Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview with Chinua Achebe
Bowen, Roger, Academe
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist and poet-and AAUP member-reflects on freedom, political oppression, and higher education.
AAUP general secretary Roger Bowen traveled to Bard College on November 11 to interview Chinm Achebe, who is Charles P. Stevenson, Jr., Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard. He is best known for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which is regarded as a classic of world literature. Other works include Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Beware, Soul Brother (1971), The Trouble with Nigeria (1984), Anthills of the Savanna (1987), Another Africa, with R. Lyons (1998), Africa Is People (1998), and Home and Exile (2000). Achebe has received more than twenty honorary doctorates and several international literary prizes. Special thanks are dvie to AAUP staff members Bonnie Faulk and Nanette Crisologo for tacilitating and transcribing this interview.
Bowen: How long have you been a member of the AAUP?
Achebe: I think probably four or five years.
Bowen: What prompted you to join?
Achebe: Well, I think it is a good idea for teachers to organize themselves and to have a platform, which is much the same as what I said to writers in Nigeria when I founded an association of Nigerian authors. I said to them, you know, what we are doing is wonderful, but it is also dangerous because we have little influence. And there is somebody called the "emperor," and most of the time we won't ever be involved with the emperor, but when we are, it is necessary to have the power of a group.
Bowen: And the emperor is a symbol of what, the government?
Achebe: The authority. It's kind of a metaphor, but one we need to take seriously. Now in the United States, 1 don't think there is the same clarity about the emperor. I think here the emperor is very, very, clever and doesn't often show his true colors, but his authority is manifest.
Bowen: Twice in Washington recently, I hailed cabs and the drivers had accents. I asked where they were from originally, and both said Nigeria. I asked if they knew Chinua Achebe, and they said, "He is a national hero." So I asked what novels of his had they read? Both said Things Fall Apart, and one added Arrow of God. I found it fascinating that Nigerian expatriates who have made their homes in the United States know who you are, respect your writing, and see you as a great thinker. Now, do you keep track of events going on in Nigeria?
Achebe: Oh, yes. I do indeed. In fact, just now I am in some kind of trouble in Nigeria. The trouble increased recently when I rejected a national honor. I turned it down because I was not pleased, I was not happy with the way things are going and am alarmed that Nigeria is falling into the hands of thugs-corrupt, terribly corrupt bandits.
Bowen: Does the government look the other way when corruption occurs?
Achebe: That's right, not only does the government look the other way, but these thugs also boast openly that they have connections at the highest level.
Bowen: Is President Obasanjo complicit? (Olusegan Obasanjo was elected president of Nigeria in 1999, ending sixteen years of military rule.]
Achebe: Yes, in fact he is the one involved. He is the one who is supposed to fix this, and he is the one in whom we once had some faith. He came to power in 1999, but he has not performed. So I did not see any reason to accept the national award from him.
Bowen: Let me ask this question: within Nigeria and universities in your home state and elsewhere, is there such a thing as academic freedom?
Achebe: Well, it is touch and go. There is some, but not enough. There is always the danger of violation, because when there is poverty, salaries are not paid, students are constantly on strike, and the universities are closed-sometimes more often than they are open. In that kind of situation, we can't really talk about academic freedom.
Bowen: If I'm teaching political science at a Nigerian university and I say out loud to my students that Nigeria's democracy is underdeveloped, would I risk losing my job? …