In one of our Witness Seminars in 2012, Andrew Stuart urged OSPA members
to "tell it like it was". If we failed to do so, he warned, no one else would.
The problem is, is anyone listening? We retired Administrative Officers like to
reminisce and write our memoirs and are pleased if we sell a few hundred copies
In his book The Mess Inside, the linguistic philosopher Peter Goldie writes about
the place and power of narrative in our emotional life. He talks not only about
'narrative and narration' but also about 'narrativition and narrativists'. Some of
his concepts appear to belong to the group that my generation of students would
have categorised as 'existential' though I would not pretend to understand much
of the jargon employed by Goldie.
It is a relief that Chimamanda Adichie, on the other hand, writes as a practitioner
rather than analyst. She describes herself as 'Storyteller'. She also is concerned
with the power of the story and even, she says, the danger of the single story.
Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun in the few months after publication sold more
than 650 thousand copies in the United Kingdom alone.
In her speech to the Royal Commonwealth Society last year Adichie told us that
colonialism in Nigeria had been a disaster. It had been built on bad foundations
and had not been meant to succeed. That is hardly what we wanted to hear but
I am told that the audience was generous in its applause. So, who was right,
Adichie, or the members of OSPA? Adichie does not tell us why some of the
former colonies of South East Asia and even some from other parts of Africa have
been so much more successful than those in West Africa despite their common
origins. Were they "meant" to succeed in ways that Nigeria was not?
In their search for explanations, if not excuses, for the country's disappointing
performance, Nigerian friends sometimes cite slavery and colonisation as
contributory causes, even at times regarding the latter as somehow an extension
of the former, which seems harsh given that a Royal Naval presence was
established in Lagos precisely to suppress the trade in slaves.
In 1957, I returned from leave and proceeded with my newly married wife to Eastern
Nigeria to take up the post of District Officer, Ahoada. In Lagos we were invited
to lunch at Government House. The Governor-General called for champagne
and the guests drank Anne's health. Before we left. Lady Robertson asked Anne
where in Eastern Nigeria we were posted to. Anne replied that we were going to
Ahoada in Rivers Province, to which Lady Robertson remarked, "Let us put it this
way, dear. After Ahoada it can only get better".
I had already served in Onitsha, Nsukka and Awgu divisions. All were lovely
postings and in Awgu I had the additional pleasure of being in charge of my
first division. Many years later I returned to Nigeria as British Deputy High
Commissioner. I conceived the idea, perhaps mistakenly, of visiting the places
in which I had once served as a colonial officer. A great deal had changed in the
previous twenty years. The Biafran war had swept through the Region. In Onitsha
and Nsukka and Awgu the scars of war were still painfully evident. It took me a
long time in Nsukka to find what had been the ADO's house and even longer to
find what had once been the District Offices. Over the entrance to what had been
Toby Lewis's office, a sign proclaimed, "Office of the Secretary of Nsukka District
Council". The Secretary was busy. After a long and patient delay I explained why
I had come. I said I had lived in the house behind us and that Toby Lewis had
worked at the very desk that the Secretary was now using. The Secretary put
down his pen. Leaning across the desk and fixing me with an eye that was going
to brook no debate, he barked. "No white man worked here".
When she read my account of the Secretary's words a smile of approval crossed
Of course there were other visits, more friendly receptions. In Awgu the matron of
the hospital took me to the main entrance, where a shiny, brass plaque proclaimed:
This hospital was built
by the people of Awgu Division
and their District Officer
Mr D R Gibbs
The strange thing was, said the matron, that every morning when she arrived at
the hospital, the brass plaque was already shining brightly. She had never been
able to discover who came to polish it.
However benign the bonds of Empire, however firm the friendships, there is no
denying that the colonial edifice was built upon a fault line. The fault was force.
The accomplishments of the Indian Empire could never have been achieved
without the consent of the governed but it is still the case that for two centuries the
government of India depended in the last resort on two thousand British bayonets.
The tensions of colonialism, the interplay of interests of governors and governed
and the emotional effect on the individuals involved of the myriad stories,
sometimes underpinning, sometimes in conflict with each other are probably better
explored in literature than by political analysts. Such an exploration was helpfully
begun by Anthony Kirk-Greene in the series which he compiled for OSPA, on the
place of The District Officer in the African Colonial Novel. Most of us would agree, I think, that any list of
the classics of such literature would include Forster's Passage to India, Conrad's
Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. These three are in
a class of their own, though Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, follow close behind. It is remarkable how widely Conrad
was read - and quoted - in the former DDR in Cold War days. The Marxist writer
Christa Wolf sometimes referred to Heart of Darkness as if it were a paradigm of
nineteenth century attitudes to colonialism rather than a bitter critique of them.
Former Chief Secretary Jerome Udoji came from a village not far from Ogidi, the
birthplace of Chinua Achebe (who died on 21st March 2013). Udoji has written
an account of the arrival of the white man in the lower Niger and the ritual of the
destruction of arms in the pacification process. The account is no less fascinating
than the famous story that closes Achebe's great book.
Early in 1958 a truck clattered into the divisional compound in Ahoada and two
young men tumbled out of the back. They said that they were the new ADO's.
That was the first that I had heard of this little step in localisation. By and large
we experienced more difficulty in absorbing and training junior Nigerian staff than
more senior officers.
Some months later a group of Deputy Permanent Secretaries pulled into the
car park in Enugu. They came not in a truck but in shiny new Chevrolets and
Pontiacs. Frank Ellah, Tim Eneli and Cyril Mordi had no problem settling into
their new jobs or making friends with their new colleagues. Among those who
stayed in public service, Alison Ayida, Philip Asiodu and Emeka Anyaoku were
brilliant officers who would have risen to the top of any civil service. They were
deeply patriotic Nigerians and went on to prominent positions in the private
sector. The demoralisation and destabilisation of the civil service under several
post-independence governments were major reasons for Nigeria's dysfunctional
government and society.
In the inflation-ravaged economy of post-independence Nigeria the guarantee
of financial prosperity was not Special List A or B but a plot of land in a newly
developed commercial layout. With reasonable timing and a plot in Victoria Island
or Amadi, a person might become a millionaire within five years. Senior civil
servants were not the only beneficiaries. Ministers, politicians, company directors,
magistrates, judges, priests and bishops all benefitted.
The process was not peculiar to Nigeria. I once asked a business colleague in
Kenya why he had worked so long as a Government officer. "Oh", said he, "We
work in government for 6 or 7 years until we get a plot of land. Then we leave and
find work in the private sector."