Odia Ofeimun, a Nigerian poet, essayist, and social critic speaks with Ademola Adegbamigba (PM News) on late Chinua Achebe and his revelancy on our world.
How did you receive the news of Achebe’s death?
I was in my village in Ekpoma when many journalists started phoning to find out my opinion about the death of Professor Chinua Achebe. I refused to respond because I remember that Nnamdi Azikiwe was reported to have died a number of times before he finally did. I did not want to be one of those who would be talking about the death of a man who was still very much alive. I did not want to. So, I kept asking them who confirmed Achebe’s death. It was only later in the day when it was clear that the death had been properly confirmed that I decided to respond. My response was very simple. For me, especially after the publication of There Was A Country, nothing could be more painful than a man dying just when you were learning to argue and debate with him. Achebe has been one of the most lucky artists the world has known. When he was young, almost, not yet 30, he was already being treated and regarded as an elder. He was a patriarchal figure before he was an adult. Everybody treated Achebe like the wise, old one because of the stories he had told, especially in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. And he had the luck again of finding a publisher just setting out in the world, who wanted to move into this new area of African literature. It was unheard of, but he devoted a lot of resources to promoting this new literature. And Achebe was their editorial adviser. He, therefore, was in a position to determine how people became writers in Africa. And the African Writers Series turned out to be the most promotional factor in the development of Africa literature. Achebe was at the heart and centre of it. Therefore, when you are discussing African literature, you can rightly and properly describe Chinua Achebe as the ‘father of African literature’ because of the role he played in the emergence of other writers. Whether they were poets, dramatists or novelists, most of them became well-known because they were in the African Writers’ Series. And therefore, we really cannot discuss African literature without remembering Achebe.
You have treated the immediate transition from pre-colonial to the colonial period. Now let’s look at Achebe’s works vis-à-vis the post-independence period. How will you judge them?
Achebe was very careful in the way he projected his literary career; in the way, so to say, he channelled his own literary career. He produced a novel of the colonial part, that is to say, just before colonialism. And then he produced another, which was about the truly colonial present and he moved beyond it back again to the village and gave us a different picture and you can almost tell that Things Fall Apart and Arrow Of God are one book. And it is because we are not very enterprising people as writers. If not, by now, one young fellow should just have bunched all the books together and written one novel to cover the whole series that Achebe did. We have not yet done it, but it will be done one of these days. And we do need to be very conscious of where we are coming from, when Achebe himself talks about when the rain started to beat us. Well, it is in his books that rain started to beat us in African literature in a very vehement manner. And it is important that we constantly go back to it to retell some of the stories he had told, and we must.
The average reader has every reason to award divinity to the sheer beauty of Achebe’s works, no problem. But for a young writer, who needs to tackle Africa, we must have a certain capacity for serious criticism. If we must do that, we do need to be able to tackle the questions that Achebe tackled and bring to them new values and new knowledge that we have that could not have been available to Achebe when he wrote those books. He was a young man; people forget that he was a very young man when he wrote those books. And he just managed to be a good reporter of what the traditional society was like. But in doing that, you could see where he laid his emphasis was where the Obierika character in Things Fall Apart laid the emphasis. Obierika was not a revolutionary, he was not a man who wished to change the system. He was just a man who marked how things were. And there is a sense in which Achebe, by just marking where things are, opened up spaces for us to do proper criticism. For instance, one of the least celebrated characters in Things Fall Apart is actually the most serious and most important character – Unoka, the father of Okonkwo. Everybody remembers that musician, who like Ulysses, could play the flute and everything could either go to sleep or wake up, depending on what the flute meant to do. He was so good at it that his only problem was that he couldn’t do what everybody in the society was doing. He was not a farmer, he did not want to be judged in accordance with the standards of the farmer. He was a musician and as an artiste, he did so well that what he drew attention to was the incomplete communalism of Igbo society.
The communalism in Igbo society was so achievement-oriented that it did not provide good support for the weaker people in society. And in this particular case, he was not the weaker person in the society, he was actually the strongest of the people in the society because in some other societies close to Umuofia, the rounded communalism of those societies enabled them to protect the artistes. The man who played during your funerals, marriages, child births and other age-grade ceremonies, when it was time to clear the bush, either the age-grade or the community as a whole would go clear the bush for him. In a society with a rounded communalism, when it was time to plant other people helped him to plant. He may not even be available in his farm. The Igbo society that you encounter in Things Fall Apart did not have such a rounded communalism that some other societies had. Therefore, what happened to Unoka? The man literally died of kwashiokor and was taken with his flute and thrown away in the evil forest. But we must not forget that it was a point of weakness in the society, rather than a failure of the individual character because that individual character did what he wished to do so well, better than everybody. He was a great artiste, who should have been given the protection that great artistes should have.
So, when you look at those books, it is what they open up for us as a means of understanding the society that counts, and how they enable us to question the society that we have all inherited. By the time Achebe wrote A Man of the People, he had moved beyond all the self-defensive approaches of the earlier literature. He was no longer wanting to deal with what happened yesterday, he was now dealing with the present. How after the intervention of the colonial masters we still couldn’t put things together. No Longer At Ease gives the impression that there must have been a period when things were at ease. Whether you read Things Fall Apart or No Longer At Ease, there was really no period in which our people were at peace. If you look back, you will discover that the village republic described in Umuofia was actually a very rare community in many parts of Africa. For 500 years, there had been an upsurge of slavery and slavers’ attacks, there were slave wars that were wrongly described as inter-tribal wars by the colonialists, so that very few societies were free of the infraction of the external environment, a vicious infraction for that matter. To have managed to find one community that was free of this is a very interesting deal. It also shows you the differences in the kind of societies that belonged to the traditional order.
Now, Achebe told the story, so to say, of his grandfather and told the story of, shall we say, his own generation. The story that is not particularly well told is the story of his father’s generation. Those who were the real betrayers of traditional Africa, those who turned their backs on traditional African societies, the story was never properly told. If he had told that story, perhaps, he would have been more in a position to deal with some of the most serious questions that he had to deal with all his life. Like, for instance, when you read There Was A Country, he tells you very much about that period that Chinua Achebe did not write about in his fiction. It was a serious period of transition in which you could not properly take sides because Achebe gives us a very fine picture of a society that could destroy twins, and did the human sacrifices in a fairly perfunctory way. He also showed us how that weakness in the society made it easy for the external factor to intervene and to literally take over the society because those who were not feeling good about that community had to move with the new providers and the new liberators that the white people were. Because whether we like it or not, the white people who came were liberators to all those classes that were under dispossession of one kind or another. The story of the generation that took over from the white people, the generation that moved into the white camp, is not so well told because these days, you do find that in the discussion of African literature, we all avoid that period.
The reason many Africans avoid that period is that they are not too sure that it is not self-abuse when they embraced the so-called white culture. It is not self-abuse. There is truly nothing that was happening in traditional African societies that was not happening in European societies. We just did not have the calm and balanced environment for which to assess and determine what to take. When your conquerors and oppressors are the ones determining the pace in their own interest, you are not choosing. It is the imposition of the western way, rather than ascension to the western way that made the difference. The Japanese had a choice as to what to take from western civilisation; we never had that choice. Ours is a clear case of an imposition. Therefore, that generation is one generation we need to look at. It was a generation that sometimes had very good reasons for the positions they took. And many of them were fairly clear-eyed about it. They sat down and balanced it. That is actually the point I’m making when I say that Achebe’s father’s generation is the one we still need to go back to in that process of transition, that moving away. We need to interrogate that period of transition because it is where we need to genuinely look at the rain that beat us.
African intellectuals dodge dealing with that period because they themselves were part of the traitors and betrayers. They have not been able to sell an enlightenment position that our people can follow. Many people will support the idiotic cultural practices because they are our own African ways of doing things. There is no such thing when you are dealing with how to produce for the defence of life. What is not functional, if it has other roles, we must interrogate those other roles. The westerners came here to learn. It’s important not to go with the ideologues, who make such a sharp distinction between the west and the rest of us and make it impossible for us to see that it is about knowledge and knowledge acquisition. If you don’t know about the things around you, others will know about them and use them against you. The West knows more about Africa than Africans know about Africa. And we must never forget that anytime we are drawing a line between the West and the rest of us, we are in that kind of zone that requires a change to perspective, of attitude, paradigm, way we view ourselves and our history.
There is the belief in Africa that people don’t speak ill of the dead. In the reviews I have read so far, people just mention There Was A Country in passing. Do you also follow that?
I was one of those who responded to the book, a very well-written bad book. It is very readable and that is precisely why it is painful to see so much in that book that is false, contrived, just basic war propaganda that should never have been allowed into a serious book by an author we all respect. Achebe is the property of every school child in Africa, almost across the world. When the Japanese want to know about Africa, they literally go for Achebe first if it is about fiction. And so, there is a sense in which an author in whose name almost every child swears ought always to remember that he does not just belong to an ethnic group. No serious author belongs to just a nation because you are not speaking only for them, you are speaking for all of us who can read you. But in this particular case, Achebe imagined that he belonged, just like a child in that village republic that had no relationship with other communities, to Igbo. He imagined that the world just ended in Umuofia. No, the world does not end with Umuofia. Because what There Was A Country does is to make the search for war and the necessity to do war a basis for interaction. In Nigeria we have had a civil war since Lord Lugard imposed his ‘Pax Nigeriana,’ his special British peace for Nigerians, and we have allowed ourselves to live as if that civil war reflex built into our culture is the only way in which we can live.
What Achebe has done is to play the Lugard game – make it appear as if the necessity for hatred and the building of a basis for its continuance is one great purpose of literature. No, we don’t understand our lives enough by reading Achebe’s There Was A Country. We actually no longer recognise our societies because if the hatred of the Igbo is the only relationship we are supposed to be dealing with, then you must know that you are describing a different world altogether than the one most of us live in. And I’m not one of those who say you can’t criticise the dead. Achebe set a very fine tradition. After Awolowo’s death, he did a critique according to his own light, on Awolowo and whatever he thought of him. So, we are in my view excused from that African culture, which says don’t speak ill of the dead. We are not speaking ill of the dead. If the dead defecated on the ground and it is the rest of us who must pack it, we must do a criticism of whoever did it and therefore, in dealing with There Was A Country, it is defending our lives and the lives of our own children. I don’t want to be part of that process of building animosity where it shouldn’t really exist and where the opportunism of leaders is precisely what you are defending when you say, “My people, my people.” No. The truth is that every Igboman who sees that civil war only from the standpoint of what has been said about ethnicity is not looking at it well. Look, five Igbo majors carried out a coup. In a just society, you will bring out those five majors, try them and deal with them. There may have been other collaborators. But to say that five Igbo people carried out a coup and therefore all Igbo people are guilty shows a society that has no respect for justice. But go the other way too. The pogrom before the war had clear organisers, any time we say the Hausa-Fulani or the jihadists, we forget that there were particular individuals who did the organisation. They should have been rounded up and tried and dealt with in a way that the 15 January boys should have been dealt with. Now it’s like the Obasanjo way of justice. Some policemen are killed by identifiable people, instead of going after them you went to a whole town and demolished it.
Now, whenever we find leaders doing that, you begin to see the point I’m making that leadership is about every sector of our economy, not first about that big man over there. Because the rest of us don’t lead ourselves enough, and don’t fight to ensure that we acquire the education to resist such people, we are also part of the problem that is being described. For God’s sake, if we want to judge Achebe on the basis of that last book, he gives us a chance to actually re-interrogate all the earlier books because the village sense of the Umuofia Republic can’t help us run a modern society. It is not possible for us to live in accordance with the ethics of that Umuofia culture and thrive. Let’s face it, if you look at Igbo society today, you will agree that the Igbo state union was a civilising agent because what they did was to round together so many such republics and broaden the sense of justice and the sense of values that many Igbo people had. But what the average Igbo leader and theoretician and intellectual have not managed to do is to see how the creation of a larger Igbo sense is also part of that process of building a larger Nigerian sense because it was in response to other ethnic groups across Nigeria that Igbo became more civilised than they were, when the colonialists came. Don’t let’s mistake it, those who call themselves Igbo today are who they are because of other Nigerians. They pretend that they have something so intrinsically Igbo and that is what makes them different from others. They are liars. We are children of that common interaction which came with colonialism and the rest of it.
To assume that every set of people you meet must hate you is what that book does. For that reason, it is not only a bad book, it is a destructive book, a book that destroys the peace which future generations deserve to have.
What can people do, in spite of what he wrote, to sustain the handshake across the Niger?
I did a collection of essays, only one of which I released in response to There Was A Country. So many people who don’t know that I actually have other essays that I have written but not published, did not realise that I’m not treating Achebe as a transient phenomenon. I’m treating him as a very serious engager of the lives that we live. I believe he got it very wrong in that book and therefore, since I believe that we must not allow generations coming after us to live by the specious and opportunistic views that our fathers had, we must contest all the lies, we must ensure that their wrong views of the way the world works get corrected. And you don’t need to go too far. There is a story I like telling everybody. Achebe says that the Igbo people are individualistic and that was what helped them to acquire western education, catch up with the Yoruba and then took over all the jobs. It is a very wrong description of what actually happened. What happened is that before independence, the NPC and the NCNC reached an agreement to run Nigeria together. Nnamdi Azikiwe refused to form a coalition with the AG because the Yoruba were educated and would be competing with the Igbo people for jobs. Therefore, they wanted a coalition. Because that coalition was a very conservative one, they wanted to go with the Hausa-Fulani, who did not have enough people to take over the jobs that the Europeans were exiting from nor did they have any to deal with the new jobs that would be created by independence. So, the Yoruba leader was jailed and the Yoruba, who could have looked for jobs, were shunted aside. So, the NCNC, though they had a strong following in the Western Region, arranged for the jobs to be taken over by their primary constituencies. That was it.
But they didn’t factor some things into it. By 1964, they suddenly discovered that while they were taking over the jobs as permanent secretaries, ministers and heads of organisations, the senior partner in the coalition was taking over all the railway extensions, all the military installations, the Kainji Dam and even the new iron and steel industry that was being proposed. Then it struck them that the so-called uneducated northerners were not as uneducated as that. They had a clear picture of what they wanted. Now, that was when the break of the coalition started. Although Nnamdi Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a government in 1964, all they needed to do was to send soldiers to the place to harass him a little and then let him know that it required only two medical opinions for him to be declared unfit to take a decision. So he relented and allowed Balewa to form a government. From that moment on, a military coup was built into everything that was happening in Nigeria because, if you ask me, that was a military coup. From that moment, there was bound to be a coup in Nigeria, it was just a matter of time. When you look at it from that angle and you see that it was just the struggle to take over the resources of Nigeria that was at stake, and that it had nothing to do with any particular zeal on the part of any particular ethnic group, then you will realise that what we need to deal with is a very serious matter of economic management, and social welfare. And on that, I don’t care who is listening, only one man had a solution that works – that worked yesterday, today and would work tomorrow. They should go and ask Awolowo, all the books he wrote in prison – Thoughts On Nigerian Constitution and Strength and Tactics of The Peoples’ Republic of Nigeria.