What shocked many people about the death of Prof. Chinua Achebe last week was not because anybody expected him to live forever. At 82 years old, he was not too young to die. The shock came from the fact that there was no news that he was ill.
One does not need a prophet to tell one that in spite of Achebe’s renown in literature and the joy that should emanate from such a global fame, he did not die a happy man, and the source of his unhappiness was nothing else but the poor state of Nigeria, his fatherland. His writings since 1966 when he published A Man of the People (which prophesied a military coup that toppled a very corrupt government) showed that Achebe was not happy with the way his country had fared after the much awaited independence of 1960.
That unhappiness with the fortunes of Nigeria continued through the Nigerian Civil War. It is obvious that the tragic events that started from the massacre of the Igbo in 1966 and culminated in a war that was fought with so much hatred and blood-thirstiness between 1967 and 1970 shocked Achebe to the marrows.
Years later, Achebe seemed to turn to non-fiction, producing two well-discussed and well-quoted books: Trouble with Nigeria (1984) and There Was a Country (2012). It seemed Achebe got tired of talking to his countrymen in parables and riddles (of fiction) without them listening, and therefore decided to talk to them in the plain language of non-fiction, hoping that they would hear and understand.
That the Civil War of 1966 to 1970 left a deep scar on Achebe was manifest in his publishing his war memoirs (There Was a Country) 42 years after the end of that war, and expressing his views of the war in very strong terms. Those who disagree with his views in that book and consequently try to belittle his literary prowess are like those who dismiss the musical prowess of Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti because they disagree with their use of marijuana.
No doubt, the 1990 car crash which paralysed him from the waist downwards would naturally have had an enormous impact on him, but Achebe was a fighter that never gave up or wanted pity. No matter the impact of that accident on him, it could not have compared to the impact the poor state of Nigeria had on him. It was obvious that Achebe was completely disillusioned with what the country he joined to fight for its independence had turned out to be. He was constantly faced with the reality that this is not the country that he dreamt about: that there was a country called Nigeria, and that what he saw as the days went by was not that same country.
The accident that caused him the use of his legs was part of that rot. He blamed that accident on the effect of corruption, which made those in power embezzle the money that would have been used to construct roads across the country. He showed this dissatisfaction with Nigeria’s poor governance by rejecting two national honours.
And most instructively, that an 82-year-old national icon like Achebe died in the United States of America, not seeking medical care but working in a university, when there are many universities in Nigeria where he could have stayed to impart knowledge, if he so wished, is a reason for us to be ashamed of, if we have not gone beyond the bounds of shame. Achebe was a man who took pride in his culture and people. He was a man who would have preferred to retire to his hometown, Ogidi, as a literary oracle and sage, close to his people, while moving to universities and other intellectual arenas, where his wisdom was needed, to deliver lectures and touch lives.
But because that accident confined him to a wheelchair, he knew that it would have been suicidal for him to have resided in Nigeria. He would have died earlier than now if he had taken that decision. How many facilities are available in Nigeria for physically-challenged people? When people without any disabilities have not even been given basic amenities such as health care, electricity, good roads, etc, which government would have the time to attend to the special needs of physically challenged people? There is no gainsaying that Nigeria is apathetic – if not hostile – to physically-challenged people, the weak, and the vulnerable. It is a land where those on wheelchairs cannot access public buses, many offices including government offices, as well as religious institutions, because during construction of such structures, nobody remembers to make provisions for wheelchair access and other facilities so that the physically-challenged could come in without any difficulty or help.
After over 50 years of writing and seeking a country where justice and good governance reigned, his advice was snubbed. Yet, at his death, those who ensured that his dreams about Nigeria never came to fruition were among the first and loudest to eulogise him and his works. It has become a regular hypocritical ritual re-enacted at the death of every great man or woman.
Nigeria has become a land that detests intellectualism but celebrates mediocrity and corruption. No wonder, almost all our top writers – young and old – have relocated to the US or Europe. In medicine, engineering, finance, and other fields, it is the same story of the top brains being lured away from home either because their efforts are not appreciated and adequately rewarded or that the environment is anti-excellence.
Achebe was the African writer who made the world to have a dignified view of Africa as well as take a special interest in African writing. He brought pride to African literature and culture, and inspired millions of Africans and Blacks all over the world to beat their chests that contrary to the pictures the Western world had painted about Africa being a dark continent of culture-less and irrational people, Africa had an organised way of life before the invasion of the colonialists.
For many readers, Achebe made literature exciting rather than boring, simple rather than complicated, accessible rather than exclusive. Yet, in his simple narrative, the cerebral is not diminished. His humour is infectious, and remains with the reader many years after.
It is said that artists die but their art never dies. So, Achebe has not lost anything by his death. The top losers are the Nigerian nation and the Nobel Foundation. The Nigerian nation is a loser for failing to heed the exhortation of men like Achebe to build a country of justice, excellence and good governance, which would have propelled Nigeria to be in competition with countries like South Korea, India and China.
The Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy (which grants the Nobel Prize in Literature) are losers for allowing reasons other than literary works to becloud their judgment in awarding the most famous and popular African writer the Nobel Prize for Literature even after four Africans had been awarded that prize since 1986. It reminds one of how Mahatma Gandhi, who towered above most of his contemporaries in fame, was curiously denied the Nobel Prize for Peace. Geir Lundestad, Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee, the committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize, lamented in 2006: “The greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace prize. Whether Nobel committee can do without Gandhi is the question.”
Like Achebe, some other great writers have been denied the Nobel Prize for Literature: Leo Tolstoy, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and others. Such acts of omission or commission cast a cloud of doubt on the Nobel Prize, which is seen as the award to the crème de la crème of excellence in the world, and should not be tainted with bias or politics.
Those who appreciate Achebe will never mourn him; they will celebrate him, for he has affected many lives and will affect more in the days ahead. Dedicating my novel, Wings of the Night, to him early last year, I wrote:
“To The Eagle on the Iroko,
The Weaver of Words,
The Master Storyteller –
Professor Chinua Achebe.
Thanks for creating a pathway in the forest.”
While speaking about Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony said of him: “Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?” And likewise, I say: “Here was a master storyteller; whence comes such another?”