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The work of Chinua Achebe is a valuable locus for studying the interplay of village, ethnic unit, nation-state, and race in the configuration of identity in Africa. Ache be is himself the chief of his village, Ogidi, and at one time he supported Biafran independence from Nigeria. The founder of a journal dedicated to Igbo culture, he is so identified with "Igboness" that his style has been called an Igbo style in contrast to the Yoruba style of Wole Soyinka. More recently, however, he has written The Trouble with Nigeria, a brief tract that presumes a stake in the nation-state. Ache be has also, of course, assumed the mantle of spokesman for Africa as a whole, a mantle cast on every writer from Africa and perhaps falling especially heavily on the shoulders of the editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series. That there are tensions between these different identities is, I believe, borne out by the long literary silence that Achebe maintained after the defeat of Biafra and by the novel that finally broke that silence, Anthills of the Savannah.
The tensions between these identities are not always acknowledged, and the identities themselves are often conflated. "African nationalism," for instance, does not usually mean the process of nation formation among African states, but the assertion of a black African identity as a means of resisting imperialist European notions of the universal. The identity of Ghana, the first African state to win its independence in modern times, was inextricably linked to Kwame Nkrumah's Panafrican vision. In Simon Gikandi's definitive study of Achebe, the first chapter, entitled "Nation Formation and the Novel," is not about Nigeria but about Achebe's appropriation of a European genre to negotiate an African problematic: vindicating Nigeria and Igbo culture is a part of this larger strategy. Gikandi's conflation of race, nation-state, and ethnic grouping has validity because it is Achebe's 60 I Research in African Literatures own. A grain of hope for the future of Africa is held out by Anthills of the Savannah, and it is based on the redemption of an African nation-state.
Nationality, ethnicity, and race are not always conflated in this way. Christopher Miller has forcefully made the case for the centrality of ethnicity to an understanding of African literature. According to him, the nation-states into which Africa is divided can be dismissed as arbitrary divisions that were imposed by the colonizers and that have little impact on the identity of the colonized (48). Kwame Anthony Appiah shares Miller's opinion of Africa's nation-states: he argues that a second wave of African fiction has abandoned realism, as well as the nationalist legitimation associated with realism, because nation-states have been hopelessly compromised by the African bourgeoisie. Novelists now are Pan-African in their vision, he concludes, and they open their texts to the suffering of the continent. My essay assumes that the nation-state, the ethnic culture, and the continent are configured differently in the imagination and that Achebe's conflation of them is a utopian strategy.
Anthills of the Savannah is a fictional working out of Achebe's concerns in The Trouble with Nigeria: Nigeria's leaders have placed their own interests before those of the nation. The novel is set in the fictional West African country of Kangan and focuses on a circle of three friends who have known each other since their early years and who since then have risen to hold some of the most powerful positions in the country, including that of head of state. They are intelligent, articulate, and committed--"the cream of our society and the hope of the black race" (2). But power corrupts. Sam, the military commander who has assumed the presidency in a coup, brooks no opposition, and he is starving a dissident province into submission to the central authority. The three friends must learn that "this world belongs to the people of the world not to any little caucus, no matter how talented. . ." (232).
Kangan, like other independent African states, has been defined in terms of colonial borders that were originally drawn by the British. Authority within the territory has been usurped by Sam, whose thirst for power has been fostered at English schools.(1) "L'etat c'est moi," Sam might say with sincerity. If Sam is concerned only with the power wielded by the institutions of state and not with the nation, the people he rules over, others regard the state itself as a foreign imposition. The Abazonians, metonymical representatives of traditional Africa, suffer the most under Sam's rule, and they constitute a homogeneous ethnic group, what Ali Mazrui and Michael Tidy would call a "cultural nation" defined by a common culture, as opposed to a "political nation" defined by territorial borders (85).
The educated elite living in the capital, among whom are Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice, cannot accept the distinction between state and nation--a distinction that Sam and the Abazonians both assume. They are nationalists who believe in the nation-state, in the identification of state and nation. The ruler of the state must be from among the people of the nation, and what is more, he must identify with the people. The people would then identify with the state.
Ikem is editor of the national newspaper, and his job (as conceived by Sam) involves broadcasting the President's messages to the people, a dissemination of information from the center to the periphery mirroring Sam's conception of his own power. Ikem, however, believes in the independence of the press and wants to close the circle of communication between the people and the institutions of state. He himself "had always felt a yearning without very clear definition, to connect his essence with earth and earth's people" (140-41). Kangan's problems, Ikem believes, can be traced to "the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation's being" (141).
The circle of communication between leaders and led was closed in the tribal society that predated colonization. (I use "tribal," as Nsame Mbongo does , to refer to a specific kind of social organization, pre-capitalist and without a centralized state or a division into economic classes, not as a comment on a culture's capacity to sustain a nation-state.) All that we readers ever see of drought-stricken Abazon are the six representatives who come to the capital to beg an audience with His Excellency, but we understand that their appearance is enough: when they speak, Abazon speaks. Information in the tribal model does not come from the top down; nor does it travel from the bottom up to the leaders. Instead, the leadership embodies the will of its citizens, and information is always shared because it is never divided.
At times in Anthills of the Savannah Abazon expands to include all the hinterland outside the capital, and at times it contracts to become a mere village, like Umuofia in Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Umuaro in Arrow of God. The Abazonians have a legend of their origins. In flight from a terrible drought that occurred in the distant past, the Abazonians descended from the North and dispossessed those whom they found living in "the tiny village of Ose" (33). Chris, when speaking of Abazon to the long-time Kangan …