Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe

Petri Raivio (December, 2001)

1. Chinua Achebe:

Chinua Achebe has a journalist’s background. He was born in Ogidi, Nigeria in 1930 and christened Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. He was born a member of the Igbo (or Ibo) tribe, one of the four main tribes of Nigeria. This background is reflected in his literary works. Chinua’s father was a Christian churchman and he attended elite schools; the Government College in Umuahia and University College in Ibadan. In 1953 he went to England to get his B.A. degree from London University. The following year he joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos and in 1956 complemented his studies in journalism and broadcasting at the BBC in London. (Liukkonen & Pesonen)

Chinua Achebe published his first novel in 1958. Things Fall Apart, perhaps his most critically acclaimed novel ever, deals with traditional village life in a late 19th-century Igbo village society. The story of the book is about the downfall of an old-school authoritative and wealthy village chief named Okonkwo. His demise is in effect linked to the appearance of the white man in Africa and the prevailing theme of the novel is the impact that colonialism had on the traditional African and Nigerian way of life. In order to survive, Okonkwo should have adapted to the new circumstances. He did not adapt, and he did not survive. Achebe’s wide knowledge of literature is reflected by the fact that he took the name of the novel from a William Butler Yeats poem called The Second Coming, from the line: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” (Landow)

The same theme of confrontation between the traditional Igbo values and the new colonial situation are dealt with in his next two novels, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964). The first book is in effect a continuation of Thing Fall Apart. The main character is Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the previous novel’s tragic hero. He becomes a civil servant in Lagos and, like most other civil servants, succumbs to corruption. Arrow of God is also about a traditional Igbo village man, Ezeulu, who cannot adapt to the change brought about by colonialism. (Liukkonen & Pesonen)

The Nigerian Civil War broke out in 1966. It was a conflict between the Igbo, the eastern tribe; and the other three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. The hostilities resulted in the Igbo founding the independent state of Biafra in eastern Nigeria. The other ethnic groups did not approve of Biafra’s declaration of independence and continued to fight it, one of the major reasons for this being the oil fields that were left inside Biafran territory. Chinua Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and represented Biafra as a diplomat. The conflict ended in 1970 after the federal forces had starved two million Biafrans to death. After Biafra, Achebe has taught at various universities in Nigeria and the United States. In 1990, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash.

For a long period of time after Biafra, Achebe did not write any long novels. He wrote two volumes of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother (1971) and Christmas in Biafra (1973) and a literary essay called Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) about the war. Anthills of the Savannah was his first novel after Biafra. It came out in 1987, 23 years after his previous major work, and it remains his last novel.

Over the times, there has been some controversy over the fact that Chinua Achebe writes in English instead of an indigenous African language. This has been said to be in conflict with his critical views of the colonial period. This is how Achebe defends his choice of language:

— in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway; it is something which you can actively claim to use as an effective weapon, as a counterargument to colonization. (Bacon)

2. The setting and main characters of Anthills of the Savannah

The novel is set in a fictional West-African state called Kangan sometime during or after the 1960’s. The timeframe is indicated by the fact that the book implies that there are independent states in Africa. Kangan is ruled by a dictatorial president with a military background, a man called Sam. He’s a Kanganese who has received his military training in Great Britain and come back to rule the country with a tight grip and a rather corrupt government. There appears to be no parliament in Kangan, just the president, a Cabinet and the military security service called the State Research Council.

Christopher Oriko, or Chris, is the Commissioner for Information in Sam’s Cabinet. He’s one of the two main characters of the book. He got to know Sam when they were studying together in Britain and the two appear to have been fairly close up till the time when Sam seized power in Kangan. As Commissioner for Information, Chris is responsible for censorship in the country. This is where the main theme and the tension of the book comes from: while trying to remain loyal to Sam, Chris tries to control the editor of the National Gazette according to the president’s instructions.

The Gazette’s editor and the other main character in the book, Ikem Osodi, is Chris’s closest friend, who studied in Britain together with Chris and Sam. Ikem writes editorials that are critical of the Kangan government and eventually gets both himself and Chris into trouble. He is an intellectual who sees the problems of the Kanganese common people and feels as if he is one of them instead of being of the elite, which he in fact belongs to. Ikem is opposed to this elite and grows more and more radical in the course of the book.

The two main female characters of the book are Chris’s girlfriend Beatrice and Ikem’s girlfriend Elewa. Beatrice has also received a British education whereas Elewa is a Kangan girl who has apparently never been abroad, the daughter of a market saleswoman. The contrast between these two women is also one of the themes of this book.

The main theme with the characters of the novel is the hierarchical situation of power to which Sam, Chris and Ikem have embroiled and their different characters: Ikem’s flamboyant activist nature opposed to Chris’s reflective intellectual character, which is in turn contrasted with Sam’s straightforward dictatorial rule.

3. The plot of the novel

Anthills of the Savannah starts out describing a Cabinet meeting. After the session is closed it turns out that outside the palace there is crowd of people from the province of Abazon who try to get to meet the President. The people are dissatisfied because, as it later turns out, Sam has caused them to suffer by shutting down water-holes in the province, which is suffering from drought. He refuses to meet the delegation.

After this event, Ikem goes to meet the delegation. It turns out that he is in a way one of them, born and raised in Abazon, and has come to be greatly respected by the Abazonians as the famous editor of the National Gazette. When he leaves the Abazonian delegation that day, he is stopped by the traffic police because of some misdemenour. It is later revealed that he was followed by State Research Council agents who needed proof that Ikem had actually visited the delegation in order to later be able to accuse him of treason for siding with the rebellious Abazonians.

Some time after this, Ikem is fired from the National Gazette by orders from the President, who thinks Ikem’s writing in the Gazette is too critical of his “administration”. The President actually wants Chris to do the firing, but he refuses. After being sacked, Ikem makes a radical speech at the University of Bassa (the capital of Kangan). The speech is purposefully misquoted in the Gazette the next day, giving the impression that Ikem wants the President dead. He’s charged of treason and conspiracy, soldiers come to pick him up from his home and shoot him dead, claiming it was an accident.

After this episode, Chris feels he can no longer work under President Sam as Commissioner for Information. He is afraid he is going to wind up like Ikem, and goes into hiding. A while later, he too is charged with treason and becomes a fugitive for real. After a couple of weeks hiding, he decides to travel away from the capital to the province of Abazon. When he reaches the province, it turns out that there has been some kind of a coup d’état and the President has fled the country. Upon hearing this he joins a celebration on the street and meets a drunken policeman. By accident, the man shoots him dead.

4. Themes of Anthills of the Savannah

In Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe writes about the problems facing newly independent African states. The prevailing theme and the most visible one of these problems is the corrupt, dictatorial rule set up in Kangan (Nigeria) and most of the other “new” African states that let down the dreams and hopes that were associated with independence. Although the rulers were no longer European, and although they were a lot closer to the people than their European predecessors, they fairly soon distanced themselves from the people.

The first instance of this alienation in the novel is the way Sam deals with the problem of the Abazonian delegation. Instead of going out to meet them by himself, he assigns someone else to do it. The fact that he’s built himself a luxurious lakeside mansion is another representation of this.

There is also the theme of oppressive dictatorial rule. The way Sam deals with Ikem is reminiscent of traditional totalitarian states, especially the Latin American juntas. This is also the case with freedom of speech in Kangan. The paper, apparently the only one in the country, is censored and orders regarding its contents often seem to come straight from the President.

Another theme of the book is described in Ikem’s peculiar dilemma. Despite his position as editor of the Gazette, he wants to appear like just another Kangan worker. Therefore he doesn’t ride a company car to work, but drives by himself in an old beat-up car. The dilemma is pointed out to him by a taxi driver: by driving himself, he is taking away a job opportunity from some poor Kangan chauffeur. The larger problem here is the position of the black, African elite in the new African countries, where the elite has traditionally been of European origin. There was no elite class in the pre-colonial period in Africa.

The novel also deals with the theme of being a been-to, an African who has come back to his country after a longer stay in the West. The main characters are all been-tos and this is reflected in the ways in which they try to position themselves in relation to the “common” Kangans. An example of this is how Chris relates to Emmanuel, a university student leader; and Braimoh, a cab driver.

There is a direct reference to the West in the scene in which Beatrice goes to a party that Sam has organized to impress an American journalist. The journalist wraps the President and the whole Cabinet around her finger, lecturing them about how Kangan should take care of its foreign affairs and debt. She represents the attitudes of the West to the African countries in general and their unequal standing in world politics. In Beatrice’s words:

If I went to America today, to Washington DC, would I, could I, walk into a White House private dinner and take the American President hostage? And his Defence Chief and his Director of CIA? (Achebe, p. 81)

Achebe mentions “the green bottles”. This is a refence to the traditional song “Ten Green Bottles”, which is a simple repetitive song about bottles hanging on a wall and falling down one by one. The bottles in the book are apparently the main characters of the novel. When he’s dying, Chris tries to say “the last green…”, an inside joke about the way the characters fall one after the other.

4. My personal observations on the novel

Anthills of the Savannah is the first African novel I’ve read. I liked the different setting and the ideas and I believe it won’t be the last African book for me.

The novel is in many ways a very political one and Achebe makes a point about delivering a message. I suppose this is a quite common feature in African literature. Achebe is by no means subtle in delivering his political “agenda”. There are instances in the novel where he makes his points very clearly indeed, the most visible one being the scene where Ikem delivers a speech at the University. This extract’s a fairly obvious example of political awareness:

— Above all, workers whose national president at last year’s All-African Congress refused to leave his hotel room until an official Peugeot 504 assigned to him was replaced with a Mercedes. His reason you remember: that workers’ leaders are not, in his very words, ordinary riff-raffs. You find that funny? Well I don’t. I find it tragic and true. Workers’ leaders are indeed extraordinary riff-raffs. — (Achebe, p. 157)

The author also quotes a poem called “Africa” by David Diop. This is another obvious case of taking a stand:

Africa tell me Africa

Is this your back that is bent

This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation

This back trembling with red scars —” (Achebe, p. 134)

This is not to say that I think the awareness in the novel somehow bothers me. I think it’s quite natural because of the continent’s sad history and not least because of the author’s personal experience. Achebe’s generation of African writers has seen both the imperial rule, the transition to independence and the way things have turned out since then. To compare them to Western authors wouldn’t do either party justice. Their Western counterparts don’t have their past; they’ve generally lived in a fairly safe, stable and wealthy environment. The society is traditionally completely different. In the West, there’s the tradition of great literary classics; in Africa there are the tribal traditions and storytelling. Therefore the literature to come out of Africa is bound to be fundamentally different. Admittedly the aforementioned generalizations are quite rough, but they do represent my idea of why African literature is interesting.

Returning to Anthills of the Savannah, I found the language tricky at first. Achebe has quite successfully chosen to use language as a class marker: the common people in Kangan speak West-African pidgin, some speak transcribed Igbo and the upper classes speak standard English. I had never read pidgin before and it took me a while to get used to it. The solution worked, however, at making a point about class division.

The way Achebe tells the story in Anthills of the Savannah is also interesting. He changes the perspective from chapter to chapter: “I” can be either Ikem, Chris or Beatrice and it is not always quite clear who’s speaking. This choice of method is quite natural because the novel has several main characters of approximately equal importance.

To sum up, Anthills of the Savannah is an interesting work of literature and quite unlike the Western novels I’ve read. Chinua Achebe manages to introduce quite a few of the problems facing the African states in a setting that is superficially fictional but nevertheless recognizable. He writes well and manages to put in themes of traditional African tribal society in an interesting way. This blend of different ingredients is the thing that in my opinion makes Anthills of the Savannah really worth reading.

Bantam Books, Papyros Publications

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