Now is the season for awards, prizes and gongs of different kinds. I have been to at least three functions in the past month, interleaved with a surfeit of conferences, one or two of which I recorded last week. The range of subject matter for the awards was broad and eclectic, and hard to compare – but the most distinguished surroundings were certainly those of the Caine Prize for African Writing, now well established as highlighting the African short story, and already maker of the reputations of a number of African writers, such as the Nigerian Helon Habila, who won in 2001.
The golden sandstone of Oxford buildings was glowing in the late afternoon sunshine as the assembled literary culture-vultures moved first from chilled white wine in the Rector’s Garden of Exeter College, to the late medieval setting of the Divinity School for dinner and ceremony. This was the eleventh year of the prize, named after the late Sir Michael Caine, cultural philanthropist/businessman and founder of the Booker Prize, and a measure of ritual marks the proceedings. His widow, Baroness Nicholson, presides like a ministering angel, and a bust of Sir Michael himself is placed strategically by the podium. The defining speech at the ceremony was made by the president of the jury, Fiametta Rocco, who pinpointed the key role of short stories in the renaissance of African fiction in the 1990s, in which she justly places the Caine Prize as having “in no small way” a role. The winner this year was Olufemi Terry, born in Sierra Leone of African and Antillean extraction. His story was a piece of edgy existentialism called ‘Stickfighting Days’ which had been published in 2008 in the South African publication Chimurenga. He is now working on his first novel.
The Diageo awards for Business Reporting in Africa were held in the more prosaic surroundings of the Landmark Hotel in London, once the railway hotel of Marylebone Station, carrying a certain amount of swank. In general these awards seem to have moved much more in the direction of encouraging African publications, from newspapers to blogs and TV programmes, rather than dimply awarding the elite of the BBC and the financial Times. All systems were, however, overshadowed by the Newspaper of the Year prize for our own BusinessDay, much more significant than the award the paper received for its website in 2006. This time it was the star award, the top of the tree. Editor Phillip Isakpa, slightly bemused but clearly delighted was there to receive the massive statuette, weighty enough to incur a pile of excess baggage. I was so pleased to gain a little reflected glory from the award that the other winners paled into insignificance.
I have left the heavier stuff for last: The African Business Awards, organised by International Communications, with the support of the Commonwealth Business Council, which attracted a succulent raft of sponsors, and bestowed awards on successful African businesses and individuals. No room here to single out very much, apart from the surprise Businessman of the Year gong scooped by Wale Tinubu of Oando; and the Businesswoman of the Year award for Laurence do Rego, Executive Director, Finance and Risk at Ecobank Transnational Incorporated, one of Africa’s top banks which, justly, always features at these occasions. I recall she gave me an outstandingly crisp interview a couple of years back when I was preparing a soon-to-be-published history of Ecobank’s 25 years.
Key support for event also came from the ‘BusinessinAfrica’ Events organisation of the valiant Christian Udechukwu, who has a good track record for organising conferences in this town, which is no easy task. I choose to single him out for mention because ten days later he organised a conference that had promised to be a real spectacular, a two-day Golden Jubilee Business Summit, which ran into what was no doubt zealous, but fundamentally misinformed scrutiny. I saw Christian afterwards, anxious to repeat what he had already made clear at the time, that the event was funded by a whole raft of sponsors, from Shell to Travelex to Eko Atlantic City, and had received no government money. Obviously there were some speakers provided by the government, such as the excellently lucid Professor Barth Nnaji, new presidential adviser on power. Now, in my time, I have attended an occasional dubious conference (even Ponzi events) but I have never found that with those run by Christian. He was not helped by the sudden cancellation of the official visit by President Goodluck Jonathan on his way back from the G20 summit, which took a number of potential speakers out of the loop, but there was still a well-crafted if ambitious programme whose objective was simply to give a boost to investment in Nigeria. The British have been at pains to stress that the cancellation was nothing to do with Britain-Nigeria relations and it is certainly hoped to fix up the same visit at a later date.