Machiavelli did not have a high opinion of mankind (obviously) saying ‘Politics have no relation to morals’ and ‘People are fickle, hypocritical and greedy of gain’. Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People was written in the post-independence era and reflects his clear disenchantment with the state of affairs in the then current political scene. The country in the book (which he didn’t bother to name) is a thinly veiled portrait of Nigeria. It is surprising how relevant it still is today.
In this corrupt ‘fat-dripping, gummy, eat and let eat’ world, our hero Odili, a young teacher, intelligent, gutsy and idealistic is pitted against Chief Nanga, a charismatic, uncouth, lustful and corrupt typical politician. But Chief Nanga who has become a Minister is ‘a man of the people’. Approachable and affable he knows how to appeal to the senses of what the people want all the while being merely self-aggrandizing. Amala politics.
The 1960s were supposed to be all about sex, and sex is actually what starts the conflict between Odili and Nanga. Our sensual hero, Odili, certainly has his fair share of amatory exploits, from being fetishized by the white wife of a visiting American (echoes of Dear White People) to his current girlfriend, a nurse of somewhat loose morals. Odili was initially charmed by Nanga into a visit but it is Nanga’s brazen snatching of his girlfriend that creates the enmity. Ironically Odili’s anger may appear rather unjustified since he was knowingly cuckolding the girl’s original boyfriend (well what goes around comes around). To add insult to injury Chief Nanga suggests he was probably too tired….
Seething with humiliation and rage Odili falls in with his old school friend Max, a bright lawyer who has plans to clean up the current political landscape with the formation of a new political party made up of bright young minds. The idea is appealing to Odili partly out of revenge. He also sets his sights on Edna, a beautiful virginal girl about to be taken as Nanga’s young wife. Personal vendetta and idealism are mixed up. Yes, Odili tells himself, it is time to rid the world of old corrupt politicians like Nanga and replace them with fresh minds like himself.
But is that what the people really want?
From there events hurtle along, gathering momentum and the story changes from the comic to the grisly. Nothing prepares Odili for how ugly politics can be. Happenings delve into criminal acts and shocking murders and A Man Of The People ends gloomily with a military coup – which Odili wryly notes was not about a genuine attempt to reform the old order but because ‘the unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election…got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers’. Odili gets his girl after all but now for the right reasons after becoming a wiser person in the process. A Man of the People was so incendiary when it was published that when a coup did occur in Nigeria shortly after its publication Achebe had to flee since he was suspected of being involved.
Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s best-known work but I consider A Man of the People a true classic; for its expert dissection of Nigerian politics and sharp wit remain timeless. Odili notes that if the leaders are corrupt it is with the peoples’ tacit approval since they would do the same in their places, ‘only they should not take enough for the owner to see’. Food for thought indeed.