Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe

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Nigerian corruption has become high tech, mechanized, and institutionalized. The henchmen for the generals in power now have military rank themselves and have been trained in Latin America. Their techniques have been refined: the dreaded Ossai is able to extract confessions by torture done with office staplers, making his predecessors in A Man of the People (1966), Dogo and Boniface, look incompetent and inefficient. At the very opening of the book, there is a public execution of so-called criminals which has drawn huge crowds, children among them; the narrator of that section, Ikem, notes that the
‘‘criminals’’ have just been imitating the behavior of the leaders of the country, who ‘‘openly loot’’ the treasury.

Such looting has also been expanded and refined. The illicitly funded Presidential Retreat, led up to by a road shaped like a spiral (recollective of the Tower of Babel?), and bordered by a huge artificial lake, is Chief Nanga's seven bedroom house. While it is beautiful, Beatrice recalls Ikem's objections, with his reminder that the people do not have clean water to drink. In startling contrast to the Retreat and what it represents is the myth of Idemili told later in the Beatrice section. She, a water/huntress deity and daughter of the sun, has descended in a pillar of water and ‘‘has wrapped around Power's rude waist a loin cloth of peace and modesty,’’ making the River Niger wind through the country to provide the people with water. The Idemili myth is part of the larger theme of the redemptive power of women.

Scams of personal aggrandizement at the expense of the common good are rife even among lesser government workers. Civil servants get their steady checks, doing as little as possible, and insisting on being driven in Mercedes rather than Peugeot.

Radio stations and newspapers, of course, are censored, although Ikem is frequently able to leak the news, and also make speeches, notably the one at the University of Bassa, ‘‘The Tortoise and the Leopard—a political meditation on the imperative of struggle.’’ Yet censorship has changed to outright fabrication and falsification by the end of the novel, when the authorities publicly pretend that they have not murdered Chris and Ikem.

The role of the writer or storyteller, and the crucial role of storytelling, not to just get the story straight, but also to provide an ethical and spiritual reference point for the striving characters and the reader is also a major theme. The two contrasting myths of Idemili and Ikem's ‘‘Hymn to the Sun’’ are both necessary to an understanding of the realities and hopes for Nigeria Achebe wishes to communicate, and the reader, like the characters, is caught up in seeing their relationship to the events. In addition, since all three of the major male characters are writers, the role of writing and speech in politics is continuously examined in the novel. Innes notes that at the beginning, ‘‘effective writing and speech are thought to be the kinds which are directed to those in power,’’ but as the book progresses, it is seen as a tool of self-examination and connection with the larger audience, really whole electorate, the people.

Because women, especially Beatrice, but also the refreshing, down-to-earth pidgin-speaking Elewa, are the custodians of Chris's and Ikem's writings after their deaths, and are connected to storytelling in other ways, they are seen in a more important light than in the earlier novels. This crucial role makes them more than objects of romantic pursuit. Indeed, by the end of the novel, their men have been murdered, and although sadly, they take over center stage.


(This entire section contains 770 words.)

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one theme very prominent in earlier novels seems to have faded somewhat—that of conflict between and sometimes synthesis of religious beliefs, the backdrop of Igbo and Christian critique of the ethical situation in the country is still here. The opening scene with its leader and disciples and aura of betrayal invite comparison and contrast to the Last Supper. Overly literal religious devotion is mocked as in earlier novels; Beatrice's servant girl Agatha is a member of a fundamentalist sect, the Yahweh Evangelical Sabbath Mission, Inc. (or YESMI), whose title implies that the church is on the take as well. She is the female counterpart of the silly Oduchi. On the whole, of course, religion is not overtly practiced by the chief characters, but a spiritual dimension in the guise of both Christian and Igbo stories and legends informs and enhances the action. As Achebe puts it at the beginning of the Idemili chapter: ‘‘That we are surrounded by deep mysteries is known to all but the incurably ignorant.’’


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Overcoming a History of Suffering
The end of the novel offers a little hope but also shows that the political unrest of Kangan cannot be addressed by simple solutions. The people want change and peace but are unsure how to attain a suitable system of government, especially when each successive regime is made up of members of the coup that overthrew the last regime. It is a system driven by sheer might and strength as opposed to justice, philosophy, or respect for the land. The novel also portrays a strong and enduring sense of community among the people, despite the fact that they have no political rights. Achebe suggests that this unity is what keeps the community and its heritage and culture intact even when it is ravaged by unjust political regimes.

Individual Power
In its depiction of Sam, Anthills of the Savannah provides a perfect example of the saying, ''Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’ Unprepared for leadership beyond the military realm, Sam finds himself occupying the position of president of Kangan. Relishing his power, he insists on being called ‘‘Your Excellency’’ and decides that he wants to be elected President-for-Life. At the same time, he makes little effort to connect with the people of Kangan and relies heavily on his Cabinet while simultaneously belittling them. In the end his obsession, paranoia, and insecurity get the better of him, and he goes so far as to have a childhood friend (Ikem) killed because he is perceived as a threat.

At the beginning of the novel, Sam is still a ‘‘baby monster,’’ but as the action unfolds, Sam grows into a full-fledged evil dictator. Achebe shows the dangers of blindly pursuing power at the expense of the community. Sam has no regard for the people he is supposed to be leading, and for that they suffer.

Throughout Anthills of the Savannah there are references to stories, narratives, and the storyteller. Achebe writes that ‘‘the story is everlasting’’ and that ‘‘storytellers are a threat.’’ Three of the novel's main characters are writers: Ikem is a writer and newspaper editor, Beatrice writes short stories, and Chris is a former journalist who left his post as editor of the National Gazette to accept the position of Commissioner of Information. The elder from Abazon speaks at length about the important and lasting role of the storyteller. He argues that in his youth he would have said that the battle was most important, but now that he is older and wiser, he understands that the story is more powerful. Through stories, a community can retain its sense of history and tradition and seek guidance for the future. He explains, ‘‘Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior … The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.’’ Later, as Ikem addresses a group of students, he expresses his belief that the role of the writer is to ask questions, not to propose solutions. Critics have observed that this is perhaps what Achebe is doing with this novel.

The power of writing is shown after Ikem is taken away in the dark of night and killed. To get the truth about the event into public awareness, Chris uses his contacts within the international press as a means of informing the world about what happened to Ikem.

The Role of WomenAnthills of the Savannah is often noted for portraying strong, believable female characters. In the midst of political strife and injustice, the women maintain a connection with their heritage and culture, and stand for moral strength and sensitivity. Ikem converses with Beatrice about his newfound respect for the position and relevance of women in contemporary society. He explains that women are the most oppressed group of people worldwide and that they must be respected as important to the future of a nation.

At the end of the novel, the naming ceremony takes place for Elewa's infant girl. Although men traditionally name children, Beatrice does so in this case. In this scene, Achebe portrays women as the keepers of tradition, even if tradition must be altered to accommodate modern life. To further blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, the baby is given a boy's name that means ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ Many critics have commented that Achebe's portrayal of women in Anthills of the Savannah suggests that they are critical in the growth of new African societies.