This year, Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People celebrates its 50th anniversary. The writer’s fourth novel is the gripping satire through which he was perceived not only as the Father of African Literature, but also a prophet.
A Man of the People is published in early January 1966. This is a few days before the military coup d’état that overthrows the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa civilian government in Nigeria, which the supposedly outgoing British occupation-governor had imposed on the country in 1959, following a fractious election that the British rigged in favour of its north region religiopolitical clients, long opposed to African liberation. The latter would, in turn, safeguard those vast expropriatory interests of Britain’s in the country subsequently.
In effect, the striking feature in the resolution of the grave crisis of this state that Achebe wrestles with in A Man of the People is its degeneration into a military coup and rampaging violence, an extraordinary predictive insight, if ever there was one, that confronts the reader, considering the gruesome trajectory of politics in Nigeria, in 1966, the year this same state launches the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide of post (European) conquest Africa, in which 3.1 million Igbo are murdered. Indeed on the receipt of an advance copy of A Man of the People, poet and playwright John Pepper Clarke-Bekederemo observes, ‘Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup’.
Ken Post, a British academic working in west Africa at the time, recalls: ‘Chinua Achebe proved to be a better prophet than any of the political scientists’. Once again, ‘Prophet’! So, Chinua Achebe, the Father of African Literature, is also a prophet?
A Man of the People focuses on two main protagonists: Nanga, or to refer to his official designation: Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, MP, Minister of Culture, and Odili, the narrator. In case anyone is inclined to think that Nanga’s depiction is much of a parody, given the thrust of the novel, they need to be reassured that a Nanga actively walking the corridors of regime power in contemporary Nigeria, 50 years later, is likely to wear the following even more bombastic tag: Chief (Prof) Dr Alhaji Sir (Gen, ret.) Mallam The Honourable M. A. Ph.D. Nanga, MP, mni, Minister of Higher Priesthood & Culture – such is Achebe’s exceptional descriptive and imaginative insights so registered avidly throughout the novel. Nanga epitomises what public service entails for the typical politician in Nigeria, since 1960: a corrupt and corrupting operative who fleeces the public treasury, ‘bloated by the flatulence of ill-gotten wealth, living in the big mansion built with public money’ as per the novel.
Odili, the school teacher, the reflective intellectual, and authorial voice, argues that the Chief (Prof) Dr Alhaji Sir (Gen, ret.) The Honourable Nangas of the times are so stubbornly confident that, ‘as long as [people in society] are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the … Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything’. The Nangas here, and in fact elsewhere, Odili continues, have ‘taken away enough for the owner to notice … It was not just a simple question of a [person’s] cup being full. A [person’s] cup might be full and none the wiser. But here the owner knew, and the owner … is the will of the people’. Besides the billions of US dollars which Britain and its allied interests have wrenched from its Nigeria creation over the years, what empirically constitutes that which has been ‘taken away enough for the owner to notice’ by these fleecing brigands of African overseeing truckers between the 1960s and presently is US$700 billion.
Brigand and Monster
Here, Franz Schurmann’s observation, in his article ‘Africa is saving itself’ that these brigands are not ‘traditional but rather a phenomenon of modernity … fighting for power in a Western-type state…’ is hugely significant. What has been definitive in the past 50 years of this ‘fighting for power’ in the restricted, calibrated spaces of just overseeing these African redoubts created by and for pan-European world interests in perpetuity is that it is a fight to the death – genocides (Igbo, Tutsi, Darfuri, Blue Nile/South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains, Democratic Republic of the Congo), wars, immiseration…
Between 1966 and 2015, the ‘Berlin-states’ of Africa have been responsible for the murder of 15 million Africans. Its worst offender, its most notorious, its principal killer, remains Nigeria. This Nigeria. This haematophagous monster. This Nigeria, this killing machine which continues its murder of Igbo people most ruthlessly, most flagrantly, most unconscionably, even as these lines are written…
Africans now no longer need any reminders that the ‘Berlin-state’ in their midst is not there for their interests, their wellbeing. Enough of this reminder. Enough! There couldn’t be any more eloquent interlocutors on this subject, in the case of Nigeria, for instance, than Frederick Lugard and Hugh Clifford, the very British creators of this contraption, who, right from the outset, preview its cataclysmic outcome. Lugard, its chief conquest state operative at the time had in fact observed in his book Nigeria, Biafra & Boko Haram that ‘south and north [Nigeria] are like oil and water that do not mix’ and Clifford, another conquest overseer, agreed, quite panoramically, in the context of both history and geography: ‘Nigeria is a collection of independent states, separated from one another by great distances, by differences of history and traditions and by racial, political, social and religious barriers’.
Despite the misgivings, the conquest regime boxed in these disparate conquered peoples, nations, histories and worldviews into a disarticulated “state” for the express interests of British politicoeconomic and strategic expropriatory goals. It is now an overriding imperative that each and every constituent people or nation in Nigeria embarks on the construction of a state that suits its wellbeing. This crisis, currently, is undoubtedly existential.
Just as an empirical value has been offered to underscore the urgency of Odili’s philosophical musings on the pulverising economic legacy of the local overseer brigands of the still-occupied Africa, another empirical reference is available in A Man of the People, thankfully, to address Odili’s own ‘the-owner-knew’ liberatory conclusion. This is the ‘the will of the people’ as Achebe writes, which, at last, does know what is at stake in this human-made imbroglio. It also requires a human intervention to right this wrong of history – precisely what the determined and disciplined Biafran freedom movement is implementing presently across the towns and cities and villages of Biafra. Thus, this intervention and its profound consequences which will largely define the politics of the epoch is, indeed, another predictive asset of the great prophet.
This article was originially published in Pambazuka News.