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Chinua Achebe hailed as foremost 20th Century literary icon

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By Chukwuemerie Anyene and Lawrence Nwimo

Achebe’s life-long records are laudable and has continued to resonate with the up-coming generations. Scholars, writers, journalists, government officials, religious leaders, and students across the state, had on 16th November, thronged into Prof. Kenneth Dike Central E-Library at Awka Anambra State capital, to celebrate the greatest writer/activist of the 20th century and top icon of literature in the world, who wrote the best novel ever for the past, present and future, Chinua Achebe.

The 2020 (fifth) literary festival and maiden memorial lecture, organized by The Society of Young Nigerian Writers, which started by 9:00am, has become an annual festival.
The fifth Chinua Achebe Literary Festival with the theme, “Chinua Achebe: Our Heritage in a New Normal,” also featured an essay competition, in honour of the father of African Literature, Achebe.

Nwachi Rejoice of Faith Model Secondary School, Awka, won the first prize, which made her a three consecutive winner. Collect Chioma of Nnamdi Azikiwe University High School, came second; while the State Qualifier of the 2020 Nigerian Spelling Bee Competition and the 2019 overall winner of the Esteequeen Entertainment Spelling Bee, trailed the third position.

In his opening remark, the Chairman of the occasion, Sir Chuka Nnabuife, who is also an author, art curator and veteran award-winning journalist, stated that Achebe is worth celebrating not just locally, nationally or globally but worth celebration for life. “Achebe is not only a great writer but also a great sage. A man who was to some extent of his age, a vendor of knowledge of the ages before him but also a harbinger of wisdom of the age before him.
“Chinua Achebe did not only write for future, he also was an activist for better future.

In fact, it is while in the line of activism that he got an accident that actually kept him wheelchair bound. And even when he was in wheelchair, he didn’t renege in what he knew best, how to inspire the younger generation to think progressively,” he said. Nnabuife cited Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, written in 1958, translated in 56 languages, as the greatest of the 20th century and the best novel ever written, top icon of literature in the world where Shakespeare and Chaucer fit it.” Achebe, he said, wrote when there was no publishing company in Nigeria. According to him, “Things Fall Apart is a write-back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that saw Africans as savages,” he stated.

The Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightment, C Don Adinuba, described Chinua Achebe as a great man, a seer and a prophetic writer. According to him, “Achebe foresaw the first coup which took place in January 1966 and also foretold the counter coup which took place six months after,” he referred to Achebe’s novel titled A Man of the People. “In 1982, Achebe called a meeting of Nigerian Authors where Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) was formed. Achebe delivered a lecture of Nigeria being conceived by extremism with instances of religious intolerance, political intolerance,” Nnabuife narrated.

Citing other writers like the first person from West Africa to write a book in English, Olauda Equiano; Cyprain Ekwensi of Onitsha Market Literature and Professor Ben Ogunsi, Adinuba was elated, “So, you see how gifted Anambra State and his people are.”
He, however stated that “everything in Nigeria is caliberated for pucuniary gains. Our universities, for instance, are only honouring those men and women of money. We are no more honouring men of ideas,” he regretted.

“No State Governor has honoured a writer in Nigeria, Anambra will be the first. Chinua Achebe is an unacknowledged Nobel Prize Winner,” he said. According to him, the Ministry of Youth and Creative Economy is there to empower the youths. “Fiction, drama, production and marketing are part of creative economy, we are considering building a film village but we will not be able to do that now as we have less than one and half year left. So, “the next administration should do that.”

Asked wheather the public holiday in Anambra State on 16th November declared by the Anambra State Government was for Achebe or Zik, he stated, “the state government has no power to declare public holiday. Only the President can declare a public holiday. What the Anambra State Government did was to declare a work free day for Zik, Nigeria’s first President, the man who led us to Independence. Achebe’s package is coming. That is what the Governor will announce.”

Reacting to the remark made by the Honourable Commissioner of Information and Public Enlightenment, C Don Adinuba, His Honour, the Former SSG, a Diplomat, a writer, a poet, a policy consultant and the Director-General of Atiku/Obi campaign, His Honour, Osaeloka Henry Obaze said, “Well, I can’t speak for the Honourable Commissioner. I can only speak for myself. Achebe is recognized, Wole Soyinka is recognized, a lot of scholars and professors in Nigeria are recognized. It depends on the scope of recognition you are looking for.
The Director of Anambra State Library Board, Dr Nkechi Udeze noted that Achebe writes for all unlike Wole Soyinka whose book is not easily understandable. “As a young student, I read his (Wole Soyinka) book for three times before I could understand it, but Achebe’s books are understandable for all readers,” she explained.

The Special Guest of Honour, Prof. Pita Umeadi, an art enthusiast and former Chief Judge of Anambra State, inspired young writers to write. “Ideas are there and they come to you through the plan and that is one thing I want to strike, especially from this age. Courage! Before you can put anything out, you must be courageous. You don’t have to think oh! What will people say about what I have said,” he stated.

The veteran Nollywood Actor, Bob-Manuel Udokwu taught the students that they were at the best stage to write freely without any hindrance. “Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in his 20’s,” he stated while urging the students to write now, because when they get old or married, there will be family constraints.

The Coordinator of Society of Young Nigerian Writers (Anambra State Chapter), Comr. Izunna Okafor, while calling on the Anambra State Government, private individuals and corporate bodies to recognize, reward, encourage and empower young writers in the state, pleaded with them to “undertake the annual sponsorship of this wonderful festival in honour of this legend who till date is yet to be befittingly immortalized with any ‘structure.’

“Achebe was a renowned author of all time, a great intellectual, the father of modern African literature, a great teacher of repute, a pride of his nation, a genius with pen, a freedom fighter, a connoisseural scribber, a voracious reader, an author of a magnum opus, a professor of the Massachusetts, a recipient of over hundred awards, America’s best lecturer in English, a recipient of over forty Honorary Degrees from universities across the world, a recipient of the Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement, Africa’s most widely read author, a great educator, a recipient of the Man Booker International Prize, a recipient of the Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, plus host of other numerous landmark achievements, awards and legacies,” Okafor detailed.

Delivering a keynote address titled “If the Dead Could Speak, What Would Achebe Say of Present Day Nigeria?” his Honour, Oseloka Henry Obaze, the MD/CEO Selonnes Consult Ltd, recounted Achebe’s humanism and enduring literary legacies. Part of his speech reads:
“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.

Obaze hinted sides on Achebe’s Nigeria In Perspective thus:
“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 government seeks to rein in the social media, it overlooks its own 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, 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.”

Obaze delved into the 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.”

Asked if he feels the South are being cheated, he replied, “Well, I made those remarks with references to the things Chinua Achebe has written. Social justice are grounding norms of democracy. And since you have made a law and told us that all minerals belong to Federal Government (FG) and the states that have minerals will get 30percent derivation, then it should be across board.

There is no way for them to get into false debate as to wheather gold is a mineral. It’s a solid mineral just like oil is a liquid mineral, tin and ore, boxite and wherever you find them, they belong to the FG and the states which they are manufactured should get 30percent and the rest of the revenue should go to the FG.

High points of the Literary Art event, which started since 2016 and which is in its fifth edition now, was the cutting of Chinua Achebe’s 90years posthumous birthday cake, presentation of awards, lectures in memory of Achebe, dramatizing of Achebe’s selected books, open microphone/spoken word poetry, announcement of the winners of the 2020 Chinua Achebe Essay Writing Competition, art exhibition among other literary packages.
Odili Ujubuoñu, the author of Pregnancy of the gods and The Song of the Priest; Rev. Fr. Ositadimma Amakeze, author of The Last Carver; Paul Ifeanyi, author of The Pregnant Virgin, Chief Damian Okeke Ogene, the President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, among others, were also there to grace the occasion.

Recall that November 16 is a landmark date in Anambra state, the day one of Africa’s literary figures of the 20th century, Chinua Achebe, universally known for his archetypal novel titled Things Fall Apart, was born in Ogidi, Anambra.

The globally famed and read writer is now celebrated annually every November 16 by The Society of Young Nigerian Writers (SYNW), for his leviathan achievements, heroic deeds and contribution towards restoring the glory of the African continent.

“Chinua Achebe is the writer in whose company the prison walls fell down,” Nelson Mandela, the icon of South Africa’s fight against apartheid, the prisoner to president freedom fighter, described Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, during his 27-year-long incarceration in his Robben Island prison.

“Chinua Achebe is a nationalist who did not only fight colonialism and racism in Africa with his pen as a writer, but also projected the beauty of Africa through his books and left great legacies; hence worth celebrating, as his luminous life and gargantuan vestiges can never be forgotten in a hurry,” Ifeyinwa J. Ogbazi, a connoisseur in the literary field, a Professor of English, Literary & Gender Studies, a lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, referentiallly toured Achebe’s books in the 2018 festival.

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