Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah is one of the famous postcolonial novels. It traces the history of modern Africa through colonialism and gives an insight to the drastic changes that took place in African societies persuaded by colonization. In the novel, Achebe describes a typical modern African nation ruled by a corrupt leader and is facing deep-rooted inequality and widespread poverty. Achebe has used several themes and narrative strategies to deal with the issues of post-colonial Africa. In this article, I’ll explore and analyze some of the major themes used by Chinua Achebe in the construction of Anthills of the Savannah. These major themes are discussed below:
Political Corruption & Unhealthy Leadership
Political corruption is one of the most prevalent and major themes in Anthills of the Savannah.
The fictional state of Kangan is fully surrounded by the atmosphere of political corruption. Sam, His Excellency, is a corrupt dictator. He only cares for himself and takes decisions that benefit him rather than his people. Despite being their leader, he has distanced himself from the people. All this represents an unhealthy practice for a president which is not favorable to political leadership. Another instance of unhealthy leadership is the opposition between Sam and other members of the cabinet, such as Chris and Ikem.
Sam’s corrupt dictatorial rule lets down the dreams and hopes of Kangan’s people. The way he deals with the problem of the Abazonian delegation reflects the selfish and corrupt nature of his governance. Instead of sorting out their problems himself, he turns his back to their needs. His thirst for power grows day by day leading him to eradicate everyone who comes in his way. He doesn’t hesitate to silence those who doubt him and stand in his way, including his longtime friends, Ikem and Chris.
Through the depiction of a corrupt political regime and unhealthy leadership in Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe has attacked the political corruption that characterized the military regimes in Nigeria after independence. He has revealed the fact that if the leadership of any country is corrupt and unhealthy, so would be its society. The negative aspects of society always relate back to the negative aspects of its leadership. Such a wretched power game can never encourage good leadership in any state and badly affects every aspect of life and every relationship that the state has with its people.
Power and Authority
Anthills of the Savannah also deals with the theme of power, its acquisition, use and abuse.
The novel shows that the abuse of political power and authority always leads to tragic consequences. A nation falls apart when its leader makes wrong choices in handling political power and authority. In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe has shown the tragic consequences of abuse of power through the depiction of Kangan’s President, Sam.
Sam exercises unchecked power over his people and fails to construct a strong bond with them. His decisions are unchangeable and unquestionable. His thirst for power expands into an ambition to be the president for life with total authority. In order to protect his authority, this self-interested servant of power can do anything. His ambition also blinds his ability to foresee the consequences of his ruthless treatment of others. For instance, when Ikem criticizes the inability of Sam’s government to meet the needs of the populace of Kangan, he doesn’t hesitate to order his assassination. Thus, he is an irrational and despotic leader who only enhances the sufferings of his people. It is his growing need for absolute power that leads him to corruption.
The detailed description of the Presidential Guest House at Abichi Lake Resort further reveals the president’s abuse of power. This description provides a striking contrast to the poor dehumanizing conditions in which the people of Abazon Province live. Through Sam’s abuse of power and the resulting tragic fall, Achebe illustrates that the leaders who oppose the will of their people always face tragic demise. He further shows that the crude strategies of dictators don’t merely destroy them but also incorporate fear and torment among the ordinary people.
Anthills of the Savannah also deals with the theme of identity crisis. Through his novel, Chinua Achebe has attempted to reconstruct and assert the true cultural identity of the African people. The protagonists’ cultural identity is problematic as they seem to be uprooted from their culture and tradition. They are foreign educated and, therefore, have a lack of self-knowledge. Western education has a deep impact on shaping their identity. As a result, they are far away from the traditions and legends of their culture.
This crisis of identity is particularly visible in Beatrice. Her success has been achieved through the repressions of her tradition that’s why she hardly knows who she is. In the course of the novel, she goes back in her memory to reclaim aspects of her personality that had been hidden from her by Western education. Later on, she overcomes her identity crisis by re-establishing her contact with the vital essence of her culture.
Anthills of the Savannah asserts that African people should embody both the ancient tradition and modern inclinations, pre-colonial and colonial heritage. They should promote this blending of old and new values in such a way as to create a modern African man characterized by a healthy and stable sense of identity.
The Importance of Female Emancipation
Another theme that Achebe brings to the forefront in Anthills of the Savannah is the importance of female emancipation. He takes up the feminist theme in his novel to demonstrate that women need to be a major part of the solution to Africa’s miseries. So, their role in the development of Nigerian society can’t be underestimated. Achebe presents his feministic stance in Anthills of the Savannah through the depiction of a strong female protagonist, Beatrice Okoh. An educated, independent, sophisticated, and politically active woman, she embodies Achebe’s all considerations on the essential role of women as instigators of change in a modern Nigerian society.
Beatrice’s connection to the trio of male protagonists qualifies her as the most cohesive agent of the story. She senses that Chris and Ikem are in danger and advises them to be careful of Sam. Also, she attempts to instruct Sam on the outcomes of his actions. Moreover, she accuses Ikem of being gender biased and tells him that, “he has no clear role for women in his political thinking”. As a result, he reconsiders his views on the role of women in society.
In the final scene, Beatrice performs the naming ceremony of Ikem and Elewa’s daughter. Traditionally, the naming ceremony was typically led by a revered male member of the community but Achebe has chosen Beatrice to improvise this old ritual. The name given to the baby-girl is Amaecina, a boy’s name meaning ‘May the Path Never Close’. By giving a boy’s name to the girl, she reconfigures the conventional gender roles and gives hope of a healthy society built by the efforts of both men and women.
Role of a Writer in African Society
Another prominent theme in the novel is the role of a writer in the development of African societies. Achebe mirrors this theme through the novel’s most radical character, Ikem Osodi. Ikem is a crusading journalist and a talented poet. He is outspoken, brave, and never hesitates to criticize the rotten policies of Kangan’s government. He wrote editorials that constantly draw people’s attention to the country’s widespread poverty, corruption and inequality. It is through Ikem’s character that Achebe addresses all the important questions regarding the role of the writer in African society.
Ikem’s character depicts that a writer should not be a mere reporter or participant of the events. Rather, he should have an active and influential role in the development of a nation. Moreover, as the old Abazon leader reminds Ikem, a writer also holds special responsibilities as the repositories of communal memory.
In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe has shown that a writer does not provide solutions to problems or give answers. Instead, he asks questions. These questions urge the reader to seek for their answers. Thus, the most important role of the writer, according to Achebe, is to persuade people to reflect upon the condition of their lives and raise their consciousness. As a result, they’ll be able to ponder why things are going wrong.
Betrayal of Trust
In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe has also depicted betrayal of trust in relationships. This theme is particularly depicted through the relationships among major characters. Sam betrays the trust of his people as well as his close friends Chris and Ikem. Ikem’s murder opens Chris’s eyes to the true nature of Sam’s military power. As a result, Chris ceases to trust him and summons international media to unveil Sam’s cruel dictatorship.
Moreover, Achebe has implanted this theme in the whole narrative structure of the novel. He has done so by showing the inability of his protagonists, the European educated elites, as the trustworthy narrators of African stories. Since they are uprooted from their own tradition and culture, we can’t trust them as the spokesperson of African people.
Theme of Struggle and Change
Anthills of the Savannah also deals with the theme of struggle and change. All the protagonists, except Sam, are struggling to change society. Ikem uses his powers as a journalist to bring the change. Beatrice also attempts to enact necessary changes. In fact, Chris’s character also plays a significant role in this regard. Initially he seems to be powerless and disinterested, but later he transforms into a brave and powerful individual. Through all these characters, Achebe urges the citizens to rise up and transform their society through struggle. Only by doing so will they be able to get a healthy and prosperous society.
Conflicts of Interest
Another major theme prevalent in Anthills of the Savannah is conflicts of interests. It is the conflicts of interest that form the backbone of the contentions among the characters in the novel. The key characters in this regard include Sam, Chris Oriko, Ikem Osodi, and Beatrice Okoh, who performs the role of a mediator among these characters.
Chris and Ikem disagree to obey Sam’s irrational demands. The situation results in the immediate suspension of Ikem and a later unexpected chase for Chris. Their defiance against a power-hungry dictator leads them to fatal trouble. Beatrice throughout the story takes the role of a mediator between Chris and Ikem. She identifies their perceptions and misperceptions of each other and encourages a problem solving atmosphere. She also warns them to be careful of Sam. Furthermore, she also tries to instruct Sam on the ramifications of his actions.