By CHIDI OBINECHE
Celebrated late novelist, Chinua Achebe is best known and remembered for his literary skills, especially in the novel genre.
In his over 50 years commitment to the arts, Achebe demonstrated a burning commitment to the ideals of his local environment, straining and striving for a just, humane decent order – The common good.
Unfortunately, he was born in a country – Nigeria- which is not a modern existentialist country. Nigeria has been a West African state struggling perpetually to become a nation. At the outbreak of the fratricidal war in Nigeria, there emerged in him, something cold, debilitating and thorny with the filth of Nigeria. In his words, “a man is never more defeated than when he is running away from himself.” Besides, the deluge of critical interventions, this drive pushed him into writing “The trouble with Nigeria,” in 1980, a moderatesized but caustic review of the endemic plague of the Nigerian state. His entire artistic work portrayed the Nigerian essence, the socio-cultural equilibriums, the damning strains, the political upheavals and much more. In a more direct sense, Achebe wrote and lived for his environment. Not even the crippling auto accident that ensured he passed out the twilight of his life thousands of kilometers away from Nigeria severed this tenacious chord. From the American sidelines, he commented on major issues of the day, often offering recipes.
Paplo Neruda said when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 that “I belong to the people of Latin America, a little of whose soul I have tried to interpret.”
Achebe in his life and works demonstrated this aiding faith to the hilt. He justified this leaning in several written interventions in the polity, especially in seeking for justice. For him it is: “Better than to cut all links with this homeland, this liability and become in one giant leap the universal man.
Indeed, I understand the anxiety. But running away from myself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety. If writers should opt for such escapism, who is to meet the challenge?”
Achebe exemplified the modern writer who cannot be exempted from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done.
For he is, according to the South African writer, Ezekiel Mphalele in his “African Image” the sensitive point of his community. The Ghanaian Professor of philosophy, William Abraham summarizes it this way: “Just as African scientists undertake to solve some of the problems of Africa, African historians go into the history of Africa, African Political scientists concern themselves with the politics of Africa, why should African literary creators be exempted from the services that they themselves recognize as genuine?”
Here then was for Achebe “an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of the word. Here I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul.”
In the Arena
Not satisfied with just showing the direction, Achebe launched into full-blown politics between 1980 and 1983. He pitched his tent with the leftist Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) and emerged the Vice Presidential candidate in the 1983 elections. The manifesto of his party, which was led by the late Aminu Kano, was a corpus of idealistic extrapolations with peoples’ welfare as the underpinnings. Despite, his quiet self-effacing nature, he was in the thick of the voluble, narcistic nationwide campaigns of the era. Their campaigns made good impact and impressions on the populace. But he and Aminu Kano were destined not to win. The people had been hoodwinked by ethnicity, materialism and obsession for ribaldry.
The leading parties, National Party of Nigeria (NPN), Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) had a haegemonic hold on sections of Nigeria. While the NPN dominated the North and aristocratic parts of the East and West, the UPN had a manacled hold on the West, while the NPP was the mantra in the East. This mendacious divide left the PRP and the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP), floating and clutching the shadows of emptiness and flux. His soapbox rhetorics were not any different from the many espousals he had dished out in the last 50 years of his life. He was clear headed, and succinct in his understanding of the trouble with Nigeria.
The narrow corridor
From the arena, Achebe confined himself to the narrow corridor, from where he peeped observed and interpreted societal polemic issues of his time. His adopted strategy was – mainly in the realm of demonstrative psychology. When the military dictatorship of General Muhammadu Buhari washed up in Nigeria in 1983, he, together with his literary soul mates, Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark, mounted a consistent and strident criticisms of the regime until its demise. Often they issued joint statements condemning certain actions, of the dreaded regime, especially in the enactment of draconian decrees.
Many Nigerians looked up to them for commentaries and interjections. When the convicted three drug kingpins were to be executed courtesy of a retroactive decree, the trio visited the seat of power in Lagos then to plead for clemency. “I hold, however, and have held from the very moment I began to write that earnestness is appropriate to my situation. Why? I suppose because I have a deep-seated need to alter things within that situation, to find for myself a little more room than has been allowed me in the world. I realize how pompous, or even frightening this must sound to delicate sensibilities, but I can’t help it” he submitted in utter justification.
He had a political vision that is neither ensnared, nor quaint. The vision encapsulated his consciousness, his self belief and benign hope. It relished the dignity of man and the prophetic insight of a teacher and politician. It was in conformity with this vision that he twice rejected national honours from his dotting nation. It was in demonstration of this faith that he took sides with his people in the failed secessionist bid. It was in alliance with his conscience that he consciously nurtured and concretized a rock-solid stance against corruption, in all its forms and ramifications, and inexorably metamorphosed as a leading social critic. Achebe, therefore, at best, was a symbol of national political regeneration to the extent of his milieu. A grand old man of demonstrative political correctness, goodness and order. He was indeed, a man of the people, not in the essence of the book he penned, not in the thrilling canvas of a cargo cult mentality, not in the Orwellian Animal farm, nor in Rousseau’s romanticism, but in the physical world of realism.