British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Sir Francis Kennedy
(Nigeria 1951-62; British High Commission, Lagos 1978-1981)
Nigeria and the Colonial Experience
Reflections of a District Officer
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 of them.

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.

Nigeria and the Colonial Experience
Reflections of a District Officer
Government House
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 Adichie's lips.

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
May 1955

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."

Africa Map
1955 Map of Eastern Nigeria
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 105: October 2013


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