By HENRY AKUBUIRO
Deploying subtle criticism in their fiction, Nigerian writers criticise political failings and advance social causes without earning reprimands. But the orbit of a creative writer is limitless. He can also function as the conscience of a nation, risking a double whammy. This is usually the forte of an elect circle of writers who don’t despair to dare. Hitherto, the trenchant voices of Professors Wole Soyinka and late Chinua Achebe were the loudest of Nigerian writers as social critics, interrogating colonialism, military despotism, civilian misrule, and social maladies through public speaking aside their writings. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (39), novelist, short story writer and nonfiction writer, has joined the fray.
The writer announced herself in the Nigerian and world literary scene with the publication of her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005). Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set before and during the Nigerian Civil War, received the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. It was also adapted into a film by Biyi Bandele in 2014.
Her third book, The Thing around Your Neck (2009), a collection of twelve dazzling stories exploring the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States, was published in 2009. A year later, she was listed among the authors of The New Yorker′s “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue. Her third novel, Americanah (2013), an exploration of a young Nigerian encountering race in America, was selected by the New York Times as one of The 10 Best Books of 2013.
Adichie sees herself more of a storyteller, but she wouldn’t mind at all if someone were to think of her as a feminist writer. “I’m very feminist in the way I look at the world, and that worldview must somehow be part of my work,” she once said in an interview.
Her feminist view was soon to echo in the Beyonce Knowles’ chart-topping track “Flawless” (2013: “We teach girls to shrink themselves/To make themselves/ smaller/ We say to girls, “You can have ambition/But not too much/You should aim to be successful/But not too successful/Otherwise you will threaten the man.”/Because I am female/ I am expected to aspire to marriage/I am expected to make my life choices/Always keeping in mind that/Marriage is the most important/Now marriage can be a source of Joy and love and mutual support/But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage/And we don’t teach boys the same?/We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments/Which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men/We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings/In the way that boys are./Feminist: the person who believes in the social/Political, and economic equality of the sexes.
Gradually, the decibels of Adichie’s voice are reverberating across the world like Soyinka’s, which explains why she is much sorted after by the international media and word bodies to speak on African and world issues. Also, each time Adichie writes an open letter or column on issues pertaining to Nigeria, it instantly becomes a major talking point.
For instance, writing on “Why Can’t He Just be like Everyone Else?”, Adichie, in February 2014, challenged the passing of anti-gay law in Nigeria, describing it as a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy was not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic.
“The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust. We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalise it,” she wrote.
The writer was disturbed that the supporters of the law wanted a certain semblance of human homogeneity, which she wouldn’t subscribe to: “But we cannot legislate into existence a world that does not exist: the truth of our human condition is that we are a diverse, multi-faceted species. The measure of our humanity lies, in part, in how we think of those different from us.We cannot – should not – have empathy only for people who are like us.”
She ended her piece by describing the law as unjust and should be repealed. “Throughout history,” she wrote, “many inhumane laws have been passed, and have subsequently been repealed. Barack Obama, for example, would not be here today had his parents obeyed American laws that criminalised marriage between blacks and whites.”
Adichie was largely chastised by Nigerians, who thought she overstepped her bounds in a conservative African society, and never got her wish; but she swayed some Nigerians to her side who were vocal on social media in fighting the gay cause.
Against the backdrop of the global migrant crisis rocking the western world, the UN deemed it fit to invite her to speak on “Nobody is Ever Just a Refugee” at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York on Friday, August 19, 2016.
Predicated on the theme of “One Humanity”, Adichie called on the international community to rethink the refugee crisis. “Nobody is ever just a refugee,” she said, stressing, “Nobody is ever just a single thing. And yet, in the public discourse today, we often speak of people as a single a thing. Refugee. Immigrant.”
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than a quarter of the world’s refugee population, with about eighteen million people fleeing conflict in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere.
Adichie, whose parents were displaced during the Nigeria-Biafra war, and lived as refugees for three years in eastern Nigeria, voted for a new paradigm in dealing with the refugee issue. She said: “In my language, Igbo, the word for ‘love’ is ‘ifunanya’ and its literal translation is, ‘to see.’ So, I would like to suggest today that this is a time for a new narrative, a narrative in which we truly see those about whom we speak.
“Let us tell a different story. Let us remember that the movement of human beings on earth is not new. Human history is a history of movement and mingling. Let us remember that we are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.”
Writing on “Nigeria’s Failed Promises”, published in New York Times of October 18, 2016, Adichie criticised the current state of Nigeria under the watch of President Muhammed Buhari, describing his economic policies as “outdated” and his view of Nigerians “infantile”.
Though she had reservations on the first coming of Buhari as a military dictator, Adichie noted that she welcomed his election as a democratically elected president, because “for the first time, Nigerians had voted out an incumbent in an election that was largely free and fair. Because Mr. Buhari had sold himself as a near-ascetic reformer, as a man so personally aboveboard that he would wipe out Nigeria’s decades-long corruption. He represented a form of hope.”
Adichie, who acknowledged that Nigeria is difficult to govern as Africa’s most populous country with regional complexities, a scarred history and a patronage-based political culture, said the president had squandered the goodwill he rode to power: “He had an opportunity to make real reforms early on, to boldly reshape Nigeria’s path. He wasted it:”
She lampooned the president’s choice of many recycled figures with whom Nigerians were disenchanted as ministers. She equally queried his adoption of a policy of “defending” the naira, Nigeria’s. While the official exchange rate was kept artificially low, on the black market, the exchange rate ballooned. Thus: “Prices for everything rose: rice, bread, cooking oil. Fruit sellers and car sellers blamed ‘the price of dollars.’ Complaints of hardship cut across class. Some businesses fired employees; others folded.
She wrote: “The government decided who would have access to the central bank’s now-reduced foreign currency reserves, and drew up an arbitrary list of worthy and unworthy goods — importers of toothpicks cannot, for example, but importers of oil can. Predictably, this policy spawned corruption: The exclusive few who were able to buy dollars at official rates could sell them on the black market and earn large, riskless profits — transactions that contribute nothing to the economy.
“Mr. Buhari has spoken of his ‘good reasons’ for ignoring the many economists who warned about the danger of his policies. He believes, rightly, that Nigeria needs to produce more of what it consumes, and he wants to spur local production. But local production cannot be willed into existence if the supporting infrastructure is absent, and banning goods has historically led not to local production but to a thriving shadow market.
“His intentions, good as they well might be, are rooted in an outdated economic model and an infantile view of Nigerians. For him, it seems, patriotism is not a voluntary and flexible thing, with room for dissent, but a martial enterprise: to obey without questioning. Nationalism is not negotiated, but enforced.
“The president seems comfortable with conditions that make an economy uncomfortable — uncertainty and disillusion. But the economy is not the only reason for Nigerians’ declining hope.”
Another worrisome issue she pointed out in that article was the rampaging Fulani herders: “Since Mr. Buhari came to power, villages in the middle-belt and southern regions have been raided, the inhabitants killed, their farmlands sacked. Those attacked believe the Fulani herdsmen want to forcibly take over their lands for cattle grazing.
“It would be unfair to blame Mr. Buhari for these killings, which are in part a result of complex interactions between climate change and land use. But leadership is as much about perception as it is about action, and Mr. Buhari has appeared disengaged. It took him months, and much criticism from civil society, to finally issue a statement “condemning” the killings. His aloofness feels, at worst, like a tacit enabling of murder and, at best, an absence of sensitive leadership.
“Most important, his behaviour suggests he is tone-deaf to the widely held belief among southern Nigerians that he promotes a northern Sunni Muslim agenda. He was no less opaque when the Nigerian Army murdered hundreds of members of a Shiite Muslim group in December, burying them in hastily dug graves. Or when soldiers killed members of the small secessionist pro-Biafran movement who were protesting the arrest of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, a little-known figure whose continued incarceration has elevated him to a minor martyr.
“Nigerians who expected a fair and sweeping cleanup of corruption have been disappointed. Arrests have tended to be selective, targeting mostly those opposed to Mr. Buhari’s government. The anti-corruption agencies are perceived not only as partisan but as brazenly flouting the rule of law: The Department of State Security recently barged into the homes of various judges at midnight, harassing and threatening them and arresting a number of them, because the judges’ lifestyles ‘suggested’ that they were corrupt.
“There is an ad hoc air to the government that does not inspire that vital ingredient for a stable economy: confidence. There is, at all levels of government, a relentless blaming of previous administrations and a refusal to acknowledge mistakes. And there are eerie signs of the past’s repeating itself — Mr. Buhari’s tone and demeanor are reminiscent of 1984, and his military-era War Against Indiscipline programme is being reintroduced.”
She concluded by advising the government to “prioritise infrastructure, create a business-friendly environment and communicate to a populace mired in disappointment as there are no easy answers to Nigeria’s malaise.”
Given the criticism that Nigeria writers are getting too close to the powers-that-be, leading to a growing disinterest in vocal interrogation of the system, the emergence of Chimamanda as a new social critic from the Nigerian literary community can only burst the socio-political bubble.