I am thrilled to have been asked to deliver the maiden Chinua Achebe Memorial Lecture during this Fifth Chinua Achebe Literary Festival, organized by the Society of Young Nigerian Writers, Anambra State Chapter. I thank the Society immensely for their gracious invitation.
Today, 16 November 2020, would have been Chinua Achebe’s 90th birthday. But alas, Achebe the legend joined his ancestors seven years ago on 21st March, 2013 at the righteous age of 82. Yet, because Achebe was a legend in his life time, and because he gave so much of himself to us and to our posterity, we continue to celebrate him and speak of him in the present tense.
In accepting to speak here today, I remain mindful that this event has been organized entirely by Nigerian youths, who have organized themselves into an esteemed writers’ collective; the Society of Young Nigerian Writers. I salute them as I salute Nigerian youths, wherever they may be.
I’m also keenly aware that the theme of this year’s literary festival is: “Chinua Achebe: Our Heritage in a New Normal.” Accordingly, I salute Great Nigerian youths. This is your country; this is your heritage despite the new normal. If this nation has a future, that future does not belong to my generation or our present leaders; it belongs to Nigerian youths. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Tribute to Achebe
In gathering here today to honour Achebe, his humanism and enduring literary legacies, we remember him; we celebrate him; and we express our collective belief in and appreciation for the worthy legacy he bequeathed.
What can one say of the legend we remember today? None of us gathered here – writers and aspiring writers – is qualified to tie his shoelace as a literary giant. So, I won’t even try to pretend that I have words with which to sing his praise. But just imagine what those who are qualified to do so say of the man, Achebe.
In Chukwuemeka Bosah’s 2015 book titled, Celebrating Chinua Achebe, the eminent contributors, eulogized Achebe thus, with various ennobling titles and adjectival qualifications.
Chris Abani: “Achebe: My Complicated Literary Father”;
Chika Nwigwe: “Achebe: He Freed me to Tell My Own Story”;
Victor Ehikwamenor: “Chinua Achebe: Africa’s Voice, Nigeria’s Conscience”;
Abubakar D. Umar: “Chinua Achebe: A Mighthy Tree has Fallen”;
Sonola Olumhense: “Chinua Achebe: Larger in Death”;
Jesse Weaver Shipley: “Chinua Achebe: A Poet of Global Encounter”;
Pita Ejiofor: “Chinua Achebe, the Legend” and
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: “Chinua Achebe: The Spirit Lives”.
For my part, I had in 2006 declared Achebe “The Unacknowledged Nobel Laureate” and when he passed; “a legend, who will eternally be known simply his surname –ACHEBE, just as we know Shakespeare, Yates, Dickens, Shaw and Byron.” I had also underlined that in utter reverence, “we shall continue to refer to the legend and master, in the present tense and simply, as ACHEBE.”
But then, I never tire of paying tribute to Achebe and doing so by quoting his bosom friend and classmate, Chief Chike Momah, who said of Achebe, we “stand, in humility, in the shadow of his greatness and, yes, of his almost Biblical stature!!! In the language of the Bard, when comes such another?” Indeed, when shall there be another legend like him?
Achebe suffered and perhaps still suffers from the bane and fate of erstwhile Biblical Prophets. I suspect that he has never been fully appreciated in his homeland. That vexatious but stark reality, put in perspective, others appreciation of our son, our kith, our kin, our pride and our legend.
Pause for a minute. Listen intensely and hear what others far removed from this clime thought of Achebe, the man, the writer, the cosmopolitan, the icon, and the legend. Listen to the voice of Barack and Michelle Obama, as they extolled the son of Ogidi, Anambra, Nigeria and Africa. And I quote:
“A revolutionary author, educator, and cultural ambassador, Chinua shattered the conventions of literature and shaped the collective identity of Nigerians throughout the world. With a dream of taking on misconceptions of his homeland, he gave voice to perspectives that cultivated understanding and drew our world closer together. His legacy will endure in the hearts of all whose lives he touched with everlasting power of his art.”
What does this say? Simply, our love, devotion, admiration and nostalgia for Achebe will never dissipate. As Chris Abani rightly professed, “In his books we have the collected wisdom of a life well lived, and his books will allow us to visit with him always even in death.” I guess that’s why we are here.
Achebe’s Nigeria In Perspective
Turning to the matters at hand, I have titled this address, “If the Dead Could Speak, What Would Achebe Say of Present Day Nigeria?” This question is hardly rhetorical. Rather, it is pertinent in the context of our national heritage and prevailing realities that represent our new normal. Indeed, what would Achebe have said today of his beloved country, Nigeria, if the dead could speak?
Achebe, as we all know, wrote extensively about Nigeria. At times, he did so presciently. In one instance, he correctly predicted a military coup. Though that happenstance was an inexplicable coincidence, he almost got himself into trouble with Nigerian authorities. In two other instances, 2004 and 2011, he rejected high national awards in protestation of the squalid “bankrupt and lawless fiefdom” Nigeria had become.
At another time – in 1983- Achebe wrote a pithy little seminal book, wherein he dissected with surgical precision, The Trouble With Nigeria. As they say, great things come in small sizes. There was perhaps a reason why Achebe wrote that small but mighty book.
Before then, another pithy book, by Peter Pan Enahoro titled, How to Be Nigerian had given a unvarnished glimpse into the mindset of the true Nigerian; the mindset that led us to our present new normal and conundrum- a nation of severe and deep-seated paradoxes – where we know what is good for us, but refuse to do it; a nation where we have the best world class players in politics and sports, yet frequently elect and select Third-rate teams to represent us; a nation endowed with riches in human capital and natural resources, yet one that earned the dubious distinction of being the poverty capital of the world.
Chinua Achebe in his lifetime influenced many people, writers, politicians and philosophers, and did so effortlessly. One of his beneficiaries – John D. Mahama – ended up being the President of Ghana. And this is what Mahama said of Achebe. “One thing I learned from Achebe’s work is that, “the system” is nothing more than a collection of people, their values and their behaviors. We are all part of a system, and all systems are subject to change. Change can be difficult, even for those who claim to want it.”
Think of what Achebe said of Nigeria years before he departed -Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease. Both expressions can be easily applied any day to our beloved country. It is exactly because things have fallen apart and because we are no longer at ease cohabiting in a Nigeria rife with insecurity and disequilibria that may now clamour for restructuring. They do so, believing earnestly, that it is the only way to save Nigeria, make her better and whole again, and save our noble heritage for the succeeding generation.
For now, Nigeria is at the crossroads. Our democracy is under assault by some of those charged to protect it; including some who are primary beneficiaries of our commonwealth, since they have been elected or appointed into democratic offices. By not fostering good governance, these presumed leaders delegitimized our democracy.
Democratic nations like ours are made up of two cadres of people -the ruled, and their elected and appointed representatives. But the overarching basis for assessing the efficacy of any government is not merely by assessing those who hold public offices in trust, but by how well the laid down statutes, procedures and instruments of governance work and by how resilient and sustainable the governance institutions are.
Today there is a troubling disconnect in our nation; between the rulers and the ruled. In an increasingly de-globalized world, we live in burbles and silos. In Nigeria, the trending compartmentalization is widening. Ironically, these are not realities foisted or framed as ideological struggles as in the days of Socrates, Marx and Kant, but those framed by politics of convenience and political tribalism. Read the latter to mean national polarization triggered by those within the corridors of power and their cohorts.
Today we have great inequality in Nigeria. Increasingly, there is a wide chasm in emoluments and benefits between elected officials and employees in the public and organized public sectors. Such dichotomies are unacceptable, and are best understood in the context of the lingering strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
As the ASUU strike lingers, our leaders are manifestly indifferent. And we pretend we have a nation. We seem to forget that when the government and ASUU are at an impasse; it is the Nigerian youth and students that suffer.
As enriching as the era of information technology and artificial intelligence is, we live in an era of viral false narratives. We live in an era of the bifurcation of trust. We live in an era where tribalism is no longer a corollary of race and ethnicity. Tribalism is now political. This disposition is egregiously dangerous, since it obfuscates the desirable distinction between secular religion and civil rights; as well as the separation of Church and State.
While the government seeks to rein in the social media, it overlooks its limitations arising from doublespeak, preferential and discriminating policies and lack of transparency in managing the nation’s natural resources. We should interrogate rigorously, why Oil – a liquid mineral found in Bayelsa is deemed commonwealth and subject to 13% derivation; but Gold- a solid mineral found in Zamfara is considered State asset, and not subject to 13% derivation.
In this very rich nation, we have 13 million out of school children, and 13.9 million unemployed youth. These two combine to place Nigeria on a tinderbox.
Yet, the Government continues to refuse to acknowledge its failings in addressing the needs of Nigerian youths. Our people have a saying, “you cannot beat a child and prevent that child from crying.” Likewise, our leaders cannot assault the welfare and intelligence of our youths; disenfranchised them by destroying their patrimony, and yet seek to deny them the right to speak up and the right to protest.
The recent #EndSARS protest was not by any means a colour revolution ala Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Yellow Revolution in Hong Kong, but it was an eye opener.
A #EndSARS protest was a mirror into the warped and tortured soul of our nation. It unearthed the deep-seated discontent and the grave dangers posed by indifference, levity and neglect. Today our leaders and our youths live on a parallel universe. That reality is as disconcerting as it is dangerous.
As I once opined in another forum, “An unseemly, near invisible strand loops together all the dissembling pressures and fissures confronting us. While the strain may seem not so concerted, that gale force is cascading with turbulent convergent speed. No one can tell the breaking point or moment when the tornado will touch ground, but the ominous signs and dark clouds are all-too evident. Nigeria today, is an unraveling nation.”
Against this worrying backdrop, what do Nigerian elders and leaders tell our youths? We call them lazy! And do you know what? We speak of hoodlums as if those perceptibly wretched youths were aliens. We should speak of them for who they truly are — Nigerian hoodlums.
Yes, our society curated the lives of these Nigerian hoodlums by not providing education, work and proper orientation for them; neither did we create for them, an enabling environment to sustain human capacity for gainful employment and wealth creation. So these hoodlums have graduated from the schools of hard knocks and are set to take their revenge on a country that has long failed them.
If the truth be told, the so-called Nigerian hoodlums are a fitting metaphor for bad governance that has disenfranchised Nigerians and their posterity.
But think of the contrasts in leadership style and thought process. As President Barack Obama said recently of his autobiography, A Promised Land, “I wrote my book for young people—as an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.”
In present day Nigeria, we need to look at leadership and governance anew. We need to rethink how and whom we elect to public offices. Presently, several critical factors inherent in the strength of government and good governance are being eroded. Civil or ordered liberties are not being respected. Their cumulative absence or incremental diminutions are usually troubling signals of dysfunctionalism in governance or the insipience of even more egregious challenges.
Let there be no doubt whatsoever, that factors for validating strength of government remain largely unchanged and include; performance legitimacy, competence, integrity, upholding law and order as well as the responsibility to protect citizens’ rights and accommodation of the opposition and tolerance of constructive criticisms and even dissent.
As a federated democracy, Nigeria seems inexplicably challenged in grasping government’s obligation to live up to expectations of democratic ideals. More often than not, Government’s actions and response to domestic situations, conveys troubling signals.
Hence in present-day Nigeria, one subsisting concern is that “government now deploys variants of military operations to tackle insecurity. What is missing is a strategic balance in the use of military “hard power” and civilian institutions’ “soft power” mechanisms and civilian police conflict resolution methods.” Recently, we learned some very bitter lessons.
Concluding Thoughts on What Achebe Might Say
In all Achebe has written and said about our dear native land; two synoptic and terse sentences encapsulated it all. Were Achebe to speak to us from his grave, I suspect that against the backdrop of the Nigeria I have just narrated, he would say the same thing over and over.
As Achebe said, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership.” He also said, that “Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be.”
In his lifetime Achebe spoke Truth to Power. Today, can those in power find it within their grasp to understand the Power of the Truth Achebe told Nigeria? In deciphering Nigeria’s challenges, you need not add or subtract from those remarks. Without any apologies, it is what it is! What is written; is written! There you have it.
As Achebe said on the second occasion of his rejecting Nigeria’s National Award, “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone changed.” That status quo remains.
And it’s on that somber and indignant note that I end these remarks. My task is done. I have flagged the pertinent reminder to those who care about Nigeria. We need no messages from the wilderness, the dead, or the heavens to remind us of our bane. Let the wise heed the counsel of the wise.
I thank you