- Contradictions and Alternatives in Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah
Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1987) exposes the ills of the African postcolonial nation-state in an effort to propose credible alternatives to them. These alternatives are best described as horizons because they do not take the form of systematic solutions or detailed political and social programs. In Anthills we find a groping for possibilities that are largely fragmentary, undecided—often amorphous. Its approach to the question of the nation-state is, moreover, marked by a deep ambivalence. This ambivalence, I will argue, should not be construed as the result of the author's inability to come to terms with the implications of his contradictory views (as David A. Maughan Brown believes) but instead reflects inherent tensions that characterize the postcolonial nation-state and the available alternatives that may remedy its abuses. With the critique Achebe mounts against the nation-state in Anthills, he attempts to clear a space that will enable fresh possibilities and open new horizons. Some of the new possibilities he suggests capture the political alternatives that Africans have put forward to redress the failure of many African nation-states to fulfill their peoples' aspirations. In so doing, Achebe represents the contemporary political situation in its irreducible complexity, refusing to resolve the contradictions that necessarily obtain from such a painstaking representation.
Achebe assigns enlightened intellectuals a significant role in imagining alternatives to the nation-state. He holds that an enlightened leadership of intellectuals, represented in Anthills notably by Chris Oriko and Ikem Osodi, could be instrumental in leading Nigerians and Africans beyond the impasses of their [End Page 50] nation-states. He also proposes the emulation of indigenous forms of government, which valorize plural decision-making and horizontal power relations. This return to pre-colonial societies for the political lessons they can afford may appear atavistic and reactionary, but in Achebe's hands they hold up a mirror to the nation-state, not only to further undermine its legitimacy, but to compete with it for political significance. Alongside enlightened intellectuals and the horizontal political institutions of traditional societies, Achebe dramatizes a woman, Beatrice Okoh, in positions of leadership, something that nationalism has disregarded and that postcolonial intellectuals have started to consider seriously. The novel concludes with a small multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and religiously diverse group, which offers some utopian possibilities.
In a 1987 interview with Anne Rutherford, Achebe rehearses these distinct alternatives, revealing in the process the contradictions they sustain. He asserts that the way out of the morass of the Nigerian nation-state lies in "the few thinking people," "leaders," "elite," "greatness," "a handful of people" (2–3). "[T]o correct the situation" (2), the elite must "create the circumstances in which the people begin to act with awareness" (3) and must use their special "training and education and qualifications . . . to initiate the upward movement of the people" (5). According to this view, the people lack initiative, insight to lead themselves, and the ability to think of alternatives, as they don't naturally belong to "the few thinking people." However, almost in the same breath, Achebe contradicts this view by asserting that it is through ordinary people, being "the owners of the country" (5), that a new world will be born. As Brown points out, "The logic of Achebe's fixation on 'leadership', as embodied in [Anthills], would lead not to democracy but to enlightened dictatorship by the elite—an outcome somewhat at odds with the populist tendency of Achebe's views" (21).
In the same interview, Achebe regrets the exclusion of women from politics, both in society and in his novels, and contends that he has sought to remedy such neglect in Anthills. To this end, he informs us that he has elevated the main female character, Beatrice, to the level of enlightened leader:
We have created all kinds of myths to support the suppression of the woman . . . I am saying the woman herself will be in the forefront in designing what her new role is going to be, with the humble cooperation of men. The position of Beatrice as sensitive leader . . . is...