A Man of the People Summary
A Man of the People is not just an indictment of Nigeria’s post Independence elite; it is the story of a nation’s slide into chaos.
The story of the novel starts with a measured and cynical observation of Odili Samalu, one of the central characters of the novel. We meet him as he stands aloof contemplating the corrupt political career and conduct of his country’s leaders and people’s response to them.
He laughs inwardly at what he considers to be the naivety of the villagers, who were staging a welcome Ceremony for Chief Honorable Nanga, a minister in the then democratically elected government.
“Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation.”
Chief Nanga was a native of Anata where he used to teach in the Common Grammar School before he entered politics. He taught Odili when he was in standard three.
Odili Samalu, a bright and educated young man prefers to work in a village Grammar School rather than take up a civilian job in the capital. He feels a simple job will allow him enjoy autonomy rather than a placement in the bureaucracy in the capital.
As he and his fellow schoolteachers, and the whole village population wait for the impending visit of Chief Nanga, he travels down the memory lane. He remembers the dastardly way in which Nanga succeeded in getting the previous finance minister Ousted because, the latter suggested some important measures to pull up the nation’s sagging economy. The Prime Minister did not like his ideas because they would in his selfish view work against his party the POP or People’s Organization Party. Chief Nanga, who was a supporter of the PM, was then offered a seat in the cabinet and has since been looting the nation’s money to enhance his own bank balance. With the money given for welfare projects, he starts constructing a palatial house of his own in his native village Anata.
Despite his notoriety, Chief Nanga was received with great fanfare with dance and music. The singers praise him and the dancers pay tribute to his greatness. Odili frowns down at their cynicism.
“Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself, and they would ask you as my father did- if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.” (A Man of the People, p.2)
When Nanga was introduced to Odili, he recognized him as his former student, hugs him and enquires after his life and career. He invites Odili to his house in Bori, the capital of the country. Before he left Anata, he reminds Odili of his invitation with a promise to arrange for his overseas studies.
Despite his contempt for Nanga, Odili feels elated at the minister’s treatment of him. The young girl in Nanga’s entourage, he comes to know through his friend Andrew, is going to be Nanga’s parlour wife. Odili is shocked at this news because she is no more than a schoolgirl, too young for an aged man like Nanga
Odili meets various people with Chief Nanga and realizes that the minister has many powerful connections. He basks in the luxury of Nanga’s mansion.
“seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, one for each day of the week.”
Odili is full of praise for Nanga’s dramatic personality, his gift of gab, his easy camaraderie with foreigners, and his taste and choice for the best of material comforts.
He tells his host about his girl friend Elsie, and his intention to bring her over to his house. Nanga gladly consents for this move, Odili goes to the hostel where Elsie stays, while working as a nurse. She is highly impressed with Odili’s borrowed Cadillac and the chauffeur driven luxury. In his careless exchange of words with Nanga, Odili refers to Elsio as a “good-time girl” which means a girl with loose morals.
To Odili’s great shock, Nanga seduces Elsie that very first night she arrives at his house. Deeply hurt at this slight, Odili decides to take revenge on Nanga. This incident makes him take fresh stock of Chief Nanga, and realizes what a fool he has been in trusting him. In his plans to avenge Nanga, he seeks the help of Max, his former classmate and presently, a successful lawyer and a firebrand politician. He and his girl friend Eunice play a pivotal role in exposing the corrupt regime. They, along with other likeminded people, plan to make Odili an organizing secretary of their newly floated party CPC or Common People’s Convention. His job is to promote this party in his village and in those around.
Odili returns to his teaching job in Anata. He visits Mrs. Nanga and gets chance to see Edna, Nanga’s bride to be, at her father’s house. He realizes that old man Odo is greedy for money and it is because Nanga offered a large bride price for Edna that he agrees for the marriage.
Odili falls in love with Edna almost at first sight. He gives her a lift on his bicycle to take lunch for her mother who is getting treatment in the hospital. Edna too starts liking Odili. He advises her not to marry Nanga. He understands her helplessness in agreeing to enter into a marriage contract with Nanga. He paid for her education and her father for a comfortable living.
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At this juncture some political turmoil starts taking place in the capital. The opposition party PAP published an expose of some ministers implicating them in corruption charges. The cabinet is split in their opinion regarding resigning on moral grounds. Ministers like Nanga didn’t agree for this. The newspapers start reporting some scandalous news or the other everyday. There are countrywide strikes to be organized by the trade unions.
Under these conditions, Chief Nanga arrives in Anata to launch his election campaign for the coming elections. His thugs assault Odili and his car gets damaged. Odili knows that Nanga is behind these attacks.
When he visits Edna, her father lectures to him to withdraw from contesting Nanga. Odili now changes his original motive of seducing Edna. He realizes his love for her and that his conscience doesn’t agree to use her as pawn in the fight between him and Nanga. Enough mud is slung on Odili by painting negative placards with his name on them, such as “Samalu is a traitor.”
Nanga visits Odili in his house in an attempt to try and stop him from standing for election. He offers money and liquor to his father. Odili’s father too tells him to withdraw. But Odili has already made up his mind.
He attends Nanga’s address to the public. He notices Edna and Mrs. Nanga seated on the dais with Chief Nanga. The latter recognizes him in the crowd, pulls him to the dais with the help of his henchmen and slaps him in front of public. Odili is beaten and is seriously injured by the raging mob instigated by Nanga’s infuriating words. The last things Odili noticed before falling unconscious was the policemen turning and walking away.
He wakes up in the hospital with a cracked cranium, broken arm and countless bruises. He sees his mother, father and Edna waiting on him. There is also a policeman posted outside. He learns from the nurse that criminal charges were filed against him when Nanga’s men allegedly found some weapons of destruction such as five machetes, and two guns in his car. They withdrew the case later. The nurse also told him of his car being ransacked and set on fire. Later a criminal case was registered against him to stop him from signing his nomination papers. The first set of nomination papers was seized from his bodyguard on his way to file them in the electoral office. When Max tried to get them again, he was prevented from doing so. And on Election Day Max was killed. In the ensuing tussle, Max’s fiancée Eunice shoots Chief Koko from close quarters. He ordered his men to shoot Max.
Odili comes to know of later events as he recovers from his injuries from Edna. He is surprised to know that Edna is no longer engaged to Nanga. Fights broke out between rival gangs of thugs and a “minor reign of terror began” after Nanga is reappointed as minister. Yet people say nothing critical about their immoral leaders. Odili reflects on the behaviour of the people thus. The way they react would be something like this:
“Let them eat…when the white man used to do all the eating did we commit suicide…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….if you survive who knows? It may be your turn to eat tomorrow. Your son may bring home your share.”(p.144)
After his recovery and discharge from hospital, Odili goes to Edna’s house with his father to pay her bride price. Edna’s father is disappointed because he missed the chance of getting a prosperous son-in-law like Chief Nanga. Much to his chagrin the army coup takes place. Now he sees the wisdom of accepting Odili’s offer to marry his daughter. Odili agrees to the old man’s condition that he should return the bride price that Chief Nanga has paid to him.
Odili too is an opportunist. He plans to pay the huge sum demanded by Odo, Edna’s father out of party funds he is in charge of. Now that the new military government has abolished all political parties, and Max no longer alive, he is left with lots of money at his disposal.
Surprisingly, we do not see Odili using the money for selfish purposes. Instead of bettering his personal life, he decides to establish a new school in his village in Max’s memory. Incidentally, Max is declared a “hero” by the new government, for he died a martyr’s death at the hands of a previous corrupt regime.
Tables are turned against the former Civilian Government. Previous members of the Government are denounced and Chief Koko became a “thief and a murderer” overnight. Thus through Odili’s observation Achebe enunciates that the nation has no conscience, no proper judgment.
Army officers take over the affairs of the government. It is believed that Chief Nanga was arrested trying to escape by a canoe dressed like a fisherman.
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