13th June, 2013
By Wale Okediran
The hero of the whole celebration was the Anambra State Governor, Mr. Peter Obi, who shone like a thousand stars throughout the celebration. Apart from his simplicity and humility which has gone a long way to demystify the arrogance of governance in the land, Obi was almost everywhere before and during the ceremonies. He was in Abuja several times during the course of preparations for the event as well as during the Abuja segment of the event. On one occasion, the Governor arrived during the course of a speech and rather than disrupt the event by moving to the high table like some of his less humble colleagues would have done, Obi waited till the end of the speech before moving forward to his seat. On another occasion, when the Governor noticed that some security officials were pushing back an elderly lady who wanted to take his photograph, Obi not only reprimanded the security official but stood for a while to allow the woman and other people who wanted to take his photograph to do so.
As expected, during the course of the funeral activities, eulogies were poured on the departed icon by all and sundry including members of the political class. This aspect of the funeral did not go down well by many social commentators including journalists. Many of them observed that many political leaders whom Achebe roundly criticised during his lifetime were now the ones ‘dancing on his grave’. Matters were so bad that if not for the intervention of Governor Obi and some family members, no literary person would have been allowed to participate in the burial arrangement since politicians were bent on hijacking the whole event. This prompted an angry lady member of the Association of Nigerian Authors of whom Achebe was the founding President to remark that ‘now that the cat is dead, rats can play on his head’.
And although President Goodluck Jonathan did the right thing by attending Achebe’s funeral, many people were disappointed that the President did not make any pronouncement regarding a national honour for the late icon. It was much later after his speech that the President quickly mentioned the plan of the Nigerian and Ghanaian governments to renovate the primary school that Achebe attended – a gesture which many people saw as too meagre for somebody of Achebe’s status.
As soon as Achebe’s body was lowered into a glass and aluminium mausoleum in his personal compound, at exactly 3.30pm, the carnival exploded. There was no other way to describe it; it was cathartic! After weeks of mourning and preparations, the interment was the signal for the celebrations of the passing of the great man to begin. A large tent had been erected just outside the church where a lot of music, drinking and dancing commenced. Down the streets came dancers. The town’s main street was solid with dancers, both men and women. There was more dancing and drinking going on in several tents round the town. Several groups appeared wearing similar uniforms with red and yellow handkerchiefs around their necks carrying banners with different inscriptions. Even the banners danced up and down with them as they were surrounded by the crowd.
At a point, the members of the Ohafia War Dancers in their frightful and scary costumes with flutes and drums emerged as the crowd cheered. Stirred by the incessant rumble of the group’s drums and flutes, some members of my group such as Uduma Kalu and Ikeoga Oke joined in the dancing.
And just as the politicians left the celebrations with their security men, the pickpockets moved in and managed to dispossess many people of their cash and mobile phones. While Ikeogu, Uduma and the representative of Heinemann Publishers lost some money, others, especially foreign visitors, lost their mobile phones. And rather than sympathise with Uduma for losing money, some of his friends upbraided him for his carelessness. “How can a Lagos boy like you allow yourself to be robbed in a small town like this? Rather than being robbed, you should be the one doing the robbing,” they added.
In spite of all these unfortunate distractions, the carnival still continued. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. It was in the midst of all these that my group took its leave for Awka.
Now I was back on the morning after, for the third and final farewell. It was also quiet in the family house when I got there as the occupants were having a well deserved rest. I moved over to the mausoleum which by then was under lock and key. I therefore stood outside for a few minutes, gave a slight bow to the lone occupant and turned back to the taxi.
From Ogidi, we passed towns and villages that were steamed in history and stories being part of the famous ‘Eastern Front’ of the Civil War days – Umudioka, Ifitedunu, Abagana, Nimo, Enugwukwu, Nawfia – before reaching Awka. Of all these, it was Abagana that stirred the most poignant memories with the famous story of the ‘Abagana Ambush’ by Biafran soldiers. According to historical records: “On March 31, 1968 Gen. Murtala Muhammed and his men were heading from Enugu to Onitsha with 96 military vehicles. Down the road from downtown Abagana the Biafran commander Major Uchendu lay in ambush. When the vehicles came into sight Uchendu’s men launched a homemade ‘Bucket Bomb’ at the vehicles. The bomb exploded with such great force that it tossed vehicles like tin cans. 3/4 of Murtala’s men were dead and many others wounded. Gen. Muhammad was one of the only men there who wasn’t injured.”
And as the taxi crawled through downtown Abagana, I took a cursory look at the town made famous by war but found everything going on well. From the easy way the people went about their businesses, it was difficult to believe that it was the same quiet town that had witnessed such a turbulent past. I had a sudden urge to go and re-read Achebe’s There Was a Country in order to put all the issues in proper perspective. I also hope to call on Senator Magoro, the former War Commander turned legislator, on my return to Abuja.
As the taxi nosed towards Awka, the eastern horizon soon exploded into an azure sunshine that bathed the country side foliage with an unsurpassed beauty. Standing majestically by the roadside was a giant billboard with Chinua Achebe smiling at passersby. “Welcome Home Our Hero,” the billboard read. As I smiled back I tried calling ‘Chinualumogu’ the way I had been taught by prolonging the ‘mo’ and swallowing the ‘gu’. Indeed, there was a man.
•Dr Okediran, a former member of the House of Representatives is also former National President, Association of Nigerian Authors.