'Nigeria is once again on the brink of a precipice. We have to face up to our responsibilities before it is too late'
In January 1966 Chinua Achebe attended a meeting of the newly founded Society of Nigerian Authors. His 1958 debut novel, Things Fall Apart, had made him a literary celebrity abroad and an influential public intellectual at home. But six years after the celebrations and optimism that marked Nigerian independence, he says there were already "far too many indications that we might not be going to have a good time. There was theft, corruption and even some violence. It wasn't yet a complete failure, and we still thought we could get things right. But the SNA was sort of a trade union. We thought it would keep us writers safe."
The meeting that night was delayed because one of the members was late. "And then he burst through the door holding a book and shouting that I was a prophet. 'Everything in the book is happening,' he said, 'except the coup.'" The book was Achebe's fourth novel, A Man of the People, which was due to be published in London a few days later. Despite being set in an unnamed African state, it was clearly a satire on post-independence Nigeria detailing the greed and vanity of the slide into corruption and the cynical lip service paid to traditional values by aspirant politicians on the make. "I'd ended the book with a coup," Achebe explains, "which was ridiculous because Nigeria was much too big a country to have a coup, but it was right for the novel. That night we had a coup." The prime minister was murdered, along with key regional politicians and members of their families, as elements from the military took control. "And any confidence we had that things could be put right were smashed. That night is something we have never really got over."
The eerie prescience of Achebe's novel led to him being accused of having prior knowledge of the coup by the authorities. While this allegation was entirely untrue in its specifics, in a wider sense his work has always been closely informed by, and intertwined with, Nigerian politics as well as with its culture, history and literature. He is a novelist, poet, children's writer, critic, editor and essayist. His most recent essay collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child (Penguin), is published in paperback this week. Things Fall Apart told the tragic story of Okonkwo in late 19th-century Nigeria as Christian missionaries began their work in the region. No Longer at Ease (1960) features Okonkwo's grandson in the 1950s working for the British colonial civil service; Arrow of God (1964) went back to the early years of the century to interrogate relations between traditional and colonial faiths and power structures.
In 2007 Achebe was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International prize. The chair of judges, Elaine Showalter, said that in "redrawing the contours of African history" he had at the same time "redrawn the contours of the novel Joyce recreated for the 20th century, and illuminated the path for other writers seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies." Nelson Mandela said Achebe had "brought Africa to the rest of the world" and described him as "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down".
Achebe was 80 last month and is a model of the grand old man of African writing. But despite his status, he remains a contentious figure. Last month, on a rare visit to the UK, he gave a lecture at Cambridge University – an institution that turned him down for post-graduate study over 50 years ago – entitled "Nigeria's Painful Transitions". He opened by expressing the hope that his words would not be too offensive. The assumption was that he was warning the white members of the audience, but in reality his lecture was far more uncomfortable listening for the sizeable Nigerian contingent, including a slew of government and embassy dignitaries, as he spoke of "indolent kleptocrats" in the government, and "a cesspool of corruption".
Before the lecture there had been some rumblings within the university that if Achebe was too outspoken, in particular about the Biafran war and the ongoing secessionist dispute in that part of Nigeria which remains a painful subject 40 years after the war ended, then there might be protests against him. Extra security was discreetly deployed but in the end was not needed. Despite his robust language, Achebe was mobbed after the event by well-wishers who formed an alarming crush round his wheelchair – he was paralysed in a car crash 20 years ago – as they attempted to take photographs and ask him questions. This sort of rock-star treatment has become an increasingly regular occurrence and one that he says he "observes with some amazement and the hope that it will all end well. But I know it indicates a lot of love and respect, so it also makes me feel rather humble."
He explains that speaking about Nigeria in such critical terms is a painful duty, particularly because he lived the first part of his life "in a time of such hope, when the glories of Nigeria were very evident and independence could only crown our achievements. We had so many advantages: a large and youthful population full of energy and ideas and talent. After independence we would no longer be at the beck and call of the colonial master. We would be able to do what we wanted and achieve what we aspired to. This was not just our hope, it was our expectation. When I was young we had everything to look forward to."
Achebe was born in 1930 in the town of Ogidi in the south-east of the country, and christened Albert Chinualumogu Achebe by his evangelical Christian parents. One of his stock jokes is to ask what he and Queen Victoria have in common. "We both lost our Albert." He says there was some tension between his Christian upbringing and the traditional Igbo culture around him. "But my parents had the same sense of hope as I did, although we did not frame it in the same way, in that for them it would emerge out of our worshipping, literally, a different God."
As a precociously gifted schoolboy Achebe thrived in the colonial education system and enjoyed reading the English literary canon, even if Africans rarely fared well in its stories. "I took sides with the white men against the savages," he once wrote. He won a scholarship to the University of Ibadan where he read English, history and theology. After university he was employed by the Nigeria Broadcasting Service as a scriptwriter, which led to his first visit to the UK to attend a BBC training course.
"My first reaction to England was one of enlightenment. I realised they were really not so much better than us, and in some ways they were worse than us. But I also realised that they had their house in order in many ways we didn't. So the visit acted as a sort of correction to what I thought the world was, but also a realisation that we had to put our own house in order and not count on other people to do it for us."
A first draft of Things Fall Apart had received some encouraging assessments when he was in England, but he returned home to refine his story of the flawed and wronged Okonkwo and the arrival of European powers in the wake of the 1885 Berlin conference – "which took place without African consultation or representation" – that intensified the scramble for Africa. The book, the title of which comes from Yeats's poem "The Second Coming", has gone on to sell more than 10m copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages. Its splicing of English with Igbo rhythms, stories and proverbs was revelatory. Wole Soyinka acclaimed it as the "first novel in English which spoke from the interior of an African character rather than . . . as the white man would see him".
Achebe's decision to write in English has been a source of debate since the beginning of his career, with writers such as the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o criticising his use of the colonial language. In 1965 Achebe wrote: "I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings." It is a position that he has, broadly, stuck to, although he also points out that some of his best poetry has been first written in Igbo.
When independence came in 1960 "it was as if the rains had come after a long period of harsh winds and bushfires". Encouraged by the apparent successes of India (1948) and Ghana (1957), "we thought we would do well to part ways with Her Majesty's empire on which the sun never set, to which the usual rejoinder was 'because God couldn't trust an Englishman in the dark'. Not that we knew what independence was intended to be like. It had been given to us on a platter of gold, as our leader told us. Only later did we learn that you cannot grant freedom in that way, we should have taken it on our own terms. So year by year we found ourselves saying that we didn't like this, or weren't sure about that. We didn't have enough scepticism and should have known from simple human instinct that things were not shaping up the way they should. Then came the coup, and then the counter-coup and soon after we were engaged in civil war."
Nigerian writers and intellectuals, he says, had entered into a "new and terrifying phase", in that independence seemed "without substance. Of course the pathology of colonialism was deep-rooted, and the wounds manifested themselves in many unforeseen ways, and the cold war was lingering in the background, but we could no longer go on blaming others and absolving ourselves of the need to take action." Achebe supported and spoke for the secessionist region of Biafra during the three-year war (1967-70). He broke with friends on the issue. His family – in 1961 he had married Christie, a psychology professor, with whom he has four children – who had to leave Lagos in the wake of the 1966 coup, were forced to go into hiding. "It was a disaster. The Nigerian military was armed to the teeth by big foreign powers, and three million people, including many children, died in a conflict in which starvation was deployed as a weapon of war."
After the Biafran defeat Achebe entered party politics with the leftist People's Redemption Party, but his "sojourn" was marked by frustration and disappointment. "The majority of people I met were there for their own personal advancement." He went into academia, from where he has conducted his career ever since both as a teacher and writer.
His 1975 essay on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which Achebe accepted Conrad's depiction of colonialism but detected too little condemnation of its fundamental racism, has been a pivotal point of debate in the subject ever since. "I felt it was my duty as an African writer to reflect on the work of Conrad. But I won't return there although I am pleased it sparked so much discussion. It is good to show in stark outline what the real situation is, what the person at the other end of the whip is feeling. But I also understood that I must get on with my work and not dwell on one subject or book."
His most recent novel was Anthills of the Savannah, which was shortlisted for the 1987 Booker prize and dealt with the military regime that ran a west African republic. He is currently engaged in a "semi-autobiographical" work that will take in his engagement with Biafra, but he acknowledges that his five novels, four of which were written by 1966, make for a "limited harvest". He claims he would like to have written more fiction, but "I go at the pace of inspiration and what I can physically manage – although I have produced poetry and rather a lot of essays on this and that over the years."
Achebe's proposed solutions to Nigeria's ills are straightforward and practical. He speaks about a staged approach to building democratic institutions, holding free elections so as to put good candidates in office, developing a "justice system that can thrive and a flourishing free press that will exert checks and balances and put anti-corruption laws on a firm footing". A first step would be a freedom of information act, "as it is illegal to find out certain government financial information, which was a colonial law retained by the new independent state from a time when you weren't allowed to question the white man. We don't even know how much we lose each year."
He says the most recent estimates of the cost of corruption suggest that since independence "$400bn has been pilfered from the national treasury. That is greater than the GDP of Belgium and Sweden. They have stolen more than the entire economy of a European state, which makes it impossible for civic society to exist. Twenty-seven years ago I wrote a pamphlet called 'Trouble in Nigeria', which was about corruption. Today matters are worse because they have been allowed to get worse. Added to the mediocrity and ineptitude of our ruling class there was an oil boom, which has produced an unparalleled period of decadence and decline. If we took just one of our political or military leaders, put them on trial in Nigeria, showed how much money they had taken and sentenced them to an adequate punishment, from that point corruption would begin to end."
Last weekend he hosted the Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University in Rhode Island, where he is now based. The event focused on Rwanda, Congo and Nigeria, and speakers debated issues of democracy, economics, the environment and regional cooperation. "We have endured a terrible failure of leadership – not just individuals, but a whole class of potential leaders, from which I do not absolve myself. The role of the intellectual is difficult. We should live by what we preach and we should speak out. In that way we always seemed to be superior to our former western leaders. For them, writers and painters just had to write and paint and keep out of politics. Leadership in all its forms is a sacred trust in a democracy, almost like an anointed priesthood.
"If there is a stridency in what I say it is because I believe Nigeria is once again on the brink of a precipice. We urgently have to face up to our responsibilities before it is too late."