A little over four years ago, precisely October 9, 2008, Chinua Achebe, one of the world’s greatest novelists and essayists and, for me, Africa’s greatest literary figure, delivered the keynote lecture on the occasion of the Silver Anniversary of The Guardian at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. The lecture, entitled “What Nigeria is to me,” was vintage Achebe; simple, eloquent, coherent, rigorous and full of insight.
He delivered the lecture on tape but his physical absence did not make it any less riveting for the distinguished audience that gathered that beautiful morning to listen to him.
For me the most memorable lines of that lecture were his concluding paragraphs. “Nigeria,” he said in reference to our first and second national anthems that have respectively described the country as ‘motherland’ and ‘fatherland’, “is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child, gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed and incredibly wayward. Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting. I have said somewhere that in my next re-incarnation, I want to come back as a Nigerian again. But I have also in a rather testy mood in a book called The trouble with Nigeria dismissed Nigerian travel advertisements with the suggestion that only a tourist with an addiction to self flagellation (will) pick Nigeria for a holiday. And I mean both. Nigeria needs help; Nigerians have their work cut out for them, to coax this unruly child along the path of useful creative development. We are the parents of Nigeria, not vice-versa. A generation will come if we do our work patiently and well and given luck; a generation will come that will call Nigeria Father or Mother, but not yet.”
Achebe’s logic was impeccable; a country is what its citizens make of it, not the other way round. And until a generation of those citizens emerge who can feel proud of what their progenitors have bequeathed to them, the country cannot rightfully lay claim to father- or mother-hood.
Few people, if any, would disagree with Achebe that Nigeria is yet to arrive at that happy milestone in its 52 years of independence from British colonial rule. The reason for the country’s failure to do so are many, not least of which is the failure of leadership which Achebe as essayist dwelt on extensively in his now famous little book, The Trouble with Nigeria.
Of course the failure of leadership has not been the only trouble with Nigeria, even though it’s arguably the biggest. Also up there with the failure of leadership are problems of ethnicity, corruption and selfishness, all three – and even more – of which seem pervasive not just among our leaders but also among their followers.
For Achebe obviously the work cut out for Nigerians, whatever their status or profession, is to conquer these and other vices, or contain them at the least. For the writer in Africa the “overall goal”, he says in his latest book, THERE WAS A COUNTRY: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF BIAFRA which has provoked a huge controversy, is “to challenge stereotypes, myths and the image of ourselves and our continent and to recast them through stories – prose, poetry, essays and books for our children.”
Reading through the book, it seems to me the great writer has failed his own test of challenging stereotypes and myths about, and images of, the various nationalities that make up our country. Instead he seems to emerge at the end of the book as an Igbo supremacist at worst, or its apologist, at best.
Take for example the issue of the nationalist struggle. “The original idea of one Nigeria,” he claims matter-of-factly, “was pressed by leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region. With all their shortcomings they had this idea to build the country as one. The first to object were the Northerners, led by the Sardauna, who were followed closely by the Awolowo clique that had created the Action Group.”
This was clearly a blatant distortion of history because neither the Sardauna nor Awolowo objected to independence from colonial rule as one Nigeria. What Sardauna objected to was the timing for the simple and understandable reason that for historical reasons the South had a huge head-start over his region in producing the skills required for running the government, and he needed time to do something about the gap.
However, whereas the Sardauna objected only to the timing of the demand for independence, every school child knew it was Awolowo’s Action Group through its member, Chief Anthony Enahoro, and not Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC, that moved the original motion for our independence by 1959.
That AG’s Enahoro moved the motion did not, of course, necessarily mean the party spearheaded the independence struggle. As Achebe said, Zik was a pre-eminent figure in that struggle, even more preeminent than Awo. Surely, however, the writer knew that before Zik there were non-Igbo politicians like Herbert Macaulay, Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Chief Bode Thomas, Kitoye Ajasa, etc – the so-called Black Victorians on account of their English lifestyle and aspirations – who wanted the colonialist to leave.
Take again his position that other Nigerians, and even the British ex-colonialists, harboured a visceral hatred of the Igbo because of their successes in life. He does admit some flaws in what he says is the Igbo character which he blames somewhat as the source of this universal envy of the group, but quickly glosses over these in his attempt blame others for the civil war that led to the deaths of millions of his countrymen in the Biafran enclave.
“The British dislike (for the Igbo),” he said in The Guardian silver anniversary lecture I mentioned above, “was demonstrated when they accused the Igbo of THREATENING to break up a nation state they had carefully and labouriously put together.” (Emphasis mine).
How anyone, least of all Achebe with all his respect for scholarly rigour, would describe Lt Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu’s declaration of a Republic of Biafra as a mere threat to break up Nigeria simply beggars belief.
In his defence of Achebe’s book in an interview in the new newsmagazine, Verbatim, Professor Fabian Osuji, a former minister of education and now the Director-General of the Ikemba Odumegwu-Ojukwu Centre, Owerri, said General Yakubu Gowon was wrong to blame the Igbo for seceding. Gowon, he said, “did say that if there was no secession, there would be no war. Alright, which means that secession led to the war? But he was not honest enough to say what led to the secession.” This, he said, quite rightly, was the pogrom against the Igbo, especially in the North, which made them feel completely insecure outside the East.
Osuji’s position merely echoed Achebe’s when he said in his book he believed that following the pogrom in the North which he claimed without stating any evidence, was compounded by the involvement, even connivance of the federal government, “secession from Nigeria and the war that followed was inevitable.”
However, if Gowon, as Osuji says was not honest enough to say what led to the secession, Osuji himself was not honest enough to say what led to the pogrom.
In his Guardian silver anniversary lecture, Achebe does admit, albeit half-heartedly, that the first coup was a remote cause. “In the bitter suspicious atmosphere of the time,” he said, “a naively idealistic coup proved a terrible disaster. It was interpreted WITH PLAUSIBILITY as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the East to take control of Nigeria from the Hausa-Fulani North.” (Emphasis mine).
In his book, however, he failed to admit even the plausibility that the coup was an Igbo coup. Instead he sought to revive the rationalization that the coup was meant to rid the country of the corrupt and inept politicians who led the First Republic. Nowhere in the book was there any mention of the fact that mostly senior Northern army officers who had no role in public policy were also targeted and murdered in cold blood.
Again nowhere in the book was there any mention of the role Igbo triumphalism, as exemplified in the so-called unification decree and the manner it was declared without consultation by General J.U.T. Aguiyi-Ironsi, and also as exemplified in the widespread gloating over the manner the Sardauna was killed in his residence by the coup leader, Major Chukwuma Nzegwu Kaduna, played in provoking the pogrom.
One highly symbolic example of this triumphalism was recounted by the expatriate managing director of the New Nigerian, Charles Sharp, in an article I have had cause to refer to on these pages. “I,” he said in the article entitled “The story that got away” (New Nigerian, January 20, 2003), “had a personal experience of the arrogance stemming from the South when Cyprian Ekwensi and his committee arrived at the NNN and informed me they were taking over. He wasn’t precise about who ‘they’ were, but a team from Enugu would run the newspapers. I was ordered to terminate the contracts of the expatriate staff and offer my own resignation as managing director. My immediate reaction was one of disregard and silence, for I was in no position to protest or adopt postures.” (This article is highly recommended reading for anyone with any interest in the story of the collapse of the First Republic.)
What happened at the NNN, still then owned by the North, was enough to alarm the people of the region, especially their leaders, that their region was now regarded as conquered territory.
No doubt Achebe is a great writer but with his latest serving, he has largely failed the biggest test of good writing which is not just to be highly readable, which THERE WAS A COUNTRY is, but to tell truth to your readers.
The truth of our civil war was that there were rights and wrong on both sides of the war. For once, it seems, Achebe chose to speak the truth, at times only half-truths, about one side and gloss over, or even deny, the truth about the other side – his side.