Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 216 pp., $16.95

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe; drawing by David Levine

I am old enough to remember the Great Lukiiko. This was the traditional parliament, really the assembly of appointed chiefs, in the Kingdom of Buganda, ruled by the Kabaka. The Lukiiko survived the decades of British colonial rule, but it was not many years after independence that the army, under commanders from the alien North, stormed across the hill of Mmengo and put an end to the Kabaka’s kingdom and its institutions.

At the ceremonial opening of the Lukiiko, the British governor in his cocked hat and plumes sat next to the small, glittering figure of the Kabaka. Before them in ranks sat the chiefs, huge as elephant seals in their white kansu robes. The Lukiiko was a lofty, thatched hall of whitewashed clay, always cool. Its low, broad-silled windows were unglazed, so that the people could lean through them and hear and—by ancient custom—interject during the debates. That was a token not so much of “democracy” as of the idea of popular participation. Against the open door lolled a somber figure in a yellow robe, swinging a knotted cord that dangled from his fist. He was the Royal Strangler, token of absolute authority.

The ceremony was little more than symbolic: the Strangler didn’t strangle, while the populace had little real control over what went on in the hall. Yet there was a sense of a crude limitation of power, not unlike that of England under the Tudors. When independence came, people supposed, something modern and democratic could grow out of the Lukiiko in a slow, natural evolution.

In this decade of African catastrophe, it is hard to reconstruct the optimism and certainties of the emergent African political class thirty years ago, and of their liberal-minded European sympathizers. Independence seemed the happy-ever-after conclusion, even to those territories—the Portuguese domains, Rhodesia-Zimbabwe—that were destined to fight long, bitter wars before they could claim to “govern themselves.” Instead, so often although not everywhere, independence set off a degenerative process: freedom became corruption, while democracy collapsed into autocracy, “life-presidencies,” and finally military dictatorship; the country people faced starvation brought by crop failure and mismanagement while the town people withered in colossal, spreading slums where the AIDS pandemic is beginning to reap its harvest.

Who or what is to blame? For a time, it was fashionable to blame “neo-colonialist exploitation,” real and ruthless enough indeed. Later, in a Europe still clinging to the tatters of fond hopes, there emerged a wry defense of corruption as no more than the modern form of traditional African clientship relations, something “natural” and not to be judged by European standards of public life. Patronizing and even racist, this explanation too was less than a half-truth.

In his new novel, his first since A Man of the People (1966), Chinua Achebe says, with implacable honesty, that Africa itself is to blame, and that there is no safety in excuses that place…

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