Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Trouble With Nigeria

Chinua Achebe (of Things Fall Apart fame) didn’t write The Trouble With Nigeria as a timeless treatise on government, the human condition, or leadership.  It was written with one country—his own—in mind, at a particular moment—it was first published in 1983.  Even the crisis, the trouble of the title, is specific, and Achebe names and shames with a palpable rage, a taut yet controlled fury that no writer could summon when writing in the abstract about the universal. 

The Trouble With Nigeria is brilliant because it is raw.  Achebe is not writing years after the fact.  The pain that the acts of grotesque corruption he describes (the earmarking of payment to ‘ghost workers’ and the shipment of mud into the country by phantom importers, to name but two examples) have caused him has not yet been lessened by scarification.  He writes with the hope of making a mark on the moment (and the back-cover of my edition, 1984, speculates as to whether Achebe had “an influence on the actions of the leaders of the 1983 New Year’s Eve coup in Nigeria?”). 

The Trouble With Nigeria is also brilliant because Achebe is writing about his home, and cares very deeply.  His is no idealised Nigeria, though, and his love is of the tough variety.  “It is a measure of our self delusion”, he writes, “that we can talk about developing tourism in Nigeria.  Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday; only a character out of Tutuola seeking to know punishment and poverty first hand!” (10) 

And The Trouble with Nigeria is brilliant because of his elegant prose, constructed expertly and wielded easily, its almost laconic absence of flourish doing nothing to dull its biting edge.  It could not be a more different book from Things Fall Apart, but it too will leave you chuckling here, white-knuckled there, and with much to turn over and over and over again in your mind on closing it.

Because in spite of its specificity, in spite of the intensity with which it locks onto its target—the Nigerian political elite who, Achebe writes, are largely the cause of the troubles—it cannot help but cause some meditation on troubles in one’s own home, wherever that might be (although references, like that to the London Barbican as the Eighth Wonder of the World, might seem a bit dated) (41).

It is a book that people of all political persuasions in the United States could benefit from reading.  And I suspect that, if readers put aside their preconceptions and approached Achebe’s deceptively slim volume with an open mind, its impact might be greater than all the railing of our own commentators.  Achebe’s tract, you see, is not ideological in the obvious sense of the word.  Many Africans discuss their countries’ politics today in terms that, to me, are disconcertingly free of ideology.  ‘Devoid’ might be a better word, because the absence of ideology isn’t simply that—it is also the presence of a cruder debate about which politicians will ‘feed’ which people; about who will reap the benefits if ‘their man’ is at the top. 

There is no discussion about the appropriate role of government, the character of democracy, or the specific policies and ambitions that differentiate one political figure from another.  All of this—the sharp distinctions that we bemoan as partisanship but which lend our politics substance—is subsumed beneath the surety that whomever wins will bend—very likely crookedly—all the apparatuses of the state to misdirect the flow of material and less tangible benefits of citizenship to ‘their people’.  This is clientele politics.  Just imagine the outrage that would surely break loose if it was found that a political party in our country was devoted to the enrichment of a small elite to the detriment—the impoverishment if need be—of the majority who comprise the public.

Now Achebe was not praising the absence of ideology.  He would have, I imagine, wished it into the debate.  His issue is with the stance on (or for) venality that Nigeria’s leaders since independence in 1960 took.  But along the way, he offers observations which I suspect are as relevant outside Nigeria in 1983 as in it.  And they are, or ought to be, reflections and observations which touch on the practise of politics rather than on this or that policy aim.

The trouble with Nigeria has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way as the weather has for the English”.  My first thought was of California’s own malaise, diagnosed as incurable, as chronic, by our current Governor.  “But there is a great danger”, Achebe warns, “in consigning life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk.  No one can do much about the weather: we must accept it and live with or under it.  But national bad habits are a different matter; we resign ourselves to them at our peril” (2). 

I suspect that Achebe’s indictment of political sloganeering, and the use of the easy phrase, the weightless, ephemeral “virtue”, is one which could apply to politickers in all times and all places.  Things like “‘unity’ and ‘faith”, he writes (coincidentally, two of the platitudes best-beloved by our own political elite) “are not absolute” (12).  They require further probing: “Faith in what...Unity to what end?”  The relativity of these “virtues” becomes a destructive, divisive power in the hands of politicians—all the more so in the hands of those who profess to eschew compromise, which they brand as morally corrosive. 

If the purpose of a government is to mediate between competing claims, to decipher something as eternally elusive as “the will of the people”, and to work toward something as nobly conceived as the common good, it will need firmer principles governing its own operations than the whims of a corporate patriarch, a culture warrior, or even a Harvard-educated lawyer.  Like unharnessed horses, these political breeds are liable to bolt at the first whiff of danger that drifts up to them through the polls.

But when their backs are to the walls, wily politicians—American every bit as much as Nigerians—have one final recourse.  They take refuge in the easily-fashioned but nonetheless precarious redoubt of patriotism. 
“Who is a patriot?” Achebe muses with the professorial calm that bids the answerer beware of an easy answer.  Achebe’s: “He is a person who loves his country.  He is not a person who says he loves his country.  He is not even a person who shouts or swears or recites or sings his love of his country.  He is one who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people.  Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence” (15). 

Achebe also identifies those who to his mind are clearly not patriots: “Naturally they will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system, and will be anxious to pass themselves off as patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors.  But doomed is the nation which permits such people to define patriotism for it.  Their definition”, and here, admire the aplomb with which Achebe twists his rhetorical knife, “would be about as objective as a Rents Act devised by a committee of avaricious landlords, or the encomiums that a colony of blood-sucking ticks might be expected to shower upon the bull on whose back they batten” (16).  Or, if I may, as the pollution laws written up by, well, polluters.  Or as the ‘national’ economic program designed by people whose lifelong devotion has been to the financial and real estate industries that...well, you know the story.

Finally, and most obviously presentist-ly, Achebe has the briefest of words on education.  These words made me think of the indefatigable ability of aggrieved demagogues like Rick Santorum to misfire on all fronts.  Santorum, and those who share his almost pitiful fascination with their alleged cultural victimhood, is constantly bemoaning the colonisation of schools by godless liberals (or maybe their Islamofascists, or perhaps secular communists—I can never keep them straight), and the domination of our universities by liberal elitists. 
The perceived disenfranchisement of the supposed national majority of Christian fundamentalists entirely misses the point of education, or what ought to be its point: that is, the creation of educated citizens.  “To be educated is, after all”, Achebe reminds us (and I hope that it is a reminder—that it stirs some hint of recognition in the backs of all our minds), “to develop the questioning habit, to be sceptical of easy promises and to use past experiences creatively” (53).  Or to put it differently: don’t settle.  Because the cloud of muck at the bottom of the pond rises from the impact of a mentally-emasculated, conceptually-complacent body as thickly if that body is left-wing as if it is right-wing.  Education ought to threaten nothing but a stultifying status quo unless something else has good reason to fear a citizenry armed with curiosity and thought.


* Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (Harlow: Heinemann, 1984).


  1. Brilliant, brilliant review Jeff! I read The Trouble with Nigeria for the first time about 10 years ago while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria (where Achebe once lectured), and the deep impressions it made on my young mind then have remained indelible. It's a most unforgettable piece, and its physical form (as a pamphlet) is 'misleading'! As one passionate in Nigeria and interested in her history, I have read and re-read it many times after then and have continued to draw inspiration and lessons from it. Sadly, the trouble with Nigeria in 1983 has remained its trouble until today- only more sophisticated and in many cases, bigger.

    1. Thanks Ifeanyi. I knew Achebe through his novels, but thought this treatise was just really great and am really happy it was brought to my attention. Is it much-read in Nigeria today?