If Chinua Achebe were Alive Today
Today, on the day that would have been Chinua Achebe’s 86th birthday, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t died three years ago. So much has happened since Nna anyi left us that in my private moments, I have often looked at things that would have made him break his oracular silence and wondered what he would have said to them; things like the very idea of Donald Trump as the president of the United States; a country that hosted him in his winter years. Things like the beheading of an Igbo woman in Kano in the 21st Century. Things like killing people for wanting to be different, like the IPOB youngsters and the Shiites? Would the Chinua Achebe that we all know have blessed all these with his silence?
Achebe’s landmark lecture on racism as seen in his essay, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reminds us of the ancestry we have in him – a proud heritage that does not flinch from standing firm against prejudice, against injustice and against the world if need be. When Achebe gave that Lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, America was still struggling with the horrors of segregation. And while the city of Jackson in Mississippi was celebrating the opening of an integrated public swimming pool for the first time, riots were erupting in Louisville, Kentucky over forced bussing. In fact, the humanity of African Americans was still being negotiated while many Caucasians still saw black Africans as living in trees. That was the social landscape in which Chinua Achebe declaimed Joseph Conrad; a highly revered writer who earned a name by writing pathetic pieces that justified the Slave Trade, colonialism and other prejudices by making a strong argument to establish the inferiority of the black man.
So, I am moved to ask, what would Chinua Achebe have said to the idea of Donald J. Trump? Would he have swept his incendiary comments aside as a mild irritation from a benevolent “white” country that had shown a capacity to right her wrongs by allowing a black man to lead her for eight unbroken years or would he have given Trump the Conrad treatment? Would Nna anyi have looked back at Nigeria’s steady descent into a poor imitation of democracy and felt restrained to give a voice to his righteous anger against Trump? Or would he have smiled indulgently at the feisty smack-down his prodigy, Chimamanda, has just given to R. Emmett Tyrell, Editor-in-Chief of the American Spectator in a BBC interview that has gone viral on the social media? Would he have felt content that his “daughter” had said his mind? It is really hard to tell because while alive, Achebe picked his fights carefully. But I'm strongly persuaded to believe that it is highly unlikely that Chinua Achebe would have felt done-in by the white man’s choice of who should rule his country.
On the contrary, I am almost certain that he would have spoken out about the human condition in Nigeria. I am sure he would have contemplated the killings, especially the beheading of an Igbo woman by a fiendish mob acting on behalf of its god in Kano and wondered when this particular rain began to beat us. Achebe would have “spoken truth to power” over the killings of IPOB and Shiite members like he did in that historic open letter to Obasanjo excoriating him for his support to the clique of renegades that openly boasting its connections in high places, seemed determined to turn his beloved Anambra into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. He would have been traumatized by the recession that has plunged Nigerians into avoidable hardships and would have asked for an explanation. He would have shuddered at the polarization of Nigeria by the rhetoric of leaders who have drawn an imaginary line in the sand that says it is 95% versus 5%. He would have frowned at the fierce cyber wars along tribal lines and the disappearing nationalist ties that once held this unwieldy country together. Chinua Achebe would have wondered if we haven’t put a knife on the things that hold us together by ourselves and should therefore expect what comes after that. And perhaps too, just perhaps; he would have felt validated, justified, contented that he wrote the book prophetically titled, There was a Country! And we would all have been in no doubt about which country he had in mind!
Again, knowing Achebe’s famed aversion to power that carries the faintest hint of dangerously keeling over to dictatorship, would he have drummed support for the APC in the manner that his fellow writers did or would he have just stayed defiant like Ezulu, that magnificent character in Arrow of God,who stuck to his own ways even when the ground gave way under his feet? Or better still, would Achebe have kept faith with his own philosophy that “one of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised?” And what would he have told the people who choose to play Conrad by writing tomes of essays in defence of the fascism that is afoot in the country; those who pen brilliant articles in defence of the violent arrest of judges, endless incarceration of political prisoners and the borderline misogyny? Would he have shaken his head ruefully and reminded them that there is “a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless?”
Indeed, if Chinualumogu Achebe had been alive today, would he have been pleased at the way this facebook generation of Africans has carried itself as though there was nothing more to worry about only to suddenly wake up to the rude shock of an American presidential election that has successfully exhumed the fears we all thought we had left behind? Or would he have just shaken his head sorrowfully and reminded us all that “every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform?” And if he had done so, and I think he has many times already, would we have been bright enough to “recognize” the task that providence and history have designed for us? Would we have asked enough questions that will lead us into discovering what should be the enduring themes of this century that will help our forebears find a firmer footing in the next?
Happy birthday, Ugonabo! You may be three years gone but you still perch solidly on that Iroko!