Through Time’s Lens The Enduring Message of Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease

Reading Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease in 2023, six decades after it was first published, the story offers a historical reckoning and a prophetic warning about Nigeria’s future. Did a refusal to heed this warning have a calamitous effect on Nigeria and its people?

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.

In Nigeria the government was ‘they’. It had nothing to do with you or me. It was an alien institution and people’s business was to get as much from it as they could without getting into trouble. 

                                                                           — Chinua Achebe: No Longer At Ease 

Chinua Achebe’s second novel, No Longer At Ease, is set in colonial Nigeria, on the cusp of Nigeria’s independence. Chronologically the last of the Achebe trilogy, it tells the story of Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the great Ogbuefi Okonkwo, protagonist of the author’s seminal first novel, Things Fall Apart. No Longer At Ease opens with Obi on trial for corruption. Although we learn of his conviction early on, Achebe is concerned with exploring the deeper underpinnings, perhaps to help the reader resist the temptation to see Obi as bad and instead understand how a flawed system consumes even the most idealistic of people. Reading No Longer At Ease in 2023, 63 years after it was first published, the story offers a historical reckoning and a prophetic warning about Nigeria’s future. Did a refusal to heed this warning have a calamitous effect on Nigeria and its people? 

Obi embodies the convergence of multiple societal changes. Educated in 1950s England through the collective efforts of his poor kinsmen, he returns as Umuofia’s hope and as one more young Nigerian in a generation destined to lead the country after independence. He is the first of his people to get a foreign education and, subsequently, land a prestigious senior civil role. His journey and its implications are not lost on Umuofia. Not only will the repayment of his fees allow the Umuofia Progressive Union to educate others, but his senior civil service position will also open doors of opportunities to them—or so they think. The difference between their expectations and Obi’s becomes clear at his welcome event when the union secretary speaks of how their town ‘could now join the comity of other towns in their march towards political irredentism, social equality and economic emancipation,’ while Obi spouts his high ideals, preaching ‘Education for service, not for white-collar jobs and comfortable salaries.’ 

For Obi, four years of geographic dislocation have now given way to cultural and ethical dislocation. He neither fits in with the Africans nor the Europeans. Obi is proud of his culture; still, it is possible to love one’s heritage and baulk at certain aspects and beliefs, like his kinsmen’s insistence that he cannot marry his fiancée, Clara, because her family is considered Osu. There’s a constant ideological struggle between his education and daily reality, the Christian faith in which he was raised and the traditional customs of his people.  


From the jump, Obi’s return is riddled with complications. His time in England had him convinced that the corruption plaguing the Nigerian public service was due to the ‘old Africans at the top’. He believes that replacing those officials with ‘young men from the universities’ will fix things. Upon his return, he’s confronted with the depth of the problem. From a minister of state who publicly condones bribery to everyday citizens who berate Obi for foiling an attempted bribe, corruption seems omnipresent. As the chairman on Umuofia warned at the welcoming party, ‘white men… eat more (bribes) than black men nowadays.’ 

No Longer At Ease takes place in a Nigeria on the brink of autonomy, a nation in flux, and Obi stands at the crossroads of change. His ideals put him at odds with almost everyone: his kinsmen, family, friends, and even his racist boss, Mr Green, who believes all Africans are corrupt. 

Achebe’s prose is, in places, sublime storytelling, almost as though he were recounting events according to traditional formats and merely helping us access it in English. In other places, it is academic, reflecting Obi’s scholarly interests. It is these scholarly interests that engaged my curiosity as I tried to consider the protagonist’s predictions and convictions in light of the future Nigeria of which he dreamt—a future we now inhabit. When Obi thinks about solving the problem of corruption, he ponders, 

Where does one begin? With the masses? Educate the masses? …Not a chance there. It would take centuries. A handful of men at the top. Or even one man with vision – an enlightened dictator. People are scared of the word nowadays. But what kind of democracy can exist side by side with so much corruption and ignorance?  

The irony is palpable when one juxtaposes Nigeria’s dictatorial anti-corruption efforts with the stark reality of corruption among the military leaders themselves. Their anti-corruption schemes abound. From the first coup’s lofty promises to eradicate the menace of bribery and corruption to Murtala Mohammed’s Pedro Martins Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and Shehu Shagari’s Ethical Re-Orientation Committee and the Code of Conduct Bureau. Even General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s last dictator, took the reins of leadership with a promise to tackle both corruption and indiscipline. This is the same dictator about whom Bola Ige, the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, wrote: 

The late dictator General Sani Abacha. He and his collaborators are estimated to have embezzled assets of at least $5 billion. That sum includes monies allegedly derived from the systematic misappropriation of funds from the Central Bank of Nigeria, bribes received from foreign companies and kickbacks on inflated contracts with Nigerian companies under the control of the Abacha family. 

It’s an unsettling truth that some of Nigeria’s past military leaders orchestrated some of the country’s largest heists. Thus, while one part of Obi’s question has been answered by the failure of so-called enlightened dictators from the 1960s to 1998, today, the wider question is still valid, especially in the wake of a Nigerian democracy that has become entrenched with corruption. Obi’s challenges in the novel are not limited to ideology. He easily embraces the perks of his position, including a 570 pounds annual salary, clothing allowance, car advance, leave bonus and an apartment in Ikoyi which had only recently been opened up to Africans in European posts. Obi, however, does not realize what the system will take from him, so he is constantly caught by surprise—by income tax, car insurance, accountability for leave allowance, etc. Despite the relative privilege of his position and salary, he often finds himself ill-prepared to navigate the nuances of his new life. 

Having received an education by the sweat of his kinsmen, Obi’s future is mortgaged before it has even begun. Umuofia is described as a place, ‘where men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil;’ so Obi’s senior civil service role makes him wealthy to them. Expectations abound: that Obi will help his parents, repay the loan from his kinsmen, pay his brother’s fees, pay for his mother’s treatment and later, her funeral, and that he will not marry a woman from what they consider an unsuitable family. He does all that, even when it leaves him with next to nothing financially and emotionally. 

Perhaps the greatest lure of No Longer At Ease is that Obi is, by any measure, a middle cog in the wheel. Yes, educated with a coveted senior civil role, yet without the esteem of the minister of state nor the power of his colonialist-leaning boss, Mr Green. A middle-class Nigerian one paycheque away from ruin or, in his case, corruption, Obi was likely recognizable and relatable to Achebe’s early readers who would have been those who studied abroad or in the few elite Nigerian universities of their day. In the end, Obi’s inability to manage the pressures leads him to accept bribes. 

Another key narrative in this book is the protagonist’s relationship with Clara. On one hand, it shows his mental desire to subvert harmful norms. On the other hand, it reveals the breaking point at which Obi aligns with patriarchy (refusing to accept help from Clara), with culture (postponing his marriage because his mother threatens suicide), and with corruption (accepting bribes to solve his financial woes). 

At its heart, No Longer At Ease is about systems, expectations, and ideals. In Achebe’s 1950s Nigeria, corruption is already here, already talked about, and there are predictions that a failure to address this cancerous problem would have long-term retributive costs in the country’s future. Achebe’s novel desists from making simplistic connections between characters, so one cannot surmise that the loss of his mother and Clara inevitably led to the loss of his ideals. However, it is easy to make connections between Obi’s access to power on the Scholarship Board, the lackadaisical attitude of everyone around him towards bribery, and the temptation to abuse his position of authority. His eventual willingness to justify his bribe-taking by only dealing with those who met the minimum educational and other requirements is portrayed in Chapter 19: ‘Then one day someone brought twenty pounds. As the man left, Obi realised that he could stand it no more.’ Unknown to Obi, this bribe, the last one as he determined it to be, was part of an anti-corruption sting and it earned him a conviction. Obi himself proved wrong his theory that the educated youth would save Nigeria from corruption. 


Today, if someone wrote a story about a corrupt Nigerian civil servant on trial for receiving a bribe of less than 50 per cent of their monthly salary (where the current minimum wage is N30,000 or £27) everyone would scoff and say the story doesn’t ring true. Corruption is everywhere, everyone knows. Unlike Obi’s time, it’s just not prosecuted often enough. In addition, there’s a discernible shift in the dynamics of the civil service. In the 1960s, when Obi Okonkwo worked for the government, graduate civil servants held senior roles and were relatively well compensated. In 2023, the civil service scenario paints a grim picture. A Level 9 Grade 6 entry-level graduate, under the Consolidated Public Service Salary Structure, earns a recently adjusted salary of N126,000 (equivalent to £113 pounds). In contrast, Obi’s 1960 salary of £47, when adjusted for inflation, is £1,384. This stark disparity underscores the decline in remuneration, with senior civil service roles (which are inaccessible to entry-level graduates) today fetching around £500 pounds monthly. 

Despite this, the average Nigerian graduate still faces financial and social expectations akin to those during Obi’s era. Yet, unlike in Obi’s time, the system extracts much more but gives back far less as Nigeria grapples with a staggering 40 per cent unemployment rate and a 12.5 per cent underemployment rate amongst graduates according to a 2020 report by the Nation Bureau of Statistics. 

With a corrupt and extractive system, it’s no wonder that, in 2022, Nigeria scored 24/100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 150th place out of 180 on the list of least corrupt countries. The current leading anti-corruption institutions, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, were established by President Olusegun Obasanjo at the beginning of the Fourth Republic (1999 till date). The ICPC, which is currently tasked with the ‘investigation, prosecution, and prevention of offences of corruption,’ only secured 90 convictions in the last four years. 

It is important to note that some ordinary Nigerians have, over the decades, attempted to fight against the problem at great personal cost. Most recently, in 2020, young Nigerians took to the streets to protest the brutality and extortion meted out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad across the country. However, the climax of this movement was marred by the extrajudicial killing of these peaceful protesters. 

Obi Okonkwo was naive to assume that the problem with Nigeria was a dearth of ideas or institutions. The problem is multi-pronged and multi-layered. However, the main culprits are the transient nature of the several anti-corruption efforts and a bureaucratic system that fiercely resists change. As Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, remarked after surviving an assassination attempt, ‘When you fight corruption, it fights back.’ 


While Obi believed that educating the masses would take centuries, he nevertheless thought that his generation would positively influence Nigeria post-independence. ‘In ten years, things will be quite different to what they are now,’ Obi said to his father as both men sat in the light of the old man’s hurricane lamp one night in Umuofia. Indeed, this was a prevalent sentiment on the cusp of independence and in the early years of post-independence Nigeria. And for good reason too. After all, this was the generation in which young people wrestled colonial powers and won independence, held office, and had a say in the affairs of the country. In fact, from the First (1963-1966) to the Third Republic (1992-1993) and intervening military incursions, the average age of Nigeria’s leaders was 46; however, neither youth nor dictatorship ended corruption as Obi hoped. Instead, corruption grew as did the average age of leaders, with many of the same once-young leaders still holding on to power. In Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, the average age of presidents has been 63. 

After his arrest, Obi quickly crosses from being Umuofia’s hope to being their albatross. His kinsmen are bothered by many things, including how little the bribe was (‘But we have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one.’) and Obi’s foolishness at accepting the bribe himself (‘What others do is tell you to go and hand it to their houseboy’). In the end, the main source of their agony is the loss of their investment in him since Obi is Umuofia’s only son in what was then still largely considered a European position. 

Like many today, the people of Umuofia failed to realize that the problem of corruption is not just about personal enrichment; it is about all the other ways it wrecks its direct victims and the society at large. In 2011, Human Rights Watch wrote that ‘corruption is at the heart of many of Nigeria’s most serious human rights problems, including access to justice, police brutality, violations of economic and social rights.’  

Six decades after publication, No Longer At Ease remains a profound reflection on the nature of systemic corruption, with Achebe capturing the protagonist’s complexities with kindness and unflinching truth. If Achebe’s critique of Nigeria seems harsh, then, as Achebe puts it, ‘that harshness comes from concern.’ Today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Adewale Maja-Pearce, Elnathan John, Ayobami Adebayo and many other Nigerian writers, driven by the same concern he describes, continue to publish work that depicts the corrosive effects of a flawed system in the world’s largest Black nation.  

If Achebe’s book was a prophetic warning intended to compel readers to reflect on Nigeria’s state of affairs at the time, then, in the order of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, he was sent to a stubborn, unyielding people. The challenges he depicted in his second novel have now morphed into a behemoth, and the country cannot boast concrete measures being taken to address the issue. Therefore, today’s storytellers must remain unyielding prophets. ‘Whoever will listen let them listen, and whoever will refuse let them refuse (Ezekiel 3:27)’, but let it be said that the storytellers did their work


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