Societal destiny, role of the intellectual artiste

Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
In “Anthills of the Savannah” (1987),  Chinua Achebe highlights the role of the intellectual artiste as a revolutionary and activist in the same way that Ngugi wa Thiong’o does in “Weep Not Child” (1964) and “Matigari” (1987).

Through Ikem, Achebe amplifies Ngugi’s position. In an interview Ngugi wa Thiong’o says: “The way I take it, a writer is a part of the intellectual community, and the way I define an intellectual is worker in ideas.

“Since intellectuals as well as writers are working in ideas, it is of course very important that they try to articulate a world view which is consistent with the values of liberation . . . writers and artists, both consciously and in practice, should be on the side of liberation, because art assumes freedom” (Kumar, 2001: 170).

As Sam and his cronies run down the country through avarice, deception, individualism and corruption, the people become desperate. Wiser of what is happening around them as the tyrant eats and smashes the plate so that no one else eats after him (Mbembe, 2001), the people seem angry enough, although still inactive and unsure how to act.

What the people only need is someone among them, who is politically conscious, to put words to their suffering, to inspire them.

Someone they can identify with and who can give a model face to their struggle. Sam’s despotic nature of governance, moral bankruptcy and paranoia reduces the Kangan nation to a basket case.

His desire to dictate the tunes that the piper plays as the purse holder backfires on him as his erstwhile friends turn against him. Driven to the edge with the fear of dissent and demonstrations, he turns the nation to a pariah state., where the police and the army turn.

His Excellency’s tyrannical government imitates or even surpasses the excesses of the previous government. His excesses, which see him sacking Ikem for attending a meeting hosted by the Abazon delegation, where ideas of struggle are sown, and pursuing Chris, who resigns because his conscience could no longer keep him in, alienate Sam.

It all starts with ideas and everything else follows, which emphasises the role of the artiste in society, as Ezenwa-Ohaeta (1997: 253) writes: “Achebe’s quintessential Africa includes the view of struggle as useful, especially when it issues as a statement through which resistance becomes known, the magnification of the female characters; the utilisation of memory; the anatomy of power and the hope in the young and the future”.

The component forces of the oppressed workers, peasants and students should be united against oppression, and it is the artiste’s duty to see to it that it happens.

However, the problem seems to be the oppressed people’s attitude to tolerate their suffering, which is construed as docility by their tyrannical leaders who take advantage of it. They seem to forgive them for “eating” on their behalf, as the narrator Odili observes in “A Man of the People” (1966): “Marx began by accusing the outgoing government of all kinds of swindling and corruption.

As he gave instance after instance of how our leaders who were ash-mouthed paupers five years ago had become near-millionaires under our very eyes, many in the audience laughed. But it was the laughter of resignation.

No one among them swore vengeance; no one shook with rage or showed any sign of fight.”

It is not that it is new to them, or they do not know about it, but they feel there is nothing to do about it and that it is not their place to do anything. They even believe that they are powerless to make the changes they know are imperative deep down. Odili pushes it further: “The people themselves have become even more cynical than their leaders and were pathetic into the bargain.”

“Let them eat’ was the people’s opinion, ‘After all when white men used to do all the eating did we commit suicide?’ Of course not. And where is the all-powerful white man today?

“He came, he ate and he went. But we are still around. The important thing then is to stay alive; if you do you will outlive your present annoyance.”

Such cynicism on the part of the people is what keeps the oppressive machinery of the ruling class oiled. If there is no agency in the oppressed through absorption of revolutionary ideas, which gives them legitimacy to the struggle that shape their existence, then tyranny will remain an albatross around their necks.

The people must be inspired to change their lot. Mbembe (2001) observes that: Precisely because the post-colonial mode of domination is a regime that involves not just control but conviviality, even connivance — as shown by the constant compromises, the small tokens of fealty, the inherent cautiousness — the analyst must watch for the myriad ways ordinary people guide, deceive, and toy with power instead of confronting it directly (Mbembe, 2001: 128). The dialectical nature of class separatism makes the proletariat endorse the excesses of the ruling class as part of what they are entitled to, based on their leadership positions.

They seek an elixir out of their suffering in the acceptance of their condition as a state of being beyond their control.

They would rather be exploited in style as Ikem observes when he is visited by the taxi driver, Braimoh, whom he once had a tussle with for space in the heavy traffic of the capital, and his fellow trade unionist after his appearance at the Abazon delegation’s meeting.

The taxi driver has come to apologise to Ikem for the rather ugly fight, but it is what he says that touches him: “If I know an such big oga de for my front for that go-slow how I go come make such wahala for am? I de crazy? But the thing wey confuse me properly well be that kind old car wey he come de drive. I never see such! Number one, the car too old; number two, you come again de drive am self. Wonderful! So how fit know na such big man de for my front? I just think I-go-drive-myself na some jagajaga person wey no fit bring money to pay driver, and come block road for everybody.”

It is the reference to class that is worrisome here, as the taxi driver says that Ikem has confused him with his humility, yet he is a very important man, one whom he could have easily given space.

Although the two men admire Ikem, as “Editor of Gazette”, who once fought in their corner through one of his editorials, they are contemptuous of him for “driving a battered old Datsun, instead of a Mercedes and for driving with his own hands, instead of sitting in the owner’s corner and being driven”.

It is, indeed worrisome, as Ikem sees it that “the downtrodden drivers” wish for their leader to drive “stylishly in a Mercedes with another downtrodden person like themselves for a chauffeur”.

To the revolutionary Ikem, therefore, there is need for “a root-and-branch attack” to “cure that diseased tolerance verging on admiration by the trudging-jigger-toed oppressed for the Mercedes-Benz-driving, private-jet-flying, luxury-yatch-cruising oppressor. An insistence by the oppressed that his oppression be performed in  style”.

This incidence, taken in comparison with that involving the soldier at the marketplace, who nearly kills one of the traders, and says “if I kill you, I kill dog”, with the insulted man and others present letting it pass and interpreting the words to mean what they want them to mean, articulates how the oppressed become their own enemies. It is this downtrodden mentality, which seems to be linked to decades of colonial oppression that Achebe is contemptuous of.

As Fanon (1967: 160) points out: “A government or a party gets the people it deserves and sooner or later a people gets the government it deserves”; and with such resignation to their fate, the people help in stacking up the wood that will soon ignite into coups. Without agency, confidence and self-worthiness, the people will always be taken advantage of. Burdened by materialism and colonial hangover, society needs a sober voice to give impetus to the working class’ fight for equal opportunities, instead of insisting on cushioned pain and wishing the oppressor well on his perpetual honeymoon.

Ikem’s sacking, his subsequent persecution and murder, as well as Chris’ resignation, his fight for justice and beaming of the atrocious nature of Sam’s rule, and his hunt by the military junta and his flight to Abazon, contribute to His Excellency’s downfall in that the different components of the oppressed are brought together. Ikem, who has always been the voice of the oppressed through his editorials, becomes visible to the Abazon people, the workers represented by taxi drivers, Braimoh and the trade unionists, the market women, through his girlfriend Elewa and students at the University of Bassa.

By crossing the class line, he gives a voice and face to the people’s struggle and his death, therefore, becomes a rallying point. Achebe (1966) insists that “the great revolutions of history were started by intellectuals, not the common people”, hence intellectuals like Chris and Ikem should disengage themselves from the ruling class’ ideology of materialism and strike an interface with the oppressed. They have to be visible. And as Fanon also insists, the people are not impervious to political teaching; “they understand perfectly the most complicated problems” (Fanon, 1967: 151), hence, intellectual revolutionaries “ought to uplift the people; develop their brains, fill them with ideas, change them into human beings” (ibid: 158-159).

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