What Chinua Achebe Wrote
By: Deji Yesufu
I will admit that I am about the last person to read “There was a Country” by Chinua Achebe. After publishing “Victor Banjo”, I realized that a sequel to that work was inevitable and I am in the middle of some researching towards that purpose. My research brought me inevitably to the desk of one of Nigeria’s leading literary figure and after reading this book by Achebe, I came to the conclusion that it was the most realistic and balanced work on the civil war that I have read. What I do not understand is the angst that greeted the publishing of the book. In fact, most of the reviews on the book were negative. Wole Soyinka, a friend of Achebe, and one whom Achebe wrote very glowingly about in the book, said this: “It is a book I wish (Achebe) had never written … There are statements in that work that I wish he had never made.” Wole Okunnuga drew my attention to why Kongi made that statement: it has something to do with what Achebe wrote; about the resentment of other tribes in Nigeria towards the Ibos in the years preceding the war. Those sentiments were expressed in the first part of the book, under a sub-section titled: “A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment”. I wish I could publish everything written in that section word for word but it will be practically impossible to do so in a blog like this. I will however quote copious parts of it here and try to draw out a conclusion around what and why Chinua Achebe wrote what he wrote.
“The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the White man’s dispensation. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.”
My question is: where is the lie here? Being quite a perceptive person myself, I have witnessed this resentment towards the Ibos myself. Even as an individual born in the mid-seventies, I have seen a certain despising of the Igbo man, not for any given fault that he has, but for merely being Igbo. Recently a discussion I was having with some women selling meat here in Ibadan touched on the question of who we were to vote for in the coming presidential election. When the name “Peter Obi” was mentioned, they all discarded the idea for the mere fact that he was Igbo. There are too many instances to enumerate here and we will not be sincere with ourselves if do not admit to the fact of the inert resentment of the Igbo man by other ethnic groups in Nigeria. People like Soyinka may be so advanced in their thinking to be beleaguered by such sentiments, but to say it is not a reality in the Nigerian national life is to be economical with the truth. Achebe continues:
“I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness. There is no doubt at all that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behavior that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.”
This is why I stated earlier that I think this book by Achebe sought to be balanced. He understood the tendency for his words to offend and offered a perspective to why his own people might have gotten things wrong and in the process court the hatred of other ethnic groups. A young Igbo boy came to Ibadan in the 1980s and apprenticed in the sale photography materials. After a few years, he got a tiny shop in the Dugbe area. With hard work and sheer doggedness, he was able to build a chain of shops, while diversifying into the new emerging world of computers. Today, that young man is the founder and chief executive officer of Citadel Computers with branches all over Nigeria. This is someone whose highest school certification is not more than Senior Secondary School. Rather than resent the can-do spirit of the Igbo man, other tribes in Nigeria can imitate it. Achebe adds:
“In most other nations the success of an ethnic group as industrious as the Igbo would stimulate healthy competition and a renaissance of learning and achievement. In Nigeria it bred deep resentment and both subtle and overt attempts to dismantle the structures in place for meritocracy in favor of mediocrity, under the cloak for a need for “federal character”… The denial of merit is a form of social injustice that can hurt not only the individuals directly concerned but ultimately the entire society. The motive for the original denial may be tribal discrimination, but it may also come from sexism, from political, religious, or some other partisan considerations, or from corruption and bribery. It is unnecessary to examine these various motives separately; it is sufficient to state that whenever merit is set aside by prejudice of whatever origin, individual citizens as well as the nation itself are victimized.”
Prof. Ogunsheye, in her book “A Break in Silence”, wrote about how the Igbos took advantage of the Ironsi government between January and July 1966, and began to install their kinsmen in public office. Ogunsheye, Victor Banjo’s elder sister, told the story of how she and some of her colleagues at the University of Ibadan were driving to Lagos during this time and how some Ibos among them were making statements about taking up the vast piece of uncultivated land mass between Lagos and Ibadan. She said she pointed out to them that though those lands were not cultivated, they still belonged to certain families. The tendency for the Igbo man to takeover is well documented in Nigerian annals and this must be shown to be their own archil heels.
Nonetheless, the point that Chinua Achebe is making here cannot be discarded. The British bequeathed a nation led by public servants who had attained office not by federal character but purely by merit. When Nigeria began to accept 140 in JAMB for people hailing from Northern Nigeria and insisting that except you had 240, as a student from Oyo State, you could not enter a federal university, Nigeria was upholding mediocrity as a standard. It is the reason why the civil service in this country is a complete joke. Most civil servants in this country add nothing to the system that employs them; they only wait out 30 days to earn an income and then wait out another 25 to 30 years in service and begin to collect pension. It is the reason why this country is not productive; why the latter generation are not producing jobs for the future generation to come into. It is the reason why power supply will never work in Nigeria. The people heading government parastatals in this country are mediocre!
There is such a thing as a national debate. It is the question of how do we bring the best minds to man our most sensitive offices. In another few months, Nigeria heads to the polls and money politics has again taken a center stage. The three leading presidential aspirants: Tinubu, Atiku and Obi, have their strengths and faults. But the faults of some are more obvious than the others. We cannot talk about these faults because we are told that the individual(s) is/are from a particular section of the country. We have a leading aspirant who cannot articulate a meaningful speech and we are being told that he is competent to vie for highest office in the land merely because he has money. Competency is continually sacrificed on the altar of ethnicity and religion in this country, and no country will make any progress in that manner.
Chinua Achebe died a year after his book “There was a Country” was published. It was his parting words to a nation he loves so dearly. I accept the fact that the book is not inerrant but the counsel given in it, when examined dispassionately and without prejudice, could chart out the path that this country requires to move forward.