Still a long wait for 2017 9mobile Literature Prize

Prize jury chair for Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016 edition (before the name change to 9mobile) and novelist, Mr. Helon Habila (left); winner, Mr. Jowhor Ile (with his novel, And After Many Days) and former Chief Executive Officer, Etisalat Nigeria, Mr. Matthew Willsher, at the 2017 award event… in Lagos

9mobile Prize now a fixture in the culture calendar
The award of 9mobile Prize for Literature, sponsored by telecom company, 9mobile (formerly Etisalat), has become a long wait that may stretch indefinitely from all indications. Following the parent company pulling out of the Nigerian market last year, the telecom company is yet to find a buyer. Only a new owner through acquisition could save it from a debt trap.

Now, the literary, and by extension, the culture community, is in a suspended state, as the year may end without a winner emerging for the 2017 edition. The future of the continental prize couldn’t be more uncertain. The prize award for last edition was held on May 20, 2017 at Federal palace Hotel, Lagos.

Officials of 9mobile are quick to refer all enquiries to its PR agency, Chain Reaction, with an insider heaping all the blame of the acquisition plight of 9mobile on the regulator, Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), for the delayed process. Chain Reaction is quick to point out that the fault is not with 9mobile, but NCC, which insists that 9mobile fulfills all its obligations to the regulator before the sales deal could be completed.

Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), on the other hand, has explained why Teleology Holdings has not taken over the ownership of 9Mobile. Its Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Umar Danbatta, told The Guardian that the debt profile of 9Mobile and ongoing checks on the technical capability of Teleology Holdings, which won the bidding as well as the issue of registration of Teleology with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) are issues stalling the takeover.

Danbatta said these issues needed to be sorted out before the transfer, saying that 9Mobile owed AOL for 2016 and 2017 a total of N12 billion, adding that the firm owed Numbering Fees of N1 billion and Spectrum Fees of N2.3 billion. So far management has paid 50 per cent of Spectrum Fees and of AOL and Numbering Fees, he said.

“We have agreed that until the completion of the payments of these debts, we cannot concur with their letter seeking the transfer of the shares from United Capital to Teleology,” Danbatta said, but commended 9Mobile management for doing everything possible to ensure the completion of the deal.

While the back and forth with NCC is going on, 9mobile continues with the business of telephony, but the source at Chain Reaction said the prize award could not be held without completion of the acquisition process.

Novelist, poet and PR expert, Mr. Toni Kan (self-styled Mayor of Lagos) said the prize has come to define his cultural calendar, which its non-award so far has disrupted. According to him, “Is the literary space missing the prize? I don’t know what you mean by the literary space, but I suppose that writers who are aware of the prize, who have prepared for it must miss not being able to, as we say in Nigeria, “try their luck.” I miss it because it has become a fixture in my culture calendar and because I believe it is an important prize.

“I think it just denies hopefuls an opportunity to gain the literary recognition and I suppose the validation that an important prize like that confers.

Founder of Borders Literature for All Nations, Mrs. Olatoun Williams, went down memory lane in the continent-wide prizes that have gone under and while it matters that 9mobile should not follow a similar route.

According to her, “Before Lumina Foundation’s Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and Etisalat Prize for Literature, Africa had the prestigious NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa. The NOMA was administered by Hans Zell’s African Book Publishing Record (ABPR) based in Oxford, U.K. The NOMA was presented to the award winners at international book fairs under the auspices of UNESCO. It was an extremely important award because it not only recognised and promoted outstanding African writing, it promoted pride in and the use of local languages for literary production. The NOMA helped significantly to empower local publishing.

“Locally based prizes such as Wole Soyinka Prize and Etisalat (now 9mobile) Prize for Literature serve many of the same purposes and bridge the gap in the African book trade created by the cancellation in 2009 of the NOMA Award by the sponsoring NOMA family of Japan. The last winner was Sefi Atta for Lawless & Other Stories in 2009! The fact that the 9mobile Prize is pan-African and Nigeria-based is not just a matter of national pride; it encourages cross-border synergies in the African book trade and this is very important for strengthening it.

“The fact that the 9mobile Prize was established by a telecommunications firm (and not by a family, particularly a non-African one), gave me hope of commitment and longevity. It also held the promise of corporate Nigeria’s increasing involvement in the trade (we already have The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas company -NLNG). The establishment of these prizes with their significant benefits, (marketing of Africa published books, African book tours, donations of significant quantities of these books to schools, etc) represents a promise made by these corporate bodies to help build Africa’s weak literary ecosystem.”

Also for Mrs. Lechi Eke, who decribes herself as a short storyteller, the literary space will miss the prize, adding, “It’s a great thing Etisalat/9mobile was doing and they shouldn’t stop. The implication of the delay and possible non-award would be the removal of their little quota of encouragement and the support and promotion of literature. This is not good at all.
Literary activities refine man, ridding society of uncouth, violent men and women. Writers, especially in this part of the world, don’t make much; so, removing this prize, which helps and encourages them, is removing support for literary activities and for writers.  It would be a shame if 9 mobile stops the literary prize.”

For author of Pride of the Spider King, Mr. Odili Ujubuonu, “Writers will miss every prize. More importantly, being a prize for new writers it wouldn’t augur well for the growth of literature in Nigeria to see such initiative die. A non-award that does not emanate from drought of entries will spell doom for the quality of the prize and the integrity of its sponsors.

President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mallam Denja Abdullahi, said the prize would surely be “missed because it has been throwing up some good books for widespread reading by the populace. It has also been able to bring up books for cross- country and cross-cultural attention. The implication is that the conversation that has already started across countries within the African continent and beyond on the shortlisted and winning books would be abruptly stopped. Some of these continental literary prizes and publishing houses have been filling the gaps left by the demise of the African Writers Series (AWS) and other such platforms in terms of making books available for dialogues across the continent.”

Book editor and co-founder of Narrative Landscape, Anwuli Ojogwu, lamented, “We do not have a lot of significant prizes in Nigeria like the 9mobile Prize that promotes high literature. So, yes, it will create a vacuum and we will miss it.”

She, however, did not believe its absence would create a significant impairment in the literary landscape, adding, “I do not think there will be a devastating implication; writers will keep writing and entering their books for other prizes around the world.

“Prizes are useful for writers because they help to elevate their work in the public space. If it comes with money, too, it can help a writer focus on producing more work, and worry less about money. But it will be disappointing if the award were to fade. It will miss the opportunity to continue to feature a variety of works from talented writers, and miss the cultural train of high literature from all over Africa.”

These writers are all agreed that 9mobile company might lose immense goodwill on account of the delay or non-award of the prize award. As Kan puts it, “Since the launch of the prize, 9mobile has earned a whole new constituency – writers and members of the literati. That is a powerful constituency.”

Williams said, “You ask about the loss of goodwill in the case of cancellation: responding as a reader, (which is what I am), I feel that to discontinue any of these good prizes would be to break the important promise these prizes represent for Africa.”
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Eke is emphatic that 9mobile would definitely lose prestige and, of course, customers, noting, “Losing customers may not mean existing ones going away, but new ones joining. Research has shown that consumers prefer companies or organisations that support causes.  Supporting causes bring organisations into high visibility. 9mobile would lose this privilege.”

“The loss of goodwill will be enormous and it will be a big disappointment for the literary world,” Abdullahi noted.

According to Ujubuonu, “Apart from the integrity question, the 9mobile brand will be injured in the sight of its existing customers, as one which fails to deliver on important promises. What the company should have done is simple. As soon as it took over as 9moble, it should have suspended the prize, reviewed it and told the literary public if it wished to go ahead with it or not. That period of time would have afforded her enough room to make a well-reasoned decision.”

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