Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Achebe’s Refusal of Nigerian National “Honor” Award: Matters Arising
Mobolaji E. Aluko, PhD
October 22, 2004
I had sworn before now never to add “Matters Arising” to the end of the title of any of my essays, but as I look at this Achebe Affair, I see nothing but “matters arising.” Never say never.
Let me explain.
On the One Hand……
On October 14, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced a list of 191 recipients of Nigeria’s National Honors, Prof. Chinua Achebe of “Things Fall Apart” included.
On October 15, in an open letter, Achebe promptly refused the award, citing the sorry situation of the country under Obasanjo, and in particular that of his home state Anambra, whose governor has been embroiled in local squabbles with Abuja-friendly political opponents of his.
In typical fashion, the Federal Government, through the cantankerous spokesperson Femi Fani-Kayode, quickly responded, faulting Achebe’s logic.
Naturally, opinions have ranged on all sides as to the propriety of Achebe’s move, and it has been most unfortunate that his refusal has gained more international currency that the original announcement of the award.
My first assertion here is that Prof. Chinua Achebe has FULLY exercised his right to refuse ANY gift that he did not ask for, to refuse ANY GIFT that he was not privately assured that he would be receiving, even if he did not ask for it. Only a slave can be forced to accept a gift that he says that he does not like and/or want – and Prof. Achebe of “Things Fall Apart” is nobody’s slave.
It is the giver – that is the Nigerian Federal Government – has a greater fault here: it should ask before it gives, particularly after the embarrassment last year when General Muhammadu Buhari, while still protesting the allegedly (and to my mind palpably) rigged victory of President Obasanjo of the PDP over his own presidential bid at the head of the ANPP ticket, was cynically given an award (the GCFR) that he claims that he had already received before in 1998/9 !
So the administration should for once learn from its past mistakes.
On the Other Hand…..
On the other hand, honestly I am quite uneasy about the reasons given by Prof. Chinua Achebe – essentially the economic state of the country and the particular miasma of his Anambra State, both of which he left at the feet of the PDP administration, and Obasanjo in particular.
Everybody of conscience would agree that an award from a Hitlerite regime should be refused. But Obasanjo’s administration is no Hitlerite regime, as insensitive as it is to public pleadings, as self-righteous as it is in its “reform” policies, as wrong-headed as many of them are, are really not designed to kill Nigerians, but merely the result of stubborn people who have imbibed a foreign notion of “reform” and “liberalization” and “privatization” so tunnel-narrow that they turn every contrary advice into almost instant treason.
After all, according to Achebe himself, “Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honors – the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic – and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award.” Except for the promise in which we were luxuriating in 1961, 1979 and 1999 were not exactly banner years for Nigeria for Achebe to have accepted the earlier awards.
After all, in Anambra, it was not Obasanjo that made Ngige call someone as young as his “little broda” (Uba) his godfather. It was not Obasanjo who forced Ngige to Okija shrine, or caused him to sign some documents. It was not Obasanjo that slapped Ngige’s face. If Obasanjo is to be blamed, it is because he has withdrawn Ngige’s security detail – which I guess is being ably provided by MASSOB?
Lord knows how I criticize this administration, but I would not refuse an award from it based simply on its palpable inability to move the nation forward. I could refuse one if I felt that I had done nothing particular to deserve it (maybe someone “bribed” on my behalf, or was bribing me with it), or had nothing since the last award (particularly since Achebe had received four national awards earlier), or that of all the gamut of awards (GCFR, GCON, OON, etc.), the one given to me was too lowly for me. I could also refuse it if my suggestions to move the nation have been deliberately and flagrantly snubbed and ignored – as they have, with the world as my witness.
Quite frankly, I have come to the firm conclusion that this administration and the ruling party are very well-meaning, but they are incompetent and yet unwilling to admit it, and make enemies of those who point their incompetence out. Unfortunately, the opposing parties are equally incompetent, and so we ordinary Nigerians are stuck in the middle.
If I were Achebe….
This is being presumptuous, since not only have I not written a single novel not worth reading, I have not even written a single novel ! But if I were Prof. Achebe, I would either have not said ANYTHING at all with the announcement of the award – or simply confined myself to stating that there is nothing to celebrate in the present-day Nigeria. I would then not show up at the award ceremony. If I were to reject the award, it would have been based on stated personal reasons, that my PERSONAL ADVICE and that of too many others over how to move the nation forward had been of rejected out of hand, or my personal intervention on how to resolve the crisis in Anambra State had been rebuffed with provable federal government collusion. Absent any information about Prof. Achebe’s personal interventions in these regards, one is hard pressed to understand why Obasanjo should be blamed by one who could easily have access to him for either the situation of the country, or that of Anambra in particular.
I thus support Achebe’s right to refuse the award, but question the unclarified reasons for doing so.
Federal Government Responses to Criticism Most Unbecoming
Finally, there is something amateurish about how this administration responds to criticisms. I term it the “Slam Rebuttal.” Examples abound: Slamming FIFA for threatening to ban NFA because of heavy government interference against FIFA rules; slamming Transparency International (TI) for insisting (from data collected) that Nigeria was the third most corrupt country in the world, after Haiti and Bangladesh. For example, when Ojukwu loudly refused to be hoodwinked into a one-way-ticket plane flight to Abuja to answer for his support of MASSOB, the SSS responded by writing that:
"It was in recognition of the delicate nature of the issue at hand that a senior member of the service invited Chief Ojukwu for dialogue. Chief Ojukwu was accorded all the courtesies and respect due to an elder statesman. "He was even encouraged to come along with his lawyer and any other person he wishes to be present during the planned interaction. Apparently, Chief Ojukwu misunderstood the gesture and took fright, out of concern for his personal comfort which unfortunately is in consonant with his character over the years.
“…In consonant with his character over the years” – was that un-grammatical broadside necessary?
In response to Achebe’s refusal of the latest award, after some dodgy attempts at diplomacy, the old amateurish form returned:
Our doors are open to him and will continue to be open as we have nothing but the most profound respect and admiration for him. Yet despite this, it is also pertinent to note, as a general point, that no matter how distinguished and resourceful a person you are and no matter how brilliant and gifted an individual you are, if you feel that your country does not deserve to honour you, then we believe that you certainly do not deserve your country. This is because the greatest honour that anyone can receive is that which is bestowed upon him not by a foreign land or foreign organisations, but by his own country. It is, therefore, unfortunate that up until today, some of our people are still of the view that the quest for foreign and international awards in places like Sweden and elsewhere are more important or are of more value than an award being given them by their own homeland.
The reference to Sweden is obviously in crude reminder of Achebe’s perennial nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which up till this minute continues to elude him, and which we sincerely hope will one day be his, like Wole Soyinka’s of 1986.
By the way, in 1958, Russian Boris Pasternak (1890 – 1960) was forced by the Soviet Government to refuse the Nobel for Literature award, while in 1964, Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) voluntarily turned down the same prize on the grounds that “such honors could interfere with a writer’s responsibilities to his readers.”, the only one so far to do so.
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