There was nothing more striking about Chinua Achebe’s funeral than the ambiance for how does one mourn a man who had become an ancestor while still very much alive? And perhaps caught in this conundrum, events to mark the funeral, euphemistically dubbed ‘transition’, were tinged with an ambiance of a celebratory sense of loss.
He had accomplished more than he had envisaged, perhaps, more than was envisaged for him. And had, by all his accomplishments, risen to the point where the Archbishop of Aba Anglican Province, Ikechi Nwachucku Nwosu said of him: “There are some people who cannot be buried.”
The mortal remains of Achebe were lowered into his grave at a mausoleum built within the walls of his house in his native Ogidi, Anambra State. That was where he was born in 1930. The little town was graced by Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan and his Ghanaian counterpart John Mahama, several state governors and top politician and writers and cultural leaders.
Achebe was famed for his criticism of politicians starting from his third novel Man of the People (1966), which predicted the incursion of the military into the administration of Nigeria following the colossal failure of the political class. He followed this satire with his 1982 seminal piece, The Trouble with Nigeria.
Ironically, it was this same book that President Jonathan held up in front of mourners at the St. Philip Anglican Church, Ogidi and echoed Achebe’s conclusion about the failure of leadership as the bane of Nigeria.
“He was making references to what was happening in the 1950s and 1960s,” the president said, “for those of us holding political office, we should ask ourselves: Have we changed?”
The mourners were unanimous in shouting back, “No!”
Achebe knew, before he died, that there had been little or no change in the quality of leadership in the country, prompting him to turn down two national honours, the last under president Jonathan, (in 2011) citing then the complicity of the presidency in the political chaos in his native Anambra State. Angrily, the presidency had lashed out at Achebe. But at Ogidi, before Achebe’s mournful family, President Jonathan spoke for 12 minutes, lauding the qualities of the late literary icon.
It was a national burial. Achebe deserved no less, being a global figure and as Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth described him as the man who “gave Africa its confidence” but it was unsurprisingly in his native Anambra that the ovation was loudest.
The burial programme was elaborate, arrived at after some serious deliberations. It is never easy burying a man of Achebe’s calibre as all and sundry would lay claims to his remains.
There was a national day of prayers at the Ecumenical Centre in Abuja Sunday May 19th, followed by a symposium on the life and times of Chinua Achebe at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.
The controversy surrounding his last book There Was a Country, published just months before his death played subtly in the minds of those who spoke at the event.
Chairman of the occasion, Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, speaking through his commissioner of Information and Integration, Muhammad Yahya Kuta, said, “Achebe, till the end of his life, believed that Nigeria will be great if we do the right thing.”
That evening, more tributes poured in. Speeches were made, poems were read and even a drama adaptation of Achebe’s works was staged. American novelist and essayist, Michael Thelwell, said in a moving and colourful keynote address, “Achebe is not lamenting the loss of the Biafran dream but the abuse of the heritage of Africa by its leadership.”
And perhaps that was why some of those in leadership, who on many occasions have had to put up with Achebe’s blunt criticism, didn’t show up for that event prompting Senator Ken Nnamani to look at the half-filled hall and lament, “If we were launching a brand new beer here, the hall would have been filled.”
And the next morning, when Achebe’s corpse arrived Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State explained, in the absence of his colleagues, that he was representing governors from the South East.
The corpse arrived in a coffee-coloured mahogany casket draped in the national colours of green and white accompanied by his widow, Prof. Christie Achebe. She sat grim-faced alongside her four children, and other relatives, dressed in black and gold head gears as the officiating priest, Rt. Rev. Owen Nwokolo prayed for the repose of Achebe’s soul.
As the casket was loaded into the a smaller airplane that would take it to Enugu, outside the domestic lounge of the airport, long closed down for renovations but reopened to receive the remains of the literary icon, members of a cultural troupe stood uncertainly, not sure if to commence dancing or act appropriately sombre. They never got the chance to showcase their moves.
Sadly though, the South East governors were not in Enugu either to receive Achebe’s corpse and the little reception planned for it had to be cancelled, as was the Ohanaeze night of mourning and ikoro salute. No explanation was given. But a procession by staff and students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where Achebe taught and eventually founded the Association of Nigerian Authors, held, as well as a senate sitting in honour of the writer.
At the border of Enugu and Anambra states, Governor Peter Obi, who had been travelling with the corpse all along, formally received the casket as it entered into his states and was promptly moved to the Alex Ekweume Square where hundreds had gathered to pay homage to Achebe.
The casket was laid in the middle of the square and an ambiance of awe and wonder, and the uncertainty of how to mourn or celebrate the life of Chinua Achebe resurfaced again. But the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Professor Remi Raji put it in context when he said, “We are here to celebrate the mortality and immortality of Achebe.”
Around the square, copies of Achebe’s books, especially his last, There was a Country, was being hawked by book vendors. Some of the copies were clearly pirated. But beyond that fact, it was evident that Achebe had contrived to achieve immortality ala William Shakespeare and other literary greats.
And perhaps in recognition of his greatness Prof. Fidelis Nwankwo of the Anambra State University in his tribute declared Achebe as “the field marshal of African literature” in the battle to disabuse the minds of those corrupted by false notions of Africans perpetuated in literature prior to the publication of Things Fall Apart.
Interestingly, that book alone has sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into over 50 languages, and perhaps one more. Copies of the Igbo version of the book suddenly surfaced at the square and were distributed to dignitaries. It was poorly produced but there is no other Igbo translation of the book available. The controversies around this persist, even after Achebe’s death.
And there too, there were no tears, apart from that of former minister of education Obiageli Ezekwesili. To her, Achebe’s character brought into sharp relief that of the people driven by the hunger of worldly acquisition. “Achebe is not a man of things but a man of values,” she said.
Her teary homage culminated with her quoting Aristotle’s saying that the best of men is the one who bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace. “Achebe did not bear his circumstances, he defined them,” she said.
In Ogidi, Achebe’s birth home, his remains was received by a sea of red-capped chiefs at the town hall, where another set of tributes followed while the Achebe family sat and listened, again in matching attires. At the same time, work on the author’s country house was still ongoing. The mausoleum where his body will be laid to rest was still being constructed.
It was here, in that new structure with glass walls that the remains of the simple Chinua, whose words touched the minds of children and adults and simpletons and presidents that he was indeed interred. A casket, a tomb of glass and concrete walls and the relative obscurity of Ogidi cannot repress the legacies of one of Africa’s biggest literary exports.
(This article was first published in Sunday Trust of May 26, 2013)