Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
John Smith's 'Colonial Cadet in Nigeria' is a book of great charm, which filled me with admiration for the author and rekindled the love of Nigeria I shared with him. This modest, honest, straightforward and not uncritical account is of the final years of an occupation which lasted only sixty years, and already thirty years have passed since the British withdrawal.
The book is also invaluable for demonstrating how indirect rule worked. What was initiated as an inexpensive way of running an occupied country with a handful of administrators necessarily entailed a very close relationship between the people at all levels and the British. The record was a proud one. If there was modest development, there was also the minimum of interference with the native culture. Remarkably too, for this was imperialism triumphant, there was also deep affection and even love. Nevertheless, every effort, including blatant criminality, was made by the British to ensure that in the independence elections, the pro-British Northerners won. The British were the servants of the Emirs and the Native Administrations and the political party - the NPC - formed with the help and encouragement of the British to contest elections, ran the Northern Regional Government and, in due course, the Federal Government.
In John Smith's account, the opposition party NEPU is viewed as an intrusive/disruptive element. The British certainly often appeared to turn a blind eye to the harassment NEPU suffered at the hands of the Native Administrations and the Emirs. John Smith is so innocent of the undemocratic stance that he portrays while protecting his charges, and this was not untypical, that one can almost feel this total identification with the interests of the Emirs. In rigging elections in the North (and Northern officials, while admitting the fact, will be hurt that what they did should be seen, not as duty arising from necessity, but as election rigging) the British did nothing unusual. It was merely an extension of the extremely varied, normal routine, which primarily was to act in the Emirs' interest.
Indirect rule was not simply a system where the British used the rule of the Emirs, that is to say, where the Emirs were the agents of the British. In many ways, as Smith demonstrates, it was the other way around - the British were the agents of the Emirs. When Northern officials are charged with fiddling the elections, they openly admit it but express astonishment. Why the fuss? That was their job. They organised the election arrangements superbly, despite tremendous problems, and went on without hesitation to ensure total victory for their bosses, as a natural continuation of the same process. What seems criminality on a grand scale to the impartial observer was to the British simply a matter of getting on with the job.
Faced with a Southern official, who levels charges of gross corruption, the Northern official is bemused, amused and then a bit put out. "Come on, old chap," they say, "That's putting it a bit strong. It was our job to look after our people. Outsiders and trouble makers had to be checked." The point that I am making is that the British stood for order and stability and keeping everything quiet and peaceful. Quite how British officials became so indoctrinated with this ethos of the status quo is a mystery to me. Perhaps it was acquired at Oxford from Miss Perham. Aliens were missionaries; Southern officials; forces of evil like trade unionists; radicals like LSE-trained education officers; insensitive industrialists; foreigners; and particularly representatives of international bodies; and Southerners. The election business simply added NEPU politicians; nationalists from the South; political agents and journalists; busybodies; and other do-gooders to the list. All had to be and were outwitted with great skill by Northern officials.
John Smith alone can be safely excluded from anything improper. His integrity and intelligence are exceptional and remarkable. There were other Northern officials of the same high calibre who served 'their people' (and by that, without sarcasm, I mean the Northern peoples) with tremendous love and devotion far beyond the call of duty. I may seem confused and ambivalent in both indicating criminality and yet admiring Northern officials. I understand this, and that same paradox is an essential part of the record of British rule in Nigeria and particularly the North.
To progressives, ignorant of what the British did in Nigeria, I will be looked on as totally reactionary, and my views will be seen as very close to the Northern officials, whom I apparently criticise. I would point out that Northern officials were rarely responsible for initiating the policy they carried out. In some ways they had to make the best of a bad job. As individuals they were often men of exceptional calibre, as were Southern officials too.
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.