Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1832
Most of the major characters are highly educated young male ‘‘Kangans’’ who reflect on the condition of their country even as they are caught up in the ambivalence of living in or working for a corrupt regime.
Most are given a section of the novel to narrate, or one that is communicated through their viewpoints with the help of the narrator or another character, so that we see the action in their successive views, none of which is totally reliable. The ‘‘First Witness,’’ as the chapter title tells us, is Christopher Oriko, Commissioner for Information, who has been the editor of the National Gazette and is a graduate of the London School of Economics. Rather like Odili in the prior political novel, he is at first in an ambivalent position about the leader, and keeps an uneasy surveillance over his friend and old schoolmate, Ikem Osodi, the journalist, and now editor of the Gazette, who is the ‘‘Second Witness.’’ (The epithet suggests a trial or courtroom, and also adds a sort of historical/biblical view of the action, as if to suggest that history is both being made and judged.) Chris is worried about the condition of the country, where starving citizens of the drought-stricken Abazon region are forced to send a ‘‘good will’’ delegation to the capitol in order to alert the military government of their obviously already dire circumstances. As the book opens, the unctuous Attorney General is brown nosing ‘‘His Excellency,’’ the head of the military government, by undermining Chris, yet the comments of this sycophant do reveal some accurate information about Chris—that he is squirming under the role of information controller for the dictator, whose latest lie is to present the drought as ‘‘fine’’ weather in national broadcasts. Through much of the novel, Chris tries to see events coolly, even when they demand an entirely different response. Chris has chosen many of the members of the cabinet, yet questions his own motives for ‘‘hanging around,’’ finally citing his role as an observer and writer as justification. Chris loves Beatrice, and the section titled with her name reveals him to be self-centered and somewhat self-serving, although genuinely concerned with the problems of his troubled country. When he becomes a political outcast, she is instrumental in making him a more sensitive, self-critical, and open person, willing to listen and talk to less privileged people. Partly thanks to her, he moves from a more detached role, making sure that Ikem's murder is given accurate press.
Ikem, himself an Abazonian, and also a poet, now editor of the Gazette, and a graduate of the London School of Economics, is both more passionate and yet more selfish than his counterpart. A slightly built man, he is in some ways the most courageous of this group of concerned men in the cabinet of the dictator. He is deeply aware of his country's problems and frequently goes against the advice of Chris and the will of Sam, now ‘‘His Excellency.’’ He writes an editorial against public executions and befriends the Abazonian delegation. Ikem's critical eye and satiric ability are acute, yet his involvement with the goings on around him and with people appears limited because he is often an observer and a controlling personality. This trait is underscored in his relationship with Elewa, an uneducated woman who fascinates him. She is his symbolic touchstone with the people, yet he forces her to leave his apartment every night after they have made love, pretending that he does so to protect her reputation (her response to this lie, rendered in pidgin, is noteworthy). Ikem expresses his feelings about what is happening in the country in his speeches at Bassa University, in his editorials, and in his ‘‘Hymn to the Sun,’’ his poetic vision of unbridled masculine power, destruction, and drought and their human toll.
Although there are twelve cabinet members, only a few are described fully and some aren't named. Members less concerned about the country and more out to aggrandize themselves are Reginald Okong, Commissioner for Home Affairs, and the dictator himself, Samson. Okong is described by Ikem as a Rasputin, and by Chris as a man with ‘‘no sense of political morality.’’ He has become a Baptist Minister, ordained in America. He has fooled the Americans into thinking he has had more schooling in his native country than he has, has worked his way through a junior college by preaching and wrestling, earns a Ph.D., and much to the chagrin of his Baptist American mentors, he escapes back to Africa. He writes a column for the Gazette, ‘‘String Along with Reggie Okong’’; he is a cliché monger who is also an expert at changing his political spots. Ikem has criticized Chris for letting Okong run the column. Sam sees Okong as an example of crazy ideas the white man has left behind after colonizing Africa. Okong disparages Ikem in front of Sam, but uses too many proverbs, incurring Sam's mistrust.
Sam's background and grooming for the position of dictator is extensively described by a variety of characters. Ikem thinks at first that he will be all right if given the right advice. Mad Medico, the only British member of the cabinet (and whom Sam has once rescued from deportation), tells Beatrice that Sam used to be a nice person, ‘‘morally and intellectually intact,’’ and shares with his male counterparts at a cocktail party a story about Sam's sex life with a particularly aggressive white British girl. (Chris has already told the story to Beatrice in bed.) The story at first seems added for humor, but it fits in profoundly with Sam's penchant for things British, and his tendency not only to be overly impressed with white people and the British but to imitate them. Chris tells us that he is not very bright and completely tone deaf, suggesting his imperviousness to nuance. But the defect has not been an obstacle in his imitation of British speech, which he has mastered. He has entered the military to be a ‘‘gentleman,’’ but is also a born actor. Ikem rationalizes that he is better than most African tyrants, yet notices that he is withdrawing from the cabinet members to ‘‘perfect his act.’’ In many ways, however, Sam's act is being dictated to him by exactly those tyrants who have gone back to England. His later lynching by his own people is in sharp contrast to the Biblical Samson's death by destroying the Philistines.
Mad Medico is the one British cabinet official who is Minister of Health and Director of Administration at the Bassa General Hospital. He loves Kangan and sees in it an escape from British stuffiness. He has made two ‘‘mistakes’’ that have almost gotten him deported, one his censure of the greedy doctor Ofe, who lets a man suffer and die in the hospital because he cannot pay, and the other putting up signs over the entrances to the wards with disturbing double entendres, such as this one over the door to cardiology: ‘‘Blessed are the poor in heart for they shall see God.’’ He justifies himself by saying the Nigerians are illiterate and will not understand such puns as ‘‘Sodom and Gonorrhea" (placed over the venereal disease ward). Imperfect like the others, Mad Medico is linked by his so-called madness to other positive ‘‘mad’’ Achebe characters in previous novels. ‘‘Mad’’ enough to upset his interrogators later in the book, he is summarily deported after being questioned about a regicide plot trumped up against Ikem.
More minor male characters include the British editor of the magazine Reject that as its name implies prints works rejected by other journals, the Attorney General who flatters Sam at the beginning, and the Chief of the secret police, Major Johnson (Samsonite) Ossai, who is promoted to Colonel as the unrest in the Presidential Palace grows and his torture skills are more in demand. As the book progresses we also see other male characters, not prominent in politics, play significant roles. Some of them are the head of the student union at the university, Emmanuel Obete, who stays with Ikem while he too is a fugitive from the police, Braimoh the taxi driver, and Chris's steward, Sebastian. The inclusion of these characters in the latter part of the book indicates that the social world of the protagonists is expanding.
In keeping with such expansion is the more prominent role in this novel given to female characters, not just socially important ones. As other critics have noted, the prominence of Beatrice not merely as a sounding board for male ideas or a feminine principle, but also as one who assumes male powers, as in the naming ceremony at the end, makes this novel more richly human than some previous ones. She is Chris's lover and suffers at first from his detachment. She holds a First Class degree in English from London University. Beatrice is the unwanted last daughter of a Christian father who beats his wife, perhaps because the unfortunate woman has ‘‘failed’’ to produce a son. Her second, African name, Nwanyibuife, is an apology for not being a boy. She is also divided in other ways, for she is seen by the author as in great need of the stories she has been deprived of by Christian conversion. Although her childhood has made her reclusive, she takes on an increasingly active role both with her lover, Chris, and her female friends. As a woman with superior sensitivity, she is seen as an important link with the past she has been deprived of. This link appears to give her unknown power, as when she is lured to a dangerous party (which Chris implies is safe) at the Presidential Retreat and uses her sexuality to thwart both the prejudices and the advances of the dictator. At the party, Sam is falling for a white female American journalist who's had too many drinks, but forces Beatrice to sit on the couch with him. Beatrice lures him away with seductive dancing to avoid the disgrace of being ignored while the white journalist flirts, and just when Sam is coming on strong, refuses to succumb to his advances, thwarting what she has termed a Desdemona complex. Her scheme earns her an instant ride home with Major Ossai as her chauffeur. The next day she has her first major fight with Chris, resolved when he notices how she has suffered.
Beatrice's growth is also marked by her improved relations with Agatha, her servant, whom she at first detests because she is a reborn Christian. She also nurtures the pregnant Elewa after Ikem has been murdered.
Elewa, Ikem's beloved, speaks Pidgin, lacks much formal education, but is beautiful and a wonderful lover. She has a down-to-earth, common sense personality. Although she is occasionally naïve, she is a sort of anchor for Ikem and a link between the elite, British educated characters and the common people. The naming of Ikem and her baby ends the novel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613
A cab driver and family man sympathetic to Chris's plight, he uses his cab to help Chris get out of the city and works with Emmanuel to make the plans to get Chris up north.
One of the passengers on the bus taken by Chris, Emmanuel, and Abdul as they leave Bassa and head north to safety, Adamma is about to be raped when Chris steps in to save her. As a result, Chris is shot and killed, and Adamma returns to Kangan with Emmanuel.
Agatha is Beatrice's flighty, religious, and judgmental house girl. She is a devout Christian who attends services regularly and does not hide her disapproval of Beatrice's allowing Chris into her bed. Beatrice is often impatient and short with Agatha, but as the novel progresses, she begins to feel more compassion for her.
Ikem's pregnant girlfriend, Elewa represents the common people. Unlike Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice, she is semiliterate and works in a shop. She is highly emotional and expressive. Through Elewa, Beatrice comes to understand that coming from humble origins does not necessarily make a person frail or insecure. On the contrary, Elewa's emotional displays belie her resilience and self-confidence.
General Ahmed Lango
General Lango is a duplicitous man who works his way into Sam's inner circle, only to lead the coup that will overthrow and kill him.
Emmanuel is a student who is a leader at his university and a great admirer of Chris. When Chris flees for his life, Emmanuel accompanies him and helps make the complex plans involved in trying to get Chris out of danger. He is also with Chris when he is killed and returns to tell Beatrice of his dignity even at the moment of death. Emmanuel stands in contrast to the typical students described by Ikem during his speech at the university, in which he referred to students and workers as the most derelict in their civic duties. Achebe seems to suggest that Emmanuel will continue Chris's work in encouraging people to think for themselves regardless of environmental hardship.
Chris's fiancee, Beatrice is one of Achebe's most fully developed female characters. She works for Sam and is an old friend of Ikem's, so through her connections to Chris, Ikem, and Sam, she plays a significant role in the action of the novel. She was born the fifth daughter to her parents (one sister has died). Her father had been hoping for a son, so she was named Nwanyibuife, which means ‘‘A Woman Is Also Something.’’ As an adult, Beatrice is well-educated, having earned a degree with honors in English from the University of London, and she holds an important civil service position as an administrator in a state office. She also enjoys writing short fiction, which Ikem reads and admires for its ‘‘muscularity’’ and ‘‘masculine’’ qualities.
Beatrice is characterized by sophistication, intelligence, and independence, but she is also attuned to the common people on an intuitive level. Never having planned on a career in the government, she is very disturbed by accusations that she is ambitious. In reality, she desires what she has desired since childhood—to be left alone in her peaceful solitude and not attract any attention. Achebe places her firmly in the mythic tradition of the people, making her a sort of manifestation of Idemili, a goddess sent to Man to oversee morality. Although Beatrice is unaware of the myths regarding this goddess, she grows into a woman possessed with wisdom, self-knowledge, and compassion as she connects with the culture of her land. At the end of the novel, she participates in the naming ceremony for Ikem and Elewa's baby girl by naming the infant Amaechina, a boy's name meaning ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ This is bold not only because she has given a boy's name to a girl, but also because the responsibility of naming traditionally belongs to a man.
Professor Reginald Okong
A former Baptist minister and political scientist, Professor Okong was one of the first people Chris recommended for Sam's Cabinet. Chris comes to regret this decision, however, when he sees that Okong ‘‘has no sense of political morality.’’
In his youth, Chris attended Lord Lugard College with his friends Ikem and Sam. Even then, he served as the ‘‘buffer’’ and mediator between the athletic and outgoing Sam and the intelligent and pensive Ikem. As adults, the three occupy prominent roles in Kangan's new military regime, and Chris's role as Commissioner for Information again puts him in the position of go-between as Sam and Ikem engage in a contest of wills. Chris stepped down as editor of the National Gazette to accept his position on Sam's Cabinet, after which Ikem became the newspaper's editor. Chris is now Ikem's boss, but he himself reports to Sam, which puts him in the uncomfortable position of trying to get Ikem to comply with Sam's will. Although Chris sees Sam becoming mad with power, he is reluctant to give up his position in the Cabinet. Chris finally asserts himself when Sam orders him to fire Ikem, thus beginning a harrowing series of events. Fleeing for his life, Chris comes into contact with the ‘‘people’’ and begins to understand his country better. Chris is killed trying to save a girl from being raped at a chaotic party, and his last words are, ‘‘The last green.’’ This is a reference to a running joke he, Ikem, and Sam shared in the early days, when they imagined themselves as three green bottles arrogantly situated on a shelf, each bound to fall.
Ikem is the outspoken and reform-minded editor of the state-owned National Gazette, a position that often puts him in conflict with his boyhood friend, Sam, who is the president of Kangan. Part of his duty is to broadcast Sam's messages to the people, which are Sam's way of feeling that he is radiating power from the capitol out to the people. Ikem, on the other hand, believes strongly that the press should be free and independent of government regulation. He and Chris often debate the effectiveness of Ikem's editorials, but Ikem feels that even if they are futile, he should continue publishing them.
Despite the fact that he is a London-educated intellectual, Ikem is very sensitive to the needs of the common people. His editorials are often harsh in their criticism of the new ruling regime, which makes Sam regard him as treacherous. Ikem states that the best weapon against ineffective or unjust governments is not facts, but passion. Unlike Chris, Ikem is an extremist who is not interested in working gradually toward progress and so uses his powerful position as a journalist to call for change. Speaking to a group of students, Ikem discusses the role of the storyteller in depth, insisting that it is the role of the writer to ask questions and make challenges. He concludes his speech to the students by proclaiming, ‘‘Writers don't give prescriptions. They give headaches!’’ Ikem also makes a joke about putting Sam's head on the country's coins, which leads to false reports that Ikem called for the beheading of the president. His fate already orchestrated, Ikem is taken in the night by government secret police and killed. Still, his presence continues to be felt among the people and his friends—a presence strengthened by the fact that he leaves behind a girlfriend close to giving birth to their child.
Major Johnson Ossai
Major Ossai is the head of Sam's security force, the State Research Council (SRC). He is a brutal, menacing, and evil man who calms Sam's insecurities whenever possible. Among his methods of torture is using a simple stapler on the hands of those from whom he needs information.
Sam is the new president of the military regime in power following a coup, a position he holds due in no small part to the efforts of his schoolmates Chris and Ikem. He is described as being very athletic and very charming, having adopted the ways of an English gentleman. Early in the novel, Ikem comments on Sam's ‘‘sense of theatre,’’ adding that Sam ‘‘is basically an actor and half of the things we are inclined to hold against him are no more than scenes from his repertory to which he may have no sense of moral commitment whatsoever.’’ Although he attended the prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Sam is fully aware that he is unprepared for his new government leadership role. However, he soon becomes blinded by power, insisting on being called ‘‘Your Excellency’’ and seeking to be elected ‘‘President for Life.’’ Military school trained Sam and his fellow cadets to remain aloof from political matters, and Sam was, at first, quite terrified in his new role. His solution was to gather together his friends and give some of them government positions from which he could seek their advice. Once he overcame his fear, however, he began to relish his power, becoming extremely upset at even the mildest demonstrations against him.
Chris can see that Sam is now a dictator-in-the-making and considers him a ‘‘baby monster,’’ but Sam is only concerned about securing as much power for himself as he can without interacting with the people of the country. In fact, he is starving a dissident province in hopes of forcing them to comply with his authority. He soon becomes consumed with paranoia, anger, and insecurity, and when his political ambitions are disappointed, he recalls being told how dangerous boyhood friends can be. After he arranges for Ikem's murder and Chris has fled, Sam himself is killed during a coup and buried in a shallow grave.