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National Honours: Achebe and the Nigerian narrative

By Kassim Agegbua
The Senate on Tuesday gave an inkling of why Professor Chinua Achebe turned down his National Honours Award the second time when the Upper House raised queries about President Jonathan’s inability to confront the security challenges in the country.

But for Senator David Mark, the Senate would have passed a vote of no confidence on the President over rising wave of insecurity and other vices that have held down the country for some time now. When the Presidential Spokesman responded to Chinua Achebe’s refusal to receive the honour and citing electoral reforms as the high point of President Jonathan’s achievements in office, I felt a sense of pity for Dr. Reuben Abati, such a brilliant mind but now reduced to a product of contradiction. It is difficult to manage the image of a man that cannot define what his image should be.

Even as Chairman of “The Guardian” Editorial Board, Dr. Reuben Abati never believed in the ideological reason behind the conferment of National Honours on Nigerians and expectedly so if one considers the character of some recipients and the near-absence contribution they have made to the country. But now performing the role of the President’s saxophone is not an easy job.

It is one job that could mar one’s integrity and ideological persuasion especially if the system is vulnerable like we have at present. Achebe’s refusal to accept the award was predicated on the Nigerian condition of poor service delivery, corruption, bad leadership and system failure, instability, reason why he felt it would defeat his long-held ideological purity.

To celebrate in the midst of squalor and abject poverty is to undermine the plights of the ordinary Nigerian. This was part of why he turned down the award in 2004 and I do not think such consideration has departed him in the present circumstance.

The President did not have to respond to whatever reason that might have warranted Achebe’s refusal to accept the offer. Even if on the basis of trying to justify why Achebe deserves the recognition, the President, did not have to make reference to his so-called electoral reforms when majority of what Justice Uwais panel recommended are still cooling off on government shelves unattended to.

President Jonathan has been President of Nigeria for almost two years and a lot of Nigerians cannot in all honesty tell the character of his government. We are just vacillating, without clear-cut policy focus. If it is not talk of single term of six years today, it is about fuel subsidy removal tomorrow. Every day, we hear all the sound-bites of developmental economics, political discourses, geopolitical balancing and electoral maladies. From Bayelsa State with avoidable political overheating to Maiduguri and Yobe with all the killings and maiming, the country is simply on its route to perdition. Within government circle, corruption is pervasive while the moral fabric of the Nigerian society has been eroded. Pages of newspapers in the country are replete with disheartening and gory details of a nation at a crossroads presided over by a President that seems helpless to offer a plausible dimension to the political discourse. And in Achebe’s world, these are symptoms of system summersault, themes that have dominated his writings for over five decades now. And to confirm Nigeria’s ugly narrative, there was shortage of those medals to the recipients.

I am reluctant to declare that President Jonathan is clueless about the Nigerian situation. I certainly would not join others who have made such assertion stating that the President’s body language and general conduct thus far has not shown a President that is ready to work. If I were Mr. President, there are several things I would ignore to do on account of the country’s present economic woes. I certainly would have shelved the conferment ceremony of awards that are not creating jobs and or employment. And if I must give an award to anyone, I would extract a commitment from those awardees to at least employ one unemployed Nigerian. That way, about 365 Nigerians would have been gainfully employed and that could be one way of saying thank you to a nation that has nurtured and sustained their dreams. I would also ask some of them who are being owed by government to offer some discount since the country’s economy has since nose-dived. That way, part of the domestic debts would be catered for.

Those persons who are not known to have contributed meaningfully to the development of the country but who are being awarded various categories of recognition perhaps on the basis of their relationship with those in the corridors of power should be able to tell Nigerians what they intend to do for a country that has offered them such gratuitous award. Nothing comes for nothing. I must state here that 60 percent of those who got the award did not merit it, pure and simple.

Talking about Professor Chinua Achebe, in all seriousness, the man deserves to be celebrated. His contribution to the intellectual industry in the field of literature and socio-political engineering is legendary.

If we have more of Achebes around us, Nigeria would be a better place. Eternally deserving of Nobel Peace Prize, Achebe as a celebrated novelist has remained a rich resource in developmental discourse.

His deep understanding of the pitiable plights of the ordinary people and the bad leadership that has been the bane of under-development in Africa have formed part of thematic focus in his novels and other works of art. Achebe has a gift of the garb. His diction is peculiar to his world view of seeing literature as an art to change the society for the better through mass readership of his works with simple accessible English.

Unlike Professor Wole Soyinka who writes for a select audience, Achebe writes for all, cutting across cultures and nations. His concern for the ordinary people and the need for an improved society coupled with his strong advocacy against repressive rules stand Achebe out as a literary icon with a mission. He does not pretend about his views and standpoints on issues that affect the generality of the people.

He sermonizes, preaching the gospel of change and better society. He reminisces about the Nigerian condition; poverty, want, disease, underdevelopment, neglect, deprivation, and other forms of ills that have unwittingly held down the country nay the continent of Africa with noxious nostalgia. He quarrels with his inner mind, letting out a palpable feeling of discomfort about the Nigerian condition. He writes and continues to write so that the problems bedeviling the society could be addressed.

Chinua Achebe stands for the ideal iconoclastic literary giant that has played the role of the watchman while all are asleep. He represents the realist, captured in the frame of a sermonizer, battling the powers-that-be to provide a therapeutic dimension to the entire fulcrum of humanity.

He craves for excellence in public service. He craves for a corruption free society where the wealth of the nation would serve both the rich and the poor. He writes to purify a decadent system with helpless citizenry running amok in search for direction, purpose and focus. Even in his old age, Achebe’s literary thoughts are still as consistent as the man that conveys them; punchy, blunt, metaphorical, incisive, and unpretentious, presenting the archetypal situations to draw home the import of his message.

It is the idyllic situation that Achebe talks about that Nigeria should aspire. He wants to see Nigeria and her leadership rising up to the challenge of purposeful leadership that is meant to serve the people. Achebe should be emulated for his didactic lifestyle that has made his entire sojourn in life a remarkable one.

Chinua Achebe’s refusal of the National Honour is a wake up call on President Jonathan to face the daunting challenges before us as a nation. What the Senate President averted on Tuesday, 15th November, 2011 still goes to show that the public has lost confidence in the President. President Jonathan should not be deceived by the trappings of power around the Aso Presidential Villa.

He should take time out to visit Maiduguri, Damaturu, Bauchi and other Northern fringes to see and feel the devastating impact of insecurity and joblessness. He should take a walk to all those remote villages and hamlets to see for himself the dehumanizing conditions under which Nigerians are living.

He should devote some time to read the newspapers by himself and not those highlights that his publicists would present to him. The country has lost its moral fibre and self-worth.

There are no confidence boosting indulgences to stimulate creativity and enterprise. Our roads are still death traps; our healthcare system is moribund; our education sector is prostrate; our infrastructure is decayed; unemployment is rife; underemployment has become the normative order; our judiciary is genuflecting; and the socio-economic life of the people has become extinct by the fear of the unknown. With the unpalatable news coming out of Bayelsa which could be akin to political corruption, the peace and tranquility of the coastal states is again put under close scrutiny.

With such bestialities starring at us in the face, with kidnappings and armed robbery cases overwhelming the landscape, there was no assurance that Achebe’s safety was guaranteed.

After all, haven’t we played host to many high profile kidnappings and hostage taking in the country? Achebe did not leave this country just like that. He was a victim of bad roads and poor health services. Why then would anyone expect Achebe to take an award under these conditions?

The government must strive to provide the ideal society that Achebe craves for; a stable political environment where people can pursue their legitimate aspiration without let or hindrance; a society with equal rights for all; a society with infrastructures that would cater for the growth and development of the nation; and a caring society for the young and aged bubbling with enthusiasm as a consequence of government plausible programmes for them.

Under such a society with all the niceties of life, Chinua Achebe will graciously concede to the lure of national award, and I bet he will take one once the Nigerian narrative assumes this impetus.

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