By Chido Nwangwu
Since 1958 – with the novel Things Fall Apart, the great writer laid the foundation for what I call the power and permanence of Chinua Achebe. Between 1958 and 2013, amidst a body of first rate works, especially his 2012 blockbuster, personal history of Biafra: There Was a Country, and a life of grace, Ugonabo Chinua Achebe, mgbadike, transitions as one of history’s great witnesses and chroniclers; he will live in our hearts and minds as an immortal writer!
Prof. Achebe, Africa’s most acclaimed and fluent writer of the English Language, our pathfinder, the intellectual godfather of millions of Africans and lovers of the fine art of good writing, was only 28 years when he wrote the classic, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 — long before I was born. By the year 2013, that magnum opus of a novel by Achebe has been translated into 70 languages, sold almost 20 million copies and listed among the world’s best 100 novels. He has been translated in more languages than any other writer in the developing world.
On Achebe the scholar and educator. I agree with Princeton University’s professor of philosophy, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who said recently that “In every English and non-English speaking country on the planet, if you ask a student to name just one African novel, it is most likely to be Things Fall Apart by Achebe. It is the beginning of the African canon. it is difficult to think of anything else without it.”
I believe and propagate the informed view that Prof. Achebe has been a significant and binding source for an engaging understanding of African pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history and realities.
I believe that the Achebean ease and facility with the English language insight made him a favourite of African-Americans, and other scholars and regular folks in search of a better, realistic understanding of Africa.
For him, there’s an organic relationship between writing as education and the building of a better society. Recall that the prolific Achebe wrote in 1975 in his work ‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’ that “The writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done…”
Achebe has never shied away from speaking his truths to the face of power, especially writing with such lucidity and accessibility that his essays and books have since become equalizers for the scholarly and the average reader. He called on the leadership to do better for a long-suffering people – especially in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
I recall flying back to the U.S. (from South Africa directly to New York) to attend Prof. Achebe’s 70th birthday at the historic Bard College (November 3-4, 2000) and its related conference titled, “Home and Exile: Achebe at 70″ – where Achebe made a similar point.
In the midst of his friends and some of the best writers in the world, he mentioned how everyone was speaking so nicely of him in honour of his birthday; then he joked that were he a military dictator may be those two days of November would have been declared national holidays. He burst into laughter…. That’s vintage Achebean sarcasm. He lived, richly blessed by the iron-clad support and love of his wife, Prof. Christie Chinwe Achebe and outstanding children.
On February 18, 2002, a distinguished jury of scholars and critics (from 13 countries of African life and literature) selected Achebe as the writer of the Best book, ‘Things Fall Apart.’
In Achebe’s works, the centrality of Chi (God) attains an additional clarity in the Igbo cosmology… it is a world which prefers a quasi-capitalistic business attitude while taking due cognizance of the usefulness of the whole, the community. I’ve studied, lived and tried to better understand, essentially, the rigor and towering moral certainties which Achebe have employed in most of his works and his world.
Similarly, in my letter to my son, Chido Nwangwu II, on his first birthday on February 12, 2002, such core values and messages are embedded and made whole.www.USAfricaonline.com/chido.chido.html
Let’s go to October 15, 2004. I was informed ahead of the announcement that Prof. Achebe, had taken the extraordinary step of “declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honors List” by Nigeria’s president, retired army General Olusegun Obasanjo (born on March 5, 1937).
In Achebe’s October 2004 letter to the presidency of Nigeria, the eminent writer and statesman informed President Obasanjo, that “Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest….” Achebe pointed to the issues of Nigeria’s leaders failing to unite the country’s diverse peoples and what he identified as “the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency” in the destabilization of parts of Nigeria and state governments by political and business renegades.
He wrote Obasanjo: “For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.” Achebe’s concerns and principled position were apparently validated only 3 weeks later when a murderous gang burnt down the (s)elected governors’ office, legislative headquarters, elections organising offices and other symbols resembling democratic quests in Anambra, the home of the great, late Owelle, Dr. the Rt. Hon. Nnamdi Azikiwe…..
Achebe’s October 2004 brief letter to Obasanjo’s presidency reminded even the indifferent and the cynical that some of Nigeria’s very best cannot be attracted to the seductive allurements of State power and its increasingly sham honorifics. Again, the Eagle on the iroko proved why his message and timing are reflective of the ways of a sage. In rejecting the award from the embattled presidency of Obasanjo, Achebe’s symbolic point further drew the line between the toadying apologists of Obasanjo and his critics.
Obasanjo’s loud-hailers and hoary apologists attacked Achebe with such hideous ignorance and crass incivility. Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode, their lead attack-dog and privileged rascal who masquerades as “presidential adviser/assistant” to retired Gen. Obasanjo, dramatized his bovine ill-mannerisms to the international community. But presidential spokesperson Ms. Remi Oyo showed restraint by taking a different, mild approach.
Achebe’s decision to reject the 2004 national honours from Obasanjo was not accidental; it’s rooted in his position that a writer ought to see himself/herself as a part of the wider goal of building a better society.
In 1983, Achebe wrote the often quoted pamphlet, The Trouble with Nigeria. In the latter, he cited the litany of failures of the leaders and pointed the way forward. In rejecting Obasanjo’s 2004 award, he was making a statement about the direction and quality of leadership in Nigeria, today. The sage picked the fitting moment to set his revered, valuable company and name apart from a list which did not separate dealers from leaders.
Other than ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1958), some of Achebe’s other major books are ‘No Longer at Ease’ (1960), ‘Arrow of God’ (1964; rev. 1974), Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and more recently, his notes and memoir on Biafra titled There Was a Country’(2012). I’ll add, modestly, more chapters to the power and permanence of Achebe in my forthcoming summer 2013 book titled ‘Mandela & Achebe: Footprints of Greatness.’ www.MandelaAchebeChido.com
As Chinua Achebe, the Eagle on the Iroko, joins his Chi and his ancestors of Ikenga Ogidi, his rise to literary immortality continues. Long Live Chinua Achebe!
–– Dr. Nwangwu, moderator of the Achebe Colloquium (Governance, Security, and Peace in Africa) December 7-8, 2012 at Brown University in Rhode Island and former adviser on Africa business/issues to the Mayor of Houston, is the Founder & Publisher of Houston-based USAfrica multimedia networks since 1993, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; CLASSmagazine, AchebeBooks.com, the USAfrica-powered e-groups of AfricanChristians, Nigeria360, IgboEvents, UNNalumni, and the pictorials site PhotoWorks.TV . He was recently profiled by the CNN International for his pioneering works on multimedia/news/public policy projects for Africans and Americans.