Chinua Achebe: A Non-Romantic View, By Ibrahim Bello-Kano

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Indeed, we cannot help wondering if the recent insensate massacre of Chinua’s people in Kano, only a few days ago, hastened the fatal undermining of that resilient will that had sustained him so many years after his crippling accident.

—Wole Soyinka and J. P. Clark. “Chinua Achebe Death: We Have Lost a Brother”. The Guardian (UK), March 22, 2013.

There is no doubt that Chinua Achebe, who died last week in the United States after a long residence there probably because it was better for him to live there than in Nigeria, was, by many accounts, an outstanding writer. His first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), received wide critical acclaim soon after its publication, which came in the wake of the great wave of decolonization. A year before the publication of the novel, Ghana became the first independent African country, in 1957. Things Fall Apart  was published at a time when non-Western but Western educated intellectuals and cultural nationalists were looking around for indigenous cultural documents that could vindicate pre-colonial African cultures, in what the British-Indian writer, Salman Rushdie once called, in memorable phrase, “writing back to the Centre” (the West).

It was arguably in that context, the urgent need, by the African literati, to produce an African narrative that would vindicate indigenous African cultures which were heavily denigrated by centuries of Western writers, priests, and colonial administrators, rather than the novel’s intrinsic literary merits, that brought Things Fall Apart to prominence, at least within the post-nationalistic African intelligentsia. The same may be said of Achebe’s other novels: their timing, 1960-1966, was fortunate because there was, then, a large literate international English-speaking reading public eager to get access to the new African writing, not to speak of publishers such as Heinemann which were looking to cash in on it all. Again, it was in that context that Achebe’s works were appropriated for all kinds of culture wars, especially within the ranks of militant post-colonial intellectuals.

Achebe’s collection of essays on literature, cultural politics, and colonial history, from the early Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) to the later Hopes and Impediments (1989) and Home and Exile (2000) sealed his reputation as an African or Black cultural critic, activist, and nationalist. His other novels, No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), Man of the People (1966), not to mention short stories and poems such as Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) and Beware, Soul Brother and Other Poems (1971) were widely admired by critics and literary historians for their “realistic” and, some would say, vivid, subtle, and complex portrait of the African, or, at least, “the Nigerian condition”, which, to this day, has persisted in more complicated forms.

Achebe was also the influential editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, between 1962 and 1972. Under his direction, the series published some of the most canonical of African writers such as Alex La Guma, Taha Hussein, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Doris Lessing, Ayi Kwei Armah, Tayeb Salih, Bessie Head, Cheik Hamidou Kane, Okot p’Bitek, and nationalist intellectuals such as  Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah.

Chiefly because of his first novel, and his pioneering role as the editor of the African Writers Series, many have considered Achebe as the “father of African fiction” (or the founding father, even the grandfather, of modern African literature), a dubious claim that Achebe himself could not accept, since, as he knew in his lifetime, there were many African writers of fiction and non-fiction that wrote compelling accounts of African cultural and social life well before he was born. Claims for Achebe as being the “father of African fiction or literature” are based on a partial and reductive view of Africa’s literary history, or a diminution of African writing to a minor position within the Western literary tradition.

Late Prof Chinua Achebe

Late Prof Chinua Achebe

Yet there had been indigenous African writing in native languages. Consider, for example, the case of the Basotho (Lesotho) writer and novelist, Thomas Mopoku Mafolo (1876-1948), the celebrated author of Chaka the Zulu (1912-15?), which many literary historians have called a masterpiece, an epic tragedy, and, in the words of a reviewer, “the earliest major contribution of black Africa to the corpus of modern world literature”. One could cite the example of the celebrated Yoruba writer, D. O. Fagunwa, author of Odo Ninu Igbo Irunmale (1936), or the works of the Arab writer, Naguib Mahfouz, and countless other writers who wrote in Hausa, Tamashek, Amharic, Wolof, and so on. Indeed, no one author or person could have begun what we call today “African writing”. The African literary tradition is far older, more enduring, and more complex than the alleged effort of a single author, however gifted. In any case, the idea of Achebe being the “father of African fiction” is not a scholarly argument but a romantic and naïve one because it ignores the major contributions of pre-colonial African authors and a huge corpus of African writing in Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

But whatever the artistic merit of Achebe’s work, which is considerable to say the least, it is in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1988), that his literary-story-telling skills began a terminal decline. Indeed the novel marks a notable decline in his liberal vision and creative acumen. The novel is, by any standard, a trivial thriller and is uneven in linguistic and literary quality. Arguably, large parts of Anthills read like pulp fiction, or a crudely crafted political thriller. The storyline is fragmented; the attempt at covert plotting is unsuccessful; the narrative exposition is slow and cumbrous; the style of representation is too thin and shallow; the plot is threadbare and thin, perhaps even superficial in many instances. The dialogue is unconvincing, heavy, and tedious, and the characterization is one-dimensional. For example, neither Ikem, Beatrice, Abdul on the one hand nor Professor Okon, Sam, and Osodi on the other has any emotional and psychological depth. Indeed no character in that novel has convincing uniqueness of character, and none is admirably individuated. Moreover, the characterization and dialogue are stagey, as can be seen in the first person account of the First Witness, Christopher Oriko (Chapter 1) and the dialogue in the opening section of Chapter 2. Anthill is also marred by obliquities of narration and an undisciplined, un-integrated multiplicity of viewpoints: the novel’s attempt at an epic-scale representation of a dystopian land and its failure to offer an intensely imagined, superbly coordinated narrative irony are telling. Yet all this may be accounted for by the novel’s melodramatic structure and the poor quality of its speech representation.

Frankly, Anthills of the Savannah is a disappointing work; little wonder it failed to win the 1987 Booker McConnell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. For example, the novel combines melodrama with a political roman á clef, as can be seen in the closing section of the narrative, the journey on the “Great North Road” (Chapter 17). Indeed, this chapter presents a veiled dystopian narrativization of northern Nigeria, which is variously called “the scrub-land”, “the scorched landscape”, “another country”, “full of dusty fields [and] bottomed baobab tree[s] so strange in appearance”, etc. In this novel, the rainforest (“the rain country”) of the South is favourably contrasted with the “parkland of grass and stunted trees… of mud walls and reddish earth”, the North. One conclusion, which, of course, may be problematic from a strictly literary-critical perspective, is that unlike the Exceptional Southerners, the Northerners don’t know how to make the North “prosperous” (the roads are full of pot holes) so that all the talented, intelligent, hardworking, economically gifted, and industrially-savvy Southerners could migrate to the North (perhaps in the mode of mission civilatrice), which is, as of now, wallowing in economic and social desperation (see the opening pages of Chapter 17).

The novel has other defects as well: the author’s heavily moralized, didactic view of life repeatedly intrudes in the narrative, and, in particular, in the facile and tired representation of the Military Ruler, the Head of Sate. Ikem and Beatrice’s romanticism, their romantic view of social relations, is clearly the real author’s because the entire drift of the narrative is towards a heavily moralized view of life (Light versus Darkness; Enlightenment versus Ignorance; Diligence versus Parasitism).

Yet it is in Achebe’s essay, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), that his romanticism comes full circle. In that book, Achebe argues that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership… the unwillingness and inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example” (p. 1). This postulation of Achebe’s ignores the deep structural constraints on human action and psychology. It is pre-critical to ignore the complex ways in which social structures mediate, modify, condition, and constrain human choices. Leadership works within institutional, historical, cultural, and economic contexts which place limits on what human agents can and cannot do. This notion of the structural determination of leadership means that a leader has inevitably to work within, and exist in, a system and a political logic whose proper system, laws, and operation his or her “leadership” cannot, by definition, dominate absolutely. The leader, despite his having a certain measure of freedom, has inevitably to be governed by the system within which he or she exists. And although men and women make their own history, they clearly do not make it as an act of will, or in their own freely-chosen circumstances, but under the structural constraints of the accumulated past and inherited traditions. This is what The Trouble with Nigeria has missed: Nigerian leaders cannot be the miraculous changed men or women of their country but the changed men and women of their country’s changed circumstances. This is the truth of the time-honoured liberal credo that the educator herself needs educating and that if leaders are educators, who will educate the educators?

From this perspective, Achebe’s conception of leadership may properly be called “voluntarism”, even a form of messianic thinking: on Achebe’s flawed logic, all a leader need do is become, by the force of sheer will power, a morally good person, who has only to lead by example rather than by veritable political principles. Achebe’s is another way of saying that Nigeria needs a strong leader, one who has miraculously escaped all the cultural and historical pressures of his community or country; in effect, a messiah. This dubiously Christian view of leadership is a convenient way of avoiding the complex problem of institutional, cultural, and historical constitution of subjectivity and moral choice in a multi-ethic, multi-religious country, one with a large, primordialist, backward-looking civil society. Indeed one reason for the failure of Achebe’s little book to capture the scholarly or popular imagination was its threadbare romanticism and an un-modern (a feudal and mystical) vision of political leadership.

Perhaps Achebe’s most disappointing book, or to phrase matters differently, his most inferior work, is There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). As a personal testament, the book vindicates the time-honored dictum that “the personal is political”. Perhaps we need not be critical of Achebe’s passionate defence of his ethnic group, or of the short-lived Biafra, and his role in it. Yet there is something distasteful about open myopia of blind ethnic solidarity or communal jingoism. What is striking about the book is its complete lack of a keen political insight, its petty romantic vision of Nigeria’s political history. For example, consider the book’s astonishing claims, namely that the Igbos wholly deserved their entrenched positions in the military, economic, and bureaucratic structures of pre-civil war Nigeria (“… the Igbos led the nation in virtually every sector— politics, education, commerce, and the arts”, pp. 66-67); that all non-Igbo Nigerians are united by their hatred for the Igbo ethnic group; and that British rule in Nigeria and elsewhere was not, as popularly assumed, an unmitigated disaster.

According to Achebe in There was a Country, the British government ruled the Nigerian colony “with considerable care… and competently… British colonies were more or less expertly run” (p. 43). In the same book, however, Achebe accuses British colonial officials of rigging the election and the population census in favour of conservative elements such as Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto from the “Islamic territories” (p. 46; Achebe does not say that the Igbo were from the “Christian territories”), people who “had played no real part in the struggle for independence” (p. 52). In addition, for Achebe it was the behaviour of the British that sowed the seeds of Nigeria’s eventual descent into civil war. If indeed Achebe has this rosy view of colonial rule, then his entire corpus of anti-colonial polemic and cultural nationalism has been in vain, or, in a way, a hypocritical effort at self-publicity.

Worse, Achebe argues, in an astonishing moment of historical revisionism, that the originators of the very idea of one-Nigeria were “leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region” (p. 52). This may explain why he credits Nnamdi Azikiwe with the enviable position of being “father of African independence” (“There was no question at all about that”, (p. 41). In sum, then, there are many instances of sloppy argument and poor judgment in the book, as, for example, Achebe’s claim that Nigeria failed to develop because the Igbo, despite their “competitive individualism” and a unique “adventurous spirit”, were excluded from Nigerian economic, social, and political life. Examples of Achebe’s unsophisticated political perception of things are, first, his lack of political sensitivity concerning non-Igbo political leaders such as Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The first two are seen by Achebe as ruled by inordinate ambition (“resuscitated ethnic pride”) and conservative traditionalism respectively. The latter Achebe almost casts into the role of a lackey of the Western world, which, he claims, turned (“built up”) Balewa through flattery into a great statesman (p. 51).

It is thus fair to say that, in There was a Country at least, Achebe is an overwhelmingly “ethnic nationalist”, an “Igbo-phile” (or a philo-Igbonis, to coin a new term), and a Biafra apologist to boot. He is, in this book at least, a homo duplex, the Double Man, in effect, both Biafran and Nigerian; Igbophile and Nationalist; Anti-colonial Writer and a Post-colonial Apologist of Expert British Rule. This should explain why the book has a schizoid thematic orchestration and its claims pressed within a phlegmatic stylistic mode, which, again and again, has proved incapable of sustained irony. Surely, then, There was a Country is a patchwork of Achebe’s deep, even unconscious, prejudices. In one moment after another, the book fails to offer a finely integrated presentation of a realistic historical, geographical, economic, and culturally diverse, though troubled, country.

So while I pay tribute to this important novelist and essayist, I should remark, at the same time, that we should not, in our romantic rush to venerate our little (culture) heroes, forget earlier illustrious and master English-speaking storytellers such as Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) and Cyprian Odiatu Ekwensi (1921-2007). Their books, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (written 1946 and published in 1952) and People of the City (1954), are two outstanding pieces of literature and narrative self-assertion that blazed the trail in modern, English-speaking African fiction writing. In the same manner, while we pay tribute to Achebe and his literary legacy, let us not also forget great post-colonial African storytellers such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Sambene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiog’o, and, not least, the incomparable Kenyan writer, Meja Mwangi, the author, in my opinion, of the finest African novel ever—Going Down River Road (1977).

As for Achebe, I say “goodbye”; for there was indeed a great novelist, but who, tragically, had to write the greatest anti-novel of his career—There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.

Professor Ibrahim Bello-Kano  is of the Department of English and French, Bayero University, Kano

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