When No Longer At Ease opens, we learn pretty quickly that the main character, Obi Okonkwo, is on trial for corruption and bribery. The judge and the audience alike wonder how such a promising young man could have made bad choices. Obi, whose mother has recently died and whose engagement to Clara has just ended, feels tears spring to his eyes. The novel then backtracks in time and tells the story of how Obi ended up in such a horrible situation.
We go back to Obi's return to Nigeria from England, where he was receiving an education at a British university. Obi meets Clara on the boat back to Nigeria. They spark up a relationship quickly, and by the time Obi has gotten a job in the civil service, they are in love. Obi's return is marked by fanfare; the Umuofia Progressive Union, which gave him a scholarship (more like a loan) to go to school, throws a huge party and welcomes him back as their local hero. In fact, the expectation is that Obi's repayment of his debt will allow them to send others to school, and his position in the civil government will place the whole region of Umuofia in a position of power within government. Through Obi, they may be able to get jobs. This expectation is seen as part of helping a member of his extended family, and accepting bribes is understood to be a necessary evil.
But Obi has other plans. He has no desire to play the role of the corrupt civil servant, accepting bribes in order to help others achieve their dreams of getting a scholarship or getting jobs. It is at this point that we begin to see how Obi differentiates himself from his kinsmen. He believes that African cultures will necessarily succumb to the "superior" cultural ideas, values, and systems of Europe and the West. This isolates him from his kinsmen and his family.
Obi begins to pay a monthly sum to the Umuofia Progressive Union to pay back his school loan, and he begins to send his parents a monthly sum of money, as well as pay for his brother's school fees and his mother's hospital fees when she is sick. Soon enough, Obi's finances are stretched beyond their capacity. It's partly that Obi doesn't plan well, but it's also partly that, in addition to meeting all the duties to the Union and to his family, he's expected to live a lifestyle becoming to his social status and government position.
Soon, Obi finds he doesn't have enough money to keep up. First, he buys Clara's engagement ring after she admits that she's osu and so he will never be able to marry her. (It's forbidden in Igbo culture to marry an osu, since the osu class is dedicated to a particular god.) Obi gives Clara an engagement ring and then considers that they are engaged. Then, after he turns down Mr. Mark's offer of money to make sure Mr. Mark's sister Elsie appears before the Scholarship Board (and then turns down Elsie's offer to sleep with him for the same favor), Obi discovers that he needs forty pounds to pay for his car insurance. He hadn't even realized that there was an annual car insurance fee. So he goes to get a bank loan of fifty pounds. That night, Clara gets mad because he hadn't asked for her help.
The next day, however, Clara sends Obi fifty pounds and tells him to go pay the bank back. He doesn't, thinking perhaps he can make her take it back, knowing she'll insist that he keep it. Obi doesn't really want to give back the loan from Clara. The two make up and go dancing. Sounds like it'll be fine, right? It turns out that luck is just not with Obi. (Obi's friend Joseph would say he's challenged his personal god, his chi, to a wrestling match, and that's something you should never ever do unless you want to lose.) While they are dancing, somebody enters their unlocked car and steals Clara's fifty pounds.
So now Obi owes Clara fifty pounds, and he still owes the bank fifty pounds. To top it off, his mother becomes so ill that she has to go to the hospital. Since Obi's parents live on the money Obi sends them, it's obvious who will be responsible for the hospital bill. Also, his father has indicated that there is something "serious" he wants to discuss with Obi. Obi realizes that the news of Clara – and her status as osu – has finally reached his parents.
Obi takes a two weeks' leave from his job. The job pays him twenty-five pounds for his leave, and Obi decides to pay for his brother's school fees out of that money, realizing that if he doesn't pay it now when he has the money, he won't have it in a few months when it's due. At home, Obi's parents confront him about his engagement to Clara. Though Obi's parents raised him as Christian, and though they shunned many aspects of Igbo culture up to that point, now his father simply insists he cannot marry Clara. He says that though Christians must give up part of their indigenous culture and beliefs when they convert, this is not one of those things – it runs too deep in Igbo culture.
The reality is that Clara and her family are taboo. If Obi marries her and has children, what will happen to those children, socially and culturally? Obi may feel that the time is ripe to end certain cultural customs, but he has failed to understand how some traditions are so important to people that they cannot change overnight. Obi may feel isolated from his culture and kinsmen due to his education and his social status, but he is surrounded. He can't escape his culture, the judgments of his people, or their expectations. And worst of all, Obi's mother tells him that if he marries Clara while she is still alive, she will kill herself.
Obi returns to Lagos in an agitated state of mind. Who wants to be responsible for their mother's suicide? He tells Clara that they must just lay low, but Clara understands what he isn't saying – that his parents will never accept their relationship. She breaks up with him. That's when Obi discovers she's pregnant. So now, he decides that he has to borrow money to pay for an abortion. When Clara is hospitalized due to an infection from the abortion procedure, Obi realizes that he has made a mistake. He sends Clara a letter and begs her to come back to him. But it is too late. Clara returns his letter unopened and she leaves Lagos soon after. Then his mother dies, and Obi sends all the money he can to pay for her funeral, but he stays in Lagos and doesn't go home for her funeral.
With Clara gone, and his mother gone, Obi sinks into a deep depression. He begins to let go of his former convictions. Apparently, it was Clara who kept Obi on the straight and narrow all along. Deeply in debt, with no one to keep him steady, and mourning his mother's death, Obi forsakes all his lofty principles and begins to accept bribes left and right. But he does maintain a certain semblance of principles – he refuses to accept bribes from people who don't have the minimum qualifications to appear before the Scholarship Board. Because he only accepts bribes from people who are going to appear before the Board anyway, he gets a reputation for following through on his bribes.
At last, Obi is caught accepting a bribe and found guilty at his trial.