Chinua Achebe and the collapse of Nigeria’s literary intellectual class

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe ‘Father of African Literature’?

One thing can be said about the literary intellectual class in Nigeria with certainty: it is close to bankruptcy.

There is a world of difference between coffee room chat and serious intellectual discussion. Serious intellectual discussion requires some research and most Nigerians cannot be bothered with that. Serious intellectual research requires funding. Serious funding. This has not been available in Nigeria in any shape or form since the late 1980’s if not before. Our Nigerian middle class became enamoured of paper degrees. Just get your children to acquire the best quality paper! One can be cynical about this but in fact serious research worldwide is largely driven by the military. Nigeria was deeply influenced by a fifth column, based in Lagos, of ex-slave traders who worked closely with the British colonial authorities. This class had been working with the British before they became the colonial rulers. They were the agents of the Western slave trading organisations. Under the colonial regime, these people were given British citizenship and continued working closely with the British administration.  Towards Independence they were given important administrative positions. They promoted the idea that Nigerian Independence had been achieved by a friendly chat between them and the colonial authorities rather than being driven by colonial overreach, and the disasters for the British in Malaya and Kenya and for the French in Algeria and Viet Nam. As colonial compradors, they saw no need for an independent army or any focus on security. 

This led to a culture that did not respect the army. Nigerian middle classes of the South refused to send their children into the military. Northern aristocracy, however, maintained their respect for military service. This also explains how Nigeria could support liberation movements throughout Africa but have no respect for the army within Nigeria. Two different parts of Nigerian society.

What we have then is a vastly underfunded intellectual class preening itself before a dirty mirror.

There is a strong political tradition within Nigeria of seeking consensus and compromise. Following the civil war and the numerous coups, this tradition has become quite strong, though it existed prior to independence. Two unfortunate consequences of this are the continuation of the influence of the culture and policy of the fifth column of ‘askaris’ based in Lagos but present throughout the country, and secondly, a reluctance to address the true history of the civil war. The effect of the second is to allow a malicious Western propaganda machine to run full riot outside of Nigeria creating a generation of Nigerians living abroad prey to divisive foreign manipulation. I recall walking home and finding a group of IPOB supporters demonstrating outside the High Commissioner’s residence. I came up to them and asked what their position was. I received a rather incoherent ramble. So I asked them what they planned to do about the non-Igbo inhabitants of the river areas. They answered that these areas were always part of Eastern Region and they intended to keep them as part of Biafra. I pointed out that these peoples did not want to be part of Biafra. During the civil war, these areas welcomed the Federal troops and played no part in supporting Biafra. These areas provided access to the sea and more important these areas are the location of Nigeria’s oil reserves. Without the rivers areas Biafra would have no access to the sea and no oil revenue. While the demonstrators were insisting on the right to secede for Igbo people, they did not allow such a right to the rivers’ people. At this point the demonstrator looked awkward and embarrassed. A true history of the civil war would reveal the plunder that took place by the Federal generals of the country’s coffers. This had outraged Awolowo. A German historian was allowed to get away with claims of finding documents proving starvation was deliberate Federal policy. When I challenged him face to face he admitted he had not found any contemporary documents at all but a document written many years later by an Igbo author.

I will take the phrase ‘father of African literature’ as a case study. This moniker implies there was no literature before. Obviously that afronts  any serious African writer but many Nigerian intellectuals fall for it. Western critics by starting a debate about who is ‘the father of African literature’ were establishing that there was no African literature before. There was also the affront that they, Western critics, were entitled to play a role in evaluatimg African writers’ historical status.

This leads to a special issue with Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’.  The title and its reception in the West  was entirely diferent from Achebe’s motivation. It was read by Western critics as an acknowledgement that African culture could not withstand the introduction of Western culture and that ‘things fell apart’ was a natural consequence.  When Achebe discovered this misreading he was outraged and made some robust counter-engagements!

I was part of the African literary world of the 1970’s and at that time many African writers were winning prizes in France. Among the African literary circle our view was clear. Our attitude to some of them was : “before you won the prize we  thought you were a lousy writer. Congratulations on winning the prize and enjoy! We still think you are a lousy writer!” Many of these prize winners of the time have since been completely forgotten.

However, there were some issues around ethnic chauvinism which often no one wants to discuss.  At that time, 1970’s, Professor Obiechina  was at Cambridge University during a sabbatical preparing his thesis for publication. I came to know him well and read various drafts and commented.  I introduced  him to Fanon and he graciously accepted many of my comments and made amendments. As a lover of literature the idea of privileging an ethnic group was absurd to me. Tchicaya Utamsi was Africa’s greatest living poet. That was undoubted to me. Where he exactly came from I was not quite sure (answers on a postcard).  But both Obiechina and his supporters  were imbued with elements of ethnic chauvinism even to the point of his arguing that ONLY Igbos in Africa had writing before Europeans arrived. If a point of view put Igbos in a good light he ignored how negative the implications were for the rest of Africa. I remember after giving a lecture on the  slave trade and its abolition to an Igbo community group a lady asked about the western slavers who enslaved people across West Africa whether they also enslaved Igbos.

One time I came across an article written by a friend arguing that Igbo’s were the most educated group in Nigeria and he provided some statistics. When I challenged him he admitted the statistics related to just one town in USA. Then I am reminded of Ojukwu’s claim that the Igbo’s were not really African at all but Jewish. It was Ifi Amadiume, whom I was close to in 1970s, who insisted I speak my mind plainly and clearly on these issues.

This finally leads us to the issue of Soyinka’s Nobel prize. There is a context that many Africans are unaware of. When Soyinka came as a visiting fellow for a year at Churchill College, Cambridge, he was not allowed to give his lecture course in the English Faculty. Jack Goody rescued him by allowing him to give his lectures in the Anthropology Department. I acknowledge Goody’s role there. (However, after one of Soyinka’s lectures I came up to Wole to discuss one of the points he had made. Goody sought to intervene. My conversation with Wole was part of African history. He was not invited. I never forgave Goody for such wanton crassness.) It was this racist attitude of the English faculty to African literature that the award of the Nobel Prize for literature was to quell. Anyone who has read ancient Egyptian love poetry will laugh at the idea that African literature post dates western literature.  There is one beautiful poem written by a woman to her lover (beautiful but totally un-European in tenor)  that if shown in translation to any African woman today they will believe it was written yesterday. 

Following Soyinka’s Nobel prize were ones for Caribbean writers, Derek Walcott and V S Naipul.

So when some argue whether Achebe deserves a Nobel prize or he should have had Soyinka’s, this is ethnic chauvinism at work no doubt encouraged by Western critics keen to sow division. Any Igbo scholar of literature should have been outraged at the idea of a ‘father of African literature’ not an advocate of who should hold the robe. He should also have denounced the idea that the Nobel Prize committee was the final arbiter of the quality of African literary works. Those who ignore these points are totally and wilfully blind to the tactics of divide and rule, and the ever present wish in certain Western circles to sow division among Africans.

That any discussion of a ‘father of African literature’ was ever allowed to start rather than faced ridicule as a western absurdity, that Soyinka should have had to lower himself to comment, all this points towards the bankruptcy of Nigeria’s literary intellectual class.

1 June 2024