THE DANGER OF POWER AS INVINCIBILITY IN NIGERIA: LESSONS FROM “THINGS FALL APART”
“Then the District Commissioner (D.C.) returned from his tour. Mr. Smith went immediately to him and they had a long discussion. … Three days later the District Commissioner sent his sweet-tongued messenger to the leaders of Umuofia asking them to meet him in his headquarters. Okonkwo was among the six elders he invited. Okonkwo warned the others to be fully armed. ‘An Umuofia man does not refuse a call’, he said: ‘He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked. But the times have changed, and we must be fully prepared. …’ As soon as the District Commissioner left, the head messenger, who was also the prisoners’ barber, took down his razor and shaved all the hair on the men’s heads. They were still handcuffed, and they just sat and moped… The six men ate nothing throughout that day and the next.” (Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”).
ike most of my contemporaries, when I first read “Things Fall Apart” in high school in the early 1970s, what stood out to me was the theme of colonial dispossession, which had led to the disintegration and eventual collapse of the traditions and way of life in the traditional African society. However, as I read the book now, even though the theme of colonial dispossession is still prominent, the theme that more clearly stands out is the power and violence that shaped both the traditional life of Okonkwo’s Umuofia as well as the colonial regime that seeks to “civilize” Umuofia.
Today, more than ever, Nigeria has found itself at the crossroads of power as violence, domination and invincibility. This situation challenges us to revisit the key characters behind Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” If “Things Fall Apart” is Achebe’s depiction of the power intrigues in the colonial encounter with African traditional society, today that power intrigue as domination and invincibility have come back to haunt us like a malignant tumor in Nigeria as a nation-state.
Be it the exploits of Okonkwo, or those of the District Commissioner and the missionaries, each of the characters of “Things Fall Apart”, is caught up in the power intrigues. In fact, none of the three main characters is better than the other. Each is as guilty as the other. They all live by the logic of power as violence, domination and invincibility.
Commenting on this fact in his book, “The Sacrifice of Africa”, Emmanuel Katongole, an African theologian from Uganda, tells us that the new colonial order represented by the District Commissioner attempts to hide its violence from itself and justify it by ascribing to the new order such honorific titles as “civilization”, “progress”, or “democracy.” But the irony of its violence is reflected in the title of the book the D.C. is thinking about writing: “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”
Therefore, “Things Fall Apart”, is largely, a story about violence and power. In fact, the more violence is associated with this story of power as domination and invincibility, the more one is able to see that “Things Fall Apart” is not merely nostalgic musings about the violent (colonial) disruption of a peaceful order (traditional society). The new order established by colonialism is no more or less violent than the traditional order it came to “civilize”.
Our main thesis in this article is that the story of Umuofia, Okonkwo, the District Commissioner and the missionaries of the “Things Fall Apart”, gives us a bird’s eye view of the evolution of Nigeria’s founding story as a nation-state. It is a story of violence and power as domination and invincibility. It is a story of lust for power and greed. But a power structure so conceived, would not see anything wrong with wastage of human blood – murderous and extra-judicial killings of ordinary citizens that have shaped and have continued to shape the story of Nigeria as a nation-state.
This is why in the present article, inspired by Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, we would like to propose an alternative story for Nigeria. We cannot continue with the prevalent story of violence and power as domination and invincibility. The nation cannot move forward with that type of story of violence and power.
A society built on this type of vision of power as violence and invincibility cannot but be drawn into an ongoing drama of violence in which not only the weak are sacrificed, but the “strong” themselves get consumed by their own violence. This trap Nigeria found itself since inception as a nation-state. The question is, ‘how do we get out of this trap’?
It is clear that if the ongoing debate and conversation in Nigeria about the need for a new political system or restructuring is to provide a way forward, it would have to engage the layers of memory through which the performance of the colonial imagination of violence continues to live in the present-day Nigeria. Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” helps us to see that the sources for exploring the issues of social memory may not lie in public or government records, but in cultural patterns as well as other unofficial texts.
Thus, reading “Things Fall Apart” today allows us to see the significance of social memory for Nigeria’s rebirth as a nation-state. In “Things Fall Apart”, Achebe notes that as the District Commissioner colonial policies “spread throughout the rain forest of Umuofia”, they branded people with memories that remained raw for the rest of their lives. It was clear such violent memories were not limited to D.C.’s Umuofia, but were the sort of memories that accompanied colonialism in other parts of Africa.
Furthermore, “Things Fall Apart” allows us to see that the entire project of the civilization of Umuofia was tied up with palm oil economy. In this case, Umuofia gives us a glimpse into the story of Nigeria’s (in fact, Africa’s) initiation into modernity. Thus, “Things Fall Apart” ceased to be a book about Umuofia and traditional narratives of Igbo society, but of the transmission and reproductions of social memory.
History teaches us that social memories do not simply go away or die with initial victims. Thus, the question today is, ‘How and in what ways do those memories live on in present-day Nigeria?’ How do we get out of the present-day trap of violence and power as domination and invincibility; create a new story for Nigeria that is people-oriented as well as inward-looking? This is the onus or rather the challenge we face in Nigeria’s political scene today.
The challenge is to reconnect with the nation’s founding story and memory for epistemological rapture we may need to create a new story for Nigeria of our dream. Again, as “Things Fall Apart” shows, the palm oil terror branded people with memories that remained raw for the rest of their lives. It also made African voices within this time to remain largely silence. In today’s Nigeria, petroleum and gas natural resources have replaced the palm oil terror in the old Eastern region and Niger Delta of Nigeria, referred to in “Things Fall Apart”, as region of the Lower Niger.
In fact, the more one thinks of this connection of those past memories with the present social reality of Nigeria, the more obvious it becomes clear that the key actors of Nigeria’s post-independence history till date, are but colonial “types.” Beginning with the first republic to present, the key political actors of Nigeria’s post-independence could be described, in large part (with few exceptions), as mimetic reproductions of colonial actors like the D.C. of “Things Fall Apart”, or Lord Lugard and his successors in colonial Nigeria.
Therefore, one cannot understand the behavior and abysmal leadership failure of present political actors in Nigeria without locating them in our social history and memory.
“Things Fall Apart” is telling us that the task of engaging with our social memory has also to do with questioning and interrogating cultural forms of forgetfulness in order to uncover the patterns of performances through which the memory of history lives on. In this connection, we should not ignore insights from reports of missionaries and charitable organizations, their records of the general sense of desperation that the terror of oil (palm or petroleum) exploiters and their local spinoffs have been shaping for the people of Nigeria.
Therefore, Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” serves as an incisive social commentary, with Okonkwo and the District Commissioner as characters that depict the society formed by a definition of power as domination and invincibility. What lessons can we draw from “Things Fall Apart” in revisiting Nigeria’s continued leadership crisis and search for better tomorrow? This is the main task we set for ourselves in this article.
“Things Fall Apart” and Its’ Power Intrigues
The story of “Things Fall Apart” is familiar to many. Set in Umuofia, a collection of nine villages on the lower Niger, the plot of “Things Fall Apart” revolves around a man named Okonkwo. Although Okonkwo’s father had earned no titles in the tribe, Okonkwo has risen to a highly regarded position in his society, showing himself to be a skilled in battle and earning several titles.
Okonkwo is also a champion wrestler. He has taken three wives, has several children, and has built substantial wealth through his farming of yams, the staple crop in the village. He is a very successful man. Because of his great esteem in the village, Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken prisoner by the tribe as a peace settlement between two villages. Ikemefuna is to stay with Okonkwo until the oracle instructs the elders on what to do with the boy. Later, the oracle decrees the boy must be killed. The oldest man in the village warns Okonkwo to have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. However, fearful of being perceived as softhearted and weak, Okonkwo participates in the killing of the boy despite the warning from the elder.
Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. When he accidentally kills someone at a funeral ceremony, he and his family are sent in exile for seven years. While Okonkwo was away in exile, white men begin coming to Umuofia. They introduce Christianity and a new government.
Okonkwo returns to his village after his exile to find it a changed place because of the presence of white men. He and other tribal leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoners and holds them for ransom for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders.
The people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising, and when some messengers of the white government try to stop their meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves because they let the other messengers escape. All is lost for Umuofia. Okonkwo returns home and hangs himself.
What stood out from this plot of Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” are three visions of power represented by three characters. The three characters are, Okonkwo-Umuofia, the colonial government of the District Commissioner, and finally, the Christian missionaries at Umuofia.
In all, however, the figure of Okonkwo remains prominent. Let us try to examine, though briefly, the intrigue of power each of the three main characters of the “Things Fall Apart”, embodies, beginning with Okonkwo and his Umuofia.
That Okonkwo’s life is shaped by a vision of power requires no elaborate argument. From the start of the book, Okonkwo is portrayed as the “greatest wrestler”, and throughout the story his ambition is to be the greatest warrior. He has no use of those he considers weak. He despises his father Unoka, who had won no titles but was just a “lazy” flute player skilled in the art of conversation.
No doubt, part of Okonkwo’s ambition for power derives from the stories of his upbringing. The stories told in Okonkwo’s Umuofia are stories of ancestors when “men were real men.” It is a culture that exalts warrior virtues and fears the show of affection, for affection is a sign of weakness – a weakness that children and women display, but not men. The ideal in Umuofia is to be a “real man.”
On its own, the stories told in Umuofia are not unique, in that stories of the quest for domination and invincibility are “masculine” stories of invasion and conquest, war and bloodshed. That is why patriarchy and the vision of power as domination go hand-in-hand, since at its core patriarchy reflects an inability to be at home with virtues like affection, gentleness, receptivity, conversation, hospitality, and rest, which are considered feminine.
Okonkwo embodies this unease to its extreme. He has three wives, but does not have anything that can be called a relationship with any of his wives. He rules over his family with an iron hand and an overbearing disposition. He constantly wishes Ezinma were a boy and fails to love and accept her for the beautiful girl she is. When Okonkwo and his family are exiled in Okonkwo’s mother’s home village, in spite of the warn hospitality he is given, Okonkwo inwardly rejects the hospitality and does not feel at home.
Ironically, fear dominates the life of this man who is “the greatest warrior.” This observation is telling, for like Okonkwo, those who live under the constant pressure to be “the most powerful”, or “the strongest” (leader, nation, society, etc.), live in constant fear of failure and of weakness. So, in Umuofia, both the weak and the strong lived in constant fear.
Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna precisely because of his fear of being considered weak. Okonkwo, who had always lived under a dominating strength and power, ends his life by committing suicide, which in Umuofia is considered a sign of weakness – the very reality that Okonkwo hated and feared.
Okonkwo’s fellow warriors also live in constant fear, even though they have learned to mask their fear in a show of manliness and they find ways to drown the fear through endless entertainments like wrestling, drinking palm wine, and sniffing tobacco. Okonkwo is also an exceedingly lonely man. Even though he has three wives, he sleeps alone. He, in fact, is unable to sleep most of the time – a prisoner in his own world of imagined power and invincibility.
The same pitfalls found in Okonkwo’s character also abound in the mannerism of District Commissioner and his assistants. In fact, in “Things Fall Apart”, the new colonial order represented by the District Commissioner is nothing more than the old order turned upside down. This means that the same fear that dominates the life of Okonkwo dominates also that of the District Commissioner.
Again, that colonialism lives in a similar imagination as Okonkwo and Umuofia is clear from the District Commissioner’s constant reference to the queen as “the most powerful ruler in the world”, but also by the regime of violence he represents – depicted by the D.C.’s assistants’ indiscriminate use of violence on the tribal chiefs.
Lastly, we have the presence of Christian missionaries in Umuofia. The critical issue here is whether their presence at Umuofia is able to interrupt the violence created by power of domination and invincibility. In “Things Fall Apart”, the answer to this question is ambiguous. On the one hand, missionary Christianity could not interrupt the violence in Umuofia, as the church lived out the same vision of power and became an extension of the colonial establishment. Missionary and colonialist arrived at the same time in Umuofia, and in many ways served the same goals, or at least supported each other’s work.
It was not easy to distinguish the District Commissioner from the missionary, as “the missionary often went to see his brother white man. There was nothing strange in that.” Moreover, if Umuofia had its Okonkwo, the new church had its own version of Okonkwo in the madly violent character of Enoch. In fact, the way Achebe describes Enoch is telling, and serves as a metaphor for the Christianity built on a vision of salvation as conquest and domination. Like Enoch, this version of Christianity is always erupting in quarrels:
“He was short and slight of build, and always seemed to be in great haste. His feet were short and broad, and when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions. Such was the excessive energy bottled up in Enoch’s small body that it was always erupting in quarrels and fights.” (Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”).
Enoch’s character is not only the mirror of Okonkwo’s; it also resembles that of Rev. Smith, the missionary “filled with wrath” who “danced a furious step” and arrived in Umuofia prepared for war against pagan customs and ways of clan life. Fortunately, this is not the only type of Christianity that Umuofia experiences.
For before Rev. Smith, they had Mr. Brown – the benign missionary who visits the people in the village and establishes friendship with some great men in the clan whereby he learns a great deal about the customs and beliefs of the clan. He gradually wins the trust and the respect of some of the clan members and is presented with a gift of a carved elephant. He builds a school and a little hospital in Umuofia.
There is also Mr. Kiaga’s church in Mbata that welcomes slaves and other social outcasts in their midst and rescues twins from the Evil forest. All in all, Mr. Kiaga’s church lives by and encourages gentleness, hospitality, affection, service, and even humility – the very same qualities Umuofia dismisses as women’s characteristics or signs of weakness.
As Katongole observes in his book, “The Sacrifice of Africa”, which we cited earlier, ‘what is more telling is the location of Mr. Kiaga’s church – a location that seemed to have allowed it to cherish these qualities.’ Unlike Mr. Smith’s church, Mr. Kiaga’s church establishes its shrine at the margins of the village on a piece of land on the edge of the Evil forest. Here on the outskirts of the fierce competition for domination and invincibility, Mr. Kiaga’s church is able to nurture and sustain those values and qualities that Mr. Smith’s church could not.
In the end, the virtues of hospitality, care, and gentleness reflect a different form of politics, and thus offer an alternative to the competition for domination at the center of Umuofia’s village life.
Implications for Nigeria’s Rebirth
The implications of all these for Nigeria’s rebirth today are clear. To the extent that leadership and the call for national cohesion in Nigeria are grounded in a vision of power as domination and invincibility, it can only make the reality of violence and alienation of ordinary citizens more intractable, and far more difficult to discern, let alone interrupt.
For such a vision of leadership and power cannot but view the sacrificing of the weak and innocent as sad but nevertheless inevitable collateral damage in the pursuit of the Nigerian Civil War famous slogan of the federal government: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be kept.”
The country killed over 3.5 million of its citizens because of that slogan during the Biafran pogrom and the Civil War (1967-1970). Unfortunately, since then, the killing has not stopped but has become a daily occurrence in modern Nigerian social history.
In other words, in the name of a “unity” that never was, in what is clearly a marriage of “convenience”, in this case, violence has been justified by the Nigerian state through wars, ethnic-hate, discrimination, lopsided government appointments, pre-genocidal quit notice and marginalization directed against a particular people or group.
However, the country cannot continue with this type of story of power as violence, domination and invincibility. What Nigeria needs today is a people-oriented leadership capable of inventing the future in the country. That is, a new story for Nigeria that would not only have to draw from a different vision and story of power, its location, both imaginatively and concretely, but would (like Mr. Kiaga’s church), have to reflect this completely different account of story and power.
One way of achieving this objective is to give chance to the new clamor for restructuring and devolution of power in Nigeria. Nigeria needs to decentralize power, have multiplicity of centers of power sharing for effective governance and national stability. At least, a fresh start for politics in Nigeria could begin from there.
Furthermore, Nigeria should also pay attention to its founding story and social memory for the nation’s rebirth. For instance, the memory of the D.C.s’ murderous part in the British Scramble in Umuofia, reminds us also the sad truth, that the men who carried it out for the colonialists were more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. These were Africans themselves used in subjugating and humiliating their own people by foreign powers. This part of our dangerous memory, unfortunately, is still with us.
Again, new conversations for Nigeria’s rebirth would have to engage not only official texts, but also songs, poetry, and fictions to get a fuller sense of the story of modernity in Nigeria. This means that “Things Fall Apart”, in the first place, helps us to see the story about the D.C. and his project of civilizing Umuofia as a good example of the politics of self-deception.
Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” reveals how ideals, especially noble ideals, while inspiring, can also stand in the way of our seeing what is really happening. Thus, such ideals like “anti-corruption crusade”, “democracy”, “development”, “civilization” as well as the current Nigerian mantra of “unity and progress” as absolute good, have become such tantalizing but misleading notions, forming the basic imaginative canvas yet obscuring reality. They have become the lies that both our leaders as well as elites and social ethicists desperately want to believe.
Thus, as I read Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, I realized that the challenge facing us in Nigeria today is to question even the cherished notions of development, democracy, anti-corruption saga, and especially, the often government official’s “deceptive doctrine” of unity and progress as absolute good in nation-building. Rethinking these notions, which form the imaginative framework of thinking about the future in Nigeria, is very crucial. This is because it is only by avoiding assumptions about these concepts that it is possible to get to the real story that drives modern Nigeria, and the kind of imagination that would make a new future in the country possible.
Finally, taking up Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” today, would led us to see that the real story that drives Nigeria is one of personal ambition and greed, which in the case of the D.C. expressed itself in the plunder of Umuofia. It is the same story that drives Nigeria of our day. Though Nigeria gained its political independence in 1960, yet for all these differences in external formalities, the country still operates by the same law of plunder and greed.
The actors change, but the script seems to be unchanged, e.g., the domination of political power by one region and ethnic group since independence. There is also a manifest incapability of the Nigerian state to address objectively the causes of the Nigeria-Biafra War, achieve true reconciliation and national cohesion through good governance and inclusive leadership.
The country is every day haunted by instability of government, corruption, ethnic-hate, fear of coups and counter coups – the rule of generals, environmental degradation in the oil rich Niger Delta, the Biafran question, Christian-Muslim religious conflicts, killings in Southern Kaduna, and the terrorist activities of Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen militia. These are some of the concomitant effects of politics of greed and plunder in Nigeria.
It is difficult to discuss the future of Nigeria without making the connections as we have made in this write-up, between the behavior of the past and present political actors in the founding story of the country as a nation-state. They are the lens through which one sees clear what is wrong with the country. As one author rightly said: Nigeria is but “a paradigm of all that is wrong with post-colonial Africa.” “For Nigeria’s rich petroleum and human resources as well as economic and political collapse reflects tragic waste, selfish ambition, greed, and crippled potential that is the story of many African countries.”
Therefore, fresh conversation about Nigeria’s rebirth must be about a search for an alternative story and inclusive leadership in the country. This could be in the style of Mr. Kiaga’s church in “Things Fall Apart.” It is the most telling aspect of Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” we need in confronting the present political debacle and leadership failure in Nigeria today.
Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic priest. He lives in Rome, where he is professor of missiology (mission theology) in the Pontifical University.