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 the fault in the colonial past or in the commercial and political manipulations of the First World. The first postcolonial leaders, for all their European educations and sophistication, utterly failed to meet their responsibility. And by the time that they began to understand the scale of their failure, their own brief period of hegemony was beginning to fall apart as power passed into the hands of more limited and infinitely more ferocious men, usually military. During the years of open political contest, the first “independence” generation recklessly allowed the distinction between power and force to be blurred, until those whose trade was force began in increasing numbers to drive their tanks across that line.

The “Kangan” of Anthills of the Savannah is more or less Achebe’s own Nigeria. That country is today governed by General Babangida, among the least oppressive and most enlightened of Africa’s military rulers. But as I write, the newspapers report that there is little popular enthusiasm for the slow return to civilian rule that he intends. Civilian politicians have discredited themselves. A diplomat in Lagos is quoted as saying: “Who could stand over Babangida’s murdered body and proclaim liberty? Answer: nobody!”

At the beginning of the novel, the reader meets four members of Kangan’s elite, “the cream of our society and the hope of the black race.” Chris Oriko is Commissioner for Information, Ikem Osodi is a poet and the restless, rebellious editor of the National Gazette. Beatrice Okoh, lover of Chris, is a strong and independent young woman, an intellectual with a first-class English degree from London who is a senior civil servant. The fourth character is Sam, otherwise “His Excellency,” the new military ruler of Kangan. Sam, Chris, and Ikem were all at school together at “Lord Lugard College,” one of those little black Etons peculiar to the old British Empire. His schoolmates, in fact, helped Sam into power, considering him to be a slightly slow-witted but basically decent fellow who would clear up the mess left behind by the corrupt civilian government that preceded him.


As the novel opens, they are discovering how wrong they were. Sam—“not very bright, but not wicked,” in Ikem’s original estimate—is turning himself into a “Great African Leader.” He is no longer Sam but “H.E.” His cabinet (the novel’s first pages describe a cabinet meeting with murderous satire) is already reduced to a pack of nervous toadies, jostling to throw doubts on each others’ loyalty. At some moments, H.E. luxuriates in his own sense of achievement, which spreads physically through him “like fresh-red tasty palm-oil melting and diffusing itself over piping-hot roast yam.” But he can banish only for a few minutes his gnawing humiliation over the recent referendum to make him President for Life; he has failed to gain the necessary majority, and failed because the people of the distant, dry savannah province of Abazon boycotted the poll. He has punished them by denying them water during a disastrous drought. Now a delegation from Abazon has had the impudence to arrive unlicensed in the capital to petition him for aid. Who put them up to it? H.E. suspects a plot, possibly by those classmates who still secretly think they are much better than he is. Trouble is brewing in Kangan.

After this introduction, the novel slows and broadens out as Achebe explores more deeply the character and meditations of Chris, reluctant to abandon what remains of his influence over the political scene, of Beatrice as she treads warily along the fringe of H.E.’s set of cronies, and of Ikem. It is Ikem whose shift from meditation to action provides the theme of the book. But all three of them share something “Russian,” both in their thoughts and in their relation to the social and political setting; their fears are the fears of Herzen’s “superfluous” people, and their sense of privilege, guilt, and impotence constantly reminded me of the novels of Turgenev.

The fancy that modern Nigeria has developed features of nineteenth-century Russia isn’t without foundation. It is a thought that first struck me some years ago in Baden-Baden, where once it was Russian landowners and intellectuals who crowded the casino and the race track. Their true successors are the influx of Nigerian chiefs who now do the gambling and big spending in the same ornate saloons where Dostoevsky lost everything. But there are more interesting parallels. In this novel, Achebe’s characters are obsessed with the problem of “the people”; they act in their name, and yet are painfully aware that they have lost contact with them. In a very Russian way, they debate the nature of “the people,” at times confident that the humility and good nature of the masses will save the nation from its leaders, at others fearing that the goodness has been turned to evil and cruelty, which any revolution would release as a tide of dark savagery.

Ikem, the editor, recalls a public execution by firing squad, staged before an immense crowd on the beach. At first, he was struck by how the men of power took comfortable, padded seats reserved for them, while all around their subjects broiled in the sun. How did the average poor subject put up with this? Only through good humor.

He had learnt to squeeze every drop of enjoyment he can out of his stony luck. And the fool who oppresses him will make a particular point of that enjoyment: You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.

But, as the condemned men are led out and the crowd explodes into delirious yells of mockery and hatred, Ikem’s mood swings about. “I knew then that if its own mother was at that moment held up by her legs and torn down the middle like a piece of old rag that crowd would have yelled with eye-watering laughter.”

Throughout the book this inner debate proceeds. Much later, Ikem looks back on his life, beginning with his “yearning to connect his essence with earth and earth’s people.” This yearning led him into public life, only to realize that it was not public but only “the closed transactions of soldiers-turned-politicians.” His journalism, invoking the name of the people, has achieved nothing. Now he sees that what is wrong is not the pervasive corruption, not the subservience to foreign manipulation, not “this secondclass, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed” or the manifestations of repression and despotism: “It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart…at the core of the nation’s being.”


And what is the state of that heart? Ikem continues:

Sapped by regimes of parasites, ignorant of so many basic things though it does know some others; crippled above all by this perverse kindliness towards oppression conducted with panache! How could it be in perfect health? Impossible! But despite its many flaws this can be said for it that it does possess an artless integrity, a stubborn sense of community.

The Russian train of thought runs on, as Ikem wonders whether he should renounce his privilege, his money, even his superior knowledge in order to merge into that heart. But the “narodnik” path is closed to him. Ikem has just been speaking to two poor drivers, honest men who admire his crusading journalism but who reproach him sharply for a style of life pitched deliberately below his “rank.” It offends them that he drives himself in an old Datsun, instead of “stylishly in a Mercedes and better still with another downtrodden person like themselves for a chauffeur.” In this, Ikem recognizes a shrewd instinct: “that the oppressor must not be allowed to camouflage his appearance or confuse the poor,…an insistence that your badge of privilege must never leave your breast.”

Language at once unites and divides the poor and the powerful. Chris, Ikem, and their British-educated friends talk sophisticated London English among themselves. But at intimate moments—loving, teasing, trying to express something special to their country—they resort to the vivid West African version of pidgin English which is the nation’s real lingua franca. Much of the novel’s dialogue is in pidgin, as when the two drivers try to thank Ikem for defending the cause of the poor:

I sabi say na for we this oga de fight, not for himself. He na big man. Nobody fit do fuckall to him. So he fit stay for him house, chop him oyibo chop, drink him cold beer, put him air conditioner and forget we. But he no do like that. So we come salute am.

Not long after their visit and Ikem’s reflections, all the separately laid-out characteristics and broodings of the novel converge, and the action begins. H.E. orders Chris to fire Ikem from the National Gazette, on the grounds that he is suspected by the “State Research Council” (security police) of having organized the delegation of protest from Abazon. Chris refuses, but Ikem is removed anyway. He addresses an incandescent student rally at the university, as the Abazon leaders are arrested; incautiously, he answers a question about a rumor that H.E. will put his own head on the coinage with a jest that the ruler is “inciting the people to take his head off.” Next day, the tamed National Gazette leads with the headline: “EX-EDITOR ADVOCATES REGICIDE!” Within hours, Ikem is dead, murdered by security police after a raid on his house. Chris manages to gather a few foreign correspondents in order to tell them the truth, then goes into hiding. A few days later, in ragged disguise, he boards a bus heading for the North and the arid, rebellious province of Abazon.

A bus! Chris Oriko has not ridden a bus since before he left for Britain as a student. The people he meets in the office, at cocktail parties, at any gathering of the elite have no idea what it means to travel on a bus. This becomes Chris’s own pilgrimage to the people, a liberation from the “Mercedes class” registered by Achebe in one of those curious, spreading, raftlike sentences he uses—much as Tolstoy used them—to describe a change in the heart:

Now, as the overwhelming force of this simple, always-taken-in-vain reality impinged on each of Chris’s five, or was it six, senses even as hordes of flying insects after the first rain bombard street lamps, the ensuing knowledge seeped through every pore in his skin into the core of his being continuing the transformation, already in process, of the man he was.

But this is also the journey of Chris Oriko to his own death. On the borders of Abazon, the bus is stopped by a drunken mob celebrating news on the radio from the capital: there has been another coup d’état and Sam, “His Excellency,” has been kidnapped. His chief of staff proclaims with unconvincing outrage that the abductors will be found, but it is “H.E.” who is soon found in a shallow grave. Chris never learns this. Attempting to save a young girl in the crowd from a police sergeant bent on rape, he is shot dead.

In their very different ways, the three boys from Lord Lugard College have all expiated the sin that two of them recognized but one did not: that “failure to reestablish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed.” The three murders, senseless as they are, represent the departure of a generation that compromised its own enlightenment for the sake of power—even the power of bold opposition enjoyed by Ikem Osodi. They are succeeded by altogether cruder and less inhibited men: the inner, African danger that they all underestimated. One character remarks:

The English have, for all practical purposes, ceased to menace the world. The real danger today is from that fat, adolescent and delinquent millionaire, America, and from all those virulent, misshapen freaks like Amin and Bokassa sired on Africa by Europe. Particularly those ones.

It is the courage of this complex novel to cast Africans, even in this wretched decade, always as subjects and never as the objects of external forces. It is a tale about responsibility, and the ways in which men who should know better betray and evade that responsibility. Women, in Achebe’s novel, do not betray. Not only the figure of Beatrice Okoh but the main female characters here show a “priestess-like” strength and calm. They endure, angrily enough, the “Desdemona complex” that tempts their men to make fools of themselves with white women; they are the bearers of traditional morals and perceptions to which they coax their erratic, ambitious men to return. They pick up the pieces after male disasters. They are left to mourn.

And yet this is neither a solemn work nor an entirely pessimistic one. It has wonderful satiric moments and resounds with big African laughter. Legend and tradition have their places here, as characters recount old myths of creation or new parables about the abuses of power. The question of how deep and lasting are the wounds to the “heart of the people” is left open. But Achebe emphasizes that the strength of the human race is its unpredictability: “man’s stubborn antibody called surprise. Man will surprise by his capacity for nobility as well as for villainy.”

All that can be done is to understand what cannot be done, that all total solutions fail and that therefore “we may accept a limitation on our actions but never, under no circumstances, must we accept restriction on our thinking.”

That is the conclusion of a young student leader, at a gathering to mourn Ikem and to give a name (Amaechina: may-the-path-never-close) to his fatherless baby. Ikem himself, with Chinua Achebe perhaps speaking through him, has already found his way to the humility of liberalism. “Experience and intelligence,” he says, “warn us that man’s progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it.”

This Issue

March 3, 1988