By McPhilips Nwachukwu & Uduma Kalu
It would have been difficult if the burial of Chinua Achebe had passed without any controversy.
Apart from the fact that the dust his autobiography, There was a Country raised was yet to settle, the announcement of his death started another round of controversy.
The first controversy that came out was when the renowned author was announced dead last March. Argument began to rage in several cultural, literary and political circles on the kind of burial Achebe would have. While some said it would be traditional burial, another group said it would be Christian while another said Achebe was an atheist.
All had their reasons. Achebe in his novels, especially those set in pre colonial and colonial Nigeria accused both Christianity and colonialism as being responsible for Africa’s woes. But then Achebe had neither been seen in a church, neither had he been seen in the traditional setting. This made some others say he was an atheist.
But those who said he would be buried as a Christian had noted that Achebe in 1999 after the Odenigbo lecture, which he delivered at the Assumpta Catholic Church, Owerri, Achebe’s family was at the church for a thanksgiving. They also pointed out Achebe’s strong Christian background as reason to argue that Achebe never left Christianity even though he did not make his Christianity public. Bishop Ikechi Nwosu of Aba Diocese, who gave the funeral sermon in Ogidi also pointed out this fact that he had a strong Christian background.
The controversy was laid to rest by the family who in a letter signed by the duo of Ike and Chidi to the media, said Achebe would be buried as a Christian by the Anglican Church. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was to lead the international committee. The family also queried the meaning of traditional burial.
Even the duo could not quell the controversy as they failed to say whether it was Achebe’s wish to be buried as a Christian forcing the traditional elders in Ogidi and the Christians there to struggle for the burial of Achebe. Both groups wanted to bury the writer. Achebe was a titled chief in Ogidi.
Primate of the Anglican Church, Most Rt. Rev. Nicholas Okoh, had told a gathering at the Commendation service for Achebe in Abuja on Sunday, May 19, that the conflict Achebe narrated in his novels were now happening to him. Achebe, especially in those novels set in pre colonial and colonial Nigeria, reported about the conflict between modernity and traditional Nigeria, Okoh said.
Okoh in his sermon reported that to underscore the conflicts also happening to Achebe, said the Christians and traditionalists in Ogidi were fighting who would bury the writer. The struggle, he went on, reflected the conflicts in Achebe’s novels and that those things he wrote were now happening to him.
The argument was to come up again the next day, Monday 20 at the Festival of Life, Times and works of Chinua Achebe: Lessons for Nigeria at the International Conference Centre, Abuja. The symposium, put together by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) brought eggheads from many parts of the world to discuss the topic.
The keynote address was given by Prof. Umelo Ojinma. Ojinma whose voice is like that of Achebe, in his lecture, said Achebe wrote the truth, and that in There was a country, Achebe wrote to avoid the pitfalls of forgetting as stated in the book. Nigeria, he went on, were used to forgetting a problem while the issue persists and so go about making the same mistakes.
Ojinma upbraided the former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon and the poet, Odia Ofeimun. Gowon, he said responded on the autobiography by saying that Achebe wrote as one who did not participate in the civil war, and that he himself would write the true account of the war.
Ojinma said if Gowon would say such a thing to somebody like Achebe who was actively involved in the civil war, then there was need for the book.
Ofeimun, he went on, while rejecting the book by defending his boss, Chief Obafemi Awolowo due to some comments on Awolowo in the book by Achebe, ended up supporting Achebe’s The trouble with Nigeria. Ofeimun had said that Awolowo was saved in the west by his good leadership prowess, a point The trouble with Nigeria made which Ofeimun had denied.
Reactions which followed after the lecture were equally controversial. While Prof. Olu Obafemi had defended Ofeimun, Prof. Chimalum Nwankwo said Nigerians were quick to jump into an argument based on ethnic and tribal sentiments without all the facts.
Ofeimun, he said, writes brilliant things but he also ends up confusing everybody in his essay. He noted the cat and mouse game between writers and government, saying Achebe was also accused of planning coup because his new novel in 1966 predicted the coup by the military regime.
Nwankwo then returned to the controversy surrounding Achebe’s burial, pointing out the dualism that controls Achebe’s vision. At an Enugu literary tributes for Achebe, Nwankwo said he had asked a relation of Achebe whether the writer said he would be buried as a Christian. The man was blunt but ended up saying they heard from the wife, Nwankwo said.
Nwankwo therefore said it was quite characteristic for Achebe to leave such matters open, showing the dualism of Achebe.
The controversy began to take a more serious dimension the next day which indeed led to the sacking of the Nwala led National Transitional Committee, NTC, the next day at the local wing of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja.
That all was not well in the committee was noticed at the Christian centre. In fact, it was Okoh who first pointed it out. Okoh had noticed the sparse number of people that graced the sermon and wondered why it was so. Nwala, in his response, had said that the mistake would be corrected. Information gathered said it was due to poor publicity that only few people attended the service.
By the next day, Monday May 20, while receiving the body of the late literary icon, Iwuala was said not have been sacked right at the airport owing to what a source said was due to an argument he had with members of the Achebe family.
It was said that committee members had been having arguments. The argument began because a member of the committee allegedly used the committee money to pay his one year- office rent to the tune of N1m. This had angered the family and another member was allegedly added to the group. The man was said to have become a thorn in the flesh of the committee as he cut down most of the things the members added to fleece it.
All this, it was said, had led to a frosty relationship between the committee and the family, leading to dissolution of the committee by the family that Monday at the airport in Abuja.
It was therefore not surprising that Iwuala did no say anything at Awka during the state reception for Achebe last Wednesday. His committee, it was learnt, expired in Abuja. A new committee was in charge in Anambra set up by the state government. Iwuala had his seat at Awka, alright but was quiet all through the event. Even in Ogidi, he was not mentioned, though he attended the funeral service.
One other discernible thing at the funeral was the insistence of the African culture to be present at the funeral. For example, the Ohafia war dance troupe, in spite of having no space to perform, made itself present at the gate of the Anglican church in the home of Achebe, showing the rich culture of the Igbo to the world.
It was the same in Awka during the reception. The insistence of the Atu dance masquerade of Ogidi was intense and when the dancers took over the space, it was spectacular. Culture was present and full, even when the church tried to obscure it.
Yet, it was also political. All sorts of politicians used the Achebe burial to showcase themselves, yet Achebe was against politicians. Being an election period in Anambra, some aspirants used the burial to make some political statements. Some printed posters, condoling or celebrating the icon but under their political banners and different political parties such as PDP, APGA, APC.