Chinua Achebe's Parting Shot

Nigerians have become so adept at graveyard orations that whenever any important personality dies, everybody would be scrambling to find the right adjectives with which to express their condolences. And it doesn’t matter that they may have spent their lifetime attacking the deceased or what such a person stood for. But ever so often, their hypocrisy is obscured by its unintended truthfulness, especially in instances where the object of the post-humous affectation happens to merit the expressed lofty words. That, I suppose is the case with Prof. Chinua Achebe who passed away in the United States exactly a week ago today.

At 82, Achebe was no young man but he so much impacted millions of lives across several generations that many wished he had lived forever. But it is also part of the rituals of our existence that people die. So Achebe is no more. However, he left behind so much of himself that when Dr. Chidi Achebe told an online publication last Friday that the report about his father’s passage was an idle rumour, he actually sounded truer than he probably intended. Because as an accomplished man of letters, Chinua Achebe had already written himself into immortality before he departed our world last week.

Achebe’s death has, however, reopened the old debate about our country as I am now more inclined to believe he deliberately timed the release of his controversial memoir, “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra”, as a parting shot to Nigeria; perhaps as an expression of his frustration and anger at what we could have been as against what we have become. Of course, there is no denying that he wrote the book for his Igbo kinsmen given its slant and the tone of the narrative; yet if we search deeper, we cannot but see that he also captured the internal contradictions of a nation that held so much promise at independence but has come to symbolise a giant on clay feet.

The problem most people have with Achebe’s memoir is that he made it appear as if the Igbo political and business elite are completely insulated from, and are mere victims of, the mess that our country has become. That is not correct although American philosopher, Donald Davison, offers us a better insight into such one-sided perspective when he argues that identity politics “is always the performance we craft for the audience we imagine, not the one that’s actually watching.”

While conceding that the events before, during and after the civil war were tragic and unfortunate; and that the scars may still run deep for the older generation of Igbo people who experienced its trauma, the fact remains that no ethnic group can be absolved from our collective failure as a nation. Incidentally, the central message in most of Achebe’s works is that any society that constantly and consistently finds itself in the hands of “Ndi efulefu” (whether in the private or public sector) is almost doomed. However, as far as I am concerned, Achebe’s best interrogation of our country was a long interview he granted in May 1989 to Charles H. Rowell. That was about 24 years ago and a few months before he had the motor accident that left him paralysed from waist down--and necessitated his permanent relocation to the United States on medical grounds.

In the interview, Achebe told a story which I have also read in another work of his. Let’s hear Achebe: “...I have used it again and again because I think it is a marvellous little story. In my own words, it goes something like this: The snake was riding his horse, coiled up in his saddle. That’s the way the snake rode his horse. And he came down the road and met the toad walking by the roadside. And the toad said to him, ‘Excuse me, Sir, but that’s not how to ride a horse.’ And the snake said, ‘No? Can you show me then?’ And the toad said, ‘Yes, if you would step down, Sir.’ So the snake came down.
The toad jumped into the saddle and sat bolt upright and galloped most elegantly up and down the road. When he came back he said, ‘That’s how to ride a horse.’ And the snake said, ‘Excellent. Very good. Very good, indeed. Thank you. Come down, if you don’t mind.’ So the toad came down, and the snake went up and coiled himself in the saddle as he was used to doing and then said to the toad, ‘It is very good to know, but it is even better to have. What good does excellent horsemanship do to a man without a horse?’ And with that he rode away...As you can see, the snake in this story is an aristocrat, and the toad a commoner.
The statement, even the rebuke, which the snake issues is, in fact, saying: ‘Keep where you belong. You see, people like me are entitled to horses, and we don’t have to know how to ride. There’s no point in being an expert. That’s not going to help you.’ Now that’s very nice in that kind of political situation. But also if you think deeply about this story, it’s a two-edged sword. To put this other edge to it, which is not noticed at first...this other side is that the snake is incompetent, the snake is complacent, the snake is even unattractive. It’s all there in the story, and the time will come in this political system when all this will be questioned. Why is it that a snake is entitled to a horse? Why is it that the man who knows how to ride does not have a horse to ride? This questioning will come in a revolutionary time, and when it comes you don’t need another story...”

In Achebe’s story, we can see the tragedy of a nation that has been held down for decades because of the celebration of mediocrity at practically all levels and the promotion of a culture that advertises wealth without work. It is indeed most fitting that as I write this piece, I just got a news alert on my handset that Nigeria spends about N42 billion annually on imported champagne. The report published by Euromonitor International indicates that Nigeria is the second fastest growing market in the world with total consumption of premium champagne reaching 752,879 bottles in 2011, higher than the figures for Russia and Mexico. “Many of the global luxury brands have entered the Nigerian market,” Su Birch, CEO of WOSA, tells Euromonitor International, “and these include several famous-name spirits, as well as champagne brands whose products are being welcomed by the country’s affluent consumers.”

With our national economy sustained purely by rent as we continue to deceive ourselves that we are a rich country when we are actually poor, a few who come into stupendous (but largely unexplained) wealth now live large at the expense of the suffering majority. Not surprisingly, we now have a pervasive social tension that is now tearing us apart. When a society is weak in both empowerment and equality, when majority of the youth seem uncertain about tomorrow, people look for solutions where they do not exist. That explains why ethnicity and religion are today gaining currency. Yet whatever the story being peddled by those who profit from our failings, ethnicity is not our problem in Nigeria neither is religion: the real problem is the manipulation of those differences by a political and business elite whose vision of our society does not consist beyond the self.

If we extrapolate from Achebe’s story, it is easy to see that our nation is in a bind today because we have too many “snakes” in critical places and they are the ones to whom we have unwittingly handed the proverbial horses. Perhaps because we speak the same language with the “snakes” or profess the same faith with them or maybe we eat from the crumbs from their tables, we close our eyes to their inability (or contemptuous refusal) to properly ride the horses they actually hold in trust for us such that they now feel a sense of entitlement that the horses do in fact belong to them. The point often ignored, however, is that these “snakes” are not the exclusive preserve of any ethnic group. In Nigeria, these “snakes” abound everywhere: in the banking halls, in the newsrooms, in churches and mosques, on our campuses, in Abuja and states government houses, in the ruling and opposition parties as well as in the North and South of our geo-political divides.

If we must face the facts, these ubiquitous “snakes” thrive in our country and will continue to do so because the underpinning philosophy for our public sector has always been about “sharing the national cake”, rather than about baking the cake and what each would contribute to doing that. The private sector is also no better since it is tied to the patronage system that places little premium on hard work, creativity and integrity. In that kind of environment that is founded not on what each can contribute to the common pool but rather on the distribution of spoils, ethnicity and religion merely provide the leverage and the perverse incentive for people at the helm of affairs.

The question therefore is whether this society, or any society for that matter, can advance when it is almost taken as an article of faith that what you know should not determine your level of responsibility but where you come from; when the leadership elite seems clueless about what constitutes a good society and how to bring such about. And we are talking about an elite class that cannot rise “to the challenge of personal example”, to borrow Achebe’s words. But with so many things unravelling before our very eyes, it is evident, as Achebe pointed out in the above story, that at the fullness of time, that same narrative which provides entertainment for the haves would be a potent weapon in the hands of the have-nots who today seem helpless, hopeless and defeated. However implausible it may seem, that day of reckoning will come. Suddenly and without warning.

The vintage reaction to such an eventuality by a certain literary icon who has now joined his ancestors would probably be to mutter under his breath the Igbo saying: “Ana agwa ochi nti na agha esu” (No one needs tell even the deaf when matters come to a head). Goodnight, Chinua Achebe.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 28th March 2013

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