Chinua Achebe, The Anthills of the Savannah

Matthew Whittle (University of Kent at Canterbury)
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Offering a comment on the paranoia of life in a totalitarian state, Chinua Achebe remarks in his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), that:

Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a matter of 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 one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down. (41)

It is a sentiment that underscores Achebe’s depiction of the rise of a ruthless dictatorial regime in the fictional West African state of Kangan in the latter half of the twentieth century, where the ideals of nationalist unity and democracy are displaced by new forms of domination. Anthills of the Savannah foregrounds the legacy of European colonial rule in Africa, whereby formal independence from European control does not mean freedom from the political and economic systems that supported colonialism. Yet, at the same time, the novel is arguably more critical of those who would blame everything on the external forces of imperialism or international capitalism: doing so, as the character Ikem Osodi declares, “is like going out to arrest the village blacksmith every time a man hacks his fellow to death” (152). It is the leaders who have followed in the wake of colonialism, and who have taken up the tools of their former oppressors, who are depicted as having betrayed the principles of nationalism; disregarding the people who brought them to power, these leaders mine the nation’s resources, foster an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, and manipulate public opinion for their own selfish gains. In this way Achebe’s novel dramatizes one of the central concerns of Frantz Fanon’s work The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which warns that independence will give rise to an indigenous middle class elite that will strive to ensure the “transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period” (122). It is within the people’s power, Achebe suggests, to forestall this form of wide-scale corruption by resisting the kinds of “stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate action” (151) that have allowed for the betrayal of nationalist revolutions.

While the setting can be read as in many ways representative of numerous post-colonial totalitarian states, Kangan resembles Achebe’s own homeland of Nigeria. As Maya Jaggi maintains in her 2001 Introduction:

Like Nigeria in the decades after independence in1960, Kangan has witnessed a succession of military coups – some popularly welcomed as the nemesis of grossly corrupt civilian regimes – an oil boom whose bounty has been embezzled and squandered, and the creeping apparatus of dictatorship: secret trials, torture, the spectacle of public executions. (vii)

The affinity to Nigeria reflects Achebe’s own criticisms of the governments that controlled his native country. Indeed, Achebe began writing the novel in the 1970s in response to Nigeria’s first attempted coup and his own implication in the plot (largely due to the plot of his fourth book A Man of the People,published in 1966) that forced him into hiding. The turbulent years that followed the attempted coup lead to the Eastern Region of Nigeria declaring itself the Republic of Biafra, for whom Achebe worked as the Minister of Information. Following Biafra’s secession, the Biafran war of 1967-70 erupted. As Jaggi explains, Achebe’s “house in Nsukka was bombed in the second month of the war, and, soon after, his best friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, with whom he set up the Citadel Press in Biafra, was killed” (viii). The Biafran people were defeated by General Yakubu Gowon, who was subsequently ousted in 1976 by a military coup. During this time, Achebe abandoned the writing of Anthills of the Savannah as he struggled with the challenge of finding an appropriate way in which to interpret the different and often tragic aspects of this history. “Although born of disillusionment and anguish”, Jaggi maintains, “Anthills is enriched by decades of experience, with its paranoia of cabinet meetings, cocktail parties, market scenes, traffic jams and cross-country bus journeys punctuated by road blocks and lawless security forces demanding bribes” (ix).

In the novel, Kangan is ruled by the ruthless Sandhurst-trained nationalist leader generally referred to as His Excellency, although his school friends from Lord Lugard College, Ikem Osidi and Chris Oriko, remember him by the more prosaic name of Sam. The relationship between the three men forms the core narrative in the novel. As Chris explains, “We are all connected. You cannot tell the story of any of us without implicating the others” (61). It is a statement that relates directly to the triangulations of the three central characters but also, in a broader sense, points to Achebe’s concern with how the narratives of political power struggles cannot be told as remote tales, but instead implicate the entire nation. Furthermore, their shared background as boyhood friends at school allows Achebe to introduce the link between politics and education, which is a key trope of postcolonial African literature. As Peter J. Kalliney notes in Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (2013), in as much as the novels of Achebe and many of his contemporaries, including Ayi Kwei Armah and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, register disillusionment with “the political misfortunes of postcolonial Africa, they also advertise the value, even the vulgar financial rewards, of an education in English. The repeated collision of pedagogical and political models […] speaks to the function of English as the language of both national politics and higher learning, pointing to the uncomfortable proximity of advanced education and political malfeasance” (182). All three main characters in Anthills have benefitted from this higher learning, which has allowed them to become schooled in European political ideologies and economics; yet they also discover that in many respects it has divorced them from their African roots.

Where Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o famously denounced the English language in favour of Gĩkũyũ and Swahili, as well as changing his name from James Ngũgĩ, Achebe maintained that, “Writing in English is a painful choice. But you don’t take up a language in order to punish it; that language becomes part of you” (quoted in Maya Jaggi, “Storyteller of the Savannah”). Rather than denouncing English altogether, Anthills of the Savannah fuses Igbo and English, shifting between the Standard English of its educated characters and the Igbo-inflected Pidgin English of characters such as Elewa, Ikem’s girlfriend. Pointing to the hybridity of English and Igbo cultures in late-twentieth-century West Africa, the University-educated main characters often slip into Pidgin. In praise of Achebe’s method, Ngũgĩ has commented that Achebe achieves a “third position out of the tension between Igbo and English, which becomes the base of his creativity” (quoted in Jaggi, “Storyteller”). This tension is further exemplified by the formal characteristics of the text, which fuse the European novel form with aspects of myth, prose poetry and oral tradition.

Although they share a childhood background through their friendship at school, it is the fraught relationship between Sam, Chris and Ikem that provides the central thread of the novel. Critical of the ruthlessness and corruption of Sam and his Cabinet, Ikem embodies qualities of both Achebe and his murdered poet friend Christopher Okigbo. Ikem is an idealistic journalist and admired poet who has taken over the role of editor of the National Gazette from Chris. At school it was he who was considered to be “the brightest in the class”, yet it was Sam who was the “social paragon”. As Chris explains to his civil servant girlfriend Beatrice, Sam was “the all-rounder – good student, captain of the Cricket Team, Victor Ludorum [“The Winner of the Games”] in athletics and, in our last year, School Captain. And girls worshipped at his feet from every Girls’ School in the province. […] He never failed once in anything. Had the magic touch” (61). Following his training at Sandhurst, Sam achieves the role of President through a military coup and promotes Chris from newspaper editor to the position of Honourable Commissioner for Information. In many ways, Chris is similar to the character of Odili, the school teacher turned political leader in A Man of the People.Chris’s role requires him to pass on instructions from Sam to the stubborn and recalcitrant Ikem, with whom he sympathises. The promotion thus confirms Chris’s position in the text as being more compromised and closer to the workings of power than Ikem, yet also retaining a sense of detached scepticism regarding the extent of both Sam’s control over the region and the corruption of his fellow Cabinet members.

The plot of Anthills of the Savannah plunges the reader into the heart of this troubled triangulation, taking place after Sam has become President. The novel begins following a referendum on the question of whether Sam should be appointed President-for-Life, thus situating the narrative at a pivotal moment when the nationalist leader cements his dictatorial rule. While three of the four provinces of Kangan vote in favour, the proposal is opposed in the province of Abazon. His Excellency responds to the perceived betrayal by slowing down public works in the region and preventing teachers from attending school – a further aspect of the text that highlights the link between political power and education in the English language. In protest, a delegation of peasants from Abazon travels to the capital demanding to be seen. Sam is informed by his sycophantic and paranoid Cabinet members that the delegation has come first and foremost to “declare their loyalty”, but that “they also may have a petition about the drought in their region” (15). Suggesting Sam’s detachment from the people he rules, and his obsession with the importance of appearance over any real action, he does not propose a solution to the peasants’ petition but instead instructs his aide, Professor Okong, to accept it on his behalf and to “ask the Commissioner for Information to send a reporter across; and the Chief of Protocol to detail one of the State House photographers to take your picture shaking hands with the leader of the delegation” (16). In addition, however, Sam also insists that no mention of the petition be made publicly – the arrival of the Abazonian peasants must only be seen as a declaration of loyalty. Sam’s refusal to meet with the delegation himself, and his insincere performance of engaging with these issues, establishes his role in the text as a satirical portrayal of self-interested nationalist political leaders well-versed in the kind of duplicitous rhetoric necessary for retaining power.

The arrival of the Abazon peasants points to the regionalism that will persist throughout the novel and, in turn, threaten Sam’s control of Kangan. Yet it also influences the antagonism between Sam, on the one hand, and Ikem and Chris on the other. Ikem, who is originally from Abazon, is regarded by Professor Okong as being responsible for “causing all this trouble because he is a typical Abazonian” (17). Ikem’s loyalty, it is suggested, is not with His Excellency but with his own people. The implication is that, through his influence at the National Gazette and as a respected poet, he should have swayed their vote. Enquiring about Chris to his Attorney-General, moreover, Sam is informed that his old friend “does not show any joy, any enthusiasm in matters concerning this government in general and Your Excellency in particular” (21). Beatrice’s narrative further reveals Chris and Ikem’s criticisms of the government, by offering an insight into their conversations. When she is invited by Sam to attend a dinner at his Presidential Retreat she recalls Ikem’s response to Sam’s refurbishment of the palatial Retreat following his successful coup: ““Retreat from what? From whom?” I recall him demanding with characteristic heat. “From the people and their basic needs of water which is free from Guinea worm, of simple shelter and food. […] You retreat up the hill and commune with your cronies and forget the very people who legitimize your authority” (69). After the dinner, Sam leads Beatrice to the balcony, which she rightly interprets as her opportunity to have her “turn in the bedchamber of African polygamy” (75). It is an invitation Beatrice refuses, but, after informing Chris of the incident, it further compounds his distrust of Sam’s dictatorial rule.

Ikem’s position throughout the text becomes more and more precarious. Following a speech to a group of students in which he champions the figure of the storyteller – “Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit” (146) – he loses his position as editor of the National Gazette and is assassinated. The conclusion to Sam’s and Chris’s stories are equally fatal following the toppling of His Excellency’s regime and Chris’s attempted escape into exile. The story of the three well-educated men – all talented in their distinct ways – provides a warning. As Beatrice notes at the novel’s close, “[t]his world belongs to the people of the world not to any little caucus, no matter how talented” (222).

Anthills of the Savannah articulates a belief in the socialist possibilities of nationalism able to protect against the disenfranchisement of the people. It is an investment in the will of the people to protect against corruption and exploitation similar to Fanon’s criticism in The Wretched of the Earth that “the national bourgeoisie conjures away its phase of construction in order to throw itself into the enjoyment of its wealth” (138). Yet Achebe’s novelalso cautions against a reliance on grand political theories or ideologies to create lasting change. Ultimately, it offers a warning against what Terry Eagleton, in his 1988 essay “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment”, considers an endemic pitfall of nationalism, whereby “premature utopianism grabs instantly for a future, projecting itself by an act of will or imagination beyond the compromised political structures of the present” (25). In Anthills of the Savannah, the people are warned that “man’s progress in freedom will be piecemeal, slow and undramatic. Revolution may be necessary for taking a society out of an intractable stretch of quagmire but it does not confer freedom, and may indeed hinder it” (94).

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah, with an Introduction by Maya Jaggi. Penguin Classics, 2001.
_____. A Man of the People, with an Introduction by Karl Maier. Penguin Classics, 2001.
Eagleton, Terry. “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment”, in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by Constance Farrington. Penguin, 2001.
Jaggi, Maya. “Storyteller of the Savannah”, The Guardian, 18 November 2000, Accessed 16 July 2014.
Kalliney, Peter J. Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, 2013.

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Citation: Whittle, Matthew. "The Anthills of the Savannah". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 16 July 2014 [, accessed 27 February 2024.]

13236 The Anthills of the Savannah 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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