Up to the moment he breathed his last on Thursday, March 21, 2013, Chinua Achebe, Africa’s most quoted raconteur, novelist, essayist and social critic, did not know he was the person who ignited my interest in the business of public affairs and communication consulting. When Okike, the African journal of new writing which he founded in 1971 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was getting ready to mark its 20th anniversary, the magazine was financially challenged. A fundraiser was needed. Achebe, a thorough person, had by 1989 begun in earnest to prepare for the anniversary. He spoke to me in his characteristically solemn voice, “C. Don, you know a lot of successful and prominent people and they respect you because you have talent and enthusiasm. I would like you to launch a revenue drive for and get a commission on it.” A request from Achebe was, of course, like a command to most people who knew him on account of the man’s incomparable quick mind, intimidating persona and great virtues.
But this request was somewhat difficult to process. I probably had some contacts in high places, but I had never regarded myself as someone with business acumen or even organisational abilities. In fact, Molara Ogundipe, the ebullient feminist and literary scholar, once famously described me as “too artistic” when I opposed her suggestion on how to run the affairs of a fledging circle of writers and critics she was leading at The Guardian. “I am allergic to rules!” I thundered at the meeting, leading everyone to a paroxysm of Homeric laughter.
We must give it to Achebe: he was clairvoyant, he possessed this stunning natural gift that seemed to border on divination. At the inauguration of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) at the University of Nigeria in 1982, for instance, he told the audience that the greatest challenge facing the nation was “the rough beast of fanaticism”. This beast, he explained, was making both Nigerian religious adherents and members of the political class look like “dangerous lunatics”. He ruefully spoke of how some mullahs in Iran were passing fatwa on local poets for protesting against some excesses of the Islamic government in Teheran and a columnist with The New Nigerian newspaper in Kaduna was hailing the death sentences in the name of Islamic solidarity. Achebe also bemoaned the growing tendency of some Nigerian state governors acting like imperial lords, conquerors of their own people, rather than their servants. The import of Achebe’s speech appeared lost on even fellow writers and scholars. Only Stanley Macebuh, writing in The Sunday Punch, was to call national attention to the extremely dangerous phenomenon of extremism which was then developing, describing Achebe as an original thinker and far-sighted analyst. It is a mark of the writer’s prescience that the greatest threat to Nigeria’s survival today, 21 years after the Achebe soul-stirring speech, is fanaticism. Extremism accounts for thousands of violent deaths in the last couple of years and the ruination of socio-economic activity of a certain part of our nation.
Back to my personal relationship with Achebe. When I saw how Macebuh, an exceedingly brilliant and urbane writer, was getting along in life after he resigned from The Guardian as the founding managing director and after seeing George Okoro, another gifted top journalist, go by a decrepit commercial bus in Lagos, I knew my days in active journalism were numbered. “It is either you use journalism or journalism will use you,” Sunday Punch founding editor Dayo Wright used to tell us in Enugu in the early 1980s when I was a rookie journalist but given the high responsibility of the chief editorial writer of the Satellite newspaper. Given the flattering comment I received from Achebe about my talent, enthusiasm, network and goodwill, I reached a conclusion about what to do with journalism, and so quickly moved into the related field of communication and public affairs consulting.
Despite the difference of about three decades in age between Achebe and myself, we did get on very well. Achebe had no airs, no hang-ups. There was a night Okey Ndibe and I walked across Rangers Avenue from Hotel Presidential in Enugu where we were lodging to see Achebe who was then chairman of the governing council of the Anambra State University of Science and Technology and a personal guest of the vice chancellor, Chiweyite Ejike. Achebe was eating boiled maize and roasted local pear with Ejike and his wife. Before we could be invited, Okey and I descended on the traditional snacks with viciousness. We ordered Mrs Ejike, a flabbergasted, bemused but cultured lady who hardly knew us, to the kitchen to prepare more maize and pears! Okey then turned to Achebe: “Prof, it is better to meet you here in Enugu than in Nsukka where you would not invite us to the table because you would wait for every family member to be around before anyone can eat. You know C. Don and I are bohemians who have no time for protocol and niceties.” The entire living room was engulfed by laughter.
I took over: “Two weeks ago we went to see Prof without notice, without even calling him on the phone.” Okey cut in: “C. Don has over 200 local and foreign telephone numbers in his head. He has the memory of an elephant.” “Rather than call 042-770513 which is Prof’s number,” I resumed the story, satisfied to see the pleasant surprise on everybody’s face that I effortlessly mentioned Achebe’s residential telephone number, “we bumped into his home. Prof was in poor health in his bedroom, attended to by a doctor. But when he was told we were around, he quickly got up and joined us in the living room. For the next two hours we were discussing all kinds of issues under the sun—and even above the sun! All of a sudden, his wife appeared from the lecture room and was surprised to see the husband discussing heartily with us. She screamed: ‘Chinua, what are you doing outside the bedroom? The doctor ordered you to have complete bed rest, not even to take calls. I am not happy at all!’ Prof responded: ‘I came less than two minutes ago to dismiss my friends who came all the way from Lagos and Enugu’.”
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.
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