Forty years since its publication, Ernest Nweke believes that if there was ever a ‘right’ man to write any particular book, then Achebe is the man, and The Trouble with Nigeria is the book. What makes this book stand out is its boldness in speaking truth to power.
In 1983, after over 20 years of bloodshed, flagrant corruption, military rule and pockets of intertribal conflicts and massacres that drowned the progress of post-independence Nigeria, it was unequivocally clear there was something wrong with Nigeria. It was not something in her Niger or Benue rivers or any of her waters, neither was it something in the air cascading her rainforests and sprawling fields, because even in the chaos of the madness that was a troubled Nigeria, there were still patches of order and beauty in her topography and sanity in some of her people. Therefore, to answer the question, ‘What is really wrong with Nigeria?’ Nigerian writer and literary giant, Chinua Achebe, wrote a little book in 1983.
Published 40 years ago, The Trouble with Nigeria by Chinua Achebe recognizes the principal drawback Nigeria faces to be a failure in leadership. According to Achebe, Nigeria was the way it was because Nigerian leaders were unwilling or unable to lead by personal example. He wrote, ‘Nigeria can change today if she discovers leaders who have the will, the ability and the vision’ to bring about the change the country needs. Achebe does not stop at making this seemingly simplistic point. He proceeds to draw out nuances that show how all the apparent setbacks to growth that Nigeria faces as a nation only exist because the leaders in the country could not rise to the occasion required by their position and office. It is remarkable that 40 years later, the problems he found to be the causes of malaise Nigeria battled with, still troubles the country.
Achebe achieves the uncommon feat of accurate national diagnosis with only ten short chapters. He writes like one, counting his words to ensure it does not exceed a predetermined limit and weighing them for intended impact. Beginning by conveying how a good leader can instantly change the tune of things in Nigeria, Achebe goes ahead to show that recalcitrant Nigerian problems like tribalism, delusion of grandiose, ‘the Nigerian style of leadership’, a lack of patriotism, social injustice, indiscipline, corruption, Igbophobia, and a lack of political or leadership purpose only exist because successive Nigerian leaders benefit from it. The synopsis of this text and its theme can be summarized by these words: The Trouble with Nigeria is a litany of the problems of post-colonial Nigeria.
THE PLACE OF LANGUAGE IN THE BOOK AND IN OUR TROUBLES
Achebe keeps the language of The Trouble with Nigeria Nigerian, direct and simple. He avoids using flowery words in his prose and writes as one who understands the gravity and urgency of the subject matter. From the very first page, a reader familiar with Nigerian English finds expressions like ‘on seat’ and ‘go-slow’—which, even though they may seem peculiar to non-Nigerian readers, make perfect sense to Nigerians.
Pointing out how crucial language is in understanding the setbacks Nigeria faces, sociolinguist, lecturer, PhD student and researcher, Chisom Paula Ogamba, recognized the significance of Achebe’s diction in this work:
It is interesting that from the beginning, you find him writing in Nigerian English. The Trouble with Nigeria lies, in part, in the construct of her multilingualism. Nigerians, who are at best bilinguals but existing in a multilingual society, still have to operate like they live in a monolingual speech community. An effort to communicate with one ubiquitous intelligible language always erodes a lot of cultural and historical context that matters to the individual ethnic groups. These losses would ordinarily be greater in the hands of one who is not a master of the one generally intelligible language and would give rise to hegemonies that bad leaders capitalize on to deepen the friction among Nigerians for their own personal gains.
Reconsidering Nigeria’s problems from a linguistic perspective helps one appreciate the significance of Achebe, a man who has always written for a Nigerian audience in Nigerian English, being the one to write a book that traces the root of these problems and its solution. If there was ever a ‘right’ man to write any particular book, then Achebe is the man, and The Trouble with Nigeria is the book.
With a theme as critical as the one the book covers, it is easy to overlook the incredible pacing of the entire piece. Achebe takes on each chapter with a rhythmic celerity that covers for its lack of flowery narrations. The chapters are not so long that they drown the reader in gloom and hopelessness but are long enough for the reader to get the message he intends to pass. A part of what makes The Trouble with Nigeria stand out is its boldness in speaking truth to power. In the chapter on corruption, Achebe calls out the then-president, Shehu Shagari, for downplaying just how corrupt Nigeria was.
Achebe writes, ‘Shehu Shagari should return home, read the papers and from time to time talk to Nigerians outside the circle of presidential aides and party faithfuls.’ This sort of boldness matters because politics and leadership in Nigeria metes a silencing ruthlessness on citizens who speak truth to power and reward sycophants. Being able to speak truth to power in this way and calling Nigeria’s problem what it really is—a failure in leadership—is why The Trouble with Nigeria stood out in 1983 and partly why it is still a valid text today.
Ogamba said that the problem with Nigeria was and still is bad leadership, It is because we have consistently had a recycling of unqualified old men who hoist themselves on the people, and in most cases against the will of the people, that we see a lot of the problems we have as a nation going on with no hope of an end. It is why we have a lot of corruption and injustice from all arms of government. When all three arms of government are complicit in illegality, their choices become reduced to advancing personal interests or drowning together if any arm should insist on actually serving in the interest of the common Nigerians.
NIGERIANS KNOW WHERE THEIR TROUBLES LIE
From nationwide solidarity witnessed across Nigeria during the EndSARS protest in 2020 to the unprecedented youth voter turnout experienced in the most recent election, it is clear that Nigerian youths see a problem with how things have been and believe they can make a change. One can say that even in this age and time, a failure of leadership is still the prime problem in Nigeria.
In a twist that comes off as a providential irony or comedy, Achebe tells the story of a judge who was party to an act of indiscipline on the Enugu-Onitsha highway in 1980. At the end of the story, he quotes Julius Caesar, where Shakespeare wrote, ‘The name of Cassius honours this corruption and chastisement doth therefore hide his head’ and asks the reader to substitute ‘Cassius’ with ‘the Lordship’. To this day, 40 years after he published the book, there are still Nigerians who believe that the results of many election tribunal cases are mere ‘names of our lordships honoring flagrant corruption’.
ACHEBE’S ONLY FAILING
Achebe, however, commits a blunder not uncommon of educated Nigerian elite of his era and those of today. He infers or writes as though the salvation of Nigeria would come from efforts by the people in his class, the educated. To call this simplistic would be to put it lightly because it is also historically inaccurate—for ours or any society in the world. The working class—and by the working class, I mean the lowest class who are unskilled or semiskilled and poor—has a higher population ratio when compared to the elite (be it economical or educational) and also suffers more from the machinations of terrible leadership and as such are always the driving force of change in any society. While the educated elite theorizes the failings of the political elite, it is the lower class that will march to Château de Versailles asking for a change.
If anything, we can cite examples to the contrary. One can point out how university professors have consistently served as tools that dignify fraudulent elections while being used as returning officers during elections. These educated elite on the highest ranks of our intellectual stratification do not fit into what Achebe imagined our salvation would look like.
THE NIGERIAN MANIFESTO
One can call The Trouble with Nigeria ‘The Nigeria Manifesto’ because it does not only tell us of heads of state from the first 23 years of independence who failed Nigeria and Nigerian, but how more heads of state would go on to fail Nigerians 40 more years down the line. For over 60 years, the trouble with Nigeria has lain in leadership failure.
In the last chapter, ‘The Example of Aminu Kano’, Achebe insists that leaders must ask themselves the same question Nigerian nationalist Mallam Aminu Kano asked many years ago—‘What is the purpose of political power?’ Successive regimes of military and civilian leadership have failed to ask themselves this question; what is the purpose of political power to them? Is making and implementing positive, actionable plans for Nigerians or is political power something they want because ‘it is their turn’? Until Nigerian leaders and prospective leaders can answer this question, they will always misuse their office and remain our principal problem as a nation⎈
THE TROUBLE WITH NIGERIA
Heinemann Educational Books, 1983
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