By Sonala Olumhense
I join the world in bidding Chinua Achebe, the wordsmith we lost nine days ago, goodbye. Several things distinguished this famous Nigerian. The best-known and most celebrated was his ability to tell a compelling story. When Achebe told you a story, you became his messenger, re-telling that story in one way or another forever.
That magic was Achebe’s passport to travel through time and space. Using it, as we all came to know, he sold himself to the world, eliminating any need to repeat his name or to raise his voice that he may be heard. When he cleared his throat to speak to a crowd, Achebe did not need a microphone: the crowd fell into silence so deep it was almost in a trance, raising his roof to the rafters.
But he was not your normal storyteller in the tradition of a circus performer whose entertainment ended when you left for home. That was why, if you were not sufficiently careful, you missed the most important truth about Achebe: he was a man who dispensed fiction so he could disburse truth.
That, I am certain will become clear when he is laid to rest and men and women of all kinds try to claim a part of him for themselves in the words of a decent goodbye.
To say goodbye, especially in a Nigerian funeral, is not easy. We often celebrate in death what we denied in life. That is why, to say goodbye to a decent Nigerian of the quality and symbolism of Achebe by a society as indecent as ours would be a Nollywood tale that even Achebe could not have penned.
To bury Achebe among his people is the right thing to do. I believe that is what he would have loved, even if he did not make that decision himself.
But that will throw up all kinds of questions about his people if that happened to be defined less tightly than his immediate family. It would be fascinating to hear some of those who will want the microphone by which to say “a few words.”
A few words.
In Achebe’s final two decades on earth, God seemed to have given him two thrones to say whatever he wanted. The first was the global fame that his fiction had earned him. From Ogidi, his village, to the farthest corners of the earth, he came to symbolize the power of great writing. The world sought him wherever he rested; wherever he went, so did the world as it sought his voice.
The second throne, alas, was a wheelchair. Following his widely-known road crash in 1990, Achebe recovered into a wheelchair, from where he cast his considerable wisdom far and wide. At the foot of that chair, a worldwide horde of admirers came to hear him say whatever he wished.
But a few words were often all he said. A skillful, power user of language, he was a man who got a lot of mileage out of every word and every nuance.
His was a deep well of wisdom, but some of those words, especially when he turned his attention to Nigeria, were angry ones, especially when he identified the trouble with Nigeria.
His book of that title was published 30 years before his death. In it, he bluntly declared that “trouble” to be “simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
When Achebe brought home the glories and accolades of foreign lands, he was the hero of every Nigerian, including its leadership, but when he turned his attention inwards, that leadership was resentful. It would rather claim him and own him.
That was why, in 2004 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, and again in 2011 under President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria offered Achebe the National Honour of the Commander of the Federal Republic.
In his rejection letter in 2004, Achebe cited his “alarm and dismay” over developments in Nigeria, using as an example the chaos in his home state of Anambra, “where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places.” That clique, he said, seemed determined to turn the state into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.
“I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency,” he said.
Despite that, Achebe again found his name on the National Honours list nearly two years ago. Again, he refused to accept, as “the reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved.”
It is remarkable to recall the response of Nigeria’s leadership to Achebe’s rejections. In 2004, the government bitterly disowned him, declaring that if the award was not good enough for him he was not good enough for Nigeria. In 2011, he was accused of ignorance, and invited home on his wheelchair to come and see how things had “improved” under President Jonathan.
Things have “improved” so much under Mr. Jonathan that mediocrity and official dubiousness have become pronounced principles of public life; the so-called National Honours are now increasingly given to friends and their friends.
Things have “improved” so much that such top government officials as the President, Vice-President and the President of the Senate do not in their speeches refer to such values as integrity, example, character, or honour.
Things have “improved” so much that President Jonathan told the country he “does not give damn” about declaration of assets, and routinely appoints to office men of poor character. Only two weeks ago, he offered State pardon to Dipreye Alamieyeseigha, one of Nigeria’s most reviled symbols of corruption.
All of this will form the background when Nigeria honours Achebe by means of a state burial, as has been proposed, or in “a few words” of tribute.
To say a few words is the most difficult things in the world when those words are dishonest.
Achebe mastered the art of saying a few meaningful words because his agenda and the prism through which he viewed his country never rotted. His views on right and wrong did not shift so that he might obtain a federal contract.
His views did not change in the new budget year because he wanted to smuggle one of his children into a job at State House, as many two-faced Nigerians do.
The same heart that was beating in the heart of Achebe, the Nigerian, beat in him until the end. He advocated a country of excellence, one in which leaders led the people with patriotism, honesty and determination, not with self-interest and greed and corruption.
This is why his words and his advocacy never will die. He leaves behind a country that makes up what it lacks in heroes with historic levels of mediocrity and hypocrisy.
He leaves behind the same “alarm and dismay” about which he spoke in 2004, of a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places…that has run Nigeria into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom…” He leaves behind the same shameless, lying, effeminate, unpatriotic and deceitful leadership that remains the trouble with Nigeria.
Achebe’s achievements as a writer will always inspire the world. In his home country, it will accomplish considerably more than that, forever casting illumination on the army of locusts that has taken Nigeria hostage and made her an under-developing country. His voice will be larger in death than it was in life.