Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bribery in Achebe's No Longer at Ease

Bribery is an important element in Chinua Achebe’s book, No Longer at Ease. Achebe begins his account with Obi Okonkwo's conviction in a trial. Although the exact nature of Obi’s guilt is not revealed in the opening of the book, the reader does discover that his conviction is for a money-related crime (5). It is also apparent from the beginning that Obi’s crime is not uncommon in his city. A member of the Umuofia Progressive Union says, “It is all lack of experience…What others do is tell you to go and hand it to their houseboy. Obi tried to do what everyone does without finding out how it was done” (5). Many other people engage in the activity for which Obi is punished, which becomes even more obvious later in the book. By beginning the book with Obi’s bribery conviction, Achebe encourages the reader to follow the path the gifted protagonist takes, from being an adamant opponent of government corruption to being a participant in the same corruption. Achebe wants the reader to see that unfortunate circumstances can push even the most well-intentioned, promising individuals to corrupt action.

After returning to Nigeria, Obi wonders, “But what kind of democracy can exist side by side with so much corruption and ignorance?” (40). He recognizes and criticizes the corrupt practices of government officials. Obi sharply rebukes a man on the Public Service Commission during a job interview when the man asks, “Why do you want a job in the Civil Service? So that you can take bribes?” (36). Obi is full of righteous indignation at the man’s implied accusation. The pervasiveness of bribery throughout Nigeria is apparent when Obi witnesses policemen accepting money from the driver of a mammy wagon to ignore faults found with the driver’s papers (39). Bribery is quite commonplace, but Obi withstands the first test of his resolve against bribery when a man offers him money to recommend his sister for a scholarship. Obi refuses the man’s offer and “after his encounter with Mr. Mark he did feel like a tiger. He had won his first battle hands-down” (80). However, there is a small temptation in Mr. Mark’s offer, even if it is not “overwhelming” (81). The reader becomes aware that refusing bribes may not be as easy as Obi hopes, for some feel that “You may cause more trouble by refusing a bribe than by accepting it” (80). Obi also refuses the direct offer of Elsie Mark, much to the dismay of his friend, Christopher (111). However, Achebe shows the reader that Obi’s financial situation is becoming increasingly desperate and he is having trouble subsisting on his fifty pound per month salary, even though other men make only five pounds per month (89). Achebe shows that economic circumstances are causing the once-righteous Obi to slowly unravel. In the last few scenes of the novel, Obi loses his mother and Clara, two very important people in his life. He faces ever-increasing debt and accepts his first bribe from a man wearing an expensive European suit (153). Although he experiences guilt and feels “terrible” (153) after this first bribe, accepting bribery becomes habitual, even if it never becomes easier. Obi feels that “every incident had been a hundred times worse than the one before it” (154). He is still a moral person at heart, but circumstances force him to desperate measures to keep his position in the senior service, as is expected by his family and by the community that sacrificed so much for his education. Obi pretends to maintain some standards when accepting bribes; for example, he “stoutly refused to countenance anyone who did not possess the minimum educational and other requirements” (153), but the reality of his corruption is the same.

Achebe’s account of Obi’s downfall holds meaning for Baltimoreans and people of all cities. Most people agree that violent crime, deplorable public schools and homelessness are serious threats to Baltimore. We regard such unsavory aspects of our city with righteous indignation, much as Obi detests the corruption that pervades Nigeria’s government when he returns from England. Just as Obi begins on the right path, condemning corrupt officials and refusing bribery, so too do we often begin by stating our belief in the necessity of change. We may even try to effect change by electing better government officials or by volunteering with organizations that work to correct problems in our community. However, Obi veers off his original path and gives into bribery, and most people in Baltimore similarly give up their resolves and abandon attempts to correct the wrongs existing in the city. Perhaps people become wrapped up in their comfortable and busy lives and forget about the plight of others, or maybe they just get tired from the constant pressure produced by the problems and give up. It is also possible that people are forced by unfortunate circumstances to give into the problems pervading the city, just as Obi did. Chinua Achebe’s account of Nigeria encourages civilians of all cities to take an active role in correcting wrongs that exist. He shows that even people with great intentions can be corrupted when circumstances limit their choices.