I’ve recently finished reading Chinua Achebe’s ‘A Man of The People’. I was somewhat torn with the way his characters approached corruption. I’m beginning to understand that my initial objection to the way Achebe presents corruption is a pierce to my privilege of growing up in the West. When Achebe’s characters don’t seem to bat an eyelid at the fact their leaders are thieves; I was strongly annoyed. “They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man has used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you –as my father did—if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.” Their anger seemed to be aroused when the portion their leaders amassed disingenuously, was not in some way brought back to their community or village. “We know they are eating,’ he said, ‘but we are eating too. They are bringing us water and they promise to bring us electricity. We did not have those things before; that is why I say we are eating too.” Navigating the system in which you are born is basic survival. It’s commendable that Achebe developed some characters who were staunchly anti-corruption. It removed any depiction of his characters as passive agents and proponents of disingenuous practices. However, with a further deep dive, I soon recognised that even those beliefs were built on a privilege that is not usually provided to all — in the case of, the protagonist, Odilli —a university education.
Chief Nanga is your archetypal Big Man and it is demonstrated in the latter parts of the book when he is running for re-election of his seat. Achebe describes him as not possessing the formal education that has come to be a prerequisite for a political leader but one whose charm and resources amassed as a result of being in politics would allow him space to navigate the field of re-election. Clientelism was a distinct component of neopatrimonialism as it confirmed the importance of the people who held positions of authority when African nations were under indirect rule. What this allowed was the continuation of certain networks that had developed while Africa was under indirect rule. Those in positions of authority were able to profit from the vacuum left in the wake of independence and continued to use their patrimonial influence in the legal-rational bureaucratic frameworks. In “Big men” in Sub-Saharan Africa; Daloz references the requirement of initial economic capital, allowing only the big men to struggle over making the spoils of government their personal property: “In the post-colonial context, elites may become rich from politics but they also have to be rich to do politics.” However, as Achebe describes the political framework was very delicate and while the big man (Chief Nanga) did have a significant amount of power it was built upon a fragile foundation as rulers in post-colonial Africa were often constrained by the need to maintain balance across complex ethnic or clan divisions.
Olu Oyinbo was a term that Nigerians referred to the government as ‘white man’s business’ it was from this understanding that anyone who was fortunate enough to receive a role in the government -which was seen as an extension of the colonial power; had a role of distributing funds/resources back to their communities. However, even in the appropriation of funds, there was still an etiquette that was to be understood. One of the passages that had the most profound impact on me is situated in Chapter Nine. “But the most ominous thing I heard was from Timothy, a middle-aged man, who was kind of Christian and a carpenter. ‘Josiah has taken away enough for the owner to notice, ‘he said again and again.’ It was not an issue for you to take just as long as what you took did not leave a casm that could probe questioning. Thievery’s discretion. However, when we look at the facts it seemed that somewhere along the line that greed broke any discretion that may have been informally understood. As history has shown we, human beings, don’t tend to manifest our vices modestly for too long. A little taken here and a little taken there will unequivocally always amount to much. An example comes from a fiscal study of Cameroon which estimated that various exemptions granted by the government and tax fraud resulted in a revenue shortfall equivalent to 18-22% of GDP during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Achebe is without a doubt a colossus of a writer. He is not only one of the greatest writers to come out of Africa but one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen. His extrapolation of universal themes to highlight the intricacies of the African story continues to be a literary masterstroke and a bold reminder that Africa, without hesitation, deserves to be weaved into the global narrative. While many forces in this world are currently imploring us to stand by our differences and hold strongly onto our prejudices. Achebe’s writing stands defiantly. Reminding every reader that we have a lot more in common than we would like to think.