Chinua Achebe on Patriotism
The following piece has been extracted from the booklet titled “The Trouble with Nigeria”, as published in 1983. While Chinua Achebe is writing in particular reference to Nigeria, the broad concepts he presented can be applied to the whole African continent.
In spite of the tendency of people in power to speak about this great nation of ours (Nigeria), there is no doubt that Nigerians are among the world’s most unpatriotic people.
But this is not because Nigerians are particularly evil or wicked; in fact they are not.
It is rather because patriotism, being part of an unwritten social contract between a citizen and the state, cannot exist where the state reneges on the agreement.
The state undertakes to organise society in such a way that the citizen can enjoy peace and justice, and the citizen in return agrees to perform his patriotic duties.
In 1978 or ‘79, General (Olusegun) Obasanjo paid an official visit to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Of the academic community assembled in the Niger Room of the Continuing Education Centre and which rose respectfully to its feet on his entry, General Obasanjo made a totally unexpected demand. He asked them to recite the National Pledge!
A few ambiguous mumbles followed, and then stony silence.
“You see,” said the general bristling with hostility, “You do not even know the National Pledge.” No doubt he saw in this failure an indictable absence of patriotism among a group he had always held with great suspicion.
Who is a patriot?
He is a person who loves his country. He is a not a person who says he loves his country. He is not even a person who shouts or swears or recites or sings his love of his country. He is one who cares deeply about the happiness and wellbeing of his country and all its people.
Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people.
He will be outspoken in condemnation of their shortcomings without giving way to superiority, despair or cynicism.
That is my idea of a patriot.
Quite clearly, patriotism is not going to be easy or comfortable in a country as badly run as Nigeria. And this is not made any easier by the fact that no matter how badly a country may be run, there will always be some people whose personal, selfish interests, are in the short term at least, well served by the mismanagement and the social inequities.
Naturally, they will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system, and will be anxious to pass themselves off as patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors.
But doomed is the nation which permits such people to define patriotism for it.
Their definition would be about as objective as a Rent Act devised by a committee of avaricious landlords, or the encomiums of a colony of blood-sucking ticks might be expected to shower upon the bull on whose back they fatten.
Spurious patriotism is one of the hallmarks of Nigeria’s privileged classes whose generally unearned positions of sudden power and wealth must seem unreal even to themselves. To lay the ghost of their insecurity, they talk patriotically.
But their protestation is only mouth-deep; it does not exist in their heads nor in their hearts and certainly not in the work of their hands.
True patriotism is possible only when the people who rule and those under their power have a common and genuine goal of maintaining the dispensation under which the nation lives.
This will, in turn, only happen if the nation is ruled justly, if the welfare of all the people rather than the advantage of a few becomes the cornerstone of public policy.
National pledges and pious admonitions administered by the ruling classes or their paid agents are entirely useless in fostering true patriotism.
In extreme circumstances of social, economic and political inequities such as we have in Nigeria, pledges and admonitions may even work in the reverse direction and provoke rejection or cynicism and despair.
One shining act of bold, selfless leadership at the top, such as unambiguous refusal to be corrupt or tolerate corruption at the fountain of authority, will radiate powerful sensations of well-being and pride through every nerve and artery of national life.
I saw such a phenomenon on two occasions in Tanzania in the 1960s.
The first was when news got around (not from the Ministry of Information but on street corners) that President Nyerere after paying his children’s school fees had begged his bank to give him a few months’ grace on the repayment of the mortgage on his personal house.
The other occasion was when he insisted that anyone in his cabinet or party hierarchy who had any kind of business interests must either relinquish them or leave his official or party position.
This was no mere technicality of putting the business interest in escrow but giving it up entirely.
And many powerful ministers including the formidable leader of TANU Women were forced to leave the cabinet.
On these occasions, ordinary Tanzanians seemed to walk around, six feet tall. They did not need sermons on patriotism; nor a committee of bishops and emirs to inaugurate a season of ethical revolution for them.