Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe – 1987 Booker Prize Shortlist

“Why? I hear you ask. Very well . . . This is why . . . Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university of wherever. That’s why.”

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a lauded storyteller, to list his achievements would take pages, although a winner of the Booker International Prize in 2007, when the award was presented bi-annually for a body of work, he never won the Booker Prize (for a single novel), only being shortlisted once, in 1987, for ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (the winner that years was Penelope Lively for ‘Moon Tiger’).

The novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ takes place in an imaginary West African country, Kangan, where an officer “Sam” and known as “His Excellency”, has taken power following a military coup. IT is mainly through the eyes of Sam’s fellow friends Chris Oriko, the government’s Commissioner for Information and Ikem Osodi, a newspaper editor critical of the regime, as well as Beatrice Okoh, an official in the Ministry of Finance and girlfriend of Chris, that this novel of unstable and corrupt Government unfolds. The history of colonial interference and ruling, as well as the associated racist practices always simmering in the background:

You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.

This is a novel that alternates the point of view and narration, giving voice to the many players. The main theme being the African political agenda, characters with English university educations, returning and taking power etc. these elements are all “givens”. However, it is not these themes of Chinua Achebe’s novel that I want to explore today, as they’ve been written about, studied, debated many times before.

It its through the strength of Chinua Achebe’s characters that this novel comes alive, how we sympathise with one faction and abhor another, how we question one but give ourselves over to blind obedience of another. The nuances that Chinua Achebe builds throughout his work.

Sam, the dictator, as narrated by Ikem:

To say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness. When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. I am sure the only reason he didn’t marry the English girl MM found for him in Surrey was the shattering example of Chris and his American wife Louise whom he married, if you please, not in New York with might have made a certain sense but in London. I suppose it is not impossible for two strangers to fabricate and affinity of sorts from being exiled to the same desert island even from opposite ends of the earth.

Chris, as relayed in an awkward cabinet meeting where Sam is intimidating Chris:

“He doesn’t need a word from you. Remember, he owns all the words in this country – newspapers, radio and television stations…” “The Honorable Commissioner for Words”

Beatrice, as told in a chapter using traditional stories about the Pillar of Water:

Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen in a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put a word in for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. Barely, we say though, because she did carry a vague sense more acute at certain critical moments than others of being two different people. Her father had deplored the soldier-girl who fell out of trees. Chris saw the quiet demure damsel whose still waters nonetheless could conceal deep overpowering eddies of passion that always almost sucked him into fatal depths. Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing 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 or the bargaining market-stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables. He knew it better than Beatrice herself.
But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language a Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists.

Ikem, the writer, sees the Nation’s issues with clarity:

The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.

A novel filled with wonderful metaphors, proverbs, and stories of the oppressed, even though told through the eyes of the well-to-do. This is a great example of the wonders the Booker Prize used to bring to our tables in the 1970-1980’s, only four years after this novel made the Booker shortlists, fellow Nigerian Ben Okri took home the prize for his novel ‘The Famished Road’, another work that I intend to revisit in the coming months (don’t hold me to it!!!)

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