Falola, Professor of African Studies is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. Falola is a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, and former President of the African Studies Association.
On September 29 and 30, 2023, some of the most prominent names in the field of African literature will present papers at the Chinua Achebe International Symposium, which also doubles as the 10th memorial celebration of the late sage and central figure of African literature. There will be poetry reading, performances, hosting, and toasting to infuse dynamism and creativity into the feast. His Royal Majesty Igwe Alex Onyido, the Monarch of the Ogidi Kingdom, will be present in his royalty. There are also ambassadors, led by my good friend, Professor Abena Busia. Another major highlight of the event is the Keynote Speaker, His Excellency Peter Obi (now a household name), the recent presidential candidate of the Labour Party and the former Governor of Anambra State. Just as Nnamdi Azikiwe lent his name to the Zikist movement established in 1946, Obi has become an iconic figure of the “Obidient” movement. To Obidients worldwide, Peter should not allow the cock to crow three times!
As only the deep can call to the deep, only a scholar of Dr. Chika Okeke-Agulu’s calibre can organize a conference this expensive and elaborate. I am sure many already know Chika, but for those who are unfamiliar with him, his brief biography can be found at https://www.premiumtimesng.com/opinion/546722-chika-okeke-agulu-shining-the-spotlight-on-a-true-son-of-the-soil-by-toyin-falola.html?tztc=1. Chika’s leadership of the Africa World Initiative has been stellar and impressive, in addition to his incredible skill in partnering with the program in African Studies and The Christie and Chinua Achebe Foundation.
In my brief presentation at the occasion, which I am releasing now as no one knows tomorrow, I will direct my attention to the dialogue encompassing Achebe’s literary body of work within the framework of global literature to facilitate cross-cultural exchanges and create a platform for discourse that brings the eternal and universal essence of Achebe’s profound perspectives to the forefront. Next year, Bloomsbury will release my long book on this iconic figure, Chinua Achebe: Narrating Africa in Fictions and History. Nothing in this tribute anticipates my long book.
Africa, as we know, is a continent teeming with abundant diversity, intricate historical narratives, and deep intricacies. From the golden sands of the Sahara to the verdant rainforests of the Congo, from the vibrant streets of Lagos to the tranquil vistas of the Maasai Mara, our continent is a rich tapestry interwoven with a multitude of cultures, languages, and customs. However, amidst this kaleidoscope of diversity, a common thread exists that unites us all – our shared past and the guidance that has shaped it. The chronicle of African leadership is as ancient as the continent itself. It is a tale that spans millennia, from the time-honoured realms of Egypt, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe to contemporary nation-states.
Throughout this extensive chronicle, the art of guiding has played a pivotal and transformative role in shaping the course of our destinies, for better or worse. As we stand at the crossroads of a new era, we must thoroughly scrutinize the paths taken by our leaders, the obstacles they encounter, and the prospects that lie ahead. African leadership has emerged as a tapestry interwoven with contradictions in the postcolonial epoch. We have borne witness to visionary leaders who have ardently championed the cause of emancipation, ushering in waves of sanguinity and aspiration. However, we have also observed individuals who, cloaked in the guise of liberation, have fortified their positions of authority, often at the detriment of the same people they pledged to serve. This dichotomy, this inherent tension between the allure of leadership and its frequently tumultuous reality, constitutes the essence of our present discourse and aligns with the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s provocative political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria.
We honour the magnificent literary titan, Chinua Achebe, and commemorate his profound impact on the world. Hailing from the fertile lands of Nigeria, he was a guiding light for Africa, resonating far beyond its borders. Achebe’s brilliance extended far beyond his mere occupation as a writer; he was a masterful storyteller, a profound philosopher, and a protector of our collective memories. Through the eloquent rhythm of his prose, he infused vitality into the ancestral chronicles, painting vibrant tapestries that encapsulated our culture, traditions, and the essence of our shared humanity. The power wielded by Achebe’s pen surpassed that of any sword, challenging and dismantling colonial narratives while offering the world a glimpse into Africa’s soul. From the heart-wrenching downfall of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart to the intricate political entanglements of A Man of the People, Achebe masterfully captured the intricacies, magnificence, and hardships of a continent teetering on the precipice of transformation. However, beyond the pages of his novels, Achebe emerged as a champion of humanism. He embraced the profound value of each individual’s inherent dignity, the interconnectedness of our shared humanity, and the wondrous ability of narratives to bridge the gaps that divide us.
In our celebration of Achebe, we do not merely pay tribute to a man but to a legacy—a legacy that serves as a poignant reminder of the potency of language, the significance of our cultural heritage, and the boundless opportunities that open up when we dare to follow our dreams. Although Achebe, the majestic Eagle perched upon the Iroko tree, may have taken his final bow, his tales, sagacity, and unconquerable spirit will eternally soar within the depths of our souls.
In the heart of Africa, a storyteller was born,
Achebe, the voice, when hope seemed forlorn.
With a pen as his spear and paper as his shield,
He painted our stories, and our wounds slowly healed.
From the banks of the Niger to the world’s vast expanse,
He sang of our heroes, our love, and our dance.
In tales of tradition, of gods and goddesses,
He echoed our struggles time and again.
Oh, Chinua, the sage, with wisdom so profound,
Through your words, our history will forever remain.
For in every line and every verse,
You captured our soul, the universe’s diverse.
A beacon of hope, a pillar so tall,
In the annals of time, your legacy won’t fall.
For as long as stories of Africa are told,
Your spirit, dear Achebe, will forever hold.
Rest, great bard, in the land of the free,
Your legacy lives on in hearts like the sea.
Achebe’s Discussions, Scholarships, and Interpolations
Following Professor Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah’s brilliant views on the book The Trouble with Nigeria, he notes that Chinua Achebe expressed strong criticism of Nigeria’s insufficient road network, only to tragically become a victim of a life-altering accident on the same road. In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe vividly portrays a ruthless military regime willing to sacrifice the citizens’ lives for its interests. According to Na’Allah, Achebe’s prophetic admonitions regarding the Nigerian political landscape remain pertinent, encompassing Nigeria and neighbouring nations. Despite a concise overview, this analysis necessitates attention due to Achebe’s multifaceted role as a political writer, essayist, and activist. Subsequent issues will delve into these facets. This significance arises from Achebe’s post-independence essays, novels, and poems, which offer a perspective through which the unfolding political events in postcolonial Nigeria can be comprehended.
Achebe’s reflections on the condition of postcolonial Africa are intricately intertwined with politics and aesthetics. This interaction constitutes the core of postcolonial aesthetics. As explored in this segment, examining the language matter, thoroughly studied by scholars and writers such as Owomoyela, Bamiro and Uwasomba, is an integral component of postcolonial identity. In “Postcolonial Adaptation and Appropriation in Chinua Achebe,” Anuradha Basu (2015) contends that Achebe’s literary works present postcolonialism as a means of resistance against the dehumanization of Africans. Nonetheless, as Olaniyan posits, Achebe’s approach is marked by moderate resistance, and he offers an alternative viewpoint on postcolonial politics and identity by employing Igbo aesthetics. In Arrow of God, Achebe metaphorically compares the world to a mask dance, and that remaining static deprives one of truly comprehending its essence. This symbolism embodies Achebe’s balanced position, indicating that the identity of postcolonial individuals should incorporate the consequences of historical events and conflicts between cultures, which profoundly impact African people’s psychological and social composition.
Achebe’s literary contributions have played an important role in the extensive collection of African literature that employs stylistic comparative methods by juxtaposing cultural elements from various origins. Central to his works is the examination of the challenges faced by African identity, both during and after interaction with Western cultures. Achebe’s narratives symbolize the profound impact of this encounter on African literature, as they are heavily influenced by the reactions of indigenous Africans to foreign ideologies and values. Nigeria’s complex tapestry of multi-ethnic divisions is a poignant backdrop to Achebe’s exploration of the obstacles to national unity. His writings act as mirrors that reflect the intricacies of the socio-cultural landscape of this nation. Presently, scholars engage with Achebe’s literary creations and the reflections embedded within them. This scholarly endeavour aims to evaluate the accuracy of Achebe’s portrayals and acknowledge any potential shortcomings in his representations.
Beyond this critical examination, the scholarly scrutiny of Achebe’s work is motivated by a desire to appreciate his enduring legacy and continued significance in the African literary panorama and on the continent. Both as a man and a writer, Achebe remains an enduring figure of interest within academia. Consequently, this intense focus on Achebe’s life and literary output has generated a rich research reservoir. These studies comprehensively analyze every facet of the Achebe phenomenon, providing valuable insights into the complexities of African identity and the evolution of African literature. Achebe’s contributions ignited a profound intellectual exploration that continues to shape our understanding of African cultures, identities, and the power of literature as a medium of reflection and transformation.
An Achebe-Inspired Proposal on New Waves and Directions on African Leadership
As we engage in discourse regarding leadership and statecraft in Nigeria and Africa, I am eager to present novel concepts, perspectives, and courses of action to this esteemed gathering. These ideas provide a distinctive framework to examine the intricate nature of African leadership, incorporating insights from historical circumstances and present-day trials.
- Neo-traditionalism in contemporary leadership
Although Africa boasts a wealth of historical traditional leadership structures, a noteworthy trend is emerging in which modern leaders embrace and adapt these conventional roles to consolidate their authority. This phenomenon of neo-traditionalism entails leaders embracing ancient titles and rituals, not necessarily to honour tradition but to authenticate their governance and appeal to cultural sensibilities. The implications of this trend on democratic processes and institutions in Africa could be profound, necessitating a more comprehensive investigation.
- The evolution of the “Big Man” syndrome
The “Big Man” syndrome, characterized by leaders wielding centralized power and influence, has been a recurring motif in African leadership. Nevertheless, with the advent of social media and the proliferation of globalized communication, some leaders now utilize these platforms to construct a more contemporary and accessible image while retaining their hold on centralized control. The existence of this duality–embodying the characteristics of a conventional “Big Man” while having the qualities of a contemporary, technology-savvy leader–poses an exceptional difficulty for both governing bodies and opposition movements.
- The role of women in African leadership
Throughout history, African leadership has predominantly been under the control and influence of the male gender. Nevertheless, there is a growing acknowledgement of the importance of women in assuming leadership positions, be it within the realm of politics or traditional settings. For instance, countries like Rwanda have remarkably progressed in this domain. This discourse could centre around the obstacles that female leaders encounter, the distinctive viewpoints they bring forth, and the societal transformations facilitating this paradigm shift.
- Postcolonial leadership and the shadow of the past
Following independence, several African leaders positioned themselves as emancipators, liberating their nations from the shackles of colonial domination. Nonetheless, several decades after independence, confident leaders still rely on their liberation credentials to retain their authority, frequently at the expense of democratic processes. The panel could explore the continued influence of colonialism on leadership styles and the expectations placed on leaders in the postcolonial era.
- Youth movements and the challenge to established leadership
Given that a considerable proportion of Africa’s populace is below 30, a discernible divide is emerging between the established leadership and the younger generation. Instances such as the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria and the protests in Sudan highlight the youth’s discontentment with the existing state of affairs and their yearning for transformation. The panel discussion may delve into the obstacles and prospects engendered by this demographic shift, the aspirations of the younger generation, and how the leadership can adapt and respond to these demands.
New Directions in Achebean Studies
Achebe, an eminent figure in African literature, has masterfully composed stories that depict the African encounter and reflect the intricacies of human societies. His literary creations, abundant in thematic profundity and narrative artistry, provide a rich fabric of discernment that is simultaneously profound and illuminating.
- The principle of balance in Achebe’s fiction:The recurring motif in Achebe’s literary works is the principle of balance, which manifests thematically and stylistically. A more intricate depiction emerges when examining the relationship between the direction of balance in Achebe’s fiction and its form and style. As Marjorie Winters notes, Achebe’s narrative style deviates from conventional English usage, introducing elements of “interest, variety, and emphasis.” Although these divergences momentarily impede the narrative’s progression, they contribute to a sense of equilibrium in sentence structure. Critics often interpret this stylistic equilibrium as indicative of “stateliness or formality.” Such a balanced stylistic approach is evident in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, with irregular sentences employed approximately one-third of the time, resulting in a distinctive rhythm and cadence.
- Ironies of balance: Achebe’s anthology Girls at War, presents diverse narratives that explore the societal shifts and transformations occurring in postcolonial Africa. While thematically bound, these stories testify to Achebe’s command of language and narrative techniques. In praising Achebe’s works, a literary critic has highlighted the notion of balance as a recurring aspect of his fiction. This balance can be observed in various dimensions, ranging from the balanced dualities of the Igbo worldview to the equitable evaluation of characters and situations elicited by his fiction. The stories within this collection, which include the depiction of the Biafran conflict and explorations of tradition and modernity, are imbued with a pervasive sense of equilibrium. However, this equilibrium is frequently tinged with irony, particularly in Achebe’s portrayal of the societal shifts and the erosion of traditional values.
- Achebe’s narrative techniques:Achebe’s use of narrative techniques extends beyond exploring themes; it exemplifies a masterful demonstration of narrative skill. His utilization of oral and literary narrative techniques results in the creation of a distinctive style of storytelling. This style, characterized by juxtaposing, adding, and aggregating various elements, provides equal significance to each narrative component, thus highlighting their importance.
- Embracing tradition and modernity: Achebe’s narratives frequently grapple with the inherent conflict between tradition and modernity. These stories place a considerable emphasis on practice and acknowledge the transformative influence of modernity. As one selected excerpt elucidates, “Despite the preoccupation with the thematic content of these stories, I propose that there exists an unnoticed quality within them: a peculiar and subversive manipulation of linguistic symbols, a manipulation that conventional notions of rationality, equilibrium, and moral order have tended to suppress.”
Drawing upon these insights, it is apparent that Achebe’s literary creations are not merely a mirror image of African societies but also a form of commentary on the human condition. His works offer readers a profound comprehension of the intricacies of life, culture, and history through their intricate fusion of theme and style. Therefore, scholars can uncover the layers of intricacy and subtlety that establish him as one of the most noteworthy writers of the 20th century by examining Achebe’s literary oeuvre through these critical perspectives. Such a multifaceted exploration will enhance the scholarly dialogue surrounding Achebe’s works and give students a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of African literature and culture.
At this moment, I propose five new avenues that can be considered in the field of Achebean Studies, which could be advantageous in the Africana Studies curriculum.
Achebe’s critique of Eurocentrism
Achebe’s literary works, particularly Things Fall Apart, can be perceived as a direct response to European literature that inaccurately represents Africa, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A more in-depth analysis would entail dissecting Achebe’s narrative techniques undermining the Eurocentric perspective. This endeavour would require a critical examination of how Achebe reclaimed the African narrative, presenting an alternative history that challenges Western perceptions and stereotypes of Africa.
Gender dynamics in a changing society
Although women in his novels may appear subservient at first glance, a more meticulous examination uncovers layers of agency, resilience, and subversion, making his depiction of women multifaceted. A scholarly inquiry can concentrate on the nuanced methods through which women navigate the patriarchal structures of Igbo society, particularly in the presence of colonialism and Christianity. This exploration can illuminate the interconnectedness of gender, colonialism, and tradition.
The tragedy of Okonkwo: A comparative analysis
Okonkwo’s tragic descent can be juxtaposed with the tragic heroes of other civilizations, such as Oedipus or Hamlet. A comparative analysis can delve into the cultural aspects that mould these sad narratives, illuminating the widespread nature of specific human experiences and emphasizing the distinctive cultural contexts that shape them.
Language, power, and identity
Achebe’s decision to write in English while infusing his prose with Igbo proverbs and idioms is an important assertion of language and authority. A critical examination could concentrate on how language in Achebe’s literary works is not merely a means of communication but also a tool of opposition, assertion of identity, and preservation of culture. This will result in more extensive discussions on language politics in postcolonial societies.
The interplay of individual and community
Achebe’s characters often encounter tension between personal desires and communal obligations. A deeper analysis can focus on how Achebe portrays the intricate balance between individual agency and societal expectations. This will shed light on the broader theme of the individual versus society, a conflict that resonates across cultures and periods.
So, with reference to Nigeria, it is not surprising that the immediate consequence of the realistic portrayal and exposition of the inefficiencies of Nigerian politicians and the subtle condemnation of their pseudo-messianic tendencies by prominent post-independent African fiction will emerge. With the country’s increased political instability, African and Nigerian writers, historians, and political scholars have risen correspondingly, diligently delving into political systems, actively documenting unstable political occurrences, and significantly producing works in Administrative Studies. The primary motive and objective behind these professionals’ endeavours in Africa is to elucidate and hopefully raise awareness among the general public about the continent’s political predicaments and anticipate the inevitable instability, crises, and disorder within the African polities.
However, rather than explore the terrains of political scholars in understanding this phenomenon, the choice of focusing on Chinua Achebe is vital, partly because he is one of the foremost Nigerian writers to adequately present political crisis through many lenses from the military regime to war stories, and even democratic settings. Also, Achebe’s restriction to the Nigerian space is captivating, chiefly because of his universal depiction of the size, cultural complexity, and modes of operation unique to the nation, as well as criticizing the Nigerian government and giving voice and agency to citizens who suffered and were silenced by these forces of leadership.
Once again, congratulations to the distinguished Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu for hosting this major gathering. Thanks for organizing what will become conversations across time and space. I now rarely attend conferences except to deliver Keynote Addresses, but this is an invitation that I cannot decline from one of the world’s most prominent art historians, an activist, and also, by any measure, an iconic figure himself.