Set in the fictitious West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah opens with a meeting of the regime’s president and his Cabinet. The government has been in place for two years, since a coup overthrew the former dictator. Three men, friends since childhood, have assumed important positions in the new system. Sam is the president, Chris Oriko is the Commissioner of Information, and Ikem Osodi is the editor of the government controlled newspaper, the National Gazette. Ikem is an intellectual and a poet who is very outspoken about the need to reform the government. Chris acts as a mediator between Ikem and Sam.
Sam has become a leader without regard for his people, seeking only to acquire more power for himself by any means necessary. Chris and Ikem realize that Sam is rapidly becoming a dictator. They helped get him appointed to the position, even encouraging him when he felt that his military background was inadequate preparation for a position of such importance. Now, Chris and Ikem regret their previous support of their friend and seek to control Sam in their own ways. Meanwhile, Sam’s obsession with power has made him paranoid and temperamental. When Sam decides he wants to be elected “President−for−Life,” a national referendum is called but the region of Abazon refuses to participate. Sam in turn denies the region access to water despite a drought, expecting that without water or food the people will give in. When delegates from Abazon arrive at the capital on a mission for mercy, Sam suspects that they are actually planning an insurrection. In fact, his paranoia leads him to believe that the insurrection is being assisted by someone close to him.
Although Chris is aware of how dangerous Sam is becoming, he believes that by staying in his government position he can serve his country. Meanwhile, Ikem’s editorials are becoming more radical, and Chris tries to convince him to tone them down.
Ikem has a girlfriend, Elewa, who is semiliterate and works in a shop. She is pregnant with his child. Chris’s fiancee, Beatrice, is a well−educated woman who holds a position as administrator for one of the state offices. She has known Ikem since youth and works for Sam, so she has connections to all of the major characters. She observes the government’s activities and Chris’s and Ikem’s reactions, and feels that she is the only one sensitive enough to truly understand the situation. She expresses to Chris and Ikem that they are approaching the problem incorrectly because they are not really connecting to the people and the land.
Sam commands Chris to fire Ikem from his position as editor, at which point Chris responds in a highly unusual way—he refuses to obey Sam’s order. Sam believes that Ikem is involved in the “protest” staged by the delegates of Abazon, but Chris knows better. Still, Ikem is fired and soon after addresses a student group at a university. Never one to hold his tongue, he is very vocal about his criticism of the government. He makes a joke about the regime minting coins with Sam’s head on them, which is turned into propaganda claiming that Ikem has called for the beheading of the president. Ikem is taken from his home in the middle of the night and shot and killed by the state police.
Chris realizes just how dangerous Sam has become and goes into hiding after using his contacts within the international press to publicize the truth about Ikem’s murder. With the help of Emmanuel, a student leader who greatly admires Chris; Abdul, a sympathetic cab driver; and a small covert network of supporters, Chris is able to escape the capital city of Bassa by bus and head for Abazon. Meanwhile, the government orders Chris’s arrest and threatens anyone found to be withholding information about him.
On the bus trip, Chris begins to feel reconnected to his native land and Emmanuel meets a beautiful student named Adamma. The bus is stopped by a mob caught up in a drunken frenzy. They are celebrating the news that Sam has been killed and his regime overthrown in another coup. As Chris and the other bus passengers make their way through the crowd, gathering bits of information, Chris sees Adamma being dragged off by a soldier to be raped. Chris rushes to her rescue, and the soldier shoots and kills him.
Emmanuel, Abdul, and Adamma return to Bassa to tell Beatrice and the others what has happened. Although grief−stricken, Beatrice hosts a naming ceremony for Ikem’s baby girl, born after his murder. Men traditionally perform the ceremony, but Beatrice fulfills this role, naming the child Amaechina, a boy’s name that means “May the Path Never Close.”