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 of Benin.

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

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