Achebe: Hopes and impediments
Posted Friday, May 25 2012 at 00:00
In Nigeria, one lifetime is hardly enough to crack a nut. Nothing perhaps demonstrates this better than the life story of the literary giant Chinua Achebe.
Short of renting an army and leading a coup d’état to change the system in Nigeria, Achebe is using the barrel of his pen at the age of 82.
Next to the Boko Haram terror, the commonest national anxiety at the moment, underscored by discourses in the academia and polity, is Achebe’s upcoming book with the ominous title, There Was A Country: A personal History of Biafra.
A few days ago, Achebe’s first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart was named one of the “fifty most influential books of the last 50 years” alongside Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Things Fall Apart, the most widely read book in modern African literature, has been translated to over 50 languages.
Across Africa, practically no child goes through secondary school without reading this classic.
It is standard reading. The book’s central protagonist, Okonkwo, is as familiar on the continent as maize meal is to the peasantry.
Given his phenomenal following, the old man from Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria has always been someone to watch, beginning with Nigeria’s first military dictatorship in 1966.
A few years back, Achebe hit the notoriety list of the Nigerian government by rejecting a national honour from President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Last year the master storyteller, confined to a wheelchair after a road accident in 1990 that left him paralysed from the waist down, did it all over again.
For a second time he rejected the same national honour from another President — the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
Nothing has changed in Nigeria, the writer insisted, to merit any national celebration.
Spurned and dazed by the old man’s stance, in January 2012 the Nigerian government sabotaged an international conference and lecture series designed to honour Professor Achebe.
The University of Nigeria International Conference/Chinua Achebe Annual Lectures had to be postponed after the Jonathan administration suddenly withdrew its pledged financial support and participation.
Too cash-strapped to fund a conference of that magnitude; the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), where Achebe used to teach, suffered the embarrassment of writing apologies to diplomats as well as visiting scholars from across the world.
The author had rejected the honour in a three-sentence letter.
The political attraction to the Achebe brand should be no mystery. Once the era of military dictatorship came to a close, it goes without saying that Nigerian political overlords would hanker for the endorsement of the world-famous writer. Proffering state honours is one way of attracting his endorsement.
Writers and political critics alike trace the new wave of anxiety over Achebe’s upcoming book to a watershed in Nigeria’s history and the role of Achebe in the re-engineering of the Nigerian soul.