British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Manus Nunan
Le Ministre
Fort Lamy
"Se changer en bouffon, dans Pespoir vil de voir aux levres d 'un ministre se naitre un sourire enfin qui ne soitpas sinister"

"To make oneself into a buffoon, in the vile hope of seeing on the lips of a minister a smile at last that was not sinister".
(From the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand)

In 1955 as a Crown Counsel stationed in Kaduna, the capital of Northern Nigeria, I had to appear in a case before the High Court in Maiduguri, the provincial capital of Bomu Province and the seat of the Shehu (or Sheik) of Bomu. The province was huge and touched the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and the shores of Lake Chad. It was different to the Hausa provinces of Northern Nigeria. The inhabitants were mainly Kanuri. They are a light-skinned people with Nile traditions. The British presence consisted of a Resident and a handful of District Officers. The early Residents, like most of the Satraps of Lugard's 'empire', were often his junior army officers. Names like Hewby and de Putron, redolent with personality and eccentricity, are still remembered in Bomu. Security was in the hands of one very young English officer of the Nigeria Police in charge of Native Authority policemen.

I travelled by air from Kaduna in the company of two Yoruba barristers who had been briefed for the other side. The journey was monotonous over endless thorn scrub until we got to Maiduguri which was covered by green trees which had been planted by the British administration. The case collapsed in court and we were left without anything to do for some days until the 'plane was free to collect us. We decided to hire a Land Rover and to travel north to Fort Lamy in French territory.

Le Ministre
Lake Chad
The problems of British and French West Africa were different. In the British case the flag had followed trade. The traders of Britain went for the densely populated parts of the coast like Lagos, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and the colonial civil servants followed. The French military pushed the French Empire. The last thing soldiers want is large populations. The French ended up with deserts. There was a parallel with the position of the French Campagnie des Indes Orientales and the East India Company in the Anglo French conflicts in India. The French company was under government control and run by aristocrats. It had little interest in trade and a great interest in glory and territorial acquisition; the East India Company was run by traders for trade.

We knew that it was deserts rather than towns that we would find on our travels. The journey took a whole day and brought us along the swampy southern shores of Lake Chad. Enormous flights of tiny colourful birds flew out of the swamps, swooping above us dramatically. It was an ornithologist's paradise. We finally reached Fort Lamy and we were able to see the capital of a small French colony in action. We found the French equivalent of a rest house and slept there. The town was very French. The garage was staffed by Frenchmen whereas in Nigeria the equivalent garage would have been staffed entirely by Africans. The British United Africa Company owned the one department store. The equivalent store in British territory might have had an English manager, but otherwise all the staff would have been Africans. Here even the girls behind the counters were, with one or two exceptions, French. The cost of living was high because virtually everything was flown in from France. The brasserie in the main street had fresh food from France. We ate well. I knew that like everywhere else the place was on the way to self-government and had an African Executive Council with a French Governor. We made known our wish to meet one of the ministers and to our amazement an African minister came to see us. He drove himself in an ordinary Peugeot car. He was the Minister for Education. He spoke no English but I was able to translate for my colleagues. He spoke beautiful and precise French and expounded on his hopes and plans for the future. His questions about the complex situation in Nigeria were intelligent and displayed knowledge. I told him that the most impressive thing I had seen in his country was him driving himself in an ordinary car. The scene was a far cry from the manifest corruption already evident in Nigerian politics.

In later years after independence the Nigerian Government set up an Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The chairman, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, calculated that in the 40 years following independence his country's corrupt rulers ripped off 220 billion pounds. Some of it was oil money, much of it was aid money. That is six times the amount the United States gave to post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of NE Nigeria
1955 Map of Lake Chad
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 99: April 2010


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