Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

December 1, 2003


Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Books, 1987; ISBN 0-385-26045-8.

When Chinua Achebe was a college student in Nigeria in the 1950s, he read Joyce Cary's Mr. Johnson, a smug British satire set in southern Nigeria that viewed Nigerians as rustic buffoons. Angered by this caricature, Achebe resolved to correct the record in Things Fall Apart. Written in 1958, Achebe's first novel castigates British colonialism for imposing Christianity and other alien values on traditional society. Achebe, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene and fellow Nigerian poet and eventual Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka would go on to trail-blaze a non-Eurocentric vision of Sub-Saharan Africa.

If it was necessary to throw out the colonizers as a first step toward national salvation, much work remained. Bearing witness to the failure of social justice and democracy to take root in post-colonial Nigeria, he dramatized the impasse in the 1987 Anthills of the Savannah. Set in the fictional nation of Kangan, a thinly disguised version of Nigeria, the plot revolves around the fate of two prominent male intellectuals victimized in a military crackdown orchestrated by the nation's president-for-life who is a childhood friend. Narration shifts between these two characters and their female friend, who works in the Ministry of Finance. As aroused but impotent elite figures, they obviously were chosen by Achebe to reflect his own frustrations with Nigeria and mixed feelings about Africa's future. Those looking for heroic victories over oppression must look elsewhere than in Achebe's deeply complex and multileveled work.

As Minister of Information, Christopher Oriko is in an unenviable position. Charged with the responsibility of defending the policies of a military dictator, who happens to be one of his oldest friends, he treads a fine line between loyalty, toadyism and subversion. He is intelligent enough to know how rotten the government is, but is too much of the detached intellectual to commit himself to struggle.

When confronted by his old friend Ikem Osodi, a firebrand oppositionist who has succeeded him as editor of the state-owned newspaper, Oriko justifies his inaction through a kind of Hegelian aloofness:

"Nations were fostered as much by structures as by laws and revolutions. These structures where they exist now are the pride of their nations. But everyone forgets that they were not erected by democratically-elected Prime Ministers but very frequently by rather unattractive, bloodthirsty medieval tyrants. The cathedrals of Europe, the Taj Mahal of India, the pyramids of Egypt and the stone towers of Zimbabwe were all raised on the backs of serfs, starving peasants and slaves. Our present rulers in Africa are in every sense late-flowering medieval monarchs, even the Marxists among them. Do you remember Mazrui calling Nkrumah a Stalinist Czar? Perhaps our leaders have to be that way. Perhaps they may even need to be that way."

The reference to Mazrui is most telling. Kenyan Ali Mazrui, along with Achebe and Wole Soyinka, is one of Africa's leading intellectuals. As the host of a PBS series on Africa in the 1980s, Mazrui's Afrocentrism provoked the wrath of white critics, especially with comments like: "...Blacks will inherit the most advanced nuclear infrastructure on the continent. Out of the ashes of apartheid will emerge a black-ruled republic with convincing nuclear credentials." When Harvard scholar Henry Gates produced his own Africa series a decade later that was sharply critical of practices such as female circumcision and black-on-black slavery, Mazrui accused him of "black Orientalism." (1) Mazrui's looks back somewhat romantically to Africa's pre-colonial past as a kind of "fall from glory" that is also associated with the work of British historian Basil Davidson.

It is clear that this position is not satisfying to Achebe, despite his own hatred for what colonialism did to the continent. Ikem Osodi obviously serves as a vehicle for his own dissatisfaction with post-colonial society.

In contrast to Chris Oriko's cynicism, Ikem Osodi is driven by compassion for Kangan's underclass. He decides to crusade against public executions immediately after attending one as a representative of the state-owned newspaper. Appalled by the cruel taunts of the crowd and inspired by the dignity of the doomed man (a common criminal), he writes an editorial the very next day that ended with a one verse hymn sung to the tune of "Lord Thy Word Abideth":

The worst threat from men of hell
May not be their actions cruel
Far worse that we may learn
And behave more fierce than they.

Almost like clockwork, Christopher calls his old friend into his Ministry of Information office to warn him against writing editorials that might risk his career or -- worse -- his life. If Ikem is always acting impetuously, we understand that he has no choice given the urgency of his continent's problems. He is one of Africa's "impetuous sons," referred to in an excerpt from David Diop's poem "Africa" that serves as an epigraph to chapter ten:

Africa, tell me Africa
Is this you this back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answer me
Impetuous son, that tree young and strong
That tree there
In splendid loneliness amidst white and faded flowers
This is Africa your Africa
That grows again patiently obstinately
And its fruit gradually acquire
The bitter taste of liberty.

Despite Ikem's sympathy for the poor, he is out of touch with them. He regards them sympathetically from afar but is not organically linked to their struggles. If anything, this goes to the heart of Achebe's novel: the inability of the nation's elite to connect with the masses.

When a couple of members of the taxi-drivers union show up unannounced at his door one day to tell him how much they appreciate his support, Ikem is somewhat apprehensive at first. After one driver tells him in pidgin English how important his columns are to the rank-and-file, he is deeply touched.

"Ah. How I go begin count. The thing oga write too plenty. But na for we small people he de write every time. I no sabi book but I sabi say na for we this oga de fight, not for himself. He na big man. Nobody fit do fuckall to him. So he fit stay for him house, chop him oyibo chop, drink him cold beer, put him air conditioner and forget we. But he no do like that. So we come salute him."

Later on Ikem reflects on the esteem the taxi drivers hold him in for driving a battered old Datsun rather than the Mercedes preferred by government officials. This personal choice said more than any lofty phrases.

Despite being a "man of the people," he is by no means disposed to offer them easy solutions, least of all revolutionary ones. When he is invited to address a student audience on the topic of "The Tortoise and the Leopard: a political meditation on the imperative of struggle," Ikem smiles inwardly at the prospects of challenging their shibboleths. Stating his affiliation with the "storytellers" of the world -- an obvious reference to novelists like Achebe -- Ikem challenges all threats to human freedom, either from the mosque or the party congress.

During the Q&A, a student asks him whether it was necessary to put the nation "under the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat" in face of the impending crackdown. Ikem replies that he wouldn't even put himself under the dictatorship of angels and archangels. Further, he does not even know what the proletariat of Kangan amounts to.

Ikem warns them against facile solutions that leave backward social structures intact. Revolutions, he tells them, can be betrayed just as much by "stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate action as by doing nothing at all." To blame all of Kangan's problems on capitalism and imperialism as "our modish radicals do" is "sheer cant and humbug." It is like arresting the village blacksmith every time a man hacks his fellow to death.

Despite Ikem Osodi's lack of connections to any organized mass movement other than as an unelected tribune, the government sentences him to death during a crackdown against all dissidents. In the ensuing chaos, Christopher Oriko is killed by a soldier in a random act of violence for simply appearing impudent. The president-for-life is also toppled in a subsequent coup. In other words, Kangan is following pretty much the same trajectory as Nigeria and other West African nations for the past 30 years or so.

The other major character in Anthills of the Savannah is Beatrice Okoh who is a minor official in the Ministry of Finance and an old friend of the two major male characters and a former lover of Chris's.

Despite her determination to make a career for herself above all else, she rejects the idea that this has anything to do with a "Women's Lib" that she might have picked up while being educated in England. There was enough male chauvinism in her father's house to last her a lifetime.

As for Ikem, despite her admiration for his willingness to speak out against oppression, she told him that there was "no clear role for women in his political writing." Beatrice understood his failure not as an expression of personal weakness but a symptom of cultural backwardness in Africa, even among progressives.

"And I understand the meaning of his despair too. For here's a man, who has written a full-length novel and play on the Women's War of 1929 which stopped the British administration cold in its tracks, being accused of giving no clear political role to women. But the way I see it is that giving women today the same role which traditional society gave them of intervening only when everything else has failed is not enough, you know, like the women in the Sembene film who pick up the spears abandoned by their defeated menfolk. It is not enough that women should be the court of last resort because the last resort is a damn sight too far and too late!"

Those looking for a stirring message about revolutionary struggles will not find any such thing in Anthills of the Savannah. It is imbued with a very deep mood of futility that is only broken by the personal examples of self-sacrifice by the major characters. In the final chapter the focus is on the birth of Ikem's daughter, for whom Beatrice holds a traditional naming ceremony. This gesture underscores the strong yearnings for some kind of reconnection with Africa's lost traditions that were trampled underfoot by colonialism. The infant is named Amaechina, or 'May-the-path-never-close,' in honor of her dead father Ikem.

In 1990 Chinua Achebe was in a car crash in eastern Nigeria that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In a generous act that demonstrated the best instincts of Bard College's high-profile President Leon Botstein, the college offered him a professorship and a home with special provisions for the disabled.

From that post Achebe has continued to write prolifically and speak out on matters important to the African peoples. Let us conclude with a selection from a 1998 speech he made to the World Bank: (2)
Or let us take another much admired 20th century figure, the first writer, as it happens, to grace the cover of the newly founded Time magazine. I am talking, of course, about that extraordinary Polish-born, French-speaking, English sea captain and novelist, Joseph Conrad. He recorded in his memoir his first experience of seeing a black man in these remarkable words:

A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.

My attention was first drawn to these observations of Conrad's in a scholarly work, not very widely known, by Jonah Raskin. Its title was the Mythology of Imperialism, and it was published in 1971 by Random House. I mention this because Mr. Raskin's title defines the cultural source out of which Conrad derived his words and ideas. Conrad's fixation, admitted so openly by him in his memoir and conspicuously present in his fiction, has gone largely unremarked in literary and scholarly evaluations of his work. Why? Because it is grounded quite firmly in that mythology of imperialism which has so effectively conditioned contemporary civilization and its modes of education. Imperial domination required a new language to describe the world it had created and the people it had subjugated. Not surprisingly, this new language did not celebrate these subject peoples nor toast them as heroes. Rather it painted them in the most lurid colors. Africa, being European imperialism's prime target, with hardly a square foot escaping the fate of imperial occupation, naturally received the full measure of this adverse definition. Add to that the massive derogatory endeavor of the previous three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade to label black people, and we can begin to get some idea of the magnitude of the problem we may have today with the simple concept: Africa Is People.

Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Books, 1987; ISBN 0-385-26045-8.

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Notes & Resources

1.  Mazrui's critiques are online at the U. of Binghamton's Institute of Global Culture, which he directs. See, http://igcs.binghamton.edu/igcs_site/dirton1.htm and http://igcs.binghamton.edu/igcs_site/dirton2.htm (last visited: 11/24/03).
Henry Gates's response can be read at: http://www.africana.com/articles/daily/index_19991117.asp (last visited: 11/24/03).  (back)

2.  http://www.worldbank.org/wbi/lectures/speech-africa.html (last visited: 11/24/03).  (back)

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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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