The recent death for Professor Chinua Achebe is for many in my generation a monumental loss. We owe him two things, first the joy of reading stories that made sense to us.
Having gone through primary schools that had neither libraries nor storybooks, it was only in secondary school that many of us encountered the joy of reading literature and Achebe was one of the first authors we came across. The second thing we owe Achebe is interrogating the political condition we have found ourselves in.
His novels are extremely rich and incisive texts of political analysis. As I have spent the last four decades studying politics, this tribute to the father of African literature is about using Achebe to read African politics.
Achebe’s gift to world literature, “Things Fall Apart” was published at the height of the nationalist period just before most African countries achieved their independence.
For Africans, the nationalist euphoria of that period associated independence with progress, liberty, nationhood and development. The social sciences were infected with the same euphoria. Africans had successfully challenged colonial anthropology, which had tried to demonstrate the primitive character of the African peoples as a justification for the colonial “civilizing mission.”
The modernization school of African social science was in gestation and henceforth; the new paradigm was that powerful forces that will transform African societies in the image of Western societies had been set in motion. These forces of westernization/modernization such as education, political parties, trade unions, transport and communications, commerce, urbanization etc were conceived as necessarily leading these “new nations” straight into modern civilization. This was of course a new version of the civilizing mission.
Africanist social science developed a strong teleological dimension and few scholars questioned the generally perceived linear movement from tribes to nation states and from the traditional to the modern before the mid 1960’s when it became clear that the assumptions behind the dichotomies had become untenable.
The social science literature I learnt were steeped in the modernisation paradigm and showed little evidence of the internal political, social and economic problems that were developing in the continent. In that context, creative writers became the most perceptive observers of the trajectories along which African societies were developing. The big advantage creative writers had was that they sourced their creativity in the mundane descriptions of the dynamic and changing worlds around them while the social sciences were lost in the ideological narrative of modernisation theory.
The creative writers had the great privilege of being ignorant of the teleological paths and concerns being drawn and imposed by the social scientists and it is not surprising that social scientists did not figure in the first generation of African writers. In describing and commenting on the changes in the world around them, African writers became part of the first set of intellectuals to understand the real path along which their societies were developing.
Achebe has always been conscious of the political character of his work. As he puts it: “Everything in our society has to do with the political situation. I never define politics in a narrow sense. I am not talking about politics like NCNC versus Action Group. That’s one level of politics. I am talking of politics in a general sense which means in my view the ordering of society. So there’s nothing which you do really that doesn’t have a bearing on politics.”
Achebe’s motivation to write was partly political. He was disgusted by the superficial images of an unchanging and static Africa and the racist undertones of certain white anthropologists and writers such as Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and in particular Cary’s “Mister Johnson” that grossly misrepresented the reality of his society. He therefore decided to narrate the unfolding and dramatic story of his people. In so doing, politics remained a central aspect of his work:
With varying degrees of emphasis, all of Chinua Achebe’s novels explore the use and abuse of power by those who wield it. In “Things Fall Apart”, Okonkwo’s absolute patriarchal power over his household is analyzed. The focus of “Arrow of God” is the religious and social power of Ezeolu, the Chief Priest. “No Longer at Ease” and “A Man of the People” are about bureaucratic power while “Anthills of the Savannah” is about the apparently absolutist power the African dictator tries to wield.
There has been too much myth and propaganda about traditional African political culture. Missionaries, colonial officials and their intellectuals who were also called anthropologists had an interest in portraying the continent as a barbaric and brutal culture characterized by intense intertribal warfare, murder of twins and barbaric pagan rites.
African nationalists on the other hand, tended to romanticize the civilization of their people by painting pictures of a rural idyll, in equilibrium with nature, dance and poetic emotion with political systems that practiced village democracy. African nationalist leaders such as L. S. Senghor, J. K. Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah argued that Africa’s traditional form of political organization was democratic but they all ended up devising more or less authoritarian forms of government justified on the grounds of the so called African democracy.
As has been argued by Abdoulaye Bathily, what is often presented as democracy and social harmony in pre-colonial Africa is in reality a facade that hides serious social tensions and contradictions between ruling or powerful elites and the wider society. While it is not doubted that there were rudiments of democratic practice especially among the non centralized communities, it is wrong to consider these societies as democratic.
Achebe’s writings which focus on Igbo societies is important in this regard as the Igbos are one of the most republican and egalitarian non-centralized communities in traditional Africa.
In “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow of God”, we are presented an excellent anthropological account of traditional Igbo society at the end of the 19th century. The political systems were republican and had some democratic rudiments but there were limits to democratic practice.
Collective decisions are taken in public meetings with wide participation of free-born males. Women and male outcasts (osu), had no rights of participation in that highly patriarchal society. Okonkwo, Achebe tells us, ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the younger ones, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper.
Igbo public law therefore limited citizenship rights to a select category. Sociologically, Igbo society was relatively egalitarian but women were considered inferior human beings and titled men had much more respect and “substance” than those without titles. However, access to the titles and to respect was by personal achievement, rather than ascription.
Okonkwo’s fame for example was based on solid personal achievement especially as his father was lazy and improvident: “A man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father…Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered.”
It would be recalled that one of the assumptions of modernization theory was that society would move away from a traditional ascriptive to a modern achievement orientation, as if achievement was absent from traditional society and ascription is not found in the most modern societies.
Another assumption of modernization theory was that the tribe was the dominant form of social organization. In Achebe’s novels however, we see that there is no tribal or ethnic consciousness and the clan and village are the boundaries of political community. We also learn from him that the so much talked about inter-tribal war were not as bloody and destructive as we had been led to believe or as destructive as contemporary ones are.
Finally, Achebe draws attention to numerous occasions in which customs and traditions had been changed to cope with particular problems, thereby warning against the tendency of seeing what is as what has always been.
The nature of colonial state
Analysis of the colonial experience in social science literature has been bogged down by a Manichean divide between the thesis of the “civilizing mission” versus that of the “evils of imperialism”, thereby missing the profound and differential impact of colonialism on different social structures, practices and categories.
The nationalist euphoria has impacted strongly on African historiography. Historians all over the continent were concerned, quite legitimately, with reversing racist stereotypes prevalent in the literature that had denied Africans had a history and civilization. They therefore set out to research and demonstrate the rich and ancient history of the various African peoples. In the process, colonialism was often dismissed as a “small episode” in the long and illustrious march of African history.
It was not until 1983 that this vision was attacked frontally by Peter Ekeh in his Inaugural lecture as professor of political sociology at the University of Ibadan. He criticized the Ibadan School of History for downplaying the colonial impact and suggesting it had little relevance for contemporary life. Ekeh argued that colonialism had played a crucial role in integrating Africa into the modern world-system and thereby designed its present space-time boundaries: “The moral and social order which formally encased the pre-colonial indigenous institutions is burst by the social forces of colonialism and they seek new anchors in the changed milieu of colonialism.” This apt clarification is so clearly demonstrated in “Things fall Apart” and “Arrow of God”.
The world that the people knew had changed in a very profound manner. New social agents had emerged in African society. They were the interpreters, teachers, messengers and above all the missionaries. Initially, they were recruited from categories the society considered worthless and marginal, but they became the new centres of wealth and power, and they eventually attracted more people to their fold. We are told in “Arrow of God” that: “The race for the white man’s money will not wait till tomorrow or till we are ready to join; if the rat could not run fast enough, it must make way for the tortoise (1974:169).”
The dynamics of the evolution of social classes and categories has changed and new criteria have come into play. Rather than wrestling skills, yam farming, wives and children, it was henceforth money that was important. And access to money was facilitated by close contact with the Whiteman and his colonial system. The great men of the “ancien regime” had begun their fast descent into irrelevance.
The political community widened beyond the clan and a new level of government in which the people could not participate in was created. In the same vein, a new trans-personal and trans-community religion slowly gained grounds. The change swept aside the most conservative elements of the old society as the new forces take root. Ezeolu, the Chief Priest of “Arrow of God” and Okonkwo, the successful entrepreneur of “Things fall Apart” who had become successful against all odds become tragic heroes that were swept aside by the march of history:
“Things Fall Apart” presents the whole tragic drama of a society vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual argues Abiola Irele. However, Okonkwo does not represent his society as a whole, he represented its archaic sector, the “fundamentalists”, that are unwilling to change with the times.
As Denise Coussy argues, it is puritanism that destroys Achebe’s central characters. Okonkwo was not a typical member of his clan and he often broke the society’s most sacred taboos by for example beating his wife during the week of peace, killing the boy who considered him his father and trying to shoot his wife on flimsy grounds. The most brilliant aspect of the novel was the presentation of a wide range of sometimes contradictory socio-political viewpoints and interests.
Okonkwo’s father hated much of what his society loved and did and Okonkwo’s son was attracted to the missionary message his father despised. When Okonkwo opted to fight against the changes that were destroying the society he knew, he was broken when he discovered that he was alone in that fight. The society had moved forward and left him behind.
The religious and the secular
The religious sphere is probably the most spectacular site in which social science has failed. From Emile Durkheim to Max Weber, sociology propounded that modernization was bound to lead to the secularization of society as science replaced superstitious beliefs. What sociology did not see was that religion was such a powerful repository of power that even if specific wielders of that power were displaced, others were bound to arise and replace them. Today, social science is losing its presumptions and the new belief is that the deities will no doubt rule forever.
In addition, modernization school presupposition of a linear movement from “paganism” to Christianity has been shown to have been simplistic. In “Arrow of God”, we see that Christianity was accepted in a heathen sense, the addition of a new powerful deity to the list of the gods. What was new was the introduction of a small group of puritans, now called “fanatics” or “fundamentalists” who would not accept a cohabitation of God and the gods: “Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.
It is clear today that this intolerance of the sociological reality of syncretism is a major factor in the destabilisation of the contemporary Nigerian state. The introduction of the legacy of intolerance is seen clearly in Achebe’s novels. Issac Okonkwo for example would not allow heathen kola sacrifice but a heathen accepts to break the kola in the name of Jesus – “No Longer at Ease”. Inspire of draconian attempts however, the heathens have not been destroyed and traditional religions remain a powerful force in Africa.
Achille Mbembe for example has argued that when Christianity, the religion of the conqueror, was introduced into the continent, it was “accepted” in the African sense, as a new element to reinforce indigenous religions in the age old tradition of using all forces to confront the objective problems of survival.
Conversion, he postulated, was a tactical move to reappropriate and domesticate a new spirit, but also, a ruse to wiggle through the new configuration of political forces. No wonder, Simon Ottenberg, a colonial social anthropologist studying paganism was so confused by the rapidity with which, Ala, the earth spirit and Amadioba, the spirit of thunder, were soon rebranded “riding a motorcycle dressed in shorts and puttees with a sun helmet” says E. E. Uzukwu in his essay in liturgical creativity in Igbo Christianity.
The Christian god was strong and powerful, and had to be domesticated and reappropriated. When the people of Mbanta realized that the spirits of the evil forest had not been able to kill the missionaries: ‘It became known that the Whiteman’s fetish had unbelievable power.” The people had to tap the new divinity.
The opportunist logic is well articulated by Ezeolu decision to send a son to the Church: “Since the White man had come with great power and conquest, it was necessary that some people should learn the ways of his deity. That was why he had agreed to send his son Oduche to learn the new ritual.” However, they never really gave up all their traditional beliefs. “We are Christians he said. But that is no reason to marry an Osu… this is deeper than you think” (1966:133)
Although Achebe makes it clear that traditional religion is still strong in the minds of most converts, he does not make the mistake of downplaying the significance of the change that comes with Christianity. The story of Ezeolu in “Arrow of God” is an account of the victory of Christianity, as an instrument of colonialism, in imposing a unified organized establishment religion as a leading force in a sea of private and community gods and deities. As the men of title explained to Ezeolu: “We know why the sacred yams are still not finished; it was the work of the white man. Shall we then sit down and watch our harvest ruined and our children and wives die of hunger? No! Although I am not the priest of Ulu I can say that the deity does not want Umuaro to perish (1974:207).”
Political science has found it difficult to handle the phenomenon of corruption. First, it is difficult to separate value content from its scientific study. The etymology of the word itself evokes immorality and rottenness, yet there is an attempt in the discipline to use it in a positivist sense as a transaction involving illegal and/or improper exchange of money and/or material goods (market corruption) or “personal human relations” (parochial corruption) for authoritative decisions.
In Africa, corruption becomes problematic partly because the dividing lines between the moral and the amoral, and that between the legal and the quasi legal are often blurred. In addition, there are the racist stereotypes of the Mr. Greens of this world who assert that “The African is corrupt through and through” – “No longer at Ease”.
One of the first significant attempts to go beyond the positivist conception of corruption in Africa and begin to understand its sociological dynamics was an article by Colin Leys published in 1965: “To many people, the state and its organs were identified with alien rule and were proper objects of plunder and they have not yet been reidentified fully as instruments for the promotion of common interests. This point had been made earlier in Achebe’s “No Longer at Ease” – In Nigeria the government was “they”. It has nothing to do with you or me. It was an alien institution and people’s business was to get as much from it as they could without getting into trouble (1960:33).
A second lesson on corruption from Achebe is that it is propelled by the struggle for access that is anchored in the community rather than in individuals: “Many towns have four or five or even ten of their sons in European posts in this city, Umuofia have only one. And now our enemies say that even that one is too much for us.” He adds, “The meeting agreed that it was money, not work, that brought them to Lagos.” The judge could not understand why Obi Okonkwo, a young educated man could be dragged into corruption. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Obi Okonkwo was determined not to be corrupt but the social forces at work were too powerful for him, and he fell, a victim of the system.
The powerful message that flows out from the novel however that is the real tragic hero is not Obi, but the postcolonial state. No one has any commitment to it, everyone is seeking for access to eat up as much of the “national cake” as they can get. Nobody is trying to bake more cake.
The various communities were competing among themselves for the said access, and subsequently in “A Man of the People”, the contest turns into virtual Hobbesean war of all against all. The result is that the edifice of the thoroughly abused postcolonial state starts to decompose. Objective criteria were no longer applicable for achievement: “A common saying in the country after independence was that it didn’t matter what you knew but who you knew.”
In this situation, the people could not but became cynical: “Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you – as my father did – if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.”
Achebe’s analysis of the intensification of the struggle for access to state resources between communities and individuals indicates that fairness is not read and understood at the national level: “Our people must press for their fair share of the national cake.” The result is that democratic rules of fairness are discarded and bribery and thuggery became the order of the day.
As the English say, when there are no rules of the game, clubs become trumps. So the politicians reduced political competition to maiming or killing those they could not bribe. What is suggested by Achebe’s numerous expositions of the unending battles between the compelling demands of individuals and local communities and the opposite, often ignored demands of the nation state is an internal contradiction in the constitution of African citizenship.
The social sciences caught up with this in Peter Ekeh’s seminal article. He argued that Africa was yet to develop a morally unified public sphere. Rather, there was on the one hand, a primordial public sphere, linked to communities of origin, with clear moral codes, duties and obligations.
On the other hand, there is the civic public sphere, tied to the modern state and its illegitimate colonial history, which evokes an amoral response from people who consider they have no obligations towards it, only the right to milk it for themselves and their primordial public. The two publics therefore indicate a clear structural division in citizenship rights and obligations.
One of the examples Ekeh gives is that of civil servants who are extremely corrupt in their place of work but at the same time, scrupulously honest as officials of their town or ethnic group association. Achebe had made the point much earlier: “The owner was the village, and the village had a mind; it could say no to sacrilege. But in the affairs of the nation, there was no owner; the laws of the village became powerless.”
As Achebe himself said “What I am concerned with is corruption which happens when anybody exercises political power. It doesn’t matter whether he is a professional politician, or a teacher, or a soldier, or even a writer.” Reading Achebe, we understand that the tragedy of Nigeria, and indeed Africa, is the failure of mechanisms that make occupants of positions of power wary of abusing them out of the ordinary instinct of self preservation. In countries with functional state systems, state officials are aware that the abuse of power could lead to punishment. When the abuse of power is crowned with wealth and more power, which will be foolish enough not to indulge himself or herself.
State and Society: Some political lessons
What we learn from Achebe is the contours of authoritarianism and the decomposition of the Postcolonial State. In “A Man of the People”, Achebe predicts that a military coup d’état was inevitable. The publication of the novel in 1966 coincided with Nigeria’s first military intervention in politics. The military is dragged into power in the context of disillusionment with the civilian political class but they turn out to be even worse.
As soldiers stayed longer in power, they become experts in the wheeling and dealing of the political game, and their civilian advisers or ministers become their instruments for manipulation. When the Dictator declares in “Anthills of the Savanah” that: “You all seem to forget that I am still a soldier, not a politician”, it is clear that the message was that all power flows from the barrel of the gun.
The “gunless” people have been evacuated from the political scene and the arena of political competition has been narrowed down from the elite to the military elite. The people have no role, except as pliant masses ready to obey the whims and caprices of their dictator. No wander the dictator is so incensed that a province has dared to vote against his ambition of becoming President-for-Life.
Achebe shows us however that dictators are not born, they are made. Sam did not scheme to be President, and he was open and sincere in the beginning of his rule, till the sycophants got him. One of the most serious lacunas in African political science is the dearth in scholarly studies of sycophancy and the art of bootlicking. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Africanist political science devoted a lot of time to the study of “charismatic leadership”, thereby falling victims to the propaganda of the sycophants.
We learn from Achebe that dictators are partly made by their sycophants who continue to repeat into their dumb brains that: “The people have spoken, their desire is manifest. You are condemned to serve them for life.” Of course the sycophants also end up being victims of the monster they have helped create as we read in Anthills: “Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were merely a matter of dancing upside down on your head. With practice, anyone could learn to do that. The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to another, from one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down.”
So while the dictator repeats over and over again that he did not want to rule forever, his sycophants must be able to read his mind and appeal to him to do just that. It is the era of what Anthony Kirk-Greene has described in one of his famous essays as “His Eternity, His Eccentricity, or His Exemplarity: His Excellency, the African Head of State.”
The greatest victims are of course the ordinary people who in their ignorance, opt for rationality rather than sycophancy, and pay the price.
The people of Abazon are the example Achebe uses to make this point in Anthills: “The people who were running in and out and telling us to say that yes came one day and told us that the Big Chief himself did not want to rule for ever but that he was being forced. Who is forcing him? I asked, and their eyes shifted from side to side.”
So the people of Abazon obeyed the “wishes” of the dictator and voted against his ruling forever.” In return, the dictator showed his appreciation by closing their boreholes in the middle of a major drought. That is when authoritarianism loses its rationality and becomes self destructive. The king forgets the people have to survive for him to be able to rule them.
“Anthills of the Savanah” evoke painful parallels for those who follow the Nigerian situation. Under Babangida’s rule, a journalist, Dele Giwa, had been assassinated by what appears to be state security operatives as was the case of Ikem Osodi. A general and poet, Mamman Vatsa, close friend and class mate to the President had been executed for an alleged coup plot.
Numerous intellectuals engaged in an intensive competition to “achieve” the status of the greatest sycophant. The business of government was carried out without any respect for economic and social needs of the people. Five years after the publication of the book, the Association for A Better Nigeria was formed to campaign for perpetual rule by President Babangida. etc etc. But the book is not just a Nigerian story. It is a universal story of the dangers of dictatorship and the necessity to struggle.
As Larry Diamond argues, Anthills is not just a castigation of the elite and the people: “Achebe does not yield to cynicism, nihilism and despair. For his broad indictment is accompanied by his articulation of an alternative of action, struggle and personal responsibility.” The novel ends with a call to the barricades but also a warning that many will fall by the wayside. The heroes are dead but for the first time in Achebe’s writing, women arise and take up the struggle of organizing resistance. In so doing, they discover that there are many allies in the struggle, in high and low places that are ready to play their part in the people’s effort to gain control over their lives and their destinies.
Reading Achebe’s novels is one of the shortest cuts to the understanding of African politics: the transformation of society by colonialism, the rise of new social classes and categories and the patrimonialisation of the state and its decomposition under the impulsion of greedy intra-elite struggles for power.
In the process, the ruling elite compromise the survival of the goose that lays the golden eggs. We see the great gulf that has developed between the ruling elite and the people. And we see the glimmer of hope, that the people could and will arise, to take over control of their lives.
It is true that Achebe’s narrative style revolves around tragedy. Nonetheless, this stylistic choice is imposed by historical imperatives. As he puts it: himself “Stories with happy endings are not terribly important as a rule… For me, what is important in a story, what makes it really memorable is usually some kind of failure, not petty failure but failure of substance, of somebody who has the potentiality for greatness and success but doesn’t make it.”
But then, Achebe does not despair, for as he explained to John Agetua in an interview: “The bad news which I convey really comes ultimately from a belief that things could be better, which is an optimistic feeling. The corruptibility of man is self-evident but at the same time something can be done about it.”
The social sciences need to pay tributes to Chinua Achebe not only as a good story teller who narrated the happenings of our times but also as a creative writer who had a great eye for the political. Thanks you Mwalimu Chinua Achebe for all your lessons.
Dr. Ibrahim is one of Africa’s leading authorities on electoral culture, institutions, and party systems. He is currently Executive Director at the Centre of Democracy and Development [CDD] in Abuja, and also serves as the President of the West Africa Civil Society Forum [WACSOF]. He writes a syndicated column for Premium Times.
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