Metropole Magazine

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07 Jun Written by  Ladi Opaluwa

Nigeria and the Caine Prize

It rarely happens that two friends, both Nigerians, were invited to South Africa for a creative writing workshop and due to diplomatic issues between two countries at the time, they were both denied entry on flimsy or no excuses at all. Said friends were given another chance. They attended the following year’s workshop in Uganda, got automatically published in a prestigious anthology and are now shortlisted for one of the most coveted literary prizes for new writers on the continent.

As anyone following Nigerian literature knows already, this is the story of Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, culminating in their nomination for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. This is stale news, but with two other Nigerians on the list, this brings the total to four out of five persons shortlisted. It would seem that Nigeria has a Caine Prize style guide. Four out of five! That phrase truly deserved an exclamation point. Besides jokes on social media renaming the award the Caine Prize for Nigerian Writing, we have been largely modest about this feat.

This year’s shortlist simply emphasizes the country’s dominance of the prize launched in 2000. With four winners so far and in the running for its fifth title, Nigeria has won more times than any other country. South Africa, Kenya, and Zimbabwe have won two times each. Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Sudan, once each. Some countries have never won, despite having been shortlisted more than once. Ghana and Mozambique for instance.

If for the inaugural prize Nigeria was taken unawares and could not manage a single nomination, by the second year, it went all the way, winning with Helon Habila’s 'Love Poems.' Then came another nomination the following year, but Chimamanda Adichie and three others had to relax and watch Binyavanga Wainaina receive the prize for 'Discovering Home.'

From 2004 up until 2009, it was pretty much taken for granted that at the worst Nigeria would send a representative onto the list. 2007 was somewhat embarrassing, for though Nigeria garnered three nominations, it came out of the now popular Oxford dinner empty handed. It could be described as a year of plenty and of drought.

There was a spell in the nomination jamboree in 2010 and 2011. But even without a candidate on the shortlist, Nigeria still found its way into the biography of the 2010 winner, Sierra Leone’s Olufemi Terry, who was said to have lived in Nigeria for some years. This fact may seem inconsequential but there is a blissful self-delusion about appropriating other people’s success.

From the first year Nigeria won, it seemed like a zoning formula had been activated, whereby it goes round some other countries and returns home in the fourth year― 2001, Helon Habila; 2005, Segun Afolabi; 2009, E. C. Osondu. By this method, 2013 should officially be our turn to win once more, but Rotimi Babatunde had interrupted that fine arrangement, by winning in 2012.

Here we are, uncertain, awaiting the announcement on 8 July of the winner of the fourteenth Caine Prize for African Writing. The prospect of losing does not diminish the pride of having garnered a record number of candidates on the shortlist. Winning will be splendid, of course. It will be the icing on the cake.

If Pede Hollist wins, it will put his country, Sierra Leone, in the same class as South Africa and other countries with two winners so far. His story, 'Foreign Aid,' begins with the name ‘Balogun’. There are other characters with familiar names: Tunde, Ayo--  names we can easily claim. Therein could be the consolation, in case Nigeria defies the certainty of probability.