Kangan, a thinly disguised version of Nigeria, the plot revolves around the fate of two prominent male intellectuals victimized in a military crackdown orchestrated by the nation’s president-for-life who is a childhood friend.
In his fictional African nation, Chinua Achebe presents a notion of faltering government from within and without.
From the perspectives of a government Commissioner (Chris), the Editor in Chief of the national newspaper (Ikem) and the woman important to them both (Beatrice), we are shown a crumbling regime from both a humorous and a tragic point of view. Narration shifts between these two characters and their female friend, who works in the Ministry of Finance. As aroused but impotent elite figures, they obviously were chosen by Achebe to reflect his own frustrations with Nigeria and mixed feelings about Africa’s future.
The storyline is reflective of Africa’s prevailing political ethos: A seemingly benevolent dictator takes over from an unbiasedly corrupt “democracy”; the dictator decides to stay in power “only till conditions are restored for democracy”; people are exploited; the ruling class is full of sycophantic country brutes; intellectual opposition is snuffed out (literally) surreptitiously.
Achebe strives to capture this standard template of vitiation with an originality and passion that elicits a level of empathy and passion against the ruling elite. Today’s conflict in the Niger Delta (replete with a Ken Saro Wiwa like character in the book) is aptly personified in a series of conversations led by an intrepid duo of newspaper men.
The logic of Achebe’s arguments are powerful and easy to understand and leaves one with utter wonder at how Africa could be laid so low despite such stunning moral clarity amongst its denizens.
As Minister of Information, Christopher Oriko is in an unenviable position. Charged with the responsibility of defending the policies of a military dictator, who happens to be one of his oldest friends, he treads a fine line between loyalty, toadyism and subversion.
He is intelligent enough to know how rotten the government is, but is too much of the detached intellectual to commit himself to struggle.
When confronted by his old friend Ikem Osodi, a firebrand oppositionist who has succeeded him as editor of the state-owned newspaper, Oriko justifies his inaction through a kind of Hegelian aloofness:
Despite being a “man of the people,” he is by no means disposed to offer them easy solutions, least of all revolutionary ones.
When he is invited to address a student audience on the topic of “The Tortoise and the Leopard: a political meditation on the imperative of struggle,” Ikem smiles inwardly at the prospects of challenging their shibboleths.
Stating his affiliation with the “storytellers” of the world -- an obvious reference to novelists like Achebe -- Ikem challenges all threats to human freedom, either from the mosque or the party congress.
Achebe’s writing often has a very distinct agenda -- a quality that his characters defend in Anthills of the Savannah as an admirable trait in itself, because everyone has an agenda; it is up to them whether or not it is advertised.
In this case, forcing the reader to decipher the dialect that is in many ways completely divorced from English is paramount: at first, the dialog is so incomprehensible it feels almost natural to dismiss it, ignore it, and focus instead on what we readily understand.