It was a heroic funeral for late Professor Chinua Achebe as his body began its final journey from Enugu to his home state, Anambra, on Wednesday, May 22, in a convoy of about 20 vehicles consisting of Achebe family members, technical crew, medics, security men and a select group of literary journalists from Nigerian media houses, including this reporter.
Our convoy left the Golden Royal Hotel, Enugu, at 8.45 am, that day, with a security van with armed policemen leading the way and a black Mercedes Benz wagon carrying the body of the deceased literary icon, with the inscription “Chinua Achebe” following in its trail.
The news was in the air of the final flight of the eagle on the iroko, and many inhabitants of Enugu knew that the body of a great Nigerian personality was passing, as passersby starred and waved in awe as the convoy made its way through the busy Enugu morning traffic.
At 10. 39 am, the convoy stopped briefly at Amansea, the border town between Enugu and Anambra states, for a handover from Enugu State government officials to the Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, who was already waiting. A signboard at the Anambra State side of the border read “Chinua Achebe, Welcome Home, Our Great Hero”.
It was a mark of reverence for Achebe, as over a hundred vehicles and hundreds of anticipatory crowd struggled to have a glimpse of his corpse. Then Governor Obi moved over to the corpse and spoke in Igbo, “Nno”, meaning “Welcome”.
Moments later, the convoy, now joined by Governor Peter Obi’s, drove towards the state capital, Awka. Already, thousands of people from all walks of life had gathered at the Alex Ekwueme Sqaure, Awka, waiting patiently for the triumphant return of their hero. There were as many people seated as standing. It was as if the state capital were was shut down!
Together with Senator Chris Ngige, the Anglican Bishop of Awka, Rt. Rev. Alex Ibezim; and the Catholic Bishop of Awka, Bishop Ezeokafor; Governor Peter Obi received the body for lying in state at the Alex Ekwueme Sqaure. It was a bazaar of tributes, as speaker after speaker poured encomiums on Achebe. Speaking figuratively, Bishop Ibezim said, with the death of Achebe, things had fallen apart, and “On a day like this, we are not asking for the arrow of God, but the mercy of God.”
Achebe’s contemporary and a prominent writer, Professor Chukwuemeka Ike, said the Ogidi-born writer attained different heights in his lifetime. He said other surviving literary giants in Nigeria owe it to Achebe to produce more literary giants in the country.
The Senate Majority Leader, Ndoma Egba, who led the Senate delegation to the event, spoke glowingly of the author of Things Fall Apart among other classics, describing his life as exemplary.
In his tribute, Professor Laz Ekwueme, the Igwe of Okoh, who spoke on behalf of Anambra traditional rulers, said, though Achebe was not a king, there was no king that achieved Achebe’s fame in his lifetime.
ANA president, Professor Remi Raji, remarked that the Association of Nigerian Authors was proud to celebrate the mortality and immortality of a true African legend like Achebe, while Oby Ezekwesili, former Minster for Education, burst into tears while recounting the greatness of Achebe, a man of values, she said was a quintessential role model for the Igbo and Nigerians.
Likewise, Senator Ngige remarked Achebe was a great man in his lifetime, a man of truth, who, when other important people from Anambra State, kept mute in the face of presidential tyranny, stood up for the truth and condemned the political shenanigans in his native Anambra State during his tenure as governor, which led to his rejecting a national award given to him by then Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo.
Governor Peter Obi said, though Achebe was not a politician, his death reverberated across the world, with over 12 world leaders offering him condolences. “It is important that everybody should look at the life led by Achebe and emulate him,” he emphasized.
With the day far spent, Achebe’s remains departed Alex Ekwueme Sqaure at 4 pm for its final journey to his town, Ogidi, where he was received by his kinsmen. A writers’ soiree was held in his honour later in the evening at Ogidi.
Thursday May 24 was a day to remember in Ogidi. When Saturday Sun visited Saint Philips Anglican Church, Ogidi, at 8 am, where a funeral service was billed to hold in his honour, there was an air of ecstasy in the air. Security personnel –state security agents, soldiers, policemen and civil defence –were already stationed outside and within the church premises, scrutinizing every vehicle driving along the roads leading to the church and people trying to enter the church.
As early as 9 am, food vendors operating around the church vicinity had already ran out of stock, as the teeming crowd, who came from far and wide, ate off what they had in stock. At the only restaurant, about twenty metres from the church, that had food, patronizes had to make do with eating rice and garri without meat just to keep body and soul together. Sellers of calendars with Achebe’s pictures on it made brisk business.
If getting into the church premises for the funeral mass was a difficult task, getting into the church building itself was akin to climbing a mountain. Overzealous men of the Department of the State Security Service in front of the church building made sure that only 20 percent of people wishing to enter the church did. They insulted, abused and manhandled anybody without the tag “VIP”. Even Anglican bishops were not spared in their exuberance. The Abia State governor, Theodore Orji, was also embarrassed until Anambra State Governor had to come outside and plead with the SSS officials from Abuja to let some personalities. If Achebe was alive, he would have protested at that!
In attendance at the funeral service were the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, and his Ghanaian counterpart, John Dramani Mahama. Also present were former Nigerian Vice President, Alex Ekwueme; former Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyoku; Governors Emmanuel Uduaghan, Rochas Okorocha, Martins Elechi, Peter Obi, Senator Liyel Imoke and Theodore Orji. There were also the Minister of Labour, Emeka Nwogu; Minister of Foreign Affairs 1, Mrs. Viola Onwuliri; Deputy Speaker, House of Reps, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha; former governor of Anambra, Chief Emeka Ezeife, among other high profile dignitaries. The writers, Professor Chukwuemeka Ike and Capt. Elechi Amadi, were among notable literary icons present. No Yoruba nor Hausa professor was there.
For over an hour, surveillance choppers kept hovering in the air, preparatory to the arrival of President Jonathan, amid tight security. Late Achebe’s wife, Christie, rendered a soul-lifting song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as the funeral service began.
In a powerful sermon that shook the church, Dr. Ikechi Nwosu, Bishop of Aba Diocese, valorized the virtues and brilliance of the late literary icon, who, he said, the world drank from the cup of his knowledge, describing him as a parable of the Nigerian nation in many respects: intellectual, social and religious. Though he had died, the bishop said he would continue to live with his works. Despite his crippling condition, he said Achebe continued to blossom in intellect and relevance to Nigeria and the world.
In her remarks, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Viola Onwuliri, said Achebe was a Nigerian diasporan per excellence, who showed the world that “you can come from a village in Ogidi and become great”. She was also enchanted that Achebe was a powerful public relations icon for Nigeria, for “throughout his life, he made Nigeria an African story told round the world.”
Speaking on behalf of the elders of Anambra, Emeka Anyaoku said Achebe gave Africa confidence with his writings, comparable to what obtained after the renaissance period in Europe. The Achebean legacy, he said, would serve Nigeria and Africa to eternity, just as he noted that “Achebe was an ambassador extraordinary.
Scores of Government College, Umuahia, Old Boys Association, including Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike and Laz Ekwueme, dazzled the congregation with a song rendition of their alma mata that lasted minutes.
Ghanaian President, Mahama, was also full of encomiums for Achebe, a writer he greatly admired. He expressed delight at the benevolent nature of the deceased writer, who dignified him by reading his manuscript and endorsing it, which made it to be published by Bloomsbury, USA. He regretted that he was just getting acquainted with Achebe at the sunset of his life, a writer who made it possible for Africans to embrace their destiny.
President Jonathan, said, in his speech, that he never had the privilege of meeting Achebe in his lifetime, but he was enamoured of his life as a philosopher, who used literature to pass across his loft ideas. As a man of principle, he said Achebe stood up against corruption in his writings. He pledged to rebuild the Ogidi primary school, where Achebe had his primary education, in collaboration with the Ghanaian president, Mahama.
At 3.30 pm, Achebe’s body was driven to his compound at Ogidi, where he was buried moments later. For a man, who led a life of purpose, what a most befitting funeral!