A Man of the People is set in a modern African country modeled after Nigeria, fresh with the achievement of Independence. The story foregrounds the conflict between the young and educated Odili and the corrupt and hypocritical “man of the people” Chief Nanga, Minister of Culture, but what is really at stake is the cultural and political crisis in the young state undergoing painful transition toward modern democracy.
The discussion on religion between Mr. Brown and Akunna, a great man of a Umoufia village in Things Fall Apart, is in a sense responded to in A Man of the People. According to the clan people’s understanding, there is one supreme God, Chukwu, who sends his messengers, the minor gods, to do his work in this world. Akunna compares this to the British Queen’s sending the District Commissioner, who in turn appoints kotma, the court messenger, to help him. Theology and politics are thus explained with the same model. In A Man of the People, Odili’s father, the District Interpreter, has become a kind of “principal minor god” who goes between the indigenous people and the British appointed District Officer, who is treated like the “Supreme Deity” (32; ch. 3). This secularization of religion is treated with great irony. Actually things begin to change this way as early as at the end of Things Fall Apart, when the clan is unwilling to fight the white men’s authority. In A Man of the People, the white men’s government has left the land, and corrupt African leaders rule the post-colonial country. Things continue to fall apart in the sense that the leaders worshipped as “men of the people” have in fact deserted the people in poverty and ignorance.
The decolonization and Independence of Africa came after WWII. Independence of Nigeria, Achebe’s mother country and a former British colony, came in 1960 and the state became a federal republic in 1963, remaining a member of the Commonwealth. Although the new nation depicted in A Man of the People is not named, we may safely take it for another Nigeria. What seems most shocking to me is not that the politicians, represented by Chief Nanga, uses his position to shamelessly increase his personal wealth and manipulate elections, nor that the intelligentsia, of which Odili is a member, prize themselves as the uncorrupted forces against the politicians while at the same time believe their learning also entitles them to the easy life, but that the people, having witnessed the white men’s exploitation of their resources, think it is just natural that they should be again exploited by their own man. After all, everybody must take care of himself, so what is wrong with the politicians’ eating from the public pot as long as they obtain benefits for their villagers like paved roads and water pipes? This attitude of indulgence is summed up towards the end of the book: “‘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” (136; ch. 13).
Such is the mentality of a nation emerging from long colonization. The colonizers have left, but they do not let go their control of the political affairs of the nation—they maintain a strong influence through overseas financial support. In Africa the English and American men and women are largely aloof to the condition of the African people. Achebe’s use of pidgin-English, which make a non-Nigerian reader quite perplexed, may itself be a kind of protest at the Europeans’ inability or unwillingness to understand the local culture.