Chinua Achebe and Keith Hart on Africa’s Promise and Hope

By | January 17, 2011

Chinua Achebe, one of the greatest writers Nigeria has ever known, recently wrote an op-ed article titled Nigeria’s Promise, Africa’s Hope for the New York Times. The piece starts out with the injustices of colonisation and how Africans had no idea about what to do with independence after having gained it. The following two excellent sentences capture the point:

If you take someone who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years and tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.

and

We are like the man in the Igbo proverb who does not know where the rain began to beat him and so cannot say where he dried his body.

In his opinion, Europe, which implicated itself by colonising Africa and in the process messing things up, owe it as a duty to help Africans through the current predicaments.

In his conclusion he marshals the usual suspects: godfatherism has to end; the domination of politics by a few half-baked, half-educated leaders has to stop; there has to be a right balance of the power of the executive and the responsibility that comes with that power – in other words there should be a strong form of accountability; people should have more access to official information, and this can be ensured by the passing and signing of a strong freedom of information bill; and of course, we have to have a new patriotic consciousness.

Keith Hart, in the latest in a series of posts he is blogging as he writes a book on Africa, describes Achebe’s piece as an “old school nationalist history of the sort that misled Africans at the time of independence.” He continues:

Achebe’s vision of world history is narrow and backward-looking; the programme advocated, such as it is, takes no account of contemporary world society or of the forces within it that might support African emancipation at whatever level of association; he repeats the mistake of focusing exclusively on politics and law (“seek ye first the political kingdom”); and deals with the economic conditions of democracy only through their negation as excessive ill-begotten wealth. The thinking behind this piece, in other words, has not moved on since the mid-twentieth century.

His own recommendations, among other things [be sure to read the article in full] are:

Some of Africa’s political leaders and activist intellectuals must come to grips with what has been going on in the last century and is going on now. ‘Africa’ a century ago included the New World diaspora created by the slave trade; but it now includes a second diaspora created since 1945 by voluntary migration to Europe, America and increasingly Asia. At a time when India’s hi-tech entrepreneurs are returning home from Silicon Valley in droves, the question of African development must hinge on how this new expatriate population could take part in the continent’s growth. Above all, if Africans are to win some measure of equality for themselves in world society, they must ask how multiple forms of political association at more and less inclusive levels might help them to address the development question. There is little point in waiting for the West’s benevolent intervention.

Regional integration, even Panafricanism, has a better chance in this multi-polar, convergent world than it did half a century ago and that, for me, is where Africa’s hope lies.

I am inclined to agree with Keith Hart. In Achebe’s article, one could almost not find anything about the global power shift that has happened in the past few decades – and that continues to happen. It is almost as if he has a few points that he makes once someone asks him about what is happening in the continent and what can be done. Of course, there is hardly anything to disagree with in the list of things he would like to see happen. However, one leaves the article without feeling as if one has learnt anything new or thought-provoking.

What do you think?

Enhanced by Zemanta
  • Hello Olumide,

    My view in a discourse you have voluntarily recused yourself from by avoiding Facebook is that Pa Chinua Achebe has become the protagonist of his Things Fall Apart book – Okonkwo; by harking back to some indeterminate age trying to use history to disarm the present.

    Akin

  • When I first read the Achebe article, my instant reaction was “yawn”. Not to take anything from his efforts to explain what he sees, it seems finally that he’s not who to look up to for direction in matters like this. Unfortunately, Professor Achebe’s worldview seems to have remained the same since when he wrote Things Fall Apart, and his opinions are – as another commenter said – beginning to resemble the later resentments of his protagonist at the new world order. As passioned as they seem, they grossly fail to see beyond the small circuit of blame that would have made sense in a rhetoric of fifty years ago. Maybe it’s time to find new heroes as we grow up into our own.

  • Ayemidun

    There are different contexts for debating the development question in Africa. Achebe, however, has been constantly locating his own treatise in the incongruity and totally disruptive colonialist formation of the African state, as a template for dysfunction. You see, that is one single imploding factor resulting in collapse of the state in Africa. Should we ignore this anachronism and go ahead forging solutions to perennial problems of Africa? Take Nigeria, Achebe’s primary example, for instance, the bulk of factors hindering any attempts at socio-economic development is the chaos of its political landscape, the multivocality of claims to power structure among diverse ethnic and tribal interests. The resultant collisions and tensions in political practices of such patchwork of diverse nation-states have befuddled all attempts at good governance and socio-economic stability.

    And I don’t think that Achebe ever supposes that Africa cannot be retrofitted in the dizzying changes in the world order and its corollaries like digital revolution of communications and hi- tech entrepreneurship, borderless movement of capital, or the huge potential in harnessing the vast opportunity possible in the ever growing African diaspora, but what seems to concern him more is how all this is going to work in the present gloom of socio-economic and political contraptions of most African countries. First of all, the professionals and technocrats in diaspora, as important as they are to the transformatory dream of Africa, are essentially de-linked from the nitty-gritty of developmental policies. The ruling elite at home usually view them with suspicion and place them in too indecisive positions to affect any tangible change. That is in a situation when they themselves are not in collaboration with the political class.

    Achebe’s list identifies the clear and present dangers that have dogged the African post colony. There has not been any significant change since the civil war in Nigeria for instance. And yet, the civil war looms larger on the present politics of power, and power relations, than the Nigerian elite would admit; the near impossibility of an Ibo president 46 years after the war is a sore instance here. If Achebe focuses on politics and law in his thinking, it is because the subversive way politics is being enacted coupled with the lawlessness of the political elite in most African countries delimit the democratic possibilities in African experience.

    Do you even start to speak of democracy qua democracy in a social situation like Africa’s where poverty, ignorance, ethnic bigotry, violent suppression of people’s will by the political class, and therefore general sense of cynicism, dictate political momentum? I do not see how Africa can participate in the multi-polar, convergent world if the list of ills that Achebe draws is not seriously considered, not only by African leaders (do we still have any worthy of that term?) and Africa’s activist intellectuals ( and even how effective is this class? Gbagbo was a public intellectual right?), but also by Africa’s western partners.

  • Ayemidun

    There are different contexts for debating the development question in Africa. Achebe, however, has been constantly locating his own treatise in the incongruity and totally disruptive colonialist formation of the African state, as a template for dysfunction. You see, that is one single imploding factor resulting in collapse of the state in Africa. Should we ignore this anachronism and go ahead forging solutions to perennial problems of Africa? Take Nigeria, Achebe’s primary example, for instance, the bulk of factors hindering any attempts at socio-economic development is the chaos of its political landscape, the multivocality of claims to power structure among diverse ethnic and tribal interests. The resultant collisions and tensions in political practices of such patchwork of diverse nation-states have befuddled all attempts at good governance and socio-economic stability.

    And I don’t think that Achebe ever supposes that Africa cannot be retrofitted in the dizzying changes in the world order and its corollaries like digital revolution of communications and hi- tech entrepreneurship, borderless movement of capital, or the huge potential in harnessing the vast opportunity possible in the ever growing African diaspora, but what seems to concern him more is how all this is going to work in the present gloom of socio-economic and political contraptions of most African countries. First of all, the professionals and technocrats in diaspora, as important as they are to the transformatory dream of Africa, are essentially de-linked from the nitty-gritty of developmental policies. The ruling elite at home usually view them with suspicion and place them in too indecisive positions to affect any tangible change. That is in a situation when they themselves are not in collaboration with the political class.

    Achebe’s list identifies the clear and present dangers that have dogged the African post colony. There has not been any significant change since the civil war in Nigeria for instance. And yet, the civil war looms larger on the present politics of power, and power relations, than the Nigerian elite would admit; the near impossibility of an Ibo president 46 years after the war is a sore instance here. If Achebe focuses on politics and law in his thinking, it is because the subversive way politics is being enacted coupled with the lawlessness of the political elite in most African countries delimit the democratic possibilities in African experience.

    Do you even start to speak of democracy qua democracy in a social situation like Africa’s where poverty, ignorance, ethnic bigotry, violent suppression of people’s will by the political class, and therefore general sense of cynicism, dictate political momentum? I do not see how Africa can participate in the multi-polar, convergent world if the list of ills that Achebe draws is not seriously considered, not only by African leaders (do we still have any worthy of that term?) and Africa’s activist intellectuals ( and even how effective is this class? Gbagbo was a public intellectual right?), but also by Africa’s western partners.

  • Aitrai

    Your conclusion is excellent.

  • I think what seems the most objectionable about the Achebe essay is, among others, the fact that he chose the New York Times to say the same things that he has said many times over without offering new insights, and suggesting that “the West has had a long but uneven engagement with Africa, it is imperative that it also play an important role in forging solutions to Africa’s myriad problems. This will require good will and concerted effort on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical albatross.”

    As true to the theme of Prof Achebe’s political commentary on Nigeria/Africa as this is, it falls grossly short as a fair assessment of the problems and ramifications. Even in this days of “Dead aid” and calls for more proactive approach to solving the continent’s problems by its own leaders, it sounds strange that he seemed to be calling for another Western intervention. The West wasn’t the only one involved in the Slave Trade. Africans participated too. Neither is the West responsible for the irresponsible leadership that we’ve had since independence. Prof Achebe himself wrote in his 1983 book that the problem with Nigeria is leadership. What happened to that assertion? Now we’re back to blaming the West and calling them to our aid since, like the hopeless man he described ‘who has not really been in charge of himself for 300 years’. ‘Tell him, “O.K., you are now free,” he will not know where to begin.’ I don’t agree with this assessment. It portrays us as hapless morons whose heads have been taken away along with their dignity. Jewish people were enslaved under very many civilizations. It has not stopped them from rising from the ashes. There has to be a different way of approaching the issues.

    Nobody is saying that colonialism didn’t have its ills, but it will be disingenuous also to say that it has all been bad. India, just like Nigeria, was colonised and it has not regressed to the point of blaming the West for the loss of its cultural, political or economic identity. It refused to lose them. Many parts of the Achebe essay only reminds of old tired arguments. That it comes in the New York Times (rather than, say, a Nigerian newspaper) even makes it even more depressing (not that it will then make it easier to let go of the Prof anyway), because now one of our most admired thinkers has shown the world that we’re incapable of new ideas. I hope I’m wrong, but it was really painful to read.

  • Diri

    Well written and a wonderful summary.

    May I just add to your point on the political issue focused by Achebe. From what I seem to be understanding Mr. Achebe is not doing the blame ‘The West game’ in the sense that we are completely inadequate to run ourselves and it was ‘their‘ fault. As Ayemidun pointed out I think he is aware that African countries, especially Nigeria, have the ability to be powerful independent nations. But what we cannot escape from the fact that the West have had a little more than their fair share of negative influence in African states post independence and especially in the political arena. A practice prevalent even till this day.

    Yes our leaders are corrupt and we as Africans should do something about this, but what I think Achebe is stating is that the West only intervenes when it serves their best interests historically and currently. Currently in many situations these corrupted leaders are appeasing these interests and has worked to the detriment of the African people. For instance monetary, arm support, stashing of money need I go on? The reality is that there is always going to be Western presence in Africa. What I think Mr Achebe is trying to do is appeal to the better nature of the West and rather than come over to Africa reap the resources (again), fight your wars on our turf (again), their duty this time is to help build us up and serve our interests. Which is the need of a political stability.