Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) and his legacy

May 16, 2013

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, who passed away March 21, was probably the greatest African writer from the era of its anti-colonial revolutions. His novels, from Things Fall Apart (1958) to Anthills of the Savannah (1987), portray the elations and dilemmas of that era. The world has barely begun to grasp the importance of Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Camara Laye, and the other writers of Africa’s freedom struggle.

Achebe could have coasted on his literary prestige, but he remained a dissident. He didn’t hesitate to criticize classic Western authors for racist attitudes, most famously Joseph Conrad. Perhaps as a result, Achebe was denied the Nobel Prize that he easily merited. He also criticized, in and out of his novels, the many corruptions and failings of Africa’s unfinished revolutions, especially in Nigeria. Nowhere did these contradictions appear more starkly than in the Biafran War.

Achebe wrote in a recent essay, “The Genocidal Biafran War Still Haunts Nigeria”: “Almost 30 years before Rwanda, before Darfur, more than 2 million people— mothers, children, babies, civilians—lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria. As a writer I believe that it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbors…there is precious little relevant literature that helps answer these questions. Did the federal government of Nigeria engage in the genocide of its Igbo citizens—who set up the Republic of Biafra in 1967—through punitive policies, the most notorious being ‘starvation as a legitimate weapon of war’?…Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, more than 40 years after its end? Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the errors of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?”

His last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, is an effort to engage those issues. At the end of his life, Achebe made a great statement of responsibility toward the future. His questions are only more significant because they resonate beyond the Africa of newly-won independence to a world struggling with the meaning of history and revolution. He remained true to the fundamental question of his revolutionary age: what does it mean to be human?

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