At the Achebe colloquim
By Obi Nwakanma
I was present last weekend at the Achebe Colloquium in Providence, Rhode Island, and I was struck once more by the irony of the situation, and the incongruity of Nigeria’s neo-colonial situation.
While Chinua Achebe at 82 does his best to rally the issues around Africa and keep the discussions going, there is nonetheless this sneaky feeling that age, time, and circumstance have come upon this great African intellectual statesman and forced him to choices that he may have possibly shuddered at in his younger, more vigorous, and more combative years.
I think of Chinua Achebe who wrote the famous letter in 1985 to the Swedish Academy rejecting the invitation to come to Stockholm in the conviction that it was now time for Africans to discuss matters regarding Africa in Africa. There is still truth to that assertion, but too many things have happened in the interval since Achebe made those brave statements.
For one thing, Achebe has suffered the trauma of a near-fatal accident that has left him wheelchair-bound. The story of Chinua Achebe in the last twenty-three years is the story of bravery and resilience against a most trying circumstance.
Achebe’s survival has been dependent mostly on the support of a strong and close-knit family, and by the institutional support that he has enjoyed, first at Bard College, New York, and now at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, which now supports the annual Achebe colloquium.
It makes access to some of the best medical care possible, and in the circumstance, allows one of the 20th century’s most remarkable men of letters the ambit to continue to pursue the central questions of his time, particularly the question of Africa, its condition, and its relationship with the rest of the world in the current century.
Living in the United States of America has kept Chinua Achebe alive and productive. It is sad and ironic that Achebe remains in something of an involuntary exile because his medical and psychological needs could not be met in the land that he loves fiercely – Nigeria – and he thus subverts in some very crucial ways the very core of his early principles.
In Nigeria, Achebe would have gone to seeds. If by some miracle he remained alive, his mind would be incubating in a gilded cage. He would have statutorily retired from the University, even though he remains emeritus Professor at Nsukka. He would no longer be sharpening or involved in the quest for strategic ideas.
They would have taken him to Ogidi and made him the “Igwe of his autonomous community” – just like VC Ike, or Laz Ekwueme, or Chike Edozien or Green Nwankwo, or Chuka Okonjo, and so many more, who ought to have been the institutional pillars providing institutional memory in the Nigerian university system but who have succumbed to the charade and theatre of unproductive pseudo-monarchies complete with all its masquerade costumes.
So, in a complicated way, Achebe is a lucky man; but Nigeria is unlucky, because if it had all its faculties intact, the Achebe colloquium should have been at Nsukka or even at Achebe’s alma mater at Ibadan. It should have provided the context and strategic continuities for Nigeria’s and Africa’s intellectual life, and its quest to engage with the rest of the world.
The tenor of discussion at the Achebe colloquium last weekend marked the neo-colonial character of Nigeria. At the core was the question of the security and even viability of the African states, with the interventions by General Carter Ham, the Commander of Africom, Jendayi Frazer, former Assistant Secretary of state for African Affairs in the State Department in the Bush administration, John Campbell and Walter Carrington, former US ambassadors to Nigeria and Horace Campbell, Professor of Politics at Syracuse University.
The next frontier for the global war on terror has shifted from Asia to Africa, and Nigeria is clearly the epicenter of this war. The larger implication will soon be clear to Nigerians. There is of course this sneaky fear that Nigeria as a nation-state is far too fractured, suffering too much from structural and internal decays to anticipate the crucial challenges of the 21st century, and contain the threats to its sovereign status and boundaries.
The militarization of the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea is a profound threat to the security and sovereignty of the Nigerian state, a point former Ambassador Carrington made in a unique way at the colloquium. A more immediate and interesting aspect of the colloquium however was the address by Mr. Fashola, governor of Lagos who addressed a broad spectrum of issues, including the bogeyman, corruption.
“Corruption” he said “is the symptom of a more deadly problem, desperation.” There is truth in that. There is truth also in the fact that the public sector – the crucial driver of every national development – has atrophied, losing the best of Nigeria’s skilled manpower to the private sector.
It is a trend that began in 1987, especially, with the policy emphasis of the Babangida regime on privatization and deregulation, and its highpoint of capitalist fundamentalism. We have tried it, and by Fashola’s testimony, it is quite clear it has failed.
It is time to rebuild Nigeria’s public institutions – the civil service, the public schools, the universities, the hospitals, and all the service-rendering and institutional building mechanisms that would re-attract the best trained and most talented Nigerians to public service.