Prof. (Mrs.) Catherine Obianuju Acholonu is a Nigerian writer, researcher and former lecturer on African Cultural and Gender Studies. She was former Senior Special Adviser (SSA) to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Arts and Culture, and foundation member of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
What do you think will be the place of Chinua Achebe in Nigerian history?
Achebe knew that writing about the war would nose-dive his national image in a tribalistic Nigeria. I do not think he really wanted to write about the Nigerian civil war. Many of us who experienced the war find it hard to express. Besides, he didn’t want to be embroiled in the whole tribalistic problems of this country. But I think that when Chimamanda (Adichie), a very young woman who was not even born till over a decade after the war wrote so poignantly about the war, Achebe felt challenged to put those bottled emotions out. It must have been a very difficult decision for him to take. He knows Nigeria, and he knows that this is a country where the meaning of justice and equity is determined by the tribe of the person concerned vis a vis the person judging. Something is considered wrong in Nigeria if it is done by someone of another tribe, but right if it is done by a person of your own tribe. I experienced the civil war as a child, though not too young to be deeply affected by the hourly deaths around me and to the reason why we couldn’t get food and why no one came to our aid. My ideologist dad renamed our dog “Britain” and I know why. Clearly, Igbo people are very forgiving and long-suffering, but everything has its limits. No other ethnic group in Nigeria would be as calm as Ndi Igbo have been, if they experienced one tenth of what we went through. I saw how people (especially women and children) were dying like chickens in an influenza-infested poultry. There was no food. The most basic amenities were not anywhere to be found. We had no salt, no medicine, not the least sanitary facilities. Someone was dying around you, every hour. They would use rags and wrap the dead people and bury them sometimes six bodies inside one grave. Babies were looking like sticks. We were all living in the bushes because the air raids wouldn’t allow us to live inside our houses. I won’t forget one family called Nwakuna – a family of seven that was obliterated by one bomb. This thing is a thing you don’t talk about if you experienced it. I praise Achebe for daring to do it. I wasn’t a refugee because the war ended when they came to our place, but I pity the refugees who were moving from one town to another, and in every town they left something out of the few rags they might have taken hurriedly out of the last town they ran from.
Achebe’s account was too mild on Yakubu Gowon. I think he was more critical of Odumegwu Ojukwu. Yet you hear some Nigerians like Fani-Kayode and Nasir El Rufai, who did not experience the war, and perhaps were not yet born then, or did not bother to find out what really happened to their fellow human beings, abusing one of the greatest writers the world ever produced, simply because they were uncomfortable with the truth. Do they expect Achebe or any Biafran to lie about what happened to us? Do they expect us to play to their political gallery and pretend that 3.5 million people died because Odumegwu Ojukwu had food but wouldn’t give us children to eat? Besides, for these upstarts to have abused great statesmen they can never measure up to is not an act of strength, but the usual behavior of prodigals. It is the stock in trade of political jobbers in Nigeria. On the contrary it remains to be proved that any of these Achebe abusers can score a single meaningful international achievement to justify their talking where the likes of Chinua can talk. It is not you ability to insult your elders that will make you gain impetus and respect in your country; rather it is your ability to score greater achievements than your elders. These are people whom no one would ever have known, if not for government appointments. In a civilized society, Achebe’s account of the war would have inspired those Nigerians who did not know what their fellow Nigerians (innocent citizens who knew nothing of politics), went through simply because they found themselves on the wrong side of the divide. It does appear that Wole Soyinka is the only objective and detribalized Nigerian. So the answer to your question is that Chinua Achebe will not be a Nigerian hero. At best he will be another of Yakubu Gowon’s “rebels”. But then, what does a man who rejected Nigeria’s highest honour care about being a national hero in a country that honours ONLY tribal heroes and criminals? Nothing, if you ask me.
Do you think he knew what was going to happen before releasing “There Was a Country”?
Achebe was a prophet. Every great writer is a prophet. He knew what was going to be the reception for There Was a Country. And it was his last jab at the nation we call Nigeria. He anticipated all the main responses. I don’t know how General Yakubu Gowon (rtd) could have thought that he could successfully keep his tight lid on the smouldering injustice of the near-extermination of an entire tribe (I use the word tribe here because it better describes the fact that the whole war was hate-induced). Why did no one stop the massacres of the Igbo citizenry in the North in 1966? Why? The extermination of the entire male population resident in the Mid-West by the time the Federal troupes seized the place cannot be forgotten so soon by people from that part of the country. We have done denial for 43 years and now the new generation is asking questions. What will heal Nigeria is the truth and some mutual apologies to bereaved families for those massacres, including statesmen murdered in cold blood in the coups (which was definitely not planned by Igbo members of the military alone), not denial and the spewing out of more hate words.
Achebe rejected national awards. In his shoes, what would I have done differently?
In his shoes, maybe I would not have rejected the national award. Reason being that I am an incurable optimist. I still believe that Nigeria can be fixed. I would have taken the award and I would have used the opportunity to speak out my mind to the leaders and advise them to do better. You have to understand that Achebe had lived most years of his life abroad uninterruptedly for the over 25 years or thereabouts. He was a world hero and one of the most highly recognized and honoured writers on the planet. He could easily reject a national honour as a means of making an international statement to our leadership. I do not criticize his decision, because it was his calculated decision and it was right on target. But a woman’s response to a situation is never the same as a man’s. I would not have rejected the award.
What do think was his most enduring qualities?
Chinua Achebe was a very courageous man. I love people who exhibit courage and who take the bull by the horn, when the time calls for it. As the elder statesman, General IBB once said, a faulty action is better than none at all. Achebe’s gift of the use of the English language was unmatched. He was a seasoned orator, but what I love most was his use of language – any language, and his searing jokes. They are unforgettable. One of Achebe’s jokes can keep you laughing to yourself throughout your life.
What is Achebe’s most significant contribution to African and world literature?
His most significant contribution to literature is to have opened the portal for the West to become acquainted with the native wisdoms of the African continent. Secondly, and even more importantly, he made it possible for Africans to discover our own native or indigenous literary voice. But the all important place of our African idioms and oral traditions in world literature is yet to be realized.