Chinua Achebe's fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was first published in 1987, some fifteen years after his fourth novel, A Man of the People. In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe states his abhorrence of any theory of radical transformation of society. "Society is an extension of an individual," he says through Ikem Osodi, his protagonist. "The most we can hope to do with a problematic psyche is to re-form it."
Achebe leaves no one in doubt regarding what he means by reform. No psychoanalyst, he argues further, would strive to alter the core of the personality of a problematic person. All he is expected to do is to alter "some details in the periphery." But, to be fair, Achebe wrote his novel without the benefit of further insight that the political turmoil, which overtook the nation in the nineties would have offered him.
In Chapter Nine of Anthills of the Savannah, the village elder from a distant province declares: 'To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come." And later: ".... It is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior." With an emphasis, both thematic and technical, upon "the story," Anthills of the Savannah is a novel that not only chronicles the ill times but peers, uncertainly, beyond them. While Abazon, a region in the northern part of the fictional African state of Kangan in Anthills of the Savannah, has, at the time of the novel's action, been restored to Kangan, it had previously seceded and thus recalls the situation of Biafra in Nigeria. The uneasy position of Abazon within Kangan suggests the way in which postcolonial African nations were typically yoked together by their European rulers rather than evolving through an organic historical process based on shared cultural and political traditions. Meanwhile, the woes of Abazon are compounded in the novel by a severe, long-term drought that has brought famine to the region, which continues to occupy a problematic political position because of its recent refusal, as a region, to approve a recent referendum declaring Sam, the President to be president for life of Kangan.
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 interesting 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.
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 television."
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…