Odili Samalu narrates the story of a post-independent country, ruled by the People’s Organization Party (P.O.P), that is riddled with political bias and graft. Having become disillusioned with the present government due to unchecked corruption and inept ‘public servants’, he ironically finds himself in the good graces of one such politician – Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga. Micah Nanga had risen from the post of a humble teacher at Anata Grammar School to become a Member of Parliament and subsequently, by means of shameless opportunism, the Minister of Culture. Nonetheless, he is the most affable politician one could ever come across.
No one can deny that Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, M.P., was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people.
Chief Nanga offers to help Odili obtain a scholarship to study a postgraduate course in England as he, Nanga, is a close friend of Chief Koko the Minister for Overseas Training. Nanga invites Odili to stay with him in his mansion at Bori, the capital city, where Odili’s eyes are opened to the opulent lifestyle their so-called ministers lead. He debates the phenomenon of rising from grass to grace as he enjoys the plush self-contained room he is ushered into:
We ignore man’s basic nature if we say, as some critics do, that because a man like Nanga has risen overnight from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without much trouble to give it up again and return to his original state.
A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. The trouble with our new nation – as I saw it then lying on the bed – was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say ‘To hell with it’. We had all been in the rain together until yesterday. Then a handful of us – the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best – had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in. And from within they sought to persuade the rest through numerous loudspeakers, that the first phase of the struggle had been won and that the next phase – the extension of our house – was even more important and called for new and original tactics; it required that all argument should cease and the whole people speak with one voice and that any more dissent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house.
And so they did by convincing the masses through initiatives like Our Home Made Stuff (OHMS) – a gigantic campaign to promote the consumption of locally made products, urging every patriot to support this great national effort which supposedly held the key to economic emancipation without which their hard-won political freedom was a mirage.
A fall-out between Odili and Chief Nanga after the latter has a night of intimacy with Elsie, Odili’s girlfriend, drives him to search for his long time friend and former classmate Maxwell Kulamo, a lawyer in Bori. That night, Odili is conscripted into the Common People’s Convention, a party Max and a few other disillusioned friends are starting to check the corrupt, mediocre politicians at the helm of state affairs.
With a sum of eight hundred pounds, Odili goes to his home village, Urua, to launch the party and contest for Chief Nanga’s seat in parliament. Max and the other founding members show up to convince the village people to vote for the C.P.C.
Max began by accusing the outgoing Government of all kinds of swindling and corruption. As he gave instance after instance of how some of our leaders who were ash-mouthed paupers five years ago had become near-millionaires under our very eyes, many in the audience laughed. But it was the laughter of resignation to misfortune
The people’s myopic perspective on the issue is summed up by the defiant ex-Corporal or ‘Couple’ as the villagers called him.
The ex-policeman put it very well. ‘We know they are eating,’ he said, ‘but we are eating too. They are bringing us water and they promise to bring us electricity. We did not have those things before; that is why I say we are eating too.’
Odili becomes blatantly aware of the arduous task ahead when his political aspirations are met with one stumbling block after another. First, he is fired from his teaching job at the Anata Grammar School, then he is ostracized by the previously friendly Mama, Chief Nanga’s wife; he finds himself at odds with Edna, a young woman who his promised to Nanga with whom he, Odili is infatuated with, and is finally harassed by the misguided youth supporters of Nanga or the Nangavanga. Although he tries to stick to the ideals and tenets of political decorum, he finds himself more and more swayed to play dirty like his rival Chief Nanga.
As Boniface, Odili’s Chief of Security put it:
‘Look my frien I done tell you say if you no wan serious for this business, make you go rest for house. I done see say you want play too much gentleman for this matter … Dem tell you say na gentlemanity de give other people minister …? Anyway wetin be my concern there? Na you sabi.’
Odili’s father had quite an intriguing and somewhat axiomatic view of his son’s political aspirations:
My father’s attitude to my political activity intrigued me a lot. He was, as I think I have already indicated, the local chairman of P.O.P. in our village, Urua, and so I expected that his house would not contain both of us. But I was quite wrong. He took the view (without expressing it in so many words) that the mainspring of political action was personal gain, a view which, I might say, was much more in line with the general feeling in the country than the high-minded thinking of fellows like Max and I. The only comment I remember my father making (at the beginning anyway) was when he asked if my ‘new’ party was ready to give me enough money to fight Nanga.
Against his better judgment, Odili decides to attend Chief Nanga’s inaugural campaign meeting in disguise, but is inevitably discovered and roughed up by the crowd.
Days later, he regains consciousness in the hospital and learns from his father that the charges leveled against him for ostensibly carrying dangerous weapons has been dropped. He remains in hospital on election day, the day that ended with Max Kulamo’s death.
The P.O.P. is re-elected without breaking a sweat, yet their victory is short-lived. The very thugs they hired to intimidate and subvert the will of their opponents refuse to be disbanded. It starts with Chief Nanga’s miscreants who go on a rampage as a demonstration of their displeasure at being dismissed. Other political thugs, after hearing of the success of the ‘Nanga rebellion’, also take to the streets and vent their spleen on innocent market women and passers-by.
Even though the Prime Minister assures the people and foreign investors that his government stands ‘as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar’, the military would have nothing to do with it. They stage a coup and lock up every member of the Government.
Some political commentators have said that it was the supreme cynicism of these transactions that inflamed the people and brought down the Government. That is sheer poppycock. The people themselves, as we have seen, had become even more cynical than their leaders and were apathetic into the bargain. ‘Let them eat.’ was the people’s opinion, ‘After all when 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; if you do you will outlive your present annoyance. The great thing, as the old people have told us, is reminiscence; and only those who survive can have it. Besides, if you survive, who knows? It may be your turn to eat tomorrow. Your son may bring home your share.
No. the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers. And they had no public reason whatever for doing it. Let’s make no mistake about that.
In this novel, Achebe paints a picture of how a country’s leadership can either make or break the nation depending on the agenda of the ruling class. In this case, the ruling party had no real agenda for the nation, but only for themselves. Even the wisdom of the politicians had been compromised, allowing the intoxication of political power to manipulate their advice to the younger generation.
Achebe’s vivid description of the intricacies of corruption in an increasingly impoverished country makes A Man of the People a case study of the politics of many African countries. He expounds, probably, reasons for the failure of some post-independence African governments and the cause of the rampant military coups in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
His usual style of using simple language and transliteration in dialogue makes it easy and enjoyable to read. For instance, he uses the word ‘eat’ several times in his narration. This does not mean the person is eating a meal, but is a direct translation from the Igbo language which means to spend or to enjoy wealth.
Due to his near-clairvoyance in writing this novel, he narrowly escaped confrontation with armed soldiers who apparently believed that this novel implicated him in Nigeria’s first military coup.
Of all the novels Achebe has written, this is my favourite. I really love the part about the cynicism of the people and their resignation to the ‘eating’ of government officials. After all, it might be the their turn to eat tomorrow and their son may bring home their share. This parochial mentality prevails to this very day.
For this month’s Reading Relay, I will give away three e-copies of Achebe’s Girls At War & Other Stories.
Please fill out the form below to have your chance at winning a copy.
Contest ends @ 11:59pm GMT on Monday the 27th January, 2014. Winners will be announced the following day.
This giveaway has no geographic limitations. Everyone is welcome to participate.
THIS READING RELAY IS CLOSED