Achebe pokes at inherited African tragedies

Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
In Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987), the central character, Sam has power thrust upon him unexpectedly, when what he only has is Sandhurst military training that prepares him “rather in the high tradition of proud aloofness from politics and public affairs.”

He may be an intelligent man, but his “aloofness from politics and public affairs”, which he inherited from the empire, makes him look at civilians with an element of distrust and disdain. Sam cannot connect with the people and his attempt to lead them is destined to fail right from the start. It is not in his nature to listen to them, to trust them and to deal with their concerns as is expected of a head of state. Sam needs advice as Chris says: “Therefore when our civilian politicians finally got what they had coming to them and landed unloved and unmourned on the rubbish heap and the young Army Commander was invited by the even younger coup-makers to become His Excellency the Head of State he had pretty few ideas about what to do.”

The citation above puts into context three vital premises; the inexperience of His Excellency and the coup-makers, the influence of the colonial master on the leadership of the postcolonial African state and the impermanency of power. Sam is young and inexperienced in matters of state, but he has “greatness thrust upon him”, to borrow from William Shakespeare, and as his friend and First Witness, Chris puts it, he is also intelligent enough to know his foibles, thus he needs all the help he can get. Caught between Sandhurst’s inclinations towards “proud aloofness from politics”, and having to be His Excellence the Head of State, Sam grapples with a crisis of inheritance.

Ikem, the Second Witness, believes that Sam’s folly is his obsession with whatever is English, but could be redeemed if those around him, especially his friends, him and Chris included, play their part in making him tolerant of reason and divergent views, instead of flattering him. Sam, therefore, conforms to Kheir’s (2010) view that the “African crisis is a crisis of inheritance rather than a crisis of capability.”

Sam has inherited a hot seat, and he is aware of it, thus he seeks to consolidate it and handle it well through his friends whom he asks for advice. He is aware that his military training in the empire’s abode does not help him in his new position. Unfortunately, the friends he looks up to are themselves crippled by the inheritance they have from a colonial education, which makes them blacks in skin only, yet wearing white masks (Fanon, 1958); thus, keeping them away from the people in whose stead they should govern. His friends have also inherited their own similar crises and they fail to be of much help as they are simply new men to an old crisis.

According to Fanon (1967:28), “Decolonisation is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the ‘thing’ which has been colonised becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.” The premise in the above citation brings to the fore the precarious nature of the unoriginality of governance systems in Africa, which exposes the continent to both external and internal forces.

As is the case with Sam’s government, the dialectical tensions between the new military rulers and the civilian component create an internal crisis, which exposes the Establishment to external forces from the disillusioned masses, who feel hard done by and alienated. In fact, the inherited systems cause discordance and doom the continent from the very start. The new nation state is born severely crippled and the leaders are too caught up to give it anything new. Sam fails before he has even started his tenure of leadership.

The experimental state at independence finds itself hooked to the colonial apparatus of governance, yet at the same time attempting to fashion an ideology that may be all encompassing and endear it to the masses. The postcolonial nation state looks up to a crippled human factor to give impetus to this new ideology, which is tragic since people like Sam are mere offshoots of the old block. Such is Sam’s and the nation state’s tragedy: having to create something new when saddled with the old, which they cannot shake themselves from. In addition, the balancing act and the efforts at placating both the military and the civilian components of Kangan, while legitimising power gained through usurpation, become burdensome to the inexperienced Sam.

In addition to the military nature of the state, Kangan also must project itself as a young civilian government, which is expectedly led by the “native bourgeoisie,” as Fanon (1967) puts it, who in Kangan finds itself at odds with the military at times, although the same military needs them for its survival. The new native bourgeoisie struggles to wean itself from the shenanigans of the bourgeoisie of the empire, and they become alienated from the people as is the case in A Man of the People (1966).The satirical man of the people and his caste become so undesirable that overthrowing them can only be inevitable. The greatest tragedy is that this same government is caught up in power that it rejects all democratic efforts to remove it and thus invites the intervention of the army, which takes the power and the agency from the people.

This is the ultimate failure of governance and structures in Africa when civilian governments reject civilian efforts to remove them and almost make inevitable the intervention of stronger military powers. While the civilian rulers might suffer a setback with the military takeover, soon enough, as a class, they will find themselves in favour again as the new leaders need them. The civilian government that has been in power for nine years is overthrown in Anthills of the Savannah, which suggests that the seeming liberation from one regime becomes a new cycle of dialectical tensions building up to yet another coup regime.

To add, the “incomplete”, “primitive”, “mutilated” and “unfinished” Sam must survive, thus his fortress becomes power (Mbembe, 2001:1). But where does he get his power from, considering that he is young and inexperienced, neither does he directly participate in the coup? It is imperative to note here that this is the same Sam who mistrusts the people and whom the people have no access to, both literally and metaphorically.

French and Raven (1965) posit six bases of power, which are; referent, reward, coercive, legitimate, expert and informational. According to Spoelstra and Piennar (1996), legitimate power can be derived from birth, election, or usurpation. As the Army Commander, Sam “was invited” to the podium as “His Excellency the Head of State”, thus his power alternates between reward and legitimate bases. Supposing that his power is legitimate, because he is invited by “the even younger coup-makers”, whose legitimacy is an outcome of usurpation, Sam’s power needs to be consolidated because it is a reward to his rank as Army Commander by the young coup-makers, who need his experience as an officer as they learn the ropes behind the scenes. The source of his power, ironically becomes his downfall, since, after all, Sam is a compromise who should negotiate the interests of the state with those of the soldiers who elevate him. As he soon realises, this is no mean feat as other interests converge still on him, complicating the balance he seeks to create for his rule.

The legitimisation of power that has been usurped by the army from civilian authority creates problems for Sam from different fronts. The overthrown civilian government remains lurking in the woods on one hand, and on the other are the coup-makers, who will either count their losses or their gains depending on how His Excellency juggles power. Naturally, dialectical tensions on the part of the coup-makers and Sam are inevitable.

This is not helped by the demands of the larger populace who fight for changes, which they feel they deserve and which they demand. Such voices are hard to ignore and are symbolised by Ikem, the students, taxi drivers and the Abazon people. These people are, however, the least of his worries and such is the state of African politics, for the majority interests matter little! To consolidate his power and thwart a possible counter-coup, Sam resorts to violence as a way of silencing dissent.

In his attempt to placate both sides His Excellency appoints Major Johnson Ossai as the Director of the State Research Council “in the face of opposition from senior officers”, and he “decided to retire all military members of his cabinet and to replace them with civilians and, to cap it all, add President to all his titles”.

Even though Sam’s intentions in retiring military members of his Cabinet as well as replacing of his military rank with that of President may be good for the nation state, seeds of discontent in the coup-makers are sown. This creates a separate caste within the elite class close to the ruler and his source of power as Hegel posits. This same caste feels alienated by power struggles happening around their creation and they also feel distanced from Sam by rival interests from the same class. The struggle is thus not based on classes in this case, but involves same class groups rivaling each other for more access to the centre where matter is controlled (Fanon, 1967). Naturally, the coup-makers would be chagrined, and Sam is aware of it and in his bid to be autonomous and decide the state direction himself, he violently acts as is illustrated in the following:”There were unconfirmed rumours of unrest, secret trials and executions in the barracks. But His Excellency rode the storm quite comfortably thanks to two key appointments he had personally made—the Army Chief of Staff and the Director of the State Research Council, the secret police.”

Sam plays into the folly of the politically ignorant soldier that Fanon (1967) scoffs at; who by dint of the empire’s deliberate militarisation, through training as is symbolised by Sandhurst, has no other means to consolidate power. If the army lacks activity and national consciousness, disaster lies in wait for the postcolonial state in Africa. Drunk with power which he little understands, and which he is desperate to keep, General Sam, His Excellency, the Head of State, refuses to listen to his Cabinet, which comprises intellectuals like Chris, instead opting to be his own man, a case of once a soldier, always a soldier.

He seems to forget that his source of power remains a threat to his power, unless he keeps surrounding interests placated. The coup-makers, who gave him the power, remain a threat, and the civilians, with the likes of Ikem on their side, are also a threat, thus either way a cue for a coup is building up.

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