THE king is dead. The king lives. King of the written word. King of prose. King of the novel. The master storyteller. When the greatest African novelist of this century falls into the eternal sleep, there are comets seen everywhere; the heavens blaze forth the exit of the literary god for whom ‘proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten.’ Now, where is the owner of words? Where is the custodian of the African literary idioms and proverbs? Who will deploy powerful imagery, depicting an African culture and civilisation soiled by the men who spoke through their nostrils professing love, but stealthily stealing and destroying the African essence?
When an iroko suddenly falls, what happens is predictable: The earthquakes, there are rumbles in the sky; dumbstruck mortals struggle to find the right words to describe what happened. Tears don’t flow from the eyes, but depths of the heart. Words freeze in the reality of unfathomable sequence of the extraordinary life and times of the iroko we mourn, and celebrate at the same time. A willing suspense of disbelief grips grieving humanity: is it true? Can the iroko, in all its ruggedness and majesty truly yield to the force of nature? Oh iroko, king of the forest, what mystery thou truly are. In life, the king; and in transition, also king. The news of iroko’s passage is as weighty as its physical presence. Truly astonishing!
What do you say or write about a man who wrote his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, when he was in his early 20s? And went on to craft other literary masterpieces that became global bestsellers: No Longer At Ease; Arrow of God; A Man of The People; Beware, Soul Brother (anthology of poems); The Trouble with Nigeria; There Was A Country (his most recent and last work), among a long list of others. What tribute can any man pay to the man who, from the beginning, not only had the word but also the word was with him? The word of prose; elegant prose, prose that hit your marrow like an arrow.
No word adequately captures the man’s essence. Like an elephant, everyone has been trying to tell the Achebe story from the perspective that strikes him, what part of the literary statesman he feels. Whatever his portraiture, no doubt Professor Chinua Achebe was a literary phenomenon, a gift to Nigeria, Africa and the world. He was an intellectual giant, Africanist and humanist, all rolled into one. As an intellectual, he deployed his intellect to try and explain the cultural puzzle the African found himself in the face of a rampaging colonial power, masquerading its economic and political interests as missionary sojourners. His works dwell extensively on the consequences of that unsolicited visitation by the white man: Loss of culture, values and other virtues that once stood the Africans out. But he was no bigot or blind enthusiast of the African way of life. He was as unsparing of colonialism as he was of neo-colonialism. Through works like Arrow of God; The Trouble with Nigeria, among others, he deprecated ego and dictatorial leadership in the African setting. His humanist philosophy was a crusade for the egalitarian society.
A man of few words, Achebe was a man of many works, great literary works. When news came of his passage, his works (some like Things Fall Apart, spanning over 50 years) sprang to the memory. We remember characters like Okonkwo and his indolent father, Unoka; we remember the derailing chief priest in Arrow of God. We confront hubris and the conflict between man and his society as a microcosm of the conflicts in the larger society.
In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe places our retrogression as a nation on leadership; leadership driven by tribalism. Tribalism, submits the prose craftsman, is the major bane of our country; the reason we seem to be making progress in reverse order. I agree. Tribalism, ethnicity, corruption are all siblings of the same parent called indiscipline. If leadership is right, the nation can’t go wrong. We have been struggling with leadership ever since the colonialist handed over power to Nigerians.
Achebe was no theorist or someone afraid to call a spade by its name. Wearing a calm exterior and generally soft-spoken, the writer had moments of direct intervention in critical issues, affecting his nation. When the Ibrahim Babangida administration in 1986, sentenced the poet-minister of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, General Mamman Vatsa, to death over alleged coup plotting, he, alongside his literary comrades (Profs J.P Clark and Wole Soyinka) pleaded passionately against it. The plea fell on deaf ears; Vatsa, alongside others, was executed. Same for the three men killed during the Muhammadu Buhari regime over alleged cocaine trafficking.
The writer was also in the news for rejecting a national honour, the Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR, from the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2004. His reason? His beloved native Anambra State was in turmoil. The Ubas were in a deadly fight with the then Gov. Chris Ngige; public property had been set ablaze while the embattled governor was allegedly kidnapped and forced to resign. Achebe didn’t see himself accepting an award from a central government he believed was either shielding the aggressors or lacking the moral force to check them. He was also appalled by the poverty, ravaging Africa’s most populous nation. When the Goodluck Jonathan government offered the CFR again in 2010, the writer was peeved, and said so: “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed, let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must, therefore, regretfully, decline the offer again,” he wrote Jonathan. Achebe was, this time, referring to the economic distress his countrymen and women are still experiencing.
Two years later, the iconoclastic writer hugged the global limelight with one of his yet most controversial works, There Was A Country, his personal recollection of the Nigerian civil war. It is Achebe’s view that the war was simply a genocide against his Igbo kinsmen. Envious of their economic and political heads up in the Nigerian nation, the war, Achebe submitted in the emotive narrative, was a carefully programmed action to dislocate them from the nation. The writer faced a fusillade of attacks from other sections of the country. Undaunted, Achebe stood his grounds. He had discharged the burden of his conviction. He had spoken what he felt in his heart. Others were free to interpret his motive and his work.
Was he then by that work an ethnic champion? No, sir. He was, to me, a humanist first and foremost; always concerned about the human condition. If he appeared to bemoan the plight of his kinsmen, that would neither cast him in that light nor be justifiable reason to pillory the writer. In any case, the book, he explained, was his personal recollection of events of the civil war and how they affected his people. Those who disagree with him can also write their books, detailing their own perceptions.
Achebe from all ramifications was a great Nigerian, who loved his country but was not blinded by that love not to point out its failings. He did so, most courageously. He will continue to do so, because he is not dead. Great writers don’t die. Achebe has only transited from this life to another life. So be it with Africa’s greatest novelist of this century!
**First published March 2013