British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Dogon Yaro (Ronald Bird)
The Day's Work and Odd Jobs:
Rough Games in Gwoza
Gwoza Resettlement Scheme
In the immediate post-war years in Northern Nigeria, Administrative staff were woefully short on the ground and the odd jobs demanding immediate action took precedence over the more routine duties of supervising native authorities. Quite junior and inexperienced officers often had to undertake difficult tasks without much advice or support. The Gwoza Touring Area of Dikwa Division in Bornu Province, comprising the "unsettled area" of the Gwoza Hills with its tough and unpredictable pagans nominally under the Shehu of Dikwa, was always a difficult assignment.

About the time when I was first sent to supervise Gwoza there had been a fairly major bust-up between two villages on the eastern side at the foot of the hills. The elders of one village had come in to complain bitterly about their neighbours N'Goshe Kudu, who they said had killed several of their men and carried off some of their women as prisoners. The Village Area Head of Gwoza, Lawan Boi, was a man of sound reputation, and being half Fulani and half pagan knew the local people well, and he advised that something had to be done to redress a serious wrong. It was clearly more serious than the average intervillage fight and he pressed for a raid on the recalcitrant village to try and bring some of the difficult malefactors to justice. At first sight it did not seem to be such a difficult problem as it would be amongst the hill villages in their rocky crags, but we soon found that the defences of this particular village, comprising vast thick cactus and thorn hedges, were really formidable. I had an escort of 9 armed Nigeria Police under an experienced NCO, Corporal Moman Sokwoto, a tough old soldier. The Village Head had a small group of his followers, some mounted, armed mostly with spears.

We planned to arrive at the village in the early morning but found the maze of immensely wide cactus hedges difficult to get through. Eventually we got into the village and summoned the elders to meet us. They arrived somewhat tipsy but obstinately denied all knowledge of any killings or taking of prisoners. The rest of the village did not appear, so in the ensuing impasse there was only one thing to do in spite of the risk involved. The Village Head as head of his own Native Court could take the three elders into custody until they sobered up, but could we get them out of the village? We agreed to arrest them and send them ahead under escort out of the village while the Village Head and I formed a rearguard. As soon as we arrested them the alarm was sounded in the village but we managed to get them away quickly with half the escort. The Village Head and I, with the rest of the escort, retreated slowly through the cactus lined paths pursued by armed villagers with blood curdling cries.

The Day's Work and Odd Jobs:
Rough Games in Gwoza
Nigerian Police Uniform
As we emerged into more open ground, armed villagers crowded after us as two of the Village Head's mounted men got involved in scuffles. Suddenly arrows began to fly as another group of pagans joined us from the direction we were going. The Village Head said to me that they were from the village that had brought the complaints and they must have come to help us against their old enemies. The difficult question then arose whether to give the order to the remaining 5 police constables to load and fire or not? Reluctant to take the ultimate decision, and feeling that, in spite of the risks, our situation was alarming more than dangerous, I hesitated and here it was that Cpl Moman Sokwoto proved his worth having had more experience of such critical situations than I. He realised in time that the pagans were not really making a serious and determined attack on us and that a show of force might well deter them. He had his men working the bolts of their rifles furiously and fixing and unfixing bayonets to create a more aggressive impression. It was a confused and bizarre situation but after a short while I realised that the arrows were in fact being fired over our heads and that we were really the referees in a battle between the two villages. I was still on a horse at this stage and found that when I charged a group firing arrows they retreated almost as if the whole thing was a game as indeed one began to realise it was for them. Eventually the villagers of N'Goshe Kudu broke off the attack and we followed our prisoners to the camp and rest house some miles away where they had been taken. Two of the Village Head's men had received serious knife or spear wounds and needed attention and we learnt that two of the attacking villagers of N'Goshe Kudu had been hit with poisoned arrows. The poison used on the arrows was stropanthus which was fatal if a local antedote was not used at the time.

We camped for the night and early next morning a delegation from N'Goshe Kudu turned up protesting their peaceful intentions and offering the most abject apologies. They said they were prepared to accept any conditions as they had been too drunk to know what they were doing but could they please have their elders back? The conditions were that those leading the attack must surrender to the Village Head's Court, those involved in the original killings must also surrender and the women taken prisoner must be released back to their own village. They readily agreed and the Village Head's Court sat to dispense justice. The attackers were given the alternative of a fine of goats or 10 strokes of the cane and accepted the latter. The men responsible for the original killings had to pay blood money in accordance with the local custom, to be paid as usual in goats.

Finally a traditional peace ceremony was to be held between the two villages; this involved both sides swearing to keep the peace for the next year on the skeleton of a small dog which was then ceremoniously divided into two parts so that each village kept half. Rough and ready justice perhaps but both sides and all those concerned seemed happy with the settlement and I certainly learnt a lot about the pagans and their behaviour. Many of the pagan villages of the Gwoza Hills looked on intervillage fights as a sort of sporting activity rather like a Saturday afternoon football match. The normal set-piece village battle was governed by fairly strict rules; weighted sticks were the only weapons allowed and spears and poisoned arrows were not used except in real battles involving vendetta killings, land disputes, or large scale theft of stock. Weighted sticks were themselves weapons which caused considerable casualties particularly with head wounds. Some of the pagans became quite clever at treating head wounds and one village that I got to know well showed me with pride their home-made trepanning instruments and how they could insert a small piece of cleaned calabash to protect a hole in the skull.

Boundary Problems and the Western Region
The difference between the primitive self-subsistence pagans of the Gwoza Hills, and 800 miles to the south west the Yoruba peoples of Ilorin Emirate with their highly developed trading and cash economy, was immense.

The next tour I was posted on special duties to try and find a solution to the problems of the Oke Odde area of Ilorin. Agitation against Ilorin Emirate was being fomented by politicians from the Western Region of Nigeria who hoped to break up the border Emirate of Ilorin with its mixed peoples. Oke Odde had been the scene of violent demonstrations and my brief was to see if some local government reform could be worked out while retaining the general structure of Ilorin Emirate. It was one of the usual no-win situations where one had to tread very carefully as everything was distorted and blown up in the press in the Western Region and lawyers were ready to pounce on any step beyond the strict letter of the law. Any discussions on possible local government reform had to involve the Emir’s Councillor responsible for the area, while trying to win over those demanding change; at the same time the routine administration of the NA had to be supported.

The first and biggest problem to arise was the annual collection of tax. Normally each Village Area Head received a Tax Demand Notice for his village area stating the number of tax payers, the flexible tax per head, and the total sum the Village Head was expected to collect. Notices were sent out by the District Head in the usual way to all the Village Heads. Three days later I went down to attend a meeting in the District Council Hall to find that all the Village Heads had refused to collect tax for Ilorin NA and had stuck their tax notices to the walls of the hall in protest. Individuals refusing to pay their tax could be prosecuted but how was one to deal with a strike of the tax collectors? After thinking about it overnight and consulting the Emir’s Councillor I had the beginnings of an idea which with care might force the hands of the Village Heads and get round the lawyers inciting them.

Oke Odde had a large weekly market which brought 15 to 18 mammy wagons carrying traders, some from over the regional boundary to trade and purchase produce. There was only one road to Oke Odde from the south and this had three or four largish all-weather bridges over rocky stream beds. Careful examination revealed one about 12 miles from Oke Odde which had cracks in the stone piers and abutments which might be unsafe for heavy vehicles if not repaired. I knew the Provincial Engineer had a legal right to declare a road or parts of it closed to heavy traffic if it was certified as being unsafe. I sounded out the District Officer who thought it risky but worth a try, while the Emir and Council gave their support to the plan. The Provincial Engineer, the key to the whole plan, was a hearty Welshman and prepared to help a fellow Celt in difficulty. After examination of the bridge he declared it unsafe for heavy traffic until repairs could be carried out. One problem was the Resident who had to follow the official politically correct line whatever he might think of it personally. The District Officer agreed to leak the information to the Resident unofficially as an NA plan which had come to his notice. No veto came from the Resident when he heard of this unofficial piece of intelligence so the plan went ahead.

The road was declared closed to heavy traffic at mile 12 from Oke Odde and a barrier with a strong NA police guard set up. The NA let it be known behind the scenes that the NA Works Department would make an effort to get the bridge repaired as soon as the Oke Odde Village Heads had collected the bulk of their tax. The first market day at Oke Odde took place and all mammy wagons had to stop at mile 12 and from there traders had to go on by foot. After two market days the people of Oke Odde town and the traders were feeling the economic pinch and peace overtures were made to the Emir’s Councillor. He and I agreed that we were prepared to meet the Village Heads in the Council Hall and they were all to recover their Tax Demand Notices and announce publicly that they were starting tax collection immediately. The Councillor and I went down to the Council Hall the next morning and there a most extraordinary sight met our eyes. The Village Heads had been unable to peel their Notices off the plastered walls of the hall and each notice had to be cut out with a chisel with the plaster backing to which it adhered. Each Village Head held as it were a tablet of stone with his Tax Notice on it and solemnly announced the immediate start of tax collection. The NA Works Department by a supreme effort was able to get masons out to start repairs to the bridge at mile 12 within days.

Tax in Oke Odde District came in that year quicker than ever before and the traders were soon back attending the market in increased numbers. Garbled press reports and threats to the NA appeared in the papers in the Western Region but the lawyers were unable to think up any legal action. In due course Ilorin NA set up a regional council of three eastern districts in the Emirate with power to spend extra development funds on any projects they wanted in the area. This, combined with other local government reforms, seemed to satisfy the rich and vocal trading communities of the area.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of NE Nigeria
Colonial Map
1955 Map of Western Nigeria
Colony Profile
Nigeria Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 95 and 96: April and October 2008


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