The first line of the novel includes an allusion to Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart. One of the first prominent English-language Nigerian novels, Things Fall Apart chronicles an Igbo man’s rise and fall in a village beset by European missionaries. In that novel, the fictionalized tensions between the missionaries and the clan represent the clash between old and new ways. The goal of the missionaries is to convert the Nigerians to Christianity. While a portion of missionaries intended to preach their gospel while respecting the indigenous cultures, others used their righteousness as justification for oppressing and even enslaving Nigerians.
The presence of the white people in Nigeria had political, economic and religious implications. Clan rulers who were not amenable to the British were replaced with those that would cooperate. This type of corruption continued into the post-colonial era where those in power would reward their allies and oppress those who dissent.
The colonial period lasted from 1850 through 1929, when nationalist movements gained in popularity. In 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. But this independence ushered in a wave of instability culminating in a civil war. Bloody military coups displaced those in power. The Igbo people created their own state, the Republic of Biafra, and declared independence in 1967. For thirty months, 1 to 3 million people died in the civil war between the Nigerians and the Biafrans.
In the 1970s and 1980s, oil dictated politics. The boom of oil production again ushered in a political system that was dictated by profit. Another wave of military coups led to instability and corruption. For example, in 1993, General Sani Abacha took power and staved off overthrow by bribing the military. As the Head of State Big Oga in Purple Hibiscus, Abacha dies under unusual circumstances. Hundreds of millions of dollars were found in secret accounts. The military finally returned the country to democracy in the 1999, although those elections were widely perceived to be unfree and unfair.
Several key political figures are either mentioned or fictionalized in Purple Hibiscus.
Adichie has acknowledged that Ade Coker’s life and death are nods to both Dele Giwa, murdered journalist, and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was a poet and author who protested on behalf of the Ogoni People against the environmental ruin of their ancestral home caused by massive oil drilling. Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken critic against the government and was arrested and hanged under Abacha’s rule.
Amaka’s beloved Fela Ransome Kuti is one of the best-known Nigerian musicians. Like Papa, Kuti was educated in England. Kuti created Afrobeat, a style of music that blends jazz with traditional African rhythms. He railed against the colonial mentality of his upbringing and advocated for both a return to traditions and democracy. He was arrested, beaten and tortured several times for openly criticizing the government. The popularity of his music was seen as a threat to the military establishment.