Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe chats with former South African President Nelson Mandela at a Steve Biko memorial ceremony in Cape Town in 2002. Biko, a leader of the Black Consciousness movement, died after being beaten by members of Apartheid’s police force. Photo/AFP
By EMMANUEL MAYAH firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Friday, May 25 2012 at 00:00
In Nigeria, one lifetime is hardly enough to crack a nut. Nothing perhaps demonstrates this better than the life story of the literary giant Chinua Achebe.
Short of renting an army and leading a coup d’état to change the system in Nigeria, Achebe is using the barrel of his pen at the age of 82.
Next to the Boko Haram terror, the commonest national anxiety at the moment, underscored by discourses in the academia and polity, is Achebe’s upcoming book with the ominous title, There Was A Country: A personal History of Biafra.
A few days ago, Achebe’s first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart was named one of the “fifty most influential books of the last 50 years” alongside Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Things Fall Apart, the most widely read book in modern African literature, has been translated to over 50 languages.
Across Africa, practically no child goes through secondary school without reading this classic.
It is standard reading. The book’s central protagonist, Okonkwo, is as familiar on the continent as maize meal is to the peasantry.
Given his phenomenal following, the old man from Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria has always been someone to watch, beginning with Nigeria’s first military dictatorship in 1966.
A few years back, Achebe hit the notoriety list of the Nigerian government by rejecting a national honour from President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Last year the master storyteller, confined to a wheelchair after a road accident in 1990 that left him paralysed from the waist down, did it all over again.
For a second time he rejected the same national honour from another President — the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
Nothing has changed in Nigeria, the writer insisted, to merit any national celebration.
Spurned and dazed by the old man’s stance, in January 2012 the Nigerian government sabotaged an international conference and lecture series designed to honour Professor Achebe.
The University of Nigeria International Conference/Chinua Achebe Annual Lectures had to be postponed after the Jonathan administration suddenly withdrew its pledged financial support and participation.
Too cash-strapped to fund a conference of that magnitude; the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), where Achebe used to teach, suffered the embarrassment of writing apologies to diplomats as well as visiting scholars from across the world.
The author had rejected the honour in a three-sentence letter.
The political attraction to the Achebe brand should be no mystery. Once the era of military dictatorship came to a close, it goes without saying that Nigerian political overlords would hanker for the endorsement of the world-famous writer. Proffering state honours is one way of attracting his endorsement.
Writers and political critics alike trace the new wave of anxiety over Achebe’s upcoming book to a watershed in Nigeria’s history and the role of Achebe in the re-engineering of the Nigerian soul.
If Achebe had gained worldwide attention for Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s; No Longer At Ease in 1960; Arrow of God in 1964; his fourth work, A Man of the People published in 1966 was able to hit the bull’s eye with an accurate prediction of volatile political events that were to come.
In A Man of the People, Achebe depicts the perilous adventure of an archetypal Nigerian politician, the wheeler-dealing, the corruption and a mindless orgy that is terminated by a coup d’état staged by young idealistic military officers.
The fictional coup mentioned in Achebe’s book became a reality on January 15, 1966 when Nigeria had the first military coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, a firebrand soldier from Okpanam, a little town less than 13 kilometres from Achebe’s homestead in Ogidi.
That the book was released just nine days after the first coup earned Achebe the sobriquet “Prophet”; though political elements and military officers from the north of the country insisted that the fictional and real coups were too much of a coincidence, accusing the writer of being part of the putsch.
Given the university credentials of the coup leaders; including Major Victor Banjo and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, many political observers concluded that the coup plotters had acted under a strong influence, perhaps unwittingly provided by an angry writer.
Whatever inspired the coup would lead to a counter coup by northern military officers in July of the same year, a trajectory in political turmoil that saw the killings of Achebe’s Igbo kinsmen in the north of the country, the declaration of the Republic of Biafra by secessionist leader Chukwuemeka Odumuegwu Ojukwu and a 30-month civil war that claimed close to three million lives.
During the Biafran war Achebe served as a Biafran diplomat. He travelled to different countries giving voice to the plight of the Igbos, particularly protesting the use of food as weapon by the Nigerian government to starve Biafran children and women.
He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and camped in Enugu, the capital of Biafra where he founded the Citadel Press with the poet Christopher Okigbo. Okigbo enlisted in the war and died fighting on the side of Biafra.
Last Sunday at the Life House in Lagos, the writers’ community gathered for a heritage reading in honour of Christopher Okigbo.
Inevitably, Achebe’s upcoming book sneaked into discussions. The fraternity recalled that There Was A Country would not be Achebe’s first book on the civil war.
In 1973, three years after the Biafran war, Achebe had published a collection of poems titled Christmas In Biafra.
The work is a reflection during a period of great social and psychological disturbances across Nigeria.
Until that publication the front line novelist was not known to be a poet. The collection has sections such as Poems About War, Poems Not About War and Gods, Men and Others.
In 1983, Achebe published a book titled The Trouble With Nigeria, that attempted to challenge the complacency of Nigerians, urging the citizenry to reject old habits which inhibited their fatherland from becoming a modern and attractive state.
In the book Achebe professes that the only trouble with Nigeria is the failure of leadership, maintaining that with good leaders Nigeria could resolve its inherent problems such as tribalism; lack of patriotism; social injustice and the cult of mediocrity; indiscipline; and corruption.
The book contains sections on: Where the Problem Lies; Tribalism; False Image of Ourselves; Leadership, Nigerian Style; Patriotism; Social Injustice and the Cult of Mediocrity; Indiscipline; Corruption; The Igbo Problem, and; The Example of Aminu Kano.
The book, he writes, is a call to ordinary citizens to do more; in fact a couched invitation to revolution.
Playing the agent provocateur, Achebe questioned the On Unity and Faith motto on the Nigerian coat of arms.
He asks: unity in what? Faith in what? The book pointed out that it is easy to be united in disorder and corruption
Needless to add Nigeria experienced yet another coup after the publication of the book, though a belated one in December 1993 sweeping aside the monumentally corrupt civilian government of President Shehu Shagari.
Speaking on Achebe’s upcoming book Odia Ofeimun, poet and playwright and author of The Poet Lied and Nigeria The Beautiful, said that since the book is about the civil war, he expects the aged Achebe to produce a trademark work that will be provocative and haunting.
However, Ofeimun who in his early twenties served as private secretary to one of Nigeria’s founding fathers and Premier of the Western Region, Obafemi Awolowo, expects Achebe in the upcoming book to do a better job given that some of the things mentioned in The Trouble With Nigeria, in his view, are not in sync with the facts.
Ofeimun, former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) said: “I have problems with The Trouble With Nigeria. Achebe is too important in our history to have any inaccuracies in his book. I felt very bad about his grasp about some of the things that happened during the war, one of them being the roles and motives of Aminu Kanu to whom he bestowed a radical identity when in fact Aminu Kanu was pushing a regional agenda of the North; for all we know There Was A Country: A personal History of Biafra, might be the old man’s last major work; so I expect that this time around, minute details in our political history are properly placed in their correct places.”
The greatness of Achebe as a novelist is that he relays a unique idiom of everyday Africa – through Igbo eyes – unparalleled by any other living writer.
His mastery of proverbs and folkore of his people is unmatched, which makes his novels so evocative.
It is a mark of Achebe the writer that whatever angle literary critics take on his upcoming book, it will not dent his towering reputation.
The Biafra story has been a compelling theme to many Nigerian writers since the civil war ended in 1970.
Oddly, Achebe has steered clear of this intense subject despite being a key participant in those tragic events.
There was a Country ends his silence on this subject. And that is why this book is so anxiously anticipated, more so in his own country.