Many people in the literary community were disappointed when President Goodluck Jonathan failed to name a monument after the late Prof. Chinua Achebe. This was even after the National Assembly recently held sessions in honour of the literary legend and called on government to name a prominent monument in man’s memory. With him and Ghanaian President, John Dramani Mahama the only leaders that attended his burial in Ogidi, it would seem gross oversight for Jonathan not to have acted accordingly.
But he did not. Instead, he said he and Mahama would jointly rebuild Central Primary School, where Achebe attended his elementary school in the 1940s. But this was after the officiating priest, Rev. Ikechukwu Nwosu had prodded the audience and pointed out the deplorable state of the structures. Indeed, it came as an afterthought even for Jonathan.
He had spoken glowingly about Achebe, he being a philosopher who employed his writing to telling effect and how Achebe applauded the 2011 elections that brought him to power as being significantly better than previous ones. And he then went on to sit down. But it was after Achebe’s first son, Ikechukwu had given a vote of thanks that Jonathan decided to announce what would be done to Achebe’s primary school.
Heart-warming as this may be, it still fell far short of how the literary community wants their hero to be immortalised. They had actually expected the National Library still under construction to be named after the man who made library part of his growing up years and who went on to become a library of knowledge itself, sharing his knowledge of African worldview to a world audience that stood spellbound for well over three decades. At Umuahia, where he attended Government College, Achebe was reputed to have virtually lived inside the library and described as a walking dictionary.
But Jonathan probably didn’t think it was fit and proper place to immortalise Achebe. Indeed, it was a fitting moment to score another political point having taken the trouble to grace the burial personally, something that had not happened to a man of culture in this clime before until now.
President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade said it might be too early in the day to know what President Jonathan would do in that regard, since it took time to arrive at what would be appropriate for a man like Achebe. He noted, “It takes time for us to do the right thing. Jonathan might use it to launder the image of government”.
Duke, chief mourner of Achebe, absent at burial
Except for the season of frenetic outpouring of emotions shortly after the news of his death filtered in, the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, had been conspicuously missing in all the activities held to mark Achebe’s transition. From last Sunday when weeklong activities started in Abuja at the National Ecumenical Centre, only the Minister of Information and his Finance counterpoint, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala showed up.
Also at the International Convention Centre, where a symposium and a Day of Tributes were held for Achebe, Duke stayed away. Achebe is the hottest cultural item on Nigeria’s menu, and who just passed on, with the world in the grip of deep mourning and celebration of the life he lived in being a pathfinder for a people who were otherwise lost in the wilderness of self-negation and stereotypes of the ‘other’ placed on them by others.
Unarguably, Duke should be the chief mourner of Achebe, the man who gave African culture deeper meaning and taught the world how African culture should viewed, with respect and dignity. If Duke knew his onions as Minister of Culture, he would not be absent but be the driver of Achebe’s burial, because, deservedly, Achebe was a national cultural monument.
But Duke icily stayed from the final rites for the man who gave African culture a new image, a man who rebranded African culture and the entire African people through his inimitable writing.
As ANA president, Raji-Oyelade succinctly put it thus, “In anything that has to do with culture in this our country, especially writers, you cannot be disappointed in a thing like that, in the way we are treated like lepers. I speak as ANA president. But for Governor Peter Obi, ANA president won’t be called to give funeral oration at Awka” for their own man, a man who founded the organisation.
Former ANA president, Dr. Wale Okediran also expressed surprise that Jonathan didn’t make any pronouncement about immortalising Achebe, adding that perhaps, he didn’t want to make the same mistake he made with the renaming of University of Lagos as Moshood Abiola University.
Okediran noted, “I was surprised because I thought he would use the occasion to make a historic statement. Unless he’s in the process of deliberations; but it was a very good moment to have made that statement”.
Also former ANA president Okediran express surprise at the absence of Duke in the Achebe burial process, saying, ”You know, should be in the purview of culture and education ministries. In the past, we had tremendous relationships with previous culture ministers like Chiefs Ojo Madueke and Adetokunbo Ademola. Madueke actually attended one of our conventions. But we’ve not been seeing much of the current culture minister. We hope this will improve soon”.
Achebe’s homeward stretch
The journey that started on March 21 when the world was jolted by the announcement of his death finally came to an end yesterday when the father of African literature, Prof. Chinua Achebe was laid to rest in his hometown, Ogidi at about 3pm. It began at the St. Philip’s Anglican Church at about 11am President Goodluck Jonathan and his Ghanaian counterpart, President John Dramani Mahama and other dignitaries arrived Ogidi for the burial.
First to arrive was Delta State governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, dressed in his Itsekiri traditional attire and in company of a handful of state officials. After this, the Secrete Security Service officials went on over-drive in their zealousness to cordon off the church from anyone without permit. Their overzealousness formed part of Rev. Ikechukwu Nwosu’s sermon as the clergy man, who stood in for the Primate of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, who had observed how SSS officials almost prevented the vicar from entering the church.
Jonathan said he was in Ogidi to appreciate God for creating somebody like Achebe from little known place like Ogidi and Nigeria. Although he didn’t interact with Achebe, Jonathan said he had met others like him and that he sometimes wondered whether the man loved his books more than his father and vice versa, which caused mild laughter in the church.
Jonathan described Achebe as “a philosopher and like all philosophers, he used literature, a subject he loved and knew very well to express his philosophic ideas”.
The President breezed through Achebe’s books, talking about their subject matters, especiallyThings Fall Apart, which he said, “The title is unique and a reference to colonialism as putting a knife to the things like our values, culture and customs for things to fall apart”
Jonathan also took on Achebe’s political treatise about Nigeria, The Trouble with Nigeria and concluded, “Achebe said political leadership is what is wrong with Nigeria. Things Fall Apartis as far back as 1958 and he noticed that there was something wrong with Nigeria. Then cameThere was A Country” and Jonathan read an excerpt from the book indicating Achebe’s scathing criticism of corruption as it was far back as the 1950s and 1960s.
Jonathan then asked, “Those in office today, have they changed? Perhaps, Achebe’s grandchildren will write There Is A Country. All of us must work hard to change this country. Achebe said in his book that 2011 election was significantly better. So, we must fix our elections and leaders must work towards a better Nigeria so that their children will write There is A Country”.
According to Nwosu, who took his bible text from Matthew 13 verse three, had his sermon titled, ‘Achebe: Parable to the Nigerian nation’, said Achebe’s life and times were parables to the people of Nigeria. He noted that Achebe’s life ran like a story that had strong message for the people, adding that the good upbringing Achebe had could be adduced for his moral uprightness and the immense work he did for humanity.
Nwosu said, “We appreciate Jonathan for coming for Achebe’s burial. We thank God for making Achebe to come to this side of the planet and the gift God lavished upon him so that all drank from his fountain of knowledge; a giant in the literary world, a man of social action. People like Chinua Achebe cannot be buried; he will live on.”
Nwosu said Achebe could have followed his father’s footsteps and become a cleric, a question he said he once put to him. Nwosu said Achebe’s upbringing as the son of a catechist was responsible for his greatness and tasked the congregation not to neglect their religious lives, especially their Christian roots as it would serve as a measure of their greatness like Achebe.
He intoned, “All knowledge has beginning in Christ. If you have God in your heart, you’ll never be disappointed. Achebe went ahead to be professors of professors, a great man. We may narrate all our woes as a nation, but what God has designed for us will come to pass”.
He urged Nigerians not to despair but to be hopeful and forge ahead with determination, saying Nigeria would excel just as Achebe excelled in spite of the difficulties he faced. Nwosu said, “Nigeria shall be well by defying all negative forces. There’s no end to Nigeria’s exploits. When rough times come upon you, don’t chicken out.”
Nwosu also saluted Achebe for being a practical man in his faith and convictions. He said Achebe’s rejecting of a national honour bestowed on him was part of him being a parable to Nigeria, adding that he meant well by so doing. He said, “Achebe believed thoroughly in Nigeria”
The cleric also pointed out Achebe’s standpoint in the gay controversy raging in the Anglican community, saying the literary icon vehemently opposed the idea of gay and said so openly, calling it an abomination.
There was a mild drama while Rev. Nwosu was giving his sermon. Jonathan, apparently embarrassed that the cleric did not acknowledge his Ghanaian counterpart, sent him a note to remind him as much. But the Nwosu tacitly said acknowledging Jonathan felt like an umbrella that covered all other dignitaries and continued his sermon with aplomb.
With Governor Peter Obi taking over the ceremony after the sermon and called out dignitaries to pay their last respects to Achebe.
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Prof. Viola Onwuliri brought the international dimension when she brought messages of world leaders from far and near to the congregation. She extolled the virtues of Achebe as encapsulated in the condolences sent to her ministry. Nevertheless, while quipping about the large number of them, Onwuliri inadvertently made a diplomatic gaff when she the letters of condolences were in a Ghana-must-go bag apparently forgetting the present of Ghanaian president, Mahama. She quickly corrected herself, but not after it caused a mild guffaw in the church.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku also lent his deep basal voice to the condolence register. The diplomat said Achebe gave Africa a voice and confidence to speak for themselves having been so denigrated by the colonial masters. He noted, “Achebe gave us confidence through his writings. He told us Africans and the world that there Africa with a very respectful culture that subsists till today. He helped us discover ourselves. Te legacy of Achebe has left for Nigeria and Africa is a legacy that will subsist in Africa and the world for a long time to come”.
Ghanaian President, Mahama called Achebe an icon of African literature, a great man. He admitted to Things Fall Apart shaping his life while growing up. He expressed his gratitude for the way Achebe lived an exemplary life and how much empowerment he gave to many who would follow his footsteps. He capped it off by saying, “Achebe will never die!”
Achebe shut Awka, Ogidi down
That Achebe was a great man is not in doubt. But this became clear to Ogidi town folks early on Thursday when thousands of Nigerians and foreigners descended on the sleepy Ogidi town in a carnival of life for the late Chinua Achebe. As early as 9am, food canteens had their food emptied out, as guests descended on what was available to eat. It turned out a scramble of sorts as both civilians and uniformed officers from police, soldiers, SSS and others scouted the road on which St. Philip’s Anglican Church is located.
At the local canteens, visitors ate what they could find. Those who could find rice or eba ate them ‘without’ meat or fish. And when it became obvious that meat or fish had become scarce just like it was during the civil war, the visitors ate without. The general feeling was that it would be worse off to be part of the celebration on an empty stomach!
Ogidi had not known such invasion, and they were not prepared for it. It took them by surprise. Clearly, they knew or had probably heard of Achebe but they didn’t know the great man that he was until his death. Even at the state capital, Awka, where he was laid in state at Alex Ekwueme Square, Achebe’s immense stature as a big masquerade was unmistakable. He shook Awka and local folks were compelled to the realisation that a great masquerade had entered the midst of the living.