The passing away of Chinua Achebe at 82 years on Friday March 22 reminds us of the African saying that it is advanced age we all pray to attain; no one can escape the final submission to the authority of death. Achebe burst into literary fame with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. The title became an undying image and symbol of confrontation with and resistance against European nations that invaded the African continent to colonise and exploit.
This was in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin conference of 1884-85 at which African territories were divided amongst the powerful European nations of the world. What is now Nigeria was allocated to Britain and, in the early 20th century, the British began to take effective control of the colonial territory. Guns and the forked tongues of Christian missionaries combined to subdue all resistance to British rule.
The imaginary Umuofia community of Things Fall Apart is caught in this whirlwind of forceful dispossession. They rally to regain their sovereignty but they are overwhelmed by the armed power and ideological weapon of Christianity, both of which put a knife into the unity of the village democracies and things truly fall apart. Okonkwo, the hero of the story, exemplifies this resistance but he is humiliated and destroyed in the process. This tragic experience of Africa has been narrated by eminent historians such as Kenneth Dike, from the same Anambra State of Nigeria as Achebe, Jacob Ade Ajayi, Obaro Ikime, Adu Boahen of Ghana, and Basil Davidson of Britain. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a political-economic version of the story.
Achebe creatively recycles the epic story of Okonkwo in subsequent narratives as the Africa-Europe tragic encounter is replayed in Arrow of God where the chief priest Ezeulu is dethroned and dispossessed of sovereign authority in Umuaro. The third novel, No Longer at Ease, is a sequel to the first; Obi, the lead character, is the grandson of Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart. He is sent to England to obtain the golden fleece of education and returns to face pressures of communal life too heavy for him.
In about 70 years of plunder and repression, the British have managed to clone together over 500 languages into a single country called Nigeria. By the time the British are to leave in 1960, political and social turmoil has matured enough to herald instability which deteriorates as the native bourgeoisie engage in deadly scrambles for power and spoils of office.
This is the egregious drama of the fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966). Chief Honourable Nanga, Member of Parliament, and M.A. degree “minus opportunity” is neo-colonial inheritor of the awesome power bequeathed by the imperialists. His party rigs elections and the victors brandish their stolen wealth ostentatiously. As the new power holders brook no opposition, election-related violence sets the country ablaze literarily. A military coup intervenes to halt the common ruin of all. The Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70 is a morbid extension of the inter-ethnic and intra-class squabbles.
Achebe’s stories have charmed and counselled millions of people across the world. The stories and the academic researches they generated have canonised Achebe as one the best storytellers of all ages. He is adoringly regarded as the father of African fiction. Things Fall Apart has entered the lexicon of world classics of literature and it is included in the 3,032-page The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces
In his essay, “The Empire Fights Back” Achebe explains the political and ideological conditioning of the emergent African literature in European languages. He argues that the “new literature that erupted so dramatically and abundantly in the 1950s and the 1960s had one common thread running through it all: the thread of a shared humanity linking the author to the world of his creation; a sense that even in the most tempting moments of grave disappointment with this world, the author remains painfully aware that he is of the same flesh and blood, the same humanity as its human inhabitants”. This outlook of bold optimism has positively influenced the perception of Africans forever just as it has reinforced the process of decolonisation from the 1960s.
In 1983, Achebe reflected again on the debacle of Nigeria’s inability to achieve socio-economic and technological transformation nearly 25 years after the attainment of independence from Britain. He traced the disease to the mental handicap of the elite to connect the technical graph of development to the science of inventive and creative thinking. The mind or intellect or story, Achebe reasons, is the fount of the ideas and technologies that engender progress. As he put it poetically, people create stories create people.
Development does not come from miracles and prayers but from intense investment in human capital as the example of Japan shows. When Japan decided to modernise after the Meiji revolution in the 19th century, the ruling elite collected, transcribed and interrogated the country’s oral heritage of stories, myths, legends, religious beliefs, superstitions, proverbs, and other sites of its antiquity. The knowledge derived from these oral archives were converted and reformulated to create the basis of the sciences and technologies that have defined Japanese prosperity for over a century.
Professor Achebe identified the trouble with Nigeria as the indolence of the leadership caused by the providential riches of oil; such that the country always believes in throwing chunks of money at problems. He was infuriated by the ill-conceived policy of imposing a 60:40 science-arts ratio on admissions into tertiary institutions. As he quipped, “what kind of science can a child learn in the absence of, for example, basic language competence and an attendant inability to handle concepts”. These thoughts are from his 1983 Nigerian National Merit Award lecture, “What Has Literature Got To Do With It?”
As a theoretician of development and change, Achebe fervently believed in the power of literature and the creative arts to heal and regenerate people and society. He viewed the tradition of written African literature as constituting landmark progress for African civilization and repossession of the patrimony looted and appropriated by European imperialist interests. The manuscript of his Things Fall Apart novel found a European publisher by sheer accident.
Achebe was to convert this chance to a formidable literary arsenal when he became the founding editor of the African Writers Series under the aegis of Heinemann of London. That series recorded about 400 titles in about 30 years. By the time Achebe died at 82, there was no publishing house in Nigeria or Africa that could play a role similar to Heinemann’s in the 1960s.
Achebe regarded the corpus of African literature as aesthetic and moral glue that bonded African people on the continent and the African Diaspora. “The new literature in Africa”, says he, “like the old, is aware of the possibilities available to it for celebrating humanity in our continent…Whether the rendezvous of separate histories will take place in a grand, harmonious concourse or be fought with bitterness and acrimony will all depend on whether we have learned to recognize one another’s presence and are ready to accord human respect to everybody”.
This is a leitmotif in his creative and analytical writings. He tries to tackle it philosophically in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Here Achebe takes political risk to explore the metaphorical projection of activist intellectuals who engage in revolutionary work to rescue their country from the fatal grip of military tyranny. Chris, the head of the militant group, reminds readers of the portrait of Christopher Okigbo, the inimitable Nigerian poet who died fighting during the Nigeria-Biafra war. It is in this fictional anthill, too, that we encounter a radical female patriot, Beatrice, who shares the dreams and dangers of change with her ideological fellow travellers. In the experience of these characters is prefigured the glimpse of formulas that future generations could adapt to navigate their journey to redemption.
Achebe is being mourned across the world because he put his genius and art at the service of the oppressed and dispossessed. Some of us his literary offspring sometimes complained that he was not militant enough, especially as he never publicly espoused any of the “isms” of the 20th century. But he was a quintessential humanist and radical reformer, much like Caseley Hayford of Ghana and Sol Plaatje and Thomas Mofolo of South Africa in the 1920s. These were nationalists who employed the felicitous weapons of literature to radicalise consciousness. As an indomitable defender of freedom and democracy, Achebe is clearly in the universal pantheon of the likes of John Milton of England, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky of Russia, Lu Xun of China, W.B. Yeats of Ireland, Rabindranath Tagore of India, Edgar Alan Poe, Ernest Hemmingway and Frederick Douglass of the United States.
Among his African peers, he shares the platform of honour with Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark of Nigeria, Sembene Ousmane and Mariama Ba of Senegal, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ayi Kwei Armah of Ghana, Naguib Mahfouz and Nawal El Shadawi of Egypt, Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, Okot p’Bitek of Uganda, Nurideen Farah of Somalia, and Alex La Guma and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa. In the Caribbean and South America, Achebe’s kindred spirits include Aime Cesaire of Martinique, George Lamming of Barbados, Alejo Carpentier of Cuba, Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina, Mario Vargas Llosa of Bolivia and Federico Garcia Lorca of Peru.
Achebe’s outrage against the failed Nigerian nation-state is served raw in his last testament – There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). In the introduction to the epic narrative, he regrets the loss of the utopian country called Nigeria: “Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were very different. Nigeria was once a land of great promise 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. In my view, it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa”.
Achebe was a roving ambassador of Biafra and he committed limb and intellect to its defence. The defeat of Biafra within three years and the horror and the number of the dead, especially innocent children, constituted another chapter of “things fall apart” for him. The failure of post-war leadership, the ogre of blood-thirsty military dictators, and the oil-nourished corruption of the bourgeoisie crippled Nigeria’s capacity to convert the challenge of the war to opportunity for industrial take-off and improved living conditions. As J.P. Clark alluded to in his volume of poems on the war, both victors and vanquished became “casualties” in an absurd drama choreographed by what Soyinka describes as “mad men and specialists”.
After the war, the banditry and hooliganism of the No Longer At Ease era became entrenched in politics and public life as rascals and rogues had access to enough financial influence to subvert electoral verdicts. Achebe’s Anambra State was once a notorious site for this type of brigandage and he wrote bitter diatribes on the situation. In 1990 the literati of the world gathered at Nsukka for Achebe’s 60th birthday christened “Eagle on Iroko”. Shortly after, he had an automobile accident. The country’s bad highways and inadequate medical services were exposed; he relocated to the United States to seek healing and care. He was, therefore, forced into exile at 60.
As I working on this short tribute I checked my goatskin bag of names of the 1948 pioneer set at the University College, Ibadan. Achebe’s name is the first on the list of the Arts Class of that historic year. In truth, he was admitted to read medicine but he switched to English, History and Theology, an act that caused a storm in his family as the British colonial government immediately stripped him of a scholarship to train as a doctor. Consider what the world of literature and humanistic civilization would have lost if Achebe were compelled to study medicine at Ibadan! His contemporaries in the 1948 Arts Class included Emeritus Professor Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi and Professor Grace Alele-Williams (both former Vice Chancellors), Alhaji (now the late) Abdul Yesufu Eke (Minister of Education), Ambassadors Josiah Tonye Fubara Iyalla and Augustus Oluwajimi Jolaoso. Others in that set are the late Justice Victor Ovie-Whiskey and Professor Olikoyi Ransome-Kuti (former Minister of Health).
With Things Fall Apart translated into over 50 languages in the world, Achebe’s immortality is firmly established even if Nigeria ceases to exist. As we await the funeral events in Ogidi, his birthplace, many governors of power and monarchs of money (eze-ego) now pouring encomiums on him may not have read any of his major books. In Asia, Europe, and the Americas, members of the educated and political elite are expected to be knowledgeable in their nations’ heritage of letters which is the repertoire of the accumulated wisdom, thoughts, and classical expressions of the various peoples across the millennia. As we escort Achebe across the luminous threshold, let no government seek to “re-immortalise” him by naming physical facilities after him; such projects may go to ruin or be abandoned the way Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s mausoleum in Onitsha has been left uncompleted since the 1990s.
To sustain Achebe’s immortality and turn it into an asset for Nigeria and Africa, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government should set up a Chinua Achebe Endowment to publish his major novels and children’s books in all Nigerian languages and distribute them free to schools in Nigeria, Africa and the African Diaspora. This is how best to celebrate the historical fact that, for Achebe, there was truly a country.
Professor Darah, former chairman of The Guardian Editorial Board, teaches literature and folklore at the Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria.