For such a time as this: Chimamanda Adichie’s letter to President Biden

On the 6th of April, 2023, something happened in the world. Something brave, something course-changing, something history-making, something silence shattering. That morning, the Atlantic published an open letter from author, activist, and speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to President Joe Biden that explained in detail just what a lot of people had been struggling to find words for after the February presidential elections in Nigeria.

In that letter, she clearly and succinctly detailed the long road of mistrust and fragile hope that Nigerians had come to the elections with and graphically explains the outrage that the shattering of that hope resulted in. She humanized the story, it was no longer about numbers, it gave no room to look at the elections as just another political process in another African country. 

“I hope it will not surprise you, President Biden, if I argue that the American response to the Nigerian election also bears the faint taint of that word, compromised, because it is so removed from the actual situation in Nigeria as to be disingenuous. Has the United States once again decided that what matters in Africa is not democracy but stability?” Source – Nigeria’s Hollow Democracy, The Atlantic

More than that, she called the U.S government out on its response to the process since they had been seen congratulating the winner of the problematic election. 

Congratulating its outcome, President Biden, tarnishes America’s self-proclaimed commitment to democracy. Please do not give the sheen of legitimacy to an illegitimate process. The United States should be what it says it is.” She writes.

Now, you don’t get many chances to write open letters to the president of the United States, and you don’t spend years of effort building a name, a career, and a following to throw it away in a gamble, so we can be sure that Adichie weighed the risks of speaking up. She must have taken days to mull over the pros and cons of taking the global stage and calling out the issues her country was facing and the international community’s role in it. She must have considered remaining safe in her zone and chose instead, to speak up. I imagine she must have been uncomfortable many times in the process between the decision to write and the publishing. 

As I write this, I find myself wondering if she knew it would come to this when she first wrote Purple Hibiscus. I wonder if the thread of brave female characters in her books, from Kambili in Purple Hibiscus to Olanna in Half of a yellow sun, and many characters in between were a reflection of who she always was or knew she wanted to be.

But knowing who you want to be and actually being that are two entirely different things and it is easy to compromise, or at least stay silent especially if the stakes are high. And the stakes are high here. She did not write to President Biden to alert him that an election took place in her county or to celebrate him for any feat achieved, she did not spend time on niceties or give room for her intention to be vaguely interpreted, she told him in clear terms how the president-elect whom the U.S had just congratulated had stolen the presidency and exactly how he did it. Beyond that, she asked him to do something about it.

Courage is a strange thing. It is personal and yet, its effects stretch over continental borders. Knowing that she supported the opposing party in those elections and that she would be accused of being partisan, she spoke up. Knowing that she might lose a number of her audience who supported the very people she was putting on the stand, she spoke up. Knowing that her allies might not back her up, that she might be in this alone and that she was perhaps safer not doing this at all, she spoke up.

What Chimamanda has done is exhibit enormous courage and it doesn’t end with her. It inspires the thousands of women who are in positions to do something to be brave. It inspires us to take opportunities seriously and to remember that when the time comes to use our voices courageously, we might have been placed in those positions for such a time as this.

Paula Pwul is a Personal Brand Strategist, Lawyer, and Host of She’s the Brand Podcast, who leverages her unique insights and skills to help professional and creative women build online brands, be their bravest selves, and position themselves as impactful industry leaders. When she’s not working, she’s reading fiction, hanging out with her family, or trying new experiences.