GREATNESS is an attribute much in retreat in our society these days. But it is the quality that is imperative for a nation, for a people to make progress. Greatness is the depth of character that is unswayed by material attraction and superficial rewards, especially of the sort that is flaunted by persons of lesser pedigree, and craved by many, including sundry jobbers and petty crooks. Greatness is the strength to say no when everything and everyone else seems swept away by a certain madness that benumbs the senses. Greatness is the ability to look past the present and see beyond the future. It is the courage to envision a better society, to insist on what is right, on what is proper to realize that better society.
Such an attribute is all too evident in one wise old man, in our country. That man is Chinua Achebe, 81, master story teller, thinker, visionary, crusader, incurable optimist and fierce patriot. He loves his country to the extent he was willing to forego, for the second time, national honour, if only that would draw attention to the rot in our society, and set us thinking on the path to enthroning a better society. He was willing to suffer loss for the benefit of the many; to endure ridicule in the interest of general rectitude; to remain trenchant and even sound pedantic in the pursuit of the public good; to refuse, unlike many in our land, to give up hope that things can be better and that better things can happen here again; to continue to push back against time and nature, to refuse to take things a little easier, even in this his fading years.
Chinua Achebe shows us what is possible in our nation; that integrity, scarce as it now seems to be, is still present with us, and is still to be desired if this nation is to transit to a better society. The Guardian Editorial Board had no difficulty in unanimously singling out Chinua Achebe as the one man that had a lasting impact in our land, the one conscience of the nation, the one light that refused to go out. Hence, he is The Guardian’s Man of the Year. His illustrious story is well told by Dr. Odion Akhaine and Mr. Kunle Sanyaolu, members of the Editorial Board.
Eluem Emeka Izeze, Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief
Chinua Achebe: A Moral Voice In The Anthills Of Decadence
By Sylvester Odion-Akhaine and Kunle Sanyaolu
Choosing Albert Chinualumogu Achebe as The Guardian’s man of the year, 2011 was not a herculean assignment. He stands out so conspicuously as a representation of integrity, in a society that has largely succumbed to indecency and malfeasance of all sorts. His legendary literary prowess would perhaps have been a factor upon which to anchor his worth and benefit to Nigerians in particular, and mankind in general. For this, most people will remember that he has been around as an icon for at least 50 years. Like all great men however, Achebe did not see his literary ability as an end, but rather as a means to an end. He derives no joy in being celebrated in the midst of poverty and squalor endemic in his country, a fact that informed his decision to twice turn down national honour from the highest level of Nigerian government. This is honour that many citizens are prepared to acquire at any price. He makes no secret of his disenchantment with the country’s leaders and their recklessness in running the country. And one can say that he is particularly dismayed by the fact that Nigerians have no business being poor, or ranked among the lowliest of nations, with the abundance blessing nature has mercifully bequeathed to the country in all its facets and regions. Above all, Achebe has remained as a constant star in his advocacy for good governance in a country where majority of Nigerians will have access to the good things of life.
The man and his literary works are well-known. Some of them include Things fall Apart, (1958) No Longer at Ease (1960) and The Arrow of God (1964), Anthills of the Savannah (1988) and the short essay, Problem with Nigeria (1983). These works and many others are well talked about and have earned him many literary festoons. In 2007, he won the Man Booker Prize and was described by the South African writer and Nobel laureate in literature, Nadine Gordimer as “The father of Modern African literature”. Although, it is often difficult to separate the writers from the objective conditions of his society, the tendency is to assume that the writer lives in a world of dreams and fictions. To be sure, fictions are spawned from the objective realities of our world—call it an extension of reality. Literary realism demands that the writer mirrors the realities of his society, especially the subaltern classes who are the victims of a web of exploitative socio-economic and political relations. This engagement streams through the works of Achebe and are easily discernible by the cultivated reader. Claims about Achebe the activist would be denied by many. The truth is that Achebe is not just only a writer but also an activist who has been persistently seized of the Nigerian and African conditions. What is the Nigerian condition today?
Nigeria is best known by its many contradictions and ironies. It is rich but poor; it has oil but imports same; it has some of the best brains in the world but its education sector is in chaos; it has vast arable lands but imports its most basic foodstuff and its huge oil resources are misappropriated, wasted and looted by an immoral elite. The net effect of this elite irresponsibility is that over half a century of independence from colonial rule, the country is badly divided as ever unable to harness its strengths for the goal of nation building; its infrastructures are comatose and development is hardly on the agenda and government projections are all about future rents.
All around us are living relics of underdevelopment—Keke NAPEP, Okada, tokunbo cars and clothes passed as poverty alleviation policies. And across the country, sundry social vices preponderate. In the course of 2011, the country’s social misery deepened. A general election held amidst so many setbacks due to institutional weaknesses only tempered by the strong commitment of the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega. Still it was marred by process-rigging and other related electoral vices. Worst of all, carnage followed the outcome of the presidential polls won by the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. The terrifying bent to the carnage was that over a dozen serving National Youth Service Corps members were killed; and the import of their death was trivialised by a governor whose immediate reaction was that “they (corps members) were destined to experience what they experienced.”
The inauguration of a new helmsman for the country rather than inspire hope evinced a rudderless leadership and a bleak future. The country sizzled under a new form of social violence of serial bombing with a suicide streak, hitherto unknown. Notable public places such as the Nigeria Police Headquarters and the United Nations building both in Abuja, the seat of government, were bombed. The spate of terrorist act climaxed in the Christmas day bombing of a church in Niger State in which an estimated 43 lives were lost. The ethno-religious conflicts in Jos, Plateau State, did not abate and there was more bloodletting. Kidnapping for ransom remained a routine in most states of the federation and there was hardly any remarkable conviction of culprits. Take a look at other social indicators. The US-based Fund for Peace in collaboration with Foreign Policy Magazine using a set of indicators such as group grievance, uneven development, legitimacy of the state, public services, security apparatus and factionalised elites rated Nigeria 14th position among 177 countries evaluated by the organizations. Nigeria trailed along states like Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea, Pakistan, and Yemen. It would be recalled that international non-governmental organizations, such as Transparency International ranked Nigeria number one on the corruption index for about two consecutive years while the Human Rights Watch pointed up the country’s poor human rights record as well as the World Bank.
In the field of sports, especially football, once described by the Time magazine as the only thing that unites the country, it was also a dismal outing for the country in 2011. The “Dream Team V”, the Super Eagles and Super falcons could not qualify for major international competitions. So unsettling was this development that Samson Siasia was replaced with Stephen Keshi as the national coach. Indeed Nigeria will not attend this year’s Summer Games in London and Orange African Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea on account of the failure. Clearly, 2011 was a year of anguish and lamentations.
Whereas Nigerians expected leadership responsibility in tackling the numerous problems which confronted the country by a flinch of morality in the form of resignation by those who could not rise to the responsibility of their offices, it was not forthcoming. No minister resigned; no security chief resigned nor the president. It was business as usual. The national infamy was climaxed in self-glorification by the ruling elite which honoured themselves and their accomplices in the manhandling of the nation’s affairs. At the last count, about 360 persons were bestowed with varying national honours. The list was more of a role of dishonour, largely dominated as it were by charlatans interspersed by a few noble Nigerians among who was Chinua Achebe. Characteristically, he rejected the award of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), the country’s third highest honour on moral grounds. Achebe in a brief statement said: “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again.” It would be recalled that in 2004, he was offered the same national honoured by the Olusegun Obasanjo Administration and he equally turned it down. As he put it in statement:
“I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency. Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award. I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples. Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.” Although the presidency tried to controvert his reason as not in agreement with reality, it failed to convince anyone about its own perception of the Nigerian reality.
Morality, so scarce in the corridors of power, came from the literary icon, Achebe. Friedrich Nietzsche in his Beyond Good and Evil described moral codes as “sign language of emotion.” This Nietzschean conception unites with morality as a weapon of resistance against a decadent social order. Achebe’s singular act of rejecting a warped national honour relieves many Nigerians of the feeling of hopelessness, the de-sublimation of consciousness that pervades our social milieu. Secondly, it reminds us that the only guarantee for freedom is eternal vigilance and that morality is a strong weapon of resistance in the anthills of decadence which our country has become. This exemplary behaviour by Achebe sealed our choice of him as the man of the year. Societies that desire change and development need moral voices such that Achebe offered the country. His intervention came at a time the hard-won freedom of Nigerians were being rolled back, for example, through the de-registration of political parties contrary to the provisions of the basic laws of the country; as well as the ridiculing of the judiciary through the indiscreet suspension of The President of the Appeal Court, Justice Ayo Salami and against a backcloth of oil subsidy intrigues of abjection by the ruling clique against the people, many of who live on less than $2 a day.
Currently 81, Achebe is easily Africa’s most renowned novelist; he was born on November 16, 1930 at Ogidi, present-day Anambra State of Nigeria. He attended Government College; Umuahia between 1944 and 1947. As pioneer of the University College, Ibadan, he studied English, History and Religion and received the Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of London in 1953. He is a Professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. He has used his works as a cudgel against cultural imperialism, authoritarianism and corruption in Nigeria and the African continent. He has severally bemoaned the failure of leadership to seize historical opportunities to transform the country. Achebe’s intellectual contribution is monumental. In 1971 he became the founding editor of Okike, one of Africa’s most influential literary magazines, where a generation of Nigerian writers found a voice. He edited Okike as a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, United States from 1972-1976. His immense contribution to the reading culture in Nigeria is invaluable. Achebe was Series Editor of the Longman’s African Writers Series. Achebe is a recipient of several honorary doctorates and international literary prizes. He is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In a decadent society such as ours where virtues are lacking and elite malfeasance prevails, this man of letters stood out as a moral voice and conscience of the nation. We have no reservation whatsoever in choosing him as The Guardian man of the year, 2011.