(1968) Chinua Achebe, “The Duty and Involvement of the African Writer”

Chinua Achebe, Asbury Hall, Buffalo, New York, September 25, 2008
Photo by Stuart C. Shapiro (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1967 Chinua Achebe, one of Nigeria’s most prominent writers, supported the secession of Biafra from the Nigerian nation.  In this 1968 speech he describes why he supported the breakaway state in its attempt to achieve independence.   

It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant—like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames. And let no one tell me that if this was true for African writers, it must also be true for others. The fact is that some of the great issues of Africa have never been issues at all or else have ceased to be important for, say, Europeans. Take for instance the issue of racial inequality which—whether or not we realize it—is at the very root of Africa’s problems and has been for four hundred years. It has become fashionable to beguile ourselves into believing that all “reasonable” people accept the idea of human equality and that the minority who do not accept it are mentally sick, and will be cured in due course.

To take this comforting view is regarded as being levelheaded and civilized. To keep hammering at racial insults is extremist and tiresome and may even show racism in reverse. We all know the little joke of the African in London who ordered coffee and then stormed out of the restaurant when he was asked “white or black.” To be able to make such jokes against ourselves is of course a most welcome sign of self- confidence. At the same time, to sneak through life swallowing real insults is to compromise one’s self-respect. Whether we like to face up to it or not Africa has been the most insulted continent in the world. Africans’ very claim to humanity has been questioned at various times, their persons abused, their intelligence insulted. These things have happened in the past and have gone on happening today. We have a duty to bring them to an end for our own sakes, for the sake of our children and indeed for the safety and happiness of the world. And “we” includes writers.

In the last four hundred years Africa has been menaced by Europe. We may break these four centuries into three important periods: the slave trade; colonization; decolonization. During these three periods the inherent assumptions of Europe with regard to Africa have not changed as much as we like to think. Admittedly if a John Hawkins were to get out a slave ship from Plymouth today, he would be universally condemned. The world would not stand for it. That much must be conceded. But let us look beyond Hawkins’ action to his basic assumptions. We will find there a belief that the slave is somewhat less than human. Whether we like to admit it or not, this kind of belief is not entirely obsolete. It certainly was present (no doubt in a somewhat attenuated form) in colonization. No one arrogates to himself the right to order the lives of a whole people unless he takes for granted his own superiority over those people. European colonizers of Africa had no difficulty in taking their own superiority for granted. Neither do their present descendants (and this includes America and Russia) who set out to manipulate emergent Africa.

This assumption of superiority becomes particularly dangerous when—as in our case—it gets mixed up with color and race.

How then does all this affect the writer?

If an artist is anything he is a human being with heightened sensitivities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The African writer cannot therefore be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer. Among the very earliest African writers in English was an ex-slave, Olauda Equiano who called himself Gustavus Vassar the African. In his most remarkable autobiography published in London in 1789, one of his primary concerns was to do battle against those fundamental assumptions of which I speak. Equiano then represents the African writers’ response to Europe’s first assault on the life and dignity of Africans during the period of the slave trade.

Let us now turn to the middle period—one could almost say the middle passage—which saw the colonization of Africa by alien races. I am concerned here with the underlying attitudes of people to people. If the attitudes are wrong then a whole lot of other things go awry. Depending on how it is given, a gift could become an insult, and a juicy morsel turn to gall. A giver’s face is eaten, says a proverb, before the gift in his hand.

What then were the underlying attitudes of the European colonizer to Africa and its people? In 1884 European statesmen met in Berlin and simply divided the land of the blacks among themselves. The blacks were of course divided alongside the land on which they stood. Then one fine morning, Queen Victoria remembered her cousin the Kaiser’s birthday and gave him Mt. Kilimanjaro with many happy returns!

Arrogance contempt, levity—these were some of the attitudes. That great imperial poet Kipling called the African “half devil, half child.” Dr. Schweitzer was to be more generous. The African, he said, was certainly the white man’s brother, but a junior brother. There is a touch of almost disarming levity in all this. But it has its serious moments too when the “blond beast” bares its ivory teeth and the white latex of the Congo rubber turns red.

The white man killed my father [cried David Diop]
My father was strong
The white man raped my mother
My mother was beautiful
But most African writers adopted a more moderate tone
—a tone of almost sweet reasonableness, reminiscent of Equiano.
They call us cotton heads and coffee men and oily men
They call us men of death
But we are men of the dance whose feet only gain power
When they beat the hard soil

That was Senghor, of course. But even he could be overwhelmed by the wickedness and hypocrisy of Europe, of diplomats who today will still barter with black flesh, as he said in one of his more bitter moods.

Our prose writers were, naturally, concerned with the same basic issues, but on the whole adopted a more conciliatory tone—no violent accusations of murder and rape. The attitude of the writer seemed to be that once a good case had been made for his people’s culture and institutions, the rest could be left to the good sense of the reader. A common criticism of this genre of African protest writing is that it was addressed to Europeans. This is mostly true and I do not see how it could have been otherwise. After all it was Europe which introduced into Africa the problems which the writer was attempting to solve. But it is not entirely true that these writings were addressed solely to the European reader. The writer was also trying to restore to his people a good opinion of themselves because their association with Europe had visibly undermined their self-confidence. Dr. Emmanuel Obiechina is right when he sees in West African writing “. . . a purpose, implicit or explicit, to correct the distortions of the West African culture, to recreate the past in the present in order to educate the West African reader and give him confidence in his cultural heritage, and also in order to enlighten the foreign reader and help him get rid of the false impressions about the West African culture acquired from centuries of cultural misrepresentation.”

The third phase of the Europe-Africa relationship opened just over ten years ago with the independence of Ghana. “Seek ye first the political kingdom,” said Nkrumah, “and all other things will be added unto you.”

In Nigeria, the nationalist freedom movement created a freedom song:
Freedom, freedom
Everywhere there will be freedom!
Freedom for you and freedom for me
Everywhere there will be freedom

Not much of a song. But we sang it to a swinging, evangelical hymn-tune from Sacred Songs and Solos. And danced it until our feet gained power beating the hard soil. And Europe capitulated, or so we thought. In the words of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria was given her freedom “on a platter of gold.” We should have known that freedom should be won, not given on a plate. Like the head of John the Baptist, this gift to Nigeria proved most unlucky. The British who had done precious little to create a spirit of common nationality in Nigeria during the fifty years they were in control, made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country which had played no part in the struggle for independence. This would ensure Nigeria’s obedience even unto freedom.

As a first sign of this, the British high commissioner took up residence next door to the prime minister, who was, of course, a British knight.

Within six years of independence Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The national census was outrageously stagemanaged; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were manipulated and corrupted by foreign business interests.

This was the situation in which I wrote A Man of the People. The irrepressible Wole Soyinka put on the stage a devastating satire Before the Black-out which played to packed houses night after night in Ibadan. The popular traveling theatre of Hubert Ogunde and his many wives began to stage a play clearly directed against the crooked premier of Western Nigeria. The theatre group was declared an unlawful society and banned in Western Nigeria. Things were coming to a head in that region. After an unbelievable election swindle violence erupted as a result of the anger and frustration of Western Nigerians. It was in these circumstances that Wole Soyinka was charged with holding up the Ibadan radio station and removing the premier’s taped speech!

The prime minister of Nigeria who had been built up into a great statesman by the Western press did nothing to save his country from impending chaos. Yet he found time to call a Commonwealth Conference in Lagos to discuss Rhodesia and to save his good friend Harold Wilson from the consequences of an OAU resolution to which Nigeria had subscribed.

The point I want to make here is that the creative writer in independent Nigeria found himself with a new terrifying problem on his hands. He found that the independence his country was supposed to have won was totally without content. The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission. As long as they did what was expected of them they would be praised for their sagacity and their country for its stability.

When A Man of the People was published, the wife of a senior British diplomat in Lagos who had hitherto shown great admiration for my work, told me quite plainly that the new book was a great disservice to Nigeria. She made me understand that it was irresponsible to damage the good name of a country which had achieved so much in so short a time. I failed entirely to persuade her that Nigeria deserved to be criticized.

As everyone knows, Nigeria was upset in January 1966 by five young army majors. Nigerians went wild with joy at the fall of the corrupt and hated governments of the federation. Britain writhed in pain.

Meanwhile the story got around that the military coup which had been so well received was in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Ibos of the East to seize control of Nigeria. In a country in which tribalism was endemic this interpretation began to find acceptance. Before long many people were persuaded that their spontaneous jubilation in January had been a mistake. A little later it became a fact that only the Ibos had rejoiced. A Nigerian poet who had dedicated a new book “to the heroes of January 1966” had second thoughts after the countercoup of July and sent a frantic cable to his publishers to remove the dedication.

The story of the massacre of thousands of innocent Eastern Nigerians is well known. A few of its salient features should be recalled. First it was a carefully planned operation. Secondly it has never been condemned by the Nigerian government. In short, thirty thousand citizens were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed and violated, their homes and property looted and burned; and no one asked any questions. A Sierra Leonean living in Northern Nigeria at the time wrote home in horror: “The killing of the Ibos has become a state industry in Nigeria.”

David Diop unfortunately died too young. He would have known that the black man can also murder and rape. Wole Soyinka, if he is alive, knows that Christopher Okigbo, though he too died young, lived long enough to know.

Biafra stands in opposition to the murder and rape of Africa by whites and blacks alike because she has tasted both and found them equally bitter. No government, black or white, has the right to stigmatize and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence. The government of Nigeria failed to protect the fourteen million people of its former Eastern Nigeria from wanton destruction and rightly lost their allegiance. Secondly Biafra stands for true independence in Africa, for an end to the four hundred years of shame and humiliation which we have suffered in an association with Europe. Britain knows this and is using Nigeria to destroy Biafra.

“We hope to found a single federal Nigeria,” said a British Minister in Parliament on February 13, 1968. One may ask: what business has Britain to found anything at this late hour in an African country which is sovereign and independent? That is Nigerian independence.

Biafran writers are committed to the revolutionary struggle of their people for justice and true independence. They are committed to a new society which will affirm their validity and accord them an identity as Africans, as people. Gabriel Okara, Cyprian Ekwensi, Onuora Nzekun, Nkem Nwankwo, John Munonye, Flora Nwapa are all working actively in this cause for which Christopher Okigbo died. I believe our cause is right and just. And this is what literature in Africa should be about today—right and just causes.