First published in 1966, revised in 1988 and revised again in 1989, few novels in the history of world literature have been so endowed with the power to peek into the future as Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People. The novel is utterly uncompromising in its laser-like focus on the profound level of corruption throughout the Nigeria in the 1960s.
What makes A Man of the People especially effective is the outsider perspective taken by Achebe in illustrating just how profoundly governmental corruption can become an insidious force affecting everyone in the country being run by corrupt government officials. Odili Samalu appears to be just an idealistic educator trying to teach in a world where education is seen primarily as a tool for propaganda. By launching a campaign against M.N. Nanga—the epicenter of Nigerian venality—Samalu also becomes something of a tool for propaganda.
The campaign that Achebe allows his idealistic educator to run against Nanga offers him plentiful opportunities to reveal the effect that political corruption has across the board. The expected targets get hit hard and often and with all the justice that they should expect: those characters representing the political actors in the morality play that governmental vice creates as tragedy receive the full brunt of Achebe’s outrage.
Less expected, perhaps, is the vitriol that drips from the pages of A Man of the People when the actions focuses on everyday Nigerians who seemingly have no hand in the scripting of this tragic narrative. Indeed, what makes A Man of the People achieve its astonishing power is not the manner in which its author illustrates the easy points that bad people in government equals bad government. The power comes from the way he insists on reminding the reader that when bad people do bad things with the willing complicity of a public unwilling to fight back, that public has lost the right to complain.
What makes the novel such a prime example of the author as oracle of the future is how the book ultimately concludes with a military coup that does little to solve the problem of corruption for the long term. Just a few short months before publication, the exactly same string of events actually occurred in real-life Nigeria as the army seized control in a military coup that has done very little in the long, long term to challenge the deep-rooted corruption in Nigerian politics.