The Trouble With Chinua Achebe

Guest Columnists

Aging writers are generally expected to write autobiographies that sum up their writing careers, experiences that, hopefully, could guide future writers in the writing arts.

 In that light, many have been waiting for Chinua Achebe, one of the first two writers (the other is Wole Soyinka) of note that Nigeria produced, to write his autobiography. Thus, when finally the man wrote one many pounced on it. Instead of sharing his wisdom with would be writers, apparently, Achebe decided to flicker out with a rain of abuses for those he imagined are his enemies, Nigerians.

 Many have written reviews of Chinua Achebe’s “There was another Country”. It seems superfluous to writer another review of this interesting book; one cannot possibly add anything new to the reviews already written? 

 In so far that there is something to be clarified it is this: Achebe is a fiction writer, not a historian.  He would have served his craft well if he just did another fiction story based on the Nigerian civil war (he had already written many books based on the Nigerian civil war).  But he strayed to writing history, an area he is not well equipped to write on.

 There are many ways to write history. One is what historians do when they write history of nations with written material. They study written documents and from them draw inferences that most rational persons would agree are the correct inferences to be drawn from such documents.  At the end of their books they cite their sources for all interested persons to go and verify where they got the information on which they based their observations and analyses. 

The other way of writing history is when folks write about stateless people who had not developed the art of writing hence do not have official documentation of their deeds.  Here, history becomes archeology and anthropology. Historians here search for any information on a preliterate people and club together whatever can be considered objective information about the people. Stories written about events that took place in sub-Saharan Africa before Africans encounter with literate Arabs and Europeans are at best good guesses by historians; they are not real history in the sense that they can be verified. The same is true for any thing written about, say, England , before the Romans brought writing to that emerald island.

Achebe forgot that he was writing about Africa with written records.  There is ample documentation of what transpired in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970, the era of the Nigerian unrest that Achebe was writing about.  Whatever he said could be fact checked, verified or found as not based on facts.

Apparently, Achebe was not interested in facts. What Achebe did was provide his opinions on events that took place during the period in question without bothering to give the reader the opinions of those who disagree with him, the opinions of those on the other side to the civil war.  For some reasons, he assumed that his reader would be so simplistic as to accept his opinion as facts and leave it at that.  Apparently, he has such grandiose opinion of his expertise and authority that he assumed that folks would accept something just because he said so.  

Poor devil; apparently, no one told him that fiction writers are seen as what they are, creative folks with fertile imaginations who can come up with all sorts of imaginary scenarios and write them in such a manner that folks find them entertaining reading. Folks know that real life is not art, life is not fiction. The world we live in does not fit the artistic creation of literary writers. In the real world things are not exactly black and white; they are complex and complicated. Folks look for grey areas in a situation where the truth is not easily ascertained.

In the real world when there is a civil war historians examine the motives and behaviors of the parties to the war.  They do not just tell us one side’s story and assume that they have written history.  No such book would be published as history, fiction, may be.

Achebe gave us his and some of his fellow Igbos perspectives on the Nigerian civil war.  It is interesting to hear their perspective but the reader is not under the delusion that he is reading the truth. 

 What is the truth, if I may ask?  Is the truth what Achebe says that it is? Is the truth what Igbos say is the truth?  Since when have one people determined the truth?

Generally, the truth lies somewhere in between what combatants say it is.  Achebe presented his perception of the truth and did not tell us what Nigerians believe is the truth. The truth probably lies in between what Igbos and other Nigerians say is the truth.

Generally, history is left to future generations to write it. This is because those involved in making history are hardly objective to write about it. When actors in a war write about the war they generally write it from their biased perspectives.  Perhaps, this is fine for it enables us to understand why they justified going to war.  But we are not then under the illusion that we actually know why they went to war or that the war is justified.

Chinua Achebe is an Igbo.  He was born in a town called Ogidi, which is about six miles from Onitsha . He was born in 1930.  This means that he was born in Africa when the British colonials were just penetrating interior Africa .

 The British undertook to colonize Nigeria around 1900. They did not penetrate interior Alaigbo until much later than 1900. In so far that there was British presence in Alaigbo during this period it was mainly from Christian missionaries. 

 Simply stated, Chinua was born in almost pristine Alaigbo, Igbo land not much contaminated by Western cultural influence. In childhood, he was socialized to unspoiled Igbo traditional culture. He was then exposed to missionary education. After attending secondary school at Umuahia (a school built by the colonial masters…Achebe’s Igbos did not have schools where formal schooling took place), he wound up in the first university built by the British to educate their Nigerian subjects, the University of Ibadan . 

Achebe studied English. In 1958 he wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart. That book, apparently, was semi-autobiographical, telling the reader about how Achebe’s fictional grandfather, Okonkwo reacted to the incoming British colonizers. He followed that book with another semi autobiographical novel, No Longer at Ease, telling the reader about how a Western educated Igbo (himself) dealt with the mix of Igbo and Western culture confronting him; he was particularly interested on how such an educated person dealt with sordid aspects of Igbo culture, such as the Osu phenomenon.

Achebe wrote other novels; it is safe to say that most of them are autobiographical!  The man, apparently, is preoccupied with himself and writes books centered on how he sees things.  Achebe was never able to disengage from himself and provide what we might call objective analysis of the situation he found himself in.

Achebe is a pure Igbo man.  He embodies all that is good and bad in the Igbo. The Igbo are hard working, ambitious and driven to succeed. Achebe worked very hard and apparently succeeded as a story teller.

 Unfortunately, he also evinces those aspects of Igbo character that other people consider as negative but that Igbos for some reasons do not see as such.

Other people see Igbos as proud and arrogant; they see them as feeling superior to other people. More importantly, other people see Igbos as those people who believe that they are always right and that other people are always wrong.

In this book, Achebe essentially saw most actions by Igbos as right and saw what other Nigerians did as wrong. 

It did not occur to him that this is a rather childish assumption to make.  At age 82 he has lived long enough to understand that other people also believe themselves to be right in their perception of reality. It is not only Igbos who are right! In a world where all people claim to be right we therefore do not know who is right! Perhaps, no one is right?

 In the book, Achebe told us that he worked for the Biafran Ministry of Information and told us what the ministry did, which included writing speeches for Ojukwu to read (apparently, Ojudkwu did not know how to write his own speeches and this probably accounts for his reluctance in writing his memoir of the war).  The ministry of information acted as a propaganda organ for the Biafran leader. 

 In Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels headed the ministry of information and propaganda and dished out whatever information he believed served the Nazi course.  No one expected Goebbels to be objective and tell the truth. By the same token, Achebe and his ministry spread propaganda that served their course. They had to persuade their people to go to war without adequate preparation for it, to essentially fight a modern army such as was the Nigerian army with primitive weapons.

Achebe and his propaganda ministry must have done an excellent job for they, in fact, managed to get ill equipped Biafran soldiers to go to the war front, each soldier with as little as ten bullets.  That is correct; barely armed Biafran soldiers confronted heavily armed Nigerian soldiers; Nigerian soldiers with tons of bullets to spray at the Biafrans and kill as many of them as was possible! 

 Igbos were so convinced that their course was right that they were essentially sacrificed by Ojukwu and his propagandists at the battle front. The mostly teenage soldiers faced Nigerian soldiers rather bravely. Alas, you do not use primitive rifles to fight soldiers armed with AK47s.

 (Could some one be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for forcing unarmed kids to face heavily armed soldiers who then unnecessarily massacred them? Could Chinua Achebe be tried for such a crime? Why did he and his maximum leader, Ojukwu entice boys as young as fourteen years old into his Biafran army when International Law clearly specifies that one must be eighteen before one joins the army. It is time we started punishing Africans who refuse to take care of their children but readily use them as boy soldiers to fight their stupid ego wars. Instead of trying to settle issues peacefully Africans resort to fighting and causing their people unnecessary suffering. Somebody needs to be punished for kidnapping 14 year old secondary school boys, giving them only two weeks of hasty training and sending them to war fronts where they died.)

 Achebe talked about the events that led to the war as if Igbo’s were always right and other Nigerians always wrong.  For example, corruption is endemic in Nigeria . Achebe gave the impression that this disease of Nigerians did not affect his Igbos. All we need to do if we are interested in actual history is examine the behavior of actual Igbos to see if they, too, were corrupt. 

 Igbos did not have chiefs and kings; Igbos were a stateless people. Frederick Lugard, the Briton who clubbed Nigerian tribes together in 1914, decided to appoint what he called warrant chiefs in those parts of Nigeria that did not have chiefs. He wanted to rule the country through what he called indirect rule: ruling the people through their chiefs and that way save on administrative cost of running such a huge country, a country about four times the size of England. 

 Lugard appointed warrant chiefs in Alaigbo. In each Igbo town he appointed a chief and thereafter established what he called Native Authorities where the various chiefs in a district came together to solve  their mutual problems. The chiefs acted as courts adjudicating on the people’s customary issues. (Lugard appointed white district officers who had the authority to over rule what the African chiefs did.)

 Igbo warrant chiefs were probably the most corrupt set of human beings that have walked this earth!  They gave themselves access to many wives, including having sex with the wives of men who brought their issues to their courts. They did nothing for the people without taking bribes from them.

The point here is that right from the beginning of the British era in Nigeria , Igbos showed that they were as corrupt as other Nigerians.  When Igbos were brought into the Nigerian civil services, like other Nigerians they personalized their offices and took bribes before they hired people or promoted them or provided any service to the public.

One is not saying that Igbos were particularly egregious in this bribery taking matter; one is just saying that Igbos were as culprit as other Nigerians in the issue. But reading Achebe one could get the erroneous impression that since the bane of Nigerians development is corruption that it is all the fault of other Nigerians who are corrupt. Achebe implied that if only other Nigerians had allowed Igbos to lead them they would have had a competent, corruption free public service.

Corruption is a disease that has eaten deep into the soul of all Africans and is long standing. Africans used to run around their jungle environment kidnapping their people and selling them to Arabs. When the Portuguese came along and asked for slaves to go work in Brazil Africans were only too glad to provide them with slaves. Africans embarked on capturing their people and selling them to the Portuguese and later to other Europeans. Africans have been selling their people for over 1000 years.

 A people who captured and sold their people are a corrupt people. In fact, they are a psychologically sick people. Africans are corrupt and have soul sickness. This is a continent wide psychopathology and must be addressed as what it is and not denied and some groups made scapegoat for it.

Achebe would like his reader to believe that his Igbos are angels and other Nigerians are devils. He tried very hard but was not convincing.

In reviewing Achebe’s other books, especially his “The Education of a British Protected Child”, I pointed out that Achebe has a weakness in his character structure. This book reinforces that view. The man has a need to see himself as a victim.

 First, he saw his self and his African people as the victim of white folks. He perceived colonialism as white folks oppressing Africans. Many Africans have similar victim approach to colonialism.

At some point in his developmental process, Achebe needed to have asked: how come Europeans were able to defeat his people, Africans and colonized them? It actually took less than a handful of white men to defeat all Igbo people. Why was that possible? 

 It was because Igbos did not have the right weapons to fight the white man;  Igbos lacked the technology to match the white man;  Igbos were disorganized, they had mostly village and town level organization but not Igbo wide political structure that could muster large armies that could fight the armies of Europe.

That is to say that there was something about Africans that made them easily colonized by a platoon of white soldiers.  If that was the case should Africans not take some responsibility for their defeat and colonization? Is it Europe ’s fault that Africans were underdeveloped? Walter Rodney said yes. That is another topic.

 If we accept the evolutionary-biological view of human beings and eschew all metaphysical conception of them we would see people as mere animals competing for food, and other means for survival. Human animals go after territories where food could be garnered.  Stronger animals take larger and more productive territories and control them with power (lions and tigers do this in the wild; they chase off weaker animals and have choice territory to themselves). 

Human beings being animals are fighting for control of territories.  If so, Africans are in a struggle with white men for the control of any and all territory on planet earth.  If white men came to Africa with an eye to chasing Africans off and taking their lands this is perfectly understandable from Charles Darwin’s evolutionary biological perspective. 

Life is struggle where the fittest animals survive and the weakest die out.  Herbert Spencer based his ethics (philosophy) on the notion of competition and survival of the fittest. 

Africans were weak hence were defeated by strong white folks. If that is the case should they be blaming those who were strong and defeated them in their natural struggle for survival of the fittest? Achebe blames the white man for Africa ’s plight.  Achebe sees himself and his fellow Africans as victims of white folks. 

 White liberals tend to be sentimental and motivated by desire to do good for the people. In their emotionalism, they agreed with Africans that they were the victims of white men. They offered Africans opportunity to blame their inability to govern their people, their proclivity to stealing from their people hence not accomplishing any good for their people on white folks.

 Why is Nigeria unable to go through twenty-four hours without interrupted electricity? It is Europeans fault. Really? Who stole the money that could have been used to improve electric supply in Nigeria , Europeans? Who are the incompetent workers at Nigeria ’s power authority, Europeans?  How about blaming Nigerians thievery and crass incompetence?  It makes Africans feel good despite their shiftlessness to blame their wrongs on white folks. As long as white liberals offer Africans white men as scapegoats for their incompetence they will continue being incompetent.

Everything wrong with Africa is the fault of Africans, not Europeans! It is about time Africans grew up and accepted responsibility for their fallen house and stopped looking for white folks to blame. They do not need white liberals to understand them any more. Africans have been understood to death.  What they now need is tough love and a kick in the pant.  Where is Draco when he is needed?

Whereas blaming white folk for Africans problems seems to absolve Africans of responsibility and shame for their rotten state, it should be noted that white liberals generally have a sense of superiority to Africans (the strong sympathizing with the weak; master pitying his houseboy). They are patronizing and condescending; they are superior men understanding the plight of inferior people.

Africans who take the sympathy of white liberals as evidence of their victim status are as naïve as naïve can be; they are not aware that those white liberals see them as ignorant children who do not know what is good for them, folks the white liberals know what is good for them.

White conservatives do not hide the fact that they do not care for Africans welfare. In so far as they have a need to justify colonialism they simply attribute it to Africans backwardness and or inferiority. With the white conservative you know where you stand but with the white liberal you think that he is your friend when in fact that friendship is predicated on him leading you. So who is better, liberal or conservative white?  Throw both of them away, I say and do things from the perspective of what is good for Africans.

 Achebe did not get to the point where he understood that the support of white liberals he craves is predicated on their perception of him as a child who is not capable of doing the right thing by himself.   Achebe is still seeking white liberals’ approval hence at the age of 82 when he should be retired and be an elder teacher of young Africans he takes pride in been given a professorship at a white liberal university in America. It kind of swells his nigger head that he is a professor at Brown University , an American Ivy League University . Why not go to Ogidi and build a university there and make it into a world class university.

 Achebe seems developmentally arrested at an age appropriate for a child! He needs his white father figures to give him on-going approval to feel like he is alive. The man sometimes seems like an Uncle Tom, a field nigger.

Achebe brings his victim psychology to the complicated ethnic relationships of the many tribes of Nigeria . He believes that the other tribes are his oppressors and oppressors of his Igbo people (as white folks are the oppressors of African people).

 The man has a divided soul: in the one hand he sees white folks as his oppressors and in the other hand he seeks their approval. He seeks their approval by being at Brown University . It is actually insulting for him to be working for a white American college outfit. But, apparently, the man’s self esteem is so damaged that he does not know the difference between insult and manhood.

Achebe sees Igbos as the victims of Yorubas and Hausas; and when pushed he would also see them as the victims of such minority groups as Ijaws and Efiks. Those see themselves as Igbos victims. The Efik remember how Azikiwe removed one of their own, Eyo Ita from the Premiership of Eastern Nigeria and assumed that post. To them that showed that Igbos victimized the ethnic minorities who found themselves in Eastern region, a geographical area that Igbos did not conquer by force of arms but was put together by the British for administrative convenience. Apparently, Igbos expected the Ethnic minorities in their region to accept Igbo rule!

 Achebe gave us a catalogue of what other Nigerians did to hurt Igbos, some of those, no doubt, are true.  Hausas have been killing Igbos since the 1940s. Periodically, Hausa mobs go on rampage and kill every Igbo person in sight. Thereafter, those Igbos that were not killed would pack up and leave Northern Nigeria and run to Alaigbo.

For some strange reasons, Igbos always return to the north and are killed some more. They do not seem to learn their lesson and cease from going to live in the North.

 Igbos appear to have masochistic tendencies and, as such, always go to where they would be given pain, even killed; they even seem to enjoy provoking folks (by insulting them, putting them down) to attack and  inflict pain to them.

Achebe told us what Yorubas did to hurt Igbos (such as Yorubas preventing Nnamdi Azikiwe from becoming the primer of Yorubaland (would Igbos allow a Yoruba man to become their premier?).

 In Nigeria there is no doubt that each ethnic group is looking after its own interests. To get a job in the Nigerian civil service you are in a better position if the hiring officer is from your ethnic group.  Indeed, admission to national universities is based on ones ethnic affiliation (quota system is practiced).

Simply stated, Nigerians make decisions based on ethnic affiliation. Yorubas do it, Hausas do it, Igbos do it, Bini folk do it, Ijaw folk do it, Efik folk do it. There are no innocent persons in the corruption haven called Nigeria !

These days you may not even be considered for work in states that are not of your ethnic origin. This is the Nigerian lay of the land. Obviously, this is not good for it often leads to hiring incompetent fellow ethnics rather than hiring qualified persons from other ethnic groups.  This ethnic nepotism business is not correlated to economic progress, but who said that Nigeria is looking for economic development? All Nigerians want to do is share the money they get from oil and use it to eat and be happy; joining the rest of the world in economic development is not their issue.

 Igbos tend to believe that they are superior to other Nigerians and that if hiring for jobs are based on merit that more Igbos would be hired than other ethnic Nigerians.  This belief is part of their delusion of superiority.

 There is no empirical evidence that Igbos do better at schools than other Nigerians. Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa do the same at schools and examinations. Therefore, if examinations and competence is used in recruiting civil servants in Nigeria all the ethnic groups would be equally represented (provided that all of them have equal access to education). 

The salient point is that Igbos are under the delusion that if competence was valued that somehow they would have heads up over other Nigerians; that is not true.

Achebe operating on the false premise that his fellow Igbos would be over represented in the civil service if merit was the criterion for hiring people thinks that any Igbo who applies for a job and was not hired that the reason is because of tribalism.  He is wrong. There are other Nigerians who are as qualified as Igbos.

 (During the colonial era, apparently, out of respect for Islam the British colonials did not encourage Christian missionaries to go build Christian schools in the North, a Muslim area. Thus, upon independence in 1960 there were noticeably more educated Christian southerners, such as they were, than northerners. The correct approach to this imbalance was to build schools and do whatever was necessary to bring Hausas up to snuff with other Nigerians without holding any one down. How about offering all Nigerian children free public education through secondary school and tuition waiver at the university for brilliant ones, especially in the sciences? The money stolen by Nigerian big wigs certainly could have paid for this service.)

 Regarding the quota system which Nigerian ministries and states used to hire their people, well, it is unfair, but who said that life is fair?

 In the USA, as we talk Asians students who had the highest scores at Scholastic Aptitude Tests are often not admitted to top universities so as to make room for the admission of less qualified white students (and African Americans). If you used only merit criterion to admit students to my Alma matter, the University of California , most of the students would be Asians!

White folks pay taxes to support the university and ought to have their children in a school they are paying for. They do not have to go work to earn the money to support a university that trains only Asians.  

Achebe sees himself as a victim and sees other people as his victimizers. He believes himself innocent and other people oppressors.  This is a character flaw in the man.  His fellow Igbos seem to share his victim psychology; they, too, see themselves as the victims of other Nigerians.

What Achebe needs to do is ask himself why other Nigerians, as he says they do, hate Igbos.  His book did not answer that question. 

Many Nigerians clearly hate Igbos but they do so for many reasons, including Achebe’s reason.  Among other reasons, many Nigerians hate Igbos because Igbos tend to be arrogant, proud and insulting to other Nigerians.

Igbos presume their superiority to other Nigerians. Any human being who believes himself superior to other people is suffering from delusion disorder, grandiose type.

Achebe and many of his fellow Igbos are deluded neurotics. They need to be healed of their irrational belief that they are superior to other people.

Mentally healthy persons see themselves as other people’s equal, not inferior, not superior.  Mentally healthy Africans know that they are the equal of white folks and other folks but not inferior or superior to them.

 When a person feels superior or inferior to other persons he is mentally disordered  (is neurotic) and needs to go see a psychoanalyst for analysis so as to understand why he has an obsessive-compulsive need to believe in what is not true as true.

On the other hand, many Nigerians have unwarranted reasons for hating Igbos.  As noted, Igbos are very hard working; Igbos are achievers. All over the world folks tend to resent achievers.  But all over the world while resenting achievers folks tolerate them. In Nigeria folks not only resent achievers they sometimes kill them.  Other Nigerians have to change this aspect of their behavior towards Igbos.

 For some reasons, Achebe particularly has it in store for Yorubas!  The man really, really hates Yorubas, especially the Yoruba icon, Awolowo.

Achebe’s deep hatred for Yorubas may elicit reciprocal hatred for Igbos in Yorubas.

Many Igbos live in Yorubaland. Only a handful of Yorubas live in Alaigbo.  If Yorubas decide to do to Igbo what Hausas do to them they could harass them and chase them out of Yoruba land. 

Igbos would return to their Igbo land and perhaps finally stop running to other people’s lands and stay on their lands and develop them.

Achebe’s enormous hatred and undisguised anger at Yorubas does not augur well for Igbos. If I were him, I would be more diplomatic and tactful and hide my hatred.

Better still no human being should have such tremendous hatred in his mind. Hatred and anger kills people (contributes to heart attack) and in the least makes them miserable. 

I dare say that because of his enormous hatred and anger towards his fellow Africans Achebe lives a miserable existence. I do not envy his life at all.

 I like those who forgive the wrongs done to them and love all human beings. Forgivingness and love is what makes people peaceful and happy. 

 I guess that Achebe and his fellow unforgiving Igbos have a right to choose to live in conflict and unhappiness. That is their choice, not mine.

This book tells us more about Chinua Achebe than it tells us about other Nigerians. The book could be re-titled as the trouble with Chinua Achebe. The man is one of those men who are chronologically adult but emotionally stuck at a child level. Actually, many artists are like that! I am supposing that this is one reason why no society on earth permits artists to rule them; it seems that artists are often mentally brilliant children in adult bodies!

The perspective on the civil war that was presented in the book is strictly personal and not objective (I guess that is why he called it his personal history of Biafra; certainly, he did not write a history of Biafra as would be written by those Igbos who were opposed to the mass lunacy called Biafra!). 

 In my judgment, in the time is let him on planet earth before he joins his ancestors, Achebe should restrict himself to writing fiction and leave history writing to historians; he is not good at writing history; he tends to take his opinions as facts.

This book will probably sell a few thousand copies and thereafter will be heard of no more. Let us hope that before it disappears from public gaze it has not damaged the relationship between Igbos and Yorubas beyond repair. Achebe has turned Yorubas into enemies of Igbos; he should not have done that as his legacy for Nigeria

 The immortal bard (William Shakespeare) observed that life is like a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury but in the end signifying nothing. We are like actors on the stage who when the curtain falls are heard from, or of no more.

 Achebe has made his sound and fury; hopefully, he will be remembered for the good he did in telling us about his Igbo people before their encounter with Europeans rather than the bad he did in dividing Africans with his hate filled diatribe against non-Igbos.

By Ozodi Thomas Osuji

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