Many critics and readers of Anthills of the Savannah are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end of the novel. Three of the novel's four main characters have died senseless deaths, and the country is left in the throes of instability. Free of one military regime, it faces another, with no reason to believe that this one will be any better than the last two. Even so, Achebe weaves a story that is not completely devoid of optimism; there are elements of hope and unity, but the reader, like the people of Kangan, must search for them. There is a subtle spirituality running through the novel, and Achebe seems to suggest that the spirit of the people cannot be defeated, even by a series of dictators and corrupt governments. This enduring spirit is what binds the people together and maintains a sense of community that offers the weary Kangans a degree of stability and buoyancy.
Achebe is the son of a missionary and has spent much of his life in Western cultures. Therefore, he is fully aware of the significance of the number three to the Christian belief system, and he uses it twice in Anthills of the Savannah. There are three male figures who dominate the novel: the dictator, Sam; the editor, Ikem; and the Commissioner of Information, Chris. The three men met in their early teenage years while attending the same school, yet each took a very different path in adulthood. They came from similar backgrounds, which illustrates that predicting the course of a person's life is not a simple task: tossing three seeds in the same soil may result in three differing plants. Achebe's group of three main characters do not represent religious figures, but they are three aspects of the same entity, and therefore comprise a sort of trinity. They make up a political system that will not work and is destined to fail. Sam represents power driven by self-interest. Ikem represents the desire for reform. He is outspoken and admired by the people, and prefers to do things his way without compromising. Chris represents efforts to work for good within the system. He is a good man in a bad regime, and he is idealistic enough to believe that by staying in the government he can serve his people. By the end, of course, the regime has been toppled, replaced by another that will surely be just like it. When a system dies, so do its components, and as representatives of different aspects of the failed system, each of the three men is killed—Sam by another just like him, Ikem by his own peers, and Chris by an evil man who would rather murder than behave honorably.
The story also contains a female trinity in the characters of Beatrice, Elewa, and Amaechina. Beatrice is well-educated, sophisticated, and independent, and she holds an administrative position in the government. Beatrice represents the positive aspects of the present. Elewa is a common woman who is highly emotional and uneducated. She supports herself by working in a small shop. Elewa represents the past. Amaechina is Elewa's infant daughter, and although she does not appear until the end of the novel, she is potential embodied. As Ikem's daughter, she represents the meaning of her name, ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ She is hope for the future, even though the future currently looks grim.
Beatrice and Elewa do not seem to have much in common, and readers may be surprised by their friendship. Their commitment to each other, however, is undeniable. Upon receiving the news of Chris's death,...
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Beatrice is in complete shock. Achebe wrote, ‘‘In spite of her toughness Beatrice actually fared worse than Elewa in the first shock of bereavement. For weeks she sprawled in total devastation. Then one morning she rose up, as it were, and distanced herself from her thoughts. It was the morning of Elewa's threatened miscarriage. From that day she addressed herself to the well-being of the young woman through the remaining weeks to her confinement.’’ Despite their differences, Beatrice and Elewa have a few important qualities in common, most notably that they have lost the men they loved deeply yet remain connected to each other and to the spirit of the community.
Amaechina's naming ceremony is significant because it demonstrates the women's unwillingness to allow tradition to die simply because the father is not present to conduct the ritual. Beatrice resists the trappings of ceremony and takes the place that would normally be filled by a man, that of naming the infant. When Elewa's drunk uncle witnesses this, he responds not by reprimanding the women but by cheering for them. He says, ‘‘Do you know why I am laughing like this? I am laughing because in you young people our world has met its match. Yes! You have put the world where it should sit.… You gather in this … house and give the girl a boy's name.… That is how to handle the world!’’ The women signify the refusal to let go of the traditions so critical to their culture and in doing so they honor their heritage and maintain a meaningful link to the spirit of the people.
Beatrice is the novel's single most spiritual character. Achebe identifies her strongly with the goddess Idemili, who was sent to Earth by the Almighty to moderate Power. When the Almighty saw how Power was raging across the Earth, he decided to send Idemili ‘‘to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping around Power's rude waist a loincloth of peace and modesty.’’ She was sent to Earth in a Pillar of Water connecting heaven and earth and has been worshipped ever since. On the night Ikem visits Beatrice and they discuss his newfound respect for the important role women should be given in society, Ikem tells her that it was not raining at his house but that when he started out to see her, it ‘‘was literally like barging into a pillar of rain’’—a clear reference to the goddess. In another scene, Beatrice is summoned to the palace for a dinner. As the evening progresses, she notices that an American reporter is becoming overly familiar and suggestive with Sam. Although Beatrice is not an admirer of Sam's, she is a patriot to her country and cannot stand to see its leader the object of such shameless overtures by a foreigner. In order to avert his attention, she throws herself at him, dancing with him ‘‘like the dancer in a Hindu temple.’’ Once Sam is fully aroused and no longer thinking of the reporter, Beatrice leads him outside and explains her actions to him. Sam calls her a racist and sends her home immediately. This scene shows that Beatrice, like Idemili, is compelled to uphold peace and morality by wrapping a loincloth, so to speak, around Power's rude waist.
There are other, more subtle clues that Beatrice is much more than an everyday government employee or citizen of Kangan. The name Beatrice comes from the Latin root ‘‘beatus’’ meaning ‘‘happy,’’ from the past participle ‘‘beare,’’ meaning ‘‘to bless.’’ Other words with these roots are ‘‘beatify,’’ ‘‘beatific,’’ and ‘‘beatitudes,’’ all related to blessedness and joy. Beatrice is known by this name, not the name her father gave her, Nwanyibuife, meaning ‘‘A Woman Is Also Something.’’ Another well-known Beatrice in literature is Dante's guide through heaven in Paradiso, the last of the three books in his Divine Comedy. As Achebe's Beatrice grows into the fullness of her identity, she acquires wisdom and a presence that commands respect. Her experiences have shown her that the real strength of her people is in their unity and enduring spirit because these are not crushed, even when the land is ravaged by political instability and social upheaval.
Chris comes to grasp the spirit of his community when he embarks on his bus trip to Abazon. Although the purpose of the trip is his flight to safety, he finds himself reconnecting with the people who have committed to helping him. Looking out the bus window, he has the opportunity to revisit the landscape that was so distant to him from the capitol building where he worked. His experiences help him realize that Beatrice was right about his alienation from his own people, and as he reaches into the deep reservoirs of his own culture, he finds that he is on a journey of self-discovery. In his heritage, he begins to find himself. As Chris comes to realize that Bassa is far removed from the rest of Kangan, ‘‘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.’’ Failing to undergo such a reconnection with the land, or even to accept that he was disconnected, was Sam's undoing. By reaching for something so fleeting and fickle as power, he was doomed.
One of the most striking features of the landscape, Chris notices, is the anthills. Achebe offers little guidance as to the significance of the anthills, although the title suggests that they symbolize an idea at the core of the novel's message. Anthills survive the droughts every year, and when fires sweep across the savannah, they are often all that is left on the scorched landscape. To many critics, the anthills represent survival when faced with the harshest of circumstances. Their presence suggests an ongoing life force that endures in the face of the knowledge that another fire is inevitable. For these reasons, the anthills are a fitting symbol for the enduring spirit of the people and their culture.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bussey holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.
When Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah in 1987, it was his first new novel in more than twenty years. During that time, Nigeria had been governed by a succession of corrupt and greedy rulers, and Achebe had dedicated himself to political activism rather than to his writing. Still, he continued to consider the role of the writer in a nation under severe stress. What might be the best way for a writer to work for change? How should an African writer—or any African—balance the uses of the traditional and the modern, the local and the international, in his work? By populating Anthills of the Savannah with a variety of writers, readers, and speakers, Achebe looks at these questions from different angles.
Early in the novel, Achebe sets up a distinction between those who take their direction from literature—either oral or written—and those who pay too much heed to other forms of communication, including print and broadcast journalism. (It is intriguing to speculate on how the availability of the internet would have changed Ikem's crusade, had Achebe written twenty years later.) What emerges is not a strict opposition; the novel is not making a case for old ways over new, or art over objectivity. Nations and individuals must learn to combine old and new, to find a place for adapted tradition in the modern world. But the novel warns against the over-reliance on the so-called truth and objectivity of news, and against making important decisions based upon how the media will describe them.
His Excellency the Head of State is the first to demonstrate his concern for his public image, for how his actions will be reported. In the second chapter he worries that demonstrators might lead Kangan to an episode like the Entebbe Raid, in which Israeli soldiers descended swiftly on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, to free French hostages. The president tells Professor Okong that he does not rely on his advisors, because if disaster happens he will be the only one blamed: ‘‘Yes, it is me. General Big Mouth, they will say, and print my picture on the cover of Time magazine with a big mouth and a small head.’’ There is, of course, other evidence that the president is not fit to govern a country, but the fact that he is more concerned with how he appears to the outside world than with how his own citizens perceive him is emblematic of his rule. The president is far removed from his people, more concerned with being seen by outsiders as a powerful figure than with actually being one.
Though the president does not perceive how the international news media, and his desire to look good for them, influences him, he has (or thinks he has) a clear sense of how to use the press to manipulate others. He sends Okong to meet with the Abazon delegation, rather than speaking directly with them himself, but he believes he can appease them by giving them a moment of celebrity. He tells Okong, ‘‘Before you go, ask the Commissioner for Information to send a reporter across; and the Chief of Protocol to detail one of the State House photographers to take your picture shaking hands with the leader of the delegation.’’ The president has no intention of heeding the Abazon request, and he orders Okong to ‘‘make sure that nothing about petitions gets into the papers.… This is a goodwill visit pure and simple.’’ The reporter and the photographer are only for show, to make the Abazon leader feel important.
The president makes his own decisions based on how he will look in Time magazine, and he expects that others share his motivation. He wants the Abazon delegation to have the illusion of being media celebrities for a moment, because he thinks the illusion will distract them from their duty. But he cannot allow their petition to become public knowledge. Particularly, he warns against television coverage: ‘‘Before you know it everybody will be staging goodwill rallies all over the place so as to appear on television. You know what our people are.’’ The president deludes himself on two counts in this brief speech. Although he is condescending about how ‘‘our people are,’’ he is one of them, as dazzled by the spotlight as he believes them to be. And he appears to have forgotten that he was the one, only minutes before, who labeled the protest a ‘‘goodwill visit.’’ In his mind, the connection with television news has already made the label a fact.
Frequently in Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe presents a scene featuring one of the three old friends, and then in the next scene shows another of the three saying or doing something that echoes the first. When Chris phones Ikem to request the photographer for the goodwill delegation, he also asks to see Ikem's text before it is printed. Ikem protests, in language that echoes the president's earlier complaint: ‘‘You seem to be forgetting something, namely that it is my name and address which is printed at the bottom of page sixteen of the Gazette.’’
Though the language is similar, the concerns of the two men are different. The president is willing to make a dishonorable decision rather than appear foolish in print. Ikem is unwilling to act dishonorably—to have his reporting censored or edited— because he is proud of the name that appears on his work. Both men believe in the power of the press. The president believes that his control of the press can help him shore up his power. Ikem believes that his editorials can help bring the presidency down. As it turns out, both men are wrong.
Achebe demonstrates more than once that being in print or being broadcast is not the same thing as being true or solid or valuable. Although Ikem does his best to tell the truth, Chris as Minister of Information ‘‘owns all the words in this country.’’ Or does he? After Chris has fled Bassa, Emmanuel the university student manages with ‘‘incredible ease’’ to plant a story in the newspaper with a simple anonymous phone call, and Chris is forced to admit that ‘‘the affair put the journalistic profession in Kangan in a very poor light indeed.’’ All of the characters agree that the Voice of America radio broadcasts are not to be trusted, and the women at the president's dinner choose their inappropriate attire based on what they have heard from ‘‘raving American and American-trained preachers on sponsored religious programmes nightly on television.’’
Separate from journalism and propaganda, Achebe considers literature—poetry, fiction, drama, proverbs, and myths. Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice are all readers and writers, sprinkling their conversation with allusions to the Bible or to great Western writers like Graham Greene and Walt Whitman. Beatrice has drawn praise from Ikem for the ‘‘odd short story and poem’’ she has written. Ikem is an admired poet as well as a journalist, and his prose-poem ‘‘Hymn to the Sun’’ is held in higher regard by his friends than all of his crusading editorials. Only Chris, the former editor of the Gazette, does not produce literature (this is only one of the ways that Achebe shows that Chris does not see what is happening around him). Not until he is on the bus heading north and he looks at Ikem's ‘‘Hymn to the Sun’’ again does he begin to learn how to read literature, and to see with the clarity of a writer. The poem reveals ‘‘in details he had not before experienced how the searing accuracy of the poet's eye was primed not on fancy but fact.’’
But even literary writing can be corrupted if the desire for fame overrides the desire to express truth. The most pointed commentary on mass media and its influence is the poetry magazine Reject, edited by Dick in Soho, London. Reject was intended to publish only poetry that had been rejected by other magazines. The editors soon learned that many people were so hungry to appear in print that they were willing to write fake rejection slips to accompany their submissions. Even a magazine designed to offer rejected work cannot be trusted to be genuine.
As he demonstrates in all of his novels, Achebe reveres oral literature and the honest spoken word. Many critics of Anthills of the Savannah have pointed out that the lines spoken in pidgin by various characters of less education often contain the essential wisdom and truth of the culture. Proverbs, snatches of song, and the myth of the priestess Idemili all are presented as demonstrating the goodness and strength of the Kangan people, far removed from the sophisticated upper-class Westernized government officials.
In the often-cited ninth chapter, the Abazon elder honors Ikem for his work on behalf of his people, although he has not read Ikem's writing, ‘‘because I do not know ABC.’’ The elder praises those who ‘‘tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come,’’ and also those who, ‘‘when the struggle is ended … take over and recount its story.’’ With his editorials and his poetry, Ikem is prepared to do both. The elder continues, ‘‘The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way.… But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story.’’
Three chapters later, Ikem delivers his own oration, before a large crowd at the University of Bassa. He has been fired from the newspaper, but follows Beatrice's suggestion that ‘‘if you can't write you can surely get up and talk.’’ Like the Abazon elder, whose voice has ‘‘such compelling power and magic’’ that everyone is captivated, Ikem gives a speech that is ‘‘so powerfully spoken it took on the nature and scope of an epic prose-poem.’’ It is this oral presentation, far more than anything he has ever written in the Gazette, that moves the government to silence him.
Throughout the novel, Ikem is the one among the three old friends who has retained the most of his youthful idealism and vision; the two others are played off him. Like the president, Ikem respects the power of the media, and is aware of his role in the spotlight. Although he has some of the president' s sense of self-importance, Ikem tries to use his public forum for the greater good. Like Chris before him, Ikem is editor of the Gazette, and like Chris he initially approaches the job with no strong political conviction. But Ikem is politicized when he goes to watch a public execution, something Chris never did. Not until the end does Chris begin to see with ‘‘the poet's eye.’’ Ikem has a better perspective on the media than the president does, he is a more effective journalist than Chris was, and he is a better poet than Beatrice. Ikem and the others face similar choices, but Ikem chooses the most nobly. This idea is reinforced by the novel's references to journalism and literature. He combines the best qualities of the other two, but in the end all three die.
Anthills of the Savannah is not a repudiation of journalism or of the notion of objectivity. Instead, Achebe calls for balance. Ikem writes dozens of impassioned editorials, but it is finally through his prose-poem that he connects with Chris, and through his speech that he poses a threat to the president. If Kangan is ever to be a just nation, its rulers and its people must combine old and new, objective and subjective, editorials and poetry. They must use both their heads and their hearts. The precise combination is beyond Achebe's ken to describe. As Ikem shouts to his audience, ‘‘Writers don't give prescriptions.… They give headaches!’’
Source: Cynthia Bily, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.
In ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ a story he wrote seventeen years ago Chinua Achebe noted how the violence of civil war inevitably outlives the actual conflict, and barely pausing for breath, extends itself into peacetime. As a band of thieves threatens the protagonist's family with automatic rifles, the leader dwells for a moment on this fine distinction:
Awrighto. Now make we talk business. We no be bad tief. We no like for make trouble. Trouble done finish. War done finish and all the katakata wey de for inside. No Civil War again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?
Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe's first major novel since Things Fall Apart appeared thirty years ago, unfolds against a similarly euphemistic backdrop of civil peace. The setting is the West African nation of Kangan, a fictional cousin to Achebe's own Nigeria. During the last two years, Kangan has witnessed a scenario of depressing familiarity: a revolution against the civilian government, followed by the rule of an ‘‘interim’’ military government, whose leader soon undergoes a transformation into President-for-Life, First Citizen, His Excellency or whatever job title happens to be in fashion among sitting tyrants. In this case, the aspiring kingpin—a product of Sandhurst Military Academy named Sam—has recently been frustrated in his ambitions. The northern province of Abazon has failed to cast its vote in his favor, spoiling his ‘‘unanimous’’ election. In return, he has refused to provide relief to the drought-stricken province.
In the novel's opening scene, Sam reaffirms his refusal during a meeting of the Cabinet, an assortment of toadies and flacks whose tone Achebe catches perfectly. The meeting is recorded by one of Achebe's multiple narrators, Chris Oriko, Commissioner for Information. A boyhood friend of Sam's, Chris can't help but approach him irreverently; he's also conscious of how rapidly the regime's malevolence has accelerated, ‘‘a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous.’’ Why, then, does he remain in the Cabinet? Inertia, he speculates, curiosity and ‘‘one last factor … namely that I couldn't be writing this if I didn't hang around to observe it all. And no one else would.’’
His reportorial instincts notwithstanding, Chris is an insider, with an intelligence faintly poisoned by accommodation. The opposite is true of his old friend Ikem Osodi, poet and current editor of the government-owned National Gazette. Osodi continues to fight the regime via the editorial page. When a perplexed Chris remonstrates with him, Ikem replies, ‘‘But supposing my crusading editorials were indeed futile would I not be obliged to keep on writing them?’’ This argument—pragmatism versus idealism—resounds throughout the novel, and not unexpectedly, idealism gets the best lines. Defending his activities on the basis of principle, rather than results, Ikem won't dwell on the ‘‘many successes [his] militant editorials have had.’’ Hard facts, he insists, are beside the point:
Those who mismanage our affairs would silence our criticism by pretending they have facts not available to the rest of us. And I know it is fatal to engage them on their own ground. Our best weapon against them is not to marshal facts, of which they are truly managers, but passion. Passion is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.
The two friends' argument over how to respond best to a loathsome regime is complicated by one of that regime's most loathsome features: its constant, theatrical dissembling—government by euphemism. Ikem notes how Sam has turned his rule into a species of performance: ‘‘He 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.’’ (It's a performance, too, that American readers can't fail to recognize in the eighth year of the age of Reagan.) With an actor, albeit a dangerous one, at the helm of state, the language of state quickly degenerates. Sam is simply the latest version of Auden's Ogre, for whom ‘‘one prize is beyond his reach, / The Ogre cannot master Speech.’’
Achebe passionately opposes this debasement of words by politics, turning upon it all his wit and disgust. ‘‘The story,’’ an Abazon tribesman tells Ikem, ‘‘is our escort; without it, we are blind.’’ But can any quality of language suffice to oppose the linguistic rot that calls Kangan' s head torturer ‘‘Director of the State Research Council’’? Achebe can answer this question only obliquely, by placing his book in our hands. In the story itself, Ikem meets his death at the hands of that very same Research Council. (In Idi Amin's Uganda, the state slaughterhouse bore a nearly identical title, the State Research Bureau. And in fact, the account of Wycliffe Kato's incarceration there, published in a recent issue of Granta, would fit seamlessly into Achebe's novel.)
Of course, opposing a tyranny, or even enduring it, involves more than precision of language. At the same time as it records Ikem's and Chris's fall from political grace, Anthills of the Savannah chronicles their rising consciousness, with respect to both women and that ticklish entity, ‘‘the people.’’ Both men begin the novel with conspicuously retrograde attitudes toward women. The agent of their enlightenment, and the novel's third major character/narrator, is one Beatrice Okoh, raised in an Anglican compound, educated at the University of London and now a middle-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance. Beatrice senses Ikim's sexism as ‘‘the only chink in his revolutionary armor.’’ And under her prodding, Ikem finally comes around, recanting his ‘‘candid chauvinism’’ in a four-page-long apologia. Indeed, after confessing his crimes against the female principle Ikem widens his focus to all oppressed groups. ‘‘Free people may be alike everywhere in their freedom,'' he tells Beatrice, ''but the oppressed inhabit each their own particular hell.’’
A fine epigraph. But Achebe's feminism, entirely laudable, doesn't always translate effectively into fiction. In particular, he has resorted throughout to presenting Beatrice as an embodiment of feminine wisdom, ‘‘the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen.’’ Perhaps her divinity would sit easier if she were as fleshed-out a character as the two men. Instead, the fuzziness of her portrait conspires with her divinity to keep her symbolic. Yet Achebe is too gifted a novelist to let this mutation take place. He gives Beatrice passion, fear, grief. Still, it's the only element of the novel in which polemic, or even its twin, sentimentality, threatens to displace flesh and blood.
No such problems mar Achebe's treatment of the other target of raised consciousness, the ‘‘people.’’ For one thing, he gives them voice throughout Anthills of the Savannah by turning again and again to the sprung rhythms of the local patois. (An example, in which a policeman offers his solution to Kangan's problems: ‘‘Make every man, woman and child and even those them never born, make everybody collect twenty manilla each and bring to me and I go take am go England and negotiate with IMF to bring white man back to Kangan.’’) Even Chris, Ikem and Beatrice shed their formal speech during moments of intimacy or stress, temporarily lowering the barriers of class and education.
For Ikem, though, these temporary connections aren't enough. How can a writer, in particular, forge a deeper bond with ‘‘the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation's being’’? Ikem's compassion for this ‘‘bruised heart’’ is genuine and convincing. It doesn't shield him, however, from the appalling contradictions housed in its chambers. In a brilliant scene, Ikem attends a public execution on a beach near the capital city. A television crew and a bleacher full of V.I.P.s have joined the vast crowd to observe the ‘‘ritual obscenities.’’ As he waits for hours in the hot sun, Ikem peers at the crowd around him and wonders at its stamina. ‘‘How,’’ he wonders, ‘‘does the poor man retain his calm in the face of such provocation?’’ Answering his own question, he decides that ‘‘great good humour’’ must explain it. Minutes later, though, he sees the thousands of onlookers jeer as the four condemned men are led out and shot. The terrible laughter—no longer a subversive tool of survival—strikes Ikem as a form of self-mutilation:
But even the poor man can forget what his humour is about and become altogether too humorous in his suffering. That afternoon he was punished most dreadfully at the beach and he laughed to his pink gums and I listened painfully for the slightest clink of the concealed weapon in the voluminous folds of that laughter. And I didn't hear it.
Ikem's reaction joins disgust, pity, terror, disappointment; characteristically, it doesn't bar hope. The same can be said for Achebe himself. Anthills of the Savannah describes a truly dreary historical moment, in which monstrous halfwits wield the instruments of survival and destruction, the ‘‘yam and the knife.’’ Yet Achebe establishes hope as a given, as the only conceivable response to suffering, the only one that challenges its permanence. It's a courageous act, urging such a thing upon us—neither pessimism nor optimism but a running argument with despair. And one worth waiting thirty years for.
Source: James Marcus, ‘‘Anthills of the Savannah,’’ in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 15, April 16, 1988, p. 540.