Unknown to him that Prof Chinua Achebe was on hospital bed and was making his way out of this difficult world, statesman, writer and intellectual, Omorodion Uwaifo, 81, emailed the letter below to him at about 9.31 a.m. (Nigerian time) on March 21. That was about 4.31 a.m. in Boston, Massachusetts, where the renowned novelist was gradually transiting to the world beyond. Mr. Achebe died later that day, and didn’t get to read the letter. Enjoy…
Dear Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe,
Please kindly give me a bit of your time. I want to discuss with you what your recent works have stirred up in me, in the hope that I can convince you to use your wonderful talents in a directed objective that I strongly believe will solve the very complex problems of the country we all share.
Let me start by introducing myself. I was born in Benin City nearly 81 years ago. I am an electrical engineer. I was the last Area Manager (North) of the ECN before it transformed into NEPA in 1974. I chose to leave the service at the point of the transformation. Some twenty years service in that organization took me away to several parts of Nigeria including Ibadan, Shagamu, Ijebu Ode, Lagos, Onitsha and Kaduna. After I withdrew my service from the ECN, I ran an engineering consultancy outfit in electrical and mechanical engineering services and worked on projects around the country. Lagos has been my home for nearly the last forty years.
Thank you both for your extraordinary patriotism. Your two recent great works – You Must Set Forth at Dawn and There Was a Country – started my year 2013. I had spent my Christmas holidays reading Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third to the First World. Your books told readers about your passionate humanism. The encounter of Wole with much that is wrong with Nigeria is breathtaking and his close shaves with situations that could easily have taken his life are hair-raising. I thank the gods of our fathers past, for your life Wole.
Both books are about Nigeria. Chinua, you poured your heart out; it’s all there. Edo proverb tells us that if you talk about an earthworm it would rain all day. There is no shortage of philosophy and words of wisdom among our peoples. As you said, an Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body. It really has rained problems in and on Nigeria since independence.
Chinua, you lit the path for readers from the first to the last page in the seminal work There Was a Country – an invaluable read on the civil war. Wole’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn is a poetic tour de force by a resilient Nigerian, fighting the cause of political justice. You both showed how passionately you want Nigeria to rise from the debris of civil war and political chicanery to the highest, noblest hopes of her thinking citizens. For reasons of modesty, Chinua, I suppose, you did not stitch your diagnosis of Nigeria’s disease and the prescription for her cure together. However, they are all there in your work.
Stanley Diamond saw the bloody civil war not as progressive nationalism fighting “primitive” tribalism, but as the ruining of a rare and genuine national culture at the moment of its birth. Yes, a new country called Nigeria consisting of several ethnic nations was ruined at the time of its practical birth. Unfortunately, the fact is that it had to die given the political system to hold the disparate peoples together. Whitehall democracy is for enlightened people able to work their way through the treacle of governance of modern societies. We did not have such people in 1960; we do not have them in sufficient numbers now to make a difference. Much of the few there are, have been corrupted by repeated exposures to the chicanery of political leadership at all levels.
You looked hard at the political problem and told us about the view of late Senator Francis Ellah. “. . . I think that around March 1968, when we were in a position to achieve a confederation, we should have accepted the chance or opportunity.” He went on, “. . . because this country, would have been much better as a confederation of four or six states. Around the time of the Kampala talks there were definite signs that a confederation could be achieved.” Okoi Arikpo had written years earlier that – constitution-builders (Nigerian Constitution) were looking through the ‘wrong end of the telescope’; that federations are not imposed and cemented in place; but that they can only emerge out of a natural evolving growth of confederations with cooperation amongst peoples over time; that this is the only sensible way forward in seeking to secure a stable, strong, flexible, incorporate, multi-national unit. … As chairman of the National Guidance Council of Biafra, you preferred democratic institutions not in the purely Western sense but in a fusion of the good ideas of the West with the best that we had produced in our own ancient African civilizations. Indeed there are several ideas of democracy. If our leaders at independence were not in a hurry to be the black faces of white rule, they would have known that the model they chose could only have led us to disaster. As Henry Kissinger says, history matters. Some ethnic nations here ruled themselves for hundreds if not thousands of years. In hind sight, it made no sense at all that at independence the models with which they ruled themselves should have been swept away for that which the British used for forty-six years. The best of these native systems should have been studied, synthesized and a hybrid best suited to our histories and circumstances developed.
You pointed out how different many of our ethnic nationalities are when you said “The Igbo people expressed a strong anti-monarchy sentiment – Ezebuilo – which literally means a king is an enemy.” Ibo in Onitsha will probably not agree with you, but Wole will personally agree. It just goes to show how different humankind can be. Edo, Efik, Wole’s Ishara, Ijebu Ode, Egba, Oyo, Ife, Ilesha, Ibadan, Ondo, Tiv, Itsekiri, Asaba, Opobo and many more ethnic nations are pro-monarchy, in spite of everything the British did to destroy the institution, while preserving their own.
Indeed, that the British preserved their monarchy affirms the fact that it can survive in a democracy as it survived in the Edo model for centuries. A quick Edo example is the tragic rule of Oba Ewuakpe (about 1700 – 1712). When his beloved mother died, Ewuakpe resorted to an orgy of human sacrifice during his mother’s rites of passage. His subjects, led by his ekhaemwen, some call them chiefs – a title I consider a cliché and one totally irrelevant to the traditional duties usually assigned to these people – protested and sacked his palace. Not a soul, except Iden, one of his many wives, stayed back to serve him. In penury, Ewuakpe asked Iden to consult an oracle. It revealed that sacrifice of one human would bring the people back to the service of the throne and the Kingdom.
The only human available for sacrifice was Iden. Ewuakpe did not want to sacrifice her, but Iden insisted that she should be sacrificed if that would save the Kingdom and her beloved Oba. Ewuakpe sacrificed Iden after seven days and proclaimed a law which forbade, on the penalty of death, anyone who would step on the hallowed ground where his beloved Iden slept. Slowly, he regained control of the Kingdom and peace reigned thereafter.
A good thing about confederations is that they allow different factors and contrasting shades of democracy to survive side by side and contribute to the whole. Disparate, assertive and committed to their traditions as ethnic nations are in our country, we have no viable choice other than a confederation if we are to survive and use our customs and diverse talents for our progress under the fierce sun. I believe that if it is right to have four or six, it is right to have many more confederating states. The critical number of such states will be decided by historical, geographic, economic, cultural and to a lesser extent, religious factors. We cannot survive in a political system, which incapacitates our ethnic nations and renders them unable to respond to their traditional, customary and religious duties to their peoples and their impulses. You want to see how these politicians and their cohorts crawl to traditional institutions at night to seek support and sustenance. When all is said and done, we know that traditional institutions are our ONLY true strength and the ONLY powers that can say NO and we hold our peace. They are the ONLY sieves that can filter our polluted political waters and control governance at all levels. Thank God, Western civilization has not quite succeeded in totally wrenching us away from our primordial civilizations.
Yet, indiscipline holds Nigeria down and underpins her problems. The West places individuals above the family or community, but most ethnic nations of our country place families and communities above the individual, while apotheosizing individuals for their achievements. Many will indeed stop the individual for the collective good of their community. No time is as critical as now; we need that ethnic sieve for the political control of the centre in our country or we are doomed to be controlled by oligarchs created by our corrupt present.
I know you think about our country all the time. I pray you to use your prodigious talents and influence to ensure that this is discussed by many at the highest level here and internationally. Boko Haram stands tall on their muezzins calling for something to happen now in Nigeria. We cannot have a better chance for a good and progressive change in Nigeria. I pray you. Your countryman of your generation
March 21, 2013
Omorodion S Uwaifo, 81, is a distinguished statesman and intellectual; Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers; and winner, 2002 Presidential Merit Award. He was also winner of the NLNG Prize for literature in 2004.