Chinua Achebe’s voter and my mixed memories of Nigeria

Chinua Achebe

The late Chinua Achebe, author of "Things Fall Apart" and "The Voter". 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

As you read this, all eligible members of Nigeria’s 200-plus-million population will be flocking to voting centres across the nation to cast their votes in a general election in what is touted as Africa’s largest democracy. 

Our own Mstaafu (retired President), Uhuru Kenyatta, is already there, leading an African Union team that will observe and report on the fairness and credibility, or otherwise, of the voting exercise. How he and his colleagues will do this, I do not know. I have never observed even a one-village election.

Nigeria is huge by any definition and description. Apart from its vast territory of nearly a million square kilometres (compared to Kenya’s 580,000) and its teeming population, with Lagos City alone being home to an estimated 15.4 million people. Nigeria is also one of the biggest economies in Africa. 

It is believed by some economists to have overtaken its strongest rival, South Africa, in the past few years.

On the cultural front, the country boasts of well over 500 languages and maybe just as many ethnic entities. Some of these languages are Yoruba, Igbo, Fulfulde (Fulani), Hausa, Jukun, Edo, Igala, Idoma, Nupe, Gwari, Efik, Ibibio, Anang, Ekoi, Awak, Waja, Waka and Tula.

This is in addition to English, the official language, and Nigerian Pidgin, which has been recently adopted as a broadcasting language by some international media houses. Did I hear anyone say we have language challenges in East Africa?

To move towards more familiar ground, most of us know and respect Nigerians for their literary prowess. Even to those of us who are not literary specialists, names like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri and, more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie need no elaborate introduction.

With all due respect to our eminent writers from the rest of the continent, most of us admit that our Nigerian relatives are the founding parents of African Literature in English and they remain largely the pathfinders into its future.

Those of us who have been privileged by both longevity and strategic (or fortunate) placing to meet and interact, however briefly, with some of these great creators would love to narrate our encounters with them. Did I tell you of Wole Soyinka urging us, then-young people, in 1977, to volunteer for the liberation war in Zimbabwe?

I also cherish memories of hosting in Nairobi the late Flora Nwapa, a strikingly graceful and articulate lady, as one of the judges of the Commonwealth Literature Prize in the early 1990s. Achebe surprised me at the University of Nairobi Literature Department in 1978 by remembering me from our encounter at the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) conference in Makerere, four years earlier.

"The Voter"

Still on Achebe, one of the memories that came back to me as I pondered the Nigerian elections was of his early short story, “The Voter”. It portrays the dilemma of a voter who has accepted “dash” (bribes) from all the candidates in an election, as he faces the ballot boxes. But that was in the naïve days when people still had consciences.

Later, in 1983, after many agonies and tribulations, both personal and for his beloved country, Achebe wrote The Trouble With Nigeria, a sad but robust book-length analysis of the many reasons that make Nigeria a particularly difficult country to organise, govern and develop. Achebe might as well have called his book “the trouble with Africa”. Its concerns, like those of many of his other non-fiction reflections, including Hopes and Impediments, are directly relevant and applicable to all of post-colonial Africa today.

Incidentally, who are the specialists and experts on Achebe’s non-fictive writings? Do not say I should tell you. Good lecturers are supposed to challenge and stimulate their audiences to undertake their own research into the subjects of their discussion. If our chat today makes you want to look more closely into the African behemoth that is Nigeria, especially through the eyes of its most famous creative writer, my job will have been done.

The heart of the matter is that, wherever we live on this continent or in the Diaspora, we should not be indifferent to the fortunes of Nigeria. We in East Africa, and especially in Kenya, tend to operate by a kind of “live and leave alone” philosophy. In other words, we prefer to mind our own business and leave others to mind theirs. This position, however, is becoming increasingly untenable in today’s globalised and digitalised world. 

Considering that, according to knowledgeable estimates, one in every five people of African origin is a Nigerian, we just cannot afford to be indifferent to anything that happens in Lagos or Abuja, just a few flight hours away.

More daringly, we should actively seek to benefit from the opportunities opened to us by those stupendous statistics. If, for example, Kenya and Nigeria could throw off the colonial blinkers still hanging around our trade relations, they would find an almost insatiable market for all their agricultural and dairy products alone. 

I think I dropped a similar hint about DR Congo, which is now, however problematically, part of our East African Common Market.

I am sure our Mstaafu Kenyatta out there is fully alert to these realities and will not confine his observations to vote-casting and vote-counting alone. With a well-managed Nigeria, its troubles and impediments, as Achebe saw them, could, and would, easily become opportunities and fortunes for Nigerians, Kenyans and other Africans.

I should confess that my enthusiasm for Nigeria arises from my nostalgic direct encounter with it some 47 years ago. The nearly two months I spent in Lagos between December 1976 and February 1977, during the historical Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC77), in the company of the crème de la crème of Africa’s creativity, were a defining moment for my life and career. They also, indirectly, led to my flight from Idi Amin’s Uganda and into the welcoming arms of Kenya. But that is a story for another day.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]