Prof Chinua Achebe: Exit of literary giant Chinua Achebe 1930 – 2013
By OCHEREOME NNANNA
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe,Professor of English, one of the greatest novelists of the modern era and often hailed as the Father of African literature, had been ill for a long time before he finally succumbed on Friday, March 22nd 2013.
When he was crippled after a car crash in 1990 on his way from Nsukka to Enugu, he relocated to the USA, where his fame as the author of the magnum opus: Things Fall Apart suddenly broke the bounds and became one of the most celebrated classics of our time, having been translated into over 50 languages and sold nearly 10 million copies.
When Achebe was invited to deliver the Ahiajoku Lecture in Owerri in 2010 by the Imo State Government under the leadership of Sir Ikedi Ohakim, he arrived to the adulation of the mammoth crowd made up mainly of doting academics from all parts of the South East Zone. Most people expected an earth-shattering firework of a lecture. But Achebe did not address the theme.
He merely spoke briefly and generally on the need for Nigerians and Igbo people to rediscover the art of grooming good leaders to put Nigeria right. Many people came out of it with the conclusion that Achebe had actually come to give a “vote of thanks” for the way Nigerians and the world recognised his achievements and gave him a place of pride in history through his many masterly literary works.
Achebe eminently qualified as one of the founding fathers of post-colonial Nigeria. The period in which he was born coincided with the earliest beginnings of the push for the eventual decolonisation of Nigeria. As he grew from his Ogidi hometown in today’s Anambra State and became one of the pioneers of new institutions that would eventually become famous – GovernmentCollege, Umuahia and later, the UniversityCollege, Ibadan, the British colony of Nigeria was rapidly moving towards being packaged and handed over to his generation. They were expected to take it to a level demonstrative of the black man’s ability to stamp his identity on the world stage. His personal story in his last major work: There Was A Country, clearly illustrated that Achebe and his cohorts from the literary world did their best to use their art to guide the African independence. Their political counterparts held sway and bungled the experiment. However, Achebe and his fellow travellers, such as Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Mabel Segun and a host of others, produced timeless works that were boldly and exclusively celebrated everywhere as truly and organically African.
Achebe, however, stood out in his ability to use the Igbo cosmology to paint a rich portrait of the African world, and no written work was able to transfer the psychedelic infectiousness of it all across the literary divides of the world as Things Fall Apart, written 51 years ago, was able to do. The influence and fad of this book continue to balloon in all directions and different dimensions. In September 2011, American rapper and actor, Curtis James Jackson III , also known as 50 Cent, offered to pay one million dollars if he would be allowed to use the title of this novel to create a documentary. Achebe rejected the offer flatly, saying it was beyond any monetary value. The rapper eventually decided to do his project with the title: All Things Fall Apart.
Beyond being a writer, Achebe also spent a lot of his life time in the classroom, in the office as a government media operator and even in the field briefly as a politician. Quite evidently, his endeavours in those other areas, with all he was able to achieve, did not break the surface as much as his literary talents did. In fact, he could be described as a non-starter politician. In 1993, he became the running mate of the presidential candidate of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) Mallam Aminu Kano. His party came fourth out of five that went into the general and presidential elections. Achebe came out never to try again. However, he also came out of the experience and wrote his enduring, but rather prophetic jeremiad entitled: The Trouble With Nigeria. It is a pamphlet that is small but mighty, as no other book has been able to capture the nation’s ills as evocatively as that little tome.
While living in the US, Achebe firmly distanced himself from the ruling circles of Nigeria. Both the President Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan regimes did their utmost to draw him closer through offers of national awards of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR). Achebe rejected the Obasanjo offer, on the ground that Obasanjo was behind the brazen destruction of AnambraState by political desperados linked directly to the president. When he rejected the same offer under President Jonathan saying the situation in his state and the country had not changed, the Presidency wrote back, wondering if he was still current with Nigerian affairs since there had been both regime changes and as well as the reversal of Obasanjo’s brigandage in his state.
Achebe’s last testament, There Was A Country, however, did not win him a lot of friends, especially among the Yoruba people. In fact, many of them have been very venomous in their reaction to the passing of the literary behemoth at 82, and some have foolishly gone about it as if they would not die one day. Indeed, while the biography and chronicling of Achebe’s account of his appreciation of the events of the Nigerian civil crises and war is being applauded in some quarters, some describe it as “an anti-climax”, what with the many editorial and sometimes factual errors evident.
The book bought Achebe many enemies among the Yorubas mainly because he made their intellectuals seem like losers in straight, merit-based competitions with their Igbo counterparts just after independence and before the crises. More pointedly, he was very denunciative of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba nation’s political champion’s handling of federal policies which helped in extending the sorrows of the Igbo people during and after the civil war, in particular was the Awoist policy of starvation as a legitimate instrument of war.
Since that book was published late in 2012, it has re-opened the already forgotten though not healed sores of that conflict. The fight between the two sides has been fierce, especially over the Internet and only goodness has prevented it from spilling into the streets. Given the fact that the major antagonists of the civil war – the Hausa-Fulani (North) and the Yoruba federalists massed on one side against the Igbo former Biafrans in a similar fight when Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu died late in 2011, it illustrates the fact that on such a sensitive issues, Nigerians can never react the same.
Talented novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, wrote an intervention entitled: We Remember Differently, thus accurately capturing the fact that the crises and civil war and aftermath affected us all differently. We can only remember how it affected us. That is natural. The challenge, which is yet to be addressed, is what can be done to use the lessons learned to build a greater Nigeria, rather than always returning Nigerians to the battleground each time the issues are broached.
Chinua Achebe was a successful man in almost all his endeavours except in politics. However, he lived a life of frustration, and died totally unfulfilled at the desperately poor performances of his nation. He left behind a nation he spent most of his adult life bemoaning what his generation, especially the political class, did to it
It is said that youth is the best time for a person to show the world what he can do. A book Chinua Achebe wrote when he was a swashbuckling 28 years old continued to gather momentum to bring him worldwide adulation at old age more than any African has been privileged to. And the indicators are that Things Fall Apart’s journey to the ultimate destination has just begun. Perhaps years from today, it will sit among the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and other undying classics as Africa’s most iconic contribution to the literary world.