Chinua Achebe’s novel A Man of the People portrays the generation gap between the old guard in the politics of West Africa and the newer generation. The narrator, Odili, stands for the newer generation, and contrasts starkly with Chief Nanga, who had once been Odili’s teacher and represents the older style represented by busy politics. Patron-client relationships and the old school “politics of the belly” are both important motifs in this novel, which focuses on these two men’s quarrels over everything from basic politics to women, building to the story’s end, represented by a military revolt that serves as a premonition of the 1966 revolution in Nigeria. Achebe portrays the events of these characters realistically as he shows both vitality and violence, both light and corruption.
Even Odili refers to Chief Nanga as a true “man of the people,” and the chief has built a reputation for being the country’s most accessible population. His official title is Minister of Culture, and when he appears before the public, his words mirror what a politician ought to be and do. However, as the story progresses, it becomes obvious that the practices of Chief Nanga differ significantly from his rhetoric. He takes the money that should benefit the community and builds four-story structures instead, taking the rental money for himself. This is a clear expression of the “politics of the belly” that focused on grabbing as much as one could for oneself. Ostensibly, the chief is supposed to stand up for African culture as it was before the colonial era, keeping those original beliefs and traditions important and opposing the intellectuals who favor European ideas that came in with colonization. However, the more familiar the chief becomes with politics in general, the more greedy he becomes.
Achebe views the patron-client relationship as one that benefits the patrons and leaves the clients high and dry, at least on the basis of this novel. Chief Nanga slowly learns the process of graft and becomes skillful at winning elections using a process that, originally, he had opposed. What is important for Chief Nanga is that he has the trust of the common people. He feels like he is closer to them than the intellectual class, which stands for the European ways of thinking and living. Coming into power in his country motivates him to keep away from European ways – at least on the outside. As Odili goes further and further into the story, though, the chief just tells people the things that he knows they would like to hear about standing up for their ways. Nanga’s actual response, though, is to amass as many women and as much power and money as he can.
It is this contradiction between the things that Chief Nanga says and the things that he does that ends up bringing him down. Odili had respected the chief when the chief was his teacher. However, the degree to which the chief has become corrupt has turned Odili’s stomach. When Odili moves in with Chief Nanga and gets a full view of the ways in which Nanga wastes money and exploits his power with women, he sees what Chief Nanga has actually become. In the final analysis, exposure to wealth and opportunity has made the chief indistinguishable from the colonial powers against whom he used to rail.