Anthills of the Savannah

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Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe


A novel set in the fictional African nation of Kangan in the late twentieth century, soon after independence from colonialism, published in 1987.


The story details the internal stresses that lead to the fall of an African military dictatorship led by His Excellency and the fates of two of his initially close friends.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in 1930, in Ogidi in the state of Anambra, Nigeria, Chinua Achebe is the best known Anglophone African writer. Achebe attended an elite secondary school, Government College, Umuahia, during his high-school years. At 18, he joined the first set of students admitted to Nigeria’s premier university, then called University College, Ibadan. After college, he taught high school for a short while, then joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Company, where he became the executive in charge of foreign services. Since leaving broadcasting, Achebe has been teaching at universities in Nigeria and the United States. He is the founding general editor of the African Writers Series (Heinemann and Greenwood Press) under which, since 1962, the most significant African writing in English and English translation has been published. In 1971, Achebe founded Okike, which has remained a front line African literary journal to the present day. In his own novels, Achebe has portrayed slices of African life, from colonial (Things Fall Apart [1958] and Arrow of God [1964]) to postcolonial times (No Longer at Ease [1960] and A Man of the People [1966]). In the 1970s, he produced short stories (Girls at War and Other Stories [1972]), poetry (Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems [1973]), and essays (Morning Yet on Creation Day [1975]). Achebe returned to the novel with Anthills of the Savannah. A mature work published two decades after his prior novel, Anthills deals with the internal turmoil of an African country after throwing off colonial rule.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Nigerian political history, 1960-1985

Anthills of the Savannah is set in the fictional country of Kangan, and its events are not precisely dated. It is therefore possible to argue that Kangan may stand for any African nation in the first two decades after independence. However, narrative elements, such as the names of characters and their use of language, link this fictitious nation more closely to real-life Nigeria than any other country.

Nigeria regained its independence in October 1960 after about a century of British colonial rule. A crucial part of the decolonization process included the general election held in 1959 to configure the government that would take over from the British. The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), based largely in the country’s Northern Region, in alliance with the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), a party that had widespread acceptance in the Eastern and Western Regions, formed the first independent Nigerian government. The third main political party, the Action Group (AG), based mainly in the Western Region, became the official opposition party. The strongholds of each of these parties corresponded with the homelands of Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups: the Hausa-Fulani people in the North (NPC), the Igbo in the East (NCNC), and the Yoruba in the West (AG). Also peopling each region are hundreds of minority ethnic groups.

Late in 1965, the Action Group, still in control of the Western regional government, underwent a severe internal crisis that reached its peak when its government leader broke away from the party that elected him and joined another political group—the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA). Manipulating the results, the new group declared itself winners of the 1965 Western regional general elections. Citizens sympathetic to the Action Group, who believed that the polls had been rigged, carried out violent protests against the new government of the UPGA. Its opponents set fire to public buildings all over the region and hunted down and killed members of the alliance suspected of having committed the electoral fraud. Nigeria’s central government, to which the Action Group had become the official opposition, imposed emergency regulations in the West. But the mayhem continued nonetheless.

The social breakdown in the Western region is one of the justifications given by officers of the Nigerian Army for the January 15, 1966, violent coup d’état that brought General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi to power as head of state. (It is worth noting, if only in passing, that Achebe’s A Man of the People was released around this time and that many readers still view the similarity between its fictional ending in a military takeover of government and Nigeria’s historical coup as a sign of the novelist’s ability to envision the general direction of African political history.) The Aguiyi-Ironsi regime quickly restored peace to the West and, in its most notable decision, issued the decree that dissolved the country’s federal structure and took away most of the regional governments’ sovereign powers. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s military regime was short-lived, however. It collapsed abruptly in July 1966 when army officers who hailed from the Northern region, to their thinking, avenged the wrongs of the January coup by killing the head of state along with the military governor of the Western region. They installed as new head of state Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon, an officer trained at the British Sandhurst military academy, who brings to mind the military dictator in Anthills of the Savannah. The Northern officers said that the January coup, which had been spearheaded by young officers predominantly from the Eastern region, killed too many Northern military and political leaders and allowed equally corrupt leaders of the Eastern region to escape harm. In short, the July conspirators accused leaders of the January coup of an ethnic vendetta. There followed massive mutinies in the barracks by Northern soldiers against their Eastern colleagues. Within months of the new government coming into office, the Nigerian army was almost completely purged of officers from the Eastern region.

Outside the armed forces, a well-planned ethnic pogrom was launched in the Northern region against persons of Eastern extraction, in other words, against Igbo people. At several conferences, held to stop the ongoing bloodshed and reconcile the factions, the Eastern military governor, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, demanded that the country be ruled by a system of truly federated regions to guarantee the safety of all the country’s ethnic groups and stakeholders. Anything short of that, he insisted, would be unacceptable to the Easterners, who at the time were being massacred in the North. Agreements were made to govern under such a representative system, but Ojukwu’s demands remained unfulfilled despite the agreements. So in May 1967 the Eastern region seceded from Nigeria and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. A gruesome 30-month-war erupted between the Gowon-led government of Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra. The war ended in defeat for Biafra in January 1970, and Gowon ruled for another five years.

In the postwar years, Nigeria was transformed economically. Instead of an agricultural country it became a rich exporter of crude petroleum. Income from the oil windfall went partly into ambitious reconstruction and development projects, such as roads, dams, the expansion of universities, and a nationwide free primary education project. Meanwhile, under Gowon, the postwar oil boom era saw the growth of new intractable social problems—such as rampant armed robbery and uncontrollable urban sprawl. In January 1970, to deal with the armed robbery menace, the Gowon regime set up the first Armed Robbery and Firearms Tribunal, which tried and sentenced armed robbers to public execution by a firing squad.

Under pressure from politicians, Gowon promised to produce a new constitution, hold elections, and transfer power to a civilian government in 1976. But then Gowon reneged on his promise, declaring that 1976 was unrealistic. Meanwhile, allegations of official corruption and high-handedness by military personnel littered the daily newspapers. Gowon’s government was brought down by a bloodless coup on July 29, 1975, the nine-year anniversary of his coming to power. His replacement, General Murtala Muhammed, was killed in a failed but bloody countercoup in February 1976, after which General Olusegun Obasanjo came to power. In October 1979, the Obasanjo government handed control over to a civilian, elected government, headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, but it too would be short-lived. This civilian government was toppled in December 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari. Like His Excellency in Anthills, General Buhari had an enemy in his own camp, his Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Babangida. In August 1985, 20 months after coming into office, Buhari was removed by Babangida.

Between 1960 and 1985, Nigeria fell under the rule of five military dictators for 16 years and two democratically elected governments for nine years. Every time a dictator came into office, he would accuse the previous administration of massive corruption and arrest a slew of public officials, some of whom were tried and jailed for lengthy periods. As a rule, it took the new regime, be it a military or an elected one, very little time to settle into its own corrupt ways, at which point many of the jailed officers of the previous administration would be released or their prison terms shortened. Sometimes the reduced jail terms or release from prison redressed a clear miscarriage of justice. But usually the move was calculated to “buy” the support of the influential individual concerned. There were new administrations that did not even reach this stage before being pushed out. In such a case, which occurred under Babangida, the imprisoned officials would be released as a gesture of “good will,” to correct the alleged repression of the previous government.

Each government has contended with Nigeria’s ethnic mix anew. Its officials have had to confront the problem of allocating resources equitably among the country’s ethnic groups. The officials have always to consider whether or not their policies are perceived as favouring one group over the other. One arena of contention in ethnic balancing has been that of appointments into federal offices. Political appointments at the federal level must reflect the balance of ethnic powers in the states. Consequently, the most qualified candidate for an office often does not get appointed to it or is skipped over when promotions are due.

Public opinion and military rule

Important to understanding Anthills of the Savannah is the history of social activism among Nigerian college students and labor unions. Since the time of anticolonial agitation, the National Union of Nigerian Students (made up of delegates from the student councils of all the Nigerian colleges) has taken radical positions on national controversies. The students have almost always supported the actions of labor unions against multinational or local corporations, and have repeatedly protested the excesses and unjust policies of both colonial and native governments. At every important stage in the country’s political history, the opinion of the students’ union has been taken seriously by those in power. Its opinion has carried weight since its beginning days, when the union consisted of the future postcolonial leaders of Nigeria. In 1962, when the newly independent government of Nigeria signed a defense pact with its former colonial ruler, Great Britain, the students’ union mounted mass-media campaigns that portrayed the pact as damaging to Nigeria. As they saw it, the pact would re-establish the old colonial relationship. After much agitation, the students’ outcry was heeded and the pact was abrogated, but not every controversy has resolved itself to their satisfaction. In 1977, students staged mass protests against the government’s reducing the food-and-board subsidy it provided to them. The police, under orders from the regime, shot at protesting students, killing many of them. That same year the Nigerian government outlawed the students’ union, detained many of its leaders without trial, and then expelled them from the universities.


In 1986, Dele Giwa, the editor of Newswatch, a popular news weekly, was killed by a letter bomb. It had been delivered to his home by unknown individuals thought to have been government security agents. Since its debut in January 1985, Newswatch has remained one of Nigeria’s foremost news magazines, renowned for research-based opinions on pressing sociopolitical issues. In 1989, three years after Giwa’s assassination, the magazine would be shut down for six months by the Babangida regime. The murdered news editor in Anthills of the Savannah —Ikem Osodi—resembles Newswatch’s Giwa. Like him, after studying and working abroad, the fictional Ikem returns to his African home to join in “nation-building” (Achebe, Anthills p. 83).

Labor unions became a target of Nigerian governments as well. Here, as elsewhere, labor unions agitated for better working conditions. However, this was the Cold War era, the era of a worldwide competition between communism, which championed workers, and democratic capitalism. In light of this competition, politicians suspected the true motives of labor unions during protests, and Nigeria was no exception. Nigerian governments frequently accused the unions of being unpatriotic stooges for communist governments. The accusation, often made with the intention of turning the larger population against the labor unions, would intensify when the unions went on strike. Also, like student leaders, labor union activists have been harassed and imprisoned by the military governments. Yet the activists have continued to stage strikes and protests. Their labor unions, along with the union of college students, have been virtually the only civil groups able to protest repression with a pronounced measure of credibility. As such, they have been distrusted by those in power.

Meanwhile, newspapers became the only public medium in which opposition to the excesses of the military governments could be aired. Editorials, news reports, and cartoons were published about corruption in high offices, promulgation of decrees that severely curtail civil freedoms, the high-handedness of public officials, and most importantly, the suffering of the general population because of inadequate government policies. A 1970s cartoon, for example, concerned J. S. Tarka, who allegedly embezzled funds, an accusation made by the man who was his supposed accomplice in the affair, Godwin Daboh, but then betrayed him. The cartoon caption—“If you Tarka me, I will Daboh You”—became a countrywide joke.

Oftentimes the military governments would respond by suppressing the publication of unflattering news and opinions. Defiant editors would be arrested and detained without trial, while independent publishing houses were closed down by soldiers. When newspapers and magazines published stories that security agencies considered inflammatory or seditious, armed forces would comb through town confiscating the offensive publications. The importance attached to controlling the mass media is revealed in some of the actions taken by the regimes of the late 1970s. In June 1978, the Obasanjo administration wrote a special decree to proscribe Dr. Obarogie Ohonbamu’s Newbreed magazine because of its critical views of government policies and because it published an interview with the then-exiled leader of the Biafra secession attempt, former Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu. The decree called for all printed copies of the offensive magazine to be seized and destroyed. As soon as the Muhammed-Obasanjo government came into office in 1976, it purchased, by force, controlling interests in Nigeria’s most prominent newspapers: Daily Times, the only truly national daily (the National Gazette in Achebe’s novel brings this paper to mind), and New Nigerian, a daily in the northern states. Meanwhile, the military governments established newspapers of their own. Electronic media, like television and radio, remained under government ownership until the early 1990s.

An allegory for good reason—dictatorship in Africa

Followers of African history know that the pattern of Nigerian history summarized above could apply, with minor variations, to almost all of the newly independent countries of the same era. Except in a few areas (Kenya, Senegal, and Malawi), democratically elected governments are regularly toppled in Africa. Places with no history of military government tend to have dictatorships. Dr. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, for example, made himself president for life. By the end of 1987 (the year Anthills of the Savannah was published), “if South Africa and the remoter island states are excluded,” a majority of African states (29 out of 47) had experienced at least one military takeover since independence (Fage, p. 510). As historian J. D. Fage explains, many of the regimes fell “because there was such a paucity of resources that it was extremely difficult for any government to provide the people with any rewards from independence” (Fage, p. 514). We should note, however, that the military men who forced elected governments out of power always failed to improve the situation.

Whether elected or military, all African dictatorships, like totalitarian regimes everywhere, maintain secret forces. In mid-1960s to mid-1970s Nigeria, these included an arm of the Nigerian police called “special branch,” as well as intelligence wings of the national army, navy, and air force. The surveillance duties of such forces are often redefined by successive governments. Nigeria’s special branch—renamed several times as the Nigerian Secret Organization (NSO), State Security Services (SSS), and Special Task Force—serves as a case in point. Its continuing existence shows how crucial the various dictatorships consider this repressive arm of government to their successful tenure.

The problem of ethnic balancing occurs elsewhere in Africa too. When it gets out of hand and the leaders of a particular group feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are being excluded from power, it is not uncommon for ethnic conflicts to flare into a full-scale civil war. From the 1960s, the major decade of independence, to the present, such ethnically related wars have flared in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Somalia.

Another feature of post-independence Africa relevant to Anthills of the Savannah, especially to the development of its dictator character, is the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This real-world forum was established in 1963 for leaders of newly independent countries. The intent was to provide a platform for the articulation of Africa’s collective interests in a way that would have stronger impact on the world than if individual countries acted alone. The OAU, which aims to promote the unity and solidarity of African states, operates through various organs, such as the General Secretariat, the Pan-African News Agency, and the Pan-African Postal Union. Most important among OAU groups has been the annual heads-of-government summit at which yearly agendas are determined and announced. (It is at one such meeting that the dictator in Anthills of the Savannah meets other dictators whom he resolves to emulate.) Since its beginnings, the OAU has supported decolonization movements around the continent. In countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Angola, where the freedom struggle took violent forms, the OAU has generally been the first to lend diplomatic prestige to the guerrilla movements. In the year 2002 the Organization would evolve into the African Union.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The narrative includes two main interwoven threads. One thread provides current information on the final days of His Excellency’s government and the deaths of His Excellency and his two bosom friends, Chris Oriko and Ikem Os-odi. The other thread provides background information on the personal and national events that culminate in the unhappy fate of these three men.

His Excellency becomes the President of Kangan in a military coup d’état that the populace welcomes. The coup topples elected officials who appear to have “finally got what they had coming to them and landed unloved and unmourned on the rubbish heap” (Anthills, p. 11). The forced change of government is carried out by junior officers, and they invite His Excellency to assume the reins of the presidency. Normally easygoing and very amiable, the new President has spent all his life as a career soldier. He has “few ideas about what to do” when he first assumes power (Anthills, p. 11). So to fashion a political program, he enlists two high-school friends: Chris Oriko, who edits the National Gazette and Ikem Osodi, who is a poet and writes a well-respected column for this same newspaper. His Excellency—at this point they still call him Sam—appoints Chris his Commissioner (Minister) of Information and elevates Ikem to editor of the National Gazette.

After attending his first summit of African heads of government in the Organization for African Unity, His Excellency adopts a new goal. He resolves to become Kangan’s president-for-life, exactly like the despots he has met at the conference. Among them was an especially ruthless and impassive emperor of an unnamed country, “who never smiled nor changed his expression no matter what was going on around him” (Anthills, p. 48). This emperor especially makes an unforgettable impression on His Excellency, who afterward says, “I wish I could look like him” (Anthills, p. 48). From President Ngongo, of another unnamed country, His Excellency adopts the exclamation “Kabisa!”—the word for an emphatic “no” or “finished” in Ngongo’s native language.

Besides cultivating an imperial aloofness both in his personal comportment and official policies, His Excellency takes concrete steps to realize his ambition of remaining president for life. To this end, he sets the government machinery towards organizing a national referendum in which the people will vote either “Yes” or “No” on this issue. (There is no sign that he will not remain in office by force, anyway.) His Excellency becomes increasingly suspicious of his close confidantes, who, he is convinced, are dubious about the wisdom of a life presidency. The plebiscite fails. During the referendum, his friend Ikem Osodi takes his annual leave from the editorship of the National Gazette, and the people of Osodi’s home region vote a resounding “No” on the life presidency, two developments that, in the eyes of His Excellency, confirm his friend’s seemingly lukewarm loyalty.

In spite of the unfavorable vote, His Excellency carries on like a typical African dictator. He makes no plan to set a time limit for his presidency after the referendum fails. Every segment of Kangan society, even high-ranking ministers of state, lives in fear of him. His underlings are especially wary of his perpetually bad nerves. So as not to provoke his displeasure, his cabinet officers either tell him only what he wants to hear or say nothing at all. In the words of Chris Oriko, the Commissioner for Education “is by far the most frightened of the lot. As soon as he had sniffed peril in the air he had begun to disappear into his hole, as some animals and insects do, backwards” (Anthills, p. 3).

More than any other government department, His Excellency pays special attention to security services such as the police, the army, and the secret police (named, in this case, the State Research Council). These agencies work as if they have the mandate to track down and eliminate all perceived enemies of the state, the usual suspects being labor unions, students’ associations, and critical editors and news reporters. The regular police target His Excellency’s old friend, the National Gazette editor Ikem Osodi. They trail and harass Ikem as soon as His Excellency begins to doubt his old friend’s loyalty. Ikem has written editorials critical of the state, and His Excellency’s minions file them as evidence of his treason. Another bit of evidence is reported by the secret police—the “disloyal” Ikem visits with a delegation from his home province, Abazon, who has come to plead for His Excellency’s attention to ecological and social perils ravaging the province. Later His Excellency refers to the so-called intelligence report of this visit as the “incontrovertible evidence” he needs to make Chris Oriko, the Information Commissioner, fire Ikem Osodi from the editorship of the National Gazette (Anthills, p. 132). Chris is incredulous. At his shock when faced with the report of Ikem’s treason, His Excellency sneers, “Well, you seem to be in a skeptical mood . . . Good, isn’t it, to know that some organs of government [the police] still perform effectively in this country” (Anthills, p. 132).

His Excellency’s paranoia after the failed referendum fosters a countrywide atmosphere of mistrust. To survive, officials lie to one another and flatter their superiors, the President especially. The attorney general tells the President, “The people have spoken. Their desire is manifest. You are condemned to serve them for life,” after the referendum has failed (Anthills, p. 5). He lets the President believe that jealousy prevents his closest friends from supporting the referendum wholeheartedly and vows shamelessly that “a man of my background has no problem whatsoever worshiping a man like you” (Anthills, p. 22). Deliberately or not, such senseless flattery only nurtures His Excellency’s insecurity. Meanwhile, His Excellency is not immune to megalomania. He personalizes the state and elevates himself to a national symbol. When the Central Bank of Kangan floats the idea of embossing his image on the national currency, he does not stop the plan.

His Excellency’s government gives marching orders to the larger society in the form of draconian decrees. The problem of violent robberies is addressed with special quasi-judicial tribunals set up to try the accused. Armed robbers found guilty by these panels are sentenced to a firing-squad execution, carried out in a public square, in front of eager spectators. Television cameras relay the macabre spectacle on prime-time news. At one such spectacle, the executioners stick a “bull’s eye on the chest of the victim” as if at target practice (Anthills, p. 37).

The armed forces terrorize both the general population and the officials into a wretched state of powerlessness. An army truck, for example, drives recklessly through a marketplace, startling a street hawker whose wares are flung all over the place. Instead of apologizing, the track driver, a soldier, swaggers over to the young trader, and says, “If I kill you, I kill [a] dog,” inferring that the nearly killed trader is no more than a stray dog in the soldier’s eyes (Anthills, p. 44). The trader, who knows full well the soldier’s contemptuous meaning, protects his own psyche by interpreting the soldier’s comment to mean, “after he kill me he will go home and kill his dog” (Anthills, p. 44). With the help of this self-deception, the poor trader swallows the contempt, laughs at himself, and actually wishes the soldier well later that day.

The ill effects of His Excellency’s arbitrary ways take on deadly dimensions toward the end of the regime’s term in office. After his suspension from the National Gazette, Ikem vows not to be silenced. At a university lecture held by the students’ union, Ikem relates the allegorical tale of a tortoise and the leopard that wants to kill it. The cornered tortoise makes a request that he be left alone for a few moments before being killed. To the leopard’s consternation, the tortoise begins to scratch the ground and throw dust all over. The puzzled leopard asks the tortoise to explain the meaning of his antics. “Even after I am dead,” replies the tortoise, “I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here” (Anthills, p. 117). The import of the tale is not lost on the students: one ought to resist even in a hopeless situation. During the question-and-answer period, Ikem condemns social inertia, acknowledges the sorry state of Kangan society, and reminds his receptive audience that cynicism is ruining the country. He chastises the students for their exclusion of truly downtrodden groups—peasants, the self-employed poor, and women—from their attempts to mobilize society. In this regard, they are no better than other progressive social movements staged by leftist intellectuals and labor unions. The exclusion, asserts Ikem, amounts to elitism. He blames elite pressure groups for “spouting clichés from other people’s histories and struggles” while they conveniently forget that “in the real context of Africa today they [the elite] are not the party of the oppressed but of the oppressor” (Anthills, pp. 146-47).

Ikem urges the students to “develop the habit of skepticism, not swallow every piece of [ideological] superstition you are told by witch doctors and professors”; then “your potentiality of assisting and directing this nation will be quadrapled” (Anthills, p. 148). During the discussion, the idea of putting the President’s picture on the currency comes up. Ikem says,

Yes I heard of it like everybody else. Whether there is such a plan or not I don’t know. All I can say is I hope the rumour is unfounded. My position is quite straightforward especially now that I don’t have to worry about being Editor of the National Gazette. My view is that any serving President foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know he is inciting the people to take it off; the head I mean.

(Anthills, p. 149)

Within the very nervous dictatorship that Kangan has become, Ikem’s play on words is an invitation to trouble. National Gazette’s interim editor twists Ikem’s words into “EX-EDITOR ADVOCATES REGICIDE!” (Anthills, p. 149). Shortly thereafter, Ikem is arrested and killed in the middle of the night.

Chris Oriko refuses to accept the official lie that Ikem fought his arrest and was “fatally wounded by gunshot” (Anthills, p. 156). He abandons his post and goes into hiding, after contacting alternative news outlets to broadcast the true story of Ikem’s murder. All over the capital city, students demonstrate to protest the lies published in the National Gazette about Ikem’s lecture and his subsequent assassination. The government promptly shuts down the school and declares the president of the students’ union a wanted man. Chris escapes the capital with the help of a sympathetic security officer and poor taxi drivers, who house Chris and help him leave town in disguise. Emmanuel, the wanted students’ union president, joins Chris on the fateful journey.

On their way to Abazon, news of the fall of His Excellency’s government reaches the fugitives. His Excellency has been killed. The new administration, headed by the army’s Chief of Staff, broadcasts the untruth that the President has been abducted from the palace by unknown persons. A drunken police sergeant serving at the Abazón regional boundary shows colorful disbelief in the official lie: “This our country na waa! I never hear the likeness before. A whole President de miss! This Africa na waa [is incredible]” (Anthills, p. 197). Even in remote parts of the country, as Chris discovers in Abazón, citizens celebrate the fall of His Excellency’s tyranny, as they did his predecessor’s years earlier. Making inquiries about the coup, Chris spies a policeman trying to rape a nursing student and attempts to stop him. The policeman threatens to shoot Chris if he is not left alone. When Chris persists, the policeman executes him in front of everyone and runs off into the savannah. The country has a new leader, but things, as Chris’s killing shows, have not changed for the better.

The nation’s story, which is also the story of the three deceased friends, continues in the relationships they leave behind. Little is known of His Excellency’s intimate life beyond his sexual misadventures in England. But Chris and Ikem leave behind two women—Beatrice Okoh and Elewa—to mourn their loss. Beatrice, Chris’s lover, is a brilliant, high-ranking official in the Kangan civil service. Elewa, Ikem’s fiancée, is a barely literate, low-level salesperson at a department store.

Ikem, the story’s foremost intellectual, thinks little of women before he is suspended from the National Gazette. As Beatrice puts it, “he has no clear role for women in his political thinking” (Anthills, p. 83). He neglects them despite writing a full-length novel and a play about the Women’s War of 1929 (a protest mounted by thousands of Nigerian women when it was rumored that the British were planning to tax African females). But after his clash with His Excellency, Ikem seems to have had an epiphany for he admits to Beatrice that she is right about his neglecting to make a place for women in his writing. This shift in his thought toward popular inclusiveness surfaces also in his recommendation to Bassa University students to ally themselves with peasants and genuine members of the working class. The wisdom of Ikem’s change is apparent in the kind of people who later help Chris escape the government’s security traps. The help rendered him by poor taxi drivers, Ikem’s old acquaintances, and Emmanuel, the student leader, leads Chris to ponder “Why did we not cultivate such young men before now? Why, we did not even know they existed if the truth must be told!” (Anthills, p. 176).

The Ikem-Elewa sexual alliance assumes a more clearly political role after the death of the three main male characters. Beatrice, Chris’s girlfriend, takes Elewa into her home, caring for her until she gives birth to a baby girl. Beatrice practically becomes Elewa’s husband and the child’s father. In her home, Beatrice holds a naming ceremony for the little girl, at which Beatrice presides with authority, notwithstanding the presence of men (the student leader Emmanuel; the security officer who refused to arrest Chris, and a taxi driver who sheltered Chris; and Elewa’s uncle). A jolly old man to whom belongs the traditional right of naming the baby girl, Elewa’s uncle). who shows up late, concedes that Beatrice and the others have done well not to wait for him: “If anybody thinks that I will start a fight because somebody has done the work I should do that person does not know me. . . . Rather I will say thank you” (Anthills, p. 210).

The story ends on an optimistic note at the naming party where men and women of all classes and from diverse regions of Kangan share a genuine fellowship. Significantly, the name Beatrice gives the young girl, Amaechina, or “May the Path Never Close,” portends high expectations for recovery and renewal (Anthills, p. 206). People at the ceremony actually interpret the name, which is customarily used for boys, somewhat differently, to mean “the Path of Ikem” and “The Shining Path of Ikem” (Anthills, p. 206).

Nwayibuife—“A female is also something”

Beatrice’s middle name, Nwayibuife, is full of implications, as is the newborn’s at the close of the novel. At her naming ceremony, the baby receives the name Amaechina, which is normally reserved for boys in Igbo society. What this says about the role envisioned for women in the future is debatable. At the very least, it points to an activist, leadership role on par with that of men. The two names—Nwayibuife and Amaechina—both point to the importance of including a formerly neglected group—women—who like the poor can prove invaluable to the cause. Beyond participation on an equal footing, the novel can also be seen as envisioning women’s leading men. In Achebe’s own words,

I think we must . . . . find a way in which the modern woman in Africa . . . . brings her . . . . special gifts to the running of affairs. This is one of the things that I was tentatively exploring in Anthills. . . . . It’s not enough for men to work out what women should do… Women should … not just from a copying of European fashions . . . . but out of our own traditions . . . . work out a new role for themselves.

(Achebe in Lindfors, p. 150)

In the novel, Beatrice can be seen as forging a path for women out of her own traditions for she is associated with the age-old cult of Idemili, who, according to legend, is the daughter of God. “The role of women,” said Achebe when interviewed, “has not yet been fully worked out”; however, “situations can arise in which women are not the underdogs but can take over the affairs of society” (Achebe in Lindfors, p. 150). Such a situation presents itself to Beatrice, who then rises to the occasion. Her character, points out the scholar Emmanuel Obiechina:

is not looking over her shoulders for any approaching masculine figure to determine the course of the nation’s destiny. It has fallen to her lot to provide leadership and she accepts this role without fuss or effusiveness… . Her style is that of a true democrat. She listens, discusses, summarizes the consensual views of her compatriots. Tolerance is the key to the new style, in contrast to the despotism of the authoritarians (Obiechina, letter, p. 1).

The two symbolic women’s names address not only a political issue but also a literary one. Critical consensus was already forming in the late 1980s that traditional African ideologies and classic novels such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (also in Literature and Its Times) exclude women’s concerns. Choosing a very revealing title, Florence Stratton heads the first chapter of her book on African feminist writing with the question, “How Could Things Fall Apart For Whom They Were Not Together?” an obvious reference to Achebe’s famous novel. Along with other leading African writers, Achebe became the object of feminist criticism that works by male writers substituted African men’s history and culture for general African history and culture. Stratton argues that in stories “while women are excluded from the male domain of community power, men are permitted to intrude into domestic domain” (Anthills, p. 26). Meanwhile, institutions “associated with female industriousness, assertiveness, and prosperity” are either ignored or subordinated to male control (Anthills, p. 26).

Some of these issues are echoed in the critical exchanges that Beatrice Okoh has with Ikem Osodi and Chris Oriko. When Ikem acknowledges that Beatrice is correct in her critique of his treatment of women in his writing, Anthills seems to be agreeing with women’s arguments about how women are treated in literature. Ikem, the writer, thanks Beatrice for her critiques shortly before he is killed: “Thank you BB… . I can’t tell you what the new role for Woman will be. I don’t know. I should never have presumed to know. You have to tell us. We never asked you before. And perhaps because you’ve never been asked you may not have thought about it; you may not have the answer handy” (Anthills, p. 90).

Sources and literary context

In the early 1970s, after about a decade of independence, the sociopolitical health of African states looked grim. Writers who had heralded decolonization with optimism began to re-evaluate the state of their unions and to create stories that depicted gloom and doom. They produced novels of “post-independence disillusionment” (Obiechina, Language and Themes, p. 121). Examples of such stories are Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence (1968). Achebe condemned their pessimism in his essay “Colonialist Criticism” (1975). The only novels countering these dark tales of post-independence malaise were stories with Marxist solutions, such as Sembène Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood (1960).

Anthills of the Savannah forges a path between these two “extremes.” The story is not in any way as gloomy as the disillusionment narratives, although it describes similar conditions. At the same time, it shows distrust for the Marxist alternative when it portrays how ambivalent Ikem Osodi feels about Marxism and other trendy radicalisms of the students’ and labor unions. Against both the pessimism and the Marxist solution, Anthills of the Savannah evokes a measured optimism that comes from the mixing of the intellectuals and the workers at the naming ceremony of Ikem and Elewa’s child. The ceremony signifies a gathering together of stakeholders—highly educated citizens, urban working classes, and government officials—to herald the possibility of a better African future. In contrast to other novels of its kind, Anthills of the Savannah depicts a path to progress that acknowledges the enormity of the problems without being unduly pessimistic. The novel, and its title, point to the resilience of African societies. In the landscapes (or savannahs) of these societies are anthills that do not succumb to scorching drought but endure for a long time. These long-standing anthills are secure in the certainty that new grass will grow. The hope in that new grass, symbolized by the gathering at Beatrice’s apartment, is what the novel wants us to remember most.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The trouble with Nigeria

In 1983, close to the end of the first term of the country’s Shehu Shagari government, Achebe published a little book entitled The Trouble With Nigeria. The book ascribes the unrelenting misrule in Nigeria to a lack of imaginative and selfless leadership. The first sentence squarely declares that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership” (Achebe, The Trouble With Nigeria, p. 1). Achebe denounces popular politicians who had been in the national limelight since the anticolonial 1950s and were still struggling to rule the country. He condemns Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe for being tunnel-vi-sioned, money-grabbing tribalists. The book also castigates as narrow-minded and opportunistic promoters of these two leaders, who betray their clear mission in the country “to inaugurate a new philosophy and a new practice of politics” (Achebe, The Trouble With Nigeria, p. 80). Achebe recommends that “enlightened citizens” chase these self-styled leaders out of office because “if this conscious effort is not made, good leaders, like bad money, will be driven out by bad” (Achebe, The Trouble With Nigeria, p. 2).

The starkly partisan nature of his language in the book disagrees with his characteristic even-handedness on other vexing questions. But Achebe is not a completely independent observer here. The book is his contribution to efforts by the Nigerian intelligentsia to participate in righting the teetering ship of state as they saw it at the time. After the death of Alhaji Aminu Kano in 1983, Achebe was elected a national vice-chairman of the left-leaning People’s Redemption Party (P.R.P.), whose membership included a very high percentage of intellectuals. The Trouble With Nigeria amounts to something like a campaign document for the party, especially the essay’s conclusions, in which Achebe declares, “I can see no rational answer to the chaotic jumble of tragic and tragic-comical problems we have unleashed on ourselves in the past twenty-five years, but the example of Aminu Kano—a selfless commitment to the common people of our land” (Achebe, The Trouble With Nigeria, p. 84). That same year, 1983, Nigerian dramatist Wole Soyinka, released a record composed in the popular Nigerian pidgin English. Entitled “Unlimited Liability Company,” it criticized the elected government and called on voters not to re-elect but to reject President Shagari and his political party at the polls. These efforts of Nigeria’s leading intelligentsia to directly participate in partisan politics was unprecedented.

On December 31, 1983, the writers’ criticisms were addressed in a way they had not anticipated: another military dictatorship removed from office President Shagari, who three months earlier had been declared the winner of a flawed general election. That coup launched yet another cycle of dictatorships that would last to the time in which Achebe’s novel was published.


Anthills was welcomed with great enthusiasm. Virtually every reviewer remarks its having been eagerly awaited for two decades, since the publication of Achebe’s A Man of the People in 1966. Neal Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, praises Anthills of the Savannah for its honest analysis of the problems of ruler-ship in post-independence African states. Ascherson commends the novel’s departure from the conventional lambasting of Europe and America for all of Africa’s woes: “It is the courage of this complex novel to cast Africans, even in this wretched decade, always as subject and never as the objects of external forces. It is a tale about responsibility” (Ascherson, p. 4). Fiona Sparrow, writing for World Literature Written in English, commends Achebe’s profound interest in women’s concerns in postcolonial Africa. She calls Beatrice Okoh “the most important female character that Achebe has created” (Sparrow, p. 58). In West Africa, the award-winning Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farah, heaps adulation on the story, describing it as an “engaging and a hugely successful novel. There is a great deal of poetry in it, and the quality of writing is charged with informedness, an awareness of high things and high thoughts” (Farah, p. 1, 831). Farah compares His Excellency’s maltreatment of Abazón, the region that does not endorse his dream of a president for life, to General Siyad Barre’s practices in Somalia, for example: “In Somalia, we know what happens when a given province challenges Siyad Barre’s authority: the life-line to the region is severed, no bore-holes are dug, no development projects are financed, no teachers are any longer transferred to this area, etc., precisely the very measures described in Anthills” (Farah, p. 1, 830).

—Adeleke Adeeko

For More Information

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.

_____. The Trouble With Nigeria. Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1983.

Ascherson, Neal. “Betrayal.” New York Review of Books, 3 March 1988, 3-4, 6.

Fage, J. D. A History of Africa. London, Routledge, 1995.

Falola, Toyin. The History of Nigeria. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Farah, Nuruddin. “A Tale of Tyranny.” West Africa, 21 September 1987, 1, 828-31.

Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990.

_____. Emmanuel Obiechina to Joyce Moss, letter, 18 September 2002, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Sparrow, Fiona. “Reviews.” World Literature Written in English 28, no. 1 (spring 1988): 58-61.

Stratton, Florence. Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 1994.