Allegorical Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah

Anthills of the Savannah is Chinua Achebe’s last novel. It is one of the least popular of Chinua Achebe’s novels, but it is the one that is engrossed with more complexity and more depth. Metaphor, symbol and all other forms of association with depth in literariness are found in this work. Taking on a plot-leaning on a deeper meaning, Chinua Achebe  writes a story whose inner reality is not in the same line with that of others.

The plot reveal events whose characteristics are not understandable on the surface level alone. The title of the text itself is not entirely literal and direct. The case of having a meaning greater than the literal interpretation of the words in the text is synonymous with the method of criticism chosen in  this project. Analysing the title, Anthills of the Savannah, could be written to have a deeper interpretation veiling the literal one.

In the beginning part of the text, the narrator succinctly states the reason behind the title of the text. Thus, it becomes symbolic and metaphorical linking the head of the administration of the country to the situation of the administration of anthills or the behaviour and method of life of ants in anthill. The narrator writes,

I could read in the silence of their minds, as we sat stiffly around the mahogany table,words like: Well, this is going to be another of those days. Meaning a bad day. Days are good or bad for us now according to how His Excellency gets out of bed in the morning. On a bad day, such as this one had suddenly become after many propitious auguries, there is nothing for it but to lie close to your hole, ready to scramble in. And particularly to keep your mouth shut. (11)

The narrator connect the object of fear of the ministers in the president’s cabinet to that of sneaking into ant holes. Thus, it can be stated that the ant holes are in place of the inanimate object fear and  a refugee somewhat from the menacing posture of the president. The ministers are the ants seeking a point of refugee from the act of anger and lack of control of the president.

Going further, the narrator gives account of the level of fear in the minds and actions of the minister. “The president” is a perfect image of fear and terror. These inanimate features in  men is made animate in a man that trepidation take over the atmosphere anywhere he is around. The narrator gives a situation of a particular meeting as this,

On my right sat the Honourable Commissioner for Education. He is by far the most frightened of the lot. As soon as he had sniffed peril in the air he had begun to disappear into his hole, as some animals and insects do, backwards. Instinctively he had gathered his papers together and was in the very act of lifting the file-cover over the man dragging them into his hole after him when his entire body suddenly went rigid. Stronger alarms from deeper recesses of instinct may have alerted him to the similarity between his impending act and a slamming of the door in the face of His Excellency. (13)

The situation of the commissioner of education is perfectly presented. The change or the not happy mood of the president leads to this situation. The determinant of the happiness of the cabinet members was the mood of the president. Like an ant colony, all resources are channelled to the queen, and so does it play out in the novel. The president’s mood determines the mood of the meeting.

Since the mood alone determines the mood and outcome of the meeting, the president is deeply in charge of what decisions that would be taken in the meeting. At most points, he is not relaxed, and the meeting does not go well, then the cabinet commissioners and the rest of the people would have to fall in line to the mood of the president. In most of the situations, these people would have to say and do anything that would please the president. The narrator presents the situation as this,

That’s one refinement, by the way, we’ve not yet lost: we do wait for his back to be turned. And some will add: That’s a pity because what this country really needs is a ruthless dictator. At least for five good years. And we will all laugh in loud excess because we know—bless our dear hearts—that we shall never be favoured with such an undeserved blessing as a ruthless dictator. (15)

Thus, to become at ease with the military president and avoid his wrath, people would have to fall in line with the actions and words that would make him happy. Just like the metaphorical and symbolical anthills and ants, the people work hard to see that the military president is fulfilled and happy, and may go to any length to see that he does not get aggrieved. Sam, the head of state, has most actions and words revolving around him.

Furthermore, in the same case of the cabinet members and the rest of the commissioners conforming to whatever decisions or mood the head of state had to make or was in, they go to a great length to shape themselves to fit into the choice mood and thinking of the head of state. These commissioners know the head of state is the leader, and would do anything to conform to his postulations and decisions. In another scenario presented by the narrator, there is a clear presentation of the situation of the commissioners as this,

At this point he is boldly interrupted by the Commissioner for Justice and Attorney-General and then by everybody else with an assortment of protests. Actually it is His Excellency’s well-chosen words that signalled the brave interruption, for despite the vigour in his voice the words themselves had sounded the All Clear and told us it was all right now to commence our protestations. So we began to crawl out into the open again. In his precise manner the Attorney-General says: ‘Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people.’ (16)

The narrator best describes the situation with the imagery and symbol of “crawling out of our holes.” At the angry and flared up moment of the president, the cabinet members scamper to their holes, and only emerge when there is restoration of calmness. In the scenario presented above, the president has a decision even over when they can protest or not to protest his decisions. There is no freewill to totally decide over the issues of the country.

The president cannot be discussed totally without the discussion of what makes him be this tough and largely inconsiderate in the face of his cabinet members. It would be noteworthy to state that like the leader of anthill is made a queen, and there are specifics and reservations for such position, so it is for the president. Chris recounts the president’s characteristics as, “to say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness” (159).

To Chris, Sam lacks a mind of his own mostly, even though before his ascension to the position of the president, he had a gentleman character, it changes as he assumes the position. This is part of the characteristics of being a lord or a lady over an anthill. Power becomes strong, overpowers him, and he expects others to bend to his will. Mad Medico aptly presents this situation in this way,

Sam is no bloody queen. I tell you he was such a nice fellow in those days. He had a wholesome kind of innocence about him. He was morally and intellectual intact—a kind of virgin, if you get my meaning. He spoke better English, I tell you. And yet he could still be pleasantly surprised by things … I found that so healthy and so attractive … You know I found him a girl once …” (193)

The change of character and actions of Sam comes right after sometime of being the ruler of the country, an anthill, or collection of anthills.  Taking on the post, Sam changes and takes on new characteristics.  Sam, the president, becomes paranoid, sceptical about everyone and suspects even his close friends of hatred and likelihood of of overthrow. Thus, with this his imagination intact, he follows everyone with certain strictness and paranoia. In a situation of the closure of a cabinet meeting, we can see the atmosphere of fear clearly as, “the meeting is adjourned. He gets up abruptly. So abruptly that the noise we make scrambling to our feet would have befitted a knee-sore congregation rising rowdily from the prayers of a garrulous priest” (27).

As it is in anthill where there is a severe  regimented lifestyle and system of leadership, the people would have to deal with Sam’s system of leadership even as draconian as it is. The effects are more felt by the upper class and people closer to the government, especially his friends that he had invited to become part of his government. There is no differentiation from who feels the heat or is in constant fear of his life, even the upper class are involved as presented as this when cabinet ministers are momentarily detained,

“I go to prepare a place for you, gentlemen … But rest assured I will keep the most comfortable cell for myself.” He went out laughing. I too began to laugh quite ostentatiously. Then I said to my colleagues: “That is a man after my heart. A man who will not piss in his trousers at the first sound of danger.” And I went to the furthest window and stood there alone gazing outwards. (175)

In the scenario above, the men detained for a crime which they are not aware of. There is no way the cabinet ministers could be responsible for the visitation of the delegation of people from Abazon. However, in his paranoia, the president detains them for not having any atom of knowledge of the visitation by the delegates. This paranoia pushes him to break friendship and commit several murders  before his regime collapses, and eventually his own demise.

Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah is a good novel.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. Heinemann, 1987.

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