The conflict in the play, set in Nigeria in the 1950s, is between indigenous tribal tradition and western modernity. This is a period in which countries in Africa were achieving their independence from colonial rule and were faced with choices and pressures about how to develop.
The play's schoolteacher Lakunle represents the West (European and other "modern" countries). He wears a modern western suit and believes the villagers need to adopt Western educational objectives and Western ways. He believes in progress and feels his fellow countryman need to leave tribal customs behind if they are going to make it in the modern world.
Baroka, the village chief, represents the traditional tribal culture. His power lies in that culture, and he is comfortable in it. He resists the changes Lakunle wishes to bring to the community. He is a wise older man who does not necessarily see change as improvement.
Lakunle is not as progressive as he might think, showing the way tribal culture influenced even Nigerians who thought they were modern and progressive. For example, he thinks of women as property. Nevertheless, he well represents the embrace of the new that was causing upheaval in village life in his time period.