Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Essence of Achebe

News of Chinua Achebe’s passing struck me with a deep sadness; a sense that an era of Nigerian history is closing and that the guiding lights in the night sky of our national odyssey are dimming. The imagery is of a boat being set adrift from its trusty anchors. Achebe was one of those anchors.

Achebe did not stumble upon his craft by accident. He was initially admitted into the University of Ibadan on a scholarship to read medicine before electing to study English Literature, History and Religion instead. His decision cost him the scholarship but gained him his true vocation. He once declared that his calling as a novelist was “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” Interestingly, the author most acclaimed as his natural successor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, trod a similar path, leaving the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after a year and a half of studying medicine, to pursue her calling in writing. Finding one’s true place in the world often requires us to sacrifice the certainty of the popular paths to prestige and worldly wealth.

Christopher Okigbo the poet, Wole Soyinka the dramatist and Chinua Achebe the novelist constituted the literary trinity of their generation, all maestros in their chosen domains of artistic expression. Their travails at the hands of the state typified the perpetual battle between the realm of power and that of ideas. Okigbo took up arms for Biafra and was killed during the civil war, a death which deeply wounded Achebe. Soyinka, who had embarked upon a personal peace mission to the separatist regime in Biafra in 1967 in a bid to avert the war, was arrested by the Gowon regime and spent most of the war period in jail. In later years, he would flee into exile to escape the death squads of the Abacha junta. Achebe narrowly escaped assassination in the 1960s by forces who believed that his novel A Man of the People, which predicted the overthrow of the First Republic, indicated his complicity in treasonable activities. He was a Biafran functionary during the war. In 1990, a car accident in Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist down. Subsequently, he relocated to the United States where he held a teaching appointment until his passing last week.

Oddly enough, my first encounter of Achebe was not Things Fall Apart, the iconic novel and his best known work which earned him international repute and has been translated into dozens of languages. It was The Trouble with Nigeria, a stirring 1983 polemic brimming with righteous indignation at what his country had become. It was a searing indictment of his generation and his forebears and, as a work of social criticism, is startlingly relevant to our current struggles even though it was written thirty years ago. “We have lost the twentieth century,” he fumed; “Are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first?” Soyinka would echo Achebe’s words in a 1984 essay in which he famously described his generation as a “wasted generation.”

I watched Things Fall Apart at about the same time that I read the book. The 1986 TV series produced by Godwin Ugwu and directed by David Orere is still one of the best Nigerian gifts to the small and big screen. It starred Pete Edochie as the tempestuous Okonkwo and Justus Esiri as his best friend, the sober and sagely Obierika. It is perhaps another portent of an ending era that Esiri passed away almost exactly a month before Achebe.

Achebe’s true gift was prophetic; an ability to tap into currents in the nation’s soul and scrawl her agonies in compelling stories and commentaries. It is a mark of how acute his powers of observation and identification as a writer were that his works possessed a predictive quality about them. Things Fall Apart portrayed the fateful clash of civilizations between a pristine Africa and the West in Okonkwo’s ultimately futile struggle against the Her Majesty’s imperial juggernaut. His subsequent works followed the arc of our colonial and post-colonial traumas. A Man of the People which depicted the greed and power-drunkenness of the post-colonial political class prophesied and coincided with Nigeria’s first military coup d’etat.

In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe declared “Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage; and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed.” Within months of the book’s release, the Second Republic had been overthrown by the military. Buhari’s incarceration of Second Republic politicians drew qualified praise from Chinua Achebe who saw it as “a new element in the political culture. Things can never be the same again.” Even so, he expressed misgivings about “the arbitrary and extreme way Buhari handled the matter.” Two hundred-year jail terms were absurd “but the idea that somebody could go from state house to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is extremely important. And it is an idea that ought to live in the consciousness of our people whether they are going to be leaders or the led.”

Anthills of the Savannah showed up the venality of Africa’s big men and the phoniness of their messianic claims. Released in 1987, Achebe told us that we had erred in placing our faith in military dictators. He was proved right by Ibrahim Babangida’s convoluted and ultimately fruitless transition programme and his successor Sani Abacha’s bestial tyranny. Achebe’s response to the return to civil rule in 1999 was a cautious optimism borne of a life time of bearing witness to serial abortions of promise and the chronic perfidies of political elites. His caution was vindicated. He rejected offers of national awards by Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 and Goodluck Jonathan in 2011.

In the first instance, he was protesting against Obasanjo’s anti-democratic habits and his state-sponsored assault on the government of Achebe’s home state, Anambra. In the second, he said that the circumstances that had informed his first rejection seven years earlier had not changed.  In both cases, Achebe refused to negotiate compromises with his values and stayed true to his ideal of the writer as social conscience. Clad in the armour of his graceful candour and intellectual honesty, Achebe was invulnerable to the barbs of government hacks.

His last work, There was a Country, a civil war memoir released last year, is often described as his most controversial book. In it, he accused the Nigerian state of genocide against the Igbos during the civil war. He had harsh words for Obafemi Awolowo whom he deemed an Igbophobe and spoke vaguely of an Islamo-jihadist conspiracy against Biafra. In fact, Achebe had made essentially the same comments about Awolowo in The Trouble with Nigeria in which he also issued lacerating criticisms of Nnamdi Azikiwe. Laced with his personal experience of the civil war, and the threats to his life and that of his young family, There was a Country is understandably charged with emotion but also with Achebe’s customary penetrative intelligence. The vitriolic reaction to the book in some quarters, including from some who freely admitted that they had not even read it, said less about Achebe than it did about the anemic condition of public discourse in Nigeria, especially the triumph of ad hominem illogicality over reason and civility.

While I disagreed with some of his conclusions, I recognized that the work was a personal testament crafted to memorialize his own experiences rather than an attempt to fashion an objective historical record. Achebe did not seek to write with the clinical detachment of an impartial scholar but with the raw emotional depth of a scarred participant-observer. Its personal bias did not detract from the work but merely emphasized that the post-civil war generation cannot base its grasp of history on one writer’s recall. For Achebe’s There was a Country, one should read Ken Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain to see how two writers can interpret the same event differently, and more importantly, how writers can offer only pieces of the puzzle of our past. The more pieces we gather, the more informed we are.

Like Achebe and Okigbo, Saro-Wiwa had finished from Government College, Umuahia before proceeding to the University of Ibadan. During the civil war, he had served as the federal administrator of Bonny in the belief that his Ogoni homeland would not be served by being a part of Biafra. In later years, he became an advocate of autonomy for minority ethnic groups and a critic of military rule even and was executed by the Abacha regime in 1995.

It is worth noting that figures like Raph Uwechue, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ukpabi Asika and MCK Ajuluchukwu issued very different views on the civil war that did not levy blame on Awolowo or alleged jihadists but considerably on the Biafran leadership itself. To assume that Achebe’s book is some kind of definitive bible of the civil war is to misrepresent both the work and his motive for writing what is a personal perspective on a harrowing period.    

Regardless, Achebe’s overarching theme in his last work was a heartfelt frustration with Nigeria that was itself deeply Nigerian. His charge of genocide against the Gowon regime called attention to the inhumanity of the post-colonial state and to our own tendency to amnesia. “Nigerians laugh at tragedy,” he once said by way of rebuke. At a time when we have become desensitized to violence and shrug off mass slaughter wrought by terrorists as a tragic normalcy, Achebe called attention to the slow hemorrhaging of our humanity. He was calling us to empathy. His urgent prescription – that Nigeria abandon the doomed infatuation with mediocrity that holds her in bondage and enthrone a meritocracy especially in her leadership selection – is undeniably our country’s path to salvation.

Achebe followed his activist instincts into Second Republic politics where he joined Mallam Aminu Kano’s People’s Redemption Party along with Arthur Nwankwo, Uche Chukwumerije (like Achebe, former Biafran functionaries), Soyinka and other intellectuals. The choice of teaming up with a Northerner who had served on Gowon’s war cabinet during the civil war was all the more significant at the time because most Igbo elites were in the ruling National Party of Nigeria (which the Biafran war leader Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu returned from exile to join) or the Nigerian Peoples’ Party led by Nnamdi Azikiwe.  Achebe penned a moving tribute to Aminu Kano, “a saint and a revolutionary” whom he admired for his complete identification “through struggle with the fate of the downtrodden…. Nigeria cannot be the same again because Aminu Kano lived here,” he wrote.

It is part of the pathology of our public discourse that different groups seek to appropriate national icons and induct them into ethnically-exclusive pantheons. Through this vain and narrow-minded sense of ownership, we shrink national heroes into the parameters framed by our prejudices. Achebe’s legacy defies such efforts. He was unabashedly Igbo but his interests were broadly humanist, African and undisputedly Nigerian. As he put it, “Nigeria is where God in his infinite wisdom chose to plant me.” He retained a thoroughly tested faith in Nigerian exceptionalism; a fervent belief that the country has been marked out by providence for leadership and was being subverted by mediocre leaders.

For those who have surrendered to millennial despondency and fatalism about Nigeria’s prospects and see an apocalyptic revolution as the only way out, Achebe offered perhaps his most important message in Anthills of the Savannah: The sweeping, majestic visions of people rising victorious like a tidal wave against their oppressors and transforming their world with theories and slogans of a new heaven and a new earth of brotherhood, justice and freedom are at best grand illusions. The rising, conquering tide, yes; but the millennium afterwards, no! New oppressors will have been readying themselves secretly in the undertow long before the tidal wave got really going. Experience and intelligence warn us that man’s progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it.  

In other words, there will be no miracle cures or quick fixes; only generations expanding the frontiers of our collective possibilities slowly and agonizingly, inch by tortuous inch, confronting charlatans and power-mongers with the weapons of truth and imagination. Creative writers matter in this regard because, as the Zikist politician Adegoke Adelabu once wrote, “Truth stands no chance of receiving an audience unless it is clothed in fashion, adumbrated in novelty, adorned in sensationalism and enthroned on the pedestal of originality.” Or as an Achebean character tells us, Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control; they frighten all usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”

The luminaries of generations past are leaving us in droves – Cyprian Ekwensi, Stanley Macebuh, Claude Ake, Bala Usman, Gani Fawehinmi, etc. Soyinka and his surviving peers are lions in winter but the grizzled Nobel laureate still steadfastly registers his presence at the barricades when it is needed. At a time when the avatars of mediocrity appear to have permanently installed themselves in the sanctums of power while subverting the possibility of collective action with sectarian rhetoric, the duty of speaking truth to power and reaffirming our shared humanity has never been greater. We must engage in what Achebe called “the patriotic action of proselytizing for decent and civilized political values.” Achebe left us a great literary and moral inheritance. We can only begin to repay the debt we owe him to future generations by inaugurating our own chapter of the struggle that he so valiantly engaged in. 

All images sourced online. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Oracle's Passage

(For Chinua Achebe 1930 – 2013)

Your quill kept its strength to the very end
Goodbye, silvery gong
Farewell, tireless crier
Teller of tales and unsubtle truths

Valiant scribe, thank you for your screams
That shrilly bore witness to our trouble
For the persistent scrawl
That set forth our forgotten dreams
For the ceaseless screech of conscience
That told us our homestead was not at ease
For the straightness of your arrow
That found no tin gods to appease
For troubling the sirened bearers
Of fat yams and rusty knives
For the purposeful words that offered elegant meaning
To the mystery of ordinary lives

Your centre held in spite of the widening gyre
Fare thee well, earnest traveller
Find rest in the hallowed chambers
In the embrace of true immortality

(image sourced from

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jonathan, Boko Haram and the Amnesty Question

Two weeks ago, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III proposed that the federal government issue an amnesty to Boko Haram insurgents as a means of restoring peace to the troubled North. President Goodluck Jonathan dismissed the proposal, insisting that Boko Haram militants remain anonymous “ghosts” and so cannot be negotiated with. Predictably, a polemical crossfire has ensued between those for and against the amnesty proposal.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the president’s parley with Borno community leaders during his visit to Maiduguri was the latter’s reluctance to unequivocally condemn Boko Haram’s murderous campaign. The Borno leaders’ argument essentially was that the president could unilaterally end the violence by making peace overtures to the terror group. Since Boko Haram has consistently rejected such peace overtures and continues its terror campaign, offering an olive branch including a general amnesty would amount to surrendering to the group.
The clamour for any quick fix solution to the insurgency also corresponds with the unwillingness or incapacity of several commentators to properly situate Boko Haram, preferring instead to see it as an aberrant monstrousity that just suddenly emerged out of the ether. In fact, the group is the latest evolutionary stage of the spate of sectarian convulsions that began with the Maitatsine uprisings in 1980. The long history of sectarian violence in the North is rooted in an explosive mix of political misrule, poverty, an opportunity deficit for the young and Islamo-populism purveyed by duplicitous politicians and hate-spewing clerics.
Successive regimes paid little attention to the implications of a burgeoning underclass that had no means of social mobility and was feeding on increasingly extremist (neo-Wahhabi) variants of Islam. Indeed, as long as this underclass draped their rage in religious metaphors and aimed it at Christians, southerners and other minorities, Northern political leaders seemed content to hold their peace.
In Boko Haram, we have the first fruits of a generation raised in a culture of hate; one in which religious violence was normative and the destruction of infidels was tolerated by political authorities. The group’s omnivorous violence which claims both Christians and Muslims does not make it an outlier but a Frankenstein mutation of long existing tendencies. Indeed, because Boko Haram, as conceived by its founder Mohammed Yusuf, is fundamentally a revolt against the Northern ruling class which it deems an apostate caste corrupted by godless westernism, northern elites were forced to sit up and take notice. Some have tried to co-opt the group; others have towed the line of political correctness in order to survive the group’s wrath. Burdened by guilt and the need to stay alive, many northern elites have opted for appeasement.
By winking at, and in many instances rhetorically fuelling, religious violence, northern elites fostered the tragic impression of the North as a feral wasteland patrolled by murderous zealots – an impression which Boko Haram is now stamping indelibly in the international consciousness. This is, of course, a caricature. But in our mediocre times, caricatures and stereotypes often shape public opinion and policy. The equivocation of northern elites in condemning violence also serves to fortify this caricature.
The Sultan’s amnesty proposal also stems from the war-weariness that has set in after two full years of battling Boko Haram, as well as the death and destruction that the conflict has inflicted on affected communities. Maiduguri is a bleeding, broken shell of itself reeling from both terrorist outrages and the heavy-handedness of the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). Parts of Northern Nigeria are directly suffering the disruption of economic and social life by the insurgency. The whole country is suffering by extension as it now makes the international news headlines as an outpost of anomie. There is almost a hint of Stockholm syndrome in the way some Borno elites have cast the JTF as the enemy and demanded its withdrawal rather than the insurgents holding their communities hostage. This is understandable. Borno and other afflicted areas desperately require respite and have been failed by a federal administration that has shown insufficient empathy.

Not Everything is Jonathan’s Fault

But fairness demands that we apportion blame in the right quarters and in the right measure. The much maligned JTF troops are prosecuting a difficult assignment in a treacherous operational environment at great risk to themselves and far from the comfort of their families. Many of them have paid the supreme price in the line of duty. While any unprofessional conduct must be condemned and dealt with, they deserve praise for their courage and sacrifice, which the president noted. Without their presence in Borno and Yobe, those states would have been overrun by insurgents.  
Borno and the North have been failed, above all, by their own leaders. These leaders were distinctly missing or silent when the culture of violence was being nurtured in their communities; when social capital depleted so totally that a generation fell into the hands of extremists; when leading local politicians initiated unemployed youths into a life of brigandage; when hoards of almajiri multiplied filling slums and ghettoes; and when lives, property, and worship places were periodically destroyed in waves of religiously-inspired rioting. Even now, these leaders have presented no plan to rescue the region from anarchy. They have offered no plans to invest massively in education and social infrastructure and offer hope to millions of hopeless youth that constitute a near infinite pool of potential recruits for extremists.
Last year, Zamfara spent 2.7 billion naira on Ramadan gifts, an investment of doubtful consequence, given the educational, infrastructural and social deficits of the state. This typical recourse to Islamo-populism at the expense of tackling real problems makes it difficult to take northern elites seriously when they talk of northern poverty. Yet, only the people of Zamfara can affect the state’s fiscal choices. Even if the state government decided to spend its entire budget on pilgrimages and festive gifts, it would still be down to Zamfara people to raise their concerns, if any, about the value of such expenditures. This illustrates the parlous state of civil society in many Northern states and the politico-religious manipulation of people who are vulnerable because of their impoverishment.
In our federal system, states are responsible for their own fiscal priorities. Those who blame the federal government must recognize the incongruence of simultaneously seeking more federalism (which means more powers for states) and more federal activism. It is all too easy to blame the federal government for every crisis while states are left off the hook.

The Trouble with Jonathan’s Counter-Terrorism Plan

However, the federal government is scarcely faultless. Jonathan’s response to the Sultan was rife with dissembling. He cavalierly described Boko Haram as unknown “ghosts” even though his administration has admitted after a tortuous tangle of denial and obfuscation that it was engaged in back-channel negotiations with the group. In December 2011, Jonathan claimed that Boko Haram had infiltrated his administration. (On hindsight this statement was calculated to polarize and distract the public ahead of his removal of fuel subsidy.) These statements suggest some knowledge of who the “ghosts” are. In January, while talking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Jonathan flippantly dismissed the idea that poverty is a factor in the Boko Haram insurgency, betraying a lack of analytical rigour in his own grasp of a crucial national security situation.
More pertinently, the administration apparently has no broader strategy for dealing with the insurgency beyond militarization. Troops can only contain violence long enough for political leaders to initiate remedial economic, social and political measures. The administration has burdened the military with the patently impossible task of wiping out an insurgency without taking steps to address the circumstances that created the insurgency in the first place. The counter-insurgency campaign evidently has no psychological operations unit aimed at countering extremist teachings and winning hearts and minds. A relief and reconstruction fund for Borno and Yobe would not have been out of place and Jonathan could have announced this during his Maiduguri visit to bring some succor to the suffering.   
There is no indication of what the administration intends to do with the scores of Boko Haram suspects already in custody, how they are to be processed in order to punish the guilty and avoid miscarriages of justice, and whether there is any mechanism for separating hard core ideologues from mules, or whether there is any planned deradicalization programme for the mules who are not yet beyond salvage. The administration should have fast tracked trials of terror suspects and their high profile confederates in order to avoid a situation where they become bargaining chips. The administration has also not seen fit to address reported acts of misconduct and human rights violations by security forces in Maiduguri. Early in this administration, there was a sense that senior officials saw Boko Haram as a mascot of northern opposition to Jonathan or were indifferent to northerners blowing themselves up. Only when the group struck in Abuja did the administration seriously begin updating its counter-terrorism capacities.

What about an Amnesty?

Jonathan was virtually shamed into visiting Maiduguri a fortnight ago after the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) had met there without fear. Yet both visits seemed more about political theatrics. Opposition partisans who delight in casting Boko Haram as a problem of the ruling People’s Democratic Party should remember that Borno and Yobe have been run by the opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party since 1999. The ANPP’s flagrant use of Islamo-populist rhetoric and Sharia politics in the early 2000s helped create the conditions that fostered Boko Haram. For all its bluster, the APC itself has offered platitudes but no plan or programme for ending the insurgency. Cheap politicking has obscured serious debate.
Beyond histrionics, we need to have a less emotive and more reasoned discourse. An amnesty proposal cannot be written off as absurd because a precedent has already been set with the amnesty for Niger Delta militants. But the efficacy of an amnesty in ending violence is yet to be conclusively established. In the Niger Delta, onshore militancy has decreased but oil theft and piracy have increased. The military remains stationed there indicating the federal government’s doubt as to the degree to which militant gangs have disarmed. These militants always seemed more like capitalist bandits seeking economic concessions and therefore more likely to lay down their arms if they were “bought.” In this sense, the amnesty programme is an extortionate welfare scheme for angry young men, many with blood on their hands. Whether this “peace” in the Niger Delta will endure once the flow of federal largesse is turned off remains to be seen.  
In Boko Haram’s case, rewarding mass murder with a blanket amnesty makes no moral or political sense and only opens the door for more people to see violence as a means of acquiring economic power and political relevance. Furthermore, Boko Haram, a group now splintering into factions like Ansaru, is not a cohesive union of mass killers that can be negotiated with in the same way that you would in an industrial dispute. Without a central command and control structure, it is more an amorphous movement. There is no indication that the faction that recently called for a ceasefire is the dominant faction. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau has serially rejected peace overtures, recently denied any ceasefire agreement and is known to sanction executions of the more “dovish” elements in his ranks. A week ago, Ansaru slaughtered seven foreign hostages that it had been holding for several weeks. The murder of those hostages represents an eloquent response to the Sultan’s amnesty proposal.
 Offering an amnesty in these circumstances, especially where federal authorities have yet to neutralize the flow of arms into Nigeria, is a white flag of surrender to psychopathic anarchists. A state simply cannot imply that its citizens can be murdered with impunity and their murderers can then be amnestied as if nothing happened. The slain (including civilians, troops and security agents) and their survivors demand justice. And if such an amnesty were issued, the emergence of groups seeking vengeance on ex-Boko Haram militants cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, an amnesty cannot replace the need for governance and developmental deliverables in ailing communities. Politicians need not wait for insurrections to start before doing their jobs.


After two years of remorseless conflict with a steep cost in blood, tears and treasure, an understandable war-weariness has set in. But insurgencies cannot be killed off with quick fixes especially when they are deep rooted. Maitatsine emerged in 1980, was crushed that same year in Kano, and yet staged sporadic revolts in different states until 1985. Boko Haram is better resourced than Maitatsine, has access to better technology and the Nigerian state is weaker and her military smaller than it was in the early 1980s. This will take time. Even if Boko Haram suddenly expired today, as long as the socio-economic indices remain unchanged, we would be contending with another, better organized insurgency within a decade from now.
Finally, there seems to be a misguided notion that merely announcing an amnesty will switch off terrorism like a battery-operated toy. Those who seek a return to “peace” and “normalcy” need to review their presumptions. If by “peace” they are referring to the pre-2009 era of sporadic sectarian clashes, millions of destitute children placidly swarming northern cities in escalating beggary while the idle rich cavort in palatial mansions, they are sorely mistaken. All students of conflict understand how a pre-existing structural violence can be garbed in “peace” and “normalcy” until it matures into armed insurgency. The class contradictions of the north have reached a critical mass and the spirit of militant discontent is now abroad. Only honest, responsible and reasoned politics can dispel it. 

(All Images sourced online.)