I’ve just finished reading ‘A Man of the People’ by the great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe. Despite being published in 1966 and set in an unnamed, newly-independent African republic, its bleak satire is remarkably fresh and not just in relation to African politics. Its judgements about motives are as true for Western politicians as they are African.
It’s a strange mixture: at once cynical and hopeful; pragmatic and idealistic; hungry for reform and yearning for ancient values. Its ending is simultaneously resigned to the grim realities of life and politics and optimistic about the possibility of change, seeing that possibility in the wisdom of crowds at the same time as disparaging the same crowds and looking for hope in the goodness of individuals.
Achebe is clear what makes a successfully corrupt politician like Chief Nanga. The young narrator, Odili, though idealistic finds himself
admiring the man for his lack of modesty. For what is modesty but inverted pride? We all think we are first-class people. Modesty forbids us from saying so ourselves though, presumably, not from wanting to hear it from others. Perhaps it was their impatience with this kind of hypocrisy that made men like Nanga successful politicians while starry-eyed idealists strove vaingloriously to bring into politics niceties and delicate refinements that belonged elsewhere.
But while Chief Nanga is a corrupt monster, Achebe is too clear-eyed about humanity to condemn him utterly. Human nature makes it inevitable that a life of wealth, power and enjoyment is preferable to poverty and helplessness. Even the idealist Odili is seduced by that lifestyle, ‘hypnotised by the luxury’.
When I lay down in that double be that seemed to ride on a cushion of air … I had to confess that if I were at that moment made a minister, I would be anxious to remain one forever.
Odili realises that it would be impossible to persuade a man like Nanga to return to ‘poverty and insignificance’ from the ‘opulence’ of life in power. And that applies to an impoverished and new nation as much as it does to the individual. This passage is long but worth quoting in full.
“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 more 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 – the extension of our house – was even more important and called for new and original tactics; it require that all argument should cease and the whole people should speak with one voice that any more dissent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house.”