Chinua Achebe: A Non-Romantic View (Part II) – by Ibrahim Bello-Kano

The Anthills of the Savannah has other defects as well: The author’s heavily moralised, didactic view of life repeatedly intrudes in the narrative, and, in particular, in the facile and tired representation of the military ruler, the Head of Sate. Ikem and Beatrice’s romanticism, their romantic view of social relations, is clearly the real author’s because the entire drift of the narrative is towards a heavily moralised view of life (Light versus Darkness; Enlightenment versus Ignorance; Diligence versus Parasitism).

Yet, it is in Achebe’s essay, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), that his romanticism comes full circle. In that book, Achebe argues that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership… the unwillingness and inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example” (p. 1). This postulation of Achebe’s ignores the deep structural constraints on human action and psychology. It is pre-critical to ignore the complex ways in which social structures mediate, modify, condition, and constrain human choices. Leadership works within institutional, historical, cultural, and economic contexts which place limits on what human agents can and cannot do. This notion of the structural determination of leadership means that a leader has inevitably to work within, and exist in, a system and a political logic whose proper system, laws, and operation his or her “leadership” cannot, by definition, dominate absolutely. The leader, despite his having a certain measure of freedom, has inevitably to be governed by the system within which he or she exists. And although men and women make their own history, they clearly do not make it as an act of will, or in their own freely-chosen circumstances, but under the structural constraints of the accumulated past and inherited traditions. This is what The Trouble with Nigeria has missed: Nigerian leaders cannot be the miraculous changed men or women of their country but the changed men and women of their country’s changed circumstances. This is the truth of the time-honoured liberal credo that the educator herself needs educating and that if leaders are educators, who will educate the educators?

From this perspective, Achebe’s conception of leadership may properly be called “voluntarism”, even a form of messianic thinking: on Achebe’s flawed logic, all a leader needs do is become, by the force of sheer will power, a morally good person, who has only to lead by example rather than by veritable political principles. Achebe’s position is another way of saying that Nigeria needs a strong leader, one who has miraculously escaped all the cultural and historical pressures of his community or country; in effect, a messiah. This dubiously Christian view of leadership is a convenient way of avoiding the complex problem of institutional, cultural, and historical constitution of subjectivity and moral choice in a multi-ethic, multi-religious country, one with a large, primordialist, backward-looking civil society. Indeed, one reason for the failure of Achebe’s little book to capture the scholarly or popular imagination was its threadbare romanticism and an un-modern (a feudal and mystical) vision of political leadership.

Perhaps, Achebe’s most disappointing book, or to phrase matters differently, his most inferior work, is There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). As a personal testament, the book vindicates the time-honoured dictum that “the personal is political”. Perhaps, we need not be critical of Achebe’s passionate defence of his ethnic group, or of the short-lived Biafra, and his role in it. Yet, there is something distasteful about open myopia of blind ethnic solidarity or communal jingoism. What is striking about the book is its complete lack of a keen political insight, its petty romantic vision of Nigeria’s political history. For example, consider the book’s astonishing claims, namely, that the Igbo wholly deserved their entrenched positions in the military, economic, and bureaucratic structures of pre-civil war Nigeria (“… the Igbo led the nation in virtually every sector— politics, education, commerce, and the arts”, pp. 66-67); that all non-Igbo Nigerians are united by their hatred for the Igbo ethnic group; and that British rule in Nigeria and elsewhere was not, as popularly assumed, an unmitigated disaster. According to Achebe in There was a Country, the British government ruled the Nigerian colony “with considerable care… and competently… British colonies were more or less expertly run” (p. 43). In the same book, however, Achebe accuses British colonial officials of rigging the election and the population census in favour of conservative elements such as Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, from the “Islamic territories” (p. 46; Achebe does not say that the Igbo were from the “Christian territories”), people who “had played no real part in the struggle for independence” (p. 52). In addition, for Achebe it was the behaviour of the British that sowed the seeds of Nigeria’s eventual descent into civil war. If indeed Achebe has this rosy view of colonial rule, then his entire corpus of anti-colonial polemic and cultural nationalism has been in vain, or, in a way, a hypocritical effort at self-publicity.

Worse, Achebe argues, in an astonishing moment of historical revisionism, that the originators of the very idea of one-Nigeria were “leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region” (p. 52). This may explain why he credits Nnamdi Azikiwe with the enviable position of being “father of African independence” (“There was no question at all about that”, (p. 41). In sum, then, there are many instances of sloppy argument and poor judgment in the book, as, for example, Achebe’s claim that Nigeria failed to develop because the Igbo, despite their “competitive individualism” and a unique “adventurous spirit”, were excluded from Nigerian economic, social, and political life. Examples of Achebe’s unsophisticated political perception of things are, first, his lack of political sensitivity concerning non-Igbo political leaders such as Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The first two are seen by Achebe as ruled by inordinate ambition (“resuscitated ethnic pride”) and conservative traditionalism respectively. The latter Achebe almost casts into the role of a lackey of the Western world, which, he claims, turned (“built up”) Balewa through flattery into a great statesman (p. 51).

It is thus fair to say that, in There was a Country at least, Achebe is an overwhelmingly “ethnic nationalist”, an “Igbo-phile” (or a philo-Igbonis, to coin a new term), and a Biafra apologist to boot. He is, in this book at least, a homo duplex, the Double Man, in effect, both Biafran and Nigerian; Igbophile and Nationalist; Anti-colonial Writer and a Post-colonial Apologist of Expert British Rule. This should explain why the book has a schizoid thematic orchestration and its claims pressed within a phlegmatic stylistic mode, which, again and again, has proved incapable of sustained irony. Surely, then, There was a Country is a patchwork of Achebe’s deep, even unconscious, prejudices. In one moment after another, the book fails to offer a finely integrated presentation of a realistic historical, geographical, economic, and culturally diverse, though troubled, country.

So, while I pay tribute to this important novelist and essayist, I should remark, at the same time, that we should not, in our romantic rush to venerate our little (culture) heroes, forget earlier illustrious and master English-speaking storytellers such as Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) and Cyprian Odiatu Ekwensi (1921-2007). Their books, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (written 1946 and published in 1952) and People of the City (1954), are two outstanding pieces of literature and narrative self-assertion that blazed the trail in modern, English-speaking African fiction writing. In the same manner, while we pay tribute to Achebe and his literary legacy, let us not also forget great post-colonial African storytellers such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Sambene Ousmane, Ngugi wa Thiog’o, and, not the least, the incomparable Kenyan writer, Meja Mwangi, the author, in my opinion, of the finest African novel ever—Going Down River Road (1977).

As for Achebe, I say “goodbye”; for there was indeed a great novelist, but who, tragically, had to write the greatest anti-novel of his career—There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.



Culled from PremiumTimes


•Prof. Bello-Kano  is of the Department of English and French, Bayero University, Kano

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