A President for Life

Over the course of history, several dictators have risen from the ranks to take control of their own destinies, and of their nations. At the start, it seems that their intentions were coming from a good place. But with the passage of time, their insatiable appetite for power clouds their vision. With the power and the influence they have wielded, they would unilaterally install themselves as presidents for life. Some of the most popular dictators in history include Germany’s Adolf Hitler and his contemporaries, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Spain’s Francisco Franco. This extensive list also includes the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. While most of these regimes have already been overthrown, several remain active, such as the Castros of Cuba and the Kims of North Korea.

Africa also had seen its fair share of dictators but I do admit that my knowledge is quite limited. The only name that came to mind was Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. I had only known of him because his name filled the headlines in the late 2000s. This is where literature comes in. Immersing myself in the works of writers from various parts of the world has provided me a gateway upon which to explore their homeland’s histories. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, for instance, has made me research more on Mugabe’s atrocities. Nigerian writers have also been subtly juxtaposing their stories to their nation’s turbulent contemporary history. Speaking of Nigeria, one of the most prominent Nigerian writers is Chinua Achebe.

My first Chinua Achebe novel was his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. It was actually one of the first novels written by African writers that I have read. I greatly appreciated the novel for it provided me with insights into Nigeria. I also noted some similarities between Nigerian culture and my own. In 2021, nearly half a decade since reading Things Fall Apart, I finally read my second novel by Achebe. Published in 1987, Anthills of the Savanah was Achebe’s fifth novel. At the heart of the novel is the story of a fictional western African nation, Kangan. Seating atop the nation’s political ladder is Sam Oriko. Two years ago, the Sandhurst-trained officer led a coup d’etat that overthrew the current administration and had himself be installed as the nation’s new head of state.

“So we said, if he will not come, let us go and visit him instead in his house. It is proper that a beggar should visit a king. When a rich man is sick, a beggar goes to visit him and say sorry. When the beggar is sick, he waits to recover and then goes to tehll the rich man he has been sick, It is the place of the poor man to make a visit to the rich man who holds the yam and the knife.”

~ Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

Referred to simply as “His Excellency”, Sam barely had any iota on how to run a nation and policymaking at the time he ascended to the country’s highest post. To establish order, he assigned his two childhood friends to high-level government positions. Chris Oriko found himself as the Minister of Information. Ikem Osodi, on the other hand, was designated as the new editor-in-chief of the  National Gazette, a popular government-controlled publication. Apart from being childhood friends, the three men share the same privilege of being educated abroad. The novel began in medias res. Members of the Kanganese government for a cabinet meeting.

It was through the stories of these three main characters that the political and social landscape of Kangan was captured. At the start of their friend’s rule, both Christopher and Ikem were supportive of Sam. However, with the passage of time, Sam’s true character started to show. As he becomes more detestable while in power, he has become the quintessence of a dictator. Not only was he egocentric, he cared only about having power and staying in power. Popularity was more important to him than the general public’s interests. With great hunger for power comes greater consequences for the denizens of Kangan. Sam was not shy in flaunting the power he has wielded. When the people of Abazon openly refused to accept Sam’s leadership, Sam deliberately refused to help the region after it was ravaged by drought. It was also his way of forcing them to accept his leadership.

With ideals of democracy slowly being eroded and Sam consolidating his grip on power, it was only a matter of time before he would install himself as Kangan’s President for Life. Presidents or leaders for life are not uncommon in the African political landscape. As of date, there are five sitting African heads of state that have been in power for over three decades: Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki1. Biya is the longest consecutively serving non-royal leader in the world and is also the oldest head of state in Africa. Except for Biya and Afwerki, Achebe’s Sam shares the distinction of being a military officer with these heads of state. Controversy and the accusations of various abuses of power precede the reputation of all of these leaders.

As Anthills of the Savannah moved forward, it was not difficult to discern that Kangan was inspired by Achebe’s homeland, Nigeria. After gaining independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960, Nigeria’s political landscape has seen several drastic changes where military coups and accusations of systemic vote-rigging abounded. Nigeria’s contemporary history was also marked by military dictators. During the novel’s publication in 1987, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida was serving as Nigeria’s military president. These turbulent scenes also served as backdrops to recently released Nigerian novels such as Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s Stay With Me.

“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.”

~ Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

Sam’s detestable actions and selfish policies have earned the ire of Ikem. Ikem was fearless in vocalizing his opinions and criticisms of the regime. He was nonplussed by Sam’s stranglehold on power nor was did he fear the threats of reprisal. Nothing stopped Ikem from advocating for government reforms. Unfortunately, it was all for naught. Chris, the most diplomatic of the friends, tried his best to keep their friendship between the three of them from falling apart. When Sam threatened to remove Ikem from his post, Chris tried to calm him down. However, Ikem refused to be shackled to the ground. He wanted his voice, and, consequently the voices of the denizens of Kangan, to be heard through the din.

The rift between Sam and Ikem started to widen after Sam started exhibiting actions symptomatic of an affliction that has been common among dictators: paranoia and anxiety. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was driven by his anxieties to have surgically altered body doubles2. For Sam, he was preoccupied with the idea of an imminent uprising among his subjects; the idea spurred following the visit of the elderly leaders of Abazon. He was afraid some of his closest allies were plotting his deposition. The fear of being overthrown made Sam more menacing, even whimsical. While Ikem became increasingly more vocal with his criticisms of Sam’s actions, Chris remained hopeful that Kangan will have a better future under Sam’s continued rule. It would take one act of violence to snap Chris back to reality and make him see Sam for who he really is.

Compared to Things Fall Apart, I found the writing of Anthills of the Savannah bleaker, perhaps even more conventional. There was a political agenda that Achebe captured vividly with his powerful prose. Tensions, abuses, deaths, and conflicts abounded in the story. In a despotic regime, power and authority are, more often than not, absolute and lie in the hands of a select few, or even an individual. A person can wield so much power that he can influence and control every facet of his subjects’ lives. Censorship was a prevalent theme and this underlined the role of writers in the struggle for change. The class divide was also subtly depicted n the story. We have main characters who were educated in prestigious Western universities. They spoke formal English. This was contrasted by the pidgin English spoken by the working class. The contrast between these languages rendered the story a distinct texture. It can, however, be the novel’s undoing.

While the majority of the story depicted struggles and explored dark themes and subjects, there were still silver linings. The struggle for change was a leitmotif as the main characters, with the exception of Sam, were all advocating changes. After enduring deaths, murders, and assassinations, the birth of a female child towards the end of the novel was a proverbial beacon of hope. This was also symbolical as the birth broke traditions when the baby was named by the youth and by the women rather than by an elderly male patriarch. It was also groundbreaking in quashing gender stereotypes as the female child was given a boy’s name.

“No I cannot give you the answer you are clamouring for. Go home and think! I cannot decree your pet, textbook revolution. I want instead to excite general enlightenment by forcing all the people to examine the condition of their lives because, as the saying goes, the unexamined life is not worth living…As a writer I aspire only to widen the scope of that self-examination. I don’t want to foreclose it with a catchy, half-baked orthodoxy. My critics say: There is no time for your beautiful educational programme; the masses are ready and will be enlightened in the course of the struggle. And they quote Fanon on the sin of betraying the revolution. They do not realize that revolutions are betrayed just as much by stupidity, incompetence, impatience and precipitate actions as by doing nothing at all.”

~ Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

It was the characters that moved the story forward. They were all flawed. While the male voice, especially Chris’, figured prominently in the novel, Achebe was not remiss in his exploration of the female voice. As the story moved forward, two prominent female voices emerged. Beatrice Okoh was engaged to Chris. She was a well-educated young woman who was currently working as the Senior Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. She was also Chris and Ikem’s childhood friend. Ikem’s girlfriend, Elewas, was Beatrice’s antithesis. She was uneducated and was working in a store. Despite the glaring dichotomies in their social status, Beatrice and Elewa were key characters in the story. Through the two women, Achebe underscored the major role women play in addressing the current plight of the African continent. The baby-naming ceremony, for instance, spoke volumes in the breaking of norms.

Anthills of the Savannah was no easy read. The mix of languages can be a challenge. The story was also slow to develop. However, images, especially of the landscape, were evocative. The anthills in the savannah are aberrations on the landscape. They are blemishes on an otherwise immaculate terrain. In Achebe’s novel, it takes many forms, and most of it was beyond physical. Like the blemishes on the landscape, the anthills metaphorically symbolized the ruptures that continue to weaken the Kanganian government. The anthills also marked the parched landscape of Abazon after it was ravaged by drought. For two years, the rain did not fall nor aid from Bassa, the nation’s capital arrived. On his trip to Abazon, Chris would notice these anthills.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Achebe’s fifth novel was a multifaceted literary masterpiece. It vividly portrayed the political conditions that were prevalent during the book’s publication. Military leaders were installing themselves as presidents for life. As the passage of time has shown, it proved to be the recipe for disaster. Dictatorship, abuses, violence, and death permeated all throughout the story, and, they remain prevalent in the contemporary, not just in Africa but all over the world. But as Achebe has demonstrated, not all hope is lost; hope springs eternal. Stereotypes and long-established norms can be broken. He also managed to underscore the seminal role women play in the finding of solutions for Africa’s plights. While Anthills of the Savannah doesn’t hold all the answers, it continues to resonate in the present because of the depth of its messages.

Ratings

81%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
25%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Book Specs

Author: Chinua Achebe
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: September 1988
Number of Pages: 216
Genre: Historical Fiction, African Literature

Synopsis

Anthills of the Savannah is a searing satire of political corruption and social injustice – and a potent reminder of the problems still facing Africa today.

In the fictional West African nation of Kangan, newly independent of British rule, the hopes and dreams of democracy have been quashed by a fierce military dictatorship. Chris Oriko is a member of the cabinet of the president for life, one of his oldest friends. When the president is charged with censoring the oppositionist editor of the state-run newspaper – another childhood friend – Chris’s loyalty and ideology are put to the test. The fate of Kangan hangs in the balance as tensions rise and a devious plot is set in motion to silence a firebrand critic.

About the Author

Chinua Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria, and was baptized as Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. Ogidi, where he was raised, is one of the first centers of Anglican missionary work in Eastern Nigeria. At a young age, Achebe was influenced by Igbo culture and was exposed to Igbo stories. Achebe entered St Philips’ Central School in the Akpakaogwe region of Ogidi and Nekede Central School, outside of Owerri.

Achebe studied English and literature at University College (now the University of Ibadan). He was the university’s first intake and was given a bursary to study medicine. He would eventually abandon medicine to pursue English, history, and theology. He decided to become a writer after reading Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary. While attending the university, Achebe wrote Polar Undergraduate for the University’s magazine, University Herald. He also served as the Herald’s editor during the 1951-52 school year. His first short story, In a Village Church, was published n 1951. He also wrote essays and letters about academic philosophy and freedom, some of which were published in The Bug, another campus magazine.

After graduating from university, Achebe taught for a short time before he moved to Lagos in 1954 to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). He served as a director of external broadcasting from 1961-66. In 1967, he co-founded a publishing company, Citadel Press, at Enugu with the poet Christopher Okigbo. After his lecture tour in the United States in 1969, Achebe was appointed a research fellow at the University of Nigeria. From 1976 to 1981, he worked as a professor in English. He was also a director of two Nigerian publishers, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. Following an automobile accident in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, Achebe moved to the United States and taught at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York before joining the faculty of Brown University in 2009.

Achebe’s debut, and perhaps most renowned novel was Things Fall Apart which was published in 1958. It was succeeded by its sequels, No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964). Collectively, the three books are referred to as The African Trilogy. Achebe’s other works include  A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe has also published several short story and poetry collections, and children’s books. He also published essays and in 2012, he published his autobiography,  There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. For his prolific career, Achebe has received over 30 honorary degrees from prominent universities including Dartmouth College, Harvard, and Brown.

For his works, Achebe has received several accolades, such as the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1972), the St. Louis Literary Award (1999), the Man Booker International Prize (2007), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2002), and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2010). Achebe also received the Nigerian National Order of Merit, the Order of the Federal Republic (1979), and an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982). In 1992, he earned the distinction of being the first living writer to be represented in the Everyman’s Library collection published by Alfred A. Knopf. He was also a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund.

Chinua Achebe passed away on March 21, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts.

References

1. Felter, C 30 June 2021, Africa’s ‘Leaders for Life’, Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed 17 February 2022, <https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/africas-leaders-life>.

2. ‘Fate of Saddam’s look-alikes remains unknown’, The Washington Times, 16 December 2003, Accessed 17 February 2022, <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2003/dec/16/20031216-102509-5288r/>