Nigeria Matters

Achebe and The Company He Would Not Keep

In addition to being one of the world’s most extraordinary writers, Chinua Achebe – the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies and Literary Arts at Brown University – has long served as one of Nigeria’s most clear-minded voices of conscience. In a lot of ways, the author of, among other books, the classic Things Fall Apart has become a man of the Nigerian people – a voice for the millions of Nigerians betrayed, debased and dehumanized by the country’s cast of confused rulers, past and present.

In 2004, Achebe spurned a so-called national honor that then President Olusegun Obasanjo sought to give him. He realized that, coming from a presidency that was at odds with the aspirations of Nigerians, the “honor” was tainted. In a letter to Obasanjo declining the bestowal of the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), Achebe wrote: “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.” Then he added: “Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence.”

One of the most amazing things about those misgoverning Nigeria is their inability – or refusal – to learn from the past. Had Obasanjo quietly sent feelers to Achebe in 2004 prior to announcing the latter as a recipient of the CFR, he would have learnt that the author was far from impressed. He then would have saved himself the embarrassment of having his undesired gift thrown back at him.

Seven years later, President Goodluck Jonathan and his aides betrayed amnesia. Once again, Jonathan added the author on his list of more than 350 individuals on the 2011 edition of “national honors” roll. Given Achebe’s history of principled repudiation of questionable honorifics, you’d expect that Jonathan – or one of his aides – would have contacted him to ascertain his willingness to be included on the list of recipients.

There’s no question that Nigeria’s national honors register has been thoroughly cheapened, bastardized and drained of meaning. The annual conferral of national honors has become a farce, a charade that should provide great material for resourceful comedians. Each year, the list is dominated by men and women who have worked the hardest to undermine and destroy Nigeria. Many past and serving governors as well as ministers are insouciantly declared “Commander of the Order of the Niger” (CON), as if the Nigerian state stopped short of calling them by their proper names: con artists!

No Nigerian president has had the simple insight to halt the joke called national honors – until the country regains clarity on the distinction between honor and dishonor, heroism and villainy. If all the serving and ex-heads of state, governors, ministers, commissioners and top civil servants had rendered honorable service, Nigeria would not be in its present ghastly shape. So why persist in the mockery of venerating men and women who failed the nation?

Each year, a few truly honorable citizens are sprinkled into the fetid roster of honorees. These admirable recipients carry the burden of lending a smidge of legitimacy and credibility to the otherwise wishy-washy line-up. Still, these few good men and women pay a terrible price. In appearing in the midst of those who have sold Nigeria’s dream for their own profit, the few good ones risk being polluted and smeared. It is, then, akin to accepting a poisoned chalice. A man like Achebe knows better than to keep the company of fellows whose imagination is colored by lucre, and whose aspirations begin and end with primitive acquisitiveness.

In a country where men of questionable conduct and dubious credentials are garlanded, it’s hardly surprising that the Jonathan administration thought that anybody on their list would tremble with excitement. Perhaps it was this reason, or sheer arrogance, that accounted for their failure to find out if Achebe would accept their CFR. They paid for their lack of diligence.

Achebe has the magic flair of speaking volumes with the fewest of words. That attribute was displayed when, on November 12, he rejected Jonathan’s offer. This time around, his rejection letter contained three short, simple sentences: “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.”

Having received these chastening words, the presidency might have done some serious soul searching. Instead, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati rushed out a statement that combined incoherence and arrogance. Abati let us know that Jonathan still held Achebe in “very high esteem,” as if Achebe needed the imprimatur of presidential regard to retain his place as a patriot, writer and intellectual. Then there was the canard that Achebe’s rejection of the CFR “may have been borne out of misinformation as to the true state of affairs in Nigeria.” And then the spokesman drummed his employer’s alleged achievements as a champion of electoral reform.

Abati’s statement exemplified the profound alienation of those in power – a subject Achebe eloquently treated in his polemical book, The Trouble with Nigeria. That Abati and Jonathan would suggest that what happened in April this year constituted evidence of sound elections is disturbing. In retrospect, many Nigerians have come to realize that the ruling PDP simply deployed a new, more refined rigging technology to stun the opposition and befuddle the electorate. If Jonathan is the face of electoral reform, then Nigeria is more doomed than one ever suspected.

Even more scandalous is Abati’s recourse to a supercilious, pedantic tone in his statement. The suggestion that Achebe’s location abroad has robbed the author of correct information and perspective is at once foolish and misconceived. Any Nigerian can stay anywhere in the world – Siberia included – and get a fair measure of the state of affairs in her/his country. As far as information flow is concerned, the world has undergone a profound revolution. Abati must know that a man of Achebe’s stature has many ways of gathering information on any subject. The whole cult of “being on ground” is one of those facile treatises embraced by Nigerian officials who have little or nothing to show for all the nation’s resources at their disposal.

If Jonathan saw and approved Abati’s statement before it was issued, then Nigerians have cause to be deeply worried about their president’s sense of judgment. Rather than suggest that Achebe is less than soundly informed, Abati ought to realize that the globally famous author’s grasp of the text and context of Nigeria’s history far surpasses that of most Nigerians. If Abati is to properly serve Jonathan, he should first learn not to issue statements that come across as ludicrous.

Again, if officials of the government had a sense of history, they would have reckoned that the kind of glib, insolent response to Achebe was bound to backfire. And it did. The pathetic attempt to discredit the writer’s witness drew the attention of the international media. In numerous reports, print and electronic media around the world seized on the government’s reaction to underscore that Nigeria is besieged both by largely unchecked corruption and terrorist violence on a scale never before seen.

The Boston Globe even wrote a short, poignant editorial prai

sing Achebe’s stance. The paper wrote: “The revered Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe says there is a moral obligation ‘not to ally oneself with power against the powerless.’ The author of the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart recently lived up to his words once again by rejecting one of his nation’s highest civilian honors for the second time in seven years as a protest against public corruption. It’s an inspiring example of how an individual can use his fame to hold governments accountable.”

Those are resonant words – but Jonathan may choose to ignore them. Still, he would do well to take a peek for himself at the various online sites that carried Achebe’s rejection of his CFR. If he did, President Jonathan would find that Nigerian commentators on those websites are virtually unanimous in applauding Achebe’s decision to distance himself from the CFR. He would also realize that most Nigerians agree with Achebe’s assessment that the issues he articulated in 2004 had not been addressed.

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