Achebe: Exit of a literary giant

May 29, 2013

Chinua Achebe: A Patroit And Contrarian


On March 22nd this year 2013, the World lost one of its greatest story–tellers and Africa one of her most strident voices for liberation, freedom and equality. Chinua Achebe known in childhood years as Albert Chinualumogu Achebe of Nigeria is no more. We are here at the invitation of the African Leadership Institute USA and Wright State University, to celebrate his life and pay tribute to the enormity of Chinua Achebe’s accomplishments.

I met Chinua Achebe for the first time fifty years ago in my secondary school library. Even though we studied literature in school; an African writing a book to be considered worthy of study by secondary school students was not considered a good idea. It was with guilt that I read his books, which were not yet in the syllabus. It was much later, when I entered the University as student of English, that I had the good fortune to be introduced to  Achebe ‘s works; Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, The Arrow of God and Man of the People. At that time I didn’t quite realize that I would be held in Achebe ‘s eagle- on-iroko grip, for much of the rest of my life. He taught literature, and was a card-carrying member of the Peoples Redemption Party. During the Nigerian Civil war, he was Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the defunct Biafra. He was  a great writer who enriched literature and the human capacity to fight for freedom and truth. My journey through life as a student and teacher of literature, as writer, politician and diplomat may have been unconscious attempts to follow in his prodigious footsteps on this less-travelled pathway.

Prof. Achebe has come to the end of this hard road to travel in glory. So many of us today are still on that road as writers because he had picked the gauntlet on our behalf, fought a good fight, and now he deserves to rest. I stand here, as proxy on behalf of other African writers, who desired to join us today to celebrate Achebe, but were unable for whatever reasons. We acknowledge the unique ability of writers to transcend time and space to mentor others who never met with them other than in their writings. This is what Achebe has been; mentor and beacon.  I never shook his hands physically, and never will. But I am in warm embrace of his vision and ideas that speak for the liberation of humankind from their oppressors.

In his life time, Chinua Achebe was a formidable voice in literature. His Magnus Opus , Things Fall Apart was translated into over fifty languages. Many of his readers who followed him around the globe lauded him for his clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. The world fell in love with Things Fall Apart. To many, Chinua Achebe became Things Fall Apart, and Okonkwo. Things Fall Apart, defined Chinua Achebe and his writings resonated through the world with deepest emotions and memories that conveyed his value for candour, simplicity and dignity.

But Achebe was more than Things Fall Apart; a much misunderstood Novel. In my last life time, as Nigeria’s Ambassador to Canada, I was asked by one of Achebe’s ardent admirers, if I could relate the story of Okonkwo, to contemporary Nigerian politics. In my amazement, I had undiplomatically answered back with a question that, “why don’t we relate the story of Okonkwo with contemporary happenings in Canada, USA, Korea, Iran, Japan and else where, because Achebe wrote for the world?”

There is a time in every nation, when things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. When that happens within a democratic setting, there is a change of government in a free and fair election. In despotic regimes, the centre is unable to hold when the leaders refuse to leave the stage and grind the face of the citizens into grime. The Okonkwo character in Things Fall Apart represents the failure of a Leader to embrace change. The tragedy of Okonkwo is the tragedy of all world leaders who reject dialogue, negotiation, diversity and compromise. Such Leaders like Okonkwo rely on their wealth and power. The World helplessly watches the modern Okonkwo’s  in government, and  business, who suppress human emotions and empathy for the weak and vulnerable in society. They are stuck in old ways where they live on entitlements of pillage. The global race for Weapons of Mass Destruction, is ultimately to endow the modern day Okonkwo in leadership position with masculinity, so as to emerge; the toughest wrestler in the global village.

Things Fall Apart remains a globally focussed narrative, which defined the literary journey Achebe took up to the time he succumbed to the common destiny of all living things. Writing Things Fall Apart was   an act of uncommon courage and defiance against Eurocentric writing that refused to accord the voices of the subject people of Africa utterance and identity; except that given by the Western writers like Joseph Conrad, and Joyce Cary. He not only challenged the colonial Empire, he created opportunities for other African writers to be read around the world.

Chinua Achebe gave to the dispossessed, oppressed and silenced Africans the ability to be self-defined instead of being negatively defined. Achebe provided an alternative and new view of reality outside that of Empire. Through Achebe, the anguished cry of the colonized was distinctively heard, and their humanity held up for scrutiny. Furthermore Things fall apart was written in an English language that was authentic English; in authentic African thought. This was a brave, bold and remarkable thing for one writing on such weighty matters in an acquired language.


The widow Professor Christie Achebe walks behind the coffin of late literary icon Professor Chinua Achebe during the funeral at Ogidi, Anambra State. AFP PHOTO.

The widow Professor Christie Achebe walks behind the coffin of late literary icon Professor Chinua Achebe during the funeral at Ogidi, Anambra State.

Things Fall Apart is however, not my favourite Achebe Novel.  No Longer At Ease is it. Achebe defined the humanity of Africa in Things Fall Apart and took sides with the African prey against Empire. In No longer at Ease and A Man of the People, he defined the African predators and took sides with the victims; the poor, the unclad, and the vulnerable who had hoped at independence that the new African elite in power would work for the common good. They were mistaken.  Obi was not the change they had waited for. Post-colonial Africa was betrayed by the civil servants and political Leaders who wallowed in corruption and identity politics and became emperors.  The people had anticipated change and invested in Obi, to help them comprehend and thrive in change. Obi was a bad investment. The change agent sacrificed principles for filthy lucre and ended  up in Jail for taking bribes. He failed Achebe’s integrity test when it mattered most. Achebe states, “ one of the truest test of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised”.

It is not only for his creative works that we will miss Chinua Achebe. My colleagues and I in the Leadership institute Nigeria, London and USA will miss his leadership teaching and mentoring. He was one of the world’s leading voices in leadership ethics. Despite being confined in the wheel chair for 23 years, he continued to play his iconic leadership roles, by his relentless struggle for the freedom of others. In his book, The trouble with Nigeria, Achebe the ethical leader, diagnosed Nigeria’s ailment as leadership deficit. In his words, “ the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership.”

Achebe was fearless, as he was demanding and exploratory in his search for the ideal leader, who in his mind was neither General Yakubu Gowon nor Chief Obafemi Awolowo, against whom he was so very angry. He used story- telling as pedagogy for leadership education. He declared, “ Story-tellers threaten all champions of control. They frighten usurpers of the right to freedom of the human spirit.” In his last book, There was a country, Achebe opened the wounds of identity politics in Nigeria and plied the eyes of collective amnesia wide open to once again behold the horror of horrific Biafra, and then to deal with it. He became different things to different people. Some denounced him as an ethnic irredentist. Others even accused him of trying to start a civil war and kindling the spirit of defunct Biafra. Even his close confidant the Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka said that he had wished Achebe “had never written-that is, not in the way it was. There are statements in the work that I wished he had never made.”

There Was a Country is Achebe’s farewell song to his country Nigeria.  That there was a country named Biafra is undeniable. So also was the collective foolishness and bad leadership on both sides of the war; that led to so much loss of life and pushed Nigeria from a fast developing economy, to a fast under-developing one. There are lessons to be learnt and memories to be shared and stored. Achebe in this farewell gospel is compelling all of us to a common vocabulary and shared historical memory without which the wounds of the Nigerian civil war may not heal and real peace would continue to elude us.

Achebe is the ultimate contrarian who, having put pen to paper; not all the pleas of the world, or all the waters of river Niger, can make him erase or change even a dot. He never apologised for any statements or words in his writings. He not only rode the storm of criticism of There Was a Country: his farewell memento. His pregnant silence, even unto to the grave said it all. He was telling his critics what he had told them before, “it is the duty of a writer to give headaches “ and to “ write to make people uncomfortable.” But many misunderstood Achebe’s deep patriotism and love for Nigeria. Many thought it was an honour to describe him as a dissident. That is after his death. These insult the memory of the Nigerian patriot, who had stated in his book The Education of a British Protected Child that if he were to re-incarnate in this world, he would love to be a Nigerian again. This wish is already fulfilled because; long after the dynasties of stolen wealth have crumbled, power extinguished and arrogance humbled, Chinua Achebe will be left standing in the human heart against injustice, stupidity and untruth. GREAT WRITERS NEVER DIE.

Achebe as an iconic leader used his skills as writer to fashion and inhabit a democratic movement where he saw a vision of a better Nigeria, a better Africa and indeed a better world. He taught the world the importance of self-esteem. Without self esteem in nations, societies and individuals; there is no growth but self-hatred, hatred of others and stagnation. Democracy cannot flourish in the absence of self-esteem because true transformation can only come to a country when the citizens obey their conscience and refuse to obey ethnic voices, the rule of corrupt enrichment and un-enlightened self-interest. He propagated the ideal that democracy fails to take root in societies where the people cannot bear to hear each other, especially the anguished voices of those that are undergoing oppression. This is the revolutionary movement, where our minds are now free to explore our anxieties, insecurities and doubts in the face of violence, and man created poverty.

Finally, Achebe is gone to rest but we the living must find the cure for the headache he has left us with. The cure must come from the desire of the leaders and the followers to pursue justice, to value honour, integrity and humility. He has ignited a moral revolution in the minds of us all to work for a turn around;
It is now time to heal and not to hurt.
Time to build and not to plunder
A time to right the wrongs we have caused one another
The time to make the small things that became too big small again
The end of time to keep silent
When the time has come on the story-teller
Chinua Achebe to rest in peace.

Prof. (Amb) Iyorwuese Hagher presented this tribute at Wright State University, Dayton Ohio, United States, a day after Achebe was laid to rest.