I was in Form 3 at Igbobi College Yaba, Lagos in 1978 when we read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the book that defined him as a great African storyteller. Though my school was predominantly Yoruba, we had a strong representation of most parts of Southern Nigeria – Igbos, Edos, Niger-Deltans and beyond. As 13-year-olds, we did not look at ourselves through ethnic or religious lenses – my favourite football team then was Enugu Rangers! Though we gained significant insights into Igbo language, traditions, culture and society through the book, we related with it and its author only as fellow Nigerians and Africans.
The legacy of Things Fall Apart remained in our language and expression – a wrestler classmate became “Amalinze the cat”; an unserious student was Unoka, the never-do-well father of Okonkwo, or Nwoye, his lazy son; the quote “things fall apart: the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” from W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” became etched in everyone’s memory; colleagues who wore eye glasses became “Ojuigo”, a Yorubanisation of one of Achebe’s characters; we relished expressions like “Amadioha will break your head”, “a man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi…if a man said yea, his chi also affirmed”, “he who brings kola brings life”, and “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. Things Fall Apart was a memorable book and its African richness was part of every Nigerian secondary school student’s formation, at least in the 1970s.
Chinualumogu (“may God fight on my behalf”) Albert Achebe was born on November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, north-east of Onitsha in the present Anambra State. His father Isaiah Okafor Achebe, a convert to the Church Missionary Society (CMS), became a teacher and catechist. Achebe’s biographer, Ezenwa-Ohaeto, notes his birth and early education at a time of “cultural crossroads” when traditional Igbo culture encountered the challenges of Christianity, Western civilisation, British colonialism and a newly emerging multi-ethnic nation. Things Fall Apart explored these conflicts from the lenses of the fictional “Okonkwo”, a proud Igbo traditionalist who resisted, ultimately in vain and to his own destruction, forces that were bigger than him. Between 1958 and 1964, Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964) and Chike and the River (1964). He also wrote A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. I believe I read all these books!
Achebe participated in politics, as a high officer of Aminu Kano’s People’s Redemption Party (PRP), along with “progressives” and intellectuals including S. G. Ikoku, Abubabar Rimi, Wole Soyinka, Balarabe Musa, Bala Usman, Arthur Nwankwo, Michael Imoudu and Uche Chukwumerije. Indeed, his pamphlet The Trouble with Nigeria appeared to have been written at least partly to promote Aminu Kano’s 1983 presidential campaign, an objective short-circuited by Kano’s premature demise. Achebe defined the trouble with Nigeria as “simply and squarely a failure of leadership” and called for “a radical programme of social and economic re-organisation or at least a well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform”. He identified other problems – tribalism, self-delusion (Nigeria is a great country!), vague values (e.g., unity and faith – unity for what purpose? and faith in what?), false patriotism, social injustice, mediocrity, indiscipline (“although indiscipline is by definition distinct from lawlessness, the line between the two is often tenuous indeed…the danger of indiscipline escalating into lawlessness is particularly acute when large numbers of people are involved,” he argued, correctly predicting Nigeria’s current descent into near-anarchy and breakdown of law and order) and corruption.
His antipathy towards Obafemi Awolowo is apparently not a recent phenomenon! He accuses Awolowo of a multitude of sins – stealing “the leadership of Western Nigeria from Nnamdi Azikiwe in broad daylight on the floor of the Western House of Assembly”; “poverty of thought” (apparently for seeking personal success!); and, of course, being anti-Igbo! He wrote, “There were hard-liners in Gowon’s cabinet who wanted their pound of flesh, the most powerful among them being Chief Obafemi Awolowo” whom he accuses of pauperising the Igbo middle class! But then he extended the accusation beyond Awolowo – apparently, in Achebe’s eyes, all Nigerians resent the Igbos! It is difficult, on all the evidence, not to accuse Achebe of having a severe tribal mindset, one of the troubles he lists as plaguing Nigeria. His statement that Wole Soyinka winning the Nobel prize did not make him the “Asiwaju of Nigerian Literature” was devoid of grace and involved an unwarranted ethnic allusion.
Achebe’s last publication There was a Country, perhaps conscious of his approaching mortality, is an explicit effort to remind younger Igbos of the lost (or perhaps delayed?) Biafra. In the very first sentence, he recalls, “An Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body”, and by his own admission, the book tells “Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story”. The book is neither, strictly speaking, a work of history nor one of literature – a master storyteller’s selective admixture of both. Chinua Achebe is part of the glorious Nigerian generation of academics and nationalists whose achievements stand in stark contrast to the state of the nation they so much loved. In that respect, his disillusion with Nigeria is understandable. I thank God I had a rare opportunity to be present at his final Achebe Colloquium at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA in December 2012. He died on March 21, 2013 aged 82. May his soul rest in peace.