Soyinka, Clark, devastated; say Boko Haram may have hastened Achebe’s death

Writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe

It has been a gush of emotions from the literary community since the news broke early Friday of the passage of renowned novelist, Chinua Achebe, at the age of 83 in the United States.

Late Friday from Lagos, two contemporaries of Mr. Achebe, Professors John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka, spoke of what they call a personal loss at the passage of the literary icon, pointing eerily to the depleting tribe of the pioneers of Nigerian literary art in English language.

“For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter. Of the “pioneer quartet” of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe” the two writers said in a short statement.

Mr. Soyinka, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature about three decades ago, in 1986, had declined to make early comments on Friday on the passing of his literary colleague, seeking time to comprehend the shock and meaning of Mr. Achebe’s death, according to family sources.

When he finally spoke, very late on Friday, it came in the voice of himself and Mr. Clarke, an emeritus professor of Literature at the University of Lagos.

The two writers, straining to convey the depth of their pathos said, “it is perhaps difficult for outsiders of that intimate circle to appreciate this sense of depletion, but we take consolation in the young generation of writers to whom the baton has been passed, those who have already creatively ensured that there is no break in the continuum of the literary vocation.”

They added: “We need to stress this at a critical time of Nigerian history, where the forces of darkness appear to overshadow the illumination of existence that literature represents.”

One of the flying stars of that new generation of writers, Ms. Chimamanda Adichie who, according to Mr. Mukhtar Bakare of Kachifo  Books, her Nigerian publisher, had “gone underground somewhere in the east” released a powerful elegy in her Igbo language late Friday announcing that “Something dreadful has happened” with the passage of Mr. Achebe.

Ms. Adichie is generally considered a literary protégé and perhaps Mr. Achebe’s most accomplished successor in the genre of the novelistic writing in English language. In her elegy, she described Mr. Achebe as “a big thinker, a brilliant mind, a kind soul,“ bemoaning the closure of an important chapter in a nation’s history.

“Who is now going to be our reference of pride? Who speaks now for us in the contest of wills? Who is even going to prepare our path?” she queried in the elegy, getting very intimate and saying with the transition of Mr. Achebe to the great beyond, “truly, a great misfortune has occurred.”

Her personal, even intimate, elegy contrasted sharply from that of the feisty elderly duo who aimed fuming shots at those they called “forces that arrogantly pride themselves implacable and brutal enemies of what Chinua and his pen represented, not merely for the African continent, but for humanity.”

Their unmistakable reference to terror campaigners, like Boko Haram insurgents, that have ravaged many parts of northern Nigeria for the past three years, was striking, and they even suggested a correlation between the death of Mr. Achebe and “the recent insensate massacre of Chinua’s people in Kano” which they thought “hastened the fatal undermining of that resilient will that had sustained him so many years after his crippling accident.”

“No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives.  His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression” they stated.

The three greats of Nigerian literature have had collaborations on major national issues in the past. When the then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida signed off on a death sentence on the poet and soldier, Maman Vatsa, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and JP Clark visited the then presidential villa at Dodan Barracks in Lagos on a mission to save Vatsa’s life. Their military host held to his gun, executing Vatsa.

Last year January again, Mr. Achebe joined Soyinka and Clark, calling for the convening of a national conference to reconsider the meaning and direction of the Nigerian state. It was a call that reflected an increasing public frustration over terrorist attacks, and spreading strife against President Jonathan’s removal of petrol subsidy.

Read full statement by Clark and Soyinka here and Chimamanda’s elegy here.


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