The 1950s in Nigeria was a decade of increasing political and ethnic tensions as the British colony inched its way ever closer to independence. The British Empire had come under strain during the Second World War. After the war Nigerians began to pursue independence with greater fervor. Debates raged between British and Nigerian politicians as to how quickly power could—and should—be handed over. As independence drew nearer, Nigerian politics began splitting along ethnic lines, with ethnically defined political groups each vying for representation. What we now call Nigeria gathers together numerous ethnic groups that historically had never formed a political unity, and independence presented an urgent need to come together as a modern political state. Yet Nigeria’s many natural resources—petroleum foremost among them—are distributed unevenly across the country. The fact that the country’s three largest ethnic groups occupied regional majorities (Hausa in the north, Yoruba in the southeast, and Igbo in the south) caused great concern about the uneven distribution of wealth in the post-independence period.
When Achebe drafted Things Fall Apart in the mid-1950s, he wrote against the dynamic, anxious background of a soon-to-be-independent Nigeria. So why, given the significance of Nigeria’s coming independence, did Achebe write a novel about the precolonial past? To answer this question, consider the way the novel ends, with a British District Officer reducing the last two hundred pages to a single paragraph. The British Empire swallows up Igbo history and culture, at once erasing it and absorbing it into the more encompassing history of the British colonial adventure. Something similar could be said for the histories of the Hausa, Yoruba, and many other ethnic groups that the British forced into a single geographical entity. By setting his novel in the precolonial past, Achebe suggests that modern Nigeria is a newfangled idea. As independence approaches, Things Fall Apart reminds its readers—and particularly its African readers—that the precolonial past can be a resource for navigating the postcolonial era.
Writing about an African past clearly had political significance given the previous century of British colonial rule. However, some fellow Nigerian writers did not share Achebe’s enthusiasm about using literature to recount the past at a future-oriented moment. In his play A Dance of the Forests, Yoruba writer Wole Soyinka cautioned against just such a project. Soyinka’s play premiered at the Nigerian independence ceremony in 1960, and warned against the social and political dangers of misrepresenting precolonial history to launch a fledgling nation. Although Achebe resists idealizing precolonial Igbo life, Soyinka’s concerns did prove prescient. In 1967, eager for autonomy and for control of petroleum reserves located in its region, the Igbo-majority state known as Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria. The three-year civil war that ensued stirred up animosity against the Igbo, a majority-Christian people often cast as having been privileged during the colonial period. Igbo dominance of Nigerian literature since the publication of Things Fall Apart has only enhanced this perception of Igbo privilege and elitism. In this sense, Achebe’s emphasis on a specifically Igbo past introduces further complication to an already complex debate about the meaning and use of African history.