Written by Professor Bart Nnaji, CON, NNOM, FAS
Professor Chinua Achebe had left the University of Massachusetts about a decade before I joined the same University in 1983 as Professor and Director of the Automation and Robotics laboratory. At the time, Achebe’s reputation was still looming large at UMass. On realizing that Achebe and I came from the same country and the same state in Nigeria (old Anambra State), students and professors as well as non-academic staff ceaselessly asked me questions about Achebe—about his health, his family, his books and, of course, about the legendary village of Umuofia in his epic novel, Things Fall Apart. Poor fellows! My only contact with Achebe then was only through his books which I thoroughly enjoyed reading while in high school.
The ceaseless questions about Achebe, speaking with the benefit of hindsight, often remind me of the story told by Michael Thelwell, a renowned Jamaican professor of literature at the W. E. B. Dubois Department of African American Studies at UMass and an eminent authority on the Achebe oeuvre, that once “a person tells some Jamaicans that he or she lives in New York, they would reply, ‘you must know my cousin who lives in New York, too!’ ”.
As fate would have it, Professor Achebe and I would meet in flesh and blood in the United States when he came once more to UMass as a visiting professor; more importantly, we worked together on a critical Africa-centered project — the founding and publication of African Commentary. At the inception of African Commentary in the late 1980s, the investors and promoters of the monthly magazine had no difficulty making Achebe both the chairman and publisher of the monthly, while I served as the president. The magazine was a combination of intellectualism and journalism designed to bridge the communication divide between the African continent and the African Diaspora and offer a most rewarding black perspective on the global issues of the day. Well received no sooner than it hit the newsstands, African Commentary deservedly won a lot of recognition in the US media. It was also used in some universities for teaching African history and literature. Interestingly, almost all of us who invested in the magazine were academics with no practical experience of how to run a newspaper business. We consequently took certain steps, which, in retrospect, were pretty funny. For instance, some board members used to attend meetings with their spouses who did not make any investments in the enterprise, yet they actively participated in the board meetings and vote on fundamental issues! In spite of obvious governance and management issues and liquidity challenges, the monthly lasted a whole two years.
Professor Achebe was an exceedingly wise man, not just an intellectual or writer. All of us always profited from Achebe’s sagacity. In fact, he was a born teacher. For instance, it is normal for people to state in conversations and meetings “I do not know how to present this matter”, thus leaving the audience rather confused and sometimes embarrassed. Achebe would carefully guide any person who made such a statement to think through the subject, form his or her thoughts properly before rephrasing and presenting them in a logical manner. This would normally force the individual to be clear in stating issues, and not give excuses. Achebe had a wonderful gift of clarity of thought and clarity of expression.
It is truly amazing that his first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published when he was merely 28 years of age. In other words, the classic was written when he was not more than 26 and conceived when he was even younger. How did someone of such callow or young age come up with this great novel, which has been translated into dozens of languages and sold over 12 million copies globally? This is a book of fiction, yet historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, literary stylists, etc. constantly cite it. The truth is that the young Chinua was a child prodigy. His elementary school teachers recognized early enough that he would go places, and so never hesitated to say so. As his childhood friend, Chike Momah, the retired diplomat, has informed us, their common elementary school teacher used to tell the very brilliant Momah that Chinua would beat him in class if they both should meet at Government College, Umuahia, in today’s Abia State. They did meet, and the teacher’s statement turned out prophetic! We understand that after only the first term, Chinua was promoted to the next class where he maintained the first position until he left high school. At the University College, Ibadan in today’s Oyo State, Achebe’s record was not different.
Mabel Segun, the Nigerian writer and Achebe’s classmate, has regaled us with stories of how Achebe was a father figure even when he was a young student at Ibadan, ascribing this attribute to Achebe’s long and deep association with elders of his native community in Ogidi, Anambra State. Achebe was always ahead of his generation in both intellect and mien and carriage. Okey Ndibe, editor of African Commentary, and C. Don Adinuba, the journal’s West African bureau chief, once confided in me how they gave Achebe the sobriquet of grandpa when he was only in his 50s. They were visiting Achebe in his residence at the University of Nigeria when his elder brother, an engineer and retired director in the public service, came to the place. The engineer was older than Professor Achebe, yet he was looking quite younger. Out of an interesting sense of humour, the two journalists nicknamed Achebe “Grandpa” and fondly called him that for decades—though always in his back.
It is regrettable the Nigerian political class did not allow itself to profit well from Achebe’s tremendous wisdom. The writer foresaw Nigeria’s first military coup which occurred on June 15, 1966, but also the counter-coup of July 29, 1966. His fourth novel, A Man of the People, released on January 2, 1966, ended on a note prophesying a military coup d’état. When the putsch took place, some people suggested that Achebe was probably privy to it; all the more so since the majority of the leaders were of Igbo extraction like Achebe. The suspicion was utterly misplaced. This excellent novel on political corruption also predicted a counter coup. If Achebe was privy to the first coup because of his ethnic background, was he also privy to the counter coup that was by soldiers of northern extraction?
Characteristic of his modest nature, a key feature of wisdom, Achebe insisted on playing down his farsightedness in recognizing that a coup was inevitable in Nigeria. In an interview with Nkem Agetua, the Nigerian journalist and literary critic, Achebe in the 1970s compared his foresight to that of a person observing someone driving recklessly. “It is just like saying,” Achebe, noted, “this drunken driver would have an accident, and it happened shortly after”. It is a manifestation of Achebe’s prophetic gift that a few months after he published a famous treatise on the Nigerian political condition entitled The Trouble With Nigeria a popular military coup took place on December 31, 1983. If only the political class had listened, the course of Nigeria’s political history could have been different.
Professor Chinua Achebe was a wise man, a thinker of the finest hue, a seer and prophet who saw tomorrow today. He was ahead of his generation. His place in world history is assured. He has educated us and his memory will ever remain green in our minds.
Professor Nnaji, former Director of the Automation and Robotics laboratory, University of Massachusetts and former Nigeria Minister of Power.