These are revolutionary times, all over the globe men are revolting old systems of exploitation and oppression. The shirtless and barefooted people of the world are rising up as never before. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light… we must move past indecision to action… if we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight. -Martin Luther King, JR
Chinua Achebe was an eagle on the Iroko, a trail-blazer, a pathfinder and an African icon. In short, he was a genius. Therefore, there can be no greater honour than to be invited to speak at this first Chinua Achebe International Conference holding at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. On my part, I must commend the courage of the organizers, the Institute of African Studies, for inviting me to speak here, knowing my penchant for speaking my mind, often bluntly. As a matter of fact I am not worried about possible bashing as a result of my frankness. I am only worried that Nigeria is running out of time. If we don’t speak out now, it may be late for the country’s leadership, and posterity may not forgive us. I therefore thank the organizers once more for considering me worthy of this rare honour and privilege.
1. SALUTE TO THE EAGLE ON THE IROKO
Africa is grateful to God for giving us Chinua Achebe. The world celebrates him because he gave us a profound story. A man with awesome credentials, a multiple award-winning literary giant and global icon. 58 years ago, Chinua Achebe wrote the classic Things Fall Apart. In this 58 years, Things Fall Apart has grown in meaning and timelessness to become the most read novel by any black writer. It has a record of being translated into 50 languages of the world.
Things Fall Apart is the story of Uwa Ndigbo, the story of Igbo worldview. Chinua Achebe made the Igbo story a global story. While the world celebrates him because he gave it a profound story, Ndi Igbo celebrate him because he told our story. For writing Things Fall Apart, Achebe gave Ndigbo identity. He gave us a legacy that can never perish no matter how hard our detractors try. If we remove sentiment for a moment and accept that leadership is nothing but the ability to harvest followers, then Achebe can be said to be one of the greatest leaders Africa gave to the world. Some of the other notable leaders of Chinua Achebe’s standing include Frederick Douglas, Jose Marti, Charles Darwin, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Pain, Karl Max, Niccolo Machiavelli, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.
We celebrate Achebe because he led the way for other great writers. Because Achebe was there, that is why there was Cyprian Ekwensi; because Achebe was there, that is why there was Nkem Nwankwo. Because he was there, that is why there was Flora Nwapa. Chinua Achebe led a path followed by Elechi Amadi. He trod a path followed by Chukwuemeka Ike. He opened the door for the likes of Ben Okri. In his footpath has emerged another compelling storyteller of international repute, Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie. As the editor of the African Writers Series, Achebe nurtured other great African writers too many to mention here. As founder and editor of Okike, Achebe lit a literary torch that illuminated Nsukka. He was not only a master storyteller in English Language, he was the most dazzling Igbo folklorist. He edited the Igbo literary journal Uwa Ndigbo so that our language will not die. Till today, Chinua Achebe is the most famous black writer in the world. We have to celebrate him for being a worthy ambassador of our race, and a role model to the world.
To our youths, I have a word for you. Things Fall Apart was written when Achebe was 26 years old. Martin Luther king Junior was also 26 years old when he led his first Civil Rights march. I therefore say to our youths, you are not too young to do great things. Ultimately, it is in the hands of the youths to salvage Ala Igbo and indeed our nation from the present decadence. Today, I say to our people, the time is now ripe for the true leadership of Ndigbo to boldly step out and take its place. The coast is now clear for Ohaneze Ndigbo to stand firm against any form of division or sabotage. Onye Ajuru Adighi Aju Onwe Ya. Onye Asi No Oga Anwu, Ya Nwuo Ihe Ojoo Mere Ya!
2. IGBO SELF EXAMINATION: IMA ONWE
We must first of all seek to understand ourselves (Ima onwe). For the fundamental law of life is that which admonishes: Man, Know Thy Self. Rene Descartes, the French mystic and philosopher, in trying to understand what makes him a human being, summed it up thus: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.) Knowing our self presupposes a critical enquiry into our attributes as Ndigbo, our responses to our environment, our relationship with our critical competitors and our appreciation of the world in which we live; that is, Ima Onwe Anyi. It is often said that man is a product of nature and nurture. In other words, our environment helps to shape what we ultimately become.
This self-examination, therefore, becomes a very important exercise because it seems to me that part of our leadership problem derives from a total lack of understanding of where we are coming from as Ndigbo. As the genius himself, Prof Chinua Achebe always reminds us that if we do not know where the rain started to beat us, we will never know when we dry. It is natural that you can never cure a disease you do not know; you cannot solve a problem you do not understand. This particular excursion into our very being and existence is particularly important for our youths. Most of our youths are Igbo just by name. Many of them do not know much about the Igbo nation. These are faults of our educational system and some of us here, their parents. But if you do not know thy self, the probability is that you will mis-educate the young ones and complicate their woes.
There are enough literatures on the Igbo nation that I do not want to reduce this address to a pedantic academic exercise. But what is clear from accounts in Elizabeth Isichei’s Igbo World to Olaudah Equiano’s narrative, to G.T Basden’s Among The Ibos of The Niger and other accounts, is that the Igbo has always been a great race of noble rulers (the embreeche that Equiano, John Adams and Hugh Crow wrote about as far back as 1700s). While Adams reveals that the Heebos, (Igbo) has an aversion to enslavement, and therefore “use every stratagem to effect the commission of suicide,” Crow wrote that the Eboses (Igbo) are spoken of “as a superior race and the inhabitants, generally, are a fair dealing people” and generally “honest.” It is important to establish these facts because of the general stereotyping of Ndigbo which, unfortunately, our people, including so-called leaders, internalize. And I shall return to this issue of stereotyping later.