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Chinua Achebe’s social allegory of Nigeria

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Chinua Achebe


Fireballs and thunder did not augment the wailing wind when he died. This month eight years ago, Achebe crossed the abyss between the lands to make a new beginning with his ancestors. Achebe died as he had lived: with quiet dignity.  Achebe was a man of exceptional achievement and his appreciation can only increase with time. Review with me a couple of events which provides the context within which I make such an assertion.
 
In the country that Achebe left behind, there were the usual offerings of horrific news paid for in the currency acceptable to the Nigerian government  – human misery. First, was the abduction of 30 students of the Federal College of Forestry and Mechanisation, Kaduna. The terrorist’s rode into the school premises, on bikes and trucks, rounded up as many students as they could carry, and rode off with them into the forest.
 
A spokesman for the Kaduna State government told CNN that soldiers rescued about 180 students and staff. But that egregious lie was immediately shot down by one of the students, who escaped abduction, who confirmed to reporters that the abductors had already left with their hostages before the military came on to the crime scene.
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The spokesman was interested not in the mobilisation to get back the abducted young men and women, who in their states of undress, were even more vulnerable to sexual abuse, but in spin: to burnish the image of the state government and to modulate reality.
 
Second was the return of the so-called Ibori loot to Nigeria. Chief James Ibori, former governor of Delta State, had been arrested, tried, and convicted in a Crown Court in London, in 2012; for money laundering. His bank accounts were frozen, and his properties were confiscated. $5.84 million of that loot had finally made its way back home by way of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreement between Britain and Nigeria.
 
After the fact of the return of that loot, Nigerians weighed in on what should be done with it. Delta State lawmakers and representatives in Abuja – who apparently came to the party late – and opinion leaders elsewhere, all spoke up. Pa Edwin Clark and Chief Femi Falana (SAN) both thought, for instance, that the money should be returned to Delta State.
 
However, Mr. Abubakar Malami, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, who co-signed the agreement, announced that since the funds were secured by the diligent efforts of the staff of the Ministries of Justice and Finance, they therefore rightly belonged to the Federal Government. Then he threw in a sweetener when he thought out loud that the Ibori loot should probably go to the construction of the Second Niger Bridge. The Second Niger Bridge is that type of project – a phantom project that has no completion date but very useful for retiring receipts.
 
However, I was committed to articulating my own opinion, for its own sake, when a friend advised me, “You know I am a Deltan. Ibori remains invincible over there. If those funds ever got to Asaba, don’t be surprised if they are remitted to Ibori with apologies and thanks.” Well, who knew that ‘re-looting’ was a thing. Perhaps the British government might as well hang on to that money.
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The preceding was just a snapshot of a week in the life of Nigeria where some of us need gallows humour to process these dystopian events. But the truth is that all these had nothing to do with Achebe.
 
On second thoughts, however, I reject that easy conclusion and admit that Achebe had everything to do with Nigeria as it is. We are at this place because we rejected his counsel when he tried to warn us. He spoke with proverbs, he spoke with simplicity, and he shunned the use of histrionics to make his point. Anyway, we always thought that Achebe was speaking to Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and others who expressed, in fancy prose and poetry, unwholesome thoughts about the Black race.
 
When Kipling, the English journalist and short story writer, wrote his poem ‘White Man’s Burden’, he actually directed it to Americans who had defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He urged the victorious Americans to embark on empire-building and colonise the Philippines among other places. But the message in the Black Man’s Burden soon became a clarion call on the superior race – White men –to take on the moral, fateful task of bringing all men – Black, Brown, and Yellow – to civilisation.
 
Also in the White Man’s Burden, Kipling described the African as ‘half devil, half child’ even though he lacked any intimate intercourse with Africans other than a short vacation in South Africa. So in his eye, an African was capable of horrific things, and at the same time of being easily deceived.
 
Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born British adventurer and writer, titled his novella, ‘Heart of Darkness’. He also had only a passing intercourse with Africans. He had travelled once up the Congo River Basin. The Congo runs for 2,500 miles to circumscribe what became later the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its basin was a rains-wept, sun-splashed, verdant prime estate rich in agricultural and cash crop produce, in diamonds and gold; and rare-earth elements and critical minerals. To flag off the beginning of the post-slavery exploitation of Africa was King Leopold 11 of Belgium who claimed the so-called Congo Free State for himself. He then used native labour and the horrific tactics of his Force Public to harvest rubber for the bicycle tire industry in Europe.
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You have to be someone special to visit sun-bleached Congo and come out to describe it as the Heart of Darkness. Or perhaps Conrad was talking about the hearts of the people of the Congo who have been engaged in intra-regional wars since independence from Belgium over mining rights of the over-abundant minerals under their feet.
 
By and by contact with Europeans had driven changes in the African community and the African personality. Curiously, it led to the emergence of the ‘Europeanised Africans’ whom Lord Lugard mentioned a couple of times in his amalgamation report. Africans had learned to read and write in English Language. Some had travelled to London to write college examinations and returned as lawyers, doctors, or journalists.
 
You will notice that those were essentially prestige professions with which they had hoped to demonstrate their equality with Europeans. Thus did African elites aim no higher than to be replacement of Europeans, and they enthusiastically became surrogates for them.
 
That then was the emerging dynamic between aliens and natives when Achebe was born in 1930; in Ogidi (in present day Anambra State). Even in his formative years he looked around and what he saw was unwholesome. He concluded that Africans could not be the equals of Europeans if they are playing a strange game, on a turf prepared by aliens, and according to rules set by aliens.
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Achebe sought then to change the game, or otherwise invent new rules of engagement. So he set out to engage, on a common and reasonable human level, with rationalisers of white superiority and promoters of empire building on the one hand; and on the other, African nationalists who had recruited themselves from the educated elite.
 
Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published in 1958. It was a veritable road map to a place of Black Consciousness and Community where his people could realise their own manifest destiny even as they interacted with the White man in a mutually beneficial relationship.
 
With Things Fall Apart, Achebe breathed life into a fictional Okonkwo who represented to a certain extent every man in Nigeria. He was a man with his own vulnerabilities and his own strengths; but he was not a caricature of the White man – a super man who had no apparent weaknesses.
 
Okonkwo was a man capable of showing love: he loved Ezinma, his daughter by Ekwefi, his second wife whom he contracted by elopement, and he showed that love without shame; he was not a caricature of that African of popular literature who was all about masculinity and who sought only male heirs. Okonkwo was a strong-willed man who trusted his own mind. He had looked at the White man and recognised the danger he represented: not so much by himself but by the attitude with which his own people sought to engage with him; he was not a caricature of a man who wrestled with god and lost.
To be continued tomorrow
Ngene wrote from Atlanta, Georgia, United States.

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