Naturalizing Nigeria: A Strategy For Fighting Corruption By Okey Ndibe

Columnist: 
Okey Ndibe

From the outset, Okonkwo, the tragic protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, comes across as extraordinarily strong, a man who is “well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” and whose “fame rested on solid personal achievements.” Not only does he stand out in his community, he is also a prototype of the imperial character, a man taken with the singularity of his powers. In an important sense, he foreshadows the British authorities lurking around the corner of late 19th century Umuofia, about to burst upon the lives of a once proud and self-governing people.

Like the British colonial authorities, Okonkwo is in no hurry to argue with any force weaker than himself – or with weakness of any sort, period. When he encounters weakness, especially weakness symbolized in another individual, his first impulse is to kill it, squelch it, erase it. He is a veritable serial killer, armed with various stratagems for killing his nemeses – the weak. When a man named Osugo contradicts him at a meeting, a hectoring Okonkwo reminds the man that “this meeting is for men.” As Achebe informs us, Okonkwo knew “how to kill a man’s spirit.” During the Week of Peace, a period when the earth goddess mandates the absolute absence of rancor, belligerence and violence from the community in exchange for her bequest of a bountiful harvest, an imperious Okonkwo thoughtlessly beats one of his wives.

For me, the one thing that’s even more significant than Okonkwo’s untoward exhibition of rude power is his community’s poise, their possession of the ultimate means to chastise the errant hero, their capacity – in other words – to deal with the threat of a man who appears not to know where his moral boundaries lie. When he defames Osugo, Okonkwo is compelled to apologize. When he breaches the Week of Peace, he scandalizes his community and incurs the wrath of the goddess whose priest makes a brusque, chastening visit to Okonkwo to spell out the fines.

Achebe damningly portrays Okonkwo as a man incapable of thought, a man who reposes too much faith in his physical prowess but puts no store by wisdom. Yet, there are numerous opportunities when the community forces Okonkwo to reckon with the fact that they – to say nothing of their ancestors and gods – are, in the end, more powerful than he. When the strongman foolishly ignores old Ezeudu’s counsel not to have a hand in killing the “doomed lad” called Ikemefuna, it falls to Obierika, Okonkwo’s best friend and an exemplar of the thinking man, to chide the morally repugnant Okonkwo. In a warning that proves prescient, Obierika describes Okonkwo’s participation in the killing of his adoptive son as the kind of act for which “the earth goddess wipes off” an entire family. Okonkwo earns himself a seven-year exile in his maternal home, Mbanta, when his gun discharges accidentally, inadvertently causing the death of a clansman, Ezeudu’s son.

In all of this, the instruction is that the people of Umuofia are able to rein in Okonkwo, a man who has developed a warped and ethically problematic vision of strength as corresponding to virtue. If he could, Okonkwo would gladly have stipulated that he was the only way and the light. He would have insisted that his community’s will be subordinated to his decrees. But Umuofia does not let him. Instead, the community constantly reclaims the ethical ground that Okonkwo wishes to usurp for sheer power.

The culmination of this tussle between the community’s sense of propriety and Okonkwo’s faith in violence arrives towards the end of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The men of Umuofia are holding a meeting to decide an appropriate response to the troubling presence of white men who – to paraphrase Obierika – have put a knife to the things that held the community together, gravely threatening Umuofia’s corporate cohesion. The meeting has hardly taken off when the uniformed messengers of the white intruders appear, with instructions to disband the gathering. Okonkwo confronts the haughty messengers, draws his machete and beheads one of them. In responding in this decisive, “manly” way to the provocations of the white presence, Okonkwo hopes to propel his fellows into war. In effect, he wishes to make a demand on the warriors of Umuofia. He wants them to prove themselves to him, to demonstrate that they deserve to be called warriors still. He wants them to illustrate that they have not become effeminate, wilted cowards.  

The men of Umuofia stoutly reject Okonkwo’s precipitate action. They resist the summons to go to war on Okonkwo’s terms. They have a time-tested, settled protocol they must follow before declaring a war. They won’t let a failure at “thinking,” a man whose genius lies exclusively in acting out violently, to determine the nature and timing of their response to the foreign invaders, however egregious and gratuitous the “white” provocation. Rather than join Okonkwo in battle, the men of Umuofia wonder aloud about his awful act. They do not admire his decision to act alone when communal action was meet and mandated. It is, of course, a moment of mutual incomprehension. Okonkwo misreads his community’s refusal to embrace his violent act as final proof of Umuofia’s decline, its descent into paralysis. Convinced in his misapprehension, he leaves the scene of his final murder to go off and hang himself, no doubt viewing himself as a man utterly betrayed by his fellows, a man who sees no alternative other than a final act of separation: suicide.

In death, as in life, Okonkwo is a figure of extreme impulsiveness. Left to his devices, he would sooner force his community to bend to his will. If it were up to him, then even the ancestors and gods of Umuofia must redefine themselves according to Okonkwo’s strictures. In present-day Nigeria, a man like him could very well be an imperial president or governor – and proceed to mistake himself for the totality of his community, his interests and values superseding those of the rest of his people. Yet, Achebe’s first novel reveals how the members of the Umuofia community – ancestors, the living, and deities – work in concert to check Okonkwo’s masculinist excesses and to hold him accountable to the community’s ethical precepts.

The question then arises: What has happened to weaken such faculties of ethical enforcement in contemporary Africa, specifically in the space called Nigeria?

The column is excerpted from a lecture I gave at Brown University on April 29, 2013. The second part will be published next week.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe   

okeyndibe@gmail.com

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Okonkwo is a hero

Mr. Ndibe, I enjoy reading this article.  If one has not read or heard about the book "Things Fall Apart" before, you have sold the book.  This master piece is a wonderfull selling point for the book.  However, I disagree with your characterization of Okonkwo.  Therer is no where the man was accused of corruption like our colonial masters and the leadership that took over from the whitemen.  If Okoronkwo were to be at the helms of our dear country, there will NOT be insolent lazy men that throng our political landscape.  There will not be Boko Haram because people will be too afraid to contemplate such nonsence.  We would have bounty harvest of yam and other crops because we will have real men.  Since the leaders of umofia refused Okonkwo approach to send the intruders (whitemen) away, was there life better?  Did there approach save them from white man menance?

corruption

It is clear that the EFCC and ICPC are not doing any justice to corruption. Is more worst now when you have people in the government who's appetite is beyond what the take-home can provide, the leadership of our time are outright corrupt and very vicious to the Nigeria people. If this nation most change it as to come from the followers.

Wrong JUXATPOSITION - Okonkwo had BALLS!

This is a wrong comparison - nay JUXTAPOSITION of the protagonist in Things Fall Apart to the politicians in NIGERIA.

If the Politicians in NIGERIA today have "half as much balls" - collectively as Okonkwo did, this country will be twice as much better than it is today.

The biggest problem with NIGERIA today is that - we have nitwits all around - people who cannot read in between the lines - Zombies for lack of a better term. They swallow hook, line and sinker everything thrown at them.

Okonkwo STOOD for what he believed in - whether right or wrong - his position on any issue was known/predictable. All that we have as leaders are UNPRINCIPLED WOMEN/MEN.

To me - the only character in the NIGERIA unfolding SAGA that is worth JUXTAPOSING Okonkwo's character to would be TUNDE IDIAGBON.

For the nitwits, keep up your mediocrity - OKEY is the best thing that has ever happened since the coming of of your FAKE Jesus Christ!

Keep on with the mental masturbation!

Very well said!

This is a delectable piece by Okey; very well worked, or should I say, very well worded! It is fascinating to see how you contrasted the failure of Nigeria with the uprightness and resoluteness of Umuofia. I enjoyed every line, even though I could predict the plot, and therefore the end, that did not mar the pleasure of the read.

May I also commend you on your tireless efforts at laying bare the lies and failures of our present government. My prayer is that you and others who act, speak, and pray for a New Nigeria will see at least its birth before making the transition to the next world.
God bless Nigeria; amen.

You need help. This was not

You need help. This was not meant for dullard like you. This is an intellectual 'stimulant' not for the half brain like you. When a proverb is explained to a child, our people regret the bride price paid on his mother's head. The words of our elders are words of wisdom.

Ride On Brother: Great Piece of Writing

CRY MY BELOVED COUNTRY! The TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA is complex. Successive rule by individuals afflicted with the "OKONKWO's-JIHAD COMPLEX" factors as one aspect. The prevailing 'UNQUESTIONING NIGERIAN SOCIETY' (group docility)is the another key aspect. True talk brother, UMUOFIA was a 'QUESTIONING SOCIETY' that abhors the 'appropriative personalisation' of group ethics and behaviours. But rest assured, this prevailing 'feast of vultures' going on as governance is pointer to the impending volcanic question 'How are the mighty fallen'.

As always, you exceed

As always, you exceed expectation in your write up and analysis. To bring "Things Fall Apart" story, that depicted the struggle between the colonizer and the colonized, through the prism of today's Nigeria is an act of a genius. I visit SR just to read your articles.

Crap!!!!!!!

Crap!!!!!!!

RE-Naturalizing Nigeria.

Awesome piece...accurately brings what has befallen the country into proper perspective...is there really a going back on these before tested virtues,norms and way of life for African societies??

Now thats a necessary read.

Now thats a necessary read.

Stimulating!

Thanks for this well-penned piece. It's extremely thought-provoking; sobering at the same time; intellectually stimulating, and above all, challenging - yes, a moral compass for any who desires to lead, or is currently in any leadership position in Africa, and Nigeria. I am eagerly waiting for part 2 of this lecture.

Re Naturalizing Nigeria

Achebe simply tried to demonstrate to his readers that the pen serves as a better weapon of war than to freely shed human blood, as in the days of Okonkwo.

Great Article

Thank you for your wonderful thoughts and boldness. I will be looking forward to more writings like this. Only that the government doesn't care.

My attempt

The checks and balancing system as existed in Umuofia was there in every African community. But what has happened to weaken our ethical enforcement is as a result of continual erosion of values. It has now come to the point where there is no more value. The only value is the might of your pocket even if you kill to get it. It is like a boat off its anchor. People had tried to pull it back but it has gathered so much force there is now resignation to let it go.
Surprises you that we accept without question that rogues are given national honours and called gurus when we know that the money they used to set up such industry is our commonwealth? The ethical value is dead and decayed. We are now vultures gathering to participate in the spoil not minding.
This is my first attempt to your question my brother. It is very scholarly and I wish i could answer it more properly. I will be reading in this forum for a better answer. So guys lets have a go. I must read my Things Fall Apart again.

Hermenutics

Contrary to those stupid commentators on things fall apart, okey has distinguished himself as an intellectual and an attentive reader.

Achebe is a master writer and Okey the master rider. Just all about master piece

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