The novel begins with a civil war in the East African nation of Azania, a miserable typically corrupt African hell-hole whose current emperor is one Seth, a deluded ruler whose Anglophilia expresses itself in hare-brained progressivism and an affinity for ornate titles: “We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University,” etc. The native population of Azania on its own is unable to sustain any of the infrastructure or institutions of civil society. Seth’s advisor is an Indian, the head of the army is Irish, Armenians are tradesmen, Arabs are traders, Greeks tend to the engines of the Grand Chemin de Fer Imperial d’Azanie, Jews are money-lenders, and the clergy of the nominally Christian nation are Canadian, English, or American. Through a clever bit of subterfuge by General Connolly, the soldier of fortune commander of the Azanian Army, Seth ends up winning the civil war he had all but lost against his father, who, regrettably, is killed and eaten by the Azanian troops who do not understand the subtleties of the Geneva Convention. General Connolly has gone native and married an Azanian woman whom he affectionately calls Black Bitch.
News of Seth’s victory reaches London where Basil Seal, the ne’er-do-well son of the Conservative Whip and a classmate of Seth’s at Oxford, is recovering from a series of scandalous benders that have forced him to abandon his nascent political career. Desperately in need of money, Seal travels to Azania as a free-lance journalist. Within a short time of his arrival, Basil becomes Seth’s most trusted adviser and is put in charge of the Ministry of Modernization; in effect, Basil has become the real ruler of Azania since Seth spends his time immersed in catalogs and dreaming up more and more ridiculous “progressive” schemes for the betterment of Azanians, such as requiring all citizens to learn Esperanto. The natives who run the other departments are all too happy to refer all business to Basil.
Added to all this are the machinations of the British and French legations, the former of which is staffed by incompetents who have been sent to Azania where it is believed that they can do the least amount of damage. The French, however, are convinced that the British and the Americans are involved in grand espionage in order to shut out all French influence in the region. The situation is further complicated by Basil and Prudence, the daughter of the British envoy, falling in love and the wife of the French envoy engaging in an affair with General Connolly.
A new coup against Seth is plotted when his opponents discover that an aged brother of his grandfather is still alive who has a legitimate claim to the throne of Azania. Just as the coup is about to begin, two British ladies from an ASPCA type organization arrive to investigate allegations of animal cruelty. The natives mistakenly believe the ladies are there to promote animal cruelty, so they brag to them about how horribly they mistreat their farm animals. The coup takes place during a festival for birth control, another “progressive” scheme hatched by Seth who wants to promote sterility among his people. I will leave it up to the readers to discover on their own how the coup turns out, but I can report that the ending is unexpected, and if you’ve ever read Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus you might get a hint of what to expect.