Babs AjayiTuesday, April 9, 2013
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Gatineau, Quebec, Canada




he satisfaction of self over service to the nation has been the preoccupation of Nigerian office holders (as Nigeria has not had leaders in more than 50 years) and the state of the nation bears witness to it, expressed in the stupendous wealth of the office holders, past and present, and the deterioration of the state and its infrastructures. Chinua Achebe, the "African literary lion," thanks to the New York Times, has died, but suddenly the political office holders in Nigeria have opened the flood gate of mourning - of all places, it is in Nigeria where writers are held in contempt and disregarded by the very people who extol easy life and Lexus more than a good novel, book or play. These are the very same people who can readily do without a book but who can never do without a pleasure ride, an Owanbe party and a jolly-jolly life. They provide rich materials for plays, prose and poems but never read anything. Suddenly, they are wailing and mourning Chinua Achebe. They are eager to show to the world that they knew Achebe when most of them have not read his novels, poems or biography. They do not even know that most of Achebe's books are not available in Nigeria. There is no point asking if his books are in Nigerian libraries because there are no Nigerian libraries. The same people who voted billions to live and eat well in Aso Rock, at the National Assembly and at the various Governors' lodges voted nothing for books in the federal and state libraries. In fact, the National Library of Nigeria exists in name only and in dilapidated structures; the National Library of Nigeria is dead and buried. Achebe was a man of letters and books are front and centre of his life. Books are vital to the development of any society, but not Nigeria. Mercedes Benz, BMW, Rolls Royce are by far easily accessible and available in Nigeria than Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah. Did I hear a politician say which one is that? Did Achebe write that?

In the early eighties the National Library at CMS, Marina, Lagos was a mere reading room, a dilapidated and filthy place we visit just to find a place to read, not to borrow books. That library was in a terrible decline, its archaic books drenched in water from leaking walls and roofs and its furniture were mere leftovers from colonial times. The CMS Library was an eyesore, highly uninhabitable and unsuitable for human use just as the Police College hostel in Ikeja. Has any step been taken to rebuild the hostel since Jonathan went there several months ago? I very much doubt that. Library has never been regarded as central to our nation's development and essential for development and progress. Nigerians have always relied on libraries in foreign embassies and high commissions or the cultural centres of those embassies where there are rich libraries. One good example is the British Council Library in Ikoyi, Lagos. Many of us have come to depend on the British Council Library for books, periodicals and magazines. It was a place of refuge for me for several years before I moved overseas. The British Council even provide some extra stuff that kept many of us going - the drama, music and dance shows.

Books by Nigerian authors and writers are not available in Nigeria. Textbooks, novels, plays and other publications by Nigerian authors are everywhere else except Nigeria. The books of Achebe, Soyinka, JP Clark, Nwapa, Okpewho, Rotimi, Osundare, Osofisan, Ekwensi, Sowande and many of the relatively unknown Nigerian writers are easily and readily available in libraries, bookshops and online in Europe and North America, but never in Nigeria. Give me a reason why these political office holders in Nigeria are mourning Achebe. They should be mourning the nation and not Chinua Achebe. Achebe has written his name in gold and left a legacy that will last forever. The comments left by a lot of readers of the New York Times in the obituary story on Achebe, African literary lion's roar is stilled, showed that people in the West are very familiar with Achebe and his books. But are our people familiar with their writers and the books they wrote? You can only be familiar with a book you can get in the library or bookstore. Every municipality in Canada has at least fifty libraries, well stocked libraries, and the same is true for municipalities and cities in the United States and Europe. I have seen, borrowed and read more books by Nigerian and African authors here in Canada than in my nearly 40 years in Nigeria. To my dismay and shock, I have found dozens of books and audio tapes by Nigerian authors and musicians in libraries in Canada and this often leave me feeling sad and unhappy. One day I found several tapes of Comfort Omoge, Victor Uwaifo and Osita Osadebe at a local library in Toronto! I was happy and sad at the same time - sad because I never saw those tapes during my decades in Nigeria. Some of the books in the libraries here are available in CDs and large prints, and many have been made accessible to people who are visually impaired. Children are even treated specially as the kids or their parents can call in and arrange to have children's literature read to them live and through the telephone in the evening. Do these political mourners have personal libraries not covered in dust and are they reading books and magazines every week or month? We live in a dollar-dollar, pound-pound, euro-euro world, and books are the least important in Nigeria's political landscape. Why mourn Achebe if you do not care about books or read books? Why bother to cry and wail?

Has it occurred to any of these political office holders that Achebe could not live among them? The environment they created and are sustaining is not even friendly to able-bodied men and women. How can it then be good for a physically challenged person on a wheel chair? Where is the sidewalk he will push his wheel chair through? How will he move around in a society whose office holders have failed to make life easy, transport accessible and available, and to provide social services to able-bodied men? Achebe has lived in America since an auto accident in 1990 that left him on a wheel chair. He would have died shortly after that accident had he remained in Nigeria. Achebe's longest stay since the end of the civil war was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the late seventies and early eighties before moving back to the United States and joining the University of Massachusetts. The civil war traumatized him and the disorder, the failed second republic, subsequent military dictatorships and corrupt third republic frustrated him. Achebe was never a fan of the Nigerian political class and office holders. He knew their priorities are far removed from his own culture and values and he would not approve of a library without books to be named after him. He would ask: where are the books and why are these library shelves empty?