Saturday, September 25, 2010

Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, 23 years and still potent in Africa

The author Chinua Achebe
Title: Anthills of the Savannah
Author: Chinua Achebe
Publisher: Heinemann, London 1987
Genre: Literature (Fiction)
Reviewer: Manuel Odeny


The book is an extension of Chinua Achebe’s A man of the People entailing the fall of civilian governance to a military one through the eyes of minster Nanga and main character Odili Samalu.

Published merely a week after the 15th January 1966 Nigerian coup ousting Abubakar Balewa and his stooge Ladoke Ankitola, Achebe prophetically wrote:

“Overnight everyone began to shake their head at the excess of the last regime, at its graft, oppression and corrupt government.” As it is common in most coups A man of the People went further. “Newspapers, the radio, hitherto silent intellectuals and civil servants- everybody said what a terrible lot and it became public opinion the next morning.”

Barely a month after Nigerian coup the streets of Accra were abuzz with jubilation as Kwame Nkurumah was toppled by the army on 24th February.

It’s from here that Anthills of the Savannah shows the degeneration of Kangan, a fictious West African state, after a popular military coup, into a failed state.

The Kangan story revolves on state house maneuvers away from ordinary wanainchi in a budding dictatorship as seen through the eyes of three main characters from an elite college. Sam from Sandhurst becomes the president and appoints Chris as his commissioner of Information.

The third is a maverick editor of the government run daily National Gazette, Ikem Osodi.
Other characters aiding in plot are Beatrice a graduate working as a senior civil servant, Chris’ girlfriend and Elewa (Ikem’s fiancée) a semi-illiterate saleslady from a ghetto in Bassa the capital.

Still relevant 


More than two decades after its publication, do the Anthills of the Savannah have any relevance in African scene? After rereading the title I found it still fresh in African politics today.

In the novel, as in Nigeria and Ghana’s case, the army brought up in Sandhurst tradition stood aside in the failure of the civilian rule till their interest were at stake.

Like most coups in Africa, the Kangan army entered governance amid celebration and hope of grand promises of liberating the citizens from corruption, unemployment, nepotism and other ills.

Once installed Sam’s promise of following the constitution and later phasing way to civilian rule is edged away as he become a budding dictator emulating an octogenarian dictator Ngongo from East Africa.

Relevant and recently publicized is the Madagascar case when a disc jockey and former mayor of Antananarivo Andry Rajoelina backed by the army outset the sitting president Marc Ravalomanana. World pressure for power sharing amid the warring factions as hit an impasse.

Let’s consider the book's relevance during publication and in just two decades after independence in Africa there were forty successful coups with countless others abortive.

Consider in 1965 from June, in a period of six months: Algerian Ben Bella was disposed by colonel Houri Bourmedienne, Zaire’s General Mobutu Sese Seko outset presdent Kasa-Vubu while chief of staff Jean Bedel-Bokassa removed his cousin David Dacko as president of Central Africa Republic. Colonel Christopher Soglo and Sangoule Lamizana seized power in Benin and Bukina Faso respectively.

Back to the novel, when Sam’s attempt to change the constitution on a referendum for a president for life is thwarted by Abazon region, he resorts to divide and rule to control dissidents and power absolutely.
Erstwhile comrades are turned against.

Editor Osodi is picked from his house Gestapo style before being murdered while Chris dies at the hand of a randy and drunk policeman while fleeing a national hunt to Abazon.

This is relevant closer home when Ethiopia’s major Mengistu massacred with machine guns his army colleagues in committee running his Marxist-Lenin revolution while Idi Amin after his 1971 coup felt insecure enough to mass kill Obote’s Langi and Acholi tribe that “it was impossible to dispose off the bodies in graves” as written by his former minister Henry Kyemba in State of Blood (Corgi,1977)

A peep through the tight wall of Sam’s court jesters Ikem Osodi offers an insight to dictatorship:

“Worshiping a dictator is such a pain in the ass. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a matter dancing upside down on your head. With practice anyone could learn to do that. The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to another, from on minute to the next what is up and what is down”

Sam’s quest for power boomerangs back when his security personnel kidnap him in a palace coup.

Sadly power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely making the problem of Africa to lie on leaders obsessed with power.

The defect is profoundly felt in Nigeria where ethic loyalties are exploited by leaders making political debates to be acrimonious. Within a year after the first coup there were three counter coup with culminated to the North and Eastern Igbo nationals in the Biafra war that lasted for 2and a half years.

“The trouble with Nigeria (read Africa) is simply and squarely failure of leadership.” I quote Achebe in The Trouble with Nigeria (Heinemann, 1983) “The Nigerian (African) problem is the unwillingness or the inability of its leaders to raise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”

Does the book offer any hope for Africa.

Within the title the Savannah was ones lush with the vegetation. This is the hope and the euphoria for social economic progress that engulfed Africa during independence.

The fire of poor leadership, neo-colonization, economic down turn, schism of cold war –isms amongst others ravaged the savannah. The jugged anthills jutting out of the barren savannah are a reminder of the dreams lost and hopes yearned.

As the book ends Amaechina, Ikem’s infant daughter is a beckon of hope and a jutting anthill in hopelessness surrounding Africa. During her naming ceremony the whole society is represented. In government there is a bureaucrat and an army officer. Scholarly there is a university student and semi-illiterate mother. Religiously, a Christian and a Muslim share a jig while the old have a relenting and a hardliner conservative.

Amaechina is the new generation of younger Africans growing in the global village with more opportunities to progress away from the dark past.

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