"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.
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.