QUITE EARLY in the new year, this 2014, I began to prepare for a paper on the role or involvement of
2014 is also the year of Arrow of God. This is why we are gathered here today at
A striking feature in the resolution of the grave crisis of this state that Achebe wrestles with in A Man of the People 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 or one-quarter of this nation’s population, are murdered during the course of 44 subsequent devastating months. Indeed on the receipt of an advance copy of A Man of the People, 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?
Arrow of God, Achebe’s most complex novel, his “richest, most mysterious … one of the finest works of fiction in English written in this century”, according to Robert Wren (Robert Wren, Achebe’s World, 1990: 75), remains an inexhaustible farmland for bounty harvests. Fresh readings and re-readings of the novel bring forth ever more yields. This also applies to the examination/re-examination of the literature across the spectrum of distinguished critics of the novel. It is striking, right from the outset, that the certainties of Igbo national independence witnessed in the age of Things Fall Apart have now clearly dissipated as Ezeulu charts the paths and terms of the consequential relationship between him and Ulu, the god that he serves, and the key centres of bourgeoning European-conquest power in Umuaro and neighbouring Igbo states. Pointedly, Ezeulu instructs son Oduche to attend the mission school as his “eyes and ears” (Chinua Achebe, The African Trilogy, 1988: 365) in this power dispensation. But Oduche is much more important here than just a tactical tool in Ezeulu’s defence arsenal as this paper demonstrates.
AS IN THE other texts of the Achebean oeuvre, including A Man of the People, which has been aptly illustrative, Arrow of God presents a highly imaginative and anticipatory power of Achebe’s insight to the turbulent trajectory of post-(European)conquest African history and politics. The paper will explore how this insight anticipates the catastrophe of the Igbo genocide. Thus, the Igbo double jeopardy of foreign conquest and occupation and genocide appears to sum up Achebe’s mission.
I have chosen Emmanuel Ngara’s study of Arrow of God in his Stylistic Criticism and the African Novel (1982) as an important text to employ to discuss Achebe’s crucial mission. Ironically, Ngara’s clearly stated conclusions in his work couldn’t be more appropriate in mapping out the parameters of Achebe’s project. Ngara is very unhappy with Arrow of God. He writes: “… Arrow of God is not a book that fascinates and engages the reader as soon as he picks it up to read” (Ngara, 1982: 79). He elaborates in four paragraphs and it is important to quote him at some length:
The narrator is the author himself who tells the story in the third person, giving himself the privilege of entering the characters’ minds and recording their innermost thoughts. The narrator is addressing both an African and a western English-speaking audience. He is very successful in his use of African idioms in an English novel – non-Igbo speakers are able to follow the story and to understand the Igbo proverbs and expressions used in the novel. There are, however, some minor shortcomings in the language. Achebe uses many Igbo terms such as chi, obi, ogene. These are not translated and the reader is expected to understand them in the context in which they are used. In some instances, however, these untranslated terms are somewhat obscure, the reader can only have a vague idea of what they stand for, and this tends to slow down his reading speed as he attempts to puzzle out what they mean … Arrow of God is too culture-bound and sociologically oriented. The emphasis on the multifarious aspects of Igbo society tends to distract the reader and to hamper the smooth flow of events … Yet another source of difficulty is the novel’s complexity of theme and plot and the large number of characters involved. Achebe tries to contain the whole cultural fabric of Igbo society and the various forces threatening it in one volume. This necessitates bringing in too many characters to whom the reader must be introduced before he can clearly see who is playing what role in the conflict. Also, many contradictions are involved… (79)
(John Coltrane Quartet, “Wise One” [personnel: Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums; recorded: Van Gelder Studios, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US, 27 April 1964])
Okonkwo’s forthright response to Obierika’s reticence about how to respond to the impending British invasion of Umuofia shows clearly that years of enforced exile in the Mbanta country have not in any way diminished the hero’s patriotic instincts and distinctions. Even though Okonkwo subsequently commits suicide after killing the envoy sent by the British to disrupt the crucial Umuofia leadership assembly on the unfolding emergency in addition to his conviction that Umuofia is unwilling to deploy its forces to resist the impending attack on the country, I have argued, elsewhere (see Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “The Achebean Restoration”, 2013: 698), that Okonkwo’s suicide and its aftermath symbolise the sowing of the regenerative seeds of freedom for the restoration of Igbo national sovereignty.
As a result, this trope of freedom/national sovereignty transmutes to the post-Umuofia-Arrow of God epoch, evident, most assuredly if not defiantly, when Ezeulu turns down the occupation’s plans to induct him in the operationalising structure of the conquest regime. Again implicitly, perhaps, Ezeulu does not feel that the conquest’s mission is complete or definitive. He still hopes that his people’s independence would survive. This is why the priest informs occupation administrator Clarke, via the latter’s interpreter: “Tell the white man that Ezeulu will not be anybody’s chief, except Ulu” (Achebe: 498). Equally, the trope of Abame-murdering/wipe out transmutes to this new epoch. In the Anglo-Igbo confrontation in Umuaro and the contiguous states, the Abame massacre features, most hauntingly, in the narrative. In the wake of the Umuaro-Okperi war which Ezeulu opposes, describing it as an “unjust war” (Achebe: 334), Umuaro reluctantly accepts the terms of the British military intervention because, to quote the narrative voice in Arrow of God, “[t]he story of what these [British] soldiers did in Abame was still told with fear, and so Umuaro made no effort to resist but laid down their arms” (Achebe: 347). In fact, Ezeulu himself focuses on Abame broadly in a key address to his people in which he reflects on growing African involvement in the murderous forces the conqueror regime is mobilising in these massacres, a principal sphere of this tragedy. He poses three questions which clearly have “pan-Africanist” implications: “Have you not heard that when two brothers fight a stranger reaps the harvest? How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five” (Achebe: 455), clearly an Achebean acknowledgement of that key component of the trajectory of the conquest of Africa and continuing post-conquest violence and murders so dramatically captured by historian Chancellor Williams in his The Destruction of Black Civilization (1987: 218):
Now the shadows lengthened. The Europeans had also been busily building up and training strong African armies. Africans trained to hate, kill and conquer Africans. Blood of Africans was to sprinkle and further darken the pages of their history … Indeed,SO, ages before the Blydens and the Equinaos and the Garveys, and the DuBoises and the Nkrumahs and the Makonnens would begin to theorise and offer progressive, liberatory perspectives on “pan-Africanism”, the enemies of Africa had already unleashed “pan-African-‘Goodcountry’-assemblages” of terror on Africa and Africans to despoil and conquer
Africawas conquered for the Europeans by the Africans [themselves], and thereafter kept under [conquest] control by African police and African soldiers. Very little European blood was ever spilled.
Abame upheavals to 29 May 1966-12 January 1970
Instead of Ezeulu’s often complex philosophical ruminations which also focus, specifically, on the possibilities of the tragic Igbo Abame-upheavals during his own times in this prevailing age of Arrow of God, let us end by elaborating more empirically on the lived Igbo Abame-upheavals of 29 May 1966-12 January 1970 because this is precisely the outcome the philosopher-priest has sought to prevent in Umuaro and what Obierika, hitherto, had saved Umuofia from. If we recall those poignant words from Ezeulu to Umuaro, cited earlier, “[O]ur fathers have told us that it may even happen to an unfortunate generation that they are pushed beyond the end of things, and their back is broken and hung over a fire” (Achebe: 457), it suddenly dawns on us that these appear to constitute a pre-dated epitaph for the 3.1 million murdered Igbo in a generation just once or twice removed. As we can see, Chinua Achebe’s predictive insights, here in Arrow of God, are shatteringly breathtaking… Undoubtedly, the Nigeria genocide state, beginning on 29 May 1966, becomes some haematophagous monster let loose on the Igbo and Igboland, slaughtering away to the hilt … And just in case anyone doubts the endgame of this mission, three shrilling, chilling proclamations, scripted with unmistakeable Stheno-precepts of obliterating intent from one of the Gorgons stalking the land, punctuate the scene as the following shows:
Mu je mu kashe nyamiri
Mu chi mata su da yan mata su
Mu kwashe kaya su
(English translation: Let’s go kill the damned Igbo/Kill off their men and boys/Rape their wives and daughters/Cart off their property)
4. In May 1969, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had recently
taken over the command of the Benjamin Adekunle-death squad, orders his air
force to shoot down any Red Cross planes flying in urgently-needed relief
supplies to the millions of surviving but encircled, blockaded and bombarded
a week of his infamous order, 5 June 1969, Obasanjo recalls, nostalgically, in
his memoirs, unambiguously titled My Command (1981),
genocidist air force pilot Gbadomosi King “redeem[s] his promise”, as Obasanjo
puts it (Obasanjo, 1981: 79). Gbadomosi King shoots down a clearly marked,
incoming relief-bearing International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) DC-7
aircraft near Eket, south
JUST IN CASE it isn’t quite obvious, Chinua Achebe publishes a sequel to Arrow of God 48 years later. Here in
*Paper presented at the Arrow of God at 50 symposium, Centre for African Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London/Igbo Conference (symposium conveners: Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jnr and Dr Louisa Uchum Egbunike), Saturday 4 October 2014.
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is visiting professor in the graduate programme of constitutional law at Universidade de Fortaleza and specialist on the state and on genocide and wars in Africa in the post-1966 epoch – beginning with the Igbo genocide, 29 May 1966-present day, the foundational and most gruesome genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa, carried out by Nigeria and its suzerain state, Britain. 3.1 million Igbo or 25 per cent of the Igbo population were murdered by the co-genocidists during phases I-III of the genocide, 29 May 1966-12 January 1970, and an additional tally of tens of thousands of Igbo have been murdered by the co-genocidists in phase-IV of the genocide, 13 January 1970-present day.
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