Friday, June 23, 2017

Swan Song Of The Iroko: The Life, Time And Works Of Chinua Achebe: The Lessons For Nigeria

By Professor Umelo Ojinmah

(Paper presented at the Memorial Symposium in Honour of Professor Chinua Achebe by Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) on 20 May 2013 at International Conference Centre, Abuja)
*Chinua Achebe 

There are few writers that their lives and works have been studied as much as Achebe’s. His novels, especially, Things Fall Apart is standard reading in many high schools in America and Europe, including Germany, and all over Africa and Asia. I know that my work on Achebe was excerpted and is used in a text, Novels for Students Vol. 33 Ed. Sara Constantakis (2010) for high school students in America

Most of us here have critiqued one of Achebe’s work or the other.  Achebe has influenced writers from all over the world – Europe, America, Australia, and Asia. The New Zealand Maori writer, Witi Ihimaera, acknowledges that he was influenced by Chinua Achebe. He became one of the most famous indigenous writers of the Maori nation and has, himself, influenced a new generation of Maori writers. As editor of the African Writers Series, Achebe edited and mentored a host of African Writers including Ngugi Wa Thiong’0.  Elechi Amadi in a recent interview accepted as much, that they all were influenced by Achebe, which is one of the reasons he is seen as the father of African Literature. Growing up, many of us never knew how books are made. For us, Shakespeare was that nebulous but wonderful writer who weaved magic with words that our teachers asked us to memorise. It was Achebe that made us realise that writers were flesh and blood like us; that is what Achebe did for so many people, bringing literature to life and kindling our interest in writing.

 I: Life and Time 
When  Karl Maier’s This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis was published in 2000 there was the usual hue and cry by Nigeria’s elites and politicians on what they saw as the denigration of the Nigerian state. Coming seventeen years after the publication of Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria  (1983) it was amazing that despite the obvious kleptocracies of those at  leadership positions at both state and national levels that have stunted development of the Nigerian state, people still shouted themselves hoarse about the conclusion of Karl Maier’s This House has Fallen. A conclusion that Chinua Achebe had drawn and foretold seventeen years earlier. 

Although this paper celebrates the life and achievements of Chinua Achebe, as a writer and social critic, in the light of the furore generated by There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra and the level of discourse that it has precipitated, I was tempted to jump into the fray, but I quickly realised that what was happening was, in fact, what Chinua Achebe wanted. To draw attention to those issues raised, debate them, criticize them, but definitely not ignore them or sweep them under the carpet). Chinedu Aroh writes that “Achebe … feels the forty-two years the book took him to release shows the seriousness therein. According to Pourhamrang Achebe ‘had to find the right vehicle that could “carry our anguish, our sorrow ... the scale of dislocation and destruction ... our collective pain’’’ (cited in NewsRays, 2012, 40). 

The only sad note, particularly for Achebe scholars, is that the people who should be debating these issues are not; the leaders and government functionaries whose actions impact on the lives of the citizens. For it is for such people that There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra was written, so that we do not continue to play the ostrich as a nation. Achebe’s death has brought out all manner of critics and pseudo-critics. Recently, Odia Ofeimun, in his interview with Ademola Adegbamigbe and Nehru Odeh, under the guise of reacting to Chinua  Achebe’s  There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra took a hefty swipe at The Trouble with Nigeria thirty years after its publication claiming that:
We loved him so much for what he wrote that we hardly ever challenged some of the most contentious positions in his novels and in his non-fiction writings. Achebe said many things that are thoroughly wrong and that we ought to have contested very sharply and strongly.

Ofeimun states that “The trouble with Nigeria is not just bad leadership. That is the first bad point” yet by the time he had summed up Awolowo’s credentials he said “Now, it is good never to forget that what saved Awolowo was not just leadership….” Basic English lesson teaches us that when you use expressions such as “…was not just…” it presupposes that leadership is NOT excluded but included. Of course, it also means that there are other things that make up the qualities being advocated but the important thing is the acknowledgement that leadership is included.

This therefore raises the question of why Ofeimun left the review of Achebe’s recent book, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, and concentrated his energy into trying to demolish a thirty year old book whose premise and conclusions, if the reader has been in Nigeria, are unassailable. The answer is simply that Ofeimun took strong exceptions to the continued references to Awolowo’s actions during the Nigeria-Biafran war that cost the loss of millions of lives, mostly children, on the Biafran side, and not finding a handle with Achebe’s account chose to rebut the old book. Rudolf Okonkwo’s review of There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra titled “A Sacrament for Biafra of October 12, 2012 states that Achebe:
Slams Obafemi Awolowo for allowing his political ambition to diminish his humanity. He holds Awolowo responsible for ‘hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation – eliminating two million people, mainly members of future generations’.

What is very interesting is that these strident defenders of Awolowo have not claimed that their master never did those things ascribed to him:
He states that Awolowo, being the federal commissioner of finance at the time, was among the ‘hard-liners in Gowon’s cabinet who wanted [the Igbo’s] pound of flesh’ using a banking policy … ‘which nullified any bank account which had been operated during the civil war … pauperizing the Igbo middle class and earning a profit of 4 million pounds for the federal government’ (p. 46).

Chinedu Aroh writes that Ibrahim Jubrin agrees with Achebe that the 20 pounds policy, indigenization decree and the abandoned property policy of Gowon were targeted at ‘pauperizing the Igbo’. As such, he asserts, “Achebe has done Nigeria a lot of good by demanding that we look more closely at the history of the civil war and learn more of what we did to ourselves” (p. 56).

 Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye comments that “Achebe has a long history of forthrightness”. This forthrightness that he and many other critics have alluded to is one of Achebe’s crosses that he has to bear. Achebe has noted that the crossroad of cultures is fraught with many perils but also comes with some boons. He said one can get lost there but also one can return with prophetic vision. Achebe is one of those whose eyes the gods have wringed with “nzu” the white chalk and accompanying the prophetic is forthrightness. After Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God in which he showed that the African had a culture worthy of celebration before the advent of colonial imperialism, Achebe in both A Man of the People, No Longer at Ease, and Anthills of the Savannah according to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o had made “it impossible or inexcusable for other African writers to do other than address themselves directly to their audiences in Africa…and tell them that such problems are their concerns” and holds Africans, nay, Nigerians responsible for their underdevelopment; Achebe systematically captures every stage of Nigeria’s political and economic atmosphere, particularly, Nigeria’s penchant for not learning from her mistakes. However, by the time Achebe wrote Anthills of the Savannah it was obvious to discerners that the house was wobbling. There was a Country- A Personal History of Biafra is a summation of all Achebe’s works. There is no groundbreaking revelation in the book per se, except for the section on Ifeajuna. Achebe has said very much everything contained therein in one way or another over the years.  Achebe has been pointing at where the rain began to beat us but those who should, have refused to listen. Achebe’s life and writings chronicle the Nigerian state.

 Assessing Achebe’s social consciousness which informs many of his writings in my book Chinua Achebe: New Perspectives  I had stated that Achebe believes that the African writer:
Must not only rescue his society’s past, but must also be a commentator on its present course. Achebe believes that the writer has to be a free critic in a society lacking such criticism. On this Chukwudi Maduka [agrees] that to most of the African writers… there is a direct relationship between literature and social institutions. The principal function of literature is to criticise these institutions and eventually bring about desirable changes in society (p.5).

II: Works 
“It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grand-children, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story”(p.3).

 Achebe opens the writing of There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra with a proverb that he has used many times “that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body”. Another Igbo proverb says that if you look at where a crying child is insistently pointing, you will see either the father or the mother. It is imperative to understand the driving force behind Achebe’s consistent use of this proverb. Some critics have impudently suggested that Achebe had lost faith in the Nigerian project and that the death of Biafra disillusioned him (Including such elder writers of Achebe’s generation as Elechi Amadi). He has made no apologies to anyone about his personal beliefs but such readings are perfunctory.  Achebe writes that “most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were different. Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal – natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria” (p.2). The disillusionment is not anchored on either Nigeria or Biafra as nation states, but on “our inability” to manage whatever is placed in our hands. Achebe traces this to the elevation of mediocrity to the level of an art in Nigeria:
Nigeria, on the other hand, is a country where it would be difficult to point to one important job held by the most competent person we have. I stand to be corrected….Look at our collapsing public utilities, our inefficient and wasteful parastatals and state-owned companies.  If you want electricity, you buy your own generator; if you want water, you sink your own bore-hole; if you want to travel, you set up your own airline” (The Trouble with Nigeria, pp.19-20).

Achebe is not the only writer that is disillusioned about the pace of development of the Nigerian project, as far back as 1983, Soyinka had assessed our first set of legislators and concluded that it was not yet Uhuru “I took one look at our first set of legislators…when they visited the UK and talked to students, I listened to them, watched them, and I knew… that instant, I think I received what the Japanese might term political satori you know, instant illumination. I realised that the first enemy was within” (Biodun Jeyifo, Introduction: based on “Interview with Wole Soyinka,” Six Plays by Wole Soyinka,(London:   Methuen, 1984, p.xiii).  Both Achebe and Soyinka are agreed on the fact that a writer in any given society should be at the vanguard of pointing that society in the direction it should go; for according to Achebe, “reacting to a widespread sentiment in the years following the Nigerian civil War, 1967-1970, that the recent past was best forgotten”  he had said in the preface to his book of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day:
I do not agree. I believe that in our situation the greater danger lies not in remembering but in forgetting, in pretending that slogans are the same as truth; and that Nigeria, always prone to self-deception, stands in great need of reminders…. I believe that if we are to survive as a nation we need to grasp the meaning of tragedy. One way to do it is to remind ourselves constantly of the things that happened and how we felt when they were happening. (Morning Yet on Creation Day, p.xiii).

This is the same sentiment that many critics of There was a Country- A Personal History of Biafra are reacting to; that Achebe has dislodged the hornets’ nest by writing the book, he should let sleeping dogs lie. However, the fact is that Nigeria, both as a nation and a people, prefer to forget and not remember past mistakes; prefer to play the ostrich by burying her head in the sand while all her body is protruding and exposed to the outside world and pretending that she is hidden. 

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye in his review of Chinua Achebe’s Therewas a Country- A Personal History of Biafra of October 10, 2012 reiterates Achebe’s comments above that the:
Greater danger is in choosing not to remember and suppressing ugly history, because we lose the redemptive opportunity of allowing the high costs of past mistakes, the mortification that comes from regular encounters with the unpleasant consequences of unedifying decisions and indecent actions, to moderate the choices we make today and the actions we undertake. Indeed, forgetting emboldens men to unleash far worse horrors with greater impunity having at the back of their minds that they live in a society that has learnt to easily forget, where actions, no matter how hideous, attract little or no retribution. And Nigeria, like Achebe has long observed which is ‘always prone to self-deception, stands in great need of reminders.’

 Rudolf Okonkwo states that Achebe in reappraising of the Nigeria’s sordid journey connects the failure of the Nigerian state and the rise of terrorism to Nigeria’s long history of condoning violence
Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens – mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or indigenes of the Middle Belt; and others – with impunity”.

 In a paper “The Voice of the Pen: Literature as Alternative tool in Environmental Activism” at the African conference on Overcoming the African Predicament Humbolt University, Berlin, Germany in 2009 and published in 2010, I had drawn the attention of the Government and people of Nigeria to the myriad of efforts that writers have made to draw government’s attention to its civic responsibilities to its citizens which government was shirking; and the fact that the haste with which government accommodated the Niger Delta militants bodes evil for the nation:
Writers [such as] Soyinka, Achebe, Saro Wiwa, Agary, and a host of others have used their pen to advocate alternatives to militant activism even at the cost of personal peril. Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow and essay “My Blessing, My Curse” both assay the predicaments of the Niger Delta, drawing attention to the plight of both the people and their environment. Considering that Ken Saro Wiwa, wrote countless volumes and shouted himself hoarse on the Niger Delta question and ultimately was killed for it, the speed with which the government of Nigeria responded to armed militancy and the royal treatment given to leaders of the various militant groups question the hope of dialogue and the voice of the pen as alternative agents for resolution of conflicts and environmental activism anywhere in Nigeria, but most importantly in the Niger Delta (p. 280).

For Chinua Achebe, recognizing that his end was near, the writing of There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, documenting each step of the way, what happened and who did what, was therefore, the last attempt to tell Nigeria, both as a country and a people where the rain began to beat us, in the hope that someone would listen, wake up and turn the country in the right direction. Those reading negative imputations are being mischievous. Most critics that have studied Achebe’s works are fascinated by the fecundity of Achebe’s mind. Even a book as old as Things Fall Apart, when you re-read it, you begin to see layers of meanings and deeper thoughts than you earlier perceived. Chinedu Aroh mentions comments credited to General Gowon which are mind-boggling to say the least. These statements quoted by Enekwechi are that: “Most of those who accused us of genocide were looking well fed at the end of the war”  and that “the book  [is] ‘propaganda … to whip up unnecessary sentiments....that no other book about the civil war ‘had been as controversial as that of Achebe, which accused me and Chief Awolowo of genocide against the Igbo’  and his comments in Hamagam (2012)  that, “Achebe must have been outside the country during the war and probably did not know what happened...” attest to the need for a book like There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. To remind us what happened and how we felt when they were happening. It is sad that someone such as Gowon would forget so soon. If nothing justifies the publication of that book, such comments by one of the dramatis personae which indicates that he may have truly forgotten or himself not known the extent of what happened justifies the book.

The Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, said that, “The Igbo were victims of genocide during the three-year civil war, which was fought to break up Nigeria,” (interview with the Telegraph cited in Abonyi, 2012); and Soyinka justifies the secession bid and describes Biafrans as ‘people who’d been abused, who’d undergone genocide, and who felt completely rejected by the rest of the community, and therefore decided to break away and form a nation of its own.’ According to Chinedu Aroh, Asaju (2013) says that those who castigate Achebe fail to understand his salient message. To him, “Achebe’s account of the civil war is not as much an excoriation of the roles of the dramatis personae ... but of the hard lessons that has (sic) made us all casualties of the insouciance of officialdom” (24). This view is shared by Olu Obafemi who believes that those who condemn Achebe do not grasp the contents of the book. According to him, “It is a pity that people will evaluate, judge, interpret, eulogise and denounce a book they have not read!” (39).

 III: Lessons for Nigeria
 There are many lessons for Nigeria from the life and times of Chinua Achebe. Primarily is the lesson of hard work and reward system. Achebe documents how he and his generation laboured and the dividends are that virtually every one of their generation, is contented even if not stupendously rich. It is hard to imagine an Achebe, or Soyinka, or Elechi Amadi building a house and constructing an underground bunker stocked with emergency food items as many rich Nigerian are doing these days. There was a time Nigerians were noted for their industry; those days are long gone. The general paralysis of our work places evidence this indolence. Too many people are willing to take the shortest cut to anything and Nigeria as a Nation must, itself, learn from its past mistakes.

That the government of Nigeria would set up a negotiating team to discuss with Boko haram and just within the same month clamp a state of emergency on three states and unleash soldiers into those states speaks volume of our governance. We always put the cart before the horse. We have heard it so often, that the devil finds work for the idle hands, yet it does not seem to register with our leaders. Writers have been drawing attention to the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” for a long time. The same song that Boko Haram extremists are singing; the same song that some other “extremists” are also shouting. Yet government pays lip service to these issues. Today, Nigeria is at war with Boko Haram that necessitates the use of fighter planes, jet bombers, and attack helicopters. In most developed economies, cottage industries mop up the youths from the streets. Imagine for a minute, the quantum amount of money the government wastes on its poverty alleviation programmes: buying SUVs, paying bloated staff, office over heads etc. Yet creating cottage industry cells e.g. in Benue State; because of the rich fruit basket. Government can set up pulping cottage industry that pulps mangos, pawpaw, orange, etc and freezes them for sale to juice makers, who in turn make juices which they sell to people and schools etc. Such a chain will mop up a lot of youths from the streets and away from evil. And also the wastages of fruits and vegetables that we see litter our highways on a daily basis. For as long as the youths have nothing to do, they will be available to anyone willing to engage them. That should be a lesson to Government. I can almost hear Achebe chuckling.

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