Chinua Achebe’s refusal to accept an award from Nigeria’s president is the latest example of the great writer’s ambivalence towards his homeland. The author of Things Fall Apart, the most acclaimed novel ever written in English by an African, Achebe has long disapproved over government, governance and public affairs in his beloved Nigeria.
The 80-year-old Achebe, who was paralysed from the waist down after a car accident in 1990, won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his literary career. Two years later he visited Nigeria for the first time in a decade as part of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart.
In analyzing he failures of an independent Nigeria, Achebe has stopped short of blaming the victim. Along with criticizing contemporary leaders of Nigeria, he also blames colonialism — and its legacy — for some of Nigeria’s ills. As I wrote last year, in a review of Achebe’s newest volume of collected essays, Achebe is at heart a storyteller, not a policy analyst. While he helps to identify the sources of various pathologies in Nigeria today and in Africa generally, he refrains from presenting cures, which makes his refusal to accept an award from President Goodluck Jonathan harder to swallow for some proud Nigerians.
“I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings,” Achebe has wrote in The Education of a British-Protected Child (Knopf, 2010) but he believes these African solutions will be created by and for fellow Africans. In the final essay of this collection, “Africa is People,” Achebe invokes the powerful Bantu declaration, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” (“A human is a human because of other humans.”) Africa’s future, Achebe insists, depends on a new appreciation for the value of “an African communal aspiration.”
Apparently, Nigeria’s current government has yet to show sufficient appreciation for the communal.