Obi Okonkwo is a young man, about twenty-six years old, who returns to Nigeria after studying in England at a university for four years. No Longer At Ease, begins with a trial against Obi that takes place a while after his return, and the novel then works its way backward to explain how Obi has come to be charged with accepting a bribe.
The Umuofia Progressive Union (U.P.U) has given Obi a scholarship to study law in England, a scholarship that Obi has to pay back upon his return. And, thus, he leaves for England, stopping in Lagos on the way out. While in England, several things happen to him. First, he changes his course of study to English and abandons law. Secondly, he finds himself nostalgic for home, writing poems about Nigeria. Finally, he meets a girl named Clara at a dance in London but fails to make a good impression. However, the girl is Nigerian also, and on Obi's boat ride back home, after nearly four years in England, he meets Clara once again. This time, they begin a relationship.
Once back in Nigeria, Obi stays, once again, in Lagos with his friend Joseph, trying to find a job and a place of his own. He also visits his own home village of Umuofia. Obi is quickly given a post on the Scholarship Board of the Civil Service and is also quickly introduced to the world of bribery, which is a world he wholeheartedly rejects with a strong idealism at first. This is indicated early on when a man offers Obi money in order for Obi to "pull strings" for his little sister's scholarship. Obi is appalled and rejects the offer, only later to be met at home by the little sister herself who offers Obi her body in return for the scholarship favor. Again, Obi rejects this offer.
Although Obi begins his life in Nigeria in an honest way, events do not go as he has planned. First, Clara tells him that she cannot marry him because she is an osu, an outcast. Obi decides to ignore this and go against what most of his fellow countrymen believe to be a major transgression of custom, and he decides he will marry her anyway. Still, his economic hardship worsens, given that he has to send money home and that he is in debt. Obi then receives a letter from his father telling him that he must go home. When he arrives at home he sees that his mother is very ill. And, his parents tell him he must not marry Clara because she is an osu. In fact, Obi's dying mother gives him an ultimatum: she tells him that if he insists on marrying Clara, he must wait until she is dead because if he marries Clara while she is alive, she will kill herself.
Obi, therefore returns back to Lagos and tells Clara all that has transpired. Clara becomes angry and breaks off the engagement, afterwards hinting at the fact that she is pregnant. It is at this point when Obi arranges an abortion. He does not have the money and needs to borrow it. Complications arise out of the operation, and Clara is hospitalized, after which she refuses to see Obi.
Obi then returns to work, only to be notified that his mother has died. He does not go home for the funeral, and the U.P.U. discusses this failure on Obi's behalf as a sign of his not having cared about his mother's death. The truth, however, is that he was terribly saddened by her death, feels terrible remorse and guilt, and has entered into a state of mental unrest. However, Obi awakes from this unrest with a new sense of calm. He feels like a new man, and it is at this point that he takes his first bribe, not without a certain degree of guilt.
Obi allows this acceptance of bribes to become habitual. He continues to take bribes until the end of the novel, when Obi decides he cannot stand it anymore. He has paid off all of his debts and can no longer be a part of the corruption. It is at this moment, however, when he has taken his last bribe, that he is caught, which brings us back to the beginning of the novel.