Powerful People

D.A.N. Jones

  • Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
    Heinemann, 233 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 434 00604 1
  • Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey
    Joseph, 251 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2823 0
  • Lenin: The Novel by Alan Brien
    Secker, 703 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 436 06840 0

Chinua Achebe’s masterly novel concerns three powerful Africans. They are drawn on the dust-cover as three green bottles, from the English song: ‘If one green bottle should accident’ly fall ...’ One is the President of an African state, generally known as His Excellency, though his old schoolmates remember him as Sam. Another is Ikem Osidi, editor of the National Gazette, a fiery journalist and admired poet. At school, Ikem was considered ‘the brightest’, but Sam was the cricket captain and the ‘social paragon’. Sam went to Sandhurst and achieved the Presidency through a military coup. The third schoolfellow holds a rank midway between Ikem and His Excellency. This is Chris Oriko, former editor of the National Gazette, now promoted as the Honourable Commissioner for information, meeting His Excellency frequently and sometimes being ordered to pass on instructions to the recalcitrant Ikem. The three have known one another for twenty-five years, from the day when they ‘first met as new boys of 13 or 14 at Lord Lugard College’. Nigeria is suggested by the name of Lugard, but Achebe has set his story in an imaginary state, called Kangan, smaller than Nigeria. There is a general feeling that these three schoolfellows ought not to be working closely together, resenting one another. Lord Lugard boys should be lonely leaders, living in isolation like District Commissioners, educating or governing the common people.

Another detail to be noticed on the dust-cover is the slightly misleading biography of the author. Chinua Achebe’s academic successes are noted, his professorships in Africa and the United States – and they are said to have followed ‘a brief career in broadcasting’. If we look at his comparable novel of 1966, A Man of the People, we find a different emphasis in the biography: ‘Since 1954 he has worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and he is now Director of External Broadcasting’ – and since then he has held high office in one of Nigeria’s political parties. When Achebe writes about men of power – Presidents, ministers, civil servants, police chiefs – he knows what he is talking about. He is something like Conor Cruise O’Brien in this respect, better informed about government than most novelists and professors.

Anthills of the Savannah is comparable with A Man of the People partly because it concerns a statesman under the scornful gaze of a well-educated aide – who is perhaps not so much ‘a man of the people’ as his master is. His Excellency fears he might be overthrown, with the people mocking him. He has held a referendum on the question: should he be appointed ‘President-for-Life’? The people of the province of Abazon did not vote for this proposal, and they have suffered for it: public works in their province have slowed down and teachers are not sent to their schools. In Africa, as elsewhere, it is possible for whole regions to be punished in this way. His Excellency tells Chris Oriko that he never wanted to be Life President: ‘I didn’t and you know I didn’t but the moment it was decided upon you had a clear responsibility, you and Ikem, to see it succeed. You chose not to.’ Ikem is particularly to blame, for he is a son of Abazon, to be considered their spokesman in the capital: he could have swayed their vote.

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