Popular columnist, Sam Omatseye, under fire over column on Achebe

Writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe

The Nation newspaper’s well-known columnist, Sam Omatseye, has drawn criticisms after he wrote an article considered by some as belittling the amazing literary works of foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe.

Some have also faulted the columnist for delivering a verdict suggesting Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is greater than Mr. Achebe.

In his Monday column, Mr. Omatseye, who heads the paper’s Editorial Board, did what seems a scathing review of Mr. Achebe’s literary legacy, saying Things Fall Apart, the writer’s most famous novel, is big in ideology but lacking in literary essence.

He faulted arguments by Mr. Achebe’s fans that he was more deserving of the Nobel Prize than Mr. Soyinka, saying the Nobel Laureate churned out a deeper and more elegant body of work.

“Achebe was a good story teller, so was my grandmother,” Mr. Omatseye said of the novelist who passed away barely a week ago in Boston, Massachusetts. “Turning from a raconteur to an art of sublimity and depth belongs to the masters. He was described as a great writer but not a great artist.”

“So he wrote good works, not great works, not textured by deeper insights that you would see in better accomplished works,” he continued. “Those who read TFA (Things Fall Apart) like clockwork may be put off by some of Soyinka’s opus. So they should not obsess out of ignorance. They should read first. If you knock Soyinka on obscurity, you have a right. But high art is not always easy to understand. Those who claim to enjoy TFA cannot write a literate essay on the book and why it is high art.”

Expectedly, Mr. Omatseye’s remarks have sparked debates among writers and drawn immediate fury from Mr. Achebe’s fans.

Popular literary critic, IkhideIkheloa, who posted the controversial article on his Facebook page, was first to launch an attack on Mr. Omatseye.  “You read semi-literate crap like this by this Sam Omatseye guy, you endure the grammatical challenges and the awful logic and your heart stops with shame and embarrassment – for the author,” Mr. Ikheloa commented below the post.

“I mean, this man wrote this stuff, read it to himself, patted himself on the back and hit “SEND.” What is wrong with this man? Where do you begin to correct the glaring inaccuracies in this drivel? Why should you? I mean, where in the name of serious scholarship do you begin to compare Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe? Who does that? And to what purpose? They are two different spirits on many levels.”

Literature professor, and renowned columnist, Okey Ndibe, who also commented on Facebook, called Mr. Omatseye’s remarks a “simplistic binary notion that Soyinka’s greatness is conditional on the (attempted) miniaturizing of Achebe–or vice versa”.

“Yet, intelligent people–and especially aesthetes–ought to know that many extraordinary writers can (and do) coexist within the same nation-space. They also know how futile it is, in the end, to attempt a ranking of amazing literary talents whose primary genres are so different–to say nothing of their temper, reach, focus, and linguistic styles. Sam is not a new comer to this inelegant game of Achebe-bashing.”

Mr. Achebe’s death, which came after what the family said was a brief illness, unlocked an outpouring of reverence and emotions from around the world- almost unprecedented for any Nigerian literary export. His book, Things Fall Apart, more than any other indigenous African work, is reputed for opening the eyes of the world to the real fabric of a continent that struggled with colonialism and remained haunted by it.

But at home, Mr. Achebe’s death again proved a fresh opportunity for his critics to take another haunting look at his work. Criticism of the late writer’s work was initially sparked last year after the release of his last book, There Was Country, which captured his civil war experience.

In the memoir published in 2012, Mr. Achebe claimed the Igbos were victims of genocide and blamed the late Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo, for masterminding the civil war policy that starved several thousands to death.

That comment, among others, stirred bitter altercations between many Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani intellectuals on one hand and their Igbo counterparts on the other.

Since his death however, only a few critics have publicly criticized Mr. Achebe.  While a Bayero University, Kano, English and French professor, Ibrahim Bello-Kano, lambasted Mr. Achebe for all his works including “There Was a Country” which he referred to as “Achebe’s most inferior work“, Mr. Omatseye limited his concern to his most popular book, Things Fall Apart.

Mr. Omatseye said the book proved its little literary worth by repeatedly failing to win the Nobel.

“How come the father of African literature did not win the preeminent prize? First, TFA was a great book not because of its literary properties but because of its ideological potency,” he said. “The Nobel Prize does not go to a novelist whose work is signposted by sociological fixations supplanting narratives with long pages of how Igbo villages are organized.”

“Did he succeed by using the language as a tool of subversion? Hardly. He wrote about the assertion of local pride, which was hardly original. But it was a counter-narrative, and it was done with gusto and minimal dexterity, and that was enough for them. They (The West) were amazed at the manipulation of proverbs and other manifestations of local colour. But the proverbs were never original, just like many of the proverbs in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame.

Mr. Ikheloa dismissed the arguments with a scorching rebuke.

“Does Omatseye really believe himself when he says that Achebe’s works were good, not great?” he queried. “If we were to use that quote to judge Soyinka’s works, that is to eliminate works that are great only because of their “ideological potency” would Soyinka have won the Nobel Prize? Absolutely not. Every one of Soyinka’s works is guilty of what this character Omatseye accuses Achebe’s works of being. Does this character even understand what Soyinka’s plays were about?”

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