In the couple of months following his death up to his burial today, the world has risen in unison to celebrate Chinua Achebe as a man universally acclaimed to be the father of modern African literature and as the man who used literature to bring Africa to the world.
Indeed, there is nothing to be said about Achebe’s accomplishments in, and contribution to, African literature and post-colonial political consciousness that has not been said. The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart in 2008 provided opportunity for Achebe’s place in African literary history to be firmly established. All across the world, the novel which became a pace-setter was celebrated that year.
By whatever standard, Achebe achieved immortality. If we use as yardstick the Freudian concept of immortality as being known by many anonymous people, then Achebe has joined the pantheon of world literary giants (like Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens, Marie Corelli, Thomas Hardy, Alex Haley, Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, etc) who, decades and centuries after their death, are still hailed and appreciated by “many anonymous people”.
Of all the tributes to Achebe, one remains outstanding – a statement made by Nelson Mandela, himself a global icon, while recalling what he did to keep himself busy in his 27 years of incarceration in apartheid South Africa. Mandela said, “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Mandela’s tribute was also about Achebe the writer as the world knew him, but only few knew Achebe the politician. It is most likely that if Achebe was not forced to live in the United States by the car accident which paralysed him in 1990, he would have been involved in partisan politics.
In the second republic, Achebe pitched tent with the late Aminu Kano, acclaimed leader of the ‘talakawa’ or down-trodden. He was elected deputy national president of Aminu Kano’s defunct People’s Redemption Party (PRP). It was out of his concern for the weakest of society that he joined a party whose manifesto was the welfare of the masses. He could have joined the defunct Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) led by the late founder of modern Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, a party which held sway in the South-East at the time. If he was given to political opportunism, he could have gone to the then ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which controlled the centre. But out of political conviction, he went to PRP, which offered no obvious political advantage and conferred no political privilege.
After relocating to the United States following the 1990 accident, Achebe became a conscience of the nation. He began the annual Achebe Colloquium on Africa in which speakers and opinion leaders are invited from different parts of the world to x-ray Africa’s problems and proffer solutions. He kept abreast of developments not only in Nigeria as a whole but in his home state of Anambra in particular. When an attempt was made to kidnap the then governor, Chris Ngige, and Anambra State became almost ungovernable in 2003/2004, Achebe rattled the then government of President Olusegun Obasanjo by rejecting the national honour awarded to him. Then it was generally believed that Chris Uba, who was the chief protagonist in the Anambra State imbroglio, derived his support from the presidency.
In rejecting the award, Achebe wrote to Obasanjo: “I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the presidency.”
And in 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan tried to bring up the issue gain by including Achebe in the honours’ list for that year. Achebe also declined but in a very terse statement. “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me,” he wrote to Jonathan.
On both occasions he was praised for the courage he displayed in rejecting the awards and in telling truth to power. In fact, for Achebe, there was never a lack of courage. He was a man who spoke with conviction even if it was against popular opinion.
For instance, in 1987 when Obafemi Awolowo, elder statesman, died, and there was a torrent of tributes across Nigeria, Achebe came out to say that Awo did not deserve a national burial because he was only a sectional leader and not a national leader.
Talking about the falling standard of education in Nigeria, he incurred the wrath of his fellow processors when he declared that the standard of education had fallen so much that even professors of English could no longer communicate effectively in English.
And his last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, gave fresh perspective on one aspect of Nigeria’s history that Nigerians will like to forget or at best gloss over. His comments on Awo and war-time head of state, Yakubu Gowon, became very controversial and drew very heated debates across the country. That was vintage Achebe, a man who spoke his mind at all times. Would he have made a good politician? The answer lies only in the realm of conjecture.
Amuchie, a journalist, writes from Abuja.