As Business Meets Literature: Would the Affection Endure?

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Like the Pied Piper blowing away and tots following every step of the way, businesses dictate the tune to creative writers in Nigeria with mouth-watering prizes and opportunities thrown in for good measure, Michael Jimoh writes …

What has business got to do with literature? Or, to phrase the question better, what does business have in common with creative writing? An obvious answer would be: nothing at all. There is no connection whatsoever. Practitioners of one believe in the art of deal making and it is mostly speculative, while creative writers thrive in monkish seclusion and it is mostly contemplative.

But in the last couple of years in Nigeria, the two professions have found a common ground thus spawning an unlikely partnership. Saturday, May 20, 2017 was another day of public demonstration of this union between two professions that, at first glance, are at variance with each other, as writers-in-residence are with brokers and jobbers in the stock exchange.

It was a weekend and work-free day. The city by the lagoon just had one of its unexpected downpours, thus dampening whatever enthusiasm there was to venture outdoors. A city notorious for nerve-wracking traffic snarls after rainfall, it would have been preferable curling up in bed with a glass or mug of something, to joining the maddening crowd on roads that were certain to be gridlocked.

But to many Lagosians who packed a football field-sized hall in a popular hotel in Lagos that weekend, the lure of business and literature was as strong as the desire for those at home to remain indoors. It was a little before 6 p.m. at the Balmoral Convention Centre, Federal Palace Hotel & Casino on Victoria Island. The sky was overcast with dark and grey clouds here and there, suggesting it might still rain.

But at the lobby of Balmoral Hall, it was anything but gloomy. Despite the chilly evening, the excitement was palpable; something you noticed from the leggy and perpetually smiling faces of female ushers sitting or standing by the entrance, the kind of smile that hurts cheek muscles, yet which you expect to be welcomed with on occasions like that.


So far, so good for business and literature in Nigeria! The reciprocal relationship seems to be going swimmingly for now. But what happens when the romance goes sour? After all, companies can change their policies, appoint new directors or the company might just go bust. The recent crisis that engulfed Etisalat Nigeria is a case in point.

And then, there were the squeaky-clean Toyota jeeps and Benzes and BMWs out of which stepped even cleaner owners with well-buffed shoes frowning into their expensive phones. Inside a hall called the Holding Room, a sort of anteroom to the main hall, the excitement was even more infectious. Men in tuxedos and bow-tie, well starched brocades or embroidered ankaras backslapped one another or shook hands, milled around, champagne flute in hand. Some had cognac glasses from which amber liquid was drained and almost immediately refilled by waiters only too eager to be at your service. Some with trays balanced on their hands weaved between guests, urging them with their eyes to sample croissants, skewered meat, snails and chicken, and sundry small chops.

The ambience suggested a high-profile party about to commence, complemented by the exquisitely-dressed women – young and old – many in high heels, more with hues of make-up that would humble Cleopatra, and quite a number with immaculate headgears, a mélange of perfumes trailing them like unseen escorts.

Ellipsoidal reflectors and spotlights hanging from the ceiling threw human shadows on the rugged floor, which everyone stepped on randomly, not minding who was who. From a bandstand, Falana, a female jazzist, wowed a standing audience with popular songs by even more famous Nigerian artistes, Asa and Fela, drawing more applause. This was the prelude to the main reception – the kind of reception you expect at film premieres or product launches and not for literature. And yet, it was just that. And that was not even the first time.

To Lagos literati, the business world, the media and the diplomatic corps that converged at Balmoral, that would be the fourth such occasion when business and literature seemed to blend seamlessly. The first time was in 2014 after the company involved, Etisalat Nigeria – a communications firm that recently left Nigeria – established the Etisalat Prize for African Literature the year before.

The prize is for first works of fiction published by authors anywhere in the continent and of African descent. It was a soaring success with both the business world and the writing community right from the start. Whether as part of its CSR or support for creative writing, the prize in its short existence has become one of the most keenly contested. Part of the reason is its continental sweep. Another is the opportunities available to writers even after winning a cash prize of $15,000.

Along with the financial reward, the company avails each winner a fellowship at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, an institution famous for the number of Booker Prize winners that have passed through its hallowed halls. Into the bargain, also, is a symbolic gift of one of the most expensive and treasured fountain pens in the world – an embossed Mont Blanc Meisterstück. It must be said, however, that the Byrons, Dostoyevskys, Fitzgeralds, Flauberts and Tolstoys didn’t need such expensive keepsakes to immortalise them.

Even so, the romance between business and literature has evidently blossomed these past years in Nigeria. To prove it, crested banners announced to all the reason for the gathering. A large poster on the stage with the company’s logo made it bolder and clearer. Designed like an open book, the poster read: Award of Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Leading the company was the erstwhile CEO himself, Matthew Willsher. No company executive could have been more elated. An Oxford graduate and Brit who turned up in a Malay national dress, complete with the black spherical cap made popular by such post-independence rulers as Mahathir Mohamad, Willsher spoke extempore from the podium facing the audience. “We are here tonight to celebrate literary talents across the African continent,” he said, and meant every word of it.
Odia Ofeimun
Before him were over a thousand seated guests, six or so to a table filled with wine bottles, lagers, malt drinks, fruit juice and water. Each guest had a take-away bag with a copy, either, of Julie Iromuanya’s Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days or Jacqui L’Ange’s The Seed Thief, the final shortlists out of over a hundred entries received last year.

Heading the writing community was Helon Habila, chairman of the panel of judges and a professor of African Literature and Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Habila is the first Nigerian to win the Caine Prize for African fiction. He also won a Commonwealth Prize with his novel, Measuring Time. Habila’s co-adjudicators were on hand, also: Elinor Sisulu, South African writer/activist and Edridge-Renee Dro, Ivorian writer and laureate of Africa 39.

Poet and novelist, Toni Kan, sat all through, just as Lola Shoneyin-Soyinka, poet and coordinator of the famous Ake Festival, who announced herself at the entrance on request. There were several dozens more, all of them witnessing a new dawn of literature and business in a heady mix.

“I am all for taking writers out of their cocoon into the public space,” Ralph Bruce, a University of Jos graduate of English Literature who now teaches in Lagos, told me.


Till date, excited NLNG company execs like to chest-thump that the prize “is the most prestigious literature prize and the one to beat in the entire African continent.” While the Etisalat Prize was open to authors from Africa, the former is open to Nigerian writers at home and in the Diaspora.

The company itself planned everything to the last detail. Apart from invited guests, nearly a dozen very important guests had been flown from America, Europe and South Africa a week before. Three of the contenders for the prize were around, provided with two-way tickets to and from their places of residence – within and outside the country.

The May 20 presentation had all the markings of an informal literary event unfolding. There was no podium for special guests. And once the MC, Wayne Visser, went on stage to give a rendition of a poem, “I am Africa,” and the celebration was nothing short of literary from start to finish. A music prodigy, Joshua Akinotan, in national colours, led the audience in national anthem with piano and then surprised them, again, by rendering Beethoven’s “For Elsie.”

There were dramatised performances of the three shortlists by actors from Monologues, a troupe under the competent headship of Ifeoma Fafunwa. Titilope Sonuga, a performance poet, gave the evening a more bookish feel by creatively fusing obscure and famous titles by African authors, male and female, into a poem of her own. So superb was her performance that the audience requested a second rendition. They got it.

In a speech titled “Ingenuity and the Writer,” Habila hailed the healthy mix of business and literature. “This is a momentous achievement,” he declared. “It is worth celebrating. And that is why we are here today, to celebrate our writers and our writing.”

The highlight of the evening was when the judges unanimously picked Ile’s And After Many Days as the winning entry. In their citation, the judges described Ile as “a writer with the rare gift of economy of words and an understanding that the impact of what is not said is sometimes as great as what is said,” insisting that his novel “is a perfect example of creative writing’s 101 rule: show don’t tell.”

Coincidentally, it is the first time a Nigerian won. At inception in 2013, Zimbabwean novelist, NoViolet Bulawayo, won with her novel We Need New Names. The next winner was South African, Songeziwe Mahlangu, with Penumbra. DRC writer, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, won in 2015 with Tram 83.

In the beginning

Big business’s romance with literature certainly did not start with the Etisalat Prize, at least in Nigeria. That distinction belongs to Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, the largest producer and exporter of natural gas in the continent. A decade before Etisalat presented its first ever award, NLNG had shown the way to the writing community’s heart by the way of the establishment of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, with an unprecedented humongous sum of $20, 000. There were no second or third place winners.

No prize was given on NLNG’s maiden edition, in 2004, because of poor entries by authors. It raised hackles among writers in Nigeria and even outside the country. Some blamed the competence of the judges appointed to assess the entries that year; others had a thing or two to say about the seriousness of the gas company – and they were mostly unflattering.

The following year, NLNG proved that they were, indeed, serious about not only promoting creative writing in Nigeria but rewarding excellence by sharing the Literature Prize between two senior authors and accomplished poets, Gabriel Okara and Ezenwa Ohaeto. To prove that they meant business, they upped the prize money from $20,000 to $100,000, thus making subsequent competitions even keener.

Till date, excited NLNG company execs like to chest-thump that the prize “is the most prestigious literature prize and the one to beat in the entire African continent.” While the Etisalat Prize was open to authors from Africa, the former is open to Nigerian writers at home and in the Diaspora.


It must be said that until big businesses stepped in, rewards for literary excellence were more or less pittance. Yes, the Association of Nigerian Authors has had its annual conventions since 1982… But the monetary rewards never amounted to much, certainly not enough to carry half a dozen or so writers beyond three days of serious drinking and bantering to celebrate a winning colleague.

Of particular interest to NLNG in endowing the prize, according to the erstwhile MD and CEO, Mr. Babs Omotowa, “is the relentless pursuit of excellence as one of our company’s core values.”

With four categories to compete for, winners have emerged in drama, prose, poetry and children’s literature. Ahmed Yerima won in the drama genre in 2006. For children’s literature in 2007, two redoubtable granddames of Nigerian literature, Mabel Segun and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, were joint winners. Another female writer, Kaine Agary, came out tops in 2008 for prose fiction with her novel Yellow Yellow.

No winner emerged for poetry in 2009. But there was a bountiful harvest of winners in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Esiaba Irobi, Mai Nasara (Adeleke Adeyemi) and Chika Unigwe won in drama, children’s literature and prose categories, respectively. In 2013, Tade Ipadeola, won the poetry prize with his epic poem The Sahara Testaments, while Kalu Uka came away with first prize for drama a year later. No winner was announced for children’s literature in 2015.
Dr_Kudo_Eresia_Eke
For the prose edition last year, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was the undisputed winner with his fascinating novel, A Season of Crimson Blossoms. By October 9 this year (to coincide with the very first shipment of gas by the company from their operational base in Bonny in Rivers State), a new laureate would be crowned by NLNG, and so the race will continue in the search for excellence among the best of Nigerian writers, a gesture that other corporate bodies have since emulated.

It must be said that until big businesses stepped in, rewards for literary excellence were more or less pittance. Yes, the Association of Nigerian Authors has had its annual conventions since 1982 when Chinua Achebe founded ANA. Usually, such yearly conferences are rounded off with a gala night when writers are rewarded with prizes endowed by some corporate bodies such as Cadbury Nigeria Plc and the like. But the monetary rewards never amounted to much, certainly not enough to carry half a dozen or so writers beyond three days of serious drinking and bantering to celebrate a winning colleague.

And then, there was the Liberty Merchant Bank short stories competition in the late nineties until the bank was swallowed up in a merger. Of course, with change of directors came different policies. Perhaps the new directors didn’t care much for literature.

Should business dictate to literature?

That was the question we asked one Nigerian writer recently. When we met and spoke with Odia Ofeimun in his expansive sitting room with shelves and shelves of books on Wednesday, May 24, the political scientist, poet, essayist and public commentator was readying for a journey. In his characteristic manner, he was not fully packed even while a cabby had been waiting at the gate. But his observation was as keen as ever. He is fully in support of business’s intervention in literature because “all prizes have always been sponsored by business of one kind or the other,” he said. “From the Booker to the Nobel and many others, business has always had something to do with prizes. The Nobel prize was even worse because there was an explosion which led to the accidental death of Alfred’s brother.” So, he sees nothing wrong in business “promoting literature or the arts.”

Business’s business in literature was underscored by Habila when he mused that “our writers are our visionaries, they speak for our collective freedoms; they are witnesses to the horrors our society throws up every once in a while, they document our best achievements, they affirm our values and they chide our shortcomings. To do this, to survive, the writer needs allies. Writers need patrons.”

As for Toni Kan, he shares his counterparts view on business and literature, though he broadens it to cover other genres of art. “Writers, artists, musicians,” he began by telling me, “have always relied on patrons to help further their art. The practice has dwindled in contemporary times with artists of every stripe now beginning to earn money for their art. But there are very few real artists who can make enough to take care of themselves. That is where support comes in, be it from the corporate world or individuals.”

He couldn’t be more correct. In renaissance England, for instance, playwrights and poets depended largely on patronage of the nobility and aristocrats to have their works published or produced on stage. Shakespeare and his contemporaries like Marlowe, Jonson, Kyd had standby patrons in whose name their works were commissioned and often dedicated. Some of those patrons were either royalty, the leading businessmen of the day, large estate owners or inheritors of bank business and legal luminaries.


…big business is what Nigerian and African writers need to flourish, to blossom, considering the economic circumstances they find themselves in. Nor are those in big business oblivious of their duties.

French author, Gustave Flaubert, would have had his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, banned were it not for the timely intervention and spirited defence put up by his lawyer friend Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard. In appreciation, Flaubert dedicated one of the greatest books in French literature to Monsieur Senard.

“Dear friend,” Flaubert wrote in his letter of dedication, “allow me to inscribe your name at the head of this book and above its dedication, for it is to you, more than anyone else, that I owe its publication. In passing through your magnificent pleas in court, my work has acquired, in my eyes, a kind of unexpected authority. I therefore ask you to accept here the tribute of my gratitude, which, however great it may be, will never reach the height of your eloquence or your devotion.”
Emeritus-Professor-Ayo-Banjo
Still, it is mindful to remember that even writers themselves have taken umbrage at business’s interference with literature. In 1940 when William Saroyan was conferred with the Pulitzer Prize for his drama, The Time of Your Life, he not only protested but turned down the award. Unimpressed with the monetary worth and prestige, Saroyan declared in his characteristic irreverence that “business should not judge art/ literature.”

The prize itself was named after a famous journalist, Joseph Pulitzer and the year Saroyan won, a good number of the judges were serving big-foot journalists with respected titles such as The New York Times.

However, big business is what Nigerian and African writers need to flourish, to blossom, considering the economic circumstances they find themselves in. Nor are those in big business oblivious of their duties.

At the public presentation of Nigeria Prize for Literature to Ibrahim at Nigeria Air Force Headquarters in Kado, Abuja, last November, the GM, External Relations of NLNG, Dr. Kudo Eresia-Eke mused thus: “The prize has helped to improve the standard of production, and general publishing of literary works in Nigeria. Nigeria LNG is also pleased to observe that other public-spirited corporate organisations have since followed our footsteps and lead in supporting the development of literature in Nigeria.”

How long will this romance last?

So far, so good for business and literature in Nigeria! The reciprocal relationship seems to be going swimmingly for now. But what happens when the romance goes sour? After all, companies can change their policies, appoint new directors or the company might just go bust. The recent crisis that engulfed Etisalat Nigeria is a case in point. Burdened by the huge financial obligations to banks, it had been doubtful for a while if the communications concern would continue its yearly prize for African Literature. And now with the final pulling out of Etisalat from Nigeria and its rebranding as 9Mobile Telecommunication, it remains to be seen what sort of interest, if any, the new concern would have in continuing or rebranding the prize.

So, is there any possibility of business and literature parting ways in the coming years?

Toni Kan does not see that anytime soon. “So long as artists continue to struggle for their art, the need for patrons to support the arts will remain.”

Habila also gave an indication of the future of business’s collabo with literature. “Writers need more than money; they need also to be championed; they need a room to write in, preferably, a room with a view. That, for me, was the ingenuity of the Etisalat Prize for African Literature.”

Mike Jimoh, arts journalist and critic, writes from Lagos.


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  • akinwumi komolafe

    This article,in terms of style,is a tour de force–Mike Jimoh, more power to your elbow.