When Chinua Achebe was returning to Nigeria for the first time in 2001 since he had a car accident in 1990, I advised the then governor of Anambra State, Chinwoke Mbadinuju, to name a very important street in the state capital for the distinguished man of letters. The governor accepted enthusiastically. He went to see Achebe in his hometown of Ogidi with his commissioners and principal officers of the state legislature. On seeing Achebe in the wheelchair, Mbadinuju burst into uncontrollable tears. The governor managed to announce that Anambra’s Three Arms Zone—the road which connects the state judiciary, legislature and Government House—would henceforth be known as Chinua Achebe Avenue. This event was well reported in the media. A lot of people hailed the christening.Alas, you can never understand the ways of Nigeria politicians. Mbadinuju, a British-trained lawyer who holds a doctoral degree in political science from Cornell University and was even head of the Department of African Studies at the State University of New York, decided to reverse himself without any sense of embarrassment. A few months after he paid a courtesy call on Achebe and announced the naming of this very important street for him President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Anambra State. Christian Uba, a pipsqueak created by the Obasanjo government to ruin values in the state, advised the governor to change Chinua Achebe Avenue to Presidential Avenue so as to—wait for it—make Obasanjo happy. Mbadinuju accepted the advice from this barely literate young man, a leader of the coterie of nasty characters whom Achebe was to describe in 2004 as renegades desperate to turn Anambra State into a lawless and bankrupt fiefdom.
With the change of name, Mbadinuju’s Anambra State lost an excellent opportunity to make a powerful and far-reaching statement about Nigeria’s social values, about the new direction in which the Nigerian social order should be going. No street or monument has to this day been named for any Nigerian writer, living or dead. Since the 1990s in particular, writers and artists have rarely been recognized in the country, as all honours are now bestowed on only people of power and money. In countries like France where writers and philosophers are well regarded, streets, roads, monuments and other important places are named for them, and not politicians. It is, therefore, gratifying that the Nigerian Senate, despite being peopled by crass philistines, has passed a resolution asking the executive arm to name the National Library in Abuja after Achebe.
The naming of significant places after credible and worthy individuals constitutes what French scholars call places of memory or institutional memory. It says a lot about the values of any given people. Like blood which is central to our survival, values are not always visible but without them no society can exist. Writing in the forward to The Closing of the American Mind, a tour de force by the preeminent American conservative thinker, Allan Bloom, the American Jewish writer and Nobel prize winner, Saul Belo, describes values as the standard by which a society judges an action or idea, accepts or rejects it. It is revealing of our warped values that the Anambra State government during the military regime changed Achalla Road, one of the biggest streets in Awka, to Prince Arthur Eze Avenue. Eze , the government contractor who said that Nigeria would cease to exist if Sani Abacha did not transmute to civilian president in the late 1990s, was awarded AfDB contracts for the supply of portable water and provision of electricity in rural areas in Anambra, Ebonyi and Enugu states as well as for the building of an industrial park in Awka—all totaling $110m. But he –for want of a better expression—made a mess of a boiled egg. His chairmanship of Premier Brewery—the third largest brewery in the country after Guinness and Nigerian Breweries, both in Lagos—led to the death of the Onitsha-based firm. His assumption of the Orient Bank board chair resulted in the death of the bank, with Paul Ogwuma’s Central Bank banning him from being on the board of any Nigerian bank. Still, the same contractor was last year given a high national honour.
Obasanjo began the aggressive and brazen process of devaluation of national honours and, by extension, our values. Three months after The News magazine published in 2003 damning reports, complete with photos and verifiable addresses, about monumental personal corruption by the then Inspector General of Police, Obasanjo conferred a high national honour on Tafa Balogun, only for the latter to be tried and jailed for unconscionable graft when he fell out of favour with Obasanjo. Three months after he was nominated to be a minister and Nasri el-Rufa’i accused Deputy Senate President Ibrahim Mantu and Chief Whip Jonathan Zwangina of demanding a N54million naira bribe before he could be confirmed. Still, Obasanjo gave both Mantu and el-Rufa’i national honours at the same ceremony. This was in 2004. Achebe was also nominated for another national award on this occasion, and he promptly turned it down in protest against the awful manner the country was being run. As though to exacerbate the devaluation of our values, Obasanjo chose the eve of his departure in 2007 to give the country’s two highest national awards to incoming President Umaru Yr’Adua and his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, “in anticipation that they will do well!”
Achebe’s rejection of two attempts to honour him since 2004 were greeted with deafening national applause because the national honours do not seem any more to be worth the paper on which they are written. Things have become pretty bad in the last 14 years. In 1979 when the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) was instituted in recognition of outstanding academic, intellectual and artistic achievements, Achebe was the first laureate, and he was subsequently bestowed the Member of the Niger (MON) award. Despite receiving innumerable international and foreign awards, the only ones on Achebe’s personal letterhead were the Nigerian ones, namely, NNOM and MON. But when our honours and values became bastardised on a grand scale, Achebe began to dissociate himself as much as possible from the Nigerian government awards.
Still, it is imperative that Nigeria honour Achebe in a big way in death. Restoration of the very honours he rejected in life is utterly out of the question. Rather a significant institution or monument has to be named for him, in consonance with the French philosophical practice of “places of memory”. Let us show for once that it is not only politicians who should be immortalized in Nigeria. The Chinua Achebe memorial need be institutionalized on the national level. Achebe was for decades a worthy ambassador of the African world on the global scene.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.