Styles and their effectiveness in Imbuga’s ‘Betrayal in the City’

What you need to know:

  • It is ironical that the soldiers, who are expected to protect the citizens, are taking advantage of their positions to harass and even kill them.
  • Mulili kills the old couple for insisting on a shaving ceremony instead of protecting them.
  • He also kills Kabito after a quarrel during the meeting when Kabito disagrees with his ideas and accuses him of commanding people around.

In Betrayal in the City, Francis Imbuga uses various stylistic devices to highlight his message.

These include humour, irony, play-within-a-play, proverbs, songs, symbolism and satire.

This article will discuss irony and play-within-a-play and a sample question.

Francis Imbuga employs both dramatic and situational irony in his play.

Dramatic irony is a situation in which the audience and some characters in the play know something that another character does not know while situational irony is when things happen the opposite of what we expect.

When Mulili accuses Kabito of talking ill of Boss and his leadership, the audience and Mulili are aware that what he is saying is not true but Boss believes him and does not investigate but instead he orders Mulili to silence him.

When Jusper says that one of the country’s achievements is the increase in the number of expatriates, he and the audience know how much he loathes the expatriates but Tumbo believes and trusts him with the writing of the play that eventually leads to his downfall and that of the government.


It is ironical that the soldiers, who are expected to protect the citizens, are taking advantage of their positions to harass and even kill them.

Mulili kills the old couple for insisting on a shaving ceremony instead of protecting them.

He also kills Kabito after a quarrel during the meeting when Kabito disagrees with his ideas and accuses him of commanding people around.

It is also ironical for Mulili to denounce his cousin Boss, who had put all his trust in him and ensured that he benefited for being his eyes and ears.

When the coup is staged, Mulili says that Boss is only a distant cousin and should be shot for spoiling the economy of Kafira, killing Kabito and taking advantage of Regina.

Mulili also refers to Kabito as a green snake in the grass but in actual sense he is the snake because he is accusing him falsely.

Boss attends the rehearsals expecting to be entertained as he loves drama and wants to ensure that the play is ready for the entertainment of the visiting head of state but he gets a rude shock when the rehearsal is overturned and used to stage a coup which claims the life of Mulili and he is nearly shot.

The citizens are in a state of hopelessness and yet they have gained independence.

They had hoped that independence will bring with it fruits that will benefit them all and deliver them from the bondage of colonialism but the leaders who are expected to ensure that that happens continue to oppress them and  are only interested in satisfying  their selfish interests.

All these instances of irony are used by the playwright to highlight the theme of betrayal at the same time advancing the plot and portraying the character traits of various characters.


Francis Imbuga uses play-within-a-play to advance the plot, highlight thematic concerns and bring out the character traits of some characters.

The prisoners are supposed to rehearse the play that is to entertain the visiting head of state but instead, they use the play to stage a coup and overthrow the government.

The play-within-a-play highlights some of the effects of poor leadership, among them coups. The citizens of Kafira have suffered at the hands of dictatorial leaders who do not care about their views and are bent on punishing anyone who criticises them and those who try to fight for justice are either killed or imprisoned.

It is this oppression that makes the prisoners take advantage of the play to accomplish their mission of overthrowing the government.

Through the play-within-a-play, we are able to see Boss as hot tempered when Tumbo says that he can hardly tell a human from a rat when he loses his temper and Jusper should be careful not to let Boss know who he is lest he faces the same fate as Kabito.

His dictatorial nature is also brought out when he says that he ordered for 300 more expatriates when the students demonstrated against five of his appointments and he tells Jusper to go and warn the students that they have no right to chant about Kafira’s Africanisation because it is his duty; if they do, the result will always be the same: death and imprisonment. 

It is through play-within-a-play that we see the cunning and scheming nature of Jusper, Jere and Mosese when they use the play to settle scores with the leaders who have oppressed and dictated upon them for a long time. They talk at cross purpose and none of the leaders is able to detect their intention until the end when Mulili is shot dead and Tumbo is forced out of the centre of power. 


The theme of betrayal is highlighted through play-within-a-play. Although it is for a good cause, staging a coup using the play is a betrayal to Tumbo by Jusper, who takes advantage of the moment to avenge the death of his family and save Kafira. The moral of the play is revealed in the play within the play: those who fight for justice should not give up because in due time, their efforts will bear fruit even if through bloodshed.


Sample essay question:

Write an essay showing how Francis Imbuga satirises leaders using illustrations from Betrayal in the City  

Francis Imbuga has criticised leaders in Kafira, humorously exposing their weaknesses.

Boss, the leader of Kafira, is characterised by dictatorship, corruption, nepotism and incompetence. He rules the country by an iron fist and does not condone criticism from anyone.

He signs death warrants of innocent citizens Doga, Nina and Kabito for speaking their minds and trying to fight for their rights.

He tells Jusper to warn the students against protests and he brags about ordering 300 expatriates just to prove a point to the protesters.

He appoints Mulili, his cousin, who is semi-literate, to be his eyes and ears and gives him the power to deal with those who oppose him.

He is incompetent and irresponsible and he relies on incompetent officials to run the country, making his way of conducting his business laughable.

Mulili is appointed by Boss as an official because he is his cousin and has promised him acres of land and cattle if he remains loyal.

This makes him discharge his duties in the most unrealistic and unreasonable manner. He denies the old couple the right to perform a harmless ceremony and refuses to reason with Jere.

It is ridiculous that he is a top government official yet he cannot express himself in English and his ideas are retrogressive.

He betrays fellow officers like Kabito and uses his relationship with Boss to oppress and intimidate them.

He uses Boss to snatch the milk tender from Kabito and later kills him while Jere is imprisoned because of him. His callous, insensitive, vengeful and sycophantic nature is humorously brought out through his broken English.

Tumbo is another government official whose weaknesses are exposed in a laughable manner.

He is corrupt, hypocritical, ignorant and cowardly.

He criticises the students but when Jusper goes out to get the drinks, he admits to Regina that Jusper and the students are right but he cannot dare confront Boss and tell him the truth.

His ignorance is seen when he says that Soyinka is a Prime Minister of a certain country he can’t remember.

He pretends to be a socialist when he offers Jusper the chance to write the play but he does it to keep the money meant for competition.

This shows his hypocritical and corrupt nature.  

The Askari is also satirised. He misuses his position to terrorise the political prisoners and ensure that they toe the line.

He tells Jere that he is there to ensure that he asks no questions and he even brags of having killed a prisoner for a minor offence.

His hypocrisy is seen when he pretends that he is doing Jere a favour by telling him to fill forms for his rehabilitation.

It is evident that Francis Imbuga has effectively exposed leaders’ weaknesses by criticising them humorously.               

Students are encouraged to explore the other styles and their effectiveness and attempt the essay questions to better their analytical skills.


The writer is a teacher at Alliance Girls High School. [email protected]