‘Anthills of the Savannah’ by Chinua Achebe

February 7, 1988

Editor’s note: This review originally ran on Feb. 7, 1988

The novels of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe present an essential guide to colonial African history and to the tragic characters this history of mutual misunderstanding has created. Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe’s first novel in more than 20 years, continues his exploration and condemnation of political corruption in post-colonial Africa, an Africa that is the product of (though not excused by) its past.

Achebe’s first novel, “Things Fall Apart” (1958), portrayed the downfall of Obi Okonkwo, a village leader who opposes the erosion of traditional Igbo society by the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century; his second, “No Longer at Ease” (1960), internalized this collision of cultures in Okonkwo’s grandson, who in the 1950s is sent to study in England and returns home to a civil-service job, where he finds his newly acquired Western individualism in conflict with his village’s demands that he give preferential treatment to his own tribesmen. “Arrow of God” (1964) steps back a few decades to present the shift from direct to indirect colonial rule by way of a complex, multi-layered study of a traditional priest struggling to consolidate his power and a British administrator, who are thrown into an alliance neither fully understands. And “A Man of the People” (1966) sardonically explores political cynicism and corruption through two political rivals, an idealistic schoolmaster and a popular despot, in a newly-independent West African country.

The post-colonial world of “Anthills of the Savannah” is a world like that of “A Man of the People.” The novel is set in “a backward West African state called Kangan,” and concerns three English-educated friends who, after a military coup, abruptly find themselves in the roles of president, commissioner of information and editor of the nation’s principal newspaper -- and friends no longer.

His Excellency, called Sam by his old classmates Chris Oriko and Ikem Osodi, has surrounded himself with a ludicrous executive council, “a solid wall of court jesters,” one of whom, the attorney-general, proclaims, “We have no problem worshipping a man like you.” He insinuates that Chris, the commissioner for information, is not “one hundred percent behind you.” Added to Sam’s fear of betrayal is his anger at the failure of Abazon Province, the home of his classmate Ikem, to approve a referendum to make him president-for-life. And now, as the novel opens, a delegation from a village in the province has come to demand help for their drought-stricken land. “Your greatest risk,” says the Attorney-General, “is your boyhood friends, those who grew up with you in your village.”


’Anthills of the Savannah’ by Chinua Achebe (Anchor)

And how true this is, for Ikem, now editor of The National Gazette, is a crusading poet-journalist who, in scathing editorials, opposes the circus-like public executions in Kangan as well as Sam’s personal bids for deification by having his face placed on the national currency. He is also Achebe’s alter-ego, believing that “a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy.” Ikem longs for union “with earth and earth’s people.” His love of truth and people transcends political ideology, and he becomes a popular hero among students after Sam dismisses him from the Gazette. In a speech at the University of Bassa, his passion rises to the level of poetry:

“You must learn for a start to hold your own student leaders to responsible performances; only after you have done that can you have the moral authority to lecture national leadership . . . I see too much parroting, too much regurgitation of half-digested radical rhetoric . . . Revolutions are betrayed just as much by stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate actions as by doing nothing at all.”

DURING THIS speech Ikem severely criticizes His Excellency. Sam retaliates by making him and the Abazon delegation scapegoats for all Kangan’s ills, then has Ikem arrested. His “accidental death” follows. Chris, his lover Beatrice Okoh, a secretary in the Ministry of Finance, and Ikem’s pregnant lover Elewa, know their incarceration is next. As Chris goes into hiding, hoping to escape to Abazon Province, Achebe’s novel achieves nearly unbearable suspense, as the entire country collapses into student revolt, midnight raids by Sam’s secret police -- the State Research Council -- and a coup d’etat. As in Shakespeare’s portrayals of the endless succession of kings to the throne, Achebe shows African revolutions as a tragic, surreal cycle of the powerful and self-serving devouring each other, with the people and their wisdom untouched.

Considered in terms of Achebe’s body of work, Anthills of the Savannah replays familar scenarios. There seems, however, to have been a maturing of his perceptions about politics and the human condition. The novel’s only flaw is Achebe’s unwillingess to fully develop Sam by entering as thoroughly into his heart as he does Ikem’s, Chris’ and Beatrice’s. In every other way, however, Achebe has written a story that sidesteps both ideologies of the African experience and political agendas, in order to lead us to a deeply human, universal wisdom expressed so succinctly by Ikem:

“We always take the precaution of invoking the people’s name in whatever we do. But do we not at the same time make sure of the people’s absence, knowing that if they were to appear in person their scarecrow presence confronting our pious invocations would render our words too obscene even for sensibilities as robust as ours?”?

harles Johnson directs the creative writing program at the University of Washington. His new book is “Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970”.

bookworld@washpost.com

ANTHILLS OF THE SAVANNAH

By Chinua Achebe

Anchor 224 pp. $ 14

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