By Ayinla Mukaiba
ONE of the reasons Africa’s growth is stunted is what I call – pardon the bombast – the fetishization of the dead. We turn the dead into so great a fetish and canonize them immediately they breathe their last. Evil men a few seconds ago suddenly assume the garb of angels the moment they die, so cloaked because of the age-long aphorism that cautions against speaking ill of the dead. In a great way, this emboldens evil men of today and has made their evil hydra-headed.
This rankles my stomach to no end. What bigoted hypocrisy this is that has become the refrain on the lips of the living! Why can’t we progressively shame evil doers in their lifetimes and even at their departure, so as to serve as a disincentive to potential evil doers that whenever they exit, society will reserve the hottest scurrilous tongue against their acts and misacts while alive?
Chinua Achebe, great author, literary scholar, poet and storyteller of note comes under reference here. His death has depleted the literary firmament of writers whose works breathed life into the inertia of our intellectual environment. There are seldom as talented writers as Achebe in this part of the world any longer. In the eulogy penned by John Pepper Bekeredemo-Clark and Wole Soyinka, these equally great authors spoke of the near irreplaceability of Chinua in the literary firmament.
When you read Things Fall Apart and its suffusion with African proverbs, culture and language, you will almost mythify Chinua as a gnome who hailed from the spirit world but was loaned to humanity by the spirit world; that he took temporary residency on earth. How could a man, born of a woman, aggregate the thinking and culture of his people into such an unputdownable book for posterity as this? How could a man codify the worldviews, thoughts, philosophy and ways of life of his people in such a way that he colonizes other peoples as prisoners of his people’s ways of life? For, before Achebe’s book, many of us were alien to the persona of the Igbo man. But Achebe opened the book of the lives of his people bare, threw the gate open into their historico-societal lifestyle, their weltachuung and upturned them into the lives of the rest of the world. Knowingly or unknowingly, since the 1950s when Chinua emerged as one of the authors of note on the African continent with his Things Fall Apart, the centre has refused to hold for the rest of the world, as we have transferred our centre to the Igbo cosmology; we have become slaves of his Igbo thinking which we drink in intoxicating suffusion.
We can reel into tomes of Achebe’s literary scholarship, a shuttle of which Wole Soyinka recently made in an interview with Sahara Reporters. But, after all that and all that about Achebe’s literary scholarship, full stop! Chinua was an extremely bigoted man who saw the world only from the prism of his Igbo people. For him, humanity ceases to exist outside the locus of Igbo and indeed, the world could go jump inside the Zambesi River once his Igbo people are sequestered inside the safe haven of a decent existence.
For anyone who was alive to witness the 1966 pogrom and the Nigerian civil war, especially if you were Igbo, you already possess in your being cicatrices that will last you through a life time. The reprehensible massacre of the Igbo in the North, the beheading of Akaluka in Kano and the recent extinguishing of several Igbo in a Southbound bus in Kaduna, are some of the callous vilifications of the Igbo and his unfortunate lot in the Nigerian nation.
The above could anger anyone and it did gnaw at the pancreas of the great storyteller. But Chinua became so paranoid about these ethnic vilifications of the Igbo and refused to forgive any race he presumed had a hand in the suppression of his people. His vituperations were vivid in virtually all the interface he had with the rest of Nigeria in his literary voyage. He amplified most of the character flaws that the Yoruba noticed in Nnamdi Azikiwe and his West African Pilot. Those who were alive during this period would recollect that The Pilot over-celebrated Igbo who travelled overseas for the golden fleece at their departure and arrival in Nigeria. The converse was the case whenever any other ethnic nationality recorded same achievement. Mbonu Ojike, ace Pilot columnist and Zik, with his Weekend Catechism, did a great job of trumpeting Igbo achievers and relegating any other nationality with same achievement. It was this perceived media projective inequality that led to the establishment of other newspapers and the upturn of Daily Service, the National Youth Movement (NYM) organ, edited by Ernest Sese Okoli, into a converse of Zik’s Pilot which also began to fan ethnic agenda the moment editors like Samuel Ladoke Akintola and Bisi Onabanjo took over the editing suite.
If the 1966 pogrom bored crevasse of hatred that could never be filled in Chinua’s heart, the civil war even dug a greater cesspit of anger in his subconscious. Everyone who contributed to the failure of the Igbo Biafran agenda became object of literary crucifixion and denigration in the hands of Chinua. Odumegwu Ojukuwu, whom many Igbo hated immediately after the war, especially over alleged voyeuristic liaison with Cuban imports inside his bunker in Umuahia while hunger and kwashiokor killed children of war-front soldiers; Chinua upped the ante of his heroism. Conversely, administrators on the side of Nigeria who sought every means to return Nigeria to normalcy, he scurrilously disparaged. The archetype of his disdain and vilification, till death, was Obafemi Awolowo whom he disdained in death and even while alive.
Achebe had shown his disdain for Awo when this man of uncommon sagacity passed on May 2, 1987. In the defunct Thisweek magazine of June 15,1987, while Nigerians and African political maestros poured encomiums on Awo, Achebe chose to insult the dead. In a rather insipid piece he entitled The Apotheosis of Awolowo, Chinua wrote, “Chief Awolowo was a great Nigerian leader in so far as he was a Nigerian and a leader. But his contribution to Nigerian public affairs of the last 40 years did not qualify him as a great national leader… to turn the burial of a tribal leader to a state funeral with invitations to foreign countries is both absurd and unacceptable”.
The novelist and poet was not done yet. His words got more pungent and caustic. “It is in the light of this simple fact that the decision of the federal government to accord the status of a Head of State to him in death should be seen as no less than a national swindle” As a parting shot, the former professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka summarized the bile in his lacerating cudgel: “Despite the clowning circus of ex-politicians and would –be politicians in Ikenne in recent weeks, there is no doubt that serious minded Nigerians are highly critical or even contemptuous of the expensive hocus-pocus, which is now being staged in their name”.
Where Achebe got it wrong was that, at the war front, you are to fight and not to preach morals. The moment Ojukwu declared war against Nigeria, he was no longer the Odumegwu that Awolowo and co. visited but an enemy of Nigeria. All his people (unfortunately) became enemies of Nigeria and they could not be treated as friends. Biafrans didn’t treat Nigerians as friends as well. That was why Murtala Muhammed faced his waterloo in Asaba where hundreds of Nigerians were killed by Biafran soldiers and the heavy casualty suffered by Nigeria in the Abaagana disaster, amply romanticized by Achebe in There Was a Country. How then did Achebe expect Nigerians and Awolowo to deal with Igbo as friends when Biafrans were killing Nigerians at every available opportunity? Indeed, only a fool feeds and not starve his enemies!
Soyinka’s recent interview, where he reasoned that Achebe’s There Was A Country was a poor reading of the ethnically-biased person that Achebe was, was too patronizing. Perhaps, the laureate also fell into the African mantra of not speaking ill of the dead. Achebe’s ethnic irredentism did not just start with his last book. It was merely a continuation of the war against Awolowo and his race. If you read the book very well, you would see his profuse eulogies for the Flora Nwapas, the Christopher Okigbos, the Cyprian Ekwensis and none for any other ethnic national. It was as if only the Igbos existed.
As great as Achebe was as a literary icon of note, his global size was terribly diminished by his consuming tribal inclination. What then is the difference between Achebe the tribal warlord and Joseph Conrad whose Heart of Darkness he vilified for his racist inclination? The eulogy penned by John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka made a terse reference to how Chinua, an icon the world venerated, was probably killed by the shocking news of the bombing of his Igbo people in a South-bound bus in Kano. Talk of a tumbling down of another Zik of Africa to Zik of Owelle!
•Mukaiba is an Ibadan-based journalist and newspaper columnist.