A Man of the People: Although best known for his 1958 masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, about a simple yam farmer in tribal Nigeria, novelist Chinua Achebe is still writing about Africa a full half century later. The 79-year-old author and social critic spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jerry Guo about recent developments in his home country and politics on the continent.
Why do you think Nigeria has such a bad reputation?
It’s possible to go to Nigeria and feel that the people are very dynamic and hardworking and want to do well. Yet you could [also] have an impression that this is a very corrupt country. Nigerians had very serious problems in their history since the times of the colonial masters. Now Nigeria is trying to become a modern state on one hand; on the other, it’s still a very corrupt and violent country.
So how did notoriously corrupt African states like Nigeria become that way while others such as Botswana and Ghana went down a different path?
Nigeria is very wealthy because of the amount of oil. This richness becomes a drag if there is no order and no honesty. I write about Nigeria, yet I cannot understand why we refuse to grow up. It’s a mystery to Nigerians and a mystery to me. Come to any election in Nigeria and it’s full of bad news. Nigerians know what they want. So why don’t you get your house in order, I ask?
In your political commentary, you talk about the importance of personalities in african politics. is this a sustainable way of governance?
I don’t think so. You need to have leaders who feel the need or are compelled by their people to be good and reliable. The failure of leadership is the explanation in my famous piece, if I may so say, “The Trouble With Nigeria.” This is the failure of Nigerian leaders, not their followers.
You don’t place any blame on the enabling conditions from which these kleptocrats emerge?
We do have the need for followers to put pressure on their leaders, but the problem is that their leaders are corrupt. When you talk about the few African countries where things are working, you will find generally the quality of leadership is better than in other countries. We need to hand power over to those people who have special training through good education or people who have some qualities that can pull together the resources of a nation. Of course, the colonial system prejudiced our development, but we have also now had enough time and opportunity to straighten it out. But we haven’t done that.
You’ve said president Jonathan Goodluck wasn’t bringing in the good luck. So what was your reaction to the news of the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua?
I wouldn’t pursue that line. It’s not a question of changing my mind, but that we must give [Goodluck] the opportunity to show his leadership. We must not assume anything at this stage, because as acting president, he did not have this position before.
There’s been an uptick in ethnic violence between the Christians and Muslims in nigeria. are you afraid of radical islam taking root there and spreading?
That’s a very serious problem. A politician will use whatever is handy, and the things that are handy are ethnicity and religion. It’s very worrying and it could damage the nation permanently. I think it’s a sign of a lack of development.
Speaking of development, do you think there’s still a role, if any, for the west in all of this?
I don’t think the West must themselves decide whether they should have a role. If they do feel like helping, that’s fine. But it should be something that we do freely, as members of the human race. Don’t misunderstand me, there is still room for the West in Africa, but I’m very anxious not to give the impression that we’re waiting for someone to come develop the African continent.
Originally published by NEWSWEEK