The late Achebe is seen as the father of African literature. But others will put Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Ayi Kwei Amah and Sembena Ousmane in the same mould. What do you think?
I think that Achebe is slightly in different mould. At one time, he was the General Editor of the African Writers Series. And he edited the works of the other writers you mentioned. He edited the works of Ngugi, myself and others. He made a special impact in all other African writing which no other African writer did. So, if you regard him as a giant in African literature you are not mistaken. Truly, he is a giant of African literature.
Can you talk about Achebe the literary individual and a political person?
(He reads out a written tribute to Achebe)I got to know Achebe in 1948 at Government College, a Umuahia when we were students. We were not only in the same school but in the same house-Niger House. At one point, we were in fact in the same dormitory and he was the Prefect in charge. He was three years ahead of me.
Chinua was soft-spoken, diligent, and very hardworking and like most boys from that school, reliable and honest. Even in those days one habit of his became noticeable-he always carried a book. Even when he was marking out portions for our grass-cutting chores on Saturdays, he would have a machete in his right hand and a book in his left. This is particularly vivid in my mind.
After schooldays we went our different ways, but whenever we met the passage of time would make no difference. We would recall incidents during our school days and laugh endlessly. He had an honest and rather infectious kind of laughter.
When he convened a meeting of authors at Nsukka university for the formulation of the Association of Nigerian authors, Chinua was his usual humble and unassuming self. Humorously he said he had convened the meeting not necessarily to form an association but for us to debate whether writers who are known to be half-mad and individualistic could in fact come together to form an association and ANA was born.
When in 1954 Ekwensi published “People of the City” I was thrilled that a Nigerian could write a novel. Then in in 1958 came Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” , which received instant global acclaim. A novel written by my own schoolmate and friend! Wow! I rushed for a copy and did not put it down until I had finished it. I have no doubt at all that I drew my inspiration to write from Ekwensi and Achebe.
Some critics refer to writers who published novels after Things Fall Apart as “Achebe’s Children”. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I and others drew inspiration and courage to write from him. No, in the sense that while there may be common features like proverbs for instance in his work and mine; my style and orientation are quite different. There are no white men in my books, and gods and the supernatural play a more powerful role than in Achebe’s books. Again, while Achebe deeply explores colonial politics, I am preoccupied with the intricacies of our people’s culture. As the General Editor of African Writers Series, Achebe described The Concubine when it was published as an ‘an unusually successful first novel’, I could not have had a better encouragement than that.
Achebe was a meticulous writer. You cannot find any word in the wrong place. This led Soyinka to complain that he wrote with ‘unrelieved competence to relived incompetence.’
I believe the Civil War affected Achebe very deeply and probably robbed him of Nobel Prize. Between ‘A Man of the People’ (1966), Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe’s creativity suffered a lull of twenty years which dealt a fatal blow to any Nobel Prize ambitions. But that apart, I am convinced that Achebe deserved that prize based on publication only.
When I met Chinua in January 1989 he gave me a copy of Anthills of the Savannah in which he wrote: ‘To Elechi with admiration, Chinua’. This book is one of my treasured possessions. This great literary icon admired my writing: so critics beware!
I will always remember Chinua as a giant in African Literature, a literary role model, a consummate craftsman and above all, a friend.
He was a quiet kind of man, just like me
Achebe’s book: There Was A Country stirred controversies. What is your opinion on this?
Unfortunately, I bought the book but I have not finished reading it. I have managed to read first few pages where he mentioned my name. He mentioned my name as a friend at Government College, Umuahia. I have to finish reading the book before I can comment on it in any fair manner. All I can say is that Achebe, like most Igbos, felt very strongly about the civil war. He has every right to feel the way he felt. If he felt Awolowo starved the Igbos during the war, well that is his view. Anybody can disagree with him but that is how he saw it. I don’t think there is anything to quarrel about. He merely expressed his own views. When I wrote my own book: Sunset in Biafra, I expressed my own views.
Is it possible for our current educational system to produce the likes of Achebe, or Soyinka, Elechi Amadi and other literary greats?
Everybody is unique. You can’t produce another Achebe, Soyinka and other writers in the mould. People are unique whatever field they find themselves. All they need is to be trained. The current crop of Writers may produce works better than ours now. Everybody is irrepressible, like you are irreplaceable.
What is your advice to budding literary writers?
My endless advice to budding writers is that you have to read, and read and read. You have not read a lot novels and books; you have no business writing a book. If you haven’t read plenty of poetry, you have no business writing Poetry. Now some of our young men just read a few books perhaps the ones they use to pass their School Certificate Exams and as University Graduates and they start writing. If count the number of novels they have read they are insignificant. We were particularly lucky, Achebe, Myself, Gabriel Okara, Vincent Ike and most of us who attended Government College, Umuahia, were exposed to a lot of books in our days in the school. There should be an opportunity for them to read those books. That also shows you what good education can also do to an individual. You may have the books but will not read it. You must design a system whereby Children are forced to read them.
Can you suggest ways children of today can be made to read books, because they are facing so much distractions from browsing on internet television, etc?
When I was Commissioner for Education in the Rivers State, as far back as 1986,I went about building libraries in a few schools because I was so keen on this reading culture to be imbibed in our children. But each time I build libraries they were converted into classrooms! (Prolonged laughter).The headmasters or Principals of those Schools complained that they converted them to classrooms because they were short of classrooms. However, you must design a way of making them read. The policy was not continued. Every School must have a Librarian. So if it is a powerful government policy, you build these Libraries and employ librarians to man them, and stock them with books and make sure that the Children have Library Hours to read. If you do all that, the reading culture will change.
As I stepped into your compound and got near your door, the flyer I saw on your door had the caption: “Have you read a book today?” That was quite instructive. But do you also consider the role played by movies, browsing on the internet, mobile phone, music etc?
I am in total agree with you on that. But the only way out is to build Libraries, stock them with books and apportion reading hours as part of lesson period. The numbers of books read should be part of criteria to pass an examination to move to the next class. Each student should be made to read a number of books. For instance, a JSS 1 should be made to read half a dozen books. JSS II students should made to read at least eight books and so on. If you multiply the number of years in school and books read, you will find out that a student would have read a great number of books before they leave school. This is part of their fulfilment in passing their exams. This is stringent but that is the only way out because the distractions of nollywood and all the internet games are too much to overcome. So you have to compel them to read.
How good was Achebe as a Poet?
I am not a good judge of poetry myself. I have written some poetry and published some. It is only scholars who will be better judges in the genre. Achebe’s poems are primarily political because of the political fire always burning in him. You can only write the way you feel. So there is nothing wrong in Achebe writing political poems. Unless you feel something strongly you cannot write about it. He felt very strongly about the political thing he wrote about. You are one that likes poetry of commitment with political undertone, you enjoy his poems.
In Achebe’s book: The Problem with Nigeria he said the Nigerian problem is that of Leadership, not followership? Others argue otherwise.
No, leadership is the problem. Not followership. If a leader gives direction people will follow. I have been in Political Leadership. I have been a Permanent Secretary in many Ministries and later Commissioner for Education so I know what I am talking about. From my experience; you get people to do what you asked them to do if you lead by example. For instance, when I was appointed Commissioner for Education, there was a huge strike by teachers in my hands over non-payment of salaries and other emoluments. I sat the leadership down and found that most of their complaints were genuine. I told them not to worry but they must fulfil their own obligation by teaching well. I did exactly that. All their outstanding allowances and salaries were paid. And I directed my Accountant that 24th of every month all the teachers in the state must be paid. I warned him that if he defaults I will sack him. And I meant it. The teachers were first to be paid every month. You needed to see the enthusiasm with which teachers worked because they had their pay and had nothing to worry about. This is the atmosphere we had to generate. We don’t just talk about it. In some states teachers are owed for months when they protest, they are asked to go back to the classroom. You are telling a worker you have not paid his wages to go back to work. That is not fair. You expect a worker who have not paid, whose wife is sick and cannot take her to hospital and cannot feed himself and family to work for you and you are in opposition to pay him and you don’t pay him that is criminal. This is because the man has worked for 30 days. How do you expect him to survive? These are things that leaders should handle. When you give good leadership you would be properly followed. In all ministries I headed, I treated my files promptly and I made sure I never stole government money. I warned those under me that I will not steal government money, but if they do, I will not only sack them they must be prosecuted. Leadership is not by mouth. You have to be transparently honest. You shouldn’t be acquisitive and materialistic. You go and steal money your followers will steal money. If you are not transparent, your followers will not be transparent. Like Julius Nyerere, of Tanzania, he led his country for over 20 years but when he went live in his mother’s hut. It was his political group that said they will allow their leader to retire into his mother’s hut and built a house. But even then, he insisted that it must be a moderate house with few rooms. Look at Nelson Mandela who was jailed for 27 years, became President and he has no house. Why can that happen in Nigeria? Why will a public servant not be contented with his salary? I finished working as a Commissioner for four years, I couldn’t maintain my car, and I couldn’t pay my Children school fees. I was riding Okada from here to Choba. My father’s wives protested why I should ride Okada and I asked why not? And enter bus to Port Harcourt to do whatever I want to do and come back. Why? This is because I did not steal public money. That is the way we were brought up at Umuahia. Honesty was the best policy. I had no car. The Car I ride now was given to me by Governor Amaechi when he was giving cars to elder statesmen in the state. But for that I would not have known what to do. I probably would have been using a small car. You can preach all you can, but if the followers see that the house you could not build before, you built a mansion in less than six months, you own 20 houses in Port Harcourt ,30 in Onitsha one in New York and you still sermonize to the followers not to steal you are just wasting your time. You will be wasting your time because they will steal more than you. is main cause of corruption in this country. The leader cannot prosecute people because the leaders are themselves corrupt. I was Permanent Secretary I was feared because they knew I that I don’t steal government money. And if I catch anybody stealing, I prosecute the person to the end.
Please speak about Achebe as an Essayist. How effect is he?
His book: Morning Yet on Creation Day is a beautiful collection of Essays venting his feelings about African Literature. I think he is a good Essayist. “The Trouble With Nigeria” is a long good Essay about he feels about its Leadership and followership. He was a great Essayist because he wrote well. The command of English was thoroughly in his hands.
In one of his Essays in 1975, Achebe attacked Joseph Conrad who wrote: Heart of Darkness .Do you agree with Achebe’s position?
I do all of agree. All of agree with Achebe. Conrad was a product of his age. At that time Africans were regarded as half Animals. But people are much more than what Conrad expressed. Africans are as good as anybody else. You need do is to give him a chance. This is the main reason why the western world is reluctant to transfer technology to African because they know if they do and we set of we’ll surpassed them. We have got all it takes to excel in all fields of human endeavour. In Science, Mathematics and in Politics the black has excelled. Obama, a black man, is the leader of the world and the most powerful in the World today. The emergence of Obama in the world politics changed every misconception about the black man. To me Obama was a wonderful watershed in the way the world regarded a black man as clumsy incompetent and unintelligent were all put to rest. We shouldn’t bother so much about Conrad.
Achebe was seen by many as over-romanticising his Igbo or African people. What is your position?
The two are a little different. Achebe loved Igbo his people very much and can’t fault him on that. You can’t fault anybody for loving his people. He used the tools he had to his advantage. He stood up for them. He fought for them. They were diplomatic tool, intellectual tool and you can’t fault him. That is why the was so much that when Biafra collapsed, Achebe also collapsed. It was such a trauma for him. That is why, in my view for 20 years, he could not write a novel. In between, he wrote “The Trouble With Nigeria.
”But that was not a novel in creative writing. He wrote A Man Of The People in 1966, just before the coup. And it took him 21 years later to come out with Anthill of the Savannah, in 1987.That was the book he gave me and inscribed something which is treasured a possession till date. That lull was too much. Because of great love for his people, when Biafra fell, he was almost inconsolable and it took him quite a while to recover.
How do you assess Achebe’s propaganda during the Biafra era?
Ah! It was very, very effective. It was extremely effectively. If you read my Sunset in Biafra I expressed my opinion on it. The propaganda of the Biafra accounted for much of the resistance of the Biafrans. When had people like Okoko Ndem read those things that Achebe wrote over the radio and so on all Biafrans felt confident and determined to win the war. He was very effective in his propaganda.
Twice Achebe was nominated for national honours and twice he rejected it. What is your opinion on this?
Again it is also his intense love for his people. He felt that why should he receive national honours from a country that was not treating his people well. But from my opinion, he was wrong in rejecting national honours given to you by your country. You have to forget the man on the seat of government whether Babangida, Gowon or Goodluck Jonathan they are not Nigeria. It is not the man, who is the man? It is the country made up of about 160 million people not the man in power. No man is bigger than his country. In that regard, I thought he should have accepted it. It is the country that nurtured you. You attended the schools in your country and Achebe is what he is today because of the country of his birth. He went Government College, Umuahia, the University College, Ibadan. So, when the country says my son you have done very well take this, you have to accept it.
Talking about honours, Nigeria is used to giving posthumous honours. What do you suggest should be used be to immortalize him?
There are many things that can be named after him. Universities can be named after him. Big public place strategically located in Abuja. Notable buildings, Libraries or prominent roads in Abuja can be named Chinua Achebe Road. Some Schools can be named after him.