#NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo: Achebe’s Last Gift to Us

Humans endlessly search for significance in everyday occurrences, especially death, and for me I have chosen to find significance in the death of global icon Chinua Achebe just before the final week of this series.

It was Achebe who inspired this series in 2011 after I read The Trouble with Nigeria – a book that overpowered me with the simplicity of its message, the ferocity of its passion and the moral clarity that underlined it. The book quieted me for days, as much for the fact that it was still true in 2011 as it when it was first written in 1983, as for the fact that fresh off a year of election activism, it showed that we were barely scratching the surface.

Post Achebe’s book, it seemed to me like the only option I had was withdrawal from the change space. It inspired a one-year process of soul search, research and quiet observation. One began to wonder – if these problems remain the exact same way over decades, does it make any sense to engage them without a more deeply thought-out strategy?

Would youthful exuberance, an army of new tools, and a sense of outrage inspired by our non-responsibility for the present rot be enough to actually change our country? Would we be able to make things change simply by the power of our will? Shouldn’t we answer the questions that generations have been asking before making a step? Shouldn’t we ensure that we know exactly what we are doing before we begin to do it?

This series came to me as an exploration of the questions I have asked myself and I am still asking myself over the past almost 2 years, and it encompasses the beginning of the answers as I see them or as discerned from the visions of others.

In writing this, I have also disciplined myself to fight the temptation of providing answers and of prescribing solutions to the problems because the cupboards of Nigerian government offices are filled with the most brilliant answers to “National Questions”. We have White Papers and Committee Reports on Everything, and most have come from some of the most brilliant and earnest, minds from and out of Nigeria.

Our problem is not a lack of answers. What we battle now is not a lack of ideas or solutions or suggestions. The problem, as I see it, is that we ask the wrong questions. Then we keep answering the wrong questions again and again and again. We are a society in a hurry – in a hurry to move to ‘what should be done’ when we have not spent time finding out ‘what caused it’.

A man is hit by a car behind him and while he comes out to try and understand what is happening, onlookers besiege and ask him to move on; a staff makes a mistake in an office and while the boss is trying to understand what went wrong, others are eager to ‘move on’, a tragedy occurs and those in the media, in the arts, in the humanities want to think through it, feel through it; understand it. But the nation is impatient; incapable of purposive introspection. Fire them, it demands.

It’s almost like we have no soul – we refuse to engage the world with sophistication. How can millions of people die in a civil war, and a state governor states in public that it is something that his generation has “moved on from” just because he is in a hurry to build an Eko Atlantic City that might be destroyed tomorrow by an eruption of violence over the same issues that led to Biafra over 50 years ago?

How can we pretend that we can move on when much of Nigeria is still gripped by the fear of ethnic/religious attacks and reprisals?

You hear people say in newspapers and social media that “we talk too much” and it makes you wonder – really? The societies that have achieved greatness never stop talking – Europe, America, Asia, South Africa, Brazil. They keep talking, keep asking, keep prodding, and keep questioning; measuring ten times and then cutting once.

We, on the hand? We keep asking for solutions – and quick ones at that. But, solutions to WHAT?! Do we know the problem before we ask for solutions?! Sometimes you just want to grab the people you see talking and shake them up and say “You’re causing more harm! Shut up”. Goodness!

And that is where Achebe’s genius lies.

First, his insistence on asking those questions because he knows they have never been answered. He refused to kill his inner voice because his country is led and defined by people who refuse to think beyond the surface. But more importantly, it is his uncanny ability to capture the big issues and the overriding themes of our nationhood and present them in the simplest of terms, and with the most honest of intentions.

Achebe had the unique gift of kicking off the conversations our country needs to have. To ask the questions it needs to answer– and to keep asking them until someone takes responsibility. The more I think of him, the more I imagine a man who would never raise his voice (a weakness of mine as evidenced by the exclamations above), but who would always insist on his argument, and improve it; because it was carefully thought out before it was made. A man confident in his ideas because they are deliberate and heart-felt – and almost always right.

And that man kept asking questions – through fiction from Things Fall Apart to A Man of the People, and through non-fiction from The Trouble With Nigeria, to The Education of a British-Protected Child.

If the world were a perfect place, there would be no need to write new articles or essays or books about the Nigerian situation – all one would do is repeat the reading and discussion of Achebe’s books.

He said it all and not a word more.

He captured the heart and essence of the Nigerian tragedy. Our country’s problem is not President Jonathan’s lack of character, the lack of safety in our aviation industry, the inability to provide uninterrupted security, the collapse of infrastructure in our schools or electoral malpractice.

Achebe captured the problem in one simple, elegant statement: “What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a way – ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.”

Please read that again. Form those pictures in your mind. Move beyond symptoms and what your eyes can see, and trace most of our country’s issues to their root as far as your mind can take you. Achebe is totally right.

“Corruption in Nigeria has passed that alarming and entered the fatal stage; and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending she is only slightly indisposed,” he said in Trouble.

“I have stated elsewhere that this mindless carnage will only end with the dismantling of the present corrupt political system and the banishment of the cult of mediocrity that runs it,” he said in There Was A Country.

“… the idea that somebody could go from state house to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is extremely important. And it is an idea that ought to live in the consciousness of our people whether they are going to be leaders or the led,” he also said in Trouble.

“We have lost the twentieth century,” he declared in Country, “Are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first?”

Country, which caused a global storm last year, is perhaps the nation’s most read and most talked about book since Things Fall Apart. In it, Achebe ripped apart the Band-Aid and put open Nigeria’s hidden wound for his countrymen and the world to see – and deal with.

I read the book, and, again, it overwhelmed. After that first gush of wind, I began to feel dissatisfaction, that the story left me wanting more. My prognosis was anger; that Achebe wrote this book blinded by an anger that has not abated; the kind that results when you watch your friend torn apart by a bomb in what you see as an unjust war.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, whilst his editors could certainly have done more, Achebe wrote exactly the book he wanted to write, and while he maintained a characteristically dignified silence all through the raucous debate, he achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve.

He told a story that was fiercely his, telling it in the way truest to what he saw and believed, and then handing it over to his country(wo)men.

And now I am certain of what I always suspected: that, for a man who was as much in tune with his powers of logic as he was awed by the unseen and the intangible, Achebe was fully aware of his impending departure; making the decision to give his country the last thing he felt he owed it.

The legend who loved his country so much that he rejected two National Honours because that was the least he could do wrote this book because it was too important not to be written. Because he knew that the circumstances that led this country to the 1966 Civil War still exist and are capable of tearing us apart again.

Achebe – master of the cool, distant commentary – deliberately “chose the raw, emotional depth of a scarred participant-observer.”

He willingly surrendered the position of arbiter, and chose that of patriot – pained, angry, restless, impatient, devastated. In calmly subsuming any well-earned desire to write the predictable biography and tell the full story of a charmed life under the need to tell an important Nigerian story, Achebe delivered to us his final gift.

There was a Country provided some solutions to the problems it raised in an almost leisurely few lines, but they were half-hearted and repetitive; clearly not the author’s focus and for which he did not care much.

In questioning who we are – a country that killed children and then just moved on, amongst others – and the meanings of the things we have done as a people, Achebe forced us to have a conversation we will need to have to make meaningful progress.

It was Chinua Achebe asking one final time: Will you guys do things the exact same way as those before you, and somehow expect that it will result in a country that you can be proud of?

And then, tired and heartbroken, he left the stage.

Photo Credit: miabaga.com
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Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & YNaija.com. He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.

17 Comments on #NewLeadership Series with Chude Jideonwo: Achebe’s Last Gift to Us
  • EfKay March 27, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Thank you oh. I remember when Aluu4 happened. Weeks after I was till restless, broken, enduring sleepless nights while everyone asked, “When will you move on?” I didn’t understand it. Move on and then what? Another senseless tragedy? “But you didn’t know them”,they said. Did I have to? I said it then that our problem is we move on too quickly…especially when those affected are not related to us. We don’t think that as long as we live in Nigeria, what happened to them could happen to us. The statistics of unexplained deaths and disappearances keep rising but as long as we don’t know them, we move on. Doctor Irawo that was shot at Anthony, my friend’s dad that was beheaded in Ibadan, my friend’s classmate that was kidnapped in Uyo…who is investigating? We talk on twitter, facebook, bbm for a week and then we move on. But I ask again, to what?

  • miser March 27, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Chude I think u shud write your book… Your articles feel like one. Lol. Great job

  • Tayo March 27, 2013 at 11:12 am

    @Efkay said it all….the problem is move on too quickly, Aluu4 no judgment has been passed till now smh, such a shame seeing my country in this shape…God help us

  • Tayo March 27, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Many thanks for the write up Chude, if you don’t mind, please provide the reference for this statement “What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a way – ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.” I would like to read more from that particular context. Thank you in advance.

    • hugkisshi5 March 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm

      Hi Tayo, you may read TWAC (There was a country).

  • kikiN March 27, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Very apt. The man who saw beyond- Chinua Achebe. May Nigeria one day live up to your dreams, our dreams.
    Nigeria needs help.

  • Ruth Olurounbi March 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Hi, Jude.
    Would you mind writing on Entrepreneurship+ on Mondays @Nigerian Tribune. Check it out on here: tribune.com.ng/news2013/index.php/en/component/k2/item/8106-so-you-re-now-a-business-person-here-s-what-can-break-or-make-you. Bella, please help ensure Jude sees this. Thank you.

    • cynthia March 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Please o we dont want him to change focus/his message.. there are plenty plenty people that can write on entrepreneurship for you.

    • Italian Princess March 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

      :S Who is Jude?

  • in March 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    @tayo that was culled from “THERE WAS A COUNTRY”

  • Tyna March 27, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Jude, you took the words out of my mouth, wonderful piece. I read it all and wanted mire. It’s a shame there are only few comments here; Nigerians have forgotten little things like reading exceptional, intelligent and well thought out piece.. They move on quickily to things that are the rave like Kim Kardashian and all. If it were a story about one of these useless celebrities, you’ll see hundreds of comments.
    Someone mentioned Aluu4, let me add Dana Airline to that. The rate at which Nigerians move on from crimes against humanity is alarming. I said it that after one week, they will move on (the Aftermath of Aluu4) and gbam! That’s what happened. We need to stop living in the now and fight for our future with genuine hearts. Fight for the helpless, the maimed, the victims. Let us re-write our histories from the ‘savages’ as we were called in time past to people who truly care for one another, who hurt when people hurt, who can give their last meal to the needy. Nigerians wake up and read. Open your minds, your heart and you’ll be shocked what you will discover.

  • Olorun Jona March 27, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Tori, tori. You know 9ja aint going nowhere, when an article like this that was posted hours ago just has only 10 comments, and Tonto Dikeh’s video got 40+ comments in under an hour. That my people is where this nation is going. When I read the Times online, the Guardian, the Telegraph, you read sound well articulated comments running into their hundreds. There’s an article Chude posted yesterday that I read at 2am and not a SINGLE comment was showing, not one, yet TuFace’s wedding got 200+. When it is relationship artcile, where women just rant about their miserable lives (the same sob stories over and over again) it will get 100+. This tells you that the people you are trying to rouse DON’T CARE. The BN audience, I’ll say it again DON’T CARE. I sat next to someone on board a flight to Lagos and he said Nigeria’s problem is not the masses. It is the middle class. Himself and his family included. We are far removed from the real issues. The poor have already accepted their fate, they don’t know better, and they live based on the crumbs they can scrape by. The middle class on the other hand, just calmly sits back while an illietrate is elected councillor and governor. The rich won’t mobilise against the ruling class, how now. They are one and the same. The poor are too hungry to fight, plus they’ll be given peanuts to shut up. The middle class on the other hand are the one’s that can mobilise, strategise, demand for better, but abeg, they can’t shout. They’ll rather let Oga at the Top go viral and create T shirts. Do you think it was the poor or the rich that made those remix videos and even t shirts? Do you? As long as they can go to their private schools, go abroad on holidays, escape the 9ja madness for a few weeks and shop, buy their brazilian hair, attend their socialites event, and hob nob with the rich, they go home, go to sleep, and tomorrow is another day. It is someone else’s problem and not theirs. They can eat, buy generator, drive in air conditioned cars, (even if there’s a gully in the road, your car has AC, you have a driver), go to private hospital, private schools, work in plush jobs on the Island they are fine. nigeria is already in the toilet, but they can’t see it. I wish you well o Chude, but me o, I’ve lost all hope. There’s nothing to have faith about. Achebe did did (he died at 80) Awolowo did did, Gani Fawehinmi, and other notable names. Yet, enu e lasi wa yen (we still dey where we dey, or even worse sef). The people you are preaching to, don’t care. The pastors who have the power to connect to the massess, are enterpreneurs. So my dear, no let frustration kill you o

    • cynthia March 27, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      Mmmh you have spoken the truth but we cant lose hope o… even if it is just a flicker!

  • Kachi March 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Thank you Chude Jideonwo, for reinstating the facts and issues. Please, don’t relent in this.

  • hugkisshi5 March 27, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Write on Jude! Let those that know how to write keep writing, and those who know how to ask keep asking. We must all open our minds and listen to each others stories including those of our s o called ‘enemies’. For we will learn a thing from it and endear more people to the fight for our country, the fight firstly to begin to heal and then to restore this country to glory(or something close). For if we do not ask questions and hear everyone’s story, we will continue like this even to our children’s generation.

  • Tunde March 27, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Brilliant write-up. I weep for my country but live in the hope that one day Nigeria will wake up and cut-out the cancer destroying its very existence. GREED.

  • NNENNE March 28, 2013 at 2:45 am

    We all can do a lot to change things. Vote for your conscience instead of your pocket. No touting during elections. Do not return a bad leader to office.( Do not vote for them again). Vote for the best candidate and not your friend or brother. When we see bad things happening, we report it. Some criminals can only be caught because someone reported them to authorities. Do our civic responsibilities. IT IS HYPOCRISY TO SELL YOUR VOTE ,THEN COMPLAIN ABOUT BAD LEADERS.

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