Anthills of the Savannah

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

With the publication of Anthills of the Savannah, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe ended his silence as a novelist, which began just after A Man of the People (1966) appeared more than twenty years previously. During this interim, he published poetry, short stories, essays, juvenile literature, and a critical treatise on Nigeria and taught on university campuses both in Africa and in the United States. Author of probably the most widely read African novel ever written (Things Fall Apart, 1958), Achebe has been mentioned as a candidate to follow in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, Wole Soyinka, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Achebe’s novels have always focused on the impact of British colonialism on the native cultures of Africa. Particularly in his earlier works, he attempted to correct the Western image of precolonial Africa as the “heart of darkness”; he has repeatedly underlined his role as educator in his essays: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels . . . did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” The setting of Anthills of the Savannah is the Westernized, postcolonial African state of Kangan. Yet the aura of Africa’s past dignity and wisdom is incarnate in the leader of a delegation from the province of Abazon who has come to Bassa, the capital city, to plead for help for his drought-ridden land. He supplies the central motif and title for a speech later given by one of the main characters to a group of university students. In the relationship between this Anglicized African and the tribal elder, Achebe illustrates that truth is not the exclusive possession of one civilization. As the tribal elder expresses it, “What is true comes in different robes.”

Shortly after A Man of the People was published in early 1966, a group of Nigerian army officers turned the vision of the novel into reality by wresting control of the state away from the civilian politicians. Anthills of the Savannah is a fictional reflection of the next tragic act in this political drama. At the outset of the novel, the government of a military strongman has already entered into a critical stage. Rumors of corruption run rampant, and the chief of the secret police and the army chief of staff have become the chief of state’s most trusted advisers—an access enjoyed earlier by Chris Oriko, the Minister of Information, and Ikem Osodi, a poet, political thinker, and editor of the national newspaper. The friendship of the latter two men with His Excellency, or “Sam,” as they knew him earlier in their lives, reaches back to their days as schoolmates in an English preparatory school. All subsequently received their higher education in Great Britain. After a military coup thrust Sam into the position of head of state, Chris returned to help him form a new government in Kangan. While Chris has since continued to advise his old friend on matters of state according to his own convictions, Sam has become increasingly autocratic and dependent on advisers anxious only to reflect his fears and suspicions. Ikem has stubbornly refused to betray his own social conscience in his editorials; finally, he becomes an unbearable thorn in the side of the fragile tyranny. Most important, neither Chris nor Ikem had given Sam their support in a postcoup plebescite held prior to the events of the novel and designed to elect him President for Life. This lack of support triggers the mistrust in Sam’s mind and brings the events of the novel proper in its wake.

At the outset of the novel, Achebe plunges the reader directly into an argument between Chris and Sam taking place at a cabinet meeting of government ministers. Only gradually during the course of the first few chapters does he fill in the background information necessary to comprehend all the implications of this initial scene. This exposition of past events occurs in a skillfully orchestrated variety of modes—through first- as well as third-person narration, dialogue, and the inner monologue of memory and reminiscence. By giving each of the four figures a share in narrating the situation from a personal vantage point, Achebe achieves what Ikem calls at one point “the very stuff of life,” a richly complex fictional reality filled with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in everyday reality. For Achebe and his alter ego in the novel, who calls on Walt Whitman as a poet-witness to the multitude of perspectives even within the individual, orthodoxy or lack of contradiction is anathema to political thought and art.

Sam’s rule over Kangan is fatally flawed precisely because it demands confirmation and forbids contradiction. His training as a military officer at Sandhurst has blinded him to compromise and taught him to perceive in the absolute terms of a tyrant. In his mind, the longtime loyalty of his two friends seems to be evolving into treason. A native son of Abazon—the only province unsupportive of Sam’s campaign for the title President for Life—Ikem appears particularly suspect when a noisy delegation from the province appears outside the council chamber. Fearing the beginnings of an insurrection, Sam leaves the chamber and seeks private council from the obsequious Professor Okong. Depicted as an opportunist and clown, Okong nevertheless possesses the acute sensitivity of the court lackey for saying what may be only at an unconscious level in the mind of...

(The entire section is 2275 words.)