ACHEBE, CHINUA Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is considered by many to be the prototype for modern African literature. In June 2007, his monumental standing in the world of African letters was recognized when he was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction. Many of the themes introduced in that novel, such as colonialism, language, the clash between tradition and modernity, various forms of inequality and corruption, and the abuse of power are important issues that Achebe (b. 1930) has continued to develop and probe in his other novels, including his last to date, Anthills of the Savannah. His belief that the primary responsibility of the African writer should be to educate the people is clearly evident in the way in which he portrays social injustice in many of its manifestations.
In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe takes aim at a corrupt postcolonial African regime and shows how government self-interest and power politics isolate those who should be working on behalf of the people. This corruption, the novel demonstrates, spreads and repeats itself in various ways throughout society in forms such as the wide gulf between the rich and the poor or the educated and the illiterate, and between males and females. In the novel, Achebe scrutinizes unequal power relations as they are practiced in their different forms, but he also holds out the possibility of an alternative, more inclusive and hopeful vision. Kerry Vincent Gender in Anthills of the Savannah The opening chapters of Anthills of the Savannah introduce readers to a country that is shaped and defined by male power politics. By the novel’s closing chapter, however, these aggressive and cynical male voices have given way to the inclusive and reconciliatory voices of female characters.
This shift in emphasis reflects a key recognition in the novel of the need to reconfigure assumptions of male domination that are deeply embedded in this traditionally patriarchal society. Achebe conveys this need for more equitable gender relations particularly through the gradual development of Ikem, a key male character, and through the presence of Beatrice, an equally important female character. During a conversation with Chris, in which he is attempting to explain his relationship with Sam and Ikem, Beatrice interrupts him to exclaim, “Well, you fellows, all three of you, are incredibly conceited. The story of this country, as far as you are concerned, is the story of the three of you .â•¯.â•¯.” This “story,” of course, is exclusively male and singularly elitist, and it is one that Achebe examines during the course of the novel. The correlation of institutional power with male dominance is perhaps best articulated through Sam’s derisive and indulgent quip, “African Chiefs are always polygamists.â•¯.â•¯.â•¯. Polygamy is for Africa what monotony is for Europe.” Sam’s remark reflects a complacent chauvinism. Other male figures besides the politically and morally corrupt character of Sam make equally patronizing and sexist remarks, and these are intensified by the more vicious physical violence toward women encountered with the attempted rape of a young woman by a police sergeant near the end of the novel and Beatrice’s remembering that when she was growing up, her mother was very often beaten by her father. Even the worldly Ikem is associated with various forms of female abuse, until he gradually gains insight into his biased assumptions. His detached interest in the violent beatings of a wife in a neighboring flat, or his own devaluation of women as only being useful as, in Beatrice’s words, “comforters,” mark Ikem as a product of a deeply embedded masculinist world view. With Beatrice’s guidance, however, he slowly comes to apprehend that women are “the biggest single group of oppressed people in the world and the oldest,” who also have a potentially pivotal role to play in society. While Ikem’s girlfriend, Elewa, plays an important role in changing his attitude toward women, Beatrice acts as the catalyst for his dawning awareness. The tenuous status of females in this society is emphasized by one of the birth names she is given: Nwanyibuife, or, “A female is also something.” Despite growing up in a rigid patriarchal household where females were considered secondary (as her other name suggests), Beatrice manages to obtain a university education and fairly prominent social status with a mid-level government job, and throughout the novel her voice insists on the recognition of women as being equal to men. Through Beatrice, Achebe also draws a link between the traditional and the modern in order to suggest that the high esteem with which some females were held in the past has largely been forgotten in the present because of a male desire for power. Beatrice is repeatedly referred to as a prophetess and associated with Idemili, a powerful female goddess—if not displacing, then certainly disrupting the primacy of the male characters. Beatrice’s ceremonial role carries into the present in the novel’s final chapter as she presides over the naming of Elewa’s new baby girl. In the absence of a male figure to conduct the ceremony, Beatrice improvises and leads a new ritual, and the female infant is given the name Amaechina, conventionally a boy’s name meaning “May-the-path-never-close,” and in direct contrast to the demeaning Nwanyibuife (“A female is also something”). This disregard for gender-specific names and for the customary forms of the ritual during the novel’s closing moments signals the possibility for a reshaping of traditional perceptions of gender roles that have ossified and been carried forward into the modern world. While it might be argued that Achebe idealizes the character of Beatrice, he does manage, nonetheless, to depict a female character who demands to be heard. As a result, the novel goes further than simply depicting gender conflict; it also attempts to offer a tentative alternative vision of a more equal society. Kerry Vincent Oppression in Anthills of the Savannah Almost midway through Anthills of the Savannah, Ikem Osiri exclaims that his friend Beatrice has forced him to think about “the nature of oppression— how flexible it must learn to be, how many faces it must learn to wear if it is to succeed again and again.” The many faces of oppression is a key theme in Achebe’s novel, which follows the rise and fall of a dictator in the fictional African country of Kangan, and references to separate coups (short for coup d’état, meaning the often violent overthrow of a government) near the novel’s opening and conclusion warn of its potential to resurface. Whereas the first coup brings His Excellency, Sam, to power, the second one brings about his death. In between, Sam’s two old friends, Ikem Osiri and Christopher Oriko, witness and become victims of Sam’s degeneration from a relatively well-meaning military officer to a dictator who will go to any lengths to realize his obsession with becoming president for life. Sam’s rebuke to Chris at the opening of the novel—“But me no buts, Mr Oriko!”—immediately reveals much about his character. While its unintentionally humorous clumsiness reflects something of Sam’s endearing lack of sophistication, its impatient aggression marks someone who will allow no contradictions and tolerate no alternatives, nor accept any conditions that might seem to threaten his authority.
His refusal to take counsel is further reinforced on the same page with his declaration, “Kabisa!,” a Swahili word that Achebe translates into English as “Finished.” As a result of Sam’s lack of political experience, the dubious means by which he has attained power, and the false adulation poured on him by sycophantic advisers, personal insecurities drive him to imagine subversive plots are being hatched against him. Sam’s paranoia leads him to curtail the freedom of the press by placing both the print and electronic media under government censorship and control, and to appoint a director of a secret police force (euphemistically called the Directorate of State Research) that restricts individual and community voices. For example, Sam forces Chris, his commissioner for information, to muzzle the dissenting views expressed by Ikem, the editor of the National Gazette. Following a speech that Ikem makes to students at the university, the government-controlled radio announces a series of manufactured charges against him and later describes his subsequent death while supposedly resisting arrest. After his own attempt to reason with Sam, Chris is perceived as a threat and is forced to go into hiding as the police hunt for him throughout the city. Eventually, he secretly flees the city, heading for the northern provinces by bus. Meanwhile, the legitimate concerns of a delegation from the drought-stricken northern Abazon Province are brushed aside as Sam refuses to meet with them, and he eventually has them placed in detention for supposedly plotting against the government. As the state-controlled oppression of individuals and groups accelerates, Sam’s physical presence recedes, suggesting just how out of touch he is and how much he has isolated himself from the people of Kangan. He last appears in chapter 11, the same chapter that concludes with a description of the arrest and, it is implied, torture, of the Abazon delegation. Sam’s physical absence from the scene reflects the need to speak out against oppression. Besides the dominant forms of oppression practiced by a dictatorial military government, Achebe also introduces the equally destructive abuses of power caused by males against females, and by the privileged, educated classes against the less educated working classes. During the course of the novel, Chris and Ikem move from differing degrees of isolation—Chris has a “detached clinical interest” in the workings of the state, while Ikem confesses to finding a neighbor’s brutal beatings of his wife “satisfyingly cathartic”—to a greater awareness, sympathy, and even admiration for the oppressed. At one point in the novel, a creation myth is described in which Idemili, the daughter of the Almighty, is sent “to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping around Power’s rude waist a loincloth of peace and modesty.” In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe not only presents a biting critique of power in its various forms and its capacity to abuse and oppress individuals, groups, and nations; he also reminds us of the urgent need to bear witness to its existence and act against it, if freedom from oppression is to be achieved. Kerry Vincent Social Class in Anthills of the Savannah In his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe includes many proverbs, folktales, and rituals in order to reinforce his depiction of a rich and ancient traditional African society. He continues this practice in Anthills of the Savannah but incorporates a much wider variety of texts and registers, as a means of projecting his ideal vision of an inclusive and equitable postcolonial society that recognizes and acknowledges the legitimacy of diverse voices from different social classes, and not just those of a primarily male elite.
As Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice are increasingly alienated from Sam’s manic exercise of power, they gradually become more attuned to the voices of the less privileged peasants and workers. The catalyst for the sequence of events that lead to Sam’s defeat and the deaths of Ikem and Chris is the visit by the delegation from Abazon, which very early in the novel highlights such oppositions as rural-urban, uneducated-educated, poor-rich, and traditional-modern. More than anyone, Ikem appreciates the integrity of this peasant class, even as he puzzles over how their values can be adapted to the modern world. Ikem conveys his recognition of the disparity between social classes during a speech at the university that he entitles “â†œ‘The Tortoise and the Leopard—a political meditation on the imperative of struggle.’â†œ” This traditional story, first told to Ikem by the chief of the Abazon delegation, emphasizes the importance of resistance and of leaving a mark to act as inspiration for those who follow. Ikem, then, draws on and updates traditional folk wisdom to address an urban student body and challenge them to acknowledge his earlier insight that “It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.” Ikem’s challenge represents a culmination of his own recent awareness of the distance between the educated elite and the working poor and the peasants. His initial complacent belief in a kind of solidarity with the underclass is humorously enacted when he finds himself locked in a battle against a determined taxi driver during a traffic jam. Ikem wins the contest because he is not afraid to damage his already beaten-up car, but he subsequently comes to realize how petty his victory was when the taxi driver later finds him and apologizes for daring to challenge such an eminent figure. During their meeting, conducted in the largely working-class language of pidgin English, Ikem feels exhilaration over “this rare human contact across station and class,” but he wonders, nonetheless, about the huge divide between the privileged and the poor. A taxi driver also figures in Chris’s forced plunge into the world of the lower classes, a transformation that is realistically and figuratively conveyed by the worker’s clothing that he puts on as a disguise to help him negotiate roadblocks set up throughout the city. Chris also realizes that his own educated speech is now a liability, and his switch to pidgin reinforces his immersion in a class that he had previously taken for granted. He is only saved from detection by his taxi driver’s interventions, and once out of danger he announces, “To succeed as small man no be small thing.” Beatrice, too, learns some humility during the hunt for Chris, to the point where she is even able to recognize something of the unhappiness of Agatha, her domestic worker, and to break down the rigid employer-employee relationship with the simple words, “I am sorry Agatha.” She is further humbled after recognizing the sacrifices made by a very poor family to shelter and protect Chris. Her concern for Chris and desire to be with him comes at the expense of the family’s own privacy, and her awareness of their generosity is partly what allows her to reassess her relationship with Agatha and recognize “the absurd raffle-draw that apportioned the destinies of post-colonial African societies.”
In the novel’s final pages, Beatrice decodes Chris’s dying words, “The last green,” which alludes to just how tentative the assumed heights of the powerful elite really are, and she concludes, “This world belongs to the people of the world not to any little caucus, no matter how talented.” In light of Achebe’s scathing critique of the powerful, educated elite, it is certainly appropriate that he chooses to use pidgin English and give the novel’s final supportive and comforting words to the half-literate salesgirl, Elewa. Kerry Vincent