Achebe: The disrobing of a god

Tunde Fagbenle

Tunde Fagbenle

I have given Chinua Achebe’s latest and highly inflammatory book, There Was A Country (A Personal History of Biafra), the first reading, so to say, poring through its 333 pages all night long to achieve what must be a record for this legendary slow reader.

I had to. The portion of the book that has been the subject of serious acrimony, particularly in the global social media, unsettled me. Hadn’t I just in my last column or two gone ballistic in my praise of him, declaring myself (albeit a new convert — having just acquired and read most of his books) a worshipper at the shrine of Achebeism?

Let us quote that portion again:

“It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose — the Nigeria-Biafra war — his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

The language is severe and of the bitterest kind; and from an 82-year old man, a sage, meaner still.

Unfortunately, Nigeria has become a country ridden by ethnicity or tribalism, and as Achebe himself said in the book “…part of the way to respond to confusion in Nigeria is to blame those from the other ethnic group…” And so, whatever one says would, sadly, be looked at from one’s “ethnic” point of view.

It was my PUNCH-columnist colleague, that hard-hitting young writer, Adunni Adelakun (on Thursdays), whose posting on her Facebook page first drew my attention to it with her terse comment:

“Personally, I disagree with Achebe on this. So, Awolowo wanted to reduce the number of Igbos so as to suppress their dominance? Too simple revisionism!”

But, again, Adunni is Yoruba, isn’t she? She can’t count. And that is why it is important that Igbos – intellectuals and politicians of weight – must speak out in this lest it be assumed Achebe has spoken for the “impression” of all!

My immediate response was:

“I am not in the business of defending Awolowo or anyone, and getting into this fray is also quite not in my character. Just that the kind of personality disorder it would take to fit into the mould of how Achebe has characterised Awolowo here as someone capable of making policies deliberately aimed at exterminating a whole race, if need be, and of seeing the Igbos as enemies fit for such, is beyond the pale.

“The weight and consequences of Achebe’s “impression,” given his status, will endure forever! If it is true, then the victim of his arrow deserves it. If it is not true, then, I’m back to my sob.”

And my sobbing is not for Awolowo, nothing can take from him, but for Achebe himself.

What emerges from it all, and from reading the book, is that Prof. Chinua Achebe is a very bitter man. And at 82, going to his grave, that is not a good thing to harbour.

Definitely, the ruins the Nigeria of his dream (with his place in it) came to and the Biafra War hurt him, hurt him to irrationality.

Achebe wrote in the book that, “Every generation must recognise and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.” Now, having read virtually all of his major works and particularly this latest one, it is clear that Achebe imagines the role providence thrusts on him as that of the Messiah of his Igbo people and he embraces it with fervour.

As he would say, there is, on the surface, at least, nothing wrong with those imaginations. However, they must be tempered with truth and objectivity, especially where you have a following, impressionable following that may be prone to taking your position as gospel truth.

It is also clear that my hero Achebe hates Awolowo the Great with a passion and he is fore-sworn to exact his pound of flesh from Awo with the tool at Achebe’s command — his pen — even if that is the last thing he does before he joins Awo yonder!

Achebe holds many views, strongly, especially about the dominance and God-given ‘supremacy’ of his Igbo people that leaves no one in doubt of his Igbo irredentism. But, as he repeatedly prefaces in the book, they are his “opinion” or his “impression.” So, what can anyone say!

But he also wrote, albeit in thinly veiled conceit of its own: “I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, than can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness. There is no doubt at all that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behaviour that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.”

How much openness, affection and respect Achebe has for other Nigerians not Igbo is hard to surmise.

But he owns up to witnessing “great intimations of affection” flow towards him “at critical moments” of his life from non-Igbos that his good “impression” would otherwise have considered “enemies” or “mortal rivals” or “envious” of Igbos.

Of this he had written: “More recently, after a motor accident in 2001 (that should be 1991) that left me with serious injuries, I have witnessed an outflow of affection from Nigerians at every level. I am still dumbfounded by it. The hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love, not hate…”

I bear witness to that. Back in 1991 upon news of the accident and he being flown to an undisclosed hospital somewhere outside London, MKO Abiola of blessed memory had called me (at my HomeNews office in London) to help go look for wherever “this great son of Africa” had been taken to and hand him an envelope containing considerable cash towards the hospital bill. Abiola said he had never met Achebe in person.

I was born and I grew up in the north. I lived amongst Igbos and some of my best friends are Igbos. Maybe this makes my outlook different from that of someone from Achebe’s Ogidi. In times past (when life was kinder), Igbos I never knew before were amongst those I had sponsored in college. And so, I know nothing of the “enmity” and “envy” that my Achebe talks about, nor the sense of ‘supremacy’ he vaunts.

Yet, Chinua Achebe has told his own story. And, as the Yoruba joke goes, “Ma ja mi n’ro, ti e ni’o pa” (Don’t challenge my lies; tell yours!).


  1. amenze Reply

    I greatly commend this colunmist and in my opinion, a persons opinion about an issue should not be criticised as wrong or right especially as in Achebe’s case where he expressly certifies it as ‘his opinion’.

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