Monday, November 14, 2011


By Dr. Biko Agozino

Achebe has again rejected the ‘third highest national honour’, CFR, from a second Nigerian President to make that offer to him in a row. The first time he was offered the honour by President Obasanjo, he turned it down on the ground that with the lack of attention to his thesis on The Trouble With Nigeria that he published decades ago during a period of his active participation in politics as the National Secretary of the Peoples Redemption Party, he did not see how the acceptance of a third highest national honor would make any difference to the suffering masses.

President Jonathan has just offered him the same prize and again Achebe turned it down with the remark that what is holding us down as a nation is still holding us down and so we should not dignify our incompetence in the face of abundant resources with the third highest national honor. President Jonathan did not understand this simple proverb of the wordsmith and so he came out with the allegation that the great writer is out of touch with reality. During the reign of Abacha, a Nigerian foreign minister used the same illogic to dismiss the campaigns of Wole Soyinka by telling journalists at the Commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh that Soyinka is a fiction writer who makes up things. 

President Jonathan should display more civility if he wishes to comprehend this public relations disaster fully. First of all, by offering the same honour to Achebe that he had rejected from Obasanjo, he was trying to personalize it as if it was rejected earlier due to any personal animosity towards Obasanjo. If Jonathan had good advisers, they would have consulted with Achebe before making the list public this time around. In fact, President Jonathan should have tried to demonstrate that he agreed with Achebe that the country was in a mess when he was first offered that third highest national honour and that the mess remains to be cleaned. He should have listened to the Brown University Achebe Colloquium on the 2010 election in Anambra state and at least demonstrated that he was willing to follow the simple conclusion that it was not a problem that could be fixed even with the most credible elections. 

Good advisers would have told President Jonathan to add jara or something extra to that third highest national honour before presenting it to the Eagle on the top of the Iroko once more. Why should the greatest writers from Nigeria be offered only the third highest national honour while kleptocrats and relative nobodies who managed to get away with treasonable felonies by ways of military coups and international-thief-thief are decorated with the highest honours of the land? What have they contributed to Nigeria to deserve such highest honours more than Achebe or Soyinka? Next time, the politicians should show humility by offering the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic to our greatest writers who have contributed more to the country than all the corrupt politicians put together. Next time, if they offer him the highest honor of the land after making credible moves to address the concerns he raised, Achebe should accept it because he has made the point clear enough and no one deserves the highest honour in Nigeria more than him.

Go to Scotland and you will find that the biggest monument was erected in a park to honour Sir Walter Scott for his novel Waverley after which the railway terminal in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, is named. England has both Shakespeare and Dickens on their pound notes while the US has Benjamin Franklin on the highest denomination dollar note. In Germany, Goethe’s name is used to market their culture internationally through their embassies. China has been building up the Confucius Institutes to teach the world about their language and culture. In Russia, a black man, Pushkin, is almost a Saint for being the first writer to use the Russian language. But in Nigeria, as Achebe stated in The Trouble with Nigeria, incompetence is celebrated and mediocrity is ranked over excellence. I believe that this is the major parable that Achebe is trying to convey but I may be wrong. The great man is likely to reject even the highest honor of the land if it is offered to him in this state of affairs where insecurity, poverty, illiteracy, ill-health and unemployment  are on the increase while World Bank economists tell us that there is no cause for alarm; that the economy is growing at over 7% per annum: growth of underdevelopment or growth without development.

Instead of seeking to quarrel with Achebe publicly, President Jonathan should make The Trouble With Nigeria a required book for social studies in Nigeria, set up a committee to study ways of addressing the concerns raised in the book, and start implementing the policy implications. Holding up the last general elections that remain contentious and also that engulfed the country into massive bloodshed as evidence of electoral reforms that should have persuaded Achebe to accept the third highest national honour is to display lack of appreciation for the enormity of the problems confronting Nigeria.

Having rejected a one million dollar donation from 50 Cents for the right to use the title of his iconic Things Fall Apart in his movie about the enslavement of African American men by the professional sports industry, Achebe is communicating the old Igbo adage that a good name is better than money at a time that people wrongly conclude that every Nigerian has a price and that the Igbo in particular will do anything for money. Personally, I think that Achebe should let 50 Cents use those three words because, although his rap music is misogynistic, this particular black film directed by Mario Van Peebles has a good moral message for young African Americans who are trapped in the elusive chase after the dream of sports super stardom (as far as I can tell from the trailer).  Moreover Achebe did not invent those three words, he borrowed them from ‘The Second Coming’, a poem by William Butler Yeats that was published at the end of the First World War. The Achebe Foundation should accept the donation from young African American Artists and use the money to award scholarships to poor students in the name of our father, The Odenigbo 1.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.