Africa

Letter from Africa: Chinua Achebe betrayed

  • 29 March 2013
  • From the section Africa
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A man with an anti-corruption T-shirt in Lagos in January 2012
Image caption Government critics say corruption is rampant in Nigeria

In our series of letters from Africa, Sola Odunfa in Lagos writes that acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who died last week, was a fierce critic of corruption and misrule and would not have welcome the decision to pardon a former state governor.

Achebe would have preferred his beloved country to climb out of the pit of corruption in his lifetime but the gods did not wish it so.

He died last week while the Nigerian government was labouring to defend its decision to pardon a convicted thief, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former state governor and ally of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Achebe built a strong reputation not only as a literary giant but also as a patriot who felt great pain as his country's politicians thrust daggers of misrule and impunity into its body. He cried through his writings.

Imagine then what his agony would have been when he learnt on his sick bed of the latest government action.

Some people may now suggest that the shock drained the 82-year-old man and what will to live was left in him.

After all, our elders say that a person who lives for too long will see terrible things.

I still remember what hurt many Nigerians suffered in the 1990s when the whole world turned against them because of the crass irresponsibility and lawlessness of their rulers.

Travelling abroad by air was an embarrassing experience for Nigerians. Wherever we went - even to countries of little consequence - presenting our national passport was a signal to immigration and customs officials to be on alert.

'Voracious predators'

The consensus among Nigerians at the time was that the country, under tyrannical military rule, was so corrupt that no Nigerian could, on the surface, be trusted to be earning a clean living - we must all, therefore, be rigorously screened for narcotics and fraudulent intentions when we went abroad.

Image caption Chinua Achebe, seen here with Nelson Mandela, died at the age of 82

But let's face it - corruption and the drugs trade were rampant.

Each successive military government instituted public enquiries which exposed the underbelly of its predecessor in lurid details.

The published reports were disgusting enough for foreigners to ridicule and insult Nigerians individually and collectively.

The death of Sani Abacha brought Nigeria relief and the hostility from abroad stopped.

Corruption did not necessarily stop, though. Rather, new and more voracious predators emerged at all levels of government but, unlike their predecessors, they knew how to eat without smearing oil on their lips and cheeks.

In exasperation, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo instituted two anti-corruption agencies to carry out investigations across the country.

The effort netted many officials, including former state governors, ministers and bank executives.

Two state governors stood out - one of them, James Ibori, was acquitted by a Nigerian court but the same charges were taken to a London court, which convicted and sentenced him to 13 years in prison last year.

The second, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was arrested in the UK in 2005 and charged with money-laundering.

He jumped bail and escaped to Nigeria, reportedly disguised as a woman - although he denies this detail. He was declared a wanted person in the UK.

Image caption Diepreye Alamieyeseigha denies he fled the UK disguised as a woman

Because his escape became a national scandal the Nigerian authorities went after him, got him impeached as governor and charged him in court.

He pleaded guilty and in 2007 was sentenced to two years in prison. His then deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, took over as state governor. This was the man that Mr Jonathan, now the president, awarded a pardon two weeks ago to national outrage.

The normally conservative Lagos-based newspaper, The Guardian, says the pardon is "patently ill-conceived, morally reprehensible and should be reversed immediately".

Achebe's former colleague and friend, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, says it "amounts to encouragement of corruption", though the government defends the decision by saying that the ex-governor had shown remorse and deserved to be pardoned.

I wonder what Achebe would say if he were alive. The bad old days seem to be creeping in again for Nigerians.

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