By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
Prof. Chinua Achebe was a literary giant who used the power of erudition to project persuasive and powerful political points.
Little is known today of the sharp disagreement between the late Prof. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe and the late Senator Barkin Zuwo in the days after the controversial 1983 elections.
What is, however, known, and shocking to many, was that Prof. Chinua Achebe almost engaged in a physical combat with the late Zuwo over an unknown issue at a caucus of the Peoples Redemption Party, PRP in 1983 before the two were separated. It was the combat of brain and brawn!
That indeed was the last that was heard of Prof. Achebe’s involvement in partisan politics. He had emerged as the national vice-president of the PRP after the party was registered in 1978 and became a close associate of the party leader, Mallam Aminu Kano, himself one of the most persuasive political ideologues of the colonial era.
With Kano, Achebe seemed to have formed a partnership that moulded the socialist bent of the PRP.
Alhaji Balarabe Musa who was one of the two governors elected on the platform of the PRP in 1979, told Vanguard that he was not close to Achebe at that time, but that Achebe’s relationship with Mallam Kano was of robust intellectual benefit to the party.
“Achebe and Mallam were very, very close and he (Achebe) was very influential as an intellectual backbone in the party,” Musa said last week.
But Achebe’s politics did not just start with the beginning of second republic politicking.
His involvement before then was essentially in the literary sense, as he used his power of erudition to lash the political class. His first overtly political entry was A Man of the People published at the onset of the 1966 crisis. The book was a parody of the Nigerian political class of the first republic. Nigeria was, however, not mentioned as the setting of the book.
The book has two main characters, Odili and his former school teacher Chief Nanga, who becomes the minister of culture in an unnamed African country which had recently gained independence.
The book ends with a coup that was itself a tell-tale of the 1966 military coup in Nigeria that overthrew the then civilian government. It was indeed not surprising that some without any other proof suggested that Achebe had an insight into the coup.
Remarkably, on coup day
on January 15, 1966, Achebe was gathered with fellow writers somewhere in the Ikoyi area of Lagos on a literary outing!
At the onset of the second republic, Achebe now an academician, joined the PRP and served in the party’s highest decision making body, National Executive Committee, NEC and was seen as its intellectual backbone.
He, however, disagreed over yet unknown issues with Senator Zuwo shortly after the later emerged as governor of Kano State on the party’s ticket in 1983. Whatever was the source of their problem has remarkably been taken to the world beyond by the two men as neither Zuwo nor Achebe ever made public reference of it subsequently.
Remarkably, not long after that disagreement and with the death of his long time friend, Aminu Kano, Achebe, fully disengaged from partisan politics. His parting shot came in the form of his classical essay, The Trouble with Nigeria.
The book was a narration of the symptoms of bad leadership that turned the country into a laggard among the nations despite the abundance of natural and human resources. “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” Achebe surmised in the 68 page narrative.
Achebe was to further make another parody of the Nigerian (military) political class in his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah published in 1987. The book revolves around three characters, a military officer Sam who leads a successful coup, the military regime’s commissioner for information known as Chris Oriko and the highflying newspaper editor and critic of military government, Ikem Osodi.
The intrigues in the Anthills of the Savannah culminate in the assassination of the newspaper editor, Osodi! When he did not write, his silence was profoundly provoking. His missives indeed troubled the authorities.
Twice he rejected the national honours from the Nigeria administration. The first time was when he threw back the national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR at the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. In rejecting his CFR nomination in the 2004 honour list in a letter dated October 15, 2004, to the president, he said:
I write this letter with very heavy heart. For some time now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency….
Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours list.
Of course, Achebe referred to the situation in his native Anambra State where Chief Chris Uba, brother to Mr. Andy Uba who was then Special Assistant to the president on domestic affairs, was known to have taken over the political control of the state.
It was Achebe’s rejection of the dominance of the Uba brothers believed to have been achieved through the collaboration of President Obasanjo that undoubtedly led to his rejection of the award.
Remarkably, President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 pencilled him down for the same national honour, and Achebe again, rejected the award saying the reason for his first rejection had not changed.
The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.”
Achebe’s last political narrative on Nigeria, There was a Country, his historical rendition of the civil war years from his own perspective was undoubtedly his most controversial work.
The book published just before his death at 82, was if anything, the confirmation that Achebe even despite his rejection of politics and the way it is played out in Nigeria, remained a political animal till death!