24 March 2013

Nigeria: Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013 - Don't Let Him Die

Photo: This Day
Chinua Achebe, author and poet


Nigeria is no longer at ease because Professor Chinua Achebe, the grandfather of African literature and world-acclaimed intellectual, is no more. Yet, compared to other legendary writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Nigeria's own Achebe lived long on earth.

Had he left the stage at 52 as Shakespeare did or 47 as Orwell did, the world would have been denied the opportunity of having The Trouble with Nigeria, Anthills of the Savannah, The Education of a British-Protected Child, There Was a Country and several other pieces. So even as we mourn Achebe's passing on Thursday night in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States, let us be grateful that this great writer from Africa, this rare gift to mankind lived to old age.

Although he published his greatest work, Things Fall Apart, at the relatively young age of 27, Achebe never rested until his 82nd birthday. When he gave his first novel its title, maybe in 1958, he was referring to the falling apart of African cultures and traditions due to the coming of the white man. Today, that title is subject to better interpretation: Nigeria itself is falling apart. The writer Achebe, however, never folded his hands and watched. Like the character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, therefore, although he won fame and fortune through "solid personal achievements" early in life, he was soon to turn a full-time pubic commentator and social crusader against injustice, corruption and bad governance in his country. Everything Achebe wrote about in The Trouble with Nigeria, 30 years ago, for instance, is still relevant because the rulers of Nigeria have not cared to listen.

Indeed, few missionaries or visionaries in the world have received acclaim in their lifetime. Achebe, the extraordinary visionary, can't be an exception. Now that he is gone, Nigerian leaders and their followers should do justice to his memory by doing what he said but which they ignored while he was still alive. Twice in 2004 and 2011, he rejected the National Honours Award of Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR) in protest against bad leadership in his home country. If the national honours were worth anything and given to deserving people, Achebe would have received the highest national honour (GCFR), for he stood head and shoulders above the politicians that have received it. The nation must begin to honour him now.

As a notable writer, Achebe used his influence to fight for the weak and the persecuted. He correctly diagnosed the trouble with Nigeria - a failure of leadership. He condemned tribalism, nepotism, corruption and other ills of the country. Even after he had an auto accident in 1990 and was sentenced to the wheelchair, this good governance advocate did not relent. This was an Achebe; when comes such another?

Son of a Christian missionary, the great writer chose not to win souls for Christ but to right the wrongs in the society. He preaches morality in all his novels including No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Chike and the River. His last book, There Was a Country, which is deservedly controversial, is obviously his parting gift to his fellow countrymen and women. In it he dispenses clear and precise messages to all. To cure the ills of Nigeria, he makes prescriptions in his last book thus:

On selecting our leaders: "Nigerians will have to find a way to do away with the present system of godfatherism...We will have to make sure that the electoral body overseeing elections is run by widely respected and competent officials chosen by a nonpartisan group free of governmental influence or interference. Finally, we have to find a way to open up the political process to every Nigerian citizen."

On the rise of terrorism: "Economic deprivation and corruption produce and exacerbate financial and social inequities in a population, which in turn fuel political instability... Nigeria has been doomed to witness endless cycles of inter-ethnic, inter-religious violence because the Nigerian government has failed woefully to enforce laws protecting its citizens from wanton violence, particularly attacks against nonindigenes living in disparate parts of the country."

He sees hope, however: "I foresee the Nigerian solution will come in stages... It is from this kind of environment that a leader, humbled by the trust placed upon him by the people, will emerge, willing to use the power given to him for the good of the people."

The nation has lost many of its great minds in recent years. Achebe will not be the last of such to go. But we would do well to preserve his legacy and learn from his words of wisdom. That way, we would not let him die.

As a newspaper, we identify with this illustrious son of Nigeria and mourn with his family and friends. To Achebe we say goodbye. If we see again in the afterlife, we shall smile; if not, in Shakespeare's words, well, this parting is well made.

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