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Elechi Amadi: A tribute to a literary icon

By Barrack Muluka | July 6th 2016
Elechi Amadi

One of the privileges of a literary publishing career is the opportunity to interact with contemporary intellectuals and philosophers.

You encounter their future works in the formative stages.  You are a participant in the intellectual laboratory where ideas are tested before being served to the outer world.

Besides, you get to understand these towering minds at a normal human level. So – in the end – we are all normal mortals, caring and worrying about the same things, albeit at different levels?

If in my rich life as a publishing editor I have failed to sample the universe of a literary icon, it was Elechi Amadi. For I have had close and candid sessions with Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Jack Mapanje, David Rubadiri, Niyi Osundare, John Ruganda, Mahamoud Mamdani and many others. Back at home, I have a treasure trove of memories of working with Barbara Kimenye, Grace Ogot, Asenath Odaga, David Maillu, Francis Imbuga, Jared Ang’ira, Meja Mwangi and – of course – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

It is easy for me to talk about these individuals at a personal experiential level, alongside others like Charles Mangua, Pamela Kola, Eldred Green, Kole Omotoso . . . among others. You can therefore imagine my sense of confusion when my editor calls to ask me to say something about Elechi Amadi at a personal level. I have no testimony.

I never had the privilege to meet Amadi. Yet there is a sense in which I have always felt as if I knew him, almost as well as I knew the other canonical writers I have encountered in my publishing career. Amadi bears his soul open in Sunset in Biafra, a rendition of his personal experience with Eastern Nigeria’s three years’ secession, following the flawed elections of 1966 and the virulent ethnic backlash.

It was a boomerang that saw the Ibo people, led by the Military Commissioner for the Eastern Region, General Chukwumeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declare the region the independent Republic of Biafra. Only a handful of countries recognised Biafra, most significant among them Nyerere’s Tanzania and Kaunda’s Zambia. Notable recognition also came from The Vatican, France, Israel, Portugal and Spain. Also on the cards were South Africa and Rhodesia, two countries that had legitimacy challenges of their own in diplomatic circles.

While Amadi’s narrative gravitates heavily around his personal experience and that of his young family, it nonetheless brings out the adversity that the war inflicted upon the wider society. To be Ibo, or from Eastern Nigeria, was virtually criminal. The forced migration of the Ibo and other persons from Eastern tribes like the Ibibio, Efik and Ijaw – among others – was at once dehumanising and painful. You were a criminal only by the sheer fact that you were traditionally from this region. Yet, reading Amadi, it is patently clear that not everybody from the region supported the session. But what did it matter, anyway? As the government in Lagos tightened economic sanctions and starved the region of all the essentials of life, you felt the pinch regardless of your position and attitude towards the rebellion and the secession.

The merits and demerits of this story remain emotive and inconclusive. Chinua Achebe said his last word on Biafra in the memoir There Was a Country, published shortly before his death. Achebe drew instant censure from fellow Nigerian intellectuals, led by Wole Soyinka. Yet Biafra and ethnic secession is probably a matter about which Africans will not find any consensus anytime soon.

Christopher Okigbo, easily Africa’s finest poet, died on the war front, fighting for Biafra. Prof Ali Mazrui discusses the role of the scholar in ethnic conflict in the story The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. While Mazrui refrains from taking a clear position, there is little doubt that he thought scholars should not engage in active combat for their tribes. Mazrui uses the voice of a certain Kwame Apollo Gyamfi to argue his case. Achebe would later dismiss Mazrui’s Gyamfi as a “self-styled Perry Masson, clearly admired by Mazrui.”

In recent times, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has made a Biafra-friendly offering in Half a Yellow Sun. Ojukwu told his own story in the volume Because I am Involved. And last year, former President Olesegun Obasanjo revisited the story in his autobiography My Watch, a follow up to his 1982’s My Command.

Old Africa

Whatever the case, Amadi helps us understand the kind of social extremes that would push a scholar into active engagement in tribal conflict. But that was the later day Amadi, the author of such other contemporary works as The Road to Ibadan and Dancer of Johannesburg. The Elechi Amadi we encountered in High School in the 1970s was preoccupied with a lost Africa. He wrote about an Africa that belonged to the back of beyond — the kind of Africa that you encounter in the first half of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But while Achebe develops Things Fall Apart to the point where Africa encounters European missionary incursion, Amadi remains in the old Africa. Where Achebe examines the impact of external human meddling with Africa, Amadi examines the role of a mischievous divine world in the activities of men and women. Like the Greek Aeschylus, Amadi alludes to celestial disruption of human tranquility. Aeschylus introduced the notion of malicious deities in the story of Prometheus, the mortal who was sent to wrestle fire from the gods, with dire consequences.

If we have asked what an ancient Greek god was doing in Victorian England in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we might also want to ask what he was doing in Amadi’s traditional Africa. Aeschylus, Hardy and Amadi bring three worlds and periods into one. It is a world where all human suffering is a factor of the willful and unmerited malevolence of the gods.

In The Concubine, the beautiful Ihuoma loses her husband Ekweme when he dies after a fight with his rival for her love, Madume. Madume himself dies shortly afterwards when a serpentine creature spits venom into his eyes after he has spitefully raided her banana plantation. Ihuoma recovers from her season of mourning to accept love from the affable Emenike. But Emenike dies in a freaky domestic accident, only a few days to their proposed wedding day. It transpires that Ihuoma is a concubine to a tribal god. Any man who dreams of winning her love must die. We would say in Africa that “she kills the men who love her.” Yet it is not Ihuoma as such, it is the gods. Like the mischievous Greek gods, the African gods kill us for their sport.

Amadi’s preoccupation with old Africa is also manifest in the play Isiburu and in the novel The Great Ponds. He explores the subjects of witchcraft, slavery, justice and fair play in the traditional society. In traditional Africa and post-colonial Africa alike, Amadi is unhappy about misuse and abuse of power. In Isiburu, it is the slave Uzo who has the favours of his fellow slave, the beautiful Mgbeke, whom the eponymous draconian tribal chief, Isiburu, would give anything to have. There is conflict between power and passion. Sometimes power combines with passion to defeat justice. This is an overriding theme in Amadi’s work, be it in Sunset, The Concubine, Isiburu or The Great Ponds.

Amadi was a multi-talented intellectual who traversed many fields. He taught mathematics and physics in high school and worked in broadcasting. He also practiced as a surveyor. He went on to become a soldier in the Nigerian army before going back to teaching, that noblest of all the professions. He will be remembered as a highly independent-minded individual who lived in accord with the dictates of his conscience. His narrative of the Biafra story has been ranked as easily the most objective eyewitness account. He leaves behind a country and continent still hugely divided along ethnic lines and whose tribes would fight and secede again — over nothing but ethnic jingoism.

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