Nigerian Awards VS The Nobel Prize

Note: This morning saw the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics. I read the citation from the Swedes and it elicited this rant on Facebook, which I now share here.

Back when we had no idea we were playing a game that would lead us directly to the current chaos of identity politics, there were those who asked a funny question and provided what they considered a decent answer.

The question was this: Why are Nigerians crazy about the Caine Prize than about the NLNG Prize when the latter was a lot more lucrative to win? Their answer was that it was an oyinbo prize. Maybe they were right — but only by half.

Reading the citation for this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, I think the other half of the equation is excellence. Just read through the citation. In fact, go back and read through any of the citations since the Nobel Prize was first awarded in 1901 and compare it to the shoddy cum pedestrian statements and two-naira press releases we get from the NLNG and their panel of professors and horde of communications people year after year.

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Of course, the Nobel Prize gives more money than the NLNG — but remember that the latter is for a single achievement. Indeed, outside of the science prizes and maybe peace prizes, the Nobel is often like a lifetime achievement award. I once said (or wrote) that the best thing for Nigerians would be to win half the prize of the NLNG and half the acclaim of any of the western prizes. That still stands but, viewed in a certain manner, there are some Nigerians who would rather win the Nobel Prize or the Booker or the Pulitzer even if it paid only 2000 euros and allowed you escape Nigeria and Nigerian Mediocrity.

All of us Nigerians love money but there is something incredibly satisfying to see your name in a honour roll that includes Einstein and Hodgkin and Hemingway and Marie Curie and Alice Munro than in a list that has any of the NLNG winners that a year later you struggle to come up with even if you belonged to their field and would get the NLNG prizemoney for getting their names. It is a strange concept but it is true that there are some things that money can’t buy. Despite my patriotism, I have to admit that none of those things are located in Nigeria.

There is a recent article in the New York Times asking if Stephen Hawking was robbed of a Nobel Prize by death. Clearly, Hawking doesn’t need any prize to validate his genius but think about it. That headline is only possible because the prize has been recognised by and has recognised greatness. I can’t imagine a similar headline involving any truly great Nigerian and a Nigerian prize. They just aren’t worth the effort of that thought.

Some of the people who made the Caine Prize vs NLNG Prize comparison back in the day were smart; some were just mischievous nonentities. Both led us down a road were nonsense can be permitted in service of politics. Rather than urge the NLNG to be better across the board, they wanted the NLNG to get biscuit for just existing.

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There are some occasions when existence is sufficient but that can never be the case when the goal is the awarding of excellence, of lifting a few people and creations so others can see how to be better themselves and eventually make their environment, their culture, their country better. But when the body itself can’t quite produce excellence, how does anyone believe the people it lifts are worthy of recognition? It is why over the years all anyone talks about is the NLNG money. The books are forgotten and the writer is hardly thought of as great. He is only thought of as rich.

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When I was an undergrad, I sought and bought books that had those prizewinning stickers on their covers. Booker, Nobel, Pulitzer, even the Whitbread. Without fail, each of those books rewarded me and my friends, even the shocking ones like Jelinek’s Lust and the hard ones like Patrick White’s Eye of the Storm. All of them contributed immensely to my life or my mind or my prose style. Na mumu go do that one for NLNG Prize. Wetin you wan learn? What do you want to enjoy? I recall my pal David dissing one of the NLNG books he received for free in his class. There was nothing to absorb about excellence in the book. Meanwhile, we would open a page at random before buying one of those prizewinning books and be rewarded instantly with a sparkling image, a super turn of phrase, a sterling insight into the human experience. How can I forget the first line of Binyavanga’s Caine Prize story?

As adults we know now about the politics and shenanigans of these western awards and, personally, I can never forgive the Bob Dylan Nobel — but by and large, their lists of winners have giants and genuine heavyweights. To channel the Annie Hall joke, it is the kind of association you want to have you as a member. The only list with comparable heft in Nigeria is our list of billionaires. Those numbers don’t lie, even if their provenance could be dubious.

On a subconscious level, it is why that is the only list that matters nationally and why everyone wants to get it somehow, even if you have to win a Naija literary or science prize with half-baked citations to get closer. It has taken years for some to see and some may yet have to look at the list of Nobel winners and their citations to learn the lesson. But it is easily stated. For money, get the NLNGs. For greatness, go overseas.

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