A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe (Book Review)
Chinua Achebe’s influence on African literature cannot be overstated. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, tells the story of first cultural contact between pre-colonial Igbo society and British imperial power in the late 19th century. His next two books followed the same community as they struggled with the contradictions and complexity of colonial rule. The author’s first three books, referred to as the African Trilogy, are considered to be a defining account of the colonial encounter between traditional African societies and European colonial institutions. A Man of the People was Achebe’s first novel written after the African trilogy and is a satire on the corrupt political structures that had emerged in the newly independent African states. Though the novel takes place in a unspecified African country, it is remarkably redolent of Achebe’s native Nigeria which at that time had been independent for only six years.
I had felt, like so many other educated citizens of our country, that things were going seriously wrong without being able to say just how. We complained about our country’s lack of dynamism and abdication of the leadership to which it was entitled to in the continent, or so we thought. We listened to whispers of scandalous deals in high places–sometimes involving sums of money that I for one didn’t believe existed in the country.
Few writers would be up to the task of writing about an anonymous African state in a way that would not conflate the entire continent with a country. Luckily Achebe is a skilled craftsman who has the subtlety necessary to write a parody that is not itself a caricature. The book’s story centres around the conflict between Odili, an aspiring academic turned politician, and his former school teacher Chief Nanga who is now the Minister of Culture. Odili comes from a privileged background, his father having been the District Interpretor (the right-hand man of the British District Officer) during the country’s colonial period. Sceptical of both the older generation’s respect for the colonial authorities and the political culture that has emerged since independence, Odili pursues a politically neutral career path as a teacher. Though not a highly remunerative profession, being a teacher at least gives Odili a sense of being above the fray. Nanga realizes that independence has created opportunities for political entrepreneurship and readily seizes them.
Nanga must have gone into politics soon afterwards and then won a seat in Parliament… At that time I had just entered the University and was very active in the Students’ branch of the People’s Organization Party. Then in 1960 something disgraceful happened in the Party and I was completely disillusioned.
At the novel’s beginning Odili is preparing to apply for a post-graduate degree in London. When he meets Nanga at the grammar school he is teaching at, the Minister remembers Odili as a student and encourages him to come to capital to take up a civil service position in order that not everything be left to the “highland tribes”. Nanga is a charismatic politician who is able to give extemporaneous speeches and charm even his detractors. As demagogues throughout history have realized, the people can be won over through gestures and mere relatability rather than by serving their policy interests. The previous generation of the country’s leadership came to power by dint of their privileged access to Western education. In contrast, Nanga is barely literate (according to Odili), and we often hear him speaking in pidgin English. Chief Nanga is part of the new crop of ministers who are selected for their political loyalty rather than their competence. Why, the new government asks, is it that one needs to be a trained doctor or economist to be the Minister of Finance or Health, when even in Britain cabinet appointments are made on political considerations rather than technocratic merit?
Let us now and for all time extract from our body-politic as a dentist extracts a stinking tooth all those decadent stooges versed in text-book economics and aping the white man’s mannerisms and way of speaking. We are proud to be Africans. Our true leaders are not those intoxicated with their Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard degrees but those who speak the language of the people. Away with the damnable and expensive university education which only alienates an African from his rich and ancient culture and puts him above his people…
Odili does not accept Nanga’s offer for a position in the civil service but take up an offer to stay at his residence in the capital. The visit will allow Odili to spend time with his love interest Elsie and leverage Nanga’s position as minister to ensure he has the necessary paperwork to study abroad. The night before Elsie is to stay with them, Nanga asks whether Odili is serious about her. In order to be jocular with Nanga, Odili tells him she is only a Kabu-Kabu (good-time-girl), hiding the extent of his feelings. That night Odili catches them in flagrante delicto and vows to punish Nanga for his transgression. Though understandably furious, Odili’s motivation for revenge strikes the reader as being more related to his wounded pride as a man than any deep sense of betrayal. His plan to punish Nanga by seducing his soon-to-be second wife further reduces the reader’s sympathy for his motivations.
Somehow I found myself admiring the man for his lack of modesty. For what is modesty but inverted pride? We all think we are first-class people. Modesty forbids us from saying so ourselves though, presumably, not from wanting to hear it from others. Perhaps it was their impatience with this kind of hypocrisy that made men like Nanga successful politicians while starry-eyed idealists strove vaingloriously to bring into politics niceties and delicate refinements that belonged elsewhere.
While still furious at Nanga, Odili meets with his old fried Max who is a lawyer in the capital. Max tells Odili that he is starting a new opposition party and wants him to join. Realizing that this will provide an additional opportunity to potentially embarrass Nanga, Odili joins the movement and offers to run against the Minister in their home district. Odili’s shift to politics is not entirely a cynical calculation. Like the other colonial-educated men of his day, Odili sees himself as part of the incorruptible Grammar School elite. As mentioned in the quote above, he was interested in Youth politics before an unspecified disillusioning event. Though optimistic of his own ability to represent the true interests of the people, Odili has little faith in his countrymen to know what is best for themselves as he mentions on repeated occasions.
They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you–as my father did–if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.
Political scientists have noted that functioning democracies rely on “loser’s consent”, that is a graceful acceptance of the outcome from the parties that lose. Being a gracious political loser usually stems from the belief that you will win in future elections. In countries where parties are based on political ideology, the winning party’s policies usually does not preclude a policy swing in the future. This is exemplified by Britain’s move from pure laissez-faire to nationalization to finally privatization all within the 20th century. However in a country like Nigeria or Kenya, where parties are formed along ethnic and regional lines, the victorious party has an incentive to extract the maximum amount of rents that can be taken while in office. This is because unlike the battle of policy choices, the battle of economic resources is inherently finite. If the future government comes from an opposition party then your ethnic group will lose access to public services. This not only creates a demand from your constituents to take as much as possible while you hold the levers of power, but also to build up a war chest so that you can politically survive after losing access to government largess. This is also known as the it’s our turn to eat argument. The consequence is a low equilibrium outcome where alternating political victors eat the seeds of future prosperity, ensuring the pie does not grow.
The people themselves, as we have seen, had become even more cynical than their leaders and were apathetic into the bargain. “Let the eat,” was the people’s opinion, “after all when the white men used to do all the eating did we commit suicide?” Of course not. And where is the all-powerful white man today? He came, he ate and he went. But we are still around. The important thing then is to stay alive… Besides, if you survive, who knows? it may be your turn to eat tomorrow. Your son may bring home your share.
Unlike in his first three books, A Man of the People has a less overtly anti-colonial message. To the extent that Odili’s views represent Achebe’s own, the protagonist suggests that many of the political pathologies of post-independence Africa were driven by the citizens. When the colonial era is referenced most of the comments are neutral, or if anything mildly nostalgic. For example Odili and his friend Max were educated at mission schools, and the characters seem to believe that their education is one of the reasons for their superiority. The previous generation of foreign-educated indigenous leadership, while presented as out-of-touch, are suggested as having a certain level of integrity and competency. Odili himself seems unsure of whether independence was even a sound decision.
‘It is a favourite of my father’s who, by the way, still thinks we should have never asked the white man to go.’
‘Perhaps he is right,’ I said.
‘Well no. The trouble is that he hasn’t got very much out of the Independence personally. There simply weren’t any white posts in his profession that he could task over. There is only one bishop in the entire diocese and he is already an African.’
Being a satire, it is difficult to ascertain how serious the reader should take any of these views–let alone ascribing them to Achebe’s beliefs. One fact that is clear by chronology alone is that A Man of the People captured an early spirit of Afro-Pessimism that would not reach its apex until the earlier 1980s when most African states were financially bankrupt and seen as politically illegitimate, even by their own citizens. The book was published in 1966, arguably the height of Pan-Africanism, with Nigeria having gained independence six years early and Nkrumah still holding office in Ghana. The book was remarkably far-sighted in both its anticipation of the disillusionment that was to follow and a diagnosis of the toxic clientalist model of politics that was going to emerge.
A common saying in the country after Independence was that it didn’t matter what you know but who you knew.
One of the things that makes A Man of the People such a fun read is that no one is spared. Chief Nanga represents the cynical political entrepreneur who uses the spirit of national independence to advance his own rapacious ambitions. Odili is the Grammar School boy who sees himself as a cut above his countrymen. The previous generation’s views on colonial rule vary depending on their own financial success after independence. In the final scenes of the novel, Odili is humiliated during the election and his opposition party is wiped out. But Nanga loses his power, not because of the people, but because of a coup. Amazingly the book was written just before Nigeria had its first coup, further reinforcing the book’s prescience. If there is one take away message from A Man of the People, it is that no one is above self interest.
For example Odili mentions that “He [his father] knew how many children he had but people don’t go counting their children as they do animals or yams. And the same I fear goes for our country’s population.” Census-taking in Nigeria has, throughout its history, been subject to political manipulations as the three main ethnic groups (the Hausa/Fulani in the North, the Igbo in the East, and the Yoruba in the West) have sought to inflate their population counts to win a disproportionate share of seats in the parliament and funding from Lagos. Here is a well-written summary of the problem circa 1964 by Charles J Patterson. ↩
I remember my father telling me that Aid volunteers in Nigeria would often tell the police at checkpoints that they were teachers as they were less likely to be asked to give bribes. ↩
This may be a reference to the ethnic tensions that were, and still are, present in Kenya where the “highland” tribes like the Kikuyu were dominant in post-independence politics. ↩
This idea was dramatically shown in the science fiction film The Platform in which a food banquet is lowered down over 300 levels. Though there is enough food for all levels if everyone ate the same portion, the top levels consume all of the food with the consequence that most individuals starve to death in the lower levels. ↩