Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Chinua Achebe At 86: A Tribute

By Dan Amor
When the celebrated and consummate novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe died on Thursday March 21, 2013 in a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America at 82, his loss was mourned not only by African writers but by statesmen and citizens of the world whom one would not readily accuse of an interest in literature. What this means is that the romantic emphasis upon the human ego which is implied in the last degree of subjectivity in romantic thought brought about a characteristic motif in the twentieth-century social life-the cult of the superman, the leader, the hero, the born man of genius, who can raise himself above the common herd and lead his people to greater height of attainment than mankind had previously reached. There seems to be a commonly held view, even among literary practitioners, that Achebe was a genius- the Eagle on Iroko in the African literature forest. He was a novelist. But there are novelists and there are novelists.
*Chinua Achebe 
In fact, there were great novelists before him in the vast cosmos of comparative literature: Henry James, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, etcetera. Yet, Achebe was a logical successor to these great men of letters in the last literary generation of the twentieth century. Prof. Abiola Irele, easily one of Africa's most distinguished literary scholars and critics, noted in his reaction to the news of Achebe's death: "My first reaction when I heard the news of Achebe's death was of sadness. I am very sad to hear the news of the death of Achebe. It is a great loss. I have known him since 1962. He was a wonderful man personally. Somehow, he was not sentimental. It was Achebe who shaped African literature and gave it a standing in the world. It is something that should be commended".
There was indeed no African writer who ever influenced the thinking of his time, either in his literary output or political interventions, more than Achebe. By working so conscientiously at the interface between indigenous and English literatures, Achebe more than any living African novelist, has cultivated the English language with superstitious veneration. No writer has conceived it possible that the dialect of peasants and market women should possess sufficient energy and precision for a majestic and durable work. Achebe ventures African thought into the English language with remarkable simplicity. He detects the rich treasures of thought and diction, which still lay latent in their ore in the African traditional life. He refines them into purity and burnishes them into splendor thus fitting them for every purpose of use and magnificence.

Above all, Achebe elevated literature to the psyche of struggle for the oppressed and voiceless majority. Besides the reflection of social and political values in his work as an artist, Achebe believed that the artist, the novelist or poet also plays a critical role in explaining and interpreting the nuances of his society to those without. His action proved that it was impossible for the writer not to be involved in the politics of his time, and that the concept of "art for art's sake" could produce only sterility. In the recent past, Achebe, Nigeria's world renowned novelist and Africa's foremost storyteller declined to accept one of his country's highest and most prestigious national honours twice. He was to be fittingly honored for outstanding contribution to national development, for advancing the nation's international profile and for championing the cause of humanity.
In refusing to accept the awards, Achebe cited what he characterized as the continued meddlesomeness and unmitigated fiefdom of the then Olusegun Obansanjo-led government in the affairs of his native Anambra state. He also interrogated the spectre of the flagrant abuse of constitutional procedures and the rule of law in a democracy, the wanton violation of individual and people's freedoms and fundamental right to fair representation and the thriving of official corruption, the national malaise which, paradoxically, the government had sworn zero tolerance to. But he had not been alone in navigating the postcolonial African condition. Writers like Ngugi, Jack Mapanje, Nuriddin Farah, Bessie Head, etcetera, have similarly interrogated their nation states, and paid dearly for it, either with imprisonment or exile.
Achebe's political treatise, The Trouble With Nigeria has insightfully dwelt on this predatory proclivity of the political leadership in Nigeria and Africa. Thus, in his perception, "the main problem in contemporary Nigerian society, as well as in many independent African societies, is the lack of restraint in wielding power, added to an unbridled scramble for materialism, which in most cases result in the destruction of democratic principles". It was therefore Achebe's courageous conviction that the only viable solution to the society's post-colonial tensions should be a reformation of the inherited values around society's traditional world-view. As we celebrate the birth of this avatar of African literature whose place in the pantheon of the gods is assured, we enjoin his contemporaries, the younger generation of African writers and those who love him to preserve and promote the values he stood for. He would have been 86 today. Happy birthday, Prof.
*Dan Amor, a public affairs analyst writes from Abuja (

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