In the first half of the twentieth century, the empires of Europe controlled most of the African continent. Chinua Achebe depicts the roots of British rule over the Ibo people of the Niger Delta in Things Fall Apart. As colonial administrators were setting up the machinery of government, European industrialists exploited the country’s natural resources, and Christian missionaries introduced Western religion. Economic development, and the imposition of taxes, led many young men from the countryside to enter the cities in search of wage labor. Tribal unions, resembling the fictional Umuofia Progressive Union in No Longer at Ease, sprang up to keep the bonds of clan affiliation alive and provide mutual aid amid the anonymity of the city. A select few Africans received a European education, and gradually an African professional class emerged. Nevertheless, the changes imposed during the colonial era undermined African tribal existence on every level, from the logistics of village life to spiritual practices and belief systems.
Obi’s attempts to be ‘‘modern’’ in choosing an osu wife, living in the city, and refusing bribes ultimately fail because of the strong pull of traditional values, but his struggles exemplify the conflicts individuals sometimes felt between traditional and colonial or European belief systems. Because of the devastation of Europe caused by World War II, and also because of the rise of pan-African and African nationalist movements, decolonization became all but inevitable after 1945. Between 1946 and 1954, Britain gradually increased the level of autonomy and political representation granted the Nigerian people. No Longer at Ease is set on the eve of Nigeria’s independence, when a generation of leaders such as Obi Okonkwo was preparing to take over from the British. Oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956, sparking hopes of a rapid rise to prosperity. A relatively well-trained middle class entered a competitive scramble for civil service jobs, development contracts, and political advantage.
Nigeria had no history as a nation. It was, in fact, an invention of the British colonial authorities. Within the borders they drew lived hundreds of tribes and ethnic groups with their own languages and customs. Some of these tribes, such as the Yoruba and the Ibo, had a history of antagonism. Rather than a unified movement for national independence, Nigeria developed a number of separate political groupings organized along regional and ethnic lines. The British attempted to create a federal system of government in Nigeria, and conferred autonomy on a regional basis, first to the western and eastern regions in 1957, then two years later to the mostly Islamic northern region. By a vote of the British parliament, Nigeria became an independent state, still within the British Commonwealth, on October 1, 1960. The new nation was immediately beset by several serious difficulties, including the culture of political corruption, vividly illustrated in No Longer at Ease.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Chinua Achebe, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010