Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Things Falling Apart

Legendary Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe recently caused a firestorm by rejecting the country's second highest award. The Commander of the Federal Republic honor was awarded to him by President Olesegun Obasanjo. Achebe rejected the award while criticizing the country's "dangerous state of affairs" and hoped that his action would serve as a "wake up call."

"The situation is getting worse and worse," he told the BBC, saying that President Olusegun Obasanjo bears primary responsibility. "Nigeria is a country that does not work," he said: "Schools, universities, roads, hospitals, water, the economy, security, life."

Achebe is author of many excellent works including the classic Things Fall Apart (which I'd highly recommend). His criticism was dismissed by an advisor to President Obasanjo who claimed that Achebe was unaware of the alleged progress made in the last five years because he lives and teaches in New York.

Following the Achebe controversy, BBC Online asked: Do you think intellectuals who live abroad have a right to comment so publicly on the countries they left behind? How much do they really know about ordinary life there? Or, with the modern, global media, are they just as well informed as people back home?

Such people absolutely have the right to comment. Achebe may be a Nigerian who lives abroad, like millions of others, but he is NOT a former Nigerian. In many cases, ex-patriates are the ONLY people who can speak out about incidents in their countries because of repression and censorship back home.

Let's face it: relatively few people choose to leave countries that are politically, economically and culturally vibrant. It's a natural human instinct to want to live in familiar surroundings and be around people who are like you. I'd be willing to bet that most Africans of the diaspora would rather be living back home, if conditions were more favorable.

In other words, ex-pats who criticize the goings on in their country do so rarely out of spite or arrogance. They typically do so because they want things to improve in their country. Almost all ex-pats have family still living in their home country. So to suggest that they have no stake in the fortunes of their country and should therefore just shut up is absurd.

Many BBC readers expressed that attitude that if Achebe thinks he's so smart, he should run for president of Nigeria himself. Unfortunately, this is a smokescreen that does nothing to address the real issues. If running for president were a pre-requisite for criticizing the president, then there'd be tens of millions of Americans on next month's ballot.

A BBC reader from Manchester (UK) took particular exception to Achebe's comment: I think Chinua Achebe has his reason's for refusing national honour but to say that Nigeria doesn't work I'm afraid is not only inaccurate but ignorant particularly of a man of his calibre. If the schools in Nigeria are so dysfunctional, then I wonder how Achebe himself got enough education to write a classic like 'Things Fall Apart' if we all took that attitude, how will things ever change for Africa?

I'm not sure how any ingenuous person COULD say that things run smoothly in Nigeria. Even amongst other West Africans, Nigeria is infamous for its permanent chaos. And West Africans know a little something about disorder.

Furthermore, the reader clearly doesn't understand basic Engilsh grammar. 'The schools in Nigeria are dysfunctional' is present tense. Achebe studied in schools in Nigeria over half a century ago. Unfortunately, it's the reader who takes the wrong attitude. Burying one's head in the sand and refusing to confront real problems is not the way to make things move forward in Africa.


At 9:15 AM, Blogger Chippla Vandu said...

Nice write-up. I have great respect for Mr. Achebe and happen to be well schooled in his works. However, I am of the opinion that his rejection of a national award from the Obasanjo government is ill timed.

Nigeria is in chaos at the moment thanks in large part to the legacy of near-perpetual military rule, which ushered in an era of corruption, mistrust and ethnic rivalry.

Notwithstanding, Achebe like every other Nigerian has a right to be critical of the government of his homeland. But such criticisms were of more relevance during the Babangida and Abacha administrations (the last two military Generals that ruled Nigeria) when things were really falling apart in Nigeria.

Nigeria of today is much better than the Nigeria of the military Generals.


At 9:43 AM, Blogger Brian said...

I understand the point you made about Nigeria's mess being the legacy of decades of military misrule (of which, as you know, Obasanjo was a part).

Apparently, Achebe hasn't seen much improvement since the installation of a popularly elected government. While I think it's fair to say that government repression has diminished, especically since Abacha, that's about it.

Has the economy improved? Has corruption diminished? Things seem to be out of control in the north. Are the roads better? Prices stabilized? How have people's every day life improved, outside of less secret police harassment?

As Achebe said, nothing works. While this may be a legacy of military rule, what has Obasanjo done to improve this in any noticeable way? I know a lot of people resent that Obasanjo jaunts around the continent as a purported African statesman while so little works at home. Obasanjo risks being Nigeria's equivalent of Iran's Mohammad Khatami.

And even the human rights situation is a double edged sword. The human rights abuses actually committed by the govt is clearly on the decline. But their lack of control and oversight is increasing the damage cause by chaos.

I think Achebe's gesture was designed to wake people out of their complacency. Some people think that once democratic governance comes, all the problems are solved. Achebe's gesture highlights the fact that most of Nigeria's biggest problems haven't been touched.



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