Nigeria Senate Celebrates Achebe

We must learn to give honour to whom it is due. In an age where people seek fame at any costs regardless of process the Nigerian Senate finally honored one who became famous for his literary prowess and sustained it by the content of his character. This blog was always about celebrating African heroes and today we acknowledge none other than the late, great Chinua Achebe. Known world wide as Africa's greatest story teller, Chinua Achebe died on the 21st of March 2013, aged 82.

AS A boy Chinua Achebe so loved reading that his friends called him “Dictionary”. He lived in the library at Government College in Umuahia, in south-eastern Nigeria, devouring Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, W.B. Yeats. “They were not about us or people like us,” he would say later in his soft, measured voice. But even John Buchan’s stories, in which heroic white men battled and worsted repulsive natives, excited rather than troubled him. It was all “wonderful preparation” for the day when he would start reading between the lines and asking questions.
That day came quickly. His first novel, “Things Fall Apart”, published in 1958 when he was 28, told the story of European colonialism in Nigeria from the African point of view. Its hero, Okonkwo, was a man who came, like him, from the Ibo south-east: a warrior and wrestler, a man of wisdom. The book was rich with the proverbs and parables Mr Achebe, too, remembered, all rendered in stately English. Poor boy Okonkwo grew up to have three wives, eight children and two barns full of yams. Yet the book ended with the discovery of his body, a suicide, showing how completely Ibo culture had been destroyed by the arrival of Christian missionaries and the district commissioner.
“Things Fall Apart” sold more than 12m copies and has never been out of print. Because of it, said Mr Achebe’s best-known literary protegĂ©, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “I realised that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.” Young authors like her sought him out, leaning in close when he talked about Africa and writing.
A small man with an impish smile under his floppy berets, he teased and spoke in riddles, in part to mask a growing rage. Then, in his mid-40s, he let rip, with an essay about Conrad in the Massachusetts Review that shocked American academics. “The real question”, he wrote, “is the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which [an] age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”
Re-reading “Heart of Darkness”, he explained, it became clear that he would never be on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo. He was one of the Africans Conrad described jumping up and down on the river bank, pulling faces. He realised how wrong it was—“terribly, terribly wrong”— to portray his people, any people, from that superior floating-past point of view. His essay changed Conrad’s place in English literature. Henceforth they were often taught, European and African, side by side.
Mr Achebe began writing stories at university, but went to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in the late 1950s. His fourth novel, “A Man of the People”, about a military coup, was prophetic: it was published just days before the Nigerian army seized control of the country in 1966, as the Ibos threatened to secede in their own republic of Biafra. In the years that followed he became increasingly politicised, joining the Biafran war effort. When the conflict ended he returned to teaching, much of it in America. From afar, he watched Nigeria succumb to military rule.

“Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass,” he wrote in his 1987 novel, “Anthills of the Savannah”, a comic satire (written partly in Nigerian pidgin) about three friends living under a military strongman. To such rulers, storytellers like him were an active danger. “They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit—in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university…” Literature, he liked to say, was his weapon.
His exile became permanent after a car accident in 1990 left him paralysed from the waist down. He settled in America and taught there. For more than a quarter-century, until he won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007, he stopped publishing. The award seemed to spur him on, and he brought out two books in quick succession: one a collection of essays, the other, in 2012, a memoir of the Biafran war. Both books reinforced his protest against dehumanising Africa.
As a novelist, though, he saw himself as part of the great Western canon. The titles of his books saluted his heroes: “Things Fall Apart”, from Yeats, and “No Longer at Ease”, in homage to T.S. Eliot. At school he had once been punished for asking a boy, in Ibo, to pass the soap. Despite that humiliation, he liked writing in English. “I feel the English language will be able to carry the weight of my Africa experience,” he declared in 1965. It would have to be a different English, though, “still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

Senate Celebrates Achebe, Demands State Burial for Him

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Professor Chinua Achebe
By Omololu Ogunmade
Almost two months after the demise of the late literary icon, Professor Chinua Achebe, the Senate Wednesday urged the federal government to grant the departed novelist a state burial, as well as erect a national monument in his honour.
The upper chamber also assigned a delegation to commiserate with Achebe’s family, the people and government of Anambra State.
While imploring the federal government to name a major federal highway or street in Abuja as well as a national monument in his honour, the Senate also observed a minute silence in his honour.
The Senate’s moves followed a motion by Senator Chris Ngige (Anambra Central), and supported by 107 senators, where he (Ngige) described the late Achebe as a world figure and a personality who brought fame and prestige to Nigeria through his numerous literary works which he said became “instruments for his dogged and dynamic activism ultimately seeking a better life for all Nigerians.”
Ngige also described Achebe as a social critic, activist poet and principled persona who denied himself several personal accolades while marketing and exporting Nigerian and African cultures to several other countries.
Further, he said despite his incapacitation, Achebe continued to be active in his work and offering  intellectual contributions to life, arts and culture in Nigeria and Africa and as well published several works including his latest work titled: ‘There Was a Country.’
Ngige who said Achebe’s works had remained relevant both in Nigeria and in the circle of world literature, added that he was a pioneer and trail blazer in quality literature who won several awards and defied doctors’ report which according to him, said he would not live beyond 10 years after his automobile accident which paralysed him from waist downward in 1990. He said Achebe lived for another 23 years as against the doctors’ 10 years’ prediction.
While noting that Achebe participated in partisan politics before his incapacitation, Ngige emphasised that he was a patriot who loved his country and was always in touch with Nigeria despite living in far away United States adding that he was courageous enough to criticise any act he considered wrong in Nigeria, not minding the consequences.
Speaking on the motion, Senator Sola Adeyeye (Osun Central), who described Achebe as the pioneer of African literature, also described him as a prophet who predicted the 1966 coup in his book, A Man of the People.
He also said Achebe’s last, book, There Was a Country, was prophetic, arguing that the book’s name implies that Nigeria used to be a country and not necessarily a country now.
Also speaking, Deputy Senate Leader, Abdul Ningi, who said he met the late Achebe as a young graduate of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in 1978 while standing beside the late Aminu Kano, founder of Peoples Redemption (PRP), described him as the first African writer who authoritatively wrote African stories.
According to him, before Achebe’s writings, African stories were written by the whites, a trend he said Achebe altered when he told the world that Africans had their own unique way of life that was distinct from that of Europeans.
In her own contribution, Senator Zainab Kure (Niger), said though a lot had been said about Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, the most striking of his books to her is ‘No Longer at Ease,’ saying even though things once fell apart in Nigeria, all still came together but yet things are no longer at ease.
Senator Ganiyu Solomon (Lagos Central), who said hardly did any Nigerian pass through secondary school without reading ‘Things Fall Apart’, added that the level of acceptance of the novel in various parts of the world shows how Nigerians can make great impact in the world if only they are provided with enabling environment.
In his own contribution, Senator James Manager (Delta South), who said the fact that the death of Achebe was published in all major newspapers and aired in all notable television stations across the world, showed the level of the deceased’s greatness. He added that such level of popularity showed that Achebe took Nigeria to the next level.
In his remarks, Senate President, Senator David Mark, who recalled that ‘Things Fall Apart’ was first used for West African School Certificate (WASC), in 1966, added that at such a tender age, Achebe began to make a tremendous impact.
According to Mark, it is difficult to pay tribute to Achebe whom he described as a role model, forthright, fearless and progressively controversial patriot who took Nigeria to the highest level, stressing  that there was no volume of expression that could match his reputation.

The Politics of Achebe

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Professor Chinua Achebe

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
Bart Nnaji
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.


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