Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe
Table of Contents
1. Anthills of the Savannah: Introduction
2. Anthills of the Savannah: Chinua Achebe Biography
3. Anthills of the Savannah: Summary
4. Anthills of the Savannah: Characters

5. Anthills of the Savannah: Themes
6. Anthills of the Savannah: Style
7. Anthills of the Savannah: Historical Context
8. Anthills of the Savannah: Critical Overview
Anthills of the Savannah: Essays and Criticism
¨ Spirituality as a Source of Hope
¨ Examining the Writers & Writing
¨ Anthills of the Savannah
10. Anthills of the Savannah: Compare and Contrast
11. Anthills of the Savannah: Topics for Further Study
12. Anthills of the Savannah: What Do I Read Next?
13. Anthills of the Savannah: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. Anthills of the Savannah: Pictures
15. Copyright
Anthills of the Savannah: Introduction
After a twenty-one-year hiatus from writing Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah in Great
Britain in 1987. It was published in the United States the following year. The novel just prior to Anthills of the
Savannah was A Man of the People, a book that foreshadows the military coups that would figure largely in
Nigerian politics in the coming years. To many of Achebe's readers, Anthills of the Savannah is the logical
extension of this novel as it depicts the inner workings and consequences of such a coup.
Critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, and many critics regard this novel as Achebe's best to date.
Achebe was already respected as one of the founding fathers of Nigeria's literary coming-of-age, so the
success of Anthills of the Savannah only confirmed his place among Nigeria's leading intellectuals. In 1987
Anthills of the Savannah was a finalist for the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award.
Anthills of the Savannah 1
Anthills of the Savannah tells the story of three schoolmates who become major figures in a new regime in the
fictional West African land of Kangan. Achebe addresses the course unbridled power often takes and
demonstrates how the fierce pursuit of self-interest comes at tremendous cost to the community as a whole.
Critics note that this novel is a departure for the author in that he creates fully developed female characters
and suggests that the women are sources of moral strength, tradition, and hope in the face of violence and
Anthills of the Savannah: Chinua Achebe Biography
Born in eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930 Chinua Achebe was deeply influenced by the Ibo (one of the
three major ethnic groups in Nigeria) and by the British colonial and post-colonial elements of contemporary
African society. His father, one of the first Christian converts in the village, was a member of the Church
Missionary Society and strongly discouraged his son from accepting native, non-Christian belief systems.
Still, Achebe was drawn to the traditional beliefs and mythology of the Ibo. He began to learn English at the
age of eight, and at fourteen he was selected to attend the Government College at Unuahia, one of West
Africa's best schools. In 1948, he became a student in the first class at University College in Ibadan. Although
intending to study medicine, he soon changed in favor of English coursework.
Chinua Achebe
One year after graduating with honors in 1953, Achebe went to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company.
His radio career ended, however, in 1966, when he left his position as Director of External Broadcasting in
Nigeria during the political and religious unrest leading to the Biafran War, a civil war that lasted from 1967
to 1970. Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and became involved in fundraising and
diplomatic endeavors, a role similar to that of Chris Osodi in Anthills of the Savannah. In 1971, Achebe
became the editor of Nigerian Journal of New Writing. Achebe is also a respected lecturer and teacher. From
1972 to 1975, he was Professor of English at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and in 1987 he
accepted a year-long position as Professor of African Studies at University of Connecticut at Storrs. In
addition, he has been Professor Emeritus at University of Nigeria at Nsukka since 1984.
Anthills of the Savannah: Introduction 2
Achebe began to exercise his writing ability while still working in radio, but it was not until he left
broadcasting that he began to pursue writing seriously. His work includes poetry, short stories, children's
writing, and novels. Achebe was one of the first to write in English about the contours and complexities of
African culture. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, remains his best-known. Upon its
publication, Achebe earned a reputation as a writer with a uniquely African point of view who could write
honestly about British colonialism in Nigeria. Achebe published No Longer at Ease, The Sacrificial Egg and
Other Stories, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People, then waited twenty-one years to publish Anthills of
the Savannah in 1987. His work since then includes Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987 and
Beyond Hunger in Africa.
Regarded as one of the founders of Nigeria's literary development, Achebe uses his work to call for an end to
oppression and a return to order, integrity, and beauty. He continues to combine his role as a storyteller with a
sense of responsibility to write with purpose and to instruct his readers.
Anthills of the Savannah: Summary
Part I
Set in the fictitious West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah opens with a meeting of the
regime's president and his Cabinet. The government has been in place for two years, since a coup overthrew
the former dictator. Three men, friends since childhood, have assumed important positions in the new system.
Sam is the president, Chris Oriko is the Commissioner of Information, and Ikem Osodi is the editor of the
government-controlled newspaper, the National Gazette. Ikem is an intellectual and a poet who is very
outspoken about the need to reform the government. Chris acts as a mediator between Ikem and Sam.
Sam has become a leader without regard for his people, seeking only to acquire more power for himself by
any means necessary. Chris and Ikem realize that Sam is rapidly becoming a dictator. They helped get him
appointed to the position, even encouraging him when he felt that his military background was inadequate
preparation for a position of such importance. Now, Chris and Ikem regret their previous support of their
friend and seek to control Sam in their own ways. Meanwhile, Sam's obsession with power has made him
paranoid and temperamental. When Sam decides he wants to be elected ‘‘President-for-Life,’’ a national
referendum is called, but the region of Abazon refuses to participate. Sam in turn denies the region access to
water despite a drought, expecting that without water or food the people will give in. When delegates from
Abazon arrive at the capital on a mission for mercy, Sam suspects that they are actually planning an
insurrection. In fact, his paranoia leads him to believe that the insurrection is being assisted by someone close
to him.
Although Chris is aware of how dangerous Sam is becoming, he believes that by staying in his government
position he can serve his country. Meanwhile, Ikem's editorials are becoming more radical, and Chris tries to
convince him to tone them down.
Ikem has a girlfriend, Elewa, who is semi-literate and works in a shop. She is pregnant with his child. Chris's
fiancee, Beatrice, is a well-educated woman who holds a position as administrator for one of the state offices.
She has known Ikem since youth and works for Sam, so she has connections to all of the major characters.
She observes the government's activities and Chris's and Ikem's reactions, and feels that she is the only one
sensitive enough to truly understand the situation. She expresses to Chris and Ikem that they are approaching
the problem incorrectly because they are not really connecting to the people and the land.
Part II
Sam commands Chris to fire Ikem from his position as editor, at which point Chris responds in a highly
unusual way—he refuses to obey Sam's order. Sam believes that Ikem is involved in the ‘‘protest’’ staged
Anthills of the Savannah: Chinua Achebe Biography 3
by the delegates of Abazon, but Chris knows better. Still, Ikem is fired and soon after addresses a student
group at a university. Never one to hold his tongue, he is very vocal about his criticism of the government. He
makes a joke about the regime minting coins with Sam's head on them, which is turned into propaganda
claiming that Ikem has called for the beheading of the president. Ikem is taken from his home in the middle of
the night and shot and killed by the state police.
Part III
Chris realizes just how dangerous Sam has become and goes into hiding after using his contacts within the
international press to publicize the truth about Ikem's murder. With the help of Emmanuel, a student leader
who greatly admires Chris; Abdul, a sympathetic cab driver; and a small covert network of supporters, Chris
is able to escape the capital city of Bassa by bus and head for Abazon. Meanwhile, the government orders
Chris's arrest and threatens anyone found to be withholding information about him.
On the bus trip, Chris begins to feel reconnected to his native land, and Emmanuel meets a beautiful student
named Adamma. The bus is stopped by a mob caught up in a drunken frenzy. They are celebrating the news
that Sam has been killed and his regime overthrown in another coup. As Chris and the other bus passengers
make their way through the crowd, gathering bits of information, Chris sees Adamma being dragged off by a
soldier to be raped. Chris rushes to her rescue, and the soldier shoots and kills him.
Part IV
Emmanuel, Abdul, and Adamma return to Bassa to tell Beatrice and the others what has happened. Although
grief-stricken, Beatrice hosts a naming ceremony for Ikem's baby girl, born after his murder. Men traditionally
perform the ceremony, but Beatrice fulfills this role, naming the child Amaechina, a boy's name that means
‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’
Anthills of the Savannah: Characters
A cab driver and family man sympathetic to Chris's plight, he uses his cab to help Chris get out of the city and
works with Emmanuel to make the plans to get Chris up north.
One of the passengers on the bus taken by Chris, Emmanuel, and Abdul as they leave Bassa and head north to
safety, Adamma is about to be raped when Chris steps in to save her. As a result, Chris is shot and killed, and
Adamma returns to Kangan with Emmanuel.
Agatha is Beatrice's flighty, religious, and judgmental house girl. She is a devout Christian who attends
services regularly and does not hide her disapproval of Beatrice's allowing Chris into her bed. Beatrice is
often impatient and short with Agatha, but as the novel progresses, she begins to feel more compassion for
Ikem's pregnant girlfriend, Elewa represents the common people. Unlike Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice, she is
semiliterate and works in a shop. She is highly emotional and expressive. Through Elewa, Beatrice comes to
understand that coming from humble origins does not necessarily make a person frail or insecure. On the
contrary, Elewa's emotional displays belie her resilience and self-confidence.
General Ahmed Lango
General Lango is a duplicitous man who works his way into Sam's inner circle, only to lead the coup that will
Anthills of the Savannah: Summary 4
overthrow and kill him.
Emmanuel Obete
Emmanuel is a student who is a leader at his university and a great admirer of Chris. When Chris flees for his
life, Emmanuel accompanies him and helps make the complex plans involved in trying to get Chris out of
danger. He is also with Chris when he is killed and returns to tell Beatrice of his dignity even at the moment
of death. Emmanuel stands in contrast to the typical students described by Ikem during his speech at the
university, in which he referred to students and workers as the most derelict in their civic duties. Achebe
seems to suggest that Emmanuel will continue Chris's work in encouraging people to think for themselves
regardless of environmental hardship.
Beatrice Okoh
Chris's fiancee, Beatrice is one of Achebe's most fully developed female characters. She works for Sam and is
an old friend of Ikem's, so through her connections to Chris, Ikem, and Sam, she plays a significant role in the
action of the novel. She was born the fifth daughter to her parents (one sister has died). Her father had been
hoping for a son, so she was named Nwanyibuife, which means ‘‘A Woman Is Also Something.’’ As an
adult, Beatrice is well-educated, having earned a degree with honors in English from the University of
London, and she holds an important civil service position as an administrator in a state office. She also enjoys
writing short fiction, which Ikem reads and admires for its ‘‘muscularity’’ and ‘‘masculine’’ qualities.
Beatrice is characterized by sophistication, intelligence, and independence, but she is also attuned to the
common people on an intuitive level. Never having planned on a career in the government, she is very
disturbed by accusations that she is ambitious. In reality, she desires what she has desired since childhood—to
be left alone in her peaceful solitude and not attract any attention. Achebe places her firmly in the mythic
tradition of the people, making her a sort of manifestation of Idemili, a goddess sent to Man to oversee
morality. Although Beatrice is unaware of the myths regarding this goddess, she grows into a woman
possessed with wisdom, self-knowledge, and compassion as she connects with the culture of her land. At the
end of the novel, she participates in the naming ceremony for Ikem and Elewa's baby girl by naming the infant
Amaechina, a boy's name meaning ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ This is bold not only because she has
given a boy's name to a girl, but also because the responsibility of naming traditionally belongs to a man.
Professor Reginald Okong
A former Baptist minister and political scientist, Professor Okong was one of the first people Chris
recommended for Sam's Cabinet. Chris comes to regret this decision, however, when he sees that Okong
‘‘has no sense of political morality.’’
Christopher Oriko
In his youth, Chris attended Lord Lugard College with his friends Ikem and Sam. Even then, he served as the
‘‘buffer’’ and mediator between the athletic and outgoing Sam and the intelligent and pensive Ikem. As
adults, the three occupy prominent roles in Kangan's new military regime, and Chris's role as Commissioner
for Information again puts him in the position of go-between as Sam and Ikem engage in a contest of wills.
Chris stepped down as editor of the National Gazette to accept his position on Sam's Cabinet, after which
Ikem became the newspaper's editor. Chris is now Ikem's boss, but he himself reports to Sam, which puts him
in the uncomfortable position of trying to get Ikem to comply with Sam's will. Although Chris sees Sam
becoming mad with power, he is reluctant to give up his position in the Cabinet. Chris finally asserts himself
when Sam orders him to fire Ikem, thus beginning a harrowing series of events. Fleeing for his life, Chris
comes into contact with the ‘‘people’’ and begins to understand his country better. Chris is killed trying to
save a girl from being raped at a chaotic party, and his last words are, ‘‘The last green.’’ This is a reference
to a running joke he, Ikem, and Sam shared in the early days, when they imagined themselves as three green
bottles arrogantly situated on a shelf, each bound to fall.
Anthills of the Savannah: Characters 5
Ikem Osodi
Ikem is the outspoken and reform-minded editor of the state-owned National Gazette, a position that often
puts him in conflict with his boyhood friend, Sam, who is the president of Kangan. Part of his duty is to
broadcast Sam's messages to the people, which are Sam's way of feeling that he is radiating power from the
capitol out to the people. Ikem, on the other hand, believes strongly that the press should be free and
independent of government regulation. He and Chris often debate the effectiveness of Ikem's editorials, but
Ikem feels that even if they are futile, he should continue publishing them.
Despite the fact that he is a London-educated intellectual, Ikem is very sensitive to the needs of the common
people. His editorials are often harsh in their criticism of the new ruling regime, which makes Sam regard him
as treacherous. Ikem states that the best weapon against ineffective or unjust governments is not facts, but
passion. Unlike Chris, Ikem is an extremist who is not interested in working gradually toward progress and so
uses his powerful position as a journalist to call for change. Speaking to a group of students, Ikem discusses
the role of the storyteller in depth, insisting that it is the role of the writer to ask questions and make
challenges. He concludes his speech to the students by proclaiming, ‘‘Writers don't give prescriptions. They
give headaches!’’ Ikem also makes a joke about putting Sam's head on the country's coins, which leads to
false reports that Ikem called for the beheading of the president. His fate already orchestrated, Ikem is taken in
the night by government secret police and killed. Still, his presence continues to be felt among the people and
his friends—a presence strengthened by the fact that he leaves behind a girlfriend close to giving birth to their
Major Johnson Ossai
Major Ossai is the head of Sam's security force, the State Research Council (SRC). He is a brutal, menacing,
and evil man who calms Sam's insecurities whenever possible. Among his methods of torture is using a
simple stapler on the hands of those from whom he needs information.
Sam is the new president of the military regime in power following a coup, a position he holds due in no small
part to the efforts of his schoolmates Chris and Ikem. He is described as being very athletic and very
charming, having adopted the ways of an English gentleman. Early in the novel, Ikem comments on Sam's
‘‘sense of theatre,’’ adding that Sam ‘‘is basically an actor and half of the things we are inclined to hold
against him are no more than scenes from his repertory to which he may have no sense of moral commitment
whatsoever.’’ Although he attended the prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Sam is fully
aware that he is unprepared for his new government leadership role. However, he soon becomes blinded by
power, insisting on being called ‘‘Your Excellency’’ and seeking to be elected ‘‘President for Life.’’
Military school trained Sam and his fellow cadets to remain aloof from political matters, and Sam was, at first,
quite terrified in his new role. His solution was to gather together his friends and give some of them
government positions from which he could seek their advice. Once he overcame his fear, however, he began
to relish his power, becoming extremely upset at even the mildest demonstrations against him.
Chris can see that Sam is now a dictator-in-the-making and considers him a ‘‘baby monster,’’ but Sam is
only concerned about securing as much power for himself as he can without interacting with the people of the
country. In fact, he is starving a dissident province in hopes of forcing them to comply with his authority. He
soon becomes consumed with paranoia, anger, and insecurity, and when his political ambitions are
disappointed, he recalls being told how dangerous boyhood friends can be. After he arranges for Ikem's
murder and Chris has fled, Sam himself is killed during a coup and buried in a shallow grave.
Anthills of the Savannah: Themes
Anthills of the Savannah: Themes 6
Overcoming a History of Suffering
The end of the novel offers a little hope but also shows that the political unrest of Kangan cannot be addressed
by simple solutions. The people want change and peace but are unsure how to attain a suitable system of
government, especially when each successive regime is made up of members of the coup that overthrew the
last regime. It is a system driven by sheer might and strength as opposed to justice, philosophy, or respect for
the land. The novel also portrays a strong and enduring sense of community among the people, despite the fact
that they have no political rights. Achebe suggests that this unity is what keeps the community and its heritage
and culture intact even when it is ravaged by unjust political regimes.
Individual Power
In its depiction of Sam, Anthills of the Savannah provides a perfect example of the saying, ''Power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’ Unprepared for leadership beyond the military realm, Sam finds
himself occupying the position of president of Kangan. Relishing his power, he insists on being called
‘‘Your Excellency’’ and decides that he wants to be elected President-for-Life. At the same time, he makes
little effort to connect with the people of Kangan and relies heavily on his Cabinet while simultaneously
belittling them. In the end his obsession, paranoia, and insecurity get the better of him, and he goes so far as to
have a childhood friend (Ikem) killed because he is perceived as a threat.
At the beginning of the novel, Sam is still a ‘‘baby monster,’’ but as the action unfolds, Sam grows into a
full-fledged evil dictator. Achebe shows the dangers of blindly pursuing power at the expense of the
community. Sam has no regard for the people he is supposed to be leading, and for that they suffer.
Throughout Anthills of the Savannah there are references to stories, narratives, and the storyteller. Achebe
writes that ‘‘the story is everlasting’’ and that ‘‘storytellers are a threat.’’ Three of the novel's main
characters are writers: Ikem is a writer and newspaper editor, Beatrice writes short stories, and Chris is a
former journalist who left his post as editor of the National Gazette to accept the position of Commissioner of
Information. The elder from Abazon speaks at length about the important and lasting role of the storyteller.
He argues that in his youth he would have said that the battle was most important, but now that he is older and
wiser, he understands that the story is more powerful. Through stories, a community can retain its sense of
history and tradition and seek guidance for the future. He explains, ‘‘Because it is only the story that can
continue beyond the war and the warrior … The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.’’ Later, as Ikem
addresses a group of students, he expresses his belief that the role of the writer is to ask questions, not to
propose solutions. Critics have observed that this is perhaps what Achebe is doing with this novel.
The power of writing is shown after Ikem is taken away in the dark of night and killed. To get the truth about
the event into public awareness, Chris uses his contacts within the international press as a means of informing
the world about what happened to Ikem.
The Role of Women
Anthills of the Savannah is often noted for portraying strong, believable female characters. In the midst of
political strife and injustice, the women maintain a connection with their heritage and culture, and stand for
moral strength and sensitivity. Ikem converses with Beatrice about his newfound respect for the position and
relevance of women in contemporary society. He explains that women are the most oppressed group of people
worldwide and that they must be respected as important to the future of a nation.
At the end of the novel, the naming ceremony takes place for Elewa's infant girl. Although men traditionally
name children, Beatrice does so in this case. In this scene, Achebe portrays women as the keepers of tradition,
even if tradition must be altered to accommodate modern life. To further blur the lines between masculinity
and femininity, the baby is given a boy's name that means ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ Many critics have
commented that Achebe's portrayal of women in Anthills of the Savannah suggests that they are critical in the
Anthills of the Savannah: Themes 7
growth of new African societies.
Anthills of the Savannah: Style
Point of View
Anthills of the Savannah provides a complete view of the action of the novel by offering multiple points of
view. Achebe allows the reader to see the situation from the points of view of Ikem, Chris, and Beatrice, and
also, in some passages, from that of a third-person, omniscient narrator. This technique enables the reader to
make judgments for him/herself rather than relying on a narrator or a single character to supply descriptions of
people and events. This also is a way in which Achebe retains the part of his African literary heritage that
focuses on the community rather than on the individual.
The novel takes place in the fictitious West African land of Kangan. Its borders were arbitrarily drawn by the
British colonialists. Some critics maintain that the country is modeled after Achebe's native Nigeria, while
others see it as a version of Idi Amin's Uganda. Regardless, Kangan is a contemporary African nation
struggling to find stability in postcolonial times. Although the setting is contemporary, there are elements of
tradition that reflect consistency in the community and among the people. Tradition is perhaps the strongest
source of security and gives the people a feeling of unity.
The setting also takes the reader into the government headquarters—a privilege not afforded to the citizens of
Kangan. Whereas the public is forced to rely on hearsay and the press to learn what is happening within the
government, the reader can see first-hand how the regime is being run, how it is changing, and how the
various forces work together or against each other in the unstable military regime.
Most of the dialogue of the ordinary people of Kangan is written in the dialect of Pidgin English. The unusual
grammar and unfamiliar words of this dialect can be difficult for Western readers, but its inclusion gives the
novel a strong sense of realism. In addition, it is easy to identify a character's level of education or social
standing based on his or her manner of speech. Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem are sympathetic as characters, as
they are able to interact with common people by speaking Pidgin English and with powerful political figures
by speaking British English. Rather than distance themselves from the ordinary citizen, as Sam does, Chris,
Beatrice, and Ikem routinely abandon their British English in favor of being able to communicate in a
meaningful way.
Blending of Old and New
Achebe is often praised for his skillful blending of folklore, myth, proverbs, and customs with modern
Western political ideologies and Christian belief systems. By presenting these two approaches, Achebe asserts
his belief in the power of the past to ease the excesses and confusion of the present.
In a similar vein, Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to apply the conventions of the novel to African
storytelling. Well aware of the strong oral tradition of African literature, Achebe found a way to write
honestly about Africa in a way that is accessible for an international audience. Anthills of the Savannah was
originally written in English, and by adopting a structure that is familiar to his English-speaking audience, he
makes his African storytelling available without compromising the integrity of his heritage. At the same time,
Nigerians can benefit from his writing because English is their official language.
Anthills of the Savannah: Style 8
Anthills of the Savannah: Historical Context
Literary Heritage
Typical of African cultures, Nigeria's storytelling comes from a long oral tradition. This tradition allowed
generations to benefit from African literature despite widespread illiteracy. Folktales, legends, verse, myths,
and proverbs were preserved in the memories of the people and communicated by performance or simple
recitation. As in other societies, myths in African culture explain the wonders of nature, provide creation
narratives, and relate the activities of divine beings. Legends, on the other hand, generally describe the actions
of people and often commemorate heroes. The purpose of oral literature is not only to entertain, but also to
instruct and honor.
The strong oral tradition in Africa is a major influence for twentieth-century Nigerian writers such as Amos
Tutuola Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. Achebe, for example, writes in the traditional
novel form in a personalized way that draws from the deep resources of his Nigerian heritage. In her book
Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, Margaret Laurence observed that beginning in
the 1950s Nigeria experienced ‘‘the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from
the traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society.’’
Political Instability
Growing up in Nigeria, Achebe saw for himself how disruptive social upheaval and political instability are
and how they affect every facet of a society. He was born during Nigeria's colonial years, a period of
tremendous conflict and sociopolitical change. Achebe grew up during the ensuing period of nationalist
protest. Once Nigeria gained independence in 1960, vestiges of the colonial years remained, including borders
and new political ideas and structures.
Image Pop-Up
Nigerian federal troops in a Biafran town
When Achebe left his position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in 1966, he accepted the position of
Biafran Minister of Information. (It is likely that this experience informed his creation of Chris, the
Commissioner of Information in Anthills of the Savannah.) The Republic of Biafra was a short-lived Ibo state
created upon secession. The Ibo decided to found their own state after witnessing the massacre of ten
thousand to thirty thousand of their people by Islamic Hausa and Fulani people, rival ethnic groups.
Anticipating further bloodshed, the Republic of Biafra announced its independence in 1967. Unfortunately,
the announcement was not accepted, and a civil war ensued that lasted until 1970, when Biafra surrendered. A
food shortage caused by the war brought about the deaths of close to a million people.
At the time Anthills of the Savannah was published, political unrest continued to dominate Nigeria. In August
of 1985 a military coup, responding to the growing discontent of the people, overthrew the existing
authoritarian military regime. The new leader accepted the role of president, banning members of certain past
regimes from political involvement for a period of ten years. A few years later, the first tentative steps toward
civilian rule were taken.
The Role of Women
Even before Europeans arrived during the colonial period, Achebe's native Nigeria was a male-dominated
society. Ikem explains to Beatrice that their culture initially regarded women as lowly and unworthy of
respect and then elevated them to a pedestal, where they could remain beautiful and admired but
inconsequential. Similarly, the worship of goddesses was an important part of a village's spiritual life but had
little to do with decisions regarding power structures. The colonial period widened the gender equality gap by
providing African men with educational opportunities while African women received schooling in utilitarian
Anthills of the Savannah: Historical Context 9
skills to prepare them for domestic work. Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, came at a time when
women around the world had made great strides in asserting their relevance in and value to society.
Oral Tradition
As central as the oral tradition is to African cultures, the widespread use of the printed word, radio, and
television threatens to render this important tradition obsolete. With Anthills of the Savannah Achebe offers a
story of the people told by the people (by using multiple viewpoints) and emphasizes the central role of the
storyteller in African society. This message comes from various sources, ranging from the village elder of
Abazon to the erudite and well-educated Ikem. Achebe reconciles the tension between the oral tradition and
the printed word, demonstrating that one does not have to yield to the other as both make worthy contributions
to contemporary African society.
Anthills of the Savannah: Critical Overview
Achebe is revered as one of the founders of modern Nigerian literature for his historically sensitive and
insightful novels about his native land and its people. He is praised for his ability to artfully combine
traditional folklore and tradition with Western ideologies, and critics are quick to note that Achebe's writing is
relevant to a multitude of societies, not just those of Africa. Still, Achebe is first and foremost a contemporary
African writer writing novels that carry important messages about and for his people.
Upon the release of Anthills of the Savannah, critics responded by praising the author's refined insights and
discipline, often attributing them to his twenty-plus-year hiatus. Nadine Gordimer of New York Times Book
Review commented that the novel ‘‘is a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual
growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding, and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which
Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal.’’ A. Ravenscroft of Literary Criterion commented on the
cross-country bus trip taken by Chris and his sympathizers in which Chris comes to appreciate the depth of his
heritage. Ravenscroft wrote that if Achebe had ended the novel at this point, ‘‘it would have meant that in
the twenty-one years since A Man of the People, Achebe had learned only to confirm the rather bleak,
intellectually cynical vision of political Africa that the earlier novel tends to project. Now, however, the urban
masses comprise people with individual lineaments. And the final chapter, even with its acrid question:
‘What must a people do to appease an embittered history?’ is about the unorthodox, strangely ecumenical
naming ceremony for Ikem's child, performed by Chris's woman-friend Beatrice.’’
Achebe's presentation of the corrupting nature of power is admired by readers and critics alike. Fellow
Nigerian Ben Okri noted in Observer, ‘‘This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins
to die.’’ Other critics view the senseless deaths of the three former schoolmates as representative of a
generation willing to sacrifice its self-knowledge in exchange for power. Related to this idea is Okri's
observation that the end of the novel implies that power is better left within the ‘‘awakened spirit of the
people’’ than given to the political elite. Similarly, in Research in African Literatures Neil Kortenaar
described Sam as an illustration of the dangers of a regime or government system that is disconnected from its
As for most of his novels, Achebe is commended for his use of language in Anthills of the Savannah.
According to Joseph Swann in Crisis and Creativity in the New Literature in English, Achebe's use of
multiple narrative voices indicates that history is more than a set of events in the past to be told; it is also the
feelings and ideas that different people have about the events. Critics also agree that Achebe writes in Western
English without sacrificing the integrity of his characters or their African settings and is capable of writing
dignified speech as well as he writes dialect when necessary. The frequent use of Pidgin English in the novel,
however, posed a problem for a few critics who felt it might alienate Achebe's international readers.
Ravenscroft, on the other hand, found that its inclusion represents unity in diversity: ‘‘With political
Image Pop-Up 10
orthodoxies side-stepped, the sounds of hope come through across a range of diverse language levels—the
sophisticated English of the educated elite, the demotic [everyday] Pidgin of the people, the proverbial and
parable-like cadences of the Abazon elder, the liturgical incantation of Ikem's ‘Hymn to the Sun,’ the
lyricism of Beatrice's temple-priestess lovemaking with Chris, the transformation of traditional kolanut ritual
into litany for blessings not only upon the infant being named but upon all life of Kangan.’’
To many critics, Achebe offers in Anthills of the Savannah the message that Nigeria herself must take
responsibility for her state of disarray. Certainly, the colonial period ushered in a host of problems, he seems
to say, but ultimately the country itself must pick up its own burden and cure its own ills. In New York Review
of Books Neal Ascherson wrote, ‘‘In this new novel … Chinua Achebe says, with implacable honesty, that
Africa itself is to blame, and that there is no safety in excuses that place the fault in the colonial past or in the
commercial and political manipulations of the First World.’’
Anthills of the Savannah: Essays and Criticism
Spirituality as a Source of Hope
Many critics and readers of Anthills of the Savannah are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end of the
novel. Three of the novel's four main characters have died senseless deaths, and the country is left in the
throes of instability. Free of one military regime, it faces another, with no reason to believe that this one will
be any better than the last two. Even so, Achebe weaves a story that is not completely devoid of optimism;
there are elements of hope and unity, but the reader, like the people of Kangan, must search for them. There is
a subtle spirituality running through the novel, and Achebe seems to suggest that the spirit of the people
cannot be defeated, even by a series of dictators and corrupt governments. This enduring spirit is what binds
the people together and maintains a sense of community that offers the weary Kangans a degree of stability
and buoyancy.
Achebe is the son of a missionary and has spent much of his life in Western cultures. Therefore, he is fully
aware of the significance of the number three to the Christian belief system, and he uses it twice in Anthills of
the Savannah. There are three male figures who dominate the novel: the dictator, Sam; the editor, Ikem; and
the Commissioner of Information, Chris. The three men met in their early teenage years while attending the
same school, yet each took a very different path in adulthood. They came from similar backgrounds, which
illustrates that predicting the course of a person's life is not a simple task: tossing three seeds in the same soil
may result in three differing plants. Achebe's group of three main characters do not represent religious figures,
but they are three aspects of the same entity, and therefore comprise a sort of trinity. They make up a political
system that will not work and is destined to fail. Sam represents power driven by self-interest. Ikem represents
the desire for reform. He is outspoken and admired by the people, and prefers to do things his way without
compromising. Chris represents efforts to work for good within the system. He is a good man in a bad regime,
and he is idealistic enough to believe that by staying in the government he can serve his people. By the end, of
course, the regime has been toppled, replaced by another that will surely be just like it. When a system dies, so
do its components, and as representatives of different aspects of the failed system, each of the three men is
killed—Sam by another just like him, Ikem by his own peers, and Chris by an evil man who would rather
murder than behave honorably.
The story also contains a female trinity in the characters of Beatrice, Elewa, and Amaechina. Beatrice is
well-educated, sophisticated, and independent, and she holds an administrative position in the government.
Beatrice represents the positive aspects of the present. Elewa is a common woman who is highly emotional
and uneducated. She supports herself by working in a small shop. Elewa represents the past. Amaechina is
Elewa's infant daughter, and although she does not appear until the end of the novel, she is potential
embodied. As Ikem's daughter, she represents the meaning of her name, ‘‘May the Path Never Close.’’ She
Anthills of the Savannah: Critical Overview 11
is hope for the future, even though the future currently looks grim.
Beatrice and Elewa do not seem to have much in common, and readers may be surprised by their friendship.
Their commitment to each other, however, is undeniable. Upon receiving the news of Chris's death, Beatrice
is in complete shock. Achebe wrote, ‘‘In spite of her toughness Beatrice actually fared worse than Elewa in
the first shock of bereavement. For weeks she sprawled in total devastation. Then one morning she rose up, as
it were, and distanced herself from her thoughts. It was the morning of Elewa's threatened miscarriage. From
that day she addressed herself to the well-being of the young woman through the remaining weeks to her
confinement.’’ Despite their differences, Beatrice and Elewa have a few important qualities in common,
most notably that they have lost the men they loved deeply yet remain connected to each other and to the spirit
of the community.
Amaechina's naming ceremony is significant because it demonstrates the women's unwillingness to allow
tradition to die simply because the father is not present to conduct the ritual. Beatrice resists the trappings of
ceremony and takes the place that would normally be filled by a man, that of naming the infant. When Elewa's
drunk uncle witnesses this, he responds not by reprimanding the women but by cheering for them. He says,
‘‘Do you know why I am laughing like this? I am laughing because in you young people our world has met
its match. Yes! You have put the world where it should sit.… You gather in this … house and give the girl a
boy's name.… That is how to handle the world!’’ The women signify the refusal to let go of the traditions so
critical to their culture and in doing so they honor their heritage and maintain a meaningful link to the spirit of
the people.
Beatrice is the novel's single most spiritual character. Achebe identifies her strongly with the goddess Idemili,
who was sent to Earth by the Almighty to moderate Power. When the Almighty saw how Power was raging
across the Earth, he decided to send Idemili ‘‘to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping
around Power's rude waist a loincloth of peace and modesty.’’ She was sent to Earth in a Pillar of Water
connecting heaven and earth and has been worshipped ever since. On the night Ikem visits Beatrice and they
discuss his newfound respect for the important role women should be given in society, Ikem tells her that it
was not raining at his house but that when he started out to see her, it ‘‘was literally like barging into a pillar
of rain’’—a clear reference to the goddess. In another scene, Beatrice is summoned to the palace for a dinner.
As the evening progresses, she notices that an American reporter is becoming overly familiar and suggestive
with Sam. Although Beatrice is not an admirer of Sam's, she is a patriot to her country and cannot stand to see
its leader the object of such shameless overtures by a foreigner. In order to avert his attention, she throws
herself at him, dancing with him ‘‘like the dancer in a Hindu temple.’’ Once Sam is fully aroused and no
longer thinking of the reporter, Beatrice leads him outside and explains her actions to him. Sam calls her a
racist and sends her home immediately. This scene shows that Beatrice, like Idemili, is compelled to uphold
peace and morality by wrapping a loincloth, so to speak, around Power's rude waist.
There are other, more subtle clues that Beatrice is much more than an everyday government employee or
citizen of Kangan. The name Beatrice comes from the Latin root ‘‘beatus’’ meaning ‘‘happy,’’ from the
past participle ‘‘beare,’’ meaning ‘‘to bless.’’ Other words with these roots are ‘‘beatify,’’
‘‘beatific,’’ and ‘‘beatitudes,’’ all related to blessedness and joy. Beatrice is known by this name, not the
name her father gave her, Nwanyibuife, meaning ‘‘A Woman Is Also Something.’’ Another well-known
Beatrice in literature is Dante's guide through heaven in Paradiso, the last of the three books in his Divine
Comedy. As Achebe's Beatrice grows into the fullness of her identity, she acquires wisdom and a presence
that commands respect. Her experiences have shown her that the real strength of her people is in their unity
and enduring spirit because these are not crushed, even when the land is ravaged by political instability and
social upheaval.
Chris comes to grasp the spirit of his community when he embarks on his bus trip to Abazon. Although the
purpose of the trip is his flight to safety, he finds himself reconnecting with the people who have committed to
Spirituality as a Source of Hope 12
helping him. Looking out the bus window, he has the opportunity to revisit the landscape that was so distant
to him from the capitol building where he worked. His experiences help him realize that Beatrice was right
about his alienation from his own people, and as he reaches into the deep reservoirs of his own culture, he
finds that he is on a journey of self-discovery. In his heritage, he begins to find himself. As Chris comes to
realize that Bassa is far removed from the rest of Kangan, ‘‘the ensuing knowledge seeped through every
pore in his skin into the core of his being, continuing the transformation, already in process, of the man he
was.’’ Failing to undergo such a reconnection with the land, or even to accept that he was disconnected, was
Sam's undoing. By reaching for something so fleeting and fickle as power, he was doomed.
One of the most striking features of the landscape, Chris notices, is the anthills. Achebe offers little guidance
as to the significance of the anthills, although the title suggests that they symbolize an idea at the core of the
novel's message. Anthills survive the droughts every year, and when fires sweep across the savannah, they are
often all that is left on the scorched landscape. To many critics, the anthills represent survival when faced with
the harshest of circumstances. Their presence suggests an ongoing life force that endures in the face of the
knowledge that another fire is inevitable. For these reasons, the anthills are a fitting symbol for the enduring
spirit of the people and their culture.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bussey
holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies. She is an
independent writer specializing in literature.
Examining the Writers & Writing
When Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah in 1987, it was his first new novel in more than
twenty years. During that time, Nigeria had been governed by a succession of corrupt and greedy rulers, and
Achebe had dedicated himself to political activism rather than to his writing. Still, he continued to consider
the role of the writer in a nation under severe stress. What might be the best way for a writer to work for
change? How should an African writer—or any African—balance the uses of the traditional and the modern, the
local and the international, in his work? By populating Anthills of the Savannah with a variety of writers,
readers, and speakers, Achebe looks at these questions from different angles.
Early in the novel, Achebe sets up a distinction between those who take their direction from literature—either
oral or written—and those who pay too much heed to other forms of communication, including print and
broadcast journalism. (It is intriguing to speculate on how the availability of the internet would have changed
Ikem's crusade, had Achebe written twenty years later.) What emerges is not a strict opposition; the novel is
not making a case for old ways over new, or art over objectivity. Nations and individuals must learn to
combine old and new, to find a place for adapted tradition in the modern world. But the novel warns against
the over-reliance on the so-called truth and objectivity of news, and against making important decisions based
upon how the media will describe them.
His Excellency the Head of State is the first to demonstrate his concern for his public image, for how his
actions will be reported. In the second chapter he worries that demonstrators might lead Kangan to an episode
like the Entebbe Raid, in which Israeli soldiers descended swiftly on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, to free
French hostages. The president tells Professor Okong that he does not rely on his advisors, because if disaster
happens he will be the only one blamed: ‘‘Yes, it is me. General Big Mouth, they will say, and print my
picture on the cover of Time magazine with a big mouth and a small head.’’ There is, of course, other
evidence that the president is not fit to govern a country, but the fact that he is more concerned with how he
appears to the outside world than with how his own citizens perceive him is emblematic of his rule. The
president is far removed from his people, more concerned with being seen by outsiders as a powerful figure
than with actually being one.
Examining the Writers & Writing 13
Though the president does not perceive how the international news media, and his desire to look good for
them, influences him, he has (or thinks he has) a clear sense of how to use the press to manipulate others. He
sends Okong to meet with the Abazon delegation, rather than speaking directly with them himself, but he
believes he can appease them by giving them a moment of celebrity. He tells Okong, ‘‘Before you go, 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.’’ The
president has no intention of heeding the Abazon request, and he orders Okong to ‘‘make sure that nothing
about petitions gets into the papers.… This is a goodwill visit pure and simple.’’ The reporter and the
photographer are only for show, to make the Abazon leader feel important.
The president makes his own decisions based on how he will look in Time magazine, and he expects that
others share his motivation. He wants the Abazon delegation to have the illusion of being media celebrities for
a moment, because he thinks the illusion will distract them from their duty. But he cannot allow their petition
to become public knowledge. Particularly, he warns against television coverage: ‘‘Before you know it
everybody will be staging goodwill rallies all over the place so as to appear on television. You know what our
people are.’’ The president deludes himself on two counts in this brief speech. Although he is condescending
about how ‘‘our people are,’’ he is one of them, as dazzled by the spotlight as he believes them to be. And
he appears to have forgotten that he was the one, only minutes before, who labeled the protest a ‘‘goodwill
visit.’’ In his mind, the connection with television news has already made the label a fact.
Frequently in Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe presents a scene featuring one of the three old friends, and
then in the next scene shows another of the three saying or doing something that echoes the first. When Chris
phones Ikem to request the photographer for the goodwill delegation, he also asks to see Ikem's text before it
is printed. Ikem protests, in language that echoes the president's earlier complaint: ‘‘You seem to be
forgetting something, namely that it is my name and address which is printed at the bottom of page sixteen of
the Gazette.’’
Though the language is similar, the concerns of the two men are different. The president is willing to make a
dishonorable decision rather than appear foolish in print. Ikem is unwilling to act dishonorably—to have his
reporting censored or edited— because he is proud of the name that appears on his work. Both men believe in
the power of the press. The president believes that his control of the press can help him shore up his power.
Ikem believes that his editorials can help bring the presidency down. As it turns out, both men are wrong.
Achebe demonstrates more than once that being in print or being broadcast is not the same thing as being true
or solid or valuable. Although Ikem does his best to tell the truth, Chris as Minister of Information ‘‘owns all
the words in this country.’’ Or does he? After Chris has fled Bassa, Emmanuel the university student
manages with ‘‘incredible ease’’ to plant a story in the newspaper with a simple anonymous phone call, and
Chris is forced to admit that ‘‘the affair put the journalistic profession in Kangan in a very poor light
indeed.’’ All of the characters agree that the Voice of America radio broadcasts are not to be trusted, and the
women at the president's dinner choose their inappropriate attire based on what they have heard from
‘‘raving American and American-trained preachers on sponsored religious programmes nightly on
Separate from journalism and propaganda, Achebe considers literature—poetry, fiction, drama, proverbs, and
myths. Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice are all readers and writers, sprinkling their conversation with allusions to the
Bible or to great Western writers like Graham Greene and Walt Whitman. Beatrice has drawn praise from
Ikem for the ‘‘odd short story and poem’’ she has written. Ikem is an admired poet as well as a journalist,
and his prose-poem ‘‘Hymn to the Sun’’ is held in higher regard by his friends than all of his crusading
editorials. Only Chris, the former editor of the Gazette, does not produce literature (this is only one of the
ways that Achebe shows that Chris does not see what is happening around him). Not until he is on the bus
heading north and he looks at Ikem's ‘‘Hymn to the Sun’’ again does he begin to learn how to read
Examining the Writers & Writing 14
literature, and to see with the clarity of a writer. The poem reveals ‘‘in details he had not before experienced
how the searing accuracy of the poet's eye was primed not on fancy but fact.’’
But even literary writing can be corrupted if the desire for fame overrides the desire to express truth. The most
pointed commentary on mass media and its influence is the poetry magazine Reject, edited by Dick in Soho,
London. Reject was intended to publish only poetry that had been rejected by other magazines. The editors
soon learned that many people were so hungry to appear in print that they were willing to write fake rejection
slips to accompany their submissions. Even a magazine designed to offer rejected work cannot be trusted to be
As he demonstrates in all of his novels, Achebe reveres oral literature and the honest spoken word. Many
critics of Anthills of the Savannah have pointed out that the lines spoken in pidgin by various characters of
less education often contain the essential wisdom and truth of the culture. Proverbs, snatches of song, and the
myth of the priestess Idemili all are presented as demonstrating the goodness and strength of the Kangan
people, far removed from the sophisticated upper-class Westernized government officials.
In the often-cited ninth chapter, the Abazon elder honors Ikem for his work on behalf of his people, although
he has not read Ikem's writing, ‘‘because I do not know ABC.’’ The elder praises those who ‘‘tell their
fellows that the time to get up has finally come,’’ and also those who, ‘‘when the struggle is ended … take
over and recount its story.’’ With his editorials and his poetry, Ikem is prepared to do both. The elder
continues, ‘‘The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important;
and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way.… But if you ask me which of them
takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story.’’
Three chapters later, Ikem delivers his own oration, before a large crowd at the University of Bassa. He has
been fired from the newspaper, but follows Beatrice's suggestion that ‘‘if you can't write you can surely get
up and talk.’’ Like the Abazon elder, whose voice has ‘‘such compelling power and magic’’ that everyone
is captivated, Ikem gives a speech that is ‘‘so powerfully spoken it took on the nature and scope of an epic
prose-poem.’’ It is this oral presentation, far more than anything he has ever written in the Gazette, that
moves the government to silence him.
Throughout the novel, Ikem is the one among the three old friends who has retained the most of his youthful
idealism and vision; the two others are played off him. Like the president, Ikem respects the power of the
media, and is aware of his role in the spotlight. Although he has some of the president' s sense of
self-importance, Ikem tries to use his public forum for the greater good. Like Chris before him, Ikem is editor
of the Gazette, and like Chris he initially approaches the job with no strong political conviction. But Ikem is
politicized when he goes to watch a public execution, something Chris never did. Not until the end does Chris
begin to see with ‘‘the poet's eye.’’ Ikem has a better perspective on the media than the president does, he is
a more effective journalist than Chris was, and he is a better poet than Beatrice. Ikem and the others face
similar choices, but Ikem chooses the most nobly. This idea is reinforced by the novel's references to
journalism and literature. He combines the best qualities of the other two, but in the end all three die.
Anthills of the Savannah is not a repudiation of journalism or of the notion of objectivity. Instead, Achebe
calls for balance. Ikem writes dozens of impassioned editorials, but it is finally through his prose-poem that he
connects with Chris, and through his speech that he poses a threat to the president. If Kangan is ever to be a
just nation, its rulers and its people must combine old and new, objective and subjective, editorials and poetry.
They must use both their heads and their hearts. The precise combination is beyond Achebe's ken to describe.
As Ikem shouts to his audience, ‘‘Writers don't give prescriptions.… They give headaches!’’
Source: Cynthia Bily, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Bily teaches
writing and literature at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.
Examining the Writers & Writing 15
Anthills of the Savannah
In ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ a story he wrote seventeen years ago Chinua Achebe noted how the violence of civil war
inevitably outlives the actual conflict, and barely pausing for breath, extends itself into peacetime. As a band
of thieves threatens the protagonist's family with automatic rifles, the leader dwells for a moment on this fine
Awrighto. Now make we talk business. We no be bad tief. We no like for make trouble.
Trouble done finish. War done finish and all the katakata wey de for inside. No Civil War
again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?
Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe's first major novel since Things Fall Apart appeared thirty years ago,
unfolds against a similarly euphemistic backdrop of civil peace. The setting is the West African nation of
Kangan, a fictional cousin to Achebe's own Nigeria. During the last two years, Kangan has witnessed a
scenario of depressing familiarity: a revolution against the civilian government, followed by the rule of an
‘‘interim’’ military government, whose leader soon undergoes a transformation into President-for-Life,
First Citizen, His Excellency or whatever job title happens to be in fashion among sitting tyrants. In this case,
the aspiring kingpin—a product of Sandhurst Military Academy named Sam—has recently been frustrated in
his ambitions. The northern province of Abazon has failed to cast its vote in his favor, spoiling his
‘‘unanimous’’ election. In return, he has refused to provide relief to the drought-stricken province.
In the novel's opening scene, Sam reaffirms his refusal during a meeting of the Cabinet, an assortment of
toadies and flacks whose tone Achebe catches perfectly. The meeting is recorded by one of Achebe's multiple
narrators, Chris Oriko, Commissioner for Information. A boyhood friend of Sam's, Chris can't help but
approach him irreverently; he's also conscious of how rapidly the regime's malevolence has accelerated, ‘‘a
game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous.’’ Why, then, does he
remain in the Cabinet? Inertia, he speculates, curiosity and ‘‘one last factor … namely that I couldn't be
writing this if I didn't hang around to observe it all. And no one else would.’’
His reportorial instincts notwithstanding, Chris is an insider, with an intelligence faintly poisoned by
accommodation. The opposite is true of his old friend Ikem Osodi, poet and current editor of the
government-owned National Gazette. Osodi continues to fight the regime via the editorial page. When a
perplexed Chris remonstrates with him, Ikem replies, ‘‘But supposing my crusading editorials were indeed
futile would I not be obliged to keep on writing them?’’ This argument—pragmatism versus
idealism—resounds throughout the novel, and not unexpectedly, idealism gets the best lines. Defending his
activities on the basis of principle, rather than results, Ikem won't dwell on the ‘‘many successes [his]
militant editorials have had.’’ Hard facts, he insists, are beside the point:
Those who mismanage our affairs would silence our criticism by pretending they have facts
not available to the rest of us. And I know it is fatal to engage them on their own ground. Our
best weapon against them is not to marshal facts, of which they are truly managers, but
passion. Passion is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.
The two friends' argument over how to respond best to a loathsome regime is complicated by one of that
regime's most loathsome features: its constant, theatrical dissembling—government by euphemism. Ikem notes
how Sam has turned his rule into a species of performance: ‘‘He is basically an actor and half of the things
we are inclined to hold against him are no more than scenes from his repertory to which he may have no sense
of moral commitment whatsoever.’’ (It's a performance, too, that American readers can't fail to recognize in
the eighth year of the age of Reagan.) With an actor, albeit a dangerous one, at the helm of state, the language
of state quickly degenerates. Sam is simply the latest version of Auden's Ogre, for whom ‘‘one prize is
Anthills of the Savannah 16
beyond his reach, / The Ogre cannot master Speech.’’
Achebe passionately opposes this debasement of words by politics, turning upon it all his wit and disgust.
‘‘The story,’’ an Abazon tribesman tells Ikem, ‘‘is our escort; without it, we are blind.’’ But can any
quality of language suffice to oppose the linguistic rot that calls Kangan' s head torturer ‘‘Director of the
State Research Council’’? Achebe can answer this question only obliquely, by placing his book in our hands.
In the story itself, Ikem meets his death at the hands of that very same Research Council. (In Idi Amin's
Uganda, the state slaughterhouse bore a nearly identical title, the State Research Bureau. And in fact, the
account of Wycliffe Kato's incarceration there, published in a recent issue of Granta, would fit seamlessly
into Achebe's novel.)
Of course, opposing a tyranny, or even enduring it, involves more than precision of language. At the same
time as it records Ikem's and Chris's fall from political grace, Anthills of the Savannah chronicles their rising
consciousness, with respect to both women and that ticklish entity, ‘‘the people.’’ Both men begin the
novel with conspicuously retrograde attitudes toward women. The agent of their enlightenment, and the
novel's third major character/narrator, is one Beatrice Okoh, raised in an Anglican compound, educated at the
University of London and now a middle-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance. Beatrice senses Ikim's
sexism as ‘‘the only chink in his revolutionary armor.’’ And under her prodding, Ikem finally comes
around, recanting his ‘‘candid chauvinism’’ in a four-page-long apologia. Indeed, after confessing his
crimes against the female principle Ikem widens his focus to all oppressed groups. ‘‘Free people may be
alike everywhere in their freedom,'' he tells Beatrice, ''but the oppressed inhabit each their own particular
A fine epigraph. But Achebe's feminism, entirely laudable, doesn't always translate effectively into fiction. In
particular, he has resorted throughout to presenting Beatrice as an embodiment of feminine wisdom, ‘‘the
village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire,
but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen.’’ Perhaps her divinity would sit
easier if she were as fleshed-out a character as the two men. Instead, the fuzziness of her portrait conspires
with her divinity to keep her symbolic. Yet Achebe is too gifted a novelist to let this mutation take place. He
gives Beatrice passion, fear, grief. Still, it's the only element of the novel in which polemic, or even its twin,
sentimentality, threatens to displace flesh and blood.
No such problems mar Achebe's treatment of the other target of raised consciousness, the ‘‘people.’’ For
one thing, he gives them voice throughout Anthills of the Savannah by turning again and again to the sprung
rhythms of the local patois. (An example, in which a policeman offers his solution to Kangan's problems:
‘‘Make every man, woman and child and even those them never born, make everybody collect twenty
manilla each and bring to me and I go take am go England and negotiate with IMF to bring white man back to
Kangan.’’) Even Chris, Ikem and Beatrice shed their formal speech during moments of intimacy or stress,
temporarily lowering the barriers of class and education.
For Ikem, though, these temporary connections aren't enough. How can a writer, in particular, forge a deeper
bond 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 compassion for this ‘‘bruised heart’’ is genuine and convincing. It doesn't
shield him, however, from the appalling contradictions housed in its chambers. In a brilliant scene, Ikem
attends a public execution on a beach near the capital city. A television crew and a bleacher full of V.I.P.s
have joined the vast crowd to observe the ‘‘ritual obscenities.’’ As he waits for hours in the hot sun, Ikem
peers at the crowd around him and wonders at its stamina. ‘‘How,’’ he wonders, ‘‘does the poor man
retain his calm in the face of such provocation?’’ Answering his own question, he decides that ‘‘great good
humour’’ must explain it. Minutes later, though, he sees the thousands of onlookers jeer as the four
condemned men are led out and shot. The terrible laughter—no longer a subversive tool of survival—strikes
Ikem as a form of self-mutilation:
Anthills of the Savannah 17
But even the poor man can forget what his humour is about and become altogether too
humorous in his suffering. That afternoon he was punished most dreadfully at the beach and
he laughed to his pink gums and I listened painfully for the slightest clink of the concealed
weapon in the voluminous folds of that laughter. And I didn't hear it.
Ikem's reaction joins disgust, pity, terror, disappointment; characteristically, it doesn't bar hope. The same can
be said for Achebe himself. Anthills of the Savannah describes a truly dreary historical moment, in which
monstrous halfwits wield the instruments of survival and destruction, the ‘‘yam and the knife.’’ Yet Achebe
establishes hope as a given, as the only conceivable response to suffering, the only one that challenges its
permanence. It's a courageous act, urging such a thing upon us—neither pessimism nor optimism but a running
argument with despair. And one worth waiting thirty years for.
Source: James Marcus, ‘‘Anthills of the Savannah,’’ in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 15, April 16, 1988, p.

Post a Comment