By Pini Jason
ONE of the most profound interventions during the controversy provoked by ethnic jingoists following the publication of Prof. Chinua Achebe’s valedictory commentary on Nigeria, There Was A Country, was made by the Governor of Lagos State, His Excellency, Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN.
While others jumped into the fray even without reading the book, Governor Fashola reminded everybody that his generation has moved on from the era of national madness that formed the basis of Achebe’s book.
He also said that both Awolowo, whose unflattering mention in the book produced a herd of wannabe Awo defenders, and Emeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, have decided to move on too. On Thursday 21 March, 2013, Prof. Achebe himself moved on. But there are some people Achebe left stranded in their ethnic hate.
The Igbo say that if, while having your bath, a mad man carries your clothes and dashes off and you run after him naked, what the world would see are two mad men. Achebe’s death seems to have provided a peg for some cowards, ethnic jingoists and literary revisionists on ethnic revenge mission to attempt a futile denigration of Achebe and his legacy.
Some of us have deliberately refrained from swallowing the bait to join such ethnic militants and literary insurgents in reducing the debate to ethnic brickbat. But some of these cowards have sustained their literary intifada since There Was A Country, masked with what is neither a critique nor obituary but clearly an exhibition of what Jonathan Raban, called a “massive personal disintegration”.
In any case, such foibles were well foretold by Achebe whose attitude was that an author has no control over the interpretation people choose to give a literary work or what they choose to do with it, including the bizarre and the ridiculous.
In his triumphalism, Odia Ofeimun gloated: “For me, especially after the publication of There Was A Country, nothing could be more painful than a man dying just when you were learning to argue and debate with him” It is clear that everything Ofeimun has to say, even when he has nothing worthwhile to say, about Achebe, flows from his angst over There Was A Country. And he believes that putting words into someone’s mouth, imputing your own motive, or visiting other people’s failings on someone and proceeding to abuse the person on those accounts is how to “argue” and “debate” with him? Ofeimun is stranded in arguing and debating with himself! And he seems rather narcissistically obsessed with his imagined place as a repository of Nigerian political history.
He believes he is the enfant terrible of Nigerian literature who takes on the high and mighty. Anybody astonished by Ofeimun’s obsessive swipes at Achebe needs to recall that more than being Chief Awolowo’s clerk, taking on the foremost poet J.P Clark in his book, The Poet Lied, gained him some undeserved attention. Yet, I doubt if any of Ofeimun’s books has ever sold 5,000 copies even in Ekpoma or elsewhere in the world! I will be glad to be corrected.
While trying to drag Achebe to his level, Ofeimun took liberty with facts, or believed that savaging Achebe permitted literary recklessness. In his eight-page masturbation in The News (Vol. 39 No 19 of 12 November 2012) titled: Achebe’s Lies, he drifted, drooled and pranced all over the pages on virtually every political issue in Nigeria that had nothing to do with Achebe or There Was A Country. When he was eventually pinned down to specifics with this question: “Let’s have the facts he [Achebe] misrepresented”, Odia mentioned just one point which he himself admitted as “simple typographical errors” and veered off wildly like a car driven by a drunk.
Ofeimun said he read Things Fall Apart at age 13. But it was not until Achebe published There Was A Country that Ofeimun made the earth-shaking discovery that TFA is an undeserving literary work! And without exhausting the subject at hand, Ofeimun, as usual, drifted into history according to his own whims.
Whereas “Five Majors”, as Nigerians have always known, planned the coup of 15 January 1966, Ofeimun emphatically asserts: “Look, five Igbo majors carried out a coup”! (The News Vol. 40, No 13 of 8 April 2013) So, for the purpose of transferring the sins of the soldiers to Achebe and the Igbo, Major Adewal eAdemoyega, one of the famous Five Majors, is Igbo! No! The poet simply lied!
Ofeimun’s insinuation, echoed by one Ibrahim Bello-Kano, is that Achebe was lucky that TFA was ever published because of an unknown publisher “who wanted to move into this new era of African literature” and because Achebe was the editor of African Writers Series. Bello-Kano parroted the same nonsense that “the 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 was looking to cash in on it all”.
So the logic of these revisionists is that Achebe had to wait for that opportunistic moment to write TFA or that without such opportunistic timing Achebe would not have written TFA? Were there no other writers that wrote at that opportunistic moment? What happened to those writers touted by Bello-Kano as more deserving, in his estimation, than Achebe to be called “Fathers of African literature”? I suspect that next time, Ofeimun and Bello-Kano will tell us that TFA was translated into 50 different languages because it was the gregarious Igbo scattered in those 50 countries of the world that bought off all the 10 million copies! That is what is left of the Nigerian intellectuals!
Like Ofeimun, Bello-Kano was simply out, not to do any scholarly criticism of Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. He would have done so since 1987 when the book was published. He was out to vent his pique and petulance. Most of the issues he inelegantly dredged up about Anthills are not even original.
At least, Ofeimun can be credited as saying immediately the book was published that the plot was thin and I took Achebe up on that during my interaction with him at Nsukka in 1987. He simply said he achieved what he set out to do with the book. It was obvious that Bello-Kano pique which he had to cowardly express only after Achebe’s death is due to how Achebe represented the North in the book.
The intellectual challenge faced by the stone-thrower was to prove that such representations were false. He did not do that, except to resort to childish abuses. That they are unpalatable truths do not change the reality.
Then there was my fellow columnist in this paper, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed who did himself unexpected injury by going to the internet to dredge up the grime that goes on in that cesspool where cowards hide their identity and holding them out as Achebe’s People! (Vanguard Wednesday 3 April 2013) Haba!
The Igbo say that once you wander into the bush, you are likely to get a faecal welcome. Who does not know that the internet has today become a meeting place for the unserious and fellows feeding gluttonously on carrion? It is shocking that Baba-Ahmed could hold Achebe responsible for such putrid offerings in the internet while posing as an unjustly injured Awusa.
Oh please! Another unfortunate culture in the media is for hangers on to provoke needless controversy and attribute them to innocent people and start a war on their behalf. That was how we came to the Ashiwaju and Ogbuefi of African literature controversy immediately Prof. Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize. Neither Soyinka nor Achebe had ever indulged in such silly comparison. Both would be irritated by such inanities as my friend Sam Omatseye attempted to re-enact lately (The Nation Monday 1 April 2013).
Omatseye, as far as I know, is not a member of the Nobel Academy! Thank goodness that Soyinka and J.P Clark quickly issued their tribute to Achebe as soon as he died. A day late would have given sensation mongers room for some mischief that could provoke needless controversy!