Famed Author Chinua Achebe On The Occupy Nigeria Strikes-The Christian Science Monitor

Chinua Achebe-Photo credit: Craig Ruttle/AP
By Scott Baldauf, Staff Writer

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe supports fuel-subsidy protests and says that Nigeria's unrest can be eased by better, less-corrupt leaders.

In this January 2008 file photo, Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, is seen at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he is a professor. The author of the globally acclaimed novel 'Things Fall Apart' and other works examining the political failures and corruption of oil-rich Nigeria.

In an interview, Nigeria's premier novelist Chinua Achebe says that corruption is the root of the current fuel-strikes crisis, and that the only way to set Nigeria on a democratic path is for Nigerians to select better leaders, and to punish those who "steal from the state."

Professor Chinua Achebe currently teaches at Brown University as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies. He is the author of the globally acclaimed novels ''Things Fall Apart'', "A Man of the People",” Arrow of God" and "Anthills of the Savannah". He has also published collections of poetry, literary criticism and children's books. In 2007 he received the Man Booker international prize for his body of work from England, and more recently the 2010 Gish Prize. His new book a semi-autobiographical work called "There was a country: A personal history of Biafra" will be available from Penguin in September 2012.

Question: In your 1960 novel, "No Longer at Ease," you write about the coming problem of official corruption in Nigerian society, told through the rise and fall of your main character Obi. What do you think are the roots of corruption in Nigerian society – colonial legacy, corporate power, local business elites – and what will it take to uproot it?

Everything you mentioned has played a part. Nigeria has had a complicated colonial history. My work has examined that part of our story extensively. (No longer at ease, A man of the people and later Anthills of the savannah also tackle Nigeria’s burden of corruption and political ineptitude…) At this point in Nigeria’s history, however, we can no longer absolve ourselves of the responsibility for our present condition. Corruption is endemic because we have had a complete failure of leadership in Nigeria that has made corruption easy and profitable. It will be controlled when Nigerians put in place checks and balances that will make corruption “inconvenient” – with appropriate jail sentences and penalties to punish those that steal from the state.

The first republic produced political leaders in all the regions who were not perfect, but compared to those that came after them they now appear almost “saint like” – they were well educated, grounded politicians who may have embodied a flawed vision or outlook for the country (in my opinion); but at least had one.
Following a series of crises that culminated in the bloody Nigeria-Biafra war, Nigeria found itself in the hands of military officers with very little vision for the nation or understanding of the modern world. A period of great decline and decadence set in, and continues to this day. The civilian leadership of the Second Republic continued almost blindly the mistakes of their predecessors. At that point in our history, the scale of corruption and ineptitude had increased exponentially, fueled by the abundance of petro-dollars.

By the time the Third Republic arrived, we found ourselves in the grip of former military dictators turned ‘democrats’ with the same old mind set but now donning civilian clothes. So, Nigeria following the first republic has been ruled by the same cult of mediocrity – a deeply corrupt cabal – for at least forty years, recycling themselves in different guises and incarnations. They have then deeply corrupted the local business elites who are in turn often pawns of foreign business interests.

When I have talked about the need for a servant leader, I have emphasized an individual that is well prepared – educationally, morally and otherwise – who wants to serve (in the deepest definition of the word); someone who sees the ascendancy to leadership as an anointment by the people and holds the work to be highly important, if not sacred. I know that is asking for a lot, but that really should be our goal. If we aim for that, what we get may not be so bad after all.

That elusive great Nigerian leader that is able to transcend our handicaps – corruption, ethnic bigotry, the celebration of mediocrity, indiscipline etc- will only come when we make the process of electing leaders – through free and fair elections in a democracy – as flawless as possible, improving on each exercise as we evolve as a nation.

Once we have the right kinds of leaders in place – the true choices of the people – then, I believe, it will be possible to solidify all the freedoms we crave as a people- freedom of the press, assembly, expression etc. Within this democratic environment, the three tiers of government filled with servant leaders chosen by the people, can pass laws that will put in place checks and balances the nation desperately needs to curb corruption.

Question: During a 2006 trip to Nigeria, citizens told me that they welcomed the government's rhetoric about fighting corruption, but didn't place any faith in lasting change. Do you think a citizens' movement like Occupy Nigeria can be effective where official government efforts fail?

The right to protest, the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech…these are all human rights that should be protected in any democracy, indeed in any nation. Any involvement of ordinary Nigerians in a non-violent (peaceful), organized, protest for their rights and improvement in their living standards, in my opinion, as a writer, should be encouraged. An artist, in my understanding of the word, should side with the people against the Emperor that oppresses his or her people.

The hope of course, is that the non-violent protest will eventually lead to change in a positive direction – like the civil rights movement in America, Mahatma Gandhi’s independence struggles in India etc. – if that is the case, then I am all for them.

A functioning, robust democracy requires a healthy educated, participatory followership, and an educated, morally grounded leadership. Civil society has a role to play in educating the masses about their rights – making sure that they understand that the elected officials report to them, that those in positions of leadership are not monarchs – and then insisting through the ballot box or other avenues of the democratic system that their voices be heard.

However, having said that, it is important to emphasize that Nigeria is a complicated country with more than 250 ethnic groups. Protests are often a symptom of deeper rooted problems – in Nigeria’s case, resistance to a fifty year history of leaders essentially swindling the nation of its resources – $400 billion worth - and stashing most of it abroad with little in terms of infrastructure on the ground. Nigeria continues to be held back by the lack of basic amenities – there is epileptic electricity supply (often times blackouts for months), very poor schools, no standard water supply systems, bad roads, poor sanitation…Nothing works – life, schools, electricity, nothing....

Question: The Arab uprisings in North Africa raised hopes that other authoritarian governments on the continent could also be challenged by citizen movements. Do you think the Occupy Nigeria movement has the potential to follow in the Tunisian and Tahrir Square footsteps?

Popular non-violent uprisings as an expression of the feelings of the people should be allowed and protected. I have already made that clear. The hope is that such movements coalesce onto a defined platform with a clear direction and leadership. The problem with leaderless uprisings taking over is that you don’t always know what you get at the other end. If you are not careful you could replace a bad government with one much worse! My hope for Nigeria actually is that the people will channel all that pent-up rage towards a fight for sound democratic institutions – a competent electoral body that can execute free and fair elections…in other words, exercise their frustrations at the ballot box. Movements that begin on the streets… on the ground… should channel their frustrations in a non-violent, organized direction – politically. But the great challenge for Nigeria – one that has stunted her development since independence – is how to convince 150 million people to put aside competing interests, sideline different religions, ethnicities, political persuasions, and build a united rostrum or two with strong leaders to truly bring about fundamental change to Nigeria. That is the challenge.

Question: The statement you signed supporting the Nigerian protests reads, in part, "The country's leadership should not view the incessant attacks as mere temporary misfortune with which the citizenry must learn to live; they are precursors to events that could destabilize the entire country." Nigerians in the past have seen themselves as complacent in fighting injustice. What makes this moment different?

Those that perceive Nigerians as complacent don’t completely understand our history.

Nigeria went through a thirty- month-long civil war that cost over 2 million lives (some say as many as three million); mainly children. After that, my people, the Igbo people, for whose survival the war was fought; were economically, politically, if not emotionally exhausted. The rest of Nigeria was also devastated, albeit, to a milder degree. Let us remember that at the time it was seen as one of the bloodiest wars in history. Following this catastrophe were several decades under the iron rule of Military dictators and civilian adventurers. A people don’t just jump up and protest after they have been nearly annihilated by war and then systematically subjugated for decades with their rights stripped from them for so long. In order to survive, people employ a number of tactics– they adopt a posture of subservience, quietness, etc., but it should never be interpreted as weakness. Human beings are alike everywhere you know. All human beings have their breaking point, it could be a big event or a small one; and for most  long-suffering Nigerians the removal of oil subsidies made life intolerable because it exponentially increased the cost of living – food, transportation, education, water, you name it – over night. Most clear thinking bureaucrats should have seen this coming…as an untenable situation for the population.

Economists often give us condescending lessons in favor of fuel subsidy removal – that fuel subsidies siphon much needed cash away from the treasury of the federal government, that its removal will yield $8 billion; that those who benefit the most in the current system with subsidies are some of Nigeria’s wealthiest citizens; that subsidies further fuel corruption in the oil industry including the state-owned NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation). Other reasons to take away subsidies this group also highlight include the fact that the presence of subsidies prolongs Nigeria’s dependence on fossil fuels, that they are indirectly implicated in the failure of Nigeria to establish and run refineries etc.

What has not been pulled into this entire debate is that the scale of corruption in Nigeria – the Nigerian government – and I am talking about corruption at all levels of government – Federal, state, local government, municipal, etc. – amounts to at least $10 billion a year ($400 billion in forty years). Putting an end to this should be the focus of the present government. Is this amount saved by tackling corruption in Nigeria not more than what would be made available with subsidy removal – and at no cost in pain and suffering to the average Nigeria?

If the present government reduced its own bloated budget, curbed the outrageous salaries and perks of parliamentarians, state governors, and local government officials - that would yield an additional hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars a year. And that at least would be a start. In an environment where corruption is truly tackled, a conversation can then be had with the people about a gradual withdrawal of subsidized petroleum products. But the way it was done, was harsh, even contemptuous of the average Nigeria and that is why it is being resisted.

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Couragous messenger of truth,chronicler of pre- and post-colonial Nigeria,poet,philosopher,historian,realist rolled into one,erudite prof I hail o!!!

Sadly we still do not respect

Sadly we still do not respect other people. Now it's olimpic time, as he said sport has a power to unite people.

Sadly though only for a small amount of time.

Great article, gotta think about it some more

food for thought

Interesting article. My, the world is changing, and getting smaller all the time.


These strikes are really important!

I will keep this short and

I will keep this short and sweet and there is really just one thing I would like to say: Great article Scott, I truely enjoyed reading it!

part of my research for academic benefits

Prof Chinua Achebe, you are trully gifted,
Thank you for this awesome awareness of truth unfolded and told to a much better understanding.


Nigeria is our own and we must do everything possible to make this nation better and best.

nice baba

BOKO-HARAMMED, in all the killings and looting of igbos and the property in the states of the northern Nigeria, who has orgernised any protest rally and match to any of the colonial western offices to condemn the act. take or leave tribe, religion and other similarities attached to life must have it way,until you tell the Arabs, Palestine to be one with Israelis the such would work in this part of the world, if not keep deluding ur self of being one.if have Bible do look on the book of Genesis 16:12,.that legitimate and illegitimate sons of Abraham, pls check on it.the brain is not stolen but being used by the people who knows the value,JHARKHANDBIHAR


BOKO-HARAMMED, in all the killings and looting of igbos and the property in the states of the northern Nigeria, who has orgernised any protest rally and match to any of the colonial western offices to condemn the act. take or leave tribe, religion and other similarities attached to life must have it way,until you tell the Arabs, Palestine to be one with Israelis the such would work in this part of the world, if not keep deluding ur self of being one.if have Bible do look on the book of Genesis 16:12,.that legitimate and illegitimate sons of Abraham, pls check on it.the brain is not stolen but being used by the people who knows the value,JHARKHANDBIHAR

Prof. Achebe and President Mandela

But, pardon me, Prof. Achebe, are you by any chance related to President Mandela? You kinda favor Mr. Mandela, Prof.

Good one

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Prof Achebe

I really respect the wisdom of our celebrated professor. Am one of his fans having read almost all his great works. In this article the prof has not said anything new. Indeed he is too theoretical in this piece, The emphasis is on 'ifs' and not on 'how'. He punctured his treatise with the use of 'my people, the Igbos'. He is yet to explain his contribution to the loss of about 2 million souls during the civil war as a director of information. Innocent people were lured to untimely death through his mis-information. This may explain why the Nobel Prize will continue to elude this great thinker. All the same I salute a great mind of Africa and he can be forgiven for his oversight.

Almost right

the truth is that well let me no west my time ...this is right.


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Folusho, Achebe used the word

Achebe used the word 'my people' within the context of the civil war.The war was fought against the Igbo's and their brothers in the East and not against the yorubas, so he is absolutely right. Please do not quote the professor out of context.
Dr Charles Omotu

Folusho, Achebe used the word

Achebe used the word 'my people' within the context of the civil war.The war was fought against the Igbo's and their brothers in the East and not against the yorubas, so he is absolutely right. Please do not quote the professor out of context.
Dr Charles Omotu

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Why Hailing the Old Prof?

why are people hailing the Prof now? Yopu only need to go back and read his mind-opener "The Problems With Nigeria, 1982". In this small piece, the old Prof described what is happening today as if he had played-forward the video tape of Nigeria.
Prof Aluko died weeks ago and Prof Achebe is leaving us; we will all praise his patriotism and principled-centredness when he is gone.
Prof Aluko is hailed by people in the presidency describing his virtues but this same old man withdraw from OBJ's government when they declined his principles.
Sir, i am one of your disciples and i pledge that some of us are on your track.


Prof. Chinua Achebe cannot be more right in assessing the present political and economic situation in Nigeria. The President Jonathan led FGN has a duty of dismantling the entire cancerous machinery of Corruption in Nigeria totally. It is only when this is done that Nigerians will begin to enjoy the benefits of the country's vast natural resources. Thank you ''The Wise One'' for that indepth analysis.


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Prof. Achebe. You made an

Prof. Achebe.
You made an interesting observation about Nigeria and her problems since indepensence. Corruption is the major problem that has retarded the growth and development of the country. I still see huge potential for the country, if the current and future leadership of the nation can find effective weapon to fight and overcome corruption in Nigeria.

Thank you sir for the piece,

Thank you sir for the piece, but who are your people, the igbos or Nigerians? That's the problem of our country, the protests started and was very loud in Lagos because that is a truly cosmopolitan society not because the government of the state belongs to another party but the sad thing is that Lagos is not Nigeria, Mr Achebe sir, until Nigeria becomes a nation of unified individuals, in Lagbaja,s (Nigerian entertainer) words, "nothing for u" (us). We said the protests was for the fuel price to revert to 65 Naira, was this achieved? No! Unity first sir, nothing can work without unity and your choice of words show that we are still a long way off sir, truth.


Furrealz? That's mraveolusly good to know.

Key Questions

One more point...is it me or can it be that difficult to create jobs. This is one of the issues supposed to be tackled by this government, but so far, they have purchased rickety buses (by the way more bloated contracts to the capitalists). I mean seeing as there are so many service sectors such as ambulance services, libraries, local adult education/cultural services etc lacking(that won't cost much to set up and employ millions of people across the country} these are opportunities waiting!!!! A question to go away with…while discussing the now called off strike someone asked a question…who is going to organize a rally for the Southerners especially Igbos that have been killed? – The answer to this is fundamental to our claim to being a nation.

further observations

Sir I do have an observation...the view that when 'the people' of Nigeria are allowed to 'really' choose their own government things might be better may be open to debate, the reason for this is that over the course of time through decades of corruption and learning of wrong values, there is no guarantee that given a chance, the typical Nigerian would not choose the ‘wrong’ sort of person. One must remember that Nigerians always aspire to a capitalist way of life so chances are that people may go for such a person