Two contrasting groups of people from two generations of politics are represented in two lead characters. Odili Samalu, an idealistic young man has no innocence at all, only a naiveté that makes a farce both of his convictions and his ambition.
His father remembers the “days when the District Officer was like the Supreme Deity and the Interpreter the principal minor god who carried prayers and sacrifices to Him.”
The pay and cringe benefits were enough to support Odili, 34 other children and five wives in high style, with a goat killed every week, and lashings of palm wine to wash down the yams.
But times change. The white man has gone, and Odili must emerge with his emergent nation and attach himself to black power in the person of a cynical grafter named Chief Nanga. So begins a comedy of Freedom Now.
Odili, with his Bachelor of Arts degree is a potentially valuable proteégé of Chief Nanga who is really most at home in pidgin. As a student, Odili had disapproved of Chief Nanga for his demagoguery and his “ignorance,” but it is hard for a young schoolteacher to feel superior to his old school-and-scoutmaster now that the wily old charmer has a house with seven bathrooms and an official Cadillac with chauffeur.
In the capital, he learns that the chiefs pidgin-speaking “bush wife,” who had once appeared to Odili as “the acme of sophistication” in a white sun helmet, is now seen as a hopeless hick who can’t get the hang of English or even much pidgin and is unable to make the cultural struggle into a girdle.
She is about to be supplemented by a “parlor wife.” Odili, a man of many resources, wants this luscious literate for himself, despite the “bride price” being negotiated for her back home in the village by his patron, the gallant and ever-jovial Chief Nanga.
Meanwhile, he attends cultural events, not the least of which is a night of instant integration with the wife of a U.S. information officer.
Later he joins a reform party to put Chief Nanga and his grafters out of office. It ends not according to the plan. Odili is beaten nearly to death by the chiefs forthright constituents, and it is back to the village for him. But all is well.
A military coup deposes Nanga’s gang, and, with a more or less good conscience, the convalescent Odili is able to pay the “bride price” for the now redundant “parlor wife.” He does it from party funds.
A Man of the People raised Achebe’s reputation from literary giant to a prophet, perhaps one of doom or more suspiciously a secret bearer of bad news.
The book brought controversy when after publication a military coup in his home country Nigeria happened almost according to the end of his novel which put him in a difficult position because he was alleged to have perhaps had an idea that the coup was going to happen.
It is said that by the time of publication, everything that happens in the book had already occurred except a military coup, and indeed it went ahead to happen almost according to script. However, the author’s literary reputation survived the controversy.