By Kole Omotosho
IF there is nothing to say, there are some people who would say, one should shut up. But, for writers, when there is nothing to say, is when they are at their best in saying nothing new.
A harvest of the reviews and responses to Chinua Achebe’s There was a country across the globe makes more interesting reading than the book itself. The responses can be divided into three categories.
There are those from writers of Igbo origin, Achebe’s nationality, which cannot even pretend to be anything but praise singers of their idol.
There are those from writers of Yoruba origin, the nationality of Achebe’s bête noir, Obafemi Awolowo. Achebe blames all the woes of the Igbo in Nigeria on Obafemi Awolowo. The third group of responses comes from outsiders simply interested in the health of Achebe’s writing.
Achebe’s book makes the point that Awolowo prevented Nnamdi Azikiwe from becoming the Premier of the Western Region in 1951 by encouraging some members of Azikiwe’s party to cross over to Awolowo’s party.
My very personal response to this piece of misreading of history is that it was a good thing, in fact a great thing, that Azikiwe did not become the Premier of Western Region.
This is mainly because Azikiwe could never have done for the Western Region what Awolowo did for the region.
The second point that Achebe makes is that Awolowo organised the genocide of the Igbo people by insisting that hunger was a legitimate weapon of war.
As the Ndigbo in Lagos, Achebe’s own people have pointed out in their response to the controversy that their kins man’s book has generated, Awolowo explained things back in 1983 and his explanation should have closed the issue but not for Achebe.
The Yoruba responses have been simply to point out, as Ndigbo in Lagos have pointed out, that Awolowo had responded to this particular accusation and others years ago and Achebe is simply flogging a dead horse.
A reviewer in the South
African Mail and Guardian wondered if it was right for an elder to not represent the truth as it is. He praises Achebe’s pioneering novel, Things Fall Apart. Everybody does. But why would he want to publish this now, especially when most of the material is already available in his other publications?
It is possible to say that just as many of the essays of Achebe have been published in different collections with different titles, perhaps his other writings are to be repackaged in different collections under different titles.
The review that appears in the London Financial Times, written by William Wallis, FT’s Africa editor, is, for me, one of the most interesting. It is worth quoting at length from this review.
Here goes: “Achebe’s prognosis for his country is grim. ‘Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage, and Nigeria will die if we continue to pretend that she is only slightly indisposed,’ he writes. Before arriving at that bleak conclusion, however, he stitches his story together joltingly, moving from the autobiographical to the historical and ending with something of a rant.
There is an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes buried here and there, but this is not a book that will add much to the understanding of the war, nor one that will go down among Achebe’s great works.”
Personally, two things bother me about this book. The first is its timing. The second has to do with the issue of mediocrity.
Why is Achebe publishing this book now, after the death of Ojukwu the leader and president of Biafra? Ojukwu is not the hero of the book as one would have expected. After all, he was the driving force and the face of Biafra. Ojukwu himself wrote nothing during his life time to state the rationale for his declaration of Biafra.
Achebe does not provide any intellectual arguments that placed Biafra over Nigeria in terms of superiority of intention, compactness of development alternative agenda and clarity of national vision for the people of Biafra, of Nigeria and of Africa. For me this is the great failure of this book.
There was a country, but other than the temporary anger about the killings in the North, there was no justification for declaring a state of Biafra that had nothing over the Nigeria that Achebe left behind to work for Biafra.
Mediocrity is one of the problems which Achebe identifies as bedevilling Nigeria. Was Biafra devoid of mediocrity? One of the sins of Nigerian intellectuals, including Achebe, is their readiness to tolerate mediocrity in the politics of their country, be the country Nigeria or Biafra.
What superior argument did Chinua Achebe provide to justify or to counter the secession of Biafra? We live with the consequences of mediocrity today and nobody wants to know!