Paying tribute to a great man like Professor Chinualumogu Achebe is certainly not the kind of race a man runs carrying snuff in his palm. It is a serious task, not for want of great deeds worth mentioning and reflecting on, but for too many exploits begging for mention.
How do you describe a man so honoured, even among his kinsmen, that he was conferred with the chieftaincy title of Ugonabo (double eagle) of Ogidi? Renown for its strength and glory, Ugo (the eagle) is such a very rare and highly esteemed bird among Ndigbo. As a title, Ugo is reserved only for their extremely distinguished sons. To be honoured as a “double eagle” goes to show the extraordinariness of the man, Achebe.
How else do you describe a colossus other than also as an Iroko? About this special tree, Achebe writes: “You cannot plant greatness as you plant yams or maize. Whoever planted an iroko tree - the greatest in the forest? You may collect all the iroko seeds in the world, open the soil and put them there. It will be in vain. The great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there...so it is with greatness in men.”
Professor Chinua Achebe was, without a doubt, a force of nature. His kind comes once in a long while and when they do, it is for a purpose. An iconic literary giant and father of African Literature, Achebe came as a guiding light so that his fellow black people and country could find the way and lay claim to their true identity and destinies. Yes, he was a rare gift planted by only the gods themselves, to give Africa her true identity different from the dark and demeaning images painted of her by Western writers and colonialists.
A writer and teacher of uncommon character and pedigree, he was not only A Man of the People, he was also the mouth piece of the weak and oppressed, and invested his entire life seeking solutions for The Trouble with Nigeria. When the centre cannot hold as Things Fall Apart and the falcon can no longer hears the falconer, Achebe stood out as a live force to rally his country men and women back to their roots and indeed back to those socio-cultural values by which our fathers lived.
As one of a quartet that includes Christopher Okigbo and Professor Wole Soyinka, which started and gave the Nigerian literature character, he equally gave a resonant voice, first to Nigerians, and to the entire black race. Like most great men, Achebe was a half-human and haIf-spirit (okara mmadu na okara mmuo), a philosopher, and a prophet. Though through his contributions, especially the imports of Things Fall Apart, blacks could understand what colonialism was all about, he saw far beyond the challenges of colonialism. Through A Man of the People, for instance, he warns of the dangers of reducing independence to merely replacing White imperialists with a new set of indigenous colonialists who lord it over the masses and live in vexatious luxury and opulence at the expense of the people. Through No Longer at Ease, we could also see the damning aftermaths of colonialism. When it became obvious that things were No Longer at Ease, Achebe opened our eyes through to see The Trouble with Nigeria and the Anthills of the Savanna.
Achebe saw The Trouble with Nigeria as clearly that of a failed political class. More importantly, he proffered the way forward, not just by written works, but also by an exemplary life that serves as An Arrow of God that will forever pierce the consciences of the leaders. He reminds the privileged that “Those whose palm kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble” and render service.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe not only describes proverbs as the palm oil with which words are eaten, but goes ahead as a moral and social crusader to deploy this oil in good quantities to teaching, forewarning, and exhorting a nation on how we ought to live. When Achebe writes that “A man who lives on the bank of the Niger should not wash his hands in spittle”, he is simply stressing the need for prudent management and equitable distribution of the commonwealth. When he writes that “He who has people is richer than he who has money”, he is emphasising the primacy of human resources in national development. On fate and the imperativeness of hard work, Achebe writes that “The Sun will shine on those who stand, before it shines on those who kneel under them”. In addition to that, he writes that “If a child washes his hands, he could eat with kings” and that “When a person says yes, his Chi (personal god) also says yes”, for as the other proverb goes, “If we fall back, can we complain that others are rushing forward?”
Importantly, on the need for peaceful co-existence and tolerance, Professor Achebe says: “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too- if one says no to the other, let his wing break”. For fomenters of trouble, he warns that, “A man that makes trouble for others also makes trouble for himself”. But even more philosophical are the words that “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down”.
Achebe’s parting shot, There was a Country, is to me more than just a book or a personal account of his pain and those of his Eastern Nigerian kinsmen over the unfortunate Nigeria-Biafra Civil war. Traditionally, when a father is about to join his ancestors, he assembles his children for the final blessings and parting words. To Achebe, it is only a stupid man that has his toenail pulled out by the same tree stump twice. Achebe is obviously pained that those things that led to the unfortunate war among brothers are growing wings and muscles amongst us. From nepotism to political arrogance and intolerance, corruption, religious fanaticism, and now an unprecedented wave of senseless killing across the land, Achebe is simply telling his countrymen to stand together and say “Never again”. Yes, never again so that whatever consumed the mound of fufu would not be allowed to empty the soup pot.
I therefore believe that the best way we can all mourn and immortalise Achebe is to live his ideals and build such Nigeria he dreamed of - a Nigeria where peace and justice reigns.
Goodbye, the Iroko, and may the Almighty God give us all especially your immediate family, Ogidi people and indeed the entire Igboland and Nigerians, the fortitude to bear your passage. Goodnight, Ugonabo Ogidi, the immortal name.
Senator Ike Ekweremadu, Deputy President of the Senate & Speaker, ECOWAS Parliament