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Demise of the eagle on the tallest Iroko tree

By Douglas Anele

Having concluded the discourse on “The trouble with Nigerians,” it is time to pay tribute to the recently-departed icon of African literature, Prof. Chinualumogu Albert Achebe. Of course, the heading of that discourse was cloned from the title of Achebe’s pamphlet, The trouble with Nigeria, and a few of his views were used to buttress some major points made therein. Achebe was an accomplished intellectual, Africanist, humanist and teacher.

So it is quite understandable that a broad section of Nigerians and non-Nigerians, ranging from scholars and eminent personalities whose understanding of the “African predicament” was enriched by Achebe’s enthralling writings, to Yoruba irredentists that lampooned him because of his biting indictment of their political hero for genocide and war crimes against the Igbo during the civil war, have unanimously been praising his contributions to African literature, on the one hand, and his uncompromising stand against mediocre and corrupt leadership in Nigeria, on the other.

Now, given the unprecedented and universal encomiums for Prof. Achebe since his death on March 21, it might seem somewhat out of place for another addition to the list.

But then, the late eagle that perched on the tallest Iroko tree of African literature means so much to millions of people across the globe and his literary output so critical in moving African literature from almost complete oblivion to the centre-stage of literary discourse in the 20th century and beyond that there will always be room for what can be termed “Achebe Discourse.”

Moreover, it is hard to name an African novel that has had as much impact and acceptability as Things Fall Apart, a novel which has reportedly sold over 11 million copies and has been translated into over fifty languages. Achebe’s other works, such as Arrow of God, A Man of the People, the Trouble with Nigeria and Anthills of the Savannah etc. are not as well received as his magnum opus; nonetheless they are significant in their own right.

Since 1958 when Things Fall Apart, his first novel was published, Prof. Achebe occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of readers of African literature worldwide because of the power, integrity, quiet confidence, reclaimed Africanness and throbbing humanity which his artistic creations so eloquently proclaim.

Thus Achebe’s achievement validates the potentiality of self-transcendence and universality of authentic, fact-based imaginative fiction irrespective of its local provenance and inspiration. It is fitting and ironic at the same time that Achebe’s last word in literature is his controversial personal account of the most significant event in Nigeria’s history since independence – the civil war.

By all accounts, the late Igwe of African literature was a mild, humble and quiet man who did not deliberately court controversy. Yet his work, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, is the most debated documented story of that horrible tragedy.

Most criticisms of what Achebe said in the book are misplaced, because they are based on ignorance, ethnic jingoism and lack of intuitive grasp of the gravity of Achebe’s personal involvement from the Biafran side. Virtually everything he said in the book about Nigeria and Nigerians are matters of common knowledge to those with even a superficial knowledge of Nigerian history.

The major issue is that, in vintage Achebe forthrightness and courage, he scathingly indicted the respected politician, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for the inhuman policies of the Nigerian government against the secessionist easterners, particularly the blockade of Biafra which caused the starvation of over a million people, majority of whom were children, and the wicked policy of giving the defeated Igbo 20 pounds to each person no matter the amount he or she had in the bank before the war started. Because of hysterical emotionalism and hero worship, critics of Achebe’s valid indictment of Awolowo conveniently forgot that there is a difference between historical facts and how the facts are interpreted.

The facts marshalled by Achebe in his book are beyond dispute; the contentious issue is what we make of those facts. That said, the late novelist deserves plaudits for drawing attention once again to man-made gaping faultlines in the Nigerian project, and his insistence that for Nigeria to survive and progress Nigerians must strive to construct a nation in which merit, excellence and the capacity to perform, not ethnicity or religious affiliation, determine who gets what in the federation.

Prof. Achebe endeared himself to Nigerians for his principled stance against bad leadership in the country; twice he rejected honourary award from the federal government because he just could not lend credibility to incompetent and corrupt leadership. His indomitable spirit can be gauged from the philosophical fortitude with which he bore a crippling car accident in 1990 that confined him to a wheelchair.

For almost 23 years Prof. Achebe, like the cosmologist Prof. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, defied his disability and continued to enrich humankind with his intellectual output both in and out of the classroom. Without a doubt, that these two great men rose above their physical challenges and contributed significantly to their different areas of competence is a testimony to the capacity of the human spirit to overcome adversities and an inspiration to people weighed down by physical disabilities.

The prodigious contributions of paradigmatic individuals like Achebe tend to make people forget that they are mortal and fallible. That is why Chimamanda N. Adichie’s critique of Achebe’s There was a Country entitled “I will miss Chinua Achebe” deserves commendation. Despite her respect and admiration for the late novelist, Adichie boldly identifies errors in some of Achebe’s claims.

For instance, she disagrees with his view that one of the principal reasons for Nigeria’s current backwardness is the failure to fully integrate the Igbo. She argues, correctly, that the country would just be as backward even if the Igbo had been fully integrated – institutional and leadership failures transcend ethnicity.

Additionally, in the light of what Chuks Illoegbunam writes about Mallam Aminu Kano in Ironside (that Aminu Kano actively supported the pogroms against the Igbo living in the north in 1966), the late Kano politician is the last prominent northerner Achebe should speak highly of. These and other mistakes of Prof. Achebe are very minor blips in the literary firmament to which he contributed some of the brightest stars.

His death should remind everyone of the inexorable mortality, transitoriness and perishability of human life, no matter the solidity universality of our achievements, the lofty idealism of our hopes and aspirations, and the dignified humane graciousness of our interaction with others. It compels us to endeavour to autograph our deeds with excellence, for the simple reason that an individual’s life can end at any time. Sincerest condolences to the family of Ogidi’s most celebrated intellectual, humanist and teacher of teachers of teachers, Prof. Chinualumogu Achebe.


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