Tribute by Hon. Oseloka H. Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult And Former Secretary to the Anambra State Government At the Chinua Achebe Colloquium 40th Anniversary of “The Trouble with Nigeria”/10th Anniversary Celebrations Co-hosted by Princeton University & Christie and Chinua Achebe Foundation Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 30th September 2023
I am immensely thrilled and honoured to be among the select few who were asked to speak at this event in honour of Professor Chinua Achebe. As far as history and clichés go; I am not worthy to lace Achebe’s sandals, least of all speak about him, even if in tribute. Nevertheless here we are.
I wish to thank Prof. Christie Achebe, Prof. Chike Okeke-Agulu and my dear brother, Dr. Chidi Achebe for their very gracious invitation. I was not privileged to attend Princeton University; but today I will earn the brownie point and bragging rights to say that I spoke at Princeton. I thank Princeton University authorities for the honours.
Achebe’s Spirit Lives
Over the years, I have had the distinct privilege of studying, reading, writing and speaking about Chinua Achebe. Today marks the high spot of those endeavours; as on this global stage, I shall offer a few humble words of tribute to a man, who like many others, I hold in awe. Please forgive me, if I repeat myself.
Achebe! Achebe!! Achebe!!!
Where are you? Answer us!
You have gone to the great beyond.
You passed on. But you live. Yes, your spirit lives.
Your face is hidden; but hardly so, your voice!
You gifted us your prescient words.
Now they resonate; guide us, yet mock us.
Oh, if only we had listened! If only; Yes, if only…!!
In an op-ed piece I wrote in 2006, I proclaimed Achebe “The Unacknowledged Nobel Laureate” and when he passed in 2013; I opined that he was “a legend, who will eternally be known simply his surname –ACHEBE, just as we know Shakespeare, Yates, Dickens, Shaw and Byron.” I also underlined then, that in utter reverence, “we shall continue to refer to the legend and master, in the present tense and simply, as ACHEBE.” I believe I stand vindicated.
Achebe was a legend in his life time, and because he gave so much of himself to us and to our posterity, we continue to celebrate him and speak of him in the present tense.
In gathering here today to honour Achebe, we honour his humanism, enduring literary and storytelling legacies; and his prophetic enunciations. We remember him; we celebrate him; and we express our collective appreciation for the worthy legacy he bequeathed. We know also that his elucidations will, in perpetuity add to the edification of our humanity.
In a 2015 book by Ben Bosah titled, Celebrating Chinua Achebe, some eminent contributors, some of who are here present, eulogized Achebe with various ennobling titles and adjectival qualifications. I will borrow some of those voices:
Abubakar D. Umar: “Chinua Achebe: A Mighthy Tree has Fallen”;
Chika Unigwe: “Achebe: He Freed me to Tell My Own Story”;
Chris Abani: “Achebe: My Complicated Literary Father”;
Jesse Weaver Shipley: “Chinua Achebe: A Poet of Global Encounter”;
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: “Chinua Achebe: The Spirit Lives”;
Pita Ejiofor: “Chinua Achebe, the Legend”;
Sonola Olumhense: “Chinua Achebe: Larger in Death”; and
Victor Ehikwamenor: “Chinua Achebe: Africa’s Voice, Nigeria’s Conscience”;
Indeed, Achebe was Africa’s Voice and Nigeria’s Conscience. Chinua Achebe was an exemplar in many ways. He was intuitively humble; even in his soft and bespoke manner of speaking. His steely but consistent voice evoked great debates. A true patriot, he never forgot his origin or place of birth. Unfailingly, he spoke the inconvenient truth to power; hardly ever waffling like some of his contemporaries, in dire moments of national controversy and challenge.
Forty years ago -in 1983- Achebe wrote The Trouble With Nigeria, the pithy book we celebrate today. Therein, he dissected with surgical precision Nigeria’s problematique. There was, I suspect, a personal reason why Achebe wrote that small but mighty book; since many years later, he wrote a tome titled, There Was Country.
Achebe, as we all know, understood and wrote extensively about Nigeria. At times, he did so presciently. When the voice of Nigeria’s moral majority was doused and subjugated, he intervened, and wrote scathing dissents. In two instances -2004 and 2011 – he rejected high national awards in protestation of the squalid “bankrupt and lawless fiefdom” Nigeria had become. For such steadfastness, he was loved and is continually epitomized and eulogized.
Achebe in his lifetime influenced many people, writers, politicians, philosophers and youths, and did so effortlessly. Yet Achebe suffered and perhaps still suffers from the bane and fate of erstwhile Biblical Prophets. I suspect that he has never been fully appreciated in his homeland. This may explain the paradox of why he is today being celebrated in the United States and not in Nigeria. The other reason, of course is rhetorical – in Nigeria, Things Have Fallen Apart and the nation is No Longer at Ease.
What Might Achebe Say Today?
Of everything Achebe has written and said about Nigeria; three synoptic and terse sentences encapsulated it all. Were Achebe to speak to us from his grave, against the backdrop of present day Nigeria, I suspect he would say the same things over and over.
As Achebe said, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership.” He also said, that “Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be.” As Achebe said on the second occasion of his rejecting Nigeria’s National Award, “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone changed.” I will simply confirm that the status quo remains.
We need no messages from the wilderness, the dead, or the high heavens to remind us of our bane. Let the wise heed the counsel of the wise. In his lifetime Achebe spoke Truth to Power. Today, can those in power find it within their grasp to understand the Power of the Truth Achebe told Nigeria? In deciphering Nigeria’s challenges, we need not add or subtract from those remarks. Without any apologies; It is what it is! What is written; is written!!
What does this say? Through Achebe’s various works, his Spirit Lives. Thus, our love, devotion, admiration and nostalgia for Achebe will never dissipate.
While I am never tired of paying tribute to Achebe, I remain convinced that no tribute to Achebe can be most sincere, poignant and revelatory than that by his childhood bosom friend and classmate, the late Chief Chike Christian Momah. Of Achebe, Momah wrote: “We stand, in humility, in the shadow of his greatness and, yes, of his almost Biblical stature!!! In the language of the Bard, when comes such another?”
Indeed, when shall there be another legend like Achebe? When?
I thank you.