By Remi Adekoya
Pioneers have a special place in history, especially in the history of the peoples they emerged from. Chinua Achebe will always inhabit a special place in the hearts of Africans for his historical role in planting African literature on the world map. While there were other talented African writers and intellectuals producing great work by the mid-20th century, Achebe’s 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart was the first to command global attention, selling millions of copies and henceforth rendering it impossible to ignore or underestimate African literature.
Things Fall Apart proved that an African writer could successfully seize possession of the right to define Africans who up till then were mostly defined by white people. It is impossible to over-emphasize the psychological impact this had on aspiring writers in a colonized continent struggling to find its voice and its confidence. Princeton scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah put it aptly when he wrote that asking how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing “would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.” While Achebe himself resisted the crown foisted on him as the ‘father of African literature’, this is most likely how popular history will remember the great Nigerian novelist, poet and scholar who passed away five years ago today.
Set in the 1890s, Things Fall Apart was Achebe’s response to over-simplistic and often condescending European narratives of Africans, chronicling a crisis of identity experienced by his main protagonist Okonkwo, through whose eyes readers could envision the confusing and often tragic encounters of pre-colonial African communities with European colonialism and its arrogant attitudes to the cultures it encountered on the continent.
Achebe’s masterful moulding of the English language to suit his purposes of conveying popular concepts and worldviews embedded in his native Igbo culture became an inspiring example to other non-Western novelists on how to explain the cultural universes they inhabited to a world dominated by Western thought-paradigms and modes of expression.
Highlighting the disruptive nature of colonialism for African communities, David Whittaker explains, “Achebe created a narrative that placed the African at the historic centre of the colonial encounter, with the imperialistic Europeans as the usurping outsiders, whose intervention brings about cataclysmic upheaval for the traditional African civilization being colonized.”
Things Fall Apart kicked off a literary career spanning over half-a-century that remained firmly rooted in the realities and people of Achebe’s native Nigeria, revealing their rationalizations, proverbial wisdoms and cultural sensibilities while simultaneously chronicling the socio-economic and political evolution of the country promised to become the ‘Giant of Africa.’ While Things Fall Apart dealt with the realities of an Igbo community in colonial-era Nigeria, much of Achebe’s work in subsequent novels such as A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) dealt with the realities of post-colonial Nigeria, depicting complex characters struggling to find their way in an increasingly corrupt, ruthless and unjust society that was clearly not turning out to be what the country’s independence leaders had promised.
While the conflict between traditional values and modernism remained a recurring theme in Achebe’s later works, it was his confrontations with the increasingly venal political and social realities of post-colonial Nigeria that arguably present his most interesting writings for observers of contemporary African politics and socio-economics. Indeed, what is less popularly known about Achebe is that he became so disgusted with post-colonial Nigerian politics he decided, for a brief spell, to try and change things from within, joining the leftist Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) in the early 1980s, and becoming its deputy vice president in 1983.
While Achebe’s writings always acknowledged the material and structural impact of colonialism with the exploitative systems it left behind, his later books increasingly focussed, in characteristically frank unflinching manner, on the role of Nigerian agency in the failures of post-colonial Nigeria. In 1983, Achebe penned his most explicitly political book The Trouble with Nigeria in which he asserted categorically that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Fuming at the growing poverty and inequality in his country, Achebe offered a scathing review of Nigeria’s corrupt ruling elites and their remarkably deluded rhetoric:
One of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations…Listen to Nigerian leaders and you will frequently hear the phrase this great country of ours. Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!
It would have been difficult for Achebe to offer a more damning indictment of his beloved country 23 years into independence, attributing the megalomaniacal and fantastical assertions of its ruling elites to “a flamboyant imaginary self-concept.” Before going further, it is worth noting Nigeria was in much better socioeconomic shape when Achebe dished out this harsh criticism than it is today.
According to the country’s national bureau of statistics, in 1985, two years after Achebe offered his critical assessment, 46.3% of Nigerians lived in poverty. By 2010, that number had risen to 69%. Moreover, due to the country’s demographic boom, the statistics present even worse in absolute terms as the number of poor Nigerians grew from 34 million to 112 million during the same period. Meanwhile, a 2017 global index compiled by Oxfam and Development Finance International placed Nigeria last in a list of 152 countries ranked by their “commitment to reducing inequality” with “shamefully low” social spending on health, education and social protection, taking into consideration available resources.
Yet the self-satisfied delusions of grandeur and disconnect from reality which Achebe identified among Nigeria’s ruling elites in the 1980s remain alive and well today despite these decades of socioeconomic regression and appalling governance. Last month, in response to queries on why Nigeria, a country of almost 200 million people, produces only a tenth of the electricity South Africa produces (pop. 56 million) and thus undergoes constant power-outages, Minister for Power Babatunde Fashola argued that Nigeria produces more electricity than Rwanda (pop. 11 million) and Togo (pop. 7 million) so “stop putting yourself down, we are a great country.”
That a minister in a country where roughly 70% of the population lives in poverty has the gall to describe it as ‘great’ makes it difficult to comment without the use of expletives. But, of course, the minister has probably not slept in a house without a 24-hour stand-by generator for decades so he can’t really understand why anyone considers constant power outages such a big deal. His words simply reflect the complete disconnect between Nigeria’s ruling elites and the overwhelming majority of Nigerians who have to deal with the results of their failed governance.
It also reflects what Achebe aptly observed in The Trouble with Nigeria as the ‘spurious patriotism’ that is ‘one of the hallmarks of Nigeria’s privileged classes’ who are ‘incredibly blind.’ This has clearly not changed today. Describing the political class he observed from up close in the 1980s, Achebe asserted:
There are simply too many political actors on our stage whose prime purpose in grabbing power seems to be no higher than a desire to free themselves from every form of civilized restraint in their public and private lives.
He would repeat this argument in his last book There Was a Country published almost three decades later in 2012, the year before he died. While There Was a Country is primarily a personal memoir of the events surrounding Nigeria’s civil war and the Igbo-dominated break-away Republic of Biafra which Achebe supported, it was also an assessment of fifty-two years of Nigeria’s independence.
Achebe described the situation as much worse than in the 1980s when he had thought things were bad. Regarding corruption in 2012 Nigeria, he stated:
Twenty-eight years after that slim book [The Trouble with Nigeria] was published, I can state categorically that the problem of corruption and indiscipline is probably worse today than it’s ever been because of the massive way in which the Nigerian leadership is using the nation’s wealth to corrupt, really to destroy, the country, so no improvement or change can happen.
He cited the mind-boggling figure of $400 billion of oil revenue, which is estimated to have been stolen by Nigerian leaders since independence. While Achebe tried to portray Nigeria as salvageable, arguing “this is not a time to bemoan all the challenges ahead. It is a time to work at developing, nurturing, sustaining and protecting democracy and democratic institutions”, he also acknowledged the farcical nature of Nigerian democracy:
The question of choice in selecting a leader in Nigeria is often an academic exercise due to the election rigging, violence and intimidation of the general public, particularly by those in power, but also by those with the means, the rich and influential.
Addressing the issue of why Nigeria’s political elites have been getting away with robbing the country blind since independence without any serious resistance from the tens of millions of Nigerians condemned to extreme poverty as a result, he stated:
I am asked “Why don’t the people fight back?” Well, once a people have been disposed and subjugated by dictatorships for such a long time as in Nigeria’s case, the oppressive process also effectively strips away from the minds of the people the knowledge that they have rights.
Indeed, while on paper all Nigerians have rights, over the years most Nigerians have adapted to a reality in which state power is often brazenly and brutally deployed to subjugate the poorest and weakest citizens in the interests of the rich and powerful political class who constantly demonstrate they are above the law. Since they have been getting away with this for over half-a-century, the average Nigerian has come to accept that might is right and it is safer to bow before the powerful than provoke them into trampling all over you.
Ethnic antipathies and mistrust have rendered large-scale class-based organizations virtually impossible as such movements are easily divided by savvy ethnic entrepreneurs. In There Was a Country, Achebe despaired that his ethnic group the Igbos were so disliked in the country, “Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.” While he may have overstated the case, anyone trying to assert ethnic antipathies have been overcome in Nigeria is engaging in the same kind of wishful thinking as the political leaders who claim Nigeria is a “great country.”
There is a strong human desire for happy endings to stories. We all like ultimately positive messages to help us feel optimistic about the future. But if truth be told in the frank manner Nigeria’s great literary icon favoured throughout his life, there was no happy ending to the story of Chinua Achebe. Perhaps to that of Chinua Achebe the immensely successful writer, but certainly not to that of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian patriot and socialist. Here was a man whose first novel Things Fall Apart criticized European colonialism and its disruptive effects, only for his final book There Was a Country to recall British rule in Nigeria with a remarkable degree of nostalgia.
Here is a piece of heresy: The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country…I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.
It is highly improbable Achebe would have felt the need to recall Nigeria as “expertly run” by the British if he had not been so terribly underwhelmed with how it was being run by his fellow Nigerians, a disappointment palpable throughout There Was a Country.
In the end, partially paralysed after a car accident on one of Nigeria’s terrible roads, Achebe spent the last two decades of his life an émigré in far-away America, choosing not to live in his home country which had become “one of the most unpleasant places on earth.” So, while we celebrate Achebe’s incredible accomplishments for African literature, let us not forget how much post-colonial Nigeria failed him and continues to fail the overwhelming majority of its citizens today. We owe the great man that bit of honesty.
Remi Adekoya is the former political editor of the Warsaw Business Journal. He has provided socio-political commentary and analysis for BBC, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Stratfor, Geopolitical Intelligence Services and Radio France International among others. Remi is currently conducting PhD research in politics at the University of Sheffield and is a member of ROAPE’s editorial working group. His twitter handle is @RemiAdekoya1
Featured Photograph: Chinua Achebe on a bench in Umeå, Sweden, on 19 October 1988 (Roland Berggren, Västerbotten-Kuriren).