- Achebe's Africa
Anthills of the Savannah, the latest work by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, is a multifaceted story of power and its transmogrifications, of friendship and betrayal, of ancient mysteries embodied in a woman (portentously named Beatrice) who may be the reincarnation of a long-dead priestess, and of modem glibness exemplified by the fooleries and foibles of everyone else, of however humble or exalted a station. Above all, however, the book is a reflection on the vexing question of political accountability in African nations, from its loss under colonial rule toe th e continuing lack of it today—and also on the onerous challenge of delivering it from the grasp of the power elite into the hands of society at large.
Anthills is the latest installment in Achebe's fictional saga of recent African history. The saga began with two classics, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, both of which were set around the time of the European intrusion. Those works took as their common theme the impact that the foreigners—with their religion, their customs, and their potent technology—had on the settled communitarian ethos of precolonial Africa. No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People, the third and fourth novels in the series, captured the mood of despair that set in as new forms of corruption arose to mar the independence whose recovery had cost Africa almost a century's worth of blood and sweat. Today, Achebe and other thoughtful observers of the African scene are concerned with the moral and political economy of state-centered power: its uses and abuses, and the prospects for decentralizing and limiting it [End Page 110] through a democratic electoral process and other mechanisms of accountability
Anthills is set in the fictional African republic of Kangan, whose latest government has lurched into crisis just two years after the coup that brought it to power. His Excellency Sam, the commander of Kangan's army and now the head of state as well, has become unhealthily preoccupied with the greatness of the mantle he wears. Even Chris Oriko and Ikem Osodi, once Sam's schoolmates and now officials in his government, are not exempt from the ruler's suspicions; in his increasingly paranoid eyes they have come to symbolize obstacles to the consolidation of his power. Ikem and Chris are not merely the editor of the state-owned newspaper and Sam's minister of information, respectively, but also old chums who understandably find it difficult to acknowledge, with suitable signs of obeisance, the current preeminence of one whose weaknesses they know only too well.
The failure of a referendum to declare him president-for-life further aggravates Sam, even as his fawning courtiers fall all over themselves to please a master who, like Louis XIV, finds nothing exceptionable in the words l'e'tat c'est moi. Events unfold dramatically when His Excellency becomes enraged at the appearance in the capital of a delegation of elders whom the drought-stricken province of Abazon has sent to petition the central government for relief. The arid Abazonian savannah, it seems, has become a desert not only for crops and livestock, but for Sam's overweening political ambitions as well: from this flat land of notoriously stubborn people came most of the negative votes that ruined Sam's referendum, denying the would-be life-president his longed-for 99 percent in a political disaster he blames partly on Chris.
Further inflaming Sam's fury is the independent-minded poet Ikem, whose job as editor of the government's house organ does not prevent him from remaining a favorite son of Abazon and an advocate for its interests. Sacked from his exalted position but unchastened and still very much the gadfly, he gives a stirring speech urging the people on to greater activism. His arrest swiftly follows, as does the sinister news that he has been killed "while attempting to escape." Sensing that he is next, Chris goes on the run and takes on Sam's henchmen in a desperate cat-and-mouse game of subterfuge and ingenuity...