Corruption as a Consequence of Colonialism - as portrayed in Achebe’s The African Trilogy
All quotations are taken from the 1988 Picador edition of Chinua Achebe’s 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 Achebe’s 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 Achebe’s 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 anybody’s 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 Ezeulu’s. 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,...