Image courtesy Birmingham Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

The Magical Years

On November 16, 1930, in Nnobi, near my hometown of Ogidi, providence ushered me into a world at a cultural crossroads. By then, a longstanding clash of Western and African civilizations had generated deep conversations and struggles between their respective languages, religions, and cultures.

Crossroads possess a certain dangerous potency. Anyone born there must wrestle with their multiheaded spirits and return to his or her people with the boon of prophetic vision; or accept, as I have, life’s interminable mysteries.

My initiation into the complicated world of Ndi Igbo was at the hands of my mother and my older sister, Zinobia, who furnished me with a number of wonderful stories from our ancient Igbo tradition. The tales were steeped in intrigue, spiced with oral acrobatics and song, but always resolute in their moral message. My favorite stories starred the tortoise mbe, and celebrated his mischievous escapades. As a child, sitting quietly, mesmerized, story time took on a whole new world of meaning and importance. I realize, reminiscing about these events, that it is little wonder I decided to become a storyteller. Later in my literary career I traveled back to the magic of the storytelling of my youth to write my children’s books: How the Leopard Got His Claws, Chike and the River, The Drum, and The Flute: A Children’s Story (Tortoise books).

When I think about my mother the first thing that comes to my mind is how clearly the description “the strong, silent type” fit her. Mother was neither talkative nor timid but seemed to exist on several planes—often quietly escaping into the inner casements of her mind, where she engaged in deep, reflective thought. It was from her that I learned to appreciate the power and solace in silence.

Mother’s education prepared her for leadership, and she distinguished herself in the church and as the head of a group of expatriate women from the ancient town of Awka who were married in Ogidi. She always treated others with respect and exuded a calm self-confidence. Mother brought a remarkable, understated elegance to every activity in which she engaged. She had a particularly attractive way of making sure she got her point across without being overbearing or intimidating. It is her peaceful determination to tackle barriers in her world that nailed down a very important element of my development—the willingness to bring about change gently.

We were Christians, though the inter-religious struggle was still evident in our time. There were occasions when one would suddenly realize there were sides, and one was on one or another. Perhaps the most important event that illustrates this was what has come to be known in my family as “the kola nut incident.”

The story came out that a neighbor who was a relative of mine and someone the Christians would refer to as “a heathen,” was passing on the road one day and watched quietly as my mother pulled down a small kola nut branch from a tree in her compound and picked a ripe fruit. Now one often forgot that there were taboos about picking kola nuts. Traditionally no one was allowed to pick them from the tree; they were supposed to ripen, fall, and then be collected from the ground, and by men—not by women. The Kola nut was a sacred fruit and had a very distinct and distinguished role to play in Igbo life and culture.

The neighbor reported this incident to the menfolk, who then exaggerated the “insult to our traditions.” But Mother insisted that she had every right to pick the fruit, particularly from a tree in her own compound.

I did not think up to that moment that my mother was a fighter. There was pressure to punish my mother, though it did not go anywhere in the end. Looking back, one can appreciate the fact that she had won a battle for Christianity, women’s rights, and freedom.

The most powerful memories of my father are the ones of him working as a catechist and a teacher. He read constantly and had a small library. My father also had a number of collages and maps hanging on the walls, and books that he encouraged his children to read. He would often walk us through the house telling stories linked to each prized possession.

It was from him that I was exposed to the magic in the mere title of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to an Igbo translation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Bible played an important role in my education. My parents often read passages out loud to us during prayer time and encouraged us, when we were all able, to read and memorize several passages. Sunday school continued this tradition of Christian evangelical education, this time with several other children from the village. Education was so important to my father that he often would sponsor a bright child from an underprivileged background, reminding us that he too, as an orphan, had received providence’s benefaction.

The center of our family’s activities was St. Philip’s Church in Ogidi, a large Gothic-style parish church that my father helped establish. It was constructed on an impressive, open ilo, or piece of open grass, on the outskirts of Ogidi. It was an imposing structure for its time, built with wood, cement, mud, and stone. Local lore holds that my father took part in the building of the church from its foundations. My father also helped conduct Sunday service, translate sermons into Igbo, and arrange the sanctuary and vestry. I remember waking up early to help out, carrying his bag for him as we set out at cockcrow for the parish church.

Eucharist on Sundays often lasted more than two hours. For those who were not asleep by the end of the proceedings, the fire and brimstone sermons from the pulpit made attendance worthwhile. There was an occasional outburst of uncontrollable laughter, when the rector, an Englishman, enthusiastically drank all the remaining wine at the end of communion, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. A crowd favorite was the inaccurate translations of Igbo words into English, such as the word ike, which is an Igbo word that can mean “strength” or “buttocks” depending on the skill or mischief of the translator!

I can say that my whole artistic career was probably sparked by this tension between the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating, older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside my home. I still had access to a number of relatives who had not converted to Christianity and were called heathens by the new converts. When my parents were not watching I would often sneak off in the evenings to visit some of these relatives.

They seemed so very content in their traditional way of life and worship. Why would they refuse to become Christians, like everyone else around them? I was intent on finding out.

My great-uncle, Udoh Osinyi, was able to bestride both worlds with great comfort. He held one of the highest titles in all of Igbo land–ozo. I was very interested in my great-uncle’s religion, and talking to him was an enriching experience. I wouldn’t give that up for anything, including my own narrow, if you like, Christian background.

In Igbo cosmology there are many gods. A person could be in good stead with one god and not the other—Ogwugwu could kill a person despite an excellent relationship with Udo. As a young person that sort of complexity meant little to me. A later understanding would reveal the humility of the traditional religion with greater clarity. Igbo sayings and proverbs are far more valuable to me as a human being in understanding the complexity of the world than the doctrinaire, self-righteous strain of the Christian faith I was taught. This other religion is also far more artistically satisfying to me. However, as a catechist’s son I had to suppress this interest in our traditions to some extent, at least the religious component. We were church people after all, helping the local church spread Christianity.

The relationship between my father and his uncle Udoh was instructive to me. There was something deep and mystical about it, judging from the reverence I heard in my father’s voice whenever he spoke about his old uncle.

My father was a man of few words, and I have always regretted that I did not ask him more questions. But he took pains to tell me what he thought I needed to know. He told me, for instance, in a rather oblique way of his one attempt to convert his uncle Udoh. It must have been in my father’s youthful, heady, proselytizing days! His uncle pointed to the awesome row of insignia of his three titles—ichi ozo, ido idemili, ime omaalor. “What shall I do to these?” he asked my father. It was an awesome question. He had essentially asked: “What do I do to who I am? What do I do to history?”

An orphan child born into adversity, heir to commotions, barbarities, and rampant upheavals of a continent in disarray—it was not at all surprising that my father would welcome the remedy proffered by diviners and interpreters of a new word. But my great-uncle, a leader in his community, a moral, open-minded man, a prosperous man who had prepared such a great feast when he took the ozo title that his people gave him a praise name for it—was he to throw all that away because some strangers from afar had said so?

At first glance it seemed to me that my father, a deeply religious man, was not tolerant of our ancient traditions and religion. As he got older, however, I noticed that he became more openly accommodating of the old ways of doing things. By this time he had developed quite a reputation as a pious, disciplined, honest catechist. He was widely known as onye nkuzi (“the teacher”), and the villagers found him very trustworthy. Strangers would often drop off valuables at our house for Father’s safe keeping.

Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, other European Christians, also sailing in ships, delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?

Those two—my father and his uncle—formed the dialectic that I inherited. Udoh stood fast in what he knew, but he also left room for my father to seek other answers. The answer my father found in the Christian faith solved many problems, but by no means all.

As a young person my perspective of the world benefited, I think, from this dichotomy. I wasn’t questioning in an intellectual way which way was right, or better. I was simply more interested in exploring the essence, the meaning, the worldview of both religions. By approaching the issues of tradition, culture, literature, language of our ancient civilization in that manner, without judging but scrutinizing, a treasure trove of discovery was opened up to me.

I often had periods of oscillating faith as I grew older, periods of doubt, when I quietly pondered, and deeply questioned, the absolutist teachings or the interpretations of religion. I struggled with the certitude of Christianity—“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”—not its accuracy, because as a writer one understands that there should be such latitude, but the desolation, the acerbity of its meaning, the lack of options for the outsider, the other. I believe that this question has subconsciously deeply influenced my writing. This is not peculiar or particularly unique, as many writers, from Du Bois to Camus, Sartre and Baldwin to Morrison, have also struggled with this conundrum of the outsider, the other, in other ways, in their respective locales.

My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, and so do I. I am a prime beneficiary of the education that the missionaries made a major component of their enterprise. But I have also learned a little more skepticism about them than my father had any need for. Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, other European Christians, also sailing in ships, delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?

Meeting Christie and Her Family

In 1954, I was notified of a job opening in the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Enugu. I was offered a choice by the search committee of coming to Enugu to interview or having them come to me. I remember feeling quite entitled by this choice and proceeded to enjoy the privilege by asking them to come to me, which they did. The team of mainly Britons left to return to Enugu after an hour or so of interview questions. About a week or so later I received a letter in the mail offering me a job, so I moved to Enugu. I enjoyed my stint at the broadcasting house. Promotions came rapidly, and within a very short period of time I had become the controller of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, Eastern Region.

At the end of the academic year, during the long vacation, the NBS offered summer jobs to college students on vacation. They did not pay very well but provided young people with exposure to the world of journalism, broadcasting, and news reporting.

NBS was inundated with a large number of applicants during this particular long vacation—not only students from my alma mater, University College, Ibadan, but from those returning from studies abroad. A few weeks later one could hear the unmistakable banter of young people as they milled about the normally quiet halls of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. As the controller I had very little interaction with the students.

I found all this excited commotion amusing and got on with my work. But soon after I was told by my secretary that a delegation of university students wanted to speak with me about a matter of great importance.

The students trooped into my office led by their leader, Christie Okoli. She was a beautiful young woman and very articulate, and when she spoke she caught my attention. I was spellbound. In grave tones she announced the complaint of the students: There was one student whose salary was higher than all the others, and they wanted “equal pay for equal time.” I was kindly disposed toward them and made sure that all of the students received the same remuneration for the work that they did.

My interest in Christie grew rapidly into a desire to get to know her better. I discovered, for instance, that she was from the ancient town of Awka, the present-day capital of Anambra state. Awka held a soft spot in my heart because it was my mother’s hometown, and it was known throughout Igbo land and beyond for its skilled artisans and blacksmiths, who fashioned bronze, wood, and metal carvings of a bold and haunting beauty.

Two years into our friendship, Christie and I were engaged. Christie was from a very prominent Awka family. She was the daughter of one of the most formidable Igbo men of the early twentieth century, Timothy Chukwukadibia Okoli, and Mgboye Matilda Mmuo, who unfortunately died not long after Christie was born.

“T. C. Okoli,” as he was widely known, was the son of a famous dibia, or traditional medicine man, known from Arochukwu to Nri and from Onitsha to Ogoja for skills that encompassed herbal medicine, mysticism, divination, and magic. After a lifetime in the service of the ancient medical practice, Okoli gave his son the name Chukwukadibia, which means “God is greater than a traditional medicine man.” He encouraged his newborn son to seek a Christian life.

An early convert to Christianity in Igbo land, T. C. Okoli was one of the few educated men of his time to attain the position of senior post master in the colonial Posts and Telecommunications (P & T) Department.

He was a profoundly generous man, and used his resources—which were quite outstanding for a Nigerian at that time—to sponsor the education of gifted children from scores of families in Awka. When he died at 102, in the mid-1980s, all thirteen villages of the town celebrated his life for several days, through both traditional and Christian rites and festivities.

Meeting Christie’s father for the first time was a great thrill for me. His compound in Awka was always full of laughter. People visited constantly, some to drink and make merry, others for favors and to pay their respects. I belonged to the latter category.

We arrived, and Christie promptly took me to meet her dad.

“Papa,” she said, “meet Chinua Achebe.”

We shook hands, and then the pleasantries gave way to a brief interview: “Where are you from, young man?” “What do you do?” “Where did you go to school?” “Who are your parents?”

I quickly discovered that T. C. Okoli was an Anglophile: He took pleasure in reciting passages in English from scripture, Shakespeare, and poetry; and he had sent several of his children off to England to advance their education. He was also a deeply respectful and kind man who left me with a lasting lesson that I have never forgotten.

Christie and I were talking one evening when Okoli walked into the living room. We exchanged greetings. He sat down and listened to our conversation while sipping wine, watching the two of us talk. By this time I could say confidently that he liked me. We got along very well. But in the course of the conversation he missed something Christie said and asked for clarification. At this prompting I responded by saying jestingly in Igbo: “Rapia ka ona aghaigha agba,” or in English, “Don’t mind her… wagging her jaw… ”

T. C. Okoli sat up and rebuked me. He said: “Don’t say or imply that what someone else has to say, or is saying is not worth attending or listening to.” It immediately struck me that I had to be careful about the way I handled someone else’s words or opinions, especially Christie’s. Even when there was strong disagreement, one had to remember to be discordant with respect.

Discovering Things Fall Apart

Soon after this educational encounter with my father-in-law I moved to Lagos to interview for a new position at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) headquarters. The Talks Department hired me to mull over scripts and prepare them for broadcast. A tedious job, it nevertheless honed my skill for writing realistic dialogue, a gift that I gratefully tapped into when writing my novels.

And it dawned on me that despite her excellent mind and background, she was not capable of teaching across cultures, from her English culture to mine.

In my second or third year at University College, Ibadan, I had offered one or two short stories “Polar Undergraduate,” and “Marriage Is a Private Affair” to the University Herald, the campus magazine. They were accepted and published. I published other stories during that time, including “The Old Order in Conflict with the New” and “Dead Men’s Path.” In my third year I was invited to join the editorial committee of the journal. A bit later I became the magazine’s editor.

At the University College, Ibadan, I was in contact with instructors of literature, of religion, and of history who had spent several years teaching in England. Studying religion was new to me and interesting because the focus went beyond Christian theology to encompass wider scholarship—West African religions. One of my professors in the department of religion, Dr. Parrinder, was a pioneer in the area. He had done extensive research in West African religions and cosmology, particularly in Dahomey, present-day Republic of Benin. For the first time I was able to see the systems—including my own—compared and placed side by side, which was really exciting. I also encountered another professor, James Welch, in that department, an extraordinary man, who had been chaplain to King George VI, chaplain to the BBC, and all kinds of high-powered things before he came to University College, Ibadan.

My professors were excellent people and excellent teachers, but they were not always the ones I needed. It was James Welch who said to me, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.” I thought that was wonderful. Welch helped me understand that they were not sent there to translate their knowledge to me in a way that would help me channel my creative energies to tell my story of Africa, my story of Nigeria, the story of myself. I learned, if I may put it simply, that my story had to come from within me. Finding that inner creative spark required introspection, deep personal scrutiny, and connection, and this was not something anybody could really teach me.

I have written elsewhere of how I fared when I entered a short story competition in the Department of English, and how my teacher, who supervised this competition, announced the result, which was that nobody who entered the competition was good enough. I was more or less singled out as someone with some promise, but the story I submitted lacked “form.” Understandably, I wanted to find out more about what the professor meant by form. It seemed to me that here was some secret competence that I needed to be taught. But when I then applied some pressure on this professor to explain to me what form was, it was clear that she was not prepared—that she could not explain it to me. And it dawned on me that despite her excellent mind and background, she was not capable of teaching across cultures, from her English culture to mine.

It was in these circumstances that I was moved to put down on paper the story that became Things Fall Apart. I was conscripted by the story, and I was writing it at all times—whenever there was any opening. It felt like a sentence, an imprisonment of creativity. Through it all I did not neglect the employment for which I earned a salary. Additional promotions came at NBC, and very swiftly, particularly after most of the British returned to England, I was appointed director of external broadcasting.

I worked on my writing mostly at night. I was seized by the story and I found myself totally ensconced in it. It was almost like living in a parallel realm, a dual existence; not in any negative sense, but in the way a hand has two surfaces, united in purpose but very different in tone, appearance, character, and structure. I had in essence discovered the writer’s life, one that exists in the world of the pages of his or her story and then seamlessly steps into the realities of everyday life.

The scribbling finally grew into a manuscript. I wanted to have not just a good manuscript but a good-looking manuscript, because it seemed to me that that would help to draw readers’ and publishers’ attention to the work. So I decided, on the strength of a recommendation of an advertisement in a British magazine or journal that described a company’s ability to transform a manuscript through typing into an attractive document, to send it off for “polishing.”

What I did next, in retrospect, was quite naïve, even foolish. I put my handwritten documents together, went to the post office, and had them parcel the only copy of the manuscript I had to the London address of the highly recommended typing agency that was in the business of manuscript preparation. A letter came from this agency after a few weeks.

They confirmed that they had received my document and wrote that the next thing I should do was send them thirty-two pounds, which was the cost of producing my manuscript. Now, thirty-two pounds was a lot of money in 1956, and a significant slice of my salary, but I was encouraged by the fact that I had received this information, this feedback, and that the people sounded as if they were going to be of great value to me. So, I sent off the payment as instructed.

What happened next was a near catastrophe. The typing agency, obviously having received the money I sent, went silent. One week passed, then two, three, four, five, six weeks, and I began to panic.

I wrote two letters inquiring about the status of the manuscript preparation and I got no answer.

One had a great deal of confidence and faith in the British system that we had grown up in, a confidence and faith in British institutions. One trusted that things would get where they were sent; postal theft, tampering or loss of documents were unheard-of. Today one would not even contemplate sending off materials of importance so readily, either abroad or even locally, by mail.

I look back now at those events and state categorically that had the manuscript been lost I most certainly would have been irreversibly discouraged from continuing my writing career.

The good luck was that at that point in my career I was working very closely with a British former BBC Talks producer, Angela Beattie. Beattie was seconded to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, for which she served as head of our two-person department. She was the head of Talks and I was the Talks producer, and we had a secretary, I believe, also from the BBC. It was to Beattie that I now went to and told my story about the British typing agency. Ms. Angela Beattie was shocked—she was a no-nonsense person.

“Give me their name and address,” she insisted.

Fortunately, she was about to go to England on leave, so she became the perfect vehicle to carry my anguish to the typists in London. And she did it in her distinctive way. She arrived at the offices of the typing agency and asked to speak to the manager, who showed up swiftly. Angela Beattie asked the manager sternly what she had done with the manuscript that her colleague in Lagos, Nigeria, had sent. Here, right before them, armed with a threat, was a well-connected woman who could really make trouble for them.

The people there were surprised and shaken. “Now, I am going back to Nigeria in three weeks,” Angela Beattie said as she left the agency’s office, “and when I get there, let us hope that the manuscript you took money to prepare has been received by its owner, or else you will hear more about it.” A few weeks later I received a handsome package in the mail. It was my manuscript. I look back now at those events and state categorically that had the manuscript been lost I most certainly would have been irreversibly discouraged from continuing my writing career.

Later that year, in the fall of 1956 or thereabouts, I was selected to travel to the British Broadcasting Corporation school in London where its staff were trained. Bisi Onabanjo, a good friend of mine and the future governor of Ogun state, was also among the small group of Nigerians attending this course. I had not up to this time traveled outside Nigeria.

In those days such trips were done by boat, as commercial air flights from Lagos were not commonplace. London was a brand-new and pleasant experience. I took advanced technical production skills courses during my time at the BBC staff school, and in between my classes was able to take in the sights and sounds of London, a city that remains one of my favorite international capitals.

I took along my typed manuscript, hoping to bump into a number of writers and publishers who could provide me with some advice about how best to get the book published. I was fortunate to meet and make the acquaintance of Gilbert Phelps, a British writer, who read the manuscript and was quite enthusiastic about its literary merit and prospects for publication. When Mr. Phelps kindly suggested that I hand over the manuscript to him to pass on to some publishers he knew I hesitated and told him that I needed some more time to work on the novel. I was still wondering whether to publish it in three parts or divide the work into three separate books.

About a year later I wrote Gilbert Phelps and informed him that my novel, Things Fall Apart, was ready, and he happily sent the manuscript off to a number of publishers. There were a number of instant rejections.

Some did not even bother to read it, jaundiced by their impression that a book with an African backdrop had no “marketability.” Some of the responders found the very concept of an African novel amusing. The book’s fortunes changed when it got into the hands of Alan Hill and Donald McRae, executives of Heinemann. McRae had extensive experience traveling throughout Africa and encouraged Heinemann to publish the novel with a powerful recommendation: “This is the best first novel I have read since the war.”

It was under Alan Hill’s guidance that Things Fall Apart received immediate and consistent support. The initial publication run from Heinemann was two thousand hardcover copies. Things Fall Apart got some of its earliest endorsements and positive reviews from Canada, where critics such as G. D. Killam and the novelist Jean Margaret Laurence embraced it. Later the postcolonial literary critics Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin helped introduce the book into the Australian and British literary establishment. Michael Thelwell, Bernth Lindfors, Priscilla Tyler, Charles Larson, and Catherine Lynnette Innes were some of the first intellectuals in America to pick up the novel and present it to an American audience.

In England the book received positive reviews from the Observer, Time and Tide, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. But not all the reviews were as kind or positive. Some failed to understand “the point of African Literature” and what I and others were trying to achieve by telling our own story. It did the work a great deal of good, however, that the distinguished novelist Angus Wilson and the well-respected literary critic Walter Allen wrote positively about my first novel.

In Nigeria there was a mixed bag of responses. Some of my old teachers at Ibadan found the idea of my publishing a novel “charming,” but many African intellectuals saw both literary and political merit in the work.

When I wrote Things Fall Apart I began to understand and value my traditional Igbo history even more. I am not suggesting that I was an expert in the history of the world. I was a very young man. I knew I had a story, but how it fit into the story of the world—I really had no sense of that.

After a while I began to understand why the book had resonance. Its meaning for my Igbo people was clear to me, but I didn’t know how other people elsewhere would respond to it. Did it have any meaning or relevance for them? I realized that it did when, to give just one example, the whole class of a girls’ college in South Korea wrote to me, and each one expressed an opinion about the book. And then I learned something: They had a history that was similar to the story of Things Fall Apart—the history of colonization. This I didn’t know before. Their colonizer was Japan. So these people across the waters were able to relate to the story of dispossession in Africa. People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience.

A Lucky Generation

It has often been said that my generation was a very lucky one. And I agree. My luck was actually quite extraordinary. And it began quite early.

The pace of change in Nigeria from the 1940s was incredible. I am not just talking about the rate of development, with villages transforming into towns, or the coming of modern comforts, such as electricity or running water or modes of transportation, but more of a sense that we were standing figuratively and literally at the dawn of a new era.

My generation was summoned, as it were, to bear witness to two remarkable transitions—the first the aforementioned impressive economic, social, and political transformation of Nigeria into a midrange country, at least by third world standards. But, more profoundly, barely two decades later we were thrust into the throes of perhaps Nigeria’s greatest twentieth-century moment—our elevation from a colonized country to an independent nation.

The March to Independence

The general feeling in the air as independence approached was extraordinary, like the building anticipation of the relief of torrential rains after a season of scorching hot Harmattan winds and bush fires.

We were all looking forward to feeling the joy that India—the great jewel of the British Empire—must have felt in 1947, the joy that Ghana must have felt years later, in 1957.

We had no doubt where we were going. We were going to inherit freedom—that was all that mattered. The possibilities for us were endless, at least so it seemed at the time. Nigeria was enveloped by a certain assurance of an unbridled destiny, of an overwhelming excitement about life’s promise, unburdened by any knowledge of providence’s intended destination.

Ghana was a particularly relevant example for us subjects in the remaining colonies and dominions of the British Empire. There was a growing confidence, not just a feeling, that we would do just as well parting ways with Her Majesty’s empire. If Ghana seemed more effective, as some of our people like to say, perhaps it was because she was smaller in size and neat, as if it was tied together more delicately by well-groomed, expert hands.

So we had in 1957 an extraordinary event. I remember it vividly. It was not a Nigerian event. Ghana is three hundred or more miles away from us, but we saw her success as ours as well. I remember celebrating with Ghanaian and Nigerian friends in Lagos all night on the eve of Ghana’s independence from Britain, ecstatic for our fellow Africans, only to wake up the next morning to find that we were still in Nigeria. Ghana had made it, leaving us all behind. But our day came, finally, three years after hers.

The father of African independence was Nnamdi Azikiwe. There is no question at all about that. Azikiwe, fondly referred to by his admirers as “Zik,” was the preeminent political figure of my youth and a man who was endowed with the political pan-Africanist vision. He had help no doubt, from several eminent sons and daughters of the soil.

When Azikiwe came back from his university studies in the United States of America, in 1934 or thereabout, he did not return to Onitsha, his hometown. He settled at first in Accra, in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), where he worked as the editor of the African Morning Post, a new daily newspaper. There were stories of interethnic friction in the Gold Coast, so he moved to Lagos. Despite initial problems in Ghana, Azikiwe had acquired admirers, especially young aspiring freedom fighters, including Kwame Nkrumah, the greatest of them all. Nkrumah was still a student in Ghana, but he was motivated to go to America to study largely as a result of Azikiwe’s influence. Zik opened the historically black college in the United States that he attended—Lincoln University—to other West Africans and Nigerians. Quite a number of young Africans who left the country for America did so because of Azikiwe. It didn’t hurt that Azikiwe wrote glowingly about America in his newspaper articles on almost a daily basis. America, you see, seemed to a number of those young people to provide an escape from the chains of colonialism.

Soon after Azikiwe arrived in Lagos he established his own paper, the West African Pilot. At this time there were two or three families of newspapers: Azikiwe’s and an even older group from Freetown, Sierra Leone; the Accra Herald from the Gold Coast; the Anglo African; Iwe Ihorin (a prominent Yoruba newspaper) in Lagos; and Herbert Macaulay’s the Daily News. These newspapers had different traditions. There used to be a joke about the quality of newspapers that were founded by aristocratic Lagosians. Some of these papers went out of their way to be highbrow; it was said that occasionally large chunks of the editorials of some were written in Latin.

In contrast to his competition Azikiwe’s newspaper was written in accessible, stripped-down English—the type of prose educated members of society often snickered at. And that was Azikiwe’s intention, to speak directly to the masses. His strategy was an incredible success. The West African Pilot’s anticolonial message was spread very quickly, widely, and effectively. From the time of its establishment through the 1940s and 1950s, the West African Pilot was the most influential publication of its type throughout British West Africa—from Sierra Leone through Ghana to Nigeria.

Azikiwe wanted to remain financially autonomous from the British, so he established the African Continental Bank in 1944 and invited wealthy and influential Nigerians such as Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu to join the board. Azikiwe also started newspaper outposts in Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Port Harcourt, and the market town of Onitsha. I remember in particular that traders in Onitsha and other markets throughout Nigeria relished the West African Pilot’s daily political analysis and editorials.

Many learned to read with the help of the Pilot. The traders, in their eagerness to read Azikiwe’s paper, often ignored early-morning customers who visited their stalls. The West African Pilot served other purposes. It became the nurturing ground for top journalistic and future political talent. Anthony Enahoro, who became the paper’s editor, and Akinola Lasekan, the legendary political cartoonist, are just two examples that come to mind. The West African Pilot enjoyed an exponential level of commercial as well as critical success after it supported striking Nigerian workers against the British government in the 1940s. Its circulation was in the tens of thousands. That was an outstanding achievement for its time.

The Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism

Here is a piece of heresy: The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Nigeria; they were able to manage this on a bigger scale in India and Australia. The British had the experience of governing and doing it competently. I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.

There was a distinct order during this time. I recall the day I traveled from Lagos to Ibadan and stayed with Christopher Okigbo that evening. I took off again the next morning, driving alone, going all the way from Lagos to Asaba, crossing the River Niger, to visit my relatives in the east. That was how it was done in those days. One was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery. There was a certain preparation that the British had undertaken in her colonies. So as the handover time came, it was done with great precision.

As we praise the British, let us also remember the Nigerian nationalists—those who had a burning desire for independence and fought for it. There was a body of young and old people that my parents’ generation admired greatly, and that we later learned about and deeply appreciated. Herbert Macaulay, for instance, often referred to as “the father of Nigerian nationalism,” was a very distinguished Nigerian born during the nineteenth century and the first president of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which was founded in 1922.

The dawn of World War II caused a bit of a lull in the organized independence struggles that had been centered mainly in the western region of the country up to that time. Across the River Niger, in Eastern Nigeria, I was entering my teenage years, bright-eyed and beginning to grapple with my colonial environment. At this time most of the world’s attention, including Nigeria’s, was turned to the war. Schools and other institutions were converted into makeshift camps for soldiers from the empire, and there was a great deal of local military recruitment. A number of my relatives quickly volunteered their services to His Majesty’s regiments. The colonies became increasingly important to Great Britain’s war effort by providing a steady stream of revenue from the export of agricultural products—palm oil, groundnuts, cocoa, rubber, etc. I remember hearing stories of valiant fighting by a number of African soldiers in faraway places, such as Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), North Africa, and Burma.

The postwar era saw an explosion of political organization. Newspapers, newsreels, and radio programs were full of the exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) (which later became the National Council of Nigerian Citizens) that was founded in 1944. Azikiwe built upon lessons he had learned from earlier forays in political activism and successfully persuaded several active members of the Nigerian Youth Movement to form an umbrella group of all the major Nigerian organizations.

By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of Western Nigeria in disarray—sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue—resuscitated ethnic pride— and created the political party, the Action group from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association and a few other factions.

Over the years Awolowo had become increasingly concerned about what he saw as the domination of the NCNC by the Igbo elite, led by Azikiwe. Some cynics believe the formation of the Action Group was not influenced by tribal loyalties, but a purely tactical political move to regain regional and southern political power and influence from the dominant NCNC.

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.

When Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto decided to create the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the late 1940s, he knew that the educationally disadvantaged North did not have as rich a source of Western-educated politicians to choose from as the South did. He overcame this “shortcoming” by pulling together an assortment of leaders from the Islamic territories under his influence and a few Western-educated intellectuals—the most prominent in my opinion being Aminu Kano and Alhaji Tafewa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister.

Frustrated by what he saw as “Ahmadu Bello’s limited political vision,” the incomparable Aminu Kano, under whom I would serve as the deputy national president of the Peoples Redemption Party decades later, would leave the NPC in 1950, to form the left-of-center political party the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).

Sir Ahmadu Bello was a schoolteacher by training. He was a contentious and ardently ambitious figure who claimed direct lineage from one of the founders of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate—Usman dan Fodio. It was also widely known that he had aspired to the throne of the Sultan of Sokoto. By mid-century, through brilliant political maneuvering among the northern ruling classes, Sir Ahmadu Bello emerged as the most powerful politician in the Northern Region, indeed in all of Nigeria.

Sir Ahmadu Bello was able to control northern Nigeria politically by feeding on the fears of the ruling emirs and a small elite group of Western-educated northerners. His ever-effective mantra was that in order to protect the mainly feudal North’s hegemonic interests it was critical to form a political party capable of resisting the growing power of Southern politicians.

Ahmadu Bello and his henchmen shared little in terms of ideological or political aspirations with their southern counterparts. With the South split between Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Awolowo’s Action Group, his ability to hold the North together meant that the NPC in essence became Nigeria’s ruling party. A testament to its success is the fact that the NPC later would not only hold the majority of seats in the post-independence parliament, but as a consequence would be called upon to name the first prime minister of Nigeria.

The minorities of the Niger Delta, Mid-West, and the Middle Belt regions of Nigeria were always uncomfortable with the notion that they had to fit into the tripod of the largest ethnic groups that was Nigeria—Hausa/ Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. Many of them—Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio, Tiv, Itsekiri, Isang, Urhobo, Anang, and Efik—were from ancient nation-states in their own right. Their leaders, however, often had to subsume their own ethnic ambitions within alliances with one of the big three groups in order to attain greater political results.

The British were well aware of the inter-ethnic tensions and posturing for power among the three main ethnic groups. By 1951 they had divided the country into the Northern, Eastern, and Western regions, with their own respective houses of assembly, to contain this rising threat. There was also what many thought was an inane house of chiefs—a poor copy of the House of Lords of the British Parliament.

The British clearly had a well-thought-out exit strategy, with handover plans in place long before we noticed.

Clear-eyed pundits saw this mainly as a political ploy to appease the Northerners and Westerners who wanted their traditional rulers to play a greater role in Nigerian affairs. Initially the British resisted any agitations for independence, often by handing out stiff jail terms for “sedition” to the “disturbers of the peace.” They knew the value of their colonies, and the natural resources they possessed—in Nigeria’s case oil, coal, gold, tin, columbite, cocoa, palm oil, groundnuts, and rubber, as well as the immense human resources and intellectual capital. Surely Great Britain had no plans to hand all these riches over without a fight.

Over time, however, it became clear to the colonizers that they were engaged in a losing battle. By the end of World War II Great Britain was financially and politically exhausted. This weakness was exploited by Mohandas Gandhi and his cohorts in India during their own struggle against British rule. Nigerian veterans from different theaters of the war had acquired certain skills—important military expertise in organization, movement, strategy, and combat—during their service to the king. Another proficiency that came naturally to this group was the skill of protest, which was quickly absorbed by the Nigerian nationalists.

Post-Independence Nigeria

By the late 1950s the British were rapidly accepting the inevitability of independence coming to one of their major colonies, Nigeria. Officers began to retire and return home to England, vacating their positions in Nigeria’s colonial government. They left in droves, quietly, amiably, often at night, mainly on ships, but also, particularly the wealthier ones, on planes. The British clearly had a well-thought-out exit strategy, with handover plans in place long before we noticed.

Literally all government ministries, public and privately held firms, corporations, organizations, and schools saw the majority of their expatriate staff leave. Not everyone left, however; some, particularly in the commercial sector and the oil businesses, stayed. The civilized behavior of their brethren made this an acceptable development.

While this quiet transition was happening a number of internal jobs, especially the senior management positions, began to open up for Nigerians, particularly for those with a university education. It was into these positions vacated by the British that a number of people like myself were placed—a daunting, exhilarating inheritance that was not without its anxieties. Most of us felt well prepared, because we had received an outstanding education. This is not to say that there were not those racked with doubt, and sometimes outright dread. There were. But most of us were ready to take destiny in our own hands, and for a while at least, it worked quite well.

This “bequest” was much greater than just stepping into jobs left behind by the British. Members of my generation also moved into homes in the former British quarters previously occupied by members of the European senior civil service. These homes often came with servants— chauffeurs, maids, cooks, gardeners, stewards—whom the British had organized meticulously to “ease their colonial sojourn.” Now following the departure of the Europeans, many domestic staff stayed in the same positions and were only too grateful to continue their designated salaried roles in post-independence Nigeria. Their masters were no longer European but their own brothers and sisters. This bequest continued in the form of new club memberships and access to previously all-white areas of town, restaurants, and theaters.

This account about the handover of power I have just provided is perhaps too wonderful to be absolutely true. History teaches us that people who have been oppressed—this is the language of the freedom fight, and it was a fight—are often too ready to let bygones be bygones. Clearly it was more complicated than that; it was a long struggle. Having said that, most who were there would admit that when the moment came, I think it was handled quite well.

One example that I will give to illustrate the complexity of that moment of transition occurred at the very highest level of government.

Later it was discovered that a courageous English junior civil servant named Harold Smith had been selected by no other than Sir James Robertson to oversee the rigging of Nigeria’s first election.

When Britain decided to hand over power to Nigeria, they also decided to change the governor general. They brought a new governor general from the Sudan, Sir James Robertson, to take the reins in Nigeria. Now that Independence Day was approaching a number of onlookers were wondering why there was a new posting from Britain, and no provision made for a Nigerian successor. It became clear that Sir James was going to be there on Independence Day and, as it turned out, wanted to stay on as governor general for a whole year into the period of freedom. One wondered how he was going to leave. Would it be in disgrace? Would he be hiding, or something of the sort?

It is now widely known that Sir James Robertson played an important role in overseeing the elections (or lack thereof) at independence, throwing his weight behind Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who had been tapped to become Nigeria’s first prime minister. I remember hearing Azikiwe comment years later on those events. He was asked in a small gathering: “Why did Sir James Robertson not go home, like the other people who were leaving?”

Azikiwe made light of the question: “Well, when he told me that he was going to stay on, I said to him, Go on, stay as long as you like.” The laughter that followed did not obscure the greater meaning of his statement.

Later it was discovered that a courageous English junior civil servant named Harold Smith had been selected by no other than Sir James Robertson to oversee the rigging of Nigeria’s first election “so that its compliant friends in [Northern Nigeria] would win power, dominate the country, and serve British interests after independence.” Despite the enticements of riches and bribes (even a knighthood, we are told), Smith refused to be part of this elaborate hoax to fix Nigeria’s elections, and he swiftly became one of the casualties of this mischief. Smith’s decision was a bold choice that cost him his job, career, and reputation (at least until recently).

In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from its birth.

The above is excerpted from There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (The Penguin Press 2012), copyright Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He is currently the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and professor of Africana studies at Brown University. Achebe has written over twenty books–novels, short stories, essays and collections of poetry–and has received numerous honors from around the world, including the Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as honorary doctorates from more than thirty colleges and universities. He is also the recipient of Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award. In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. “Those Who Answered to Abraham,” an excerpt of Achebe’s Chike and the River appeared in Guernica in August, 2011.

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