ACHEBE: WHERE ARE THE IGBO?
When Albert Chinualumogu Achebe departed this sinful world on the 21st of March 2013, not many mourned simply because his was a life well spent. When a man of the people spends 83 years of his life on earth educating, mentoring, impacting millions of lives positively and then departs gracefully, there is nothing more to utter other than to wish a good and fulfilled soul a blissful rest in the bosom of the Lord. It is therefore, the reason not only the literary world Achebe touched with his novels and poems but also the entire generation of Nigerians who knew him in one way or the other, will surely miss him.
Achebe had come to us Nigerians and Africans as a blessing and a guided prophet even though not a few would agree. He had come as a fighter of injustice and a man of his words. He was a man who would speak the truth even if a dagger hung around his neck. He was a man who challenged norms and called a spade a spade. His Western audience will never forget his 1975 lecture, which featured a famous criticism of Joseph Conrad as “a bloody racist”. That lecture, even though led to much criticism, eventually went into publication, making it a masterpiece for a long time. The lecture itself exposed the folly which characterised Western intellectualism, placing Joseph Conrad and his ilk’s boisterous thoughts of Africa being ‘barbaric’ in the abyss of history.
Achebe’s life, charisma, character and mien were filled with much lessons and we as a people must begin to learn and emulate such virtues. He was not a man to be corrupted by the whims of our sordid political space and therefore, to remember Edmund Burke’s sayings that ‘bad laws are the worse sort of tyranny’, Achebe came out clean with his integrity intact, telling the Nigerian political elites to their faces what went wrong and where the rain began to beat us. His ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ has refused to be critically dissected by the ruling class to learn a lesson or two from, else, how has it become a norm in Nigeria where—to borrow a leaf from Reverend Hassan Mathew Kukah— accidental leaders continue to emerge even as the nation becomes worse by the day? Why have we lacked sensible leaders who can take the country out of the doldrums and wake it up from its slumber? Why have leaders who have no iota of political sagacity, foresight or even a single drop of patriotism continued to emerge when what Nigeria needs, to agree with Achebe, is a leadership who can rise to “the challenge of personal example?” When we will get there is a question Achebe and the generation after him have not found answers.
This writer is convinced that Achebe left at a time the country needed him the most. At a time when there are fault lines everywhere in the country, the need for senior citizens who have lived, seen it all and have witnessed the good and bad sides of the Nigerian state, to further contribute their knowledge and experience cannot be wished away. Fortunately, Achebe had left for us, like he is wont to always do, a homily for those who have ears to hear with, eyes to see with and a sense to see in common-sense. The book, “There Was a Country” (not minding some of its shortcomings), is a masterpiece which exposes the feelings, thoughts, emotions, and fears of a Nigerian, like many others, who had passed through years of travails, trials and tribulations in a country haunted by ethnic chauvinism against itself. It has brought to the fore the question surrounding the viability of living together as one in Nigeria even when there is a pointer today that there are few reasons to do so.
We may not know the implication of what all Achebe’s books and the last has done in historicizing Nigeria, but it is high time the vast majority of the people began to understand that the truth must always be told at all times without which progress in all strata of the nation will never be made. Achebe’s book spelt out series of issues affecting us as a people discreetly, yet most of us have remained blinded by our ethnic parochialism, a situation that has taken the country and its people nowhere other than near doom and destruction.
As a reminder, Achebe had noted that “independent Nigeria found themselves with a new, terrifying problem on their hands: They found that the independence their country was supposed to have won was totally without content...Nigeria was given her freedom ''on a platter of gold.'' We should have known that freedom should be won, not given on a plate. Like the head of John the Baptist, this gift to Nigeria proved most unlucky”. That in itself is a prophesy and total admonition for the Nigerian and therefore, it is not too hard to discern that the Nigeria project had been faulty right from the start which the vast majority of our people have not been able to use what binds us together to repair the fault lines characteristic of the Nigerian state.
This then takes us to the average Igbo whom Achebe was very much passionate about. Those whose conviction is that Achebe swam in tribalism and ethnic irredentism owing to some of the issues raised in his last book supporting and praising his fellow ethnic group must understand Achebe’s pain vis-a-vis the trauma, shock and psychological wound the 1966 killings and eventual civil war and post civil war had on him and the entire Igbo race. That period marked a turning point in the lives of every Igbo much that not even the 20 pounds given to a man who was a millionaire in pre-war Nigeria could salvage his garbage financial situation. Aside the economic blockade, massive killings and starvation, the Igbo in the aftermath of the war had no sense of belonging in a unified Nigeria. The Igbo suddenly became relegated to the background in the scheme of things.
Revisiting the trauma faced by the Igbo during the war is not the concern of this writer, but simply put, whatever Ojukwu and his ilk did at the time was only a choice any creature would have made with the natural instinct of survival. The abandoned property question, unfinished rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation are yet to play a decisive role in the lives of the average Igbo. The question we all should be asking ourselves, rather than castigating and wrongfully accusing Achebe of being irredentist is, ‘if we were to be the ones, would we not have done worse?’ It therefore, calls into question the rightful place of the Igbo in the Nigerian project. Not a few may agree with this writer, but it is a truism that the Igbo most likely have been the only ethnic group to have, and continue until now, to face iniquities in their bid to survive and live peacefully in the Nigerian state. Some may query this assertion as myopic, and point towards the people of the South-South as a viable and better example of an ethnic group who have faced the worst form of humiliation from the political elites and even the multi-national corporations, but in reality, the number of people of South-South extraction in the Nigerian Diaspora is infinitesimal compared to those of the South East. There is a popular saying that if one does not find an Igbo man anywhere in Nigeria, one should run from that place. This goes to show how the Igbo have permeated the nooks and crannies of the country, doing their legitimate business in a bid to survive. In a bid to survive, however, they have faced countless and painful deaths, humiliation, disgrace, displacement, starvation and made a laughing stock within the Nigerian state.
It is why one must understand Achebe’s emotions when it seemed he had written a book like ‘There Was a Country’, to paint the Igbo as the Aryan race of Africa and most importantly, Nigeria who should be treated like a king. Achebe knew where he was coming from and was of the conviction that the Igbo needed to take its rightful place among the comity of ethnic nationalities existing in the country. He believed that the Igbo had faced series of challenges in the last three to four decades, and must not be taken for a ride anymore. Achebe felt his ethnic group should as a matter of urgency learn from the Civil War of 1977 and address those issues that suddenly turned the Igbo into endangered species. His grouse was that those who claim to hold political power have not accorded the Igbo with the respect they needed, hence the Igbo must ask themselves if they should keep holding on to these iniquities or find a solution to how best they can live in a society free of fear and trepidation.
The pain of this writer is whether the Igbo are ready to take the path of courage they have always been known for, or accept whatever is pelted at them! The worldview of the Igbo today has changed from what it used to be. Achebe’s generation of Igbo cannot be compared to today’s generation because of age long acculturation, inter-group relations with other ethnic affiliations and other salient factors. The current crop of Igbo is nonchalant, divisive and lacks a sense of history. The Igbo today are only focused on one thing—to make money no matter the cost. It is why Achebe was categorical when he noted, “that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and did carry deadly penalties: the danger of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness. There is no doubt at all that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behaviour that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness”. Despite this, Achebe claimed, “any observer can clearly see how the competitive individualism and the adventurous spirit of the Igbo could have been harnessed by committed leaders for modernization and development of Nigeria. Nigeria's pathetic attempt to crush these idiosyncrasies rather than celebrate them is one of the fundamental reasons the country has not developed as it should...”
With all truth and sincerity, Achebe was right and his statement of course has no tone of tribalism in it simply because with the Igbo, there is no gainsaying the fact that, they have championed more than any other group the art of skilful entrepreneurship. A sagacious Nigerian president only needs to use the skill of an Igbo to promote its economic foreign policy and harness their rare knowledge into building a modern Nigeria. Whether that will ensue is a question for another day.
As Achebe will be buried in May, the pertinent question this writer has is whether the Igbo Achebe fought for all his life knew him well and read his last book. If they have not, then the Igbo must rise to the task. The time of playing second fiddle, the recurrent infighting and keeping mum over concrete issues affecting them must be waded into. Achebe’s preponderant fight for the Igbo cause must never die in vain. As the country moves steadily into yet another democratic dispensation in 2015, the Igbo must begin to look inward to know where their own rain began to beat them. Achieving Igbo equality, social justice and non-discrimination in Nigeria are the diet the Igbo owe Achebe in his grave and should be a task that must be done and achieved!
A man of history is he who matters most in the heart of men. He is one whose actions, words and body language demonstrate love for others. He it is who against all odds raises a people’s hopes and aspirations for a greater tomorrow. Like a unicorn, a man of history bestrides his society like a colossus; permeating it like the falcons which dot the skies. Achebe was indeed a man of history and because he shook the world with his literary ingenuity, a firm place awaits him in the sands of time.
Written By RAHEEM OLUWAFUNMINIYI