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Achebe and I

By Ikedi Ohakim

When the Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka, wrote in to inform me of my nomination for award, as a champion of intellectual discourse, followed with a request to deliver a paper at the first Chinua Achebe international conference, with the theme, “Chinua Achebe and the convolutions of immortality: Assessing the writer in relation to new realities”, to mark the fourth year anniversary of his interment, it dawned on me that the spirit of the icon lives on. The institute acknowledged the role I played as the Governor of Imo State, when we hosted what turned out to be Achebe’s last major outing in Nigeria at the Ahiajoku Lecture where he delivered the keynote address.
The Achebe essence remains evergreen and those that benefitted from his remarkable scholarly works are unarguably eternally grateful for the indelible impression he left on them. Meeting Chinualumogu Achebe on the pages of his book, Things Fall Apart, was an encounter that triggered off an inner desire to make an inquest into the essence of the values, character, world view, morality, ethos, mores and idiosyncrasies of an unadulterated Igbo society, that classical Igbo society of yore that carved a place of pride for us.
Achebe created imagery with words, took us back to the old Igbo society that was built on sound moral values, high sense of communalism and deification of community icons that exhibited valour, courage and cant.
Reading through this book that was a historical document on the place of culture and tradition in the pristine Igbo society, one cannot but acknowledge an exhibition of rare intellect, creativity in writing, sound understanding of the imperatives of communication and mastery of the art of arresting the attention of the reader.
Beyond the input in literary accomplishment, Things Fall Apart was a compelling read for students of the society in exploring and explaining the intricate issues in cultural conflicts, the inherent shocks, the fall-outs and resolutions. Even though Achebe had other great literary works in books and papers that received commendable reviews and were widely published in world journals, Things Fall Apart pointed a torch towards him early, which earned him the admiration of many. It did not just expose capacity in word management but literary discipline that kept him on course from the beginning of the book till the end without running the risk of losing the attention and interest of the reader.
Like many others across the globe, the love for the works of Prof. Chinua Achebe, to me, translated to an unquenchable desire to drink from the intellectual reservoir of this great mind whose exposure in the literary world did not imperil an inner desire to submit to the noble cause of using his works to influence the society positively.
All his works were devoted to educating the mind, promoting the essence of humanity, challenging the leadership to work towards building a society that would be beneficial to all, and calling for an aggregate redirection of our energies in achieving group good.
Achebe’s work, which covered the colonial years in which he was born, years of nationalist struggle and the years after independence, are evidence of a restless heart that took time, deploying energy and resources to stamp an intellectual imprimatur as a reliable and dependable literary historian honed in the art of chronicling events that defined our past, the present and the relevance in shaping our future.
Achebe changed the perception of novelists as mere story tellers. No political scientist, historian, anthropologist, or any class of social scientist, would lay claim to churning out more works that x-rayed the society, the people, politics and leadership than Prof. Chinua Achebe. In terms of impact, pervasiveness and penetration, Achebe stood tall because of his style.
Africa’s meeting with Europe to him was a historical fact that turned out a terrible disaster given the reality that the meeting precluded any warmth of friendship that could have facilitated genuine understanding and appreciation of Africa. The African world, Achebe insisted, is still bedeviled by the consequences of an encounter that turned cataclysmic.
The opportunity of a life time to share space with this world citizen and intellectual colossus came in 2008 when the Imo State government was preparing to mount the Ahiajoku Lecture slated for Friday, January 23, 2009. It came at a time there was public concern about the place of the Igbo in Nigeria. The state executive council in Imo State then felt challenged to devote the Ahiajoku Lecture, as a platform to stir discussion and call attention to the state of affairs that was troubling and disconcerting.
In order to give the event the national and international colour it deserved devoid of political taint and partisanship, the state exco had no better choice than Prof. Chinua Achebe, as the right masquerade whose presence would draw the crowd and his message likely to hit the bull’s eye to a point of conscientising the entire Igbo nation to ask the right questions.
The choice was the best but the challenge of climbing the iroko tree was a tall order given that for a long period after the accident that set him on the wheel chair, Prof, Achebe seldom honoured invitations to events in Nigeria for obvious logistics reasons.
As the Governor of Imo State, it dawned on me that whatever it would take in planning and logistics to bring Achebe to the colloquium was worthy, especially against the backdrop of allowing Ndi Igbo and Nigerians the opportunity of drinking from the fountain of his experience, knowledge and intellectual intervention
The Imo State government under my watch, consistent with its policy of rising up to the occasion no matter the challenges and odds, succeeded in displaying the masquerade at the 2009 Ahiajoku colloquim with the theme “UWA NDI IGBO (world of the Igob)”.
Prof. Chinua Achebe, who delivered the keynote address was at his oratorical best and took liberty in the mastery of Igbo proverbs, idioms, anecdote and flawless delivery in both English and Igbo languages to hold the audience (made up of who is who amongst the Igbo intelligentsia, academia, captains of industry, etc) spell bound.
Drawing inspiration from his great works, top of which was Things Fall Apart, Achebe delivered what could rightly be described as a generational message on the need for the Igbo to go back to the basics for proper group identification.
Achebe asked questions and ended by reminding us that “Taa bu gboo, onye ajuru aju anaghi aju onwe ya”. “Aha onye kporo nkita ya ka o ga-aza”. In Prof. Chinualumogu Achebe, I saw a man who was equally a victim of this same sentiment. A man who was celebrated across the globe, as a rare intellectual gift to humanity yet had less acknowledgement from home because of his place of birth.
In 2012, Achebe released what turned out to be his last work, There Was A Country and to my greatest surprise and shock, he sent me an autographed copy from the US through Prof. A.B. Nwosu. Even as a personal account of his experiences during the Nigerian civil war, Achebe used There Was A Country to raise salient contemporaneous issues at a time many intellectuals and politicians preferred to gloss over such matters. I am of the view that every Nigerian should endvour to read the book because it provides insights that would make our contributions to national issues more robust and incisive; instead of the current situation wherein most of us speak from a vacuum.
Ikedi Ohakim, Former Goveronr, Imo State

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