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How not to honour Achebe

By Josef Omorotionmwan
PROFESSOR Albert Chinualumogu Achebe (1930-2013) would have quickly reminded us that there was a country.

We really had it good. Outside these coasts, Nigeria and Nigerians were held in very high esteem. The recognitions came in various forms, some very small but pertinent.

It was in the summer of 1977. When Col. Olusegun Obasanjo, as he then was, Nigeria’s Head of State, appeared at the United Nations to address the General Assembly, he got a standing ovation before delivering his address.

We were elated, watching from the gallery. Let no one ask how good his presentation was. Thank God, the ovation, which had been predicated on Nigerian’s goodwill, came in advance.

On that fateful day in 1978, this writer was returning from Trenton, the administrative capital of New Jersey, to Newark, in company of an American friend, Ms Audrey Messiah, then Director of Welfare and Human Services for the State of New Jersey.

Midway, one of the passengers that came into our coach in the Amtrak train in which we were travelling looked every inch East African. Yes, he was. As soon as he settled on his seat, he came forward to greet us. In the process of exchanging pleasantries, I mentioned that I was Nigerian. He retorted, “I know. Who else can be so fine?” My friend was visibly elated.

Luckily, though, Nigerians are still making waves across the globe.

Prof. Achebe spent a long time in the US, living through this type of reputation, only to come home to find every situation thoroughly depressing. The following scenario may not be uncommon in the life of a Nigerian: He boards the plane in Boston, Massachusetts and arrives in Ikeja Airport after some 12 hours flight.

Whereas at the Boston Airport, the environment was very friendly, with everywhere sparkling, all the lifts and escalators working smoothly, the flowers  well-kept and properly manicured, the runway extremely smooth and the airport services very friendly and rendered with smiles.

But on arrival at Ikeja, he meets the exact opposite: Everywhere looked cranky, the airport was everything Jankara – no light, no water and the entire airport was bushy. The man spends the first four hours waiting anxiously in a choking crowd for his luggage. After the long wait, the luggage appears half and half.

Meanwhile, he rushes to the local wing of the airport. Of course, he misses the only flight that is Southeast-bound for the day. He must spend a night in an Ikeja hotel.

The following day, he decides to go by road because of the uncertain nature of the flights. He soon finds that the Lagos-Benin Road, which is a replica of all the roads in Nigeria, is in a most deplorable state as a result of which, vehicles move at snail speed.

Besides, somewhere between Omotosho and Ore villages, they had to wait for some two hours because armed robbers were operating ahead. When armed robbers are on duty, movement from either direction must come to a halt; that’s the grand-norm.

By the time the man gets to Benin, it is too late to continue his journey to the East, particularly against the backdrop of the ugly stories he had heard about the hazards of night travels in Nigeria.

Our man picks up the day’s newspapers and they are awash with escapades of the Boko Haram sect. The man is surprised that the Joint Task Force is claiming that the damage they did to an area was just minimal since only 150 people died and they destroyed only 1,000 houses. In another newspaper, one man is asking to be allowed to go free since he stole only N23 billion of the Police Pension Fund.

On the third day, our man continues his journey from Benin City. He finally arrives at his native village and finds everybody looking haggard and weather-beaten. Of course, there has been no light in the area for the past three months. Because of he epileptic energy source, the cottage industries he once knew in the area had closed shop.

He gets home to meet a huge debt because the previous night, the village head was kidnapped and the kidnappers are demanding a ransom of N20 million.

An announcement comes over the radio that he has been nominated for a national honour. But he is already enraged with the Federal Government and anything associated with it. The man’s reaction is obvious: To hell with the Federal Government! Let them take their honour and shove it!

In the particular case of Prof. Achebe, twice has he been made offers of the National honour and twice has he rejected it. The man is annoyed with Nigeria.

The man died. But his spirit lives on. The Senate wants a major street named after him. What an aberration!

While alive, this man rejected your Greek gift and soon after his death, you want to foist the same gift on him by naming after him, streets that he will never drive on. How is this different from the case of a man who refuses to partake in the sharing of stolen goods and as soon as he steps out, you went to deposit the goods in his house?

Achebe felt Nigeria was too big to keep coming first from the rear. For him, this elephant must stop moving in reverse gear. Certainly, Achebe will not accept a national honour that is given to other people whose only credentials are that they are the biggest crooks around. His spirit will keep haunting us for as long as we refuse to amend our ways, even where we choose to name Abuja and all its streets after him.

Let’s get our priorities right – fix our infrastructure; get our economy working again; work on our level of corruption, insecurity, crime and criminality and other associated ills. That way, Achebe’s spirit will embrace us and the man’s soul will rest in peace. It can’t be done otherwise!


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