By Anote Ajeluorou and Kenechukwu Ezeonyejiaku
Father of African literature, late Prof. Chinua Achebe, has left an impressive legacy in the literary world. Perhaps, nowhere else is this legacy better felt and more enduring than in his treatise of leadership problems that have continued to bedevil his beloved country and continent. The issue of leadership was so close to his heart that he devoted a slim volume to it in The Trouble with Nigeria after he’d delved into partisan politics in the 1980s when he joined Peoples Redemption Party (PRP).
But even in his preceding literary works, particularly Arrow of God, Achebe shows concern for this critical problem of development. Although set in colonial times, Arrow of God still speaks for the current times in its pragmatic approach to how leadership is handled, citizens’ response to it and obligations of those saddled with it. A re-reading of the 50-year old novel yields interesting and compelling parallels with Nigeria’s current democratic march; it also helpfully points the way forward to ways of avoiding the pitfalls that have dodged Nigeria’s heels.
As the novel turns 50 this year since its publication in 1964, drums were rolled out in its celebration in eight cities across Nigeria – Ibadan, Utuoke, Abuja, Lagos, Awka, Port Harcourt and Sokoto. The Ogidi event, hometown of the author, didn’t hold due to logistic problems. And to underscore the core issue at the heart of the novel, ‘Literature, Leadership and National Unity’ was chosen as theme.
Perhaps, no other novel by the venerable author mirrors Nigeria’s leadership crisis more accurately than Arrow of God. Umuaro, just like Nigeria, is a federation of six villages that came together to form one nation by a necessity of survival when faced with the threat of extinction from Abami warriors, who were always on the offensive. The six villages of Umuaro came together and created a powerful medicine, Ulu, to protect them, Ulu’s chief priest being Ezeulu. The Abami warriors could be likened to military rule from which Nigeria’s current democratic dispensation emerged, with democracy being the modern-day Ulu to save the country from the onslaught the military wrought on the body polity.
Synonymous with democracy also is the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that has ruled since 1999; and democracy or PDP’s chief priests being Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yar’Adua and now Goodluck Jonathan. How has leadership fared in the hands of these chief priests? What has been the people’s response to their leadership styles? What precipitate roles have the people played in helping to shape or derailing how they are led? Have the leaders and the led play complimentary roles to advance development or have they been at variance or at each other throats?
In Arrow of God, Ezeulu suffers certain political reverses arising from antagonism from Nwaka and Ezeidemili, perhaps akin to what All Progressive Congress (APC) is giving to the ruling PDP. Ezeulu’s subsequent actions are defined by this antagonism. He is imprisoned by the white, colonial overlord and is unable to perform his duty of eating the remaining two sacred yams in service of Ulu; a spill over ensues and the people are grounded. They cannot harvest their yam since their chief priest refuses to eat more than one yam at a time, as required.
The issue of colonial overlord is also fresh in Nigeria’s recent memory. International Monetary Fund’s boss, Christine Lagarde visits Nigeria December 2011 and by January 1, 2012, petroleum subsidy is removed to occasion the biggest people’s revolt against their government. When Ezeulu fails to eat the sacred yams, the Christian Missionary Church makes capital gain of it and asks faithful and pagans alike to bring their yams to the church for their protection. This they gladly do, and it spells the end of Ulu and Ezeulu’s reign as sovereign god and chief priest over them.
Indeed, Nigerian leaders who wish to make impact on the lives of the people would do well to read Arrow of God and learn a lesson or two from Ezeulu’s political ascendancy and eventual fall. Two of other of Achebe’s fictional treatises on politics that leaders should advisedly read are A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. They are instructive if fictional works that plumb the depths of leadership issues, particularly how the continent was still battling with wrong leadership application, especially in Achebe’s home country, Nigeria.
AT the University of Ibadan (then University College, Ibadan, where Achebe studied) where the 50th year celebration of Arrow of God started, America’s Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, Global Governance at University of Massachusetts, Boston, Dr. Darren Kew, placed emphasis on civil society groups, as key element in checking the excesses of leaders and keeping them reined in, as they perform their civic duties to the citizenry. Kew said Nigeria’s democratic march has been hampered by the absence of a social contract between the government and the people.
As a result, the culture of holding political leaders or government accountable for lack of performance was yet to be entrenched in the country. What is needed, Kew noted, is a viable opposition and a strong civil society group constantly on the look out to make government live up to its electoral promises.
For Kew the absence of social contract in Nigeria’s democracy between government and the people in which the state only exists to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state, who can also choose to give or withhold this power was reason for government acting with impunity, as if the people did not exist. For instance, when outcomes of elections do not flow from people’s balloting but through rigging and other election maleficence, it becomes difficult for such government to genuinely serve the will of the people but that of its own self-interests, as is currently the case in the country.
For Kew, who has monitored four elections in Nigeria, democracy as a system of learning the best ideals to run a society, needs a virile opposition as an essential element in creating a balance of power for the polity so the ruling party does not ride roughshod. Also because the opposition has interest in capturing power at the centre in the contestation for power, Kew argued that the opposition always has interest in ensuring clean elections and exposing corruption by reaching out to civil society groups and mobilizing the public in a bid to win elections.
“Social contract is what is missing in Nigerian democracy, as there was not yet a sense of political contest, which takes time to be built”, he argued. He added that All Progressive Congress (APC) was still terribly fragile at the moment to act as the true opposition needed to put the ruling Peoples Democratic Party on its toes in the contestation for power required of a true democratic society.
Kew described Nigeria as semi-democratic in human development index (HDI) valuation. He further noted that it was hard as yet for “ethical leaders to get into power (in Nigeria). Civil society and the greater public are key groups in determining governance, free and fair elections. Trade unions are still an essential actor in the political process”.
In each of the cities, the play adaptation of Arrow of God either as When the Arrow Rebounds or Ezeulu was staged to the delight of audiences.
IN a celebratory dirge performed for the African literary icon Achebe by former Head of Department of English, University of Lagos and an award-winning author in Lagos last week, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo said of him: “Ude gi na-ede n’Igbo na oru; ma n’onwu, ma na ndu”, meaning: “Your aura resonates both at home and in the Diaspora, in life and in death.”
These legacies, of which Arrow of God is one, has prompted a worldwide celebration of the golden jubilee of the book’s publication in over 70 countries of the world which has been observed early in the year in India, Bangladesh, United States of America, Russia, other parts of Asia and later in the year in Africa, Europe, South America and many universities around the world.
At the Afe Babalola Hall, University of Lagos, venue of the celebration in Lagos, students, literary enthusiasts, dignitaries, prominent foreign and local writers and scholars turned out to pay tributes, present papers themed around the re-appraisal of the book, Arrow of God in the light of the messages and literary construct it has for pushing the concepts of literature, leadership and national unity in the modern times for Nigeria and Africa.
While speaking at the event, a retired Professor of African Literature at American University, U.S., Prof. Charles Larson said the works of the late icon would remain with us forever, adding that he’d taught in a small school in the then Eastern Region in a town called Oraukwu in now Anambra State, and revealed how he went to a bookshop in Onitsha where he discovered that Achebe had written his third book, Arrow of God, which he immediately bought for three shillings.
Being the first person in America to offer a class based on African literature, Larson noted that prior to his coming to Nigeria in 1962, the American curriculum was void of anything African, Asia and Latin America and that his education was shallow as a result. He stated that his coming to Nigeria changed his life just as he admitted that Chinua Achebe also changed his intellectual outlook on life.
According to him, “Arrow of God is the most complete novel and many of us think this is his foremost novel. He wrote a great African novel, Things Fall Apart and he wrote many other major novels and this makes him the great African writer. But it’s not just because he wrote those novels, but what he brought into these novels. He restored the African power; he recaptured Africa’s heritage in those novels in a way that nobody had done at that time and he restored pride in African culture.
“You can say that Chinua Achebe shaped the literature of the African continent and I can say that no writer anywhere else in the world has had such an impact on the literature of his continent. He changed the shape of world literature. World literature has never been the same because of Chinua Achebe and for me, he changed my entire life but what I will really like to say is that what Chinua Achebe gave was giving light to the African continent. He illuminated the African continent in a way that had never been done before.”
Former President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and former member of Federal House of Representative who is the chairman, National Organizing Committee of the celebration, Dr, Wale Okediran, said that the various programmes mapped out for the celebration were designed to help reinvigorate the reading culture in the country and at the same time encourage students and scholars to look at the celebration’s theme which is “Literature, Leadership and National Unity.”
He, however, noted that plans were underway to make the celebration of Achebe’s life and legacy an annual event whereby students and visitors would be invited to Ogidi to see the birth place of the writer, look at the primary school he attended, visit his ancestral home as is done for other great writers around the world.
IN Port Harcourt, Okediran, said it was a challenging but very exciting assignment and thanked organisers of UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital for incorporating Arrow of God@50 event, as part of its programmes. He emphasized that celebrating the book would “rev up reading culture and reawaken how we can adopt the book, as National Conference material because of its leadership qualities”.
America’s Achebe scholar and professor of Comparative Literature, Prof. Natasha Vaubel of Indiana University, said she became Achebe convert after Achebe accused the west of never listening to other people tell their own stories themselves. Vaubel stressed the need for people to tell their own stories themselves, “because stories matter and they are not innocent. Books and stories can be windows, but they can lie and lock us in a box”.
She said countering the lies stories such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tell about Africa and its people was Achebe’s lifelong mission as a writer, and for which he became famous.
ALSO in Sokoto, the emphasis was on women, their roles in society and how they can be helped to achieve their destinies in a patriarchal society. Although women do not feature prominently in Arrow of God, their seeming silence is cause for concern of some feminine advocates, who feel that Achebe was so crucial a writer to leave out women while discussing the all important place of leadership in society.
However, a don at Usman Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Aisha Umar Mohammad, reinforced the presence of women in the novel by the sheer passivity of their roles, as mothers, homemakers doing all the jobs in the home that make their men engage in war pastime and in political affairs of the community. In her paper, ‘Passivity and Identity: The Women in Achebe’s Arrow of God’, she argued that the absence of women in the novel tallies with how women were held in pre-colonial Africa, and still held even now to a large extent, as beings not deserving attention.
Also, Ibrahim Daniel of Department of General and Liberal Studies, Niger State Polytechnic, Zungeru, spoke on ‘Slave Mentality and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Nigeria’. He spoke on the need to empower the girl child in order to liberate her from the slave mentality in which she is enmeshed. Muhammad Tahir Mallam, while speaking on ‘(Mis)Conception of Leadership and the Tragedy in Arrow of God’ effectively tied leadership to the health of a nation, noting that Umuaro as a federal system had its internal tensions, just as Nigeria is currently undergoing and advocated strong leadership to help overcome protracted problems.
Also on hand to weigh in on feminine issues in Sokoto were House Committee Chairman on Diaspora, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who chaired the plenary session and former House member and Nigeria’s Ambassador-designate to Ireland, Dr. Bolero Ketebo. While commending organisers of Arrow of God@50 Celebration, Dabiri-Erewa, said celebrating Achebe was particularly worth it. She asked that women and girls be given all the responsibilities of leadership and they would perform well.
She, however, noted that women attaining their full potentiality in politics was an uphill task, as all the political party structures in the country, where decisions are taken, were still not headed by women, a situation she said was problematic for the growth of women.
She noted, “Leadership is our problem in this country. We must demand for our rights. Things are falling apart, as Achebe says. But during elections the women don’t go out to vote. Your vote is your power; use it wisely. If leaders know your vote will get him or her in or out of power, they will take you seriously. If they know your vote counts, they will sit up”.
For Ketebo, women should fight for political offices just like their male counterparts and not wait for anybody to hand over power to them, as it was a pipe dream. She stated, “Nobody gives political power to anybody! I prefer bottom-top approach to leadership issues. Which woman is a local government council chairman? We ought to start from there and climb upwards. We cannot shy away from our responsibilities. Women should try and speak to the men in their lives.
“Also, the challenge is to Northern women; you have more responsibility than women in the South. After Prof. Zainab Alkali, no other Northern woman has become notable in writing ever since. So, for every assignment for women in the South, Northern women have 10!”
Hon. Ketebo also praised the continent’s ancestors for leaving their offsprings with the timeless proverbs that pepper Achebe’s literary works. Prof. (Mrs.) Asabe Kabir Usman of Modern European Languages and Linguistics had spoken extensively on the Igbo proverbs that form the fulcrum of Achebe’s writing and how they foster societal unity, peaceful coexistence and conflict management in Arrow of God.
Ketebo noted, “We take these proverbs for granted and pay little respect to our forebears’ foresight in coining these timeless proverbs”.