Simon Kolawole: There was a legendary Iroko

by Simon Kolawole

simon-kolawole

In his civil war memoir, There Was a Country, which turned out to be his last work, he maintained his age-old assertion that the rest of Nigeria was at war with the Igbo, and that the only thing uniting Nigerians is their common hatred for the Igbo. It was like making a fresh case for war.

As synonyms go, Things Fall Apart is the synonym of Professor Chinua Achebe. I know you won’t find that in Thesaurus. But whenever you mention Achebe, what readily comes to mind is Things Fall Apart, acclaimed as the greatest African novel ever. I’m sorry, but my favourite Achebe is not Things Fall Apart. I never studied English Literature. Therefore, permit me to plead my ignorance on the technicalities of creative writing. Recently, a colleague argued vehemently that Achebe’s best novel is Arrow of God. He explained all the technicalities about plot, conflict, richness, tragedy and all that. I was just looking at him. I could not be bothered. I only read Achebe’s novels through the influence of my elder sister, Bosede, who was always narrating the stories to me. She did Literature. She did her best to introduce me to the African Writers Series.

For me as a layman and a young Nigerian living in 2013, my favourite Achebe is No Longer at Ease. It is a novel that captures the perpetual conflict ravaging morality in public office in Nigeria. The story of Obi Okonkwo connects perfectly to today’s Nigeria. These days, I hear people lament: “This man was an honest person before he joined government, but something has changed. He is no longer the same person. He was upright but now that he has seen money, he has lost it!” Have you heard that statement before? We say that about several persons serving in government. We have come to the sad conclusion that there is something in government that changes people overnight, no matter their moral character before they took up the appointments.

In No Longer at Ease, Obi Okonkwo started out as a man of principles. He hated bribery. He hated societal stigma. As a civil servant, Okonkwo rejected bribes of cash and sex to stay true his principles. He wanted to marry Clara Okeke, who was an Osu cast – an untouchable. But sooner than later, Nigeria defeated him. His bills were mounting. He had to repay the community loan that financed his education abroad. Meanwhile, Clara had become pregnant. He had to procure an expensive abortion as his parents mounted opposition to their union. In short, Okonkwo lost touch with his principles as he struggled to make ends meet. He took a bribe. Unfortunately for him, it was a sting operation. The marked money, ironically, would have solved his immediate problems.

To me as a layman, that is a contemporary Nigerian story – how otherwise principled men and women lose their way in public office. The spirit may be willing but the throat is weak. It tells part of the story of why Nigeria is like this. I love No Longer at Ease. But the novel that had the greatest impact on me was Arrow of God. I was so inspired after reading it that I began to pen my own so-called novel, titled Blue Moon at Noon. It was a story of a spontaneous revolt by a suffering people against the powers that be, led by an unusual suspect – the son of the village head. The story was targeted at the Babangida government then. I’m sure there was more rhyme than reason in it. Thank Goodness, the cockroaches in my village should have finished eating the manuscript by now. Good riddance to bad rubbish. At least, Achebe got me thinking and writing fiction.

Achebe, who died last Thursday at the very ripe age of 82, was indisputably the father of modern African literature. He inspired and mentored generations of African writers. He was the master story teller. He made me appreciate and fall in love with the Igbo culture. His works made me see Africa in a new light, since we were brought up to celebrate and venerate Western culture. He was a proud African. However, I disagreed with Achebe on some of his views, especially as they relate to the Igbo and the Nigerian nation. In my opinion, he refused to deal with all the facts before him. In his civil war memoir, There Was a Country, which turned out to be his last work, he maintained his age-old assertion that the rest of Nigeria was at war with the Igbo, and that the only thing uniting Nigerians is their common hatred for the Igbo. It was like making a fresh case for war.

If the book had been released between 1967 and 1970, it would be largely understandable. But Achebe was still making this argument 43 years after the war, ignoring all the positive developments that have taken place since then in the interest of national integration. In less than 10 years after the war, Igbos occupied the No. 2 and No. 4 positions in the land through Dr Alex Ekwueme, who was Vice-President, and Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Indeed, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, who fought on the side of Biafra during the war, was No. 2 to Gen. Ibrahim Babangida from 1985-86. Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika is today the Chief of Army Staff, while Rear Admiral Alison Madueke was Chief of Naval Staff in 1993. We have had five Senate presidents who are Igbos. All these counted for nothing with Achebe as he continued to promote the theory about all Nigerians hating the Igbo.

If Achebe had not included recent events, such as the 2011 elections, in There Was a Country, I would have said maybe he closed the manuscript over 40 years ago. But at the time it was published, Igbo were in the commanding height of the Nigerian financial system. Check the list: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who said she cooked for Biafran soldiers, is Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance; Mustafa Chike-Obi, MD, Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON); Emeka Eze, DG of Bureau for Public Procurement; Arunma Oteh, DG, Securities and Exchange Commission; Oscar Onyeama, DG, Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE); and Abraham Nwankwo, DG Debt Management Office (DMO). Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, is not a small man in this government. These are not ordinary positions in terms of influence and relevance. But Achebe refused to acknowledge these encouraging signals. In my opinion, that an Igbo will one day be president of Nigeria is a matter of time. I don’t know when, but it is inevitable.

Nevertheless, we are all entitled to our weaknesses. And no weakness could ever dwarf our own irreplaceable Iroko. He was not just the father of African literature, he was also a strong moral voice. Achebe is forever a legend. Good night, great man.

Oh Dear! Are We Losing the Plot?
It was just like yesterday. When Chief DSP Alamieyeseigha was impeached as the governor of Bayelsa State, I wrote an article titled “No Retreat, No Surrender” (December 12, 2005).  I argued that ordinarily, we should be happy that Alamieyeseigha had been “impeached, arrested, handcuffed, humiliated” but I was not happy because the tactics adopted by the EFCC gave his supporters an excuse to rubbish the impeachment process and the entire anti-graft war. For instance, Bayelsa State was militarised ahead of the impeachment, as if it was a coup. The state’s accounts were illegally frozen, perhaps to cripple government machinery. The Administrative Panel of Inquiry sat for just two minutes and indicted Alamieyeseigha. “Justice hurried is justice buried,” I wrote.

My point then was that since we were operating constitutional democracy, we could not afford to ignore the rules of the game so as not to give ammunition to pro-corruption campaigners who were hiding under the guise of “rule of law” to make a case for Alamieyeseigha. I then asked what I believed was a very important question: should we say we want to follow due process and allow looters to escape justice? In other words, should we follow the “rule of law” and allow Nigeria to be raped to death or should we stop the rape by shooting the assailant? Nearly two years after my article, Alamieyeseigha was sentenced to two years imprisonment by a Lagos court.

Some of us, as naïve as we could be, rejoiced, celebrating it as the dawn of a new era in the anti-graft war. For the first time, a Nigerian civil court was jailing a former governor. We thought something new was about to unfold in Nigeria. Many former governors were also put on trial by the EFCC. Since they could not be tried while in office because of the immunity impunity, at least they were no longer under any protection, we said. We started counting our chicks. What a mistake. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua suddenly entrenched his “rule of law” façade and the anti-graft war effectively ended. The Alamieyeseigha test case has turned out to be a false dawn. We started the downward journey with “plea bargain”, which dove-tailed into “rule of law” and now we have entered the phase of “presidential pardon”.

Really, with all our talk about fighting corruption, how come no former commissioner or governor or minister or president is in jail? How come no former lawmaker is in jail? Is it the fault of the EFCC? Is it the fault of the courts? Could it be that there is a conspiracy down the line, an unwritten understanding that no high-profile politician should be jailed for corruption? Could it be that these politicians have so polluted the system that justice can never be done? Is that why corruption cases go on forever and ever while those who stole Indomie noodles are jailed in an instant? Clearly, we have lost the plot.

 

Read this piece on ThisDay Newspapers

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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