Notes on Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

‘One green bottle hanging on the wall. . . and if one green bottle accidentally falls down, there’ll be no green bottle hanging on the wall. . .’

  • Nursery Rhyme

Author’s Biodata: Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian novelist, literary critic and poet who lived between 1930 and 2013. He is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Other novels of Achebe include A Man of the People (1966), Arrow of God (1964) and No Longer at Ease (1960). Anthills of the Savannah (1987) is one of Achebe’s best-known novels.

Introduction: Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah is a postcolonial novel, and, like all postcolonial novels, it grapples with Africa’s realities in the aftermath of colonial rule. In Achebe’s small great book, The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe identifies leadership as a major issue that must be tackled. Indeed, poor leadership is among contemporary Africa’s postcolonial woes. One trait that has been observed in post-independence African leadership is dictatorship, which is the subject matter in most of Achebe’s novels, including Anthills of the Savannah. The novel presents the idea that a dysfunctional society is one that presents symptoms of failed leadership.

Synopsis: Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah tells the story of power and its intrigues in the lives of three friends – Ikem Osodi, Chris Oriko and Sam. When the novel begins, Ikem is the Editor of a government-owned newspaper, the National Gazette. Chris Oriko is the Commissioner for Information in the military government of Kangan that favours a civilian Cabinet, while Sam is the President in the same military government. He is mostly referred to as ‘His Excellency’. He is also revered right from the beginning of the novel where he presides over a Cabinet meeting. Sam’s autocratic disposition is seen in how his cabinet members cower in fear before him, with hardly anyone desiring to tell him the truth so as not to displease him. Instead, these Cabinet members engage in shameless flattery of the president in order to massage his insecure ego. The main issue raised at the Cabinet meeting has to do with the need for the President to visit the drought-stricken region of Abazon. However, from all indications, he is unwilling to do that and does not want to be persuaded by anyone, not even the gentle but persistent Chris Oriko, the Commissioner for Information. During the meeting, it is seen that everyone’s mood depends on the president’s; when he is happy, the Cabinet can be happy, and when he is gloomy or angry, the Cabinet follows suit.

Sam’s dictatorial tendency is observed right from the beginning of the meeting when he impatiently addresses Chris: ‘You’re wasting everybody’s time, Mr Commissioner for Information. I will not go to Abazon. Finish! Kabisa!’ As the meeting ends, the Cabinet is surprised by an Abazonian delegation that has come to pay the president a visit since the president has refused to visit and sympathise with them on the drought they are experiencing in their region, the Northern part of Kangan. The president is upset that none of his Cabinet members knew beforehand about the visit. He locks up his Cabinet for one hour as punishment for the surprised visit by the Abazonians, while he goes out to handle matters himself with the assistance of Major Johnson Ossai, Director of State Research Council (SRC). His Excellency soon sends for Professor Reginald Okong, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, whom he assigns the tasks of meeting with the Northern delegation. He does not want to meet with the delegation himself so as not to encourage other regions from visiting the presidential palace at every whim.

 It is the wily Professor Okong who uses the opportunity of being alone with the president to sow a seed of discord in the president about his two friends, Ikem and Chris. For instance, Okong tells the president, ‘I don’t want to be seen as a tribalist but Mr Ikem Osodi is causing all this trouble because he is a typical Abazonian.’ He presents further damaging information on Chris, not because he has anything substantial to say of Chris and Ikem, but because he merely wants to, in the Iago style, destroy the friendship and plant himself in the favour of the president. According to Professor Okong, ‘. . . if care is not taken those two [Chris and Ikem] friends of yours can be capable of fomenting disaffection which will make the Rebellion look like child’s play.’ (19, 20).

Sam’s doubt about his friends’ loyalty is deepened after having a conversation with the Attorney-General on the matter. Apparently, the Attorney-General exploits the president’s vulnerability at that moment to do more damage to his friendship with Chris and Ikem, all in a bid to advance his own political ambition and to curry favour from His Excellency. He ingeniously leads His Excellency to believe that Chris is not one hundred percent in support of him. Like Professor Okong, the Attorney-General deploys the Iago method to poison the president’s mind against his childhood friends. He indirectly hints that Chris is jealous of His Excellency for being the president while he [Chris] is a mere Information Commissioner.

Another level of conflict explored in Anthills of the Savannah relates to how Chris and Ikem clash in the course of performing their official duties. It is shown that Ikem is blunt in his reportage at the National Gazette, an action that usually puts pressure on Chris as the Commissioner of Information. It is not as if Ikem is unprofessional in the execution of his official duties, Chris is only wearied and worried about his apparent lack of tact given the fact that he is working for a president who has gradually become a dictator. Ikem’s methods would only lend credence to the gossip of Professor Okong and the Attorney-General, even as he refuses to be supervised by Chris or take his pieces of advice. Ikem believes that a writer must be bold and speak up for the voiceless in society. Ikem has, through his vitriolic editorials in the Gazette, forced the government to change some of its unpopular policies as well as intervening on desperate and urgent situations in Bassa, the capital city of Kangan, and beyond.

Ikem’s view is that the president should visit Abazon to see the drought problem for himself, but it is obvious that His Excellency has an old score to settle with the people of Abazon. It is revealed that the region had, in the past, voted to reject His Excellency’s life president’s bid. They are now suffering from the consequences of their indiscretion. It is also revealed in the course of the novel that the president believes that his two friends did not do much to ensure that he won the life president’s bid. Thus, he holds a hidden grudge against them.

 Ikem’s meeting with the leaders of the Abazon delegation at Harmony Hotel marks the beginning of his crisis with the government. He is followed to the meeting by state agents (note his car being blocked by the traffic police) and his words and the entire proceedings at the meeting are reported out of context. Ikem is suspended from the editorship of the National Gazette by His Excellency through the Chairman, Board of Directors of Kangan Newspapers Corporation, who are the publishers of the Gazette, after Chris refused to carry out the dirty job. According to the president, ‘Intelligence reports have established that he [Ikem] was involved in planning the recent march on this palace by agitators claiming to come from Abazon’ (143).

Ikem compounds his problem with the regime when he gives a public lecture at the University of Bassa on the topic: The Tortoise and the Leopard – a Political Meditation on the Imperative of Struggle’. Ikem is arrested not long after this lecture on a charge of advocating regicide and murdered by the agents of the state. Chris goes into hiding and soon has to leave Bassa for his own safety after he had been declared wanted by the state. He is travelling with Braimoh, a taxi driver that Ikem knew, and Emmanuel Obete, the SUG president of the University of Bassa, who is also wanted by the state for the protest that greeted the death of Ikem at the University. Chris intends to leave Kangan through the Northern part of the country. His journey through Abazon reveals the extent of the drought and the water shortages that the people have to go through, amidst other forms of infrastructural decay. It is while in Abazon that Chris learns that a coup had taken place in Kangan and that the president had been killed. Chris’ intention is to return to Bassa but then he is killed by a police sergeant when he intervenes in the attempted rape of a girl by the policeman.

Ikem and Chris had left behind the two women in their lives, Elewa and Beatrice, respectively. Elewa, who was pregnant for Ikem at the time of his death, has put to birth. The novel ends with the naming ceremony of Elewa’s daughter, Amaechina. Her birth symbolises hope and prosperity for the future of Kangan.

Setting: Anthills of the Savannah is set in a fictional West African state known as Kangan in the post-independence era. The major actions of the novel occur in the capital city of Kangan called Bassa. Mention is also made of Abazon, a northern region of Kangan where the people are neglected by the government because they did not support Sam’s bid to be life president of Kangan. Other important place names in the novel include the University of Bassa, where Ikem delivers his post-suspension lecture that results in his death; Abichi, where Beatrice Okoh is invited for dinner by the president shortly after a strain had developed in the relationship among Sam, Ikem and Chris. Gelegele Market also serves as a space for dramatising the ordinary lives of the people in the novel.

Point of View: Anthills of the Savannah has multiple narrative viewpoints. It combines a frame narrative technique with third person narrative point of view and stream of consciousness. For instance, the first chapter of the novel entitled, ‘First Witness – Christopher Oriko’ is told from the first-person narrative point of view. The second chapter (has no title) is narrated from the third person viewpoint. Stream of consciousness is observed in the following extract where the thought processes of the president are streamed directly to the reader: ‘What exactly did the fellow mean, His Excellency wondered [referring to the flippant Professor Okong]. I handled him pretty well, though. I certainly won’t stand my commissioners sneaking up to me with vague accusations against their colleagues. It’s not cricket! No sense of loyalty, no espirit de corps, nothing! And he calls himself a university professor’ (21). Chapter four entitled ‘Second Witness – Ikem Osodi’ is narrated from Ikem’s perspective. Chapter six is told from Beatrice Okoh’s perspective, which explains why it is named after her. The whole story told in the novel is put together by Beatrice after the demise of the three friends, destroyed by power and its intrigues. She calls it a ‘tragic history’.

Plot: The novel has a non-chronological plot structure, almost episodic in its narrative strategy. It begins in medias res in the present, but tools of recollection are used to trace back the lives of the three tragic friends back to their heydays in secondary school and childhood. Then the novel goes on to dramatise how politics can alienate even the best of friends.


The major characters in the novel are Sam, Chris Oriko, Ikem Osodi, Beatrice Okoh, Elewa and Mad Medico. Among the minor characters in the novel are Professor Reginald Okong, Attorney-General, Major Johnson Ossai (Samsonite), Emmanuel Obete, Braimoh, Guy, Dr Ofe, Agatha, Alhaji Abdul Mahmoud, Adamma and Amaechina,  

Major Characters

Sam is the military president of Kangan. He is mostly referred to as His Excellency in the novel. He came to power after toppling an allegedly corrupt civilian government in Kangan. Thus, he is the president of Kangan as the novel opens. He is represented as an antagonist in the novel. He was a classmate of Chris and Ikem at Lord Lugard College. In school, Sam was an all-rounder: good in sports and academics and worshipped by the girls. Sam is portrayed as a dictator in the novel. According to Ikem’s account in the novel, Sam was a fairly brilliant student, but had the flaw of doing only what was expected of him, especially by the British whom he admires (Anthills, 49). This way, Sam is depicted as a neocolonial leader who mostly takes instructions from the British. He had wanted to be a medical doctor, but when the headmaster of his school, John Williams, told him that soldiers were gentlemen, he changed his mind and opted to be in the army. Sam was trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Then he returns home to join the army. Sam allows himself to be influenced by the worst dictators on the continent at the time of his rule. He expresses his desire to be like these old dictators, particularly President Ngongo from whom Sam had copied the catchword ‘kabisa’. He takes instructions and ideas from foreigners on how best to run the government and the economy of Kangan, ignoring indigenous advisers whose ideas contradict his own.

Sam is depicted as insecure in his power space, as most dictators usually are. This makes him susceptible to rumour-mongering and other forms of mind games. He gradually becomes alienated from his friends, beginning from the aftermath of his first OAU meeting. As a dictator, Sam is intolerant of opposition, whether it is in words or action. This explains why his Cabinet members are afraid of him and find it difficult to tell him the truth. Sam turns against his friends after being poisoned by the rumours of Professor Reginald Okong and the manipulation of the Attorney-General. He orders Ikem’s suspension from the editorship of the National Gazette after Ikem has gone to Harmony Hotel in Bassa to identify with the Abazon delegation. Ikem’s murder plunges Sam’s regime into crisis; his enemies and hangers-on now have the opportunity to plot his fall as he has alienated his friends. This explains why Sam’s regime is toppled at the end of the novel. He is killed in the coup. Sam is portrayed as a flat character.

Chris Oriko is one of the central characters in the novel. He is also a protagonist. He is the Commissioner for Information in the Kangan military government. In Sam’s Cabinet, he is about the only one bold enough to tell Sam the truth. He is in a romantic relationship with Beatrice Okoh, a first-class graduate of English educated in the United Kingdom. He is polite and level-headed when it comes to dealing with Sam’s dictatorial tendencies. He is depicted as a man with high sense of humour, who sees laughter in all of life’s tragedies. He describes himself as staying in the middle between Ikem and Sam: he is not as brilliant as Ikem nor as socially successful as Sam. He also describes himself as the lucky one. He goes into hiding when Ikem is murdered and tries to leave the country through the Abazon region. He makes sure he publicises to the world the truth about Ikem’s death so as to dispel the lies told by the regime on the matter. He is unfortunately killed by a police officer for trying to stop the officer from raping a young woman. He describes himself, from the perspective of Emmanuel, as the last grin, ‘the last green bottle’, a metaphor for the three friends tragically destroyed by power and politics.

Ikem Osodi is one of the protagonists in Anthills of the Savannah. He is a poet and the editor of the National Gazette, a government-owned newspaper in Kangan. He is depicted as the conscience of society. He is courageous in taking on the government on the burning socio-political issues in the country. This makes him an enemy of the state. Ikem is depicted as kind and humble, always in sympathy with the masses. Though he is highly placed, he is able to relate well with lower class members of society, even as he uses his pen to fight for their rights. He is in a relationship with Elewa, a barely-educated young woman of lower class whose mother sells second hand clothes in Gelegele market. Ikem likes sleeping alone and this explains the quarrel he often has with Elewa when he insists on making her go home in the middle of the night after their lovemaking. According to Ikem, ‘I have never seen the sense in sleeping with people. A man should wake up in his own bed. A woman likewise’ (Anthills, 37). Living alone gives him the physical and psychological space to write. He is lucky to have an understanding woman in Elewa. He was the brightest of the tragic trio back in the day at Lord Lugard College. A tragic hero, Ikem is murdered by the regime in Kangan after warning, in a lecture, against using the image of a sitting president on a Kangan currency.

Beatrice Okoh (BB) is the woman in Chris’ life. She is depicted as intelligent and independent, having graduated with a first-class degree in English from Queen Mary College, University of London. She works in the Kangan Ministry of Finance as a Senior Assistant Secretary. Though she had a traumatic childhood, she has grown into a strong and self-assured woman. She is able to resist the president’s advances during a small private dinner at the President’s Guest House at Abichi, shortly after the deterioration of the trio’s relationship. She is able to piece together enough information at the dinner to warn Chris that Ikem’s life is in danger. Beatrice is portrayed as a caring and supportive partner to Chris, especially in his moments of being hunted by Sam’s regime. She helps to take care of Elewa and the baby girl that Ikem leaves behind through Elewa. She was raised by a stern and religious father and by a mother who bore her a grudge because she did not come as a male child. She was given the name Nwanyibuife, which means ‘a female is also something’. She met Chris when he was the editor of the National Gazette during the civilian regime and has nurtured the relationship ever since. Beatrice and Elewa survive the deadly feud of Sam, Ikem and Chris.

Elewa is Ikem’s girlfriend. She is neither educated nor from a wealthy background. But she is depicted as a mannerly woman with a heart of gold. She clearly loves Ikem as she grieves for him after his death. She is also depicted as a courageous woman. She is pregnant for Ikem and bears him a daughter whom Beatrice names Amaechina, which means ‘May the path never close’. Her relationship with Beatrice after Chris and Ikem’s death denotes female bonding and sisterhood in the novel.  

Mad Medico is the Director of Administration at the Bassa General Hospital. As Ikem explains, he is neither a doctor nor literally mad. It is only that some of his actions are considered crazy; like his penchant for putting up weird words and graffiti on the walls of the hospital. Mad Medico’s real name is John Kent. He is a friend of Sam, Chris and Ikem. Sam brought Mad Medico to the country and made him hospital administrator. Ikem describes him as an aborted poet because though he loves and writes poetry, he is not well known for it, neither does he make a living out of it. He is one of those saved by Ikem’s articles in the Gazette after the doctors in his hospital turned against him following the Dr Ofe affair and for his weird graffities in the hospital. Unfortunately, Mad Medico is consumed in the flame that engulfs the trio’s friendship. He is deported towards the end of the novel.

Minor Characters

Reginal Okong is the Commissioner for Home Affairs in Kangan. He is a professor of political science. He was ordained a Baptist minister at the young age of 26. He earned a PhD in the United States. Chris had known Okong at Lord Lugard College and during his editorship of the Gazette, where Okong had a weekly column, ‘String along with Reggie Okong’. It is also Chris who had recommended Okong to Sam for appointment into the Cabinet. Professor Okong betrays Chris by backstabbing him before the president.  

Attorney-General is a member of Sam’s Cabinet whose opinion the president seeks on Okong’s information about Chris’ disloyalty. The cunning lawyer uses the opportunity to destroy the trio’s friendship by manipulating the president’s vulnerability.

Major Johnson Ossai (Samsonite) is the Director of the State Research Council. He is Colonel but is later promoted by the president after doing ‘a good job’ with the deportation of Mad Medico and the death of Ikem. He is seen to be very sinister and powerful. He carries out most of the dirty jobs for the regime, like hunting down and killing the enemies of the president. His agents are those who kill Ikem, put Chris on the run and conduct a reckless search on Beatrice’s house after Chris had gone into hiding. He is reported missing, perhaps killed, shortly after the coup that topples Sam’s regime.

Alhaji Abdul Mahmoud is the Chairman of Kangan/American Chamber of Commerce. He is portrayed as a sinister millionaire who uses his political position and influence to amass wealth.

Emmanuel Obete is the Student Union President in the University of Bassa. He is depicted as a courageous young man with good leadership values. He is one of the active student leaders who helped to organise Ikem’s post-suspension lecture. Following the riot that trails Ikem’s death and the consequent shutting down of the University, Emmanuel goes into hiding and joins with Chris in the journey to flee the country. He is the one who recounts the story of Chris’ last moments to Beatrice and Elewa.

Braimoh is the taxi driver who visits Ikem with another unionist from the Central Committee of Taxi Drivers’ Union to thank him for his militant editorials and articles which had saved the park where they work from pollution. Ikem realises that he was the taxi driver who drove Elewa home the other night and that he had once engaged in a speeding and overtaking duel with the man on the road without knowing. The man had also come to apologise to Ikem for the harmless road incident. Braimoh helps Chris during his period of escape from the regime’s wrath by letting him hide at his place, even to the discomfort of himself and his family. Braimoh also travels with Chris to Abazon to help shadow his escape.

Guy is Beatrice’s former boyfriend when she was a student in London. Guy is black and handsome but not faithful. Beatrice recounts how he once abandoned her for a white woman during a dance at a party after she had suggested that they exchange partners with a couple they shared a table with. She calls it the Desdemona complex, the idea of a black man falling for a white woman.

Dr Ofe is a doctor in the hospital run by Mad Medico. He refuses to operate on a patient until he pays money (25 manillas). By the time Mad Medico intervened, it was already too late and the patient died. Mad Medico is so angry that he goes as far as sponsoring the family of the diseased to sue Dr Ofe. In reaction, the doctors gang up to blackmail Mad Medico, accusing him of all many of things, including making obscene graffities on the walls of the hospital.

Major-General Ahmed Lango is the new president who takes over the government of Kangan after the coup that topples and kills Sam.

Joe Ibe is the Commissioner for Works in the Kangan military government.

Dick is Mad Medico’s friend who joins in discussing Kangan politics and other social issues with Ikem, though he appears out of touch with Kangan puns and idioms. He is the editor of Reject, a poetry magazine that publishes poems that had been rejected by big and mainstream poetry journals.

Lou is the American journalist whom Beatrice meets at the dinner party organised by Sam, the Head of State, in Abichi. She represents the West and its influence on African politics.

Sylvanus is Chris’ cook. He loves his job and wants earnestly to please his master.

Agatha is Beatrice’s house help. She attends a celestial church in Bassa which forbids her to eat on Saturdays. She is selfish and judgmental of everyone, including Elewa and Beatrice. However, through the enlightening role and influence of Beatrice, Agatha is gradually transformed to a kind and loving person towards the end of the novel.

Aina is Braimoh’s wife. She bonds with Beatrice and Elewa during the naming ceremony of Elewa’s daughter.

Adamma is the student-nurse that Emmanuel Obete meets on the bus on his way to Abazon while fleeing Sam’s regime with Chris. Her father is a custom’s officer who works in the Northern part of Kangan.

Amaechina is the daughter of Ikem born by Elewa after Ikem’s demise. She is a symbol of hope in adversity.

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