Although the body of the national icon, Professor Chinua Achebe, will be buried tomorrow in his home, Ogidi, the appreciation of his art and politics will continue for a long time. Amid the honours being done to his memory, it is important to emphasise that the politics of Achebe was essentially a progressive one. This is the point that the ethnic chauvinists from all sides fail to grapple with in discussing the politics and the place of the great man in history.
In the deluge of tributes, which followed the announcement of Achebe’s obituary on March 21, the one by Pini Jason was particularly eloquent in the defence of Achebe’s politics. Sadly, the funeral of Jason himself is also coming up in this season of the Achebe burial. Jason died on May 4 and his body will be buried next Saturday in Imo State. Jason was doubtless one of the most informed, diligent and honest public intellectuals of our time. His collection of essays, A Familiar Road, remains a delight in column writing. His tribute to the great writer in the Vanguard of March 26, 2013, was entitled “Achebe: No Need to Mourn” Among other things, he wrote: “One of the things I noticed in the recent noise that greeted his There Was a Country was that many of Achebe’s critics begrudged him of his Igboness. His long-standing friend, Biodun Jeyifo’s series on the book dwelt almost exclusively on questioning Achebe’s right in asserting his Igboness. Achebe could not have pretended to be anything else but Igbo. He was a proud one”.
For clarity, Jason was referring to Professor Jeyifo’s commentary on Achebe’s last book, There was a Country. Jeyifo observed inter alia: “… all of Achebe’s “explanations”, all of his speculations in the book are relentlessly driven by ethnicity, and a very curious conception of ethnicity for that matter. Logically, inevitably, the corollary to this is that “explanations” and speculations based on class, and more specifically on intra-class and inter-class factors, are either completely ignored or even deliberately excluded… this is a remarkable departure from virtually all of Achebe’s writings prior to this recently published book.” Jeyifo amply demonstrated how Achebe employed the tool of class in his earlier works. Achebe certainly did not belong to the tribe of art-for- art-sake writers. Jeyifo made that point authoritatively in the essays.
To be sure, from different perspectives, the comments of both Jason and Jeyifo are, of course, informed and enlightening about Achebe. This is a sharp contrast from the ill-informed and poorly articulated comments of the Internet warriors waving the flags of their various ethnic groups while pretending to be discussing Achebe. The truth, which is often hidden in the reflections on the civil war, is that even the surviving progressive elements on the two sides of the conflict have different interpretations of the tragic period. Yes, there was a progressive content to Biafra. The Ahiara Declaration, which was to be a strategy of development for the short-lived republic, would remain a solidly progressive document in Nigeria’s political history. Achebe, as one of the leading intellectuals in Biafra, played a pivotal role in putting the document together.
That was a progressive act. Achebe was not a Marxist, but he was well at home working with a Marxist such as Professor Ikenna Nzimiro in Biafra. The problem is that in reflecting on the tragedy of the war, each side is imbued with subjectivity while demanding objectivity from the other side. The deep feelings should be expected when talking about a war in which lives were lost in millions. However, the discussion of Achebe’s politics should not be limited to his reflections on the civil war, however disagreeable any one may find his position.
The irrefutable point is that besides his novels, Achebe’s remarkable life was also defined by progressive political actions. Perhaps, the most widely quoted non-fiction work of Achebe is The Trouble With Nigeria, which was published in the political ferment of the Second Republic. It embodies Achebe’s thoughts on leadership. It is a book laden with progressive propositions on what is to be done about the Nigerian condition. Take a sample. Commenting on the activities of the military government of General Murtala Mohammed, Achebe argued as follows: “In the final analysis, a leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favorable climate but in order to effect lasting change it must be followed up with a radical programme of social and economic re-organisation or at least a well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform which Nigeria stood, and stands, in dire need of”.
Achebe wrote that more than 30 years ago and it could as well be the nucleus of the manifesto of any progressive party today. Those who are talking about transformation in Nigerian politics today may wish to pause and examine their own agenda if it has such a progressive content.
It was also part of the progressive streak in Achebe’s politics that in the Second Republic he elected to be in the radical People’s Redemption Party (PRP) led by Mallam Aminu Kano. Achebe was in fact a national officer of the party.
That was no accident. It was consistent with Achebe’s political and ideological temperament. Outside partisan politics in his later life, Achebe would be better remembered for his huge moral stature summoned in consistently condemning dictatorship, mis-governance and poor leadership in Nigeria. By rejecting the offer of National Honours from successive administrations he made a point about the place of principle in public affairs.
All told, Achebe left a legacy of progressive politics.
A Man Ahead of His Generation
Professor Chinua Achebe had left the University of Massachusetts about a decade before I joined the same University in 1983 as Professor and Director of the Automation and Robotics laboratory. At the time, Achebe’s reputation was still looming large at UMass. On realizing that Achebe and I came from the same country and the same state in Nigeria (old Anambra State), students and professors as well as non-academic staff ceaselessly asked me questions about Achebe-about his health, his family, his books and, of course, about the legendary village of Umuofia in his epic novel, Things Fall Apart.
Poor fellows! My only contact with Achebe then was only through his books which I thoroughly enjoyed reading while in high school. The ceaseless questions about Achebe, speaking with the benefit of hindsight, often remind me of the story told by Michael Thelwell, a renowned Jamaican professor of literature at the W. E. B. Dubois Department of African American Studies at UMass and an eminent authority on the Achebe oeuvre, that once “a person tells some Jamaicans that he or she lives in New York, they would reply, ‘you must know my cousin who lives in New York, too!’ “.
As fate would have it, Professor Achebe and I would meet in flesh and blood in the United States when he came once more to UMass as a visiting professor; more importantly, we worked together on a critical Africa-centered project — the founding and publication of African Commentary. At the inception of African Commentary in the late 1980s, the investors and promoters of the monthly magazine had no difficulty making Achebe both the chairman and publisher of the monthly, while I served as the president. The magazine was a combination of intellectualism and journalism designed to bridge the communication divide between the African continent and the African Diaspora and offer a most rewarding black perspective on the global issues of the day. Well received no sooner than it hit the newsstands, African Commentary deservedly won a lot of recognition in the US media.
It was also used in some universities for teaching African history and literature. Interestingly, almost all of us who invested in the magazine were academics with no practical experience of how to run a newspaper business. We consequently took certain steps, which, in retrospect, were pretty funny. For instance, some board members used to attend meetings with their spouses who did not make any investments in the enterprise, yet they actively participated in the board meetings and vote on fundamental issues! In spite of obvious governance and management issues and liquidity challenges, the monthly lasted a whole two years.
Professor Achebe was an exceedingly wise man, not just an intellectual or writer. All of us always profited from Achebe’s sagacity. In fact, he was a born teacher. For instance, it is normal for people to state in conversations and meetings “I do not know how to present this matter”, thus leaving the audience rather confused and sometimes embarrassed. Achebe would carefully guide any person who made such a statement to think through the subject, form his or her thoughts properly before rephrasing and presenting them in a logical manner. This would normally force the individual to be clear in stating issues, and not give excuses. Achebe had a wonderful gift of clarity of thought and clarity of expression.
It is truly amazing that his first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published when he was merely 28 years of age. In other words, the classic was written when he was not more than 26 and conceived when he was even younger. How did someone of such callow or young age come up with this great novel, which has been translated into dozens of languages and sold over 12 million copies globally? This is a book of fiction, yet it is constantly cited by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, literary stylists, etc.
The truth is that the young Chinua was a child prodigy. His elementary school teachers recognized early enough that he would go places, and so never hesitated to say so. As his childhood friend, Chike Momah, the retired diplomat, has informed us, their common elementary school teacher used to tell the very brilliant Momah that Chinua would beat him in class if they both should meet at Government College, Umuahia, in today’s Abia State. They did meet, and the teacher’s statement turned out prophetic! We understand that after only the first term, Chinua was promoted to the next class where he maintained the first position until he left high school. At the University College, Ibadan, Achebe’s record was not different.
Mabel Segun, the Nigerian writer and Achebe’s classmate, has regaled us with stories of how Achebe was a father figure even when he was a young student at Ibadan, ascribing this attribute to Achebe’s long and deep association with elders of his native community in Ogidi, Anambra State. Achebe was always ahead of his generation in both intellect and mien and carriage.
Characteristic of his modest nature, a key feature of wisdom, Achebe insisted on playing down his farsightedness in recognizing that a coup was inevitable in Nigeria. In an interview with Nkem Agetua, the Nigerian journalist, Achebe in the 1970s compared his foresight to that of a person observing someone driving recklessly. “It is just like saying,” Achebe, noted, “this drunken driver would have an accident, and it happened shortly after”. It is a manifestation of Achebe’s prophetic gift that a few months after he published a famous treatise on the Nigerian political condition entitled The Trouble With Nigeria a popular military coup took place on December 31, 1983. If only the political class had listened, the course of Nigeria’s political history could have been different.
Professor Chinua Achebe was a wise man, a thinker of the finest hue, a seer and prophet who saw tomorrow today. He was ahead of his generation. His place in world history is assured. He has educated us and his memory will ever remain green in our minds.
-Professor Nnaji, winner of Nigeria’s highest intellectual award (the Nigerian National Order of Merit) was Minister of Power.