Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chinua Achebe: What Nigeria means to me

"Being a Nigerian is absymally and unbelievably exciting," Chinua Achebe in 1967. Photo: Michael Neal

Chinua Achebe The Guardian Books


Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese. Or better still, like ballroom dancing. Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat. I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.

Perhaps these irreverent analogies would only occur to someone like me, born into a strongly multiethnic, multi­lingual, multireligious, somewhat chaotic colonial situation. The first passport I ever carried described me as a "British Protected Person", an unexciting identity embodied in a phrase that no one was likely to die for. I don't mean it was entirely devoid of emotive meaning. After all, "British" meant you were located somewhere in the flaming red portion of the world map, a quarter of the entire globe in those days and called "the British Empire, where the sun never sets". It had a good ring to it in my childhood ears – a magical fraternity, vague but vicariously glorious.

My earliest awareness in the town of Ogidi did not include any of that British stuff, nor indeed the Nigerian stuff. That came with progress in school. Ogidi is one of a thousand or more "towns" that make up the Igbo nation, one of Nigeria's (indeed Africa's) largest ethnic groups. But the Igbo, numbering more than 10 million, are a curious "nation". They have been called names such as "stateless" or "acephalous" by anthropologists; "argumentative" by those sent to administer them. But what the Igbo are is not the negative suggested by such descriptions but strongly, positively, in favour of small-scale political organisation so that (as they would say) every man's eye would reach where things are happening. So every one of the thousand towns was a mini-state with complete jurisdiction over its affairs. A sense of civic attachment to their numerous towns was more real for precolonial Igbo people than any unitary pan-Igbo feeling. This made them notoriously difficult to govern centrally, as the British discovered but never appreciated nor quite forgave. Their dislike was demonstrated during the Biafran tragedy, when they accused the Igbo of threatening to break up a nation-state they had carefully and laboriously put together.

The paradox of Biafra was that the Igbo themselves had originally championed the Nigerian nation more spiritedly than other Nigerians. One proof of this: the British had thrown more of them into jail for sedition than any others during the two decades or so of pre-independence agitation and troublemaking. So the Igbo were second to none on the nationalist front when Britain finally conceded independence to Nigeria in 1960, a move that, in retrospect, seems like a masterstroke of tactical withdrawal to achieve a ­supreme strategic advantage.

At the time we were proud of what we had just achieved. True, Ghana had beaten us to it by three years, but then Ghana was a tiny affair, easy to manage, compared to the huge lumbering giant called Nigeria. We did not have to be vociferous like Ghana; just our presence was enough. Indeed, the elephant was our national emblem; our airline's was the flying elephant! Nigerian troops soon distinguished themselves in a big way in the United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the Congo. Our elephant, defying aerodynamics, was flying.

Travelling as a Nigerian was exciting. People listened to us. Our money was worth more than the dollar. In 1961 when the driver of a bus in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia asked me what I was doing sitting in the front of the bus, I told him nonchalantly that I was going to Victoria Falls. In amazement he stooped lower and asked where I came from. I replied, even more casually: "Nigeria, if you must know; and, by the way, in Nigeria we sit where we like in the bus."

Back home I took up the rather important position of director of external broadcasting, an entirely new radio service aimed primarily at our African neighbours. I could do it in those days, because our politicians had yet to learn the uses of information control and did not immediately attempt to regiment our output. They were learning fast, though. But before I could get enmeshed in that, something much nastier had seized hold of all of us.

The six-year-old Nigerian federation was falling apart from the severe strain of regional animosity and ineffectual central authority. The transparent failure of the electoral process to translate the will of the electorate into recognisable results at the polls led to mass frustration and violence. While western Nigeria, one of the four regions, was going up literally in flames, the quiet and dignified Nigerian prime minister was hosting a Commonwealth conference to extricate Harold Wilson from a mess he had got himself into in faraway Rhodesia. But so tense was the local situation that the visiting heads of government had to be airlifted by helicopter from the Lagos airport into a secluded suburb to avoid the rampaging crowds.

Nigeria's first military coup took place even as those dignitaries were flying out of Lagos again at the end of their conference. One of them, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, was in fact still in the country.

The prime minister and two regional premiers were killed by the coup-makers. In the bitter, suspicious atmosphere of the time, a naively idealistic coup proved a terrible disaster. It was interpreted with plausibility as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the east to take control of Nigeria. Six months later, northern officers carried out a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers and men in large numbers. If it had ended there, the matter might have been seen as a tragic interlude in nation building, a horrendous tit for tat. But the northerners turned on Igbo civilians living in the north and unleashed waves of brutal massacres, which Colin Legum of the Observer was the first to describe as a pogrom. It was estimated that 30,000 civilian men, women and children died in these massacres. Igbos were fleeing in hundreds of thousands from all parts of Nigeria to their homeland in the east.

I was one of the last to flee from Lagos. I simply could not bring myself quickly enough to accept that I could no longer live in my nation's capital, although the facts clearly said so. One Sunday morning I was telephoned from Broadcasting House and informed that armed soldiers who appeared drunk had come looking for me to test which was stronger, my pen or their gun.

The offence of my pen was that it had written a novel called A Man of the People, a bitter satire on political corruption in an African country that resembled Nigeria. I wanted the novel to be a denunciation of the kind of independence that people were experiencing in postcolonial ­Nigeria and many other countries in the 1960s, and I intended it to scare my countrymen into good behaviour with a frightening cautionary tale. The best monster I could come up with was a military coup d'├ętat, which every sane Nigerian at the time knew was rather far-fetched. But life and art had got so entangled that season that the publication of the novel and Nigeria's first military coup happened within two days of each other.

Critics abroad called me a prophet, but some of my countrymen saw it differently: my novel was proof of my complicity in the first coup.


I was very lucky that Sunday morning. The drunken soldiers, after leaving Broadcasting House, went to a residence I had recently vacated. Meanwhile I was able to take my wife and two small children into hiding, from where I finally sent them to my ancestral home in eastern Nigeria. A week or two later, unknown callers asked for me on the telephone at my hideout. My host denied my presence. It was time then to leave Lagos.

My feeling was one of profound disappointment. Not ­because mobs were hunting down and killing in the most savage manner innocent civilians in many parts of northern Nigeria, but because the federal government sat by and let it happen. The final consequence of this failure of the state to fulfil its primary obligation to its citizens was the secession of eastern Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra. The demise of Nigeria at that point was averted only by Britain's spirited diplomatic and military support of its model colony. It was Britain and the Soviet Union that together crushed the upstart ­Biafran state. At the end of the 30-month war, Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble. The cost in human lives was a staggering two million souls, making it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history.

I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the 20th century.

My immediate response was to leave Nigeria at the end of the war, having honourably, I hoped, stayed around long enough to receive whatever retribution might be due to me for renouncing Nigeria for 30 months. Fortunately the federal government proclaimed a general amnesty, and the only punishment I received was the general financial and emotional indemnity that war losers pay, and some relatively minor personal harassment. I went abroad to New England, to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and stayed four years and then another year at the University of Connecticut. It was by far my longest exile from Nigeria and it gave me time to reflect and to heal somewhat. Without setting out consciously to do so, I was redefining my relationship to Nigeria. I realised that I could not reject her, but neither could it be business as usual. What was Nigeria to me?

Our 1960 national anthem, given to us as a parting gift by a British housewife in England, had called Nigeria "our sovereign motherland". The current anthem, put together by a committee of Nigerian intellectuals and actually worse than the first one, invokes the father image. But it has occurred to me that Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed and incredibly wayward.

Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting. I have said somewhere that in my next reincarnation I want to be a Nigerian again; but I have also, in a rather angry book called The Trouble with Nigeria, dismissed Nigerian travel advertisements with the suggestion that only a tourist with a kinky addiction to self-flagellation would pick Nigeria for a holiday. And I mean both.

Nigeria needs help. Nigerians have their work cut out for them – to coax this unruly child along the path of useful creative development. We are the parents of Nigeria, not vice versa. A generation will come, if we do our work patiently and well – and given luck – a generation that will call Nigeria father or mother. But not yet.

Meanwhile our present work is not entirely without its blessing and reward. This wayward child can show now and again great intimations of ­affection. I have seen this flow towards me at certain critical moments.

When I was in America after the Biafran war, an army officer who sat on the council of my university in Nigeria as representative of the federal military government pressured the university to call me back home. This officer had fought in the field against my fellow Biafrans during the war and had been seriously wounded. He had every right to be bitter against people like me. I had never met him, but he knew my work and was himself a poet.

More recently, after a motor accident in 2001 that left me with serious injuries, I have witnessed an outflow of affection from Nigerians at every level. I am still dumbfounded by it. The hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love, not hate. Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all.

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