Monday, 30 June 2014

The antinomies of the “Berlin-state”

(Review essay of Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People [London: Heinemann, 1966], 167pp., £7.10, pb, £4.35, kindle ed/US$11.63, pb)

Arrow of God

This is the year of Arrow of God. 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe’s tome. I have been rereading it lately to write a paper for a conference on this jubilee commemoration later on in the year. I decided, earlier on in the year, to first reread A Man of the People, Achebe’s fourth and later novel after Arrow of God, and then approach the latter – in other words, alternate the sequencing of the epochs of the groundings of the two texts by appearing to reread Arrow of God backwards! For now, I would like to keep the important discovery I think I may have encountered in this fascinating rereading format until my conference paper delivery. It will be published subsequently.

One by-product that has of course emerged in the exercise has been the opportunity to review A Man of the People even if this invariably anticipates its own jubilee two years away. Such a review has a pressing relevance for the present, though, as this year marks the centenary of the British conquest regime’s construction of the unmitigated catastrophe that goes by the name Nigeria, in these lands of southwestcentral Africa, to which A Man of the People interrogates most profoundly. The very gasping irony of this construction, as Osita Ebiem has shown in his recent excellent book, Nigeria, Biafra & Boko Haram (Page Publishing, 2014), is that the British were aware, right from the outset, of its cataclysmic outcome: Frederick Lugard, its chief conquest state operative at the time had indeed observed, “south and north [Nigeria] are like oil and water that do not mix” (Ebiem, 2014: 47) and Hugh Clifford, another conquest overseer, agreed, quite panoramically, in the context of both history and geography, “Nigeria is a collection of independent states, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions and by racial, political, social and religious barriers” (Ebiem, 2014: 11). Despite the misgivings, the conquest regime “cobbled together” (12) these disparate peoples and worldviews for the express interests of British politicoeconomic and strategic expropriatory goals (12, 26-27).

(Oliver Nelson Quintet, “Six and Four” – personnel: Nelson, alto saxophone; Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Richard Wyands, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Roy Haynes, drums [recorded Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 1 March 1961])

A Man of the People (hereinafter, AMP) is published in early January 1966. This is a few days before the military coup d’état that overthrows the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa civilian government which the supposedly outgoing British occupation-governor had imposed on the country in 1959, following a fractious election that the British rigged in favour of its north regional sociopolitical clients. The latter would, in turn, safeguard those vast expropriatory interests of Britain’s in the country subsequently (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “Elections in Africa – the voter, the court, the outcome”, 29 June 2014).

 A striking feature in the resolution of the grave crisis of this state that Achebe wrestles with in AMP is its degeneration into a military coup and rampaging violence (“But the Army obliged us by staging a coup at that point and locking up every member of the Government” – Achebe, A Man of the People, 1966: 165), an extraordinary predictive insight, if ever there was one, that confronts the reader, considering the gruesome trajectory of politics in Nigeria, in 1966, the year this same state launches the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide of post(European)conquest Africa, in which 3.1 million Igbo are murdered. Indeed on the receipt of an advance copy of AMP, poet and playwright John Pepper Clarke-Bekederemo observes, “Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup” (emphasis in the original). Ken Post, a British academic working in west Africa at the time, recalls: “Chinua Achebe proved to be a better prophet than any of the political scientists”. Once again, “Prophet”! Is Chinua Achebe, the Father of African Literature, also a prophet?

AMP focuses on two main protagonists: Nanga, or to refer to his official designation, Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, M.P., Minister of Culture, and Odili, the narrator. In case anyone is inclined to think that Nanga’s depiction is much of a parody, given the thrust of the novel, they need to be reassured that a Nanga actively walking the corridors of regime power in contemporary Nigeria, 50 years later, is more likely to wear the following even more bombastic tag: Chief (Prof) Dr Alhaji Sir (Gen, ret.) Mallam The Honourable M. A. Ph.D. Nanga, M.P., mni, Minister of Higher Priesthood & Culture, such is Achebe’s exceptional descriptive and imaginative insights so registered avidly throughout the novel. Nanga epitomises what public service entails for the typical politician in Nigeria, since 1960: corrupt and corrupting operative who fleeces the public treasury, “bloated by the flatulence of ill-gotten wealth, living in the big mansion built with public money” (Achebe, 1966: 85).

Odili, the school teacher, the reflective intellectual, and authorial voice, argues that the Chief (Prof) Dr Alhaji Sir (Gen, ret.) The Honourable Nangas of the times are so stubbornly confident that, “as long as [peoples in society] are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the … Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything” (73). The Nangas here, and in fact elsewhere, Odili continues, have “taken away enough for the owner to notice … It was not just a simple question of a [person’s] cup being full. A [person’s] cup might be full and none the wiser. But here the owner knew, and the owner … is the will of the people” (97). Besides the billions of US dollars which Britain and its allied interests have wrenched from its Nigeria creation over the years, what empirically constitutes that which has been “taken away enough for the owner to notice” by these fleecing brigands of African overseeing truckers between the 1960s and presently is US$700 billion.

Brigand & monster

Here, Franz Schurmann’s observation that these brigands are not “traditional but rather a phenomenon of modernity. They are fighting for power in a Western-type state” is hugely significant. What has been definitive in the past 48 years of this “fighting for power” in the restricted, calibrated spaces of just overseeing these African redoubts created by and for European World/overseas’ interests is that it is a fight to the death – genocides (Igbo, Tutsi, Darfuri, Blue Nile/South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains, Democratic Republic of the Congo), wars, immiseration, genocides, wars, immiseration... Between 29 May 1966 and today, 30 June 2014, the “Berlin-states” of Africa have been responsible for the murder of 15 million Africans. Its worst offender, its most notorious, its principal killer, remains Nigeria. This Nigeria. This haematophagous monster. This Nigeria, this killing machine which continues its murder of Africans most ruthlessly, most flagrantly, most unconscionably, even as these lines are written…

Africans now no longer need any reminders that the “Berlin-state” in their midst is not there for their interests, their wellbeing. Enough of this reminder! Enough! There couldn’t be any more eloquent interlocutors on this subject, in the case of Nigeria, for instance, than Messrs Lugard & Clifford, the very creators of this contraption, as was highlighted earlier. It is now an overriding imperative that each and every constituent people or nation in Africa embarks on the construction of a state that suits its wellbeing. This crisis, currently, is undoubtedly existential.


Just as an empirical value has been offered to underscore the urgency of Odili’s philosophical musings on the pulverising economic legacy of the local overseer brigands of the still-occupied Africa, another empirical reference is available, thankfully, to address Odili’s own liberatory conclusion that “the owner knew”, “the will of the people”, at last, does know what is at stake in this human-made imbroglio. It also requires a human intervention to right this wrong of history. Osita Ebiem’s Nigeria, Biafra & Boko Haram, which I cited earlier, is at once positioned to operationalise Odili’s optimism with regards to the resolution of the case of Nigeria, at least, and, 100 years to the day, offers a historic reply to conquest operatives Lugard & Clifford:
No generation of human beings should live as if the world comes to an end after them ... [T]he people in this generation must work at freeing all the entrapped sovereign nations and their people from the traumatic union of one Nigeria … this generation cannot afford to depart this stage without dissolving the Nigerian union in the interest of the next ones. (added emphasis) (Ebiem: 184-185)

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