How far back to go in telling the stories

By | January 19, 2011

A guest post from Benson Eluma, a NigeriansTalk contributor.

WHAT ARE THE differences between Achebe and Hart? Achebe says we have to go back 500 years to understand the problem of Africa; Hart says no, the required span is ‘the last century’. I feel that by the time we get to the start of Hart’s last century, we might begin to sense that we need to go back another fifty or hundred years in order to understand the processes that led to the most recent hundred, and so on and so forth backwards.

But isn’t it interesting that Hart ignores the fact that, as regards the specific trouble with Nigeria, Acbebe’s triumvirate of ‘slavery, colonialism and the Nigerian civil war’ has two members whose historical relevance fall squarely within the ‘courte durée’ of the last century? And then who says that those two, or even the entire troika, are not part of the story of Nigerian peoples today? The civil war is part of daily discourse in Nigeria. People, many of them not even born at the time, invoke it and keep it fresh in living memory, e.g. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. Many people still refer to the civil war as part of the backdrop to the situation in the southeast today where kidnapping is the reigning topic of trouble in daily conversation. Nigerians invoke the civil war in their stories of ongoing ethno-religious violence in the north. And there is the belief that the insurgency in the Niger Delta has failed to spark a fire across the rest of the country because of the lessons of the civil war. Nobody wants to be told ‘no victor, no vanquished’ again. These are part of the stories of Nigerian peoples today. And colonialism, too, features in many of these stories; ditto slavery. Sometimes the pessimism and despair become too much that some people, not knowing what else to say, declare that they would like to have the British back.

I am alarmed by the impression which Hart gives that we don’t need to have good politics and good laws to make Nigeria better. I would love to be chided that I have somehow misread him on this score. And really, I don’t get what he means by the ‘economic conditions of democracy’ which he says, Achebe only ‘deals with… through their negation as excessive ill-begotten wealth’. Recently, there has been a lot of excitement in Nigeria over allegations by the CBN Governor that one-quarter of government’s annual expenditure is spent on paying the salaries and bonuses of members of the National Assembly, a group made up of about one thousand people. Excessive ill-begotten wealth is a burning issue in the story of Nigeria.

But there are areas of agreement between Achebe and Hart. The one tells us:

During the colonial period, struggles were fought, exhaustingly, on so many fronts — for equality, for justice, for freedom — by politicians, intellectuals and common folk alike. At the end of the day, when the liberty was won, we found that we had not sufficiently reckoned with one incredibly important fact: 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.

The other concurs:

‘The desire for freedom was the fuel of the anti-colonial revolution; but any conception of the new society was vitiated by a complete failure to take into account the contours of the world that it was being born into.’

Where Achebe speaks with passion, Hart aims for a certain dispassion but, rhetorical strategy apart, they are talking of the same thing. Both of them share a romantic vision of a Nigeria that has the manifest destiny of a big role to play on the African continent. Of that Nigeria, Hart prophesies thus: ‘It will only begin to realise its promise when domestic political projects coalesce into appropriate forms of political and economic leadership at the continental level.’ Political and economic leadership at continental level is as romantic an aspiration as Achebe’s ‘new patriotic consciousness’. In point of fact, Achebe paradoxically diminishes the playing field of this patriotism, making it a burden of accountability to the people on the part of leaders (thus reducing it effectively to a domestic affair). But it used to be that every patriot was accountable to the will of the state as determined by the leaders. Hart, for his own part, doesn’t place any such limitations on the powerful. He is speaking of old-style domination in international affairs, otherwise why would he have no qualms prophesying a ‘sub-imperial role in Africa’ for South Africa ‘under black majority rule’? Imperialism, sub or super, means that some countries exist for the glory and advantage of the imperial power. This is the kind of system Hart coolly envisages for the continent? I would love it to be shown that I have placed a tendentious construction on his words here.

Achebe seems the worse romantic of the two—for instance, when he begins to make it appear as if everything in the precolonial past is what is good for Africa today, especially drawing from the lore of the Igbo to make this point. Yet his actual concerns and suggestions still manage to relate to the present, at least as regards Nigeria, in its own context and conditions. The world may have changed from what it used to be in the 1960s, but Achebe doesn’t sound like a broken record to me. Corruption in politics and in the running of the economy is a perennial problem in Nigeria. It is a question that we must address, whether or not Nollywood takes over from Hollywood next week; whether or not every Nigerian gets connected to the world via Blackberry; whether or not Asa and Naija hip-hop and Rita Dominic are making waves on the continent and beyond; whether or not Shell has replaced the state in the Niger Delta.

Maybe, Achebe doesn’t give us much to hang our hopes on—I even doubt that giving hope is his main objective in his op-ed. Hart’s main objective seems to be to give hope. But hope in what really? If China, Brazil, India are emerging as economic powers, does that mean that Nigeria is emerging into similar prominence too? Are we following any of these countries in its footsteps to economic stardom?  And as for the ‘second diaspora’ referred to by Hart, I can’t say that it is entirely the outcome of ‘voluntary migration’, at least in the case of many Nigerians. People from all walks of life, from professors to prostitutes, are fleeing Nigeria, or being captured from it. It is not just a rate of emigration; it is more of a spate of escape and capture. And many of those who go out are reluctant to return because the conditions—political, social, economic, legal—are not right yet. Some who return from the diaspora do so only to contribute to the mess, e.g. to ‘chop’ much more money in the Nigerian National Assembly than they would earn as public servants or private sector workers in the West. Some are like Emeagwali—expatriates who make a hit by selling false images to those back home. And because we are so enamoured of ‘Tokunbo’ regardless of the quality of the person or product in question, given the decay of most home-based and home-grown things here, we always fall prey to the cunning of the Emeagwali-type of expatriate.

Yet, I want to agree with Hart that there has to be hope somewhere; for as Achebe says, ‘Nigeria’s story has not been, entirely, one long, unrelieved history of despair’. I see hope in what people are trying to do by themselves and for themselves; but I don’t see much hope because our insupportable system vitiates every genuine effort. Indians are returning in droves; it is the other way round in Nigeria.

I think that Achebe has already started to do what Hart says is needed ‘above all’: ‘ask how multiple forms of political association at more or less inclusive levels might help address the development question’. That takes us back to storming the gates of the political kingdom. If, as Hart says, we must ‘take into account the world we are being born into’, then this world would have to be a place in which we can grow, a place in which we can look forward to some measure of, yes, benevolence. Otherwise we are faced with a future of conflicts and clashes in which things might get much worse for us. Local and foreign malevolence brought us here in the first place. And then, too, the notion of capitalist development simmering within Hart’s commentary requires regulation. Where the authorities that are supposed to provide this regulation and control, i.e. to stand apart from but oversee the running of competition, fail to perform their duties with competence and transparency, but rather become completely embroiled in the dog-eat-dog struggle of private profit-seeking and graft, the capitalist economy Hart has in mind will not take full flight.

We may be getting tired of being told the same thing over and over again by these social critics who do not see that the world is changing. But frankly, the Nigerian system is the broken record, not Achebe. Recently, Wole Soyinka announced that he was going to stop talking about these things, but surely not because they have evaporated in the changed world system. In 2011, yes there is Nollywood, yes there is GSM, yes there is Internet banking, yes there is a growing population—but Nigeria is still a ‘cesspool of corruption and misrule’ with its education, healthcare, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, banking, security, sports and a caravan of other sectors, amounting to a gross shambles. Is this assessment correct or not?

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  • Sokari

    I came across the Achebe article via a Twitter contact who asked me to read it and give him feedback as someone had described Achebe as a “Parrot”. I found the latter very insulting – Achebe is one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s greatest writers and is most definitely not a parrot. Whilst I believe Achebe is right to trace Nigeria’s present situation to her colonial past, I felt Achebe’s essay was tired and staid. No new analysis, we have heard this before from Achebe and others. We dont need to keep returning to the distant past and whilst I very much agree that we as Nigerians need to address Biafra – I dont see how it fits into this essay. I have not read the Hart essay and frankly I am tired of re-reading the same old Nigerian story – its far more useful to critique what is taking place at this moment and challenge the present government, politicians, election process etc etc.

  • Nnena

    Type your comment here.
    All those that insult Achebe, a man who is old enough to be their grand papa are cursed.
    A word is enough for the wise.