This article is a review of Chinua Achebe’s (foremost African writer) novel – A Man of the People.
It captures the socio-political mood of post-colonial African society (Nigeria) a light years from the colonial experience.
This review should interest any student or lover of African and comparative literature.
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE NOVEL ‘A MAN OF THE PEOPLE’
THE AUTHOR: CHINUA ACHEBE
Chinua Achebe is a foremost Nigerian writer. It is also right to present him as a foremost African writer, for though, he is a Nigerian, Achebe through his writings has transcended national and geographical barriers to become a continental literary icon and a citizen of the world. Achebe is an African par excellence, and much more, as a writer, whose literary career and body of works have defined, redefined, celebrated, chastised and criticized Africa.
Born in 1930 to a Christian family, in Ogidi town of the modern day Anambra State in the South-East of Nigeria, Achebe grew up with the hybrid of cultures, sandwiched between the Christian ethos and the African culture so often called paganism or heathenism.
Achebe was educated in government college in Umuahia, from where he proceeded to the then University College of Ibadan where he initially studied medicine, but later changed to Literature- highlighting his earlier love for stories, writing and his youthful fascination with the so-called heathen practices which were in reality African cultural practices.
Achebe’s published oeuvres include what has been called his tetralogy- Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God and A Man of the People. The Anthills of the Savannah came after over 2 decades of novel publication silence. Other non-fiction works of Achebe includes The Black Writers’ Burden, Morning Yet on Creation Day, The Problem with Nigeria, and the most recent work- The Education of the British-protected Child. Achebe also has a rich collection of essays, poems and short-stories (Girls-at-War and other stories) to his credit.
INTRODUCTION TO THE TEXT: A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
For a critic or researcher to do literary justice to Achebe’s fourth novel – A man of the People, it is important that one cast cursory look at the author’s works that preceded it. In this instance, I refer to Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. Although, these three novels along with A Man of the People has been categorized by many critics as Achebe’s tetralogy, I agree with this on the basis of chronology of its publication in the sequence of time, rather than sequence of events and thematic import inherent in the four novels.
I would like to argue from the point of departure from popular and earlier views that generalize and categorize the first four novels of Achebe as being interrelated in content and context. It is my opinion that A Man of the People (AMOP) holds entirely different contextual and thematic significance from the first three novels that preceded it.
I will therefore attempt an analytical separation of A Man of the People from Achebe’s first three books, since it has a distinct identity and thematic focus far from Achebe’s first three works. Although No Longer at Ease published after Things Fall Apart, comes close to A Man of the People, it is my opinion that it does not directly deal with the central theme addressed in A Man of the People.
In the beginning of his writing career, Achebe started out with Things Fall Apart, as the custodian of his people- (Igbo, by extension Nigeria and Africa) – culture, the historian who understands their past and could now situate the past in the present.
Challenged, by his perceived misconceptions of Africa and Africans by the European-centric writers like Josef Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Joyce Cary (Mister Johnson), Achebe started out as a reactionary and cultural activist who needed to tell the story of his people from an insider’s point of view against the outsider’s perspectives. Achebe felt thrust on him the responsibility to represent and re-present Africa to the rest of the world. It has been globally acknowledged that Achebe got the job done in Things Fall Apart. He continued the streak in Arrow of God though with different verve and fervor.
The novel No Longer at Ease like A Man of the People help in understanding Achebe’s literary engagement with the emerging society and its unfolding socio-political realities. However, it does not poignantly capture the political perspectives and realities of the Nigerian society as does A Man of the People. Rosemary Colmer affirms this point when she notes that (Quis Custtodies Custodiet? The Development of Moral Values in A Man of the People) Achebe is able to present a much more subtly analyzed picture of Nigerian society in A Man of the People than in No Longer at Ease.
Largely, themes and language of colonialization as well as the philosophy of decolonialization loom large in Achebe’s first three novels. It is as if one can still smell the white-men and that the colonial experience is still fresh and so its impact in the emerging new African States, particularly in Nigeria, the setting of the three novels. However, in A Man of the People the story is changed.
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE:
A POINT OF DEPARTURE TO DISILLUSIONMENT AND THEMATIC SHIFT
According to a Nigerian proverb, it is only proper to rebuke and see off thief, before apportioning blame to the careless farmer. Achebe, like many other African writers, at a point in their literary career saw the need to look inwardly. Having vigorously teamed with the nationalist movements and freedom fighters to pursue the usurping Europeans, it was now time to confront demons within- their ‘brothers’ who have replaced the Whiteman symbolically. The African writers were confronted with second colonialism, not neo-colonialism per se, but internal and familiar colonialism occasioned and orchestrated by their fellow Africans.
The novel A Man of the People, then is marks a shift from African romanticism and vituperative writings of decolonialization to a more sardonic and ironical satirization and problematization of re-shaped societies of Africa. Away from the fading hue of traditional and cultural setting, Achebe in A Man of the People cast a deep reflection on the emerging modern Africa with its multi-faceted challenges and experiences of growth and degeneration. It was his baptism of fire and awakening into disillusionment and socio-political consciousness.
In A Man of the People, the Novelist cast off his teacher’s cassock and donned the garb of a social commentator and political activist. The Novelist’s successfully attempted to look at the problems with Africa, what was wrong with us. He began to grasp and come to grieve over social problems prevalent in new African society. Then satire comes to play and the Novelist became a prophet to expose unabashedly the ills of his society and poignantly predict and point to its future. The Novelist as a Teacher is rounding its full circle; a new circle of political activism whirls. It is a departure from the traditional role of the artist/novelist as teacher of history, custodian of culture and heritages to a dogged fighter for the survival of societal soul; political activist who must liberate society from itself on its path to self-destruct.
Emmanuel Ngara holds same view in essay- Achebe as Artist: The Place and Significance of Anthills of the Savannah, while he recognizes the cultural and development of Africa and the attendant awakening of nationalist consciousness presented by the publication of Things Fall Apart, he is also of the opinion that the publication of A Man of the People was another turning point. Ngara affirms that A Man of the People was the first novel of disillusionment published in Anglophone Africa. Nguigi Wa Thiongo is also of same view as he noted of the Achebe’s intent:
..What Achebe has done in A Man of the People is to make it impossible or inexcusable for other African writer to do other than address themselves directly to contemporary social realties of their audience in Africa and to tell them that such problems are their concern… (The Writer in a Changing Society, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics, London ,Heinemann 1972, p54)
Since I am a staunch disciple of ‘art is not for art sake’, that works of art must have a philosophical, didactic and dialectical base and significance, and must identify with a cause or serve a purpose, therefore my major focus in studying A Man of The People will be against the backdrop of its thematic imports and representations.
I will also use the thematic compass to navigate the field of language and characterization as employed by the author in establishing themes or getting conceived message across.
The Title as a Window into Heart of the Novel: “A Man of the People?”
Were a book to be interpreted only by its title, one would have at first glance of A Man of the People have a clear understanding of what the novel is about or what Achebe set out to achieve with it. Yet, the title A Man of the People tells a lot about the context and content of the novel. A pure satirical work with sardonic and laconic irony, A Man of the People satirically presents a man of Africa (a unique and different man) and the people of Africa.
In understanding the novel through its title, I will focus my analysis on the indefinite article ‘a’ – this word determines or qualifies Man in the title. A curious look at the word ‘Man’ and its usage is also important, as well as the people. In essence, one seeks to know why ‘A Man’ not ‘The Man’ of the Man of the people?
Indefinite article – ‘A’ in the novel title ‘A Man of the People’
Particular attention ought to be paid to the indefinite article ‘a’ man of the people, not ‘the’ man of the people. The reference indicates the writer’s particular interest and reference to the ‘Man’ in A Man of the People. Obviously, it does not point to nobility or a man of character. It rather smacks off as some unknown or unfamiliar man. It beggars the question what manner of man of the people. It comes across as some man with questionable characters, disagreeable man. But in this kind of ‘A’ man, the Novelist situates the ‘People’. Here lies the paradoxical irony of the novel title. A Man of questionable and disagreeable character, being linked with a people, who are generally or fundamentally supposed and/or expected to be good masses, the majority of human populace – a great number of law-abiding citizens who are usually at the lower rungs of societal ladder.
With the indefinite article ‘a’, one sees the alienation of a people from the man, whom they supposed to be his people and he; their man. With this title, and right from the colorful cover page of the novel, Achebe unfolds an agenda that takes his audience into the pulsating journey of curiosity, exposure, exposition and discovery of who is a man of the people? Who are the people? What relationship exists between the two of them? Why is he a, and not, the, man of the people?
‘A’ rather than ‘the’ man of the people opens up from the very beginning the dominant theme in A Man of the People. It tells of the relationship between the people and ‘the’ man. It indicates wide gulf of distance between ‘the’ man who is of the people and the people that is identified with him.
Who is the man in A Man of the People? Why ‘a’ not ‘the’ Man of the People?
It is clear from the tone of the title through the novelist’s use of ‘a’ that the author did not use ‘a’ in a numerical sense of singularity, but as a satirized coloration of a ‘man’ which, on a closer study of the novel, is representative of ‘some men’ or a particular group of individuals with homogeneous identity and behavioral patterns.
First, it can be argued that ‘a’ man of the people in the novel title refers to the villain of the story and one can be at liberty to accept the sincere use of indefinite article ‘a’ by the author to simply mean a numerical reference to singularity of the person, i.e. one man. In this instance, the villain in the character of Chief Nanga fits the mode and description of ‘a’ man who is the man, but who is to be seen, known and accepted religiously as ‘a’ man of the people. Achebe puts the man – ‘a man’ in the mix, and thereby notifies his audience, from the onset, the conflict between him and the people.
From another angle, the use of ‘a’ represents masking of the ‘man’ in context of the novel and the story that plays out. In this regard, a man becomes generic of other men with similar characters in and out of the novel. Therefore, it is not just all about the villain Chief Nanga- for he is just a tool or human perspectives from which the story of ‘the man figure’ is told and represented. Thus, ‘a man’ in A Man of the People becomes a symbol representing many things as shall soon be discovered.
The People – Who are the People in A Man of the People?
There is something unusual about the people in A Man of the People. It is the fact that they have been purposely linked with ‘a man’. Traditionally, the concept of one man being for a people indicates the parallelism between a liberating hero and an adulating people. It is ominous therefore, that the people were linked with ‘a’ man. It suggests a rather unfortunate people, a people at the mercy of unknown, unfriendly, uncommon man; a man the people do not want or need. They do not have ’the’ man, but ‘a’ man. Again, here lies the conflict and paradoxical play of irony between the people rightly and clearly identified and introduced, and ‘a’ man inconspicuously and incongruously identified and introduced.
However, since the novel was set in a fictional African country with closest resemblance to Nigeria, one can unmask the people in A Man of the People as the Nigerian people and by direct association and relation, the people of Africa. With ‘a’ man – unknown, unfriendly, disagreeable, of questionable characters on one hand, and unfortunate, helpless and hapless people on the other, tells the story of a nation or society at war against itself like the mother hen that drinks up its eggs and eats its chicks.
The novel provides deep insight into plights of a hapless people who are defenseless against the onslaught of their supposed hero, leader or ‘man’, while at the same time analyzing and exploring the degenerative impacts of the supposed leaders of the people. A Man of the People is a classic case study of leadership in Africa.
A Man of the People who is not for the People:
Once again, it is helpful to return to the novel title, like a compass, for direction to navigate the story. Since the novel has rich political elements of an independent African State struggling with its new democratic dispensation and experience, it can be argued that Achebe satirizes the democratic practices on display in Africa society.
In A man of the people, one sees the unfolding of Achebe’s socio-political consciousness and the launch of his political activism. Achebe began a new journey into the world of Africa politics through a masterly wrought, pure, satirical work that captures and projects the sardonic irony of Africa democratic experience at the post-independence period.
A man of the People ironically mimics the time-honored definitions of democracy by Abraham Lincoln -as – a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Unfortunately, A Man of the People exposes how the practice of European democratic system by African political elite is turned on its head, upside down, to
..a government of the people not by the people and not for the people, but for ‘a’ man (men) of the people…
In this analysis, one finds a deeper and clearer answer to the question who is the ‘a’ man of the people- the one behind mask? It is the government! But in this case, the government is different and separated from the people- it lacks the constituent part of it which is the people, because, it is a government of ‘a’ man, some unknown men, or known men who do not know the people, who do not care about the people. It is the height of democratic irony!
Umelo Ojimah (Chinua Achebe New Perspectives, 1991) remarks that the people in A Man of the People are separated by two systems of government –the traditional; in which people are inclusively involved in decision-making, and morality is at the heart of social ethics, and the colonial; in which only a distanced few wield absolute powers without any recourse to the people. In this system legitimacy of power of government does not lie with the people.
In this instance, the people do not exist, whereas in traditional society, all authority derives its legitimacy and relevance from the people. There is respect for the sanctity of the human life and the integrity and contributive importance of every member of society.
POWER AND RELATED THEMES
A Portrait of African Leaders
Achebe’s strongest subject of disillusionment in A Man of the People is the political class, ably symbolized by ‘a man’ of the people, Chief, the Honorable, M. A. Nanga, MP.
In Chief Nanga, Achebe gives his audience a vivid portrait of a typical modern African leader. Again, the image of name comes to play here. A man of the people is a Chief; he is the or a Honorable. Here is the confused mixture of the traditional African society with its modern incarnation. It is height of grand illusion of the African political leaders; their uncontrollable hunger of for titles, positions, power, recognition and ultimately personal aggrandizement.
The imagery of hounds, dogs, yelp, straining their leash, yapped and snarled hyenas is a strong portrait of political leaders in A Man of the People. Chief Nanga, the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers were portrayed as hounds of dogs and hyenas that yelp, yap and snarl at themselves and at the people they ought to be accountable to. With this kind of leadership, the nation and its people could only be at the mercy of their leaders whose leash is straining and loosening, and the people shivered and cowered by fear into slavish submission.
In A Man of People, Achebe problematises the issue of administrative incompetence as a bane of development of African State. He indicts the emergent black administrative and their political class counterparts of social and technical incompetence in the art of state management because of their lack of political vision and will, their poor or inadequate socialization to have full grasp of social dialectics that are required and involved in nation-building.
Therefore, lack of competence could only lead to failure of government and governance which eventually give way to the only alternative; the institutionalization of corruption in the corridor of power. In A Man of the People one is confronted with the likes of Chief Nanga with half-education incompetently managing ministerial position in a most unscrupulous ways.
Bribery became the order of the day with political leaders negotiating, compromising and selling off their country’s resources and potentials in return for kickbacks from contracts awarded through their ministries and political favors, to foreign experts and nations.
Politics, then becomes, a shortcut to riches and personal fortune. Odili said of Chief Nanga’s switch to politic from teaching profession as a move with cash price. In corruption, the people and the political class find a common ground. Urua people decided to vote Odili in place of Chief Nanga not because of any political ideology or better option, but because they believed Odili would bring them their piece of the national cake. Political power at the top, then becomes, the symbolical cake, of which everyone scramble to have a share. The national interest is lost to personal and group selfish interests.
Central to these extremes of the distant and unknown man-leader and alienated and forgotten, as well as politically apathetic people is the factor of power. This power belongs to the people and ought to be held in trust for the people by the leader(s) for common good of all. Ironically, what we see in A Man of the People is acquisition, management and retention of power for personal political ends. A sheer abuse and misappropriation of power, not for common good of the people, not for social justice and development, but for social oppression, political suppression and patronage by political class of Chief Nanga and his ilks.
The power of the people exercised through electoral franchise is turned against them by those who they have handed it in trust. In one sentence, A Man of the People is an indictment of post-colonial Africa political system. Chief Nanga and his fellow ministers exemplified this in their political activities as the government of the day and also in the build-up activities to the next general elections where the violence and ruthlessness became political order.
In A Man of the People, one is confronted with the unpopular political philosophy of African politics and politicians that is opposed to beneficial use of power for the good of the people, save random, selective and manipulative use of power to earn political points and patronage.
It is a case of who gets what, by any and all means, a case of winner takes all, winning at all cost –a do or die affair – that has defined African political terrain in the last five decades.
At the brink of destruction, political leaders in A Man of the people practice politics of bitterness. The ruling party has zero tolerance for opposition. The politicians in A Man of the People are anti-intellectuals. They plot and scheme against the intellectuals in government. They rubbished members of the parliament who are educated, honest and upstanding.
Violence became expressed in thuggery and all sorts of intimidation to undermine opposition’s efforts. Campaign grounds became battle field and poling booths became slaughter house where politicians and political thugs wielded dangerous arms.
Political Apathy and Cynicism of ‘the people’
In A Man of the People, we see a people in the lull; who have lost their will and power to fight and resist any from of oppression, having been distanced and cut off from the center of power geographically and systemically. They have become like the proverbial lamb being led into the slaughter house. The apathy of the people emboldened the politicians and fuelled the fire of corruption among the political class)
Also evident in the political landscape is the failure of the middle class – the educated and those are not involved in politics, but have been called to duty to rescue their nation from unscrupulous leaders; to offer a viable option and alternative to politics of corruption. Achebe also points to disillusionment among this group of hopefuls, the Odilis and the Maxes of Africa who could not live up to the expectations of the people, rather they let the opportunity of redemption slip off their hands by corrupting power of material wealth and opportunity of personal fortune. Ideological positioning and their high moral ground collapsed at the contact with political corruption of Chief Nanga and its likes. CPC, the party formed by Max and Odili became stillbirth and could not live up to its billing. Not even the enlightened; the educated could be the man of the people.
Max and Odili’s actions beggars the question- where is the political party that we do will of the people and be “the man of the of the people”? CPC lacks firm ideological base and it is founded on foundation of straw and rooted in fiscal indiscipline as typified by Odili using party funds, Max colluding with ruling party, collecting money from Cabinet Minister and compromising his ideological stance and standard, setting up double standard and himself and eventually loosing his life. These political characteristics features are theorized by Achebe in A Man of the People a bane of African politics till date.
.Eustace Palmer argues that Odili would eventually become like Chief Nanga if has same opportunity. He argues that the novel is not all about political corruption, but the corrupting power of privilege and position and money as exemplified by Max. This underscores the idealistic and grandstanding philosophy of African intellectuals—whose stances no matter how strong will soon give way in the face of material temptations.
Introduction to Militiocracy- The rule of the Military in Africa
It can also be inferred that A Man of the People has clearly shown that formation of political parties is not the direct solution to political impasse in Africa. The answer, according Achebe, lies somewhere beyond the grasp of African politicians and intellectuals. Achebe presents military intervention as the viable solution and alternative to the political Armageddon of post-independence Africa. And the military strikes!
A Man of the People ends on a very bitter, but poignantly prophetic way- the first coup d’état in Nigeria. A return to the real life mirrored in A Man of the People shows the relevance of literature and particularly the novel to society; especially, the society which it reflects, the Nigerian society and by extension African society. For in less than 6months after the publication, the military stuck in Nigeria- it was as if the coup d’état jump out of the novel and became a living experience. Or the novelist, through, the novel subtly, but suggestively invited the military. Thus, enter into the African social psyche, the concept of militiocracy through coup-plotting by a class of people who has no business in governance.
Africa politicians have sown turmoil, they must therefore reap whirlwind. The end of the novel indicates the anticlimax that has become the African dream; a comedy that metamorphosed into tragedy, and a song of celebration became a dirge. The Africa child is a stillbirth; dead on arrival. It is another things fall apart, in this case, the contest is between Africans and Africans.
In conclusion, I quote Ojinmah’s citation of Elder Jones’ comment (in Locale and Universe- Three Nigerian Novels, Journals of Commonwealth Literature 3 (July 1967), that the main thrust of the novel is:
..the cynicism of both the politicians and the people which brings about a situation that invites intervention. The politicians cynically use their positions to enrich themselves at the expenses of the people, while the people, with the philosophy born of despair tamely lie down under the imposition…
I also refer to Ojinmah’s citiation of Wilfred Cartey’s submission about the novel:
..the chicanery, folly, corruption and violence of a changing political order are at the center of the novel, A Man of the People,… Practical politics on the local level, it inner workings and functions , are all presented through the central figure, Chief Honorable M.A. Nanga, MP., a satirical portrait of one of the many new ministers who control the reins of government in many of the developing countries…
Ojinmah himself surmises that A Man of the People represents for Achebe, a reappraisal of what has been made of independence. He also makes reference to Achebe’s interview with Tony Hall (1967).
..This is the beginning of a phase for me in which I intend to take a hard look at what we in Africa are making of independence- but using Nigeria which I know best…
A Man of the People is both historical in the context of political development in Africa, but it is also, a testament to the ever-present socio-political realism of the continent. With its masterly grasp of issues in post-colonial Africa and its prophetic engagement with the immediate political future of Africa, the novel A Man of the People has entered the threshold of the African classics. It has become a reference in historical study of Africa politics especially the post-colonial and independence period. It is like the reference to an Ibo proverb in the novel- A Man of the People helps us to know where the rain began to beat us in, and then we can begin to know where we dried our body.
1. Achebe, Chinua (1966) A Man of the People, London: Heinemann
2. Nguigi, Wa Thiongo, (1972) The Writer in a Changing Society, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics, Heinemann, London
3. Ojinmah Umelo (1991) CHINUA ACHEBE: New Perspectives, Spectrum Books Ltd, Ibadan
4. Peterson, Kirsten Holst Holst Peterson, Kirsten and Rutherford, Anna (eds) (1991) Working with Chinua Achebe: The African Writers Series: James Currey, Alan Hill and Keith Sambrook in Conversation with Kirsten Peterson.. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration Heinemann and Dangaroo Press , Oxford, Portsmouth, Sydney, Coventry, and Aarhus