“The problem, as I see it, is that we ask the wrong questions.”
The process of writing this series has been one of constant revisions and re-alignment for currency, but none perhaps has been more important than for this piece, which title has had to be updated from ‘What Achebe is telling us’.
Humans endlessly search for significance in everyday occurrences, especially death, and for me I have chosen to find significance in the death of global icon, Chinua Achebe, just before the final week of this series.
Achebe it was who inspired this series in 2011 after I read The Trouble with Nigeria – a book that overpowered me with the simplicity of its message, the ferocity of its passion and the moral clarity that underlined it. The book quieted me for days, as much for the fact that it was still true in 2011 as it when it was first written in 1983, as for the fact that fresh off a year of election activism, it showed that we were barely scratching the surface.
Post Achebe’s book, it seemed to me like the only option I had was withdrawal from the change space. It inspired a one-year process of soul search, research and quiet observation. One began to wonder – if these problems remain the exact same way over decades, does it make any sense to engage them without a more deeply thought-out strategy?
Would youthful exuberance, an army of new tools, and a sense of outrage inspired by our non-responsibility for the present rot be enough to actually change our country? Would we be able to make things change simply by the power of our will? Shouldn’t we answer the questions that generations have been asking before making a step? Shouldn’t we ensure that we know exactly what we are doing before we begin to do it?
This series came to me as an exploration of the questions I have asked myself and I am still asking myself over the past almost 2 years, and it encompasses the beginning of the answers as I see them or as discerned from the visions of others.
In writing this, I have also disciplined myself to fight the temptation of providing answers and of prescribing solutions to the problems.
For a simple reason – the cupboards of Nigerian government offices are filled with the most brilliant answers to “National Questions”. We have White Papers and Committee Reports on Everything, and most have come from some of the most brilliant and earnest, minds from and out of Nigeria.
Our problem is not a lack of answers. What we battle now is not a lack of ideas or solutions or suggestions.
The problem, as I see it, is that we ask the wrong questions.
Then we keep answering the wrong questions again and again and again.
We are a society in a hurry – in a hurry to move to ‘what should be done’ when we have not spent time finding out ‘what caused it’.
A man is hit by a car behind him and while he comes out to try and understand what is happening, onlookers besiege and ask him to move on; a staff makes a mistake in an office and while the boss is trying to understand what went wrong, others are eager to ‘move on’, a tragedy occurs and those in the media, in the arts, in the humanities want to think through it, feel through it; understand it. But the nation is impatient; incapable of purposive introspection. Fire them, it demands.
It’s almost like we have no soul – we refuse to engage the world with sophistication. How can millions of people die in a civil war, and a state governor states in public that it is something that his generation has “moved on from” just because he is in a hurry to build an Eko Atlantic City that might be destroyed tomorrow by an eruption of violence over the same issues that led to Biafra over 50 years ago?
How can we pretend that we can move on when much of Nigeria is still gripped by the fear of ethnic/religious attacks and reprisals?
You hear people say in newspapers and social media that “we talk too much” and it makes you wonder – really? The societies that have achieved greatness never stop talking – Europe, America, Asia, South Africa, Brazil. They keep talking, keep asking, keep prodding, and keep questioning; measuring ten times and then cutting once.
We, on the hand? We keep asking for solutions – and quick ones at that. But, solutions to WHAT?! Do we know the problem before we ask for solutions?! Sometimes you just want to grab the people you see talking and shake them up and say “You’re causing more harm! Shut up”. Goodness!
And that is where Achebe’s genius lies.
First, his insistence on asking those questions because he knows they have never been answered. He refused to kill his inner voice because his country is led and defined by people who refuse to think beyond the surface.
But more importantly, it is his uncanny ability to capture the big issues and the overriding themes of our nationhood and present them in the simplest of terms, and with the most honest of intentions.
Achebe had the unique gift of kicking off the conversations our country needs to have. To ask the questions it needs to answer– and to keep asking them until someone takes responsibility.
The more I think of him, the more I imagine a man who would never raise his voice (a weakness of mine as evidenced by the exclamations above), but who would always insist on his argument, and improve it; because it was carefully thought out before it was made. A man confident in his ideas because they are deliberate and heart-felt – and almost always right.
And that man kept asking questions – through fiction from Things Fall Apart to A Man of the People, and through non-fiction from The Trouble With Nigeria, to The Education of a British-Protected Child.
If the world were a perfect place, there would be no need to write new articles or essays or books about the Nigerian situation – all one would do is repeat the reading and discussion of Achebe’s books.
He said it all and not a word more.
He captured the heart and essence of the Nigerian tragedy. Our country’s problem is not President Jonathan’s lack of character, the lack of safety in our aviation industry, the inability to provide uninterrupted security, the collapse of infrastructure in our schools or electoral malpractice.
Achebe captured the problem in one simple, elegant statement: “What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a way – ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.”
Please read that again. Form those pictures in your mind. Move beyond symptoms and what your eyes can see, and trace most of our country’s issues to their root as far as your mind can take you. Achebe is totally right.
“Corruption in Nigeria has passed that alarming and entered the fatal stage; and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending she is only slightly indisposed,” he said in Trouble.
“I have stated elsewhere that this mindless carnage will only end with the dismantling of the present corrupt political system and the banishment of the cult of mediocrity that runs it,” he said in There Was A Country.
“… the idea that somebody could go from state house to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is extremely important. And it is an idea that ought to live in the consciousness of our people whether they are going to be leaders or the led,” he also said in Trouble.
“We have lost the twentieth century,” he declared in Country, “Are we bent on seeing that our children also lose the twenty-first?”
Country, which caused a global storm last year, is perhaps the nation’s most read and most talked about book since Things Fall Apart. In it, Achebe ripped apart the Band-Aid and put open Nigeria’s hidden wound for his countrymen and the world to see – and deal with.
I read the book, and, again, it overwhelmed. After that first gush of wind, I began to feel dissatisfaction, that the story left me wanting more. My prognosis was anger; that Achebe wrote this book blinded by an anger that has not abated; the kind that results when you watch your friend torn apart by a bomb in what you see as an unjust war.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, whilst his editors could certainly have done more, Achebe wrote exactly the book he wanted to write, and while he maintained a characteristically dignified silence all through the raucous debate, he achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve.
He told a story that was fiercely his, telling it in the way truest to what he saw and believed, and then handing it over to his country(wo)men.
And now I am certain of what I always suspected: that, for a man who was as much in tune with his powers of logic as he was awed by the unseen and the intangible, Achebe was fully aware of his impending departure; making the decision to give his country the last thing he felt he owed it.
The legend who loved his country so much that he rejected two National Honours because that was the least he could do wrote this book because it was too important not to be written. Because he knew that the circumstances that led this country to the 1966 Civil War still exist and are capable of tearing us apart again.
Achebe – master of the cool, distant commentary – deliberately “chose the raw, emotional depth of a scarred participant-observer.”
He willingly surrendered the position of arbiter, and chose that of patriot – pained, angry, restless, impatient, devastated. In calmly subsuming any well-earned desire to write the predictable biography and tell the full story of a charmed life under the need to tell an important Nigerian story, Achebe delivered to us his final gift.
Country provided some solutions to the problems it raised in an almost leisurely few lines, but they were half-hearted and repetitive; clearly not the author’s focus and for which he did not care much. Instead, the book posed uncomfortable questions, raised uncomfortable issues, and shared inconvenient truths.
In questioning who we are – a country that killed children and then just moved on, amongst others – and the meanings of the things we have done as a people, Achebe forced us to have a conversation we will need to have to make meaningful progress.
To that extent, Country is one big question – bitter kola presented without honey, surgery given without anesthesia – and it is as much for a new generation, as it is for the old one.
It was Chinua Achebe asking one final time: Will you guys do things the exact same way as those before you, and somehow expect that it will result in a country that you can be proud of?
And then, tired and heartbroken, he left the stage.
Chude Jideonwo is publisher/editor-in-chief of Y!, including Y! Magazine, Y! Books, Y! TV & YNaija.com. He is also executive director of The Future Project/The Future Awards. #NewLeadership is a twice-weekly, 12-week project to inspire action from a new generation of leaders – it ends on March 31.