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Famed author Chinua Achebe on the Occupy Nigeria strikes

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe supports fuel-subsidy protests and says that Nigeria's unrest can be eased by better, less-corrupt leaders.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / January 11, 2012

In this January 2008 file photo, Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, is seen at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he is a professor. The author of the globally acclaimed novel 'Things Fall Apart' and other works examining the political failures and corruption of oil-rich Nigeria.

Craig Ruttle/AP

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In an interview, Nigeria's premier novelist Chinua Achebe says that corruption is the root of the current fuel-strikes crisis, and that the only way to set Nigeria on a democratic path is for Nigerians to select better leaders, and to punish those who "steal from the state." 

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Professor Chinua Achebe currently teaches at Brown University as the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies. He is the author of the globally acclaimed novels ''Things Fall Apart'', "A Man of the People",” Arrow of God" and "Anthills of the Savannah". He has also published collections of poetry, literary criticism and children's books. In 2007 he received the Man Booker international prize for his body of work from England, and more recently the 2010 Gish Prize. His new book a semi-autobiographical work called "There was a country: A personal history of Biafra" will be available from Penguin in September 2012.

Question: In your 1960 novel, "No Longer at Ease," you write about the coming problem of official corruption in Nigerian society, told through the rise and fall of your main character Obi. What do you think are the roots of corruption in Nigerian society – colonial legacy, corporate power, local business elites – and what will it take to uproot it?

Everything you mentioned has played a part. Nigeria has had a complicated colonial history. My work has examined that part of our story extensively. (No longer at ease, A man of the people and later Anthills of the savannah also tackle Nigeria’s burden of corruption and political ineptitude…) At this point in Nigeria’s history, however, we can no longer absolve ourselves of the responsibility for our present condition. Corruption is endemic because we have had a complete failure of leadership in Nigeria that has made corruption easy and profitable. It will be controlled when Nigerians put in place checks and balances that will make corruption “inconvenient” – with appropriate jail sentences and penalties to punish those that steal from the state.

The first republic produced political leaders in all the regions who were not perfect, but compared to those that came after them they now appear almost “saint like” – they were well educated, grounded politicians who may have embodied a flawed vision or outlook for the country (in my opinion); but at least had one.

Following a series of crises that culminated in the bloody Nigeria-Biafra war, Nigeria found itself in the hands of military officers with very little vision for the nation or understanding of the modern world. A period of great decline and decadence set in, and continues to this day. The civilian leadership of the Second Republic continued almost blindly the mistakes of their predecessors. At that point in our history, the scale of corruption and ineptitude had increased exponentially, fueled by the abundance of petro-dollars.

By the time the Third Republic arrived, we found ourselves in the grip of former military dictators turned ‘democrats’ with the same old mind set but now donning civilian clothes. So, Nigeria following the first republic has been ruled by the same cult of mediocrity – a deeply corrupt cabal – for at least forty years, recycling themselves in different guises and incarnations. They have then deeply corrupted the local business elites who are in turn often pawns of foreign business interests.

When I have talked about the need for a servant leader, I have emphasized an individual that is well prepared – educationally, morally and otherwise – who wants to serve (in the deepest definition of the word); someone who sees the ascendancy to leadership as an anointment by the people and holds the work to be highly important, if not sacred. I know that is asking for a lot, but that really should be our goal. If we aim for that, what we get may not be so bad after all.

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