This page last revised 19 May 1998
All quotations are taken from the 1988 Picador edition of Chinua Achebes The African Trilogy "
He has put a knife on all the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (Things Fall Apart, 145)
The things that held the Igbo tribe together were their close bonds of clan kinship, unified allegiance to their gods, and their democratic society. These were the very things that the English set out to attack, to put a knife on. Once they began this process, Igbo society was never to be the same again. Chinua Achebes The African Trilogy, while an excellent piece of literature in its own right, can also be read as an excellent historical account of this process. This essay concerns the responses of Achebes fictional characters to the very real actions taken by the British in their efforts to pacify Nigeria, focusing on one aspect of this effort - the policy of creating Warrant Chiefs and the subsequent era of corruption.
The instigation of Warrant Chiefs in Nigeria was a matter of necessity for the British and a source of bewilderment for the Nigerians. The British could not have governed in any other way - English officials demanded high salaries and frequent leave, and were emotionally and psychologically ill-equipped to deal with this new culture. The colonial budget could only afford a limited number of them. The success of colonization depended to a large extent on the co-operation of the Africans themselves with regard to government. What the British did not realise, however, was that peoples such as the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria were unfamiliar with the idea of chiefs or kings - in their society decisions were made on the basis of general consensus, which was usually achieved by protracted debate. This confusion at the refusal of the Igbos to accept positions such as this is well-illustrated in Arrow of God:
"Well, are you accepting the offer or not?" Clarke glowed with the I-know-this- will-knock-you-over feeling of a benefactor.
Tell the white man that Ezeulu will not be anybodys chief, except Ulu
What! shouted Clarke. Is the fellow mad?
I tink so sah, said the interpreter.
In that case he goes back to prison. Clarke was now really angry. What cheek! A witch-doctor making a fool of the British Administration in public!" (498)
The selection of Ezeulu as a potential Warrant Chief is typical of the kind of selection regularly made by the British - a man who was already in the possession of real authority and wealth in his community. However, the responses of those chosen were not always as idealistic as Ezeulus. Many Igbos jumped at the chance of some real power, safe in the knowledge that they were backed by British officials, and Warrant chiefs became notorious for their corruption and exploitation. Speaking of the Warrant Chief he has instigated in Okperi, Winterbottom exclaims:
"The man was a complete non-entity until we crowned him, and now he carries on as if he had been nothing else all his life. Its the same with Court Clerks and even messengers. They all managed to turn themselves into little tyrants over their own people." (430)
Court Clerks and messengers, as Winterbottom rightly points out, did share in the corruption of the Warrant Chiefs. Only the clerks had the education to understand the mysterious workings of the court procedure and so were in a prime position to take advantage of their fellow Igbos through bribery and money lending. Communication between the Igbos and their self-appointed rulers was bad at the best of times, but the fact that the British officials almost never spoke Igbo only created a further atmosphere of uncertainty which the Igbo employees took full advantage of.
Achebe treats the problem of corruption in 1950s Lagos in the second novel of the trilogy, No Longer at Ease. Despite his aspirations to avoid the temptation of corruption, Obi eventually succumbs, finding it financially impossible to live up to the inflated image created by his position in the Civil Service. He also loathes the idea of disappointing the Umuofia Progressive Union by not appearing as wealthy as he should be:
Having made him a member of an exclusive club whose members greet each one another with Hows the car behaving? did they expect him to turn round and answer: Im sorry, but my car is off the road. You see I couldnt pay my insurance premium? That would be letting the side down in a way that was quite unthinkable (254)
Obi is quite convinced by his own statement that those at the top of the Civil Service have "worked steadily to the top through bribery" (189) and that it is ironic that he is reported to have read a paper to the Nigerian Students Union in London theorising that "the public service of Nigeria would remain corrupt until the old Africans at the top were replaced by young men from the universities". (205)
The British finally abolished the Warrant Chief system after the Aba Riots in 1929, when they were forced to re-examine their entire system of government, yet clearly the corruption that began in the era of the Warrant Chiefs created a situation in which it was the norm, and no amount of university education could rectify this. Elizabeth Isichei (A History of the Igbo People, London: The Macmillan Press, 1976) examines this topic in detail, and comments:
times of great uncertainty and change seem to encourage materialism. Men try to attain the psychological security which the social context of their time denies them by creating a little charmed island for themselves (149)
Colonialism, quite apart from tearing apart a culture which was truly democratic, had created a new set of attitudes towards material wealth, and for the Igbo people and their neighbours it had created a situation from which there was no turning back.
This page was written by Katharine Slattery. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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