” The 2019 prize, she adds, would be more than ₦50,000.
Unigwe’s view of the importance of prizes is shared by Kukogho’s Words, Rhymes & Rhythm, which now administers four: the aforementioned Brigitte Poirson Poetry Contest, the duo of the Albert Jungers Poetry Prize and the Green Author Prize which are funded by the company, and the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize, endowed by the founder of the Poets in Nigeria (PIN) initiative.
THE SPONSORSHIP QUESTION IS NOT always straightforward; where there have been answers, there have sometimes been ethical conundrums. When Unigwe won the NLNG Prize, a prize whose parent organisation had earned public antipathy for being at the centre of the country’s corruption-famed oil sector, critics raised concerns. It was $100,000, the richest writing recognition in the continent, but it was still an “illusion of corporate philanthropy,” they argued, meant to clean up the NLNG’s poor social commitment record—traces of which had been disappearing from the Internet. What did it mean for Unigwe, not the prize’s first winner but undoubtedly its highest profile honouree, to lend her writerly-clean international image to it?
In a speech at the 2015 Writivism Festival in Uganda, Unigwe argued, with examples from such prizes as the Nobel and the Booker, that “Accepting corporate sponsorship of art is not the same as advocating non-criticism of corporations. . . As long as the sponsorship has no implication on what art is made and on who has access to the space and the means to make and consume that art.” As writers, she contextualised, “we must actively demand that governments make funding available for our cultural institutions. . . continue to demand the highest level of environmental stewardship, not just from the oil companies but from our leaders too.” However, “what we must NOT do, and I cannot stress the necessity of this enough, is bar oil companies from investing in arts and culture.”
In the years since, controversies around the moral clarity of sponsors have gotten messier. In 2017, the announcement of the annual Kaduna Book and Arts Festival—to be held in the state where hundreds of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) members were killed by the military in what is now known as the Zaria Massacre, to be held in the city where, a month before the festival, a coalition of Northern Nigerian youth groups demanded, in what they called the Kaduna Declaration, that the Igbo leave the region, sparking hate speech across the country—the announcement of the festival was followed by a long, intense altercation online, between those in support of a major intellectual initiative in Northern Nigeria, a region with so few, and those against a gathering of writers funded by the state governor Nasir Ahmad El Rufai, who had not offered public responsibility for the developments in the state. Disagreements degenerated. Relationships were severed. Invited writers travelled to Kaduna and the festival was held, and again in 2018, and again this year, in the shadow of calls for the whereabouts of the social media critic Dadiyata who was abducted in the state.
But other major literary festivals—the Ake Book and Arts Festival, launched in 2013 and sharing the same organiser as the Kaduna Festival in BookBuzz Foundation director Lola Shoneyin, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival, launched in 2015 by the poet Efe Paul Azino—continue to thrive. Last year, though, the Ake Festival was moved from Abeokuta, in Ogun State, to Ikeja, in Lagos State, due to both logistics and because Shoneyin “didn’t feel like the host state at the time had a clear enough picture of the benefits of having the festival hold in Abeokuta. We were told outright that the venue we were using for seven days, which we used to pay for, was only going to be given for three days.” It was, for observers, a familiar instance of a moral sponsor failing a literary initiative.
When it comes to literature, it seems, Nigerian brands do not always care about who is who, not even if their partner is the country’s biggest international celebrity. In 2017, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the face of the British cosmetics company Boots No. 7, announced that her Farafina Creative Writing Workshop would not be held in what would have been its tenth year. “Our sponsor, Nigerian Breweries PLC (NB PLC), abruptly withdrew their sponsorship due to a need to streamline their expenditure,” stated the press release. When the workshop returned in 2018, it did so rebranded, as the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop, with a new sponsor in the multi-platform media company Trace Nigeria.
The public disappointments continue. In July of this year, the Founding Patrons of the 9mobile Prize for Literature—the biggest continental book prize in Africa at £15,000, for debut authors, founded in 2012 as the Etisalat Prize for Literature, by Etisalat Nigeria—resigned. The Patrons: a dream cast of literary movers and shakers that included the editors Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Margaret Busby, the novelists Ama Ata Aidoo, Zakes Mda, and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, and the journalist Dele Olojede. Their reason: in the 18 months following the announcement of the 2017 prize shortlist, they heard nothing from the telecommunications company despite their own communication efforts. The day before the resignation, however, 9mobile released a statement of commitment. Two weeks later, a winner was announced: Adebayo’s novel Stay with Me. Manyika, who was a judge for the prize in its first year and chair of the judges in its second and was invited to join as a patron in its fourth, tells Brittle Paper that “What’s important to remember is that literary prizes. . . can offer a substantial boost to the publishing industry and writers.” But “there is no foolproof way of ensuring that prize sponsorship remains constant, be it corporate, foundational or individual.” She cites the changing sponsorships of the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. “I believe that enthusiastic support for a prize combined with good management and oversight provide the best chance of a prize’s longterm survival,” she says.
Such enthusiastic support is tough to come by. OkadaBooks founder Ofili, one of the top magnets, describes the sponsorship process as “up and down, to be honest.” Last year, he secured funding for every proposal he wrote; this year, he has none; it could be, he guesses, the economic downturn. “I don’t know that anything can be done,” he says about defaulting sponsors. “We’re not like the music industry; that’s why people push us around. I don’t think people respect our industry and we need to figure out a way to get them to respect us.”
There are writers, however, who have found a way to wring out said respect from the corporate world. Azino and fellow performance poets Titilope Sonuga, Wana Udobang, and Sheila Ojei have been such draws of brand appeal that they each netted, in the last two years, television adverts for Heritage Bank. In the colourful videos, they recite lines about the rise of civilisations and the chain of inheritance and the sustenance of culture, their deliveries promises not only of the viability of poetry but of the untapped potential of the writer as a force for familiarisation and popularisation. “It happened because of individuals, someone in the bank had seen it work elsewhere and wanted to replicate it,” Azino tells Brittle Paper on the phone. Corporate investment in literature “is a case of ‘show, don’t tell’—show me that literature could be successful, that people want to listen to poetry. Then you have to show them videos, how it looks, then they’re more interested.” With the results from the adverts, a few other banks now want in, inviting poets to events and paying them.
But, in Nigeria, these poets combining literature, music, and performance are pioneers, and so have to navigate peeves to maintain a working relationship with sponsors. Udobang tells us on the phone that their work is considered “mini entertainment” beyond literary spaces, and, because they do not command the clout of other entertainers, they are underpriced, endure terrible negotiations, receive ridiculous requests on their performance lengths, and are expected to be grateful. And sadly, in literary spaces, their work is sometimes misunderstood, performance lyrics separated from its music and critiqued as written poetry, and de-intellectualized, enduring suggestions, by literary purists, of “selling out.”
The sponsorship of the Lagos International Poetry Festival, done for four years by the drinks company Nigerian Breweries, was also down to individual champions, who made provisions in its budget, rather than full institutional backing. This year, the festival’s fifth, the support has come from the telecommunications company MTN and from Heritage Bank, the festival’s success having made it an easier sell, even if the corporate world still mostly doesn’t “see a poetry festival as an active, functional part of society.” Nevertheless, Azino has been told by the bank officials that “people are actually coming to open accounts because they saw the ads.” On the side of writers, he believes “we need to be a bit more creative, more aggressive in how we market literature. We should ask: beyond publishing and selling a book, how else can a writer make money?” In this, he acknowledges the performance advantage; the poets make money “because they are performing poetry, not because they are selling books. Because [people] buy the book only after they see the performance.”
For literary initiatives averse to sponsorship disappointments, the only other option, as Unigwe does with the Awele Creative Trust Award, as Words, Rhymes & Rhythm does with its prizes, is private funding. The $1,100 Brittle Paper Awards, for instance, a five-category continental project started in 2017 to recognize the best pieces of writing published online by Africans, are funded with private money—and not for lack of trying to secure funding from Nigerian brands.
WEEKS BEFORE THE ANA SITUATION went public, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) announced a Creative Industry Financing Initiative (CIFI). What should be great news turned out to be, for the literary industry, the worst form of de-prioritisation. Applicants for a piece of the ₦500 million ($1.38 million) loan must be working in six “business areas”: Information Technology (IT), Fashion, Movie Production, Movie Distribution, Music, and Software Engineering Student Loan. Nollywood got two spots and Nigerian literature got none; despite the fact that some of the biggest international films with Nigerian links are adapted from books: Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 same-name novel, and Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015), from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 same-name novel, easily come to mind. This came into even greater focus this September when the actress Stella Damasus suggested that HBO Max’s development of the Lupita Nyong’o-starring, Danai Gurira-written TV series adaptation of Adichie’s Americanah was a slight on Nollywood, sparking responses from writers, including Unigwe. It is notable: the cold relations between Nollywood, praised for crowd-pleasing productivity and pummelled for unambitious artistic standards, and Nigerian literature, acknowledged for its surfeit of acclaimed books but unable to find an inroad into mainstream culture. As more books by Nigerians make it to Hollywood—Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Deji Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space and After the Flare, among them—Nigerians are giving up asking why Nollywood isn’t toeing the same path.
“Government has made us the orphan of the creative industry,” says ANA president Abdullahi. “ANA has voiced this in its communiques and interviews and nobody yet in government has listened.” This attitude, he points out, is the same as how the NECO dealt with the ANA. “I wonder if this is borne out of the fact that we are the most critical of the government’s negative policies.”
Observers would note that had literature been included there might still have been a different problem: with the CIFI’s loan repayment plan—Software Engineering Student Loan applicants had a maximum of three years and the rest had ten years—how many years exactly would it take for literature to pay back, to sell enough books, sell out enough readings and festivals? The other direction the CIFI could have have gone—free funding—is of course not the Central Bank of Nigeria’s problem.
Azino places the snub in greater perspective. “When they think of the creative industry, they think of Nollywood and music because these two sectors succeeded without major government intervention or public policies. They created their own commercial success and now the government wants to invest.” Udobang agrees. “They feel that literature doesn’t have the audience,” she says, “so they only put something in when there’s change left from their main investments. And there has to be a human contingent before they do that—maybe someone close to the sponsor is a writer or is interested in literature. Unlike fashion, literature isn’t glamourous enough.”
On the African scene, the sponsorship problem spreads its stare. In a continent with more than a few billionaires—20, according to Forbes’ 2019 list, including four who are part of the Giving Pledge—the biggest awards in its literary scene, the ones with grand brands, are not funded by organisations and people from it. In fact, the three biggest in terms of endowments and publicity—the Miles Morland Foundation’s annual privately funded £80,000+ Writing Scholarships, the Caine Prize’s £10,000, and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize’s university-funded £3,000—operate from one metropolis far removed from the continent: London.
While the wait continues for a private intervention in the form of a Dangote or Adenuga or Alakija Prize for Literature, three noted for philanthropy in education, or for an explanation as to why, as Poirson puts it, “a government refuses the advancement of its own interests,” the sponsorship problem is freezing an emerging literary landscape that promises to revamp things in Nigeria. Young writers are leaving in greater numbers, and the ones still around are increasingly refusing relevance to literary organisations that should normally command regard, like the ANA. As more Nigerian writers attained recognition on the continental rather than national level, steering boundary-pushing projects without institutional funding, the relevance equation has dramatically changed: both sponsor-seeking organisations like the ANA and cash-full ones like the NLNG Prize for Literature need these writers for credibility more than these writers need them for prize remuneration—and writers, of course, really, really need those $100,000. Meanwhile, immune from citizens’ criticism as are all organisations embedded in malfunctioning political systems, powerful bodies like the NECO, tasked with screening the next batch of young Nigerian students, seem bent on dragging literature into infantilization. With a National Council for Arts and Culture that does not seem to care, the fate of a bulk of Nigeria’s local literary culture may depend on how far they succeed.
“It is disappointing that this is even a topic of discussion,” Unigwe says. “[Sponsors] should cultivate some integrity.” She remembers how, as a child on her school’s debate team in a televised competition, she won a prize, “and then to our disappointment and shock had them taken away once the cameras stopped rolling,” because they were to be used for the next set of winners. “We were promised that our ‘real prizes’ would be sent to the school,” she said. “We are still waiting.”