It is three days today before the remains of foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe, arrives Nigeria for a five-day burial rite that would culminate in his interment on Thursday, May 23, at his family compound in Ogidi, Anambra State.
But as organizers put finishing touches to the burial arrangement, a serious controversy has blown open over the decision of the late writer’s family to hand over the programme to the Nigerian federal government as well as those of Anambra and other states in the South-east geopolitical zone.
In the last one week, PREMIUM TIMES has received several telephone calls from some of Mr. Achebe’s family members, contemporaries, associates, friends and fans accusing the late writer’s wife, Christie and her children, of surrendering Mr. Achebe’s corpse to the government for pecuniary gains.
The family wouldn’t comment on the allegations.
While alive, Mr. Achebe, who died on March 22 at 82, was a consistent and vociferous critic of the Nigerian federal and state governments who he repeatedly accused of monumental corruption, ineptitude and misgovernment. In protest against the way Nigeria is run, the revered novelist, in 2004 and 2011, rejected national honours awarded him by the federal government.
But the federal and state governments that Mr. Achebe criticized and kept at bay while alive have now been handed leading roles in the burial of the globally acclaimed novelist, a development that has irked not a few family members, contemporaries, fans and associates.
“Prof was a simple man who deliberately rejected affiliation with the Nigerian government,” lamented an Achebe family member who pleaded not to be named for fear of being ostracized by the late writer’s family. “It is now shocking and nauseating that his wife and children have now sold his corpse to the same destructive forces he opposed till death.”
She added, “We are trying to understand why they are trying to destroy his legacy when the man actually left more than enough wealth to be given a befitting burial without any government getting involved. Why don’t they want to spend the man’s money to give him a befitting burial?”
Checks by this newspaper revealed that the federal and Anambra state government are handling almost all aspects of the burial. The federal government has constituted a Chinua Achebe Transition Committee, led by Professor T. Uzodinma Nwala, to handle logistics for the burial. The Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has also been detailed to arrange accommodation, transportation and security for all guests expected at the burial. In fact, a document seen by one of our sources listed Mr. Achebe’s wife and children among guests being expected at the burial, suggesting that they were being invited to their own patriarch’s interment.
A programme drawn up by the Professor Nwala’s committee showed that Mr. Achebe’s remains would, on May 21, be received at the airport in Abuja by Nigerian politicians and political office holders, some of whom the writer considered corrupt and inept while alive. The novelist will also be treated to a reception at the National Assembly, populated mainly by elements Mr. Achebe believed were holding Nigeria down.
“We can’t understand why Achebe’s wife and kids are taking steps that are contrary to what the good man stood for,” a contemporary of the late writer said via telephone from the United States. “They are doing the opposite of what their father would do.” He requested not to be named for fear he might be accused of trying to derail his friend’s burial.
Olu Oguibe, a Professor of Art and African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and family friend of the Achebes, has been especially vociferous in his criticism of the late writer’s family. “To the best of the knowledge of many who were close to him, his views and opinion of the Nigerian government and that of his state which he so clearly protested in 2004 and 2011 had not changed,” Mr. Oguibe said in an April 29 post on his Facebook page that stirred extensive discussion. “ So, what does it mean that in death, the very same government that this great philosopher and patriot so strongly and unequivocally disapproved of has been given free rein to organize his last rites.”
“The government that he rejected and protested in life is now the chief host at his funeral. That has nothing to do with him, of course; he’s moved on and he made it absolutely clear what he believed in and where he stood. Yet, what does it mean for those who’ve turned his farewell over to brigands and thieves?”
Many other angry fans of the late writer soon joined the debate. “In every sphere of existence, Nigerians are found wanting,” lamented Zainab Haliru, an Abuja-based writer. “It is as though we are meant to be case studies of the exception of rules. We bastardise everything. A man like Achebe just did not fit into our dishonest and disrespectful ways. I would have thought that his immediate family would have turned down the offers. I remember Gani Fawehinmi’s family did.”
Yet another commentator, Ralph Tathagata, said, “Without any resort to insult, children of great minds are not known for making remarkable decisions at moments like this.”
Mr. Tathagata then added, “When the most popular modern existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre died in April, 1980, President Giscard d’Estaing came in person to the hospital and spent an hour beside his coffin. He understood that Sartre, a man who had always rejected official honours (including the Nobel Prize for Literature), would not want a national burial. However, he told Sartre’s friends (including Simone de Beauvoir), ‘but the government would like to pay the cost of his funeral. The Sartreans thanked him, but refused. The Achebeans must not let these base elements in the corridors of power stand astride Achebe’s grave.”
Betraying Achebe twice
Another family source claim this won’t be the first time Achebe’s wife and children would betray him. She recalled that back in 1990 when the writer had the accident that left him paralysed from the waist down, the family accepted a gift of 75,000 pounds from an emissary of then head of state, Ibrahim Babangida.
Mr. Achebe, the source said, was still in coma when the emissary arrived with the money. One of the late writer’s son, Ike, who reportedly warned the family against accepting the gift, was shouted down by other family members who were quoted as saying “Achebe should be allowed to chop Nigeria’s money for once”.
“Some of us are ashamed that Prof’s family members are the ones betraying him, offering his corpse to government in return for favours,” the family source said.
Posthumous National Honour
A presidency source said the government has also offered to award a posthumous national honour to Mr. Achebe but it is not clear whether his family has accepted the proposal.
When the government offered Mr. Achebe a national honour of Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR, in 2004, he wrote to the administration rejecting it. “Nigeria’s condition today is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List,” he wrote.
He added, “I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”
When the award was again offered him in 2011, he again turned it down, saying “The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved.”
Handing the Achebe Colloquium to government
Sources close to the family also told PREMIUM TIMES that the Federal Government has also offered to henceforth fund the Achebe Colloquium, a festival of ideas convened annually since 2009 by the late writer to bring “together an international group of scholars, officials from African governments, the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and other organizations for two days of intense deliberation and exchange of ideas on the importance of strengthening democracy and peace on the African continent”.
Critics say asking the Nigerian government to fund a gathering through which experts examine what is wrong with African countries and proffer solutions amounted “to asking the same governments considered rotten by Achebe to take charge.” “This is a huge betrayal of Achebe’s legacy,” an associate of the late novelist said.
The Achebes won’t react
When contacted, one of Professor Achebe’s son, Chidi, declined comments, saying the family had decided not to grant interviews until after the burial.
But another family member, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the family cannot stop the government from participating in the burial because Prof. Achebe’s remains “is an ozu Nigeria”, meaning a dead body belonging to Nigeria.
“The family can’t stand in the way of government because Prof was a national figure,” he said. “He transcended local politics and anyone who wants to be helpful during his burial should be free to do so.”