Obituary: Chukwuemeka Ike, Nigerian literary giant, dies at 88 – Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
Chukwuemeka Ike, Nigerian academic, administrator, monarch
and prolific writer of international repute whose celebrated works influenced a
generation of readers both in Nigeria and beyond and helped shape literary
discourse and the reading culture on the continent, has died. He was aged 88.
Media reports indicate the respected writer died following some
health challenges for which he had been admitted at the Nnamdi Azikwe
University Teaching Hospital Nnewi in December 2019. He was until his death,
the traditional ruler of Ndikelionwu in Orumba north local government area of
Anambra state, a throne he ascended in 2008.
But the writer lives as he left a body of work, – twelve
novels and as many non-fictional texts that the history of post-independence,
post-colonial Nigeria will be incomplete without. It is for his fiction that
many people outside of the academia would have known Ike for. A master
storyteller who is probably not as celebrated as he ought to be by the current
generation of readers, Ike belonged to that class of Government College Umuahia
and the University College, Ibadan who in many ways started a revolution by
telling the story of a continent long misrepresented through western voices and
helped build a strong African literary culture that has gone on to produce many
great works and accomplished writers.
Motivated by his friend the renowned Chinua Achebe who had
published Things Fall Apart in 1958, Ike who had hitherto restricted his
writing to short stories in the university journals, published his first novel Toads
for Supper in 1965. After that, many other titles followed building up a series
of interesting titles including; The Naked Gods (1970), The Potter’s Wheel
(1973), Sunset at Dawn (1976), Expo ’77 (1980), The Chicken Chasers (1980), The
Bottled Leopard (1985), Our Children Are Coming (1990), The Search (1991), To
My Husband from Iowa (1996), Anu Ebu Nwa (1999) – the Igbo version of The
Potter’s Wheel translated by the author from English to Igbo, Conspiracy of Silence
(2001) and Toads Forever (2007) – a sequel to his first work.
Ike’s works which are laced with humour, satire, parodies and engaging dialogue are deep interrogations of life in post-independence Nigeria. In many ways, his fiction held up a mirror to society, reflecting both the desirable and the worst in us and leaving us with something to really ponder about. He seemed passionate about changing society and used his fiction to consistently remind us of the increasing inadequacies of society which our fleeting sensibilities ignore as we carry on with the daily scramble for material accumulation.
Most of the stories played out in urban settings and were filled
with interesting, aptly named, characters who remain in the memory of the
reader long after the last word has been read. Who could possibly forget Zaccheus,
the diminutive teacher in The Potter’s Wheel (1973) and his wife the ‘Tigress’,
or the very charismatic Comrade Yekini Falase, President of NAS in Our Children
Are Coming (1990) who held the entire nation hostage, or Dr Nwanneka, the
pediatrician in Conspiracy of Silence (2001)?
For the most part, his fiction seemed autobiographical and
sometimes, journalistic. Ike was gifted at writing about experiences he was a
part of, and he did so excellently as an insider. In Toads for Supper (1965) he
exposed the excesses of the university environment, the petty rivalry, greed,
immorality and committees-driven administrative bottlenecks.
In Expo 77 (1980), following his experience as the registrar
of the West Africa Examination Council (WAEC), he sounded early warnings about
the prevalence and dangers of examination malpractice and the gradual decline
in hitherto cherished societal values which unfortunately have become full
blown today. Like most writers from the defunct Eastern region who experienced
the Biafran war, Ike, captured his experiences in that war in Sunset at Dawn
(1976), presenting a lived human account of it and celebrating the
accomplishments of the young ill-fated nation.
His faith in young people, their education and their ability
to influence the future comes through in works like The Potter’s Wheel (1973),
The Bottled Leopard (1985) and Our Children are Coming (1990). The latter is a
particularly remarkable accomplishment in which Ike showcases the breakdown between
the young and their middle-class parents and the implications this has for the
future of the country. One can dare to say he was prophetic in that work given
the realities of present-day Nigeria.
The Bottled Leopard (1985) which was a recommended secondary
school text for many years is also remarkable for exploring Igbo Metaphysics
and how men acquired shape shifting powers that made them transform into Leopards.
Ethnic chauvinism and tribal prejudices also form a recurring
theme in Ike’s writing. Post-independence, the fault lines of the poorly
patched up union put together by the British began to manifest as large cracks leading
up to the civil war. This tension especially as it affected love and marriage
is seen in the story of Amadi and Aduke in Toads for Supper (1965) and also
between Fatima and Dr Kanu in Sunset at Dawn (1976) as well as Ola and Kaneng
in The Search (1991).
Besides his novels and his work as a teacher, Chukwuemeka
Ike contributed immensely to the deepening the literary culture in Nigeria and
support for the younger generation of writers. He founded the Nigerian Book
Foundation in 1993 to encourage young writers and provide a platform for
potential authors. The foundation carried out reading promotion activities in
various parts of the country. He is also the author of How to become a
Published Writer (1991), a guidebook on creative writing which drew extensively
on his experience as a writer and teacher.
Ike was also an accomplished administrator, and leader. Educated
in Ibadan and Stanford, he worked at the University of Nigeria Nsukka as
registrar and was appointed registrar of the West African Examinations Council,
the first Nigerian to so serve. He was also visiting professor of English at
the University of Jos and Pro-chancellor/Chairman of council of the University
Eze Professor Chukwuemeka Ike is perhaps one of the most
accomplished writers of his generation and has bequeathed to us in death, a
rick cache of genuine human-interest stories that will pique the interest of
readers for many years to come. His humility and commitment to his craft
present important lessons for younger writers of today.
May his soul find eternal rest.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo is the
author of My Mind Is No Longer Here
and is available on twitter at @nzesylva