When power changes simple men
Writing to the Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton who was also an English historian in 1887, moralist Baron Acton coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Although Baron Acton was referring to European monarchies, this phrase aptly describes leaders all over the world who plunder their countries’ resources.
In Africa, a lot of the looting occurs in cahoots with – or sometimes at the behest of – European or American entities.
In his narrative “Anthills of the Savannah”, published in 1987, Chinua Achebe laments how simple men – when drunk with power – lose it and become reckless.Set in Kangan, a fictional West African country, the narrative is about a President named Sam who assumes power through a coup in the early ‘60s.
Sam, who was military at Sandhurst military academy in Britain, presides over a corrupt government where a Parliament exists but has no power. Instead, Sam rules with the State Research Council, a military organ.
Sam has two close friends, Christopher Oriko and Ikem Osodi, who also studied in Britain.
Chris is Sam’s Commissioner of Information while Ikem is the editor of the state-owned National Gazette.
While Sam and Chris seem to have imbibed power and all its dregs, Ikem remains sober as an intellectual.
As an editor, he writes critically and is frank about his friend’s excesses.
Chris, on the other hand, should ensure that the National Gazette toes the line and acts like a good propaganda mouthpiece.
Typical of such cases, when Ikem stands his ground, Chris and Sam have to find a reason to sack him as the editor of the National Gazette.
The opportune moment comes when people from a region known as Abazon come to town to meet the President and complain about the closure of waterholes in their area.
The withdrawal of the boreholes when there is a terrible drought in Abazon is punishment for the region’s refusal to vote for Sam.
Sam refuses to meet them but Ikem does. He learns that he is from the same area. After the meeting, Ikem is arrested over a small traffic offence.
His arrest is, in fact, instigated by State Research Council agents who have been following him.
This leads to his sacking as the editor of the National Gazette. Soon after he is fired, Ikem addresses students at the University of Bassa where he makes a radical speech which leads to his arrest after the paper he used to edit twists the facts.
Ikem’s words are a response to a student’s question on whether the reserve bank was planning to have Sam’s portrait on the national currency.
“Yes I heard of it like everybody else. Whether there is such a plan or not I don't know.
All I can say is I hope the rumour is unfounded.
“My position is quite straightforward especially now that I don't have to worry about being editor of the Gazette.
My view is that any serving President foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know he is inciting people to take it off; the head I mean,” he says.
But he never makes it to court.
The soldiers guarding Ikem shoot him and claim it was an accident.
This incident is a wake-up call for Chris who begins to feel insecure.
He goes into hiding but is shot by a drunken policeman during a celebration of the ouster of Sam in a coup.
The story is set at a time when young African intellectuals were taking up leadership posts soon after their nations gained independence.
Unfortunately, their idealism is swiftly eroded by the realities of power as they strive to carry their peoples along particular paths.
In the end, Achebe’s message is that needless fighting dissipates the fruits of the struggles of the liberation wars.