News of Chinua Achebe’s passing struck me with a deep sadness; a sense that an era of Nigerian history is closing and that the guiding lights in the night sky of our national odyssey are dimming. The imagery is of a boat being set adrift from its trusty anchors. Achebe was one of those anchors.
Achebe did not stumble upon his craft by accident. He was initially admitted into the University of Ibadan on a scholarship to read medicine before electing to study English Literature, History and Religion instead. His decision cost him the scholarship but gained him his true vocation. He once declared that his calling as a novelist was “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” Interestingly, the author most acclaimed as his natural successor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, trod a similar path, leaving the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after a year and a half of studying medicine, to pursue her calling in writing. Finding one’s true place in the world often requires us to sacrifice the certainty of the popular paths to prestige and worldly wealth.
Christopher Okigbo the poet, Wole Soyinka the dramatist and Chinua Achebe the novelist constituted the literary trinity of their generation, all maestros in their chosen domains of artistic expression. Their travails at the hands of the state typified the perpetual battle between the realm of power and that of ideas. Okigbo took up arms for Biafra and was killed during the civil war, a death which deeply wounded Achebe. Soyinka, who had embarked upon a personal peace mission to the separatist regime in Biafra in 1967 in a bid to avert the war, was arrested by the Gowon regime and spent most of the war period in jail. In later years, he would flee into exile to escape the death squads of the Abacha junta. Achebe narrowly escaped assassination in the 1960s by forces who believed that his novel A Man of the People, which predicted the overthrow of the First Republic, indicated his complicity in treasonable activities. He was a Biafran functionary during the war. In 1990, a car accident in Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist down. Subsequently, he relocated to the United States where he held a teaching appointment until his passing last week.
Oddly enough, my first encounter of Achebe was not Things Fall Apart, the iconic novel and his best known work which earned him international repute and has been translated into dozens of languages. It was The Trouble with Nigeria, a stirring 1983 polemic brimming with righteous indignation at what his country had become. It was a searing indictment of his generation and his forebears and, as a work of social criticism, is startlingly relevant to our current struggles even though it was written thirty years ago. “We have lost the twentieth century,” he fumed; “Are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first?” Soyinka would echo Achebe’s words in a 1984 essay in which he famously described his generation as a “wasted generation.”
I watched Things Fall Apart at about the same time that I read the book. The 1986 TV series produced by Godwin Ugwu and directed by David Orere is still one of the best Nigerian gifts to the small and big screen. It starred Pete Edochie as the tempestuous Okonkwo and Justus Esiri as his best friend, the sober and sagely Obierika. It is perhaps another portent of an ending era that Esiri passed away almost exactly a month before Achebe.
Achebe’s true gift was prophetic; an ability to tap into currents in the nation’s soul and scrawl her agonies in compelling stories and commentaries. It is a mark of how acute his powers of observation and identification as a writer were that his works possessed a predictive quality about them. Things Fall Apart portrayed the fateful clash of civilizations between a pristine Africa and the West in Okonkwo’s ultimately futile struggle against the Her Majesty’s imperial juggernaut. His subsequent works followed the arc of our colonial and post-colonial traumas. A Man of the People which depicted the greed and power-drunkenness of the post-colonial political class prophesied and coincided with Nigeria’s first military coup d’etat.
In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe declared “Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage; and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed.” Within months of the book’s release, the Second Republic had been overthrown by the military. Buhari’s incarceration of Second Republic politicians drew qualified praise from Chinua Achebe who saw it as “a new element in the political culture. Things can never be the same again.” Even so, he expressed misgivings about “the arbitrary and extreme way Buhari handled the matter.” Two hundred-year jail terms were absurd “but the idea that somebody could go from state house to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is extremely important. And it is an idea that ought to live in the consciousness of our people whether they are going to be leaders or the led.”
Anthills of the Savannah showed up the venality of Africa’s big men and the phoniness of their messianic claims. Released in 1987, Achebe told us that we had erred in placing our faith in military dictators. He was proved right by Ibrahim Babangida’s convoluted and ultimately fruitless transition programme and his successor Sani Abacha’s bestial tyranny. Achebe’s response to the return to civil rule in 1999 was a cautious optimism borne of a life time of bearing witness to serial abortions of promise and the chronic perfidies of political elites. His caution was vindicated. He rejected offers of national awards by Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 and Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.
In the first instance, he was protesting against Obasanjo’s anti-democratic habits and his state-sponsored assault on the government of Achebe’s home state, Anambra. In the second, he said that the circumstances that had informed the first rejection seven years earlier had not changed. In both cases, Achebe refused to negotiate compromises with his values and stayed true to his ideal of the writer as social conscience. Clad in the armour of his graceful candour and intellectual honesty, Achebe was invulnerable to the barbs of government hacks.
His last work, There was a Country, a civil war memoir released last year, is often described as his most controversial book. In it, he accused the Nigerian state of genocide against the Igbos during the civil war. He had harsh words for Obafemi Awolowo whom he deemed an Igbophobe and spoke vaguely of an Islamo-jihadist conspiracy against Biafra. In fact, Achebe had made essentially the same comments about Awolowo in The Trouble with Nigeria in which he also issued lacerating criticisms of Nnamdi Azikiwe. Laced with his personal experience of the civil war, and the threats to his life and that of his young family, There was a Country is understandably charged with emotion but also with Achebe’s customary penetrative intelligence. The vitriolic reaction to the book in some quarters, including from some who freely admitted that they had not even read it, said less about Achebe than it did about the anemic condition of public discourse in Nigeria, especially the triumph of ad hominem illogicality over reason and civility.
While I disagreed with some of his conclusions, I recognized that the work was a personal testament crafted to memorialize his own experiences rather than an attempt to fashion an objective historical record. Achebe did not seek to write with the clinical detachment of an impartial scholar but with the raw emotional depth of a scarred participant-observer. Its personal bias did not detract from the work but merely emphasized that the post-civil war generation cannot base its grasp of history on one writer’s recall. For Achebe’s There was a Country, one should read Ken Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain to see how two writers can interpret the same event differently, and more importantly, how writers can offer only pieces of the puzzle of our past. The more pieces we gather, the more informed we are.
Like Achebe and Okigbo, Saro-Wiwa had finished from Government College, Umuahia before proceeding to the University of Ibadan. During the civil war, he had served as the federal administrator of Bonny in the belief that his Ogoni homeland would not be served by being a part of Biafra. In later years, he became an advocate of autonomy for minority ethnic groups and a critic of military rule even and was executed by the Abacha regime in 1995.
It is worth noting that figures like Raph Uwechue, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ukpabi Asika and MCK Ajuluchukwu issued very different views on the civil war that did not levy blame on Awolowo or alleged jihadists but considerably on the Biafran leadership itself. To assume that Achebe’s book is some kind of definitive bible of the civil war is to misrepresent both the work and his motive for writing what is a personal perspective on a harrowing period.
Regardless, Achebe’s overarching theme in his last work was a heartfelt frustration with Nigeria that was itself deeply Nigerian. His charge of genocide against the Gowon regime called attention to the inhumanity of the post-colonial state and to our own tendency to amnesia. “Nigerians laugh at tragedy,” he once said by way of rebuke. At a time when we have become desensitized to violence and shrug off mass slaughter wrought by terrorists as a tragic normalcy, Achebe called attention to the slow hemorrhaging of our humanity. He was calling us to empathy. His urgent prescription – that Nigeria abandon the doomed infatuation with mediocrity that holds her in bondage and enthrone a meritocracy especially in her leadership selection – is undeniably our country’s path to salvation.
Achebe followed his activist instincts into Second Republic politics where he joined Mallam Aminu Kano’s People’s Redemption Party along with Arthur Nwankwo, Uche Chukwumerije (like Achebe, former Biafran functionaries), Soyinka and other intellectuals. The choice of teaming up with a Northerner who had served on Gowon’s war cabinet during the civil war was all the more significant at the time because most Igbo elites were in the ruling National Party of Nigeria (which the Biafran war leader Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu returned from exile to join) or the Nigerian Peoples’ Party led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. Achebe penned a moving tribute to Aminu Kano, “a saint and a revolutionary” whom he admired for his complete identification “through struggle with the fate of the downtrodden…. Nigeria cannot be the same again because Aminu Kano lived here,” he wrote.
It is part of the pathology of our public discourse that different groups seek to appropriate national icons and induct them into ethnically-exclusive pantheons. Through this vain and narrow-minded sense of ownership, we shrink national heroes into the parameters framed by our prejudices. Achebe’s legacy defies such efforts. He was unabashedly Igbo but his interests were broadly humanist, African and undisputedly Nigerian. As he put it, “Nigeria is where God in his infinite wisdom chose to plant me.” He retained a thoroughly tested faith in Nigerian exceptionalism; a fervent belief that the country has been marked out by providence for leadership and was being subverted by mediocre leaders.
For those who have surrendered to millennial despondency and fatalism about Nigeria’s prospects and see an apocalyptic revolution as the only way out, Achebe offered perhaps his most important message in Anthills of the Savannah: “The sweeping, majestic visions of people rising victorious like a tidal wave against their oppressors and transforming their world with theories and slogans of a new heaven and a new earth of brotherhood, justice and freedom are at best grand illusions. The rising, conquering tide, yes; but the millennium afterwards, no! New oppressors will have been readying themselves secretly in the undertow long before the tidal wave got really going. Experience and intelligence warn us that man’s progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it.”
In other words, there will be no miracle cures or quick fixes; only generations expanding the frontiers of our collective possibilities slowly and agonizingly, inch by tortuous inch, confronting charlatans and power-mongers with the weapons of truth and imagination. Creative writers matter in this regard because, as the Zikist politician Adegoke Adelabu once wrote, “Truth stands no chance of receiving an audience unless it is clothed in fashion, adumbrated in novelty, adorned in sensationalism and enthroned on the pedestal of originality.” Or as an Achebean character tells us, “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control; they frighten all usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”
The luminaries of generations past are leaving us in droves – Cyprian Ekwensi, Stanley Macebuh, Claude Ake, Bala Usman, Gani Fawehinmi, etc. Soyinka and his surviving peers are lions in winter but the grizzled Nobel laureate still steadfastly registers his presence at the barricades when it is needed. At a time when the avatars of mediocrity appear to have permanently installed themselves in the sanctums of power while subverting the possibility of collective action with sectarian rhetoric, the duty of speaking truth to power and reaffirming our shared humanity has never been greater. We must engage in what Achebe called “the patriotic action of proselytizing for decent and civilized political values.” Achebe left us a great literary and moral inheritance. We can only begin to repay the debt we owe him to future generations by inaugurating our own chapter of the struggle that he so valiantly engaged in.