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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.

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That elusive great Nigerian leader that is able to transcend our handicaps – corruption, ethnic bigotry, the celebration of mediocrity, indiscipline etc- will only come when we make the process of electing leaders – through free and fair elections in a democracy – as flawless as possible, improving on each exercise as we evolve as a nation.

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Once we have the right kinds of leaders in place – the true choices of the people – then, I believe, it will be possible to solidify all the freedoms we crave as a people- freedom of the press, assembly, expression etc. Within this democratic environment, the three tiers of government filled with servant leaders chosen by the people, can pass laws that will put in place checks and balances the nation desperately needs to curb corruption. 

Question: During a 2006 trip to Nigeria, citizens told me that they welcomed the government's rhetoric about fighting corruption, but didn't place any faith in lasting change. Do you think a citizens' movement like Occupy Nigeria can be effective where official government efforts fail?

The right to protest, the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech…these are all human rights that should be protected in any democracy, indeed in any nation. Any involvement of ordinary Nigerians in a non-violent (peaceful), organized, protest for their rights and improvement in their living standards, in my opinion, as a writer, should be encouraged. An artist, in my understanding of the word, should side with the people against the Emperor that oppresses his or her people.

The hope of course, is that the non-violent protest will eventually lead to change in a positive direction – like the civil rights movement in America, Mahatma Gandhi’s independence struggles in India etc. – if that is the case, then I am all for them.

A functioning, robust democracy requires a healthy educated, participatory followership, and an educated, morally grounded leadership. Civil society has a role to play in educating the masses about their rights – making sure that they understand that the elected officials report to them, that those in positions of leadership are not monarchs – and then insisting through the ballot box or other avenues of the democratic system that their voices be heard.

However, having said that, it is important to emphasize that Nigeria is a complicated country with more than 250 ethnic groups. Protests are often a symptom of deeper rooted problems – in Nigeria’s case, resistance to a fifty year history of leaders essentially swindling the nation of its resources – $400 billion worth - and stashing most of it abroad with little in terms of infrastructure on the ground. Nigeria continues to be held back by the lack of basic amenities – there is epileptic electricity supply (often times blackouts for months), very poor schools, no standard water supply systems, bad roads, poor sanitation…Nothing works – life, schools, electricity, nothing....

Question: The Arab uprisings in North Africa raised hopes that other authoritarian governments on the continent could also be challenged by citizen movements. Do you think the Occupy Nigeria movement has the potential to follow in the Tunisian and Tahrir Square footsteps? 

Popular non-violent uprisings as an expression of the feelings of the people should be allowed and protected. I have already made that clear. The hope is that such movements coalesce onto a defined platform with a clear direction and leadership. The problem with leaderless uprisings taking over is that you don’t always know what you get at the other end. If you are not careful you could replace a bad government with one much worse! My hope for Nigeria actually is that the people will channel all that pent-up rage towards a fight for sound democratic institutions – a competent electoral body that can execute free and fair elections…in other words, exercise their frustrations at the ballot box. Movements that begin on the streets… on the ground… should channel their frustrations in a non-violent, organized direction – politically. But the great challenge for Nigeria – one that has stunted her development since independence – is how to convince 150 million people to put aside competing interests, sideline different religions, ethnicities, political persuasions, and build a united rostrum or two with strong leaders to truly bring about fundamental change to Nigeria. That is the challenge.

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