Learning African Politics Through Chinua Achebe (Part Three),By Jibrin Ibrahim

Achebe countryThe religious sphere is probably the most spectacular site in which social science has failed. From Emile Durkheim to Max Weber, sociology propounded that modernization was bound to lead to the secularization of society as science replaced superstitious beliefs. What sociology did not see was that religion was such a powerful repository of power that even if specific wielders of that power were displaced, others were bound to arise and replace them. Today, social science is losing its presumptions and the new belief is that the deities will no doubt rule for ever. In addition, modernization school presupposition of a linear movement from “paganism” to Christianity has been shown to have been simplistic. In “Arrow of God”, we see that Christianity was accepted in a heathen sense, the addition of a new powerful deity to the list of the gods. What was new was the introduction of a small group of puritans, now called “fanatics” or “fundamentalists” who would not accept a cohabitation of God and the gods: “Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

It is clear today that this intolerance of the sociological reality of syncretism is a major factor in the destabilisation of the contemporary Nigerian state. The introduction of the legacy of intolerance is seen clearly in Achebe’s novels. Issac Okonkwo for example would not allow heathen kola sacrifice but a heathen accepts to break the kola in the name of Jesus – “No Longer at Ease”. Inspire of draconian attempts however, the heathens have not been destroyed and traditional religions remain a powerful force in Africa. Achille Mbembe for example has argued that when Christianity, the religion of the conqueror, was introduced into the continent, it was “accepted” in the African sense, as a new element to reinforce indigenous religions in the age old tradition of using all forces to confront the objective problems of survival. Conversion, he postulated, was a tactical to reappropriate and domesticate a new spirit, but also, a ruse to wiggle through the new configuration of political forces. No wander, Simon Ottenberg, a colonial social anthropologist studying paganism was so confused by the rapidity with which, Ala, the earth spirit and Amadioba, the spirit of thunder, were  soon rebranded “riding a dressed in shorts and puttees with a sun helmet” says E. E. Uzukwu in his essay in liturgical creativity in Igbo Christianity. The Christian god was strong and powerful, and had to be domesticated and reappropriated. When the people of Mbanta realized that the spirits of the evil forest had not been able to kill the missionaries: ‘It became known that the Whiteman’s fetish had unbelievable power.” The people had to tap the new divinity. The opportunist logic is well articulated by Ezeolu decision to send a son to the Church: “Since the White man had come with great power and conquest, it was necessary that some people should learn the ways of his deity. That was why he had agreed to send his son Oduche to learn the new ritual.” However, they never really gave up all their traditional beliefs. “We are Christians he said. But that is no reason to marry an Osu… this is deeper than you think”  (1966:133)

Related Article:
Learning African Politics Through Chinua Achebe (Part Two),By Jibrin Ibrahim

Although Achebe makes it clear that traditional religion is still strong in the minds of most converts, he does not make the mistake of downplaying the significance of the that comes with Christianity. The story of Ezeolu in “Arrow of God” is an account of the victory of Christianity, as an instrument of colonialism, in imposing a unified organized establishment religion as a leading force in a sea of private and community gods and deities. As the men of title explained to Ezeolu: “We know why the sacred yams are still not finished; it was the work of the white man. Shall we then sit down and watch our harvest ruined and our children and wives die of hunger? No! Although I am not the priest of Ulu I can say that the deity does not want Umuaro to perish (1974:207).”

Political science has found it difficult to handle the phenomenon of corruption. First, it is difficult to separate value content from its scientific study. The etymology of the word itself evokes immorality and rottenness, yet there is an attempt in the discipline to use it in a positivist sense as a transaction involving illegal and/or improper exchange of money and/or material goods (market corruption) or “personal human relations” (parochial corruption) for authoritative decisions. In Africa, corruption becomes problematic partly because the dividing lines between the moral and the amoral, and that between the legal and the quasi legal are often blurred. In addition, there are the racist stereotypes of the Mr. Greens of this world who assert that “The African is corrupt through and through” – “No longer at Ease”. first significant attempts to go beyond the positivist conception of corruption in Africa and begin to understand its sociological dynamics was an article by Colin Leys published in 1965: “To many people, the state and its organs were identified with alien rule and were proper objects of plunder and they have not yet been reidentified fully as instruments for the promotion of common interests. This point had been made earlier in Achebe’s “No Longer at Ease” – In Nigeria the government was “they”. It has nothing to do with you or me. It was an alien institution and people’s business was to get as much from it as they could without getting into trouble (1960:33).

A second lesson on corruption from Achebe is that it is propelled by the struggle for access that is anchored in the community rather than in individuals: “Many towns have four or five or even ten of their sons in European posts in this city, Umuofia have only one. And now our enemies say that even that one is too much for .” He adds, “The meeting agreed that it was money, not work, that brought them to Lagos.” The judge could not understand why Obi Okonkwo, a young educated man could be dragged into corruption. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Obi Okonkwo was determined not to be corrupt but the social forces at work were too powerful for him, and he fell, a victim of the system.

The powerful message that flows out from the novel however that is the real tragic hero is not Obi, but the postcolonial state. No one has any commitment to it, everyone is seeking for access to eat up as much of the “national cake” as they can get. Nobody is trying to bake more cake. The various communities were competing among themselves for the said access, and subsequently in “A Man of the People”, the contest turns into virtual Hobbesean war of all against all. The result is that the edifice of the thoroughly abused postcolonial state starts to decompose. Objective criteria were no longer applicable for achievement: “A common saying in the country after independence was that it didn’t matter what you knew but who you knew.” In this situation, the people could not but became cynical:

“Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you – as my father did – if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.”

Achebe’s analysis of the intensification of the struggle for access to state resources between communities and individuals indicates that fairness is not and understood at the national level: “Our people press for their fair share of the national cake.” The result is that rules of fairness are discarded and bribery and thuggery became the order of the day. As the English say, when there are no rules of the game, clubs become trumps. So the politicians reduced political competition to maiming or killing those they could not bribe. What is suggested by Achebe’s numerous expositions of the unending battles between the compelling demands of individuals and local communities and the opposite, often ignored demands of the nation state is an internal contradiction in the constitution of African citizenship.

The social sciences caught up with this in Peter Ekeh’s seminal article. He argued that Africa was yet to develop a morally unified sphere. Rather, there was on the one hand, a primordial sphere, linked to communities of origin, with clear moral codes, duties and obligations. On the other hand, there is the civic sphere, tied to the modern state and its illegitimate colonial history, which evokes an amoral from people who consider they have no obligations it, only the right to milk it for themselves and their primordial public. The two publics therefore indicate a clear structural division in citizenship rights and obligations. examples Ekeh gives is that of civil servants who are extremely corrupt in their place of work but at the same time, scrupulously honest as officials of their town or ethnic group association. Achebe had made the point much earlier: “The owner was the village, and the village had a mind; it could say no to sacrilege. But in the affairs of the nation, there was no owner; the laws of the village became powerless.” As Achebe himself said “What I am concerned with is corruption which happens when anybody exercises political power. It doesn’t matter whether he is a professional politician, or a teacher, or a soldier, or even a writer.” Reading Achebe, we understand that the tragedy of Nigeria, and indeed Africa, is the failure of mechanisms that make occupants of positions of power wary of abusing them out of the ordinary instinct of self preservation. In countries with functional state systems, state officials are aware that the abuse of power could lead to punishment. When the abuse of power is crowned with and more power, which will be foolish enough not to indulge himself or herself.


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