Returning to Northern Nigeria in 1946 on my second tour I was posted to Bornu
Province. There were only three officers in the Province instead of the normal
twelve. My job was ADO Provincial Office with a multitude of duties.
Demobilization was in hand and a hundred soldiers, recently returned from Burma,
arrived in Maiduguri under the charge of two young British officers on their way up
to Fort Lamy in Tchad. I sought permission to join them so that I could see what
went on in our neighbouring French colony.
Lent the use of the UAC manager's house in Fort Lamy, we were there on Bastille
Day. When we went to the Cercle or club everyone stood up, removed their hats,
and we were thanked with a speech praising the British, and in particular the
Nigerian Forces, for the help they had given in 1943. That was when the Free
French under General LeClerc de Haute-Cloche had led an armoured brigade from
the Gabon and the Cameroons across the Sahara through the Fezzan to take
Rommel in the southern flank, while Montgomery was attacking Rommel from the
east in Tunisia and the new American forces from the west. The British Army
officers had no French, so I had to step in, making a speech in French in reply,
which fortunately seemed to go down well.
I was keen to find out more about the peoples in the French Territories. During the
war the Free French ruled the Gabon, Cameroons and the Western Sudan, while the
pro-German Vichy Petainists ruled Niger to the north and all the French colonies to the
west. My next attempt to discover what went on over our frontiers was to cross the
Sahara, a journey of some 2500 miles, from Algiers in the north, southwards to
Kano in Northern Nigeria. I made the journey by bus, a large beetle-like vehicle with
balloon tyres carrying six passengers and a ton and half of freight. After
Tamanrasset in the Hoggar Mountains we began the toughest part of the desert
crossing through sandy and rocky country, with large areas of soft sand, often
getting stuck and having to dig ourselves out. After a few days we began to see
herds of camels and cattle at large watering holes. At one of these I saw a group of
Africans, obviously not Tuareg, sitting under a thorn tree. I spoke to them in Hausa
and learned that they were Rahji Fulani with their cattle who often crossed the
frontier between Niger and Northern Nigeria in search of the best pastures. I only
had a few words of Fulani but they all spoke Hausa, and were intrigued to find a
European speaking to them in an African language, as the French officials refused
to study the local African languages. They admitted that they had to be careful not
to spend long periods in Northern Nigeria or they would be caught for Jangali, the
In Kano I said goodbye to my fellow travellers, French engineers who were
continuing on to Fort Lamy, a further 400 miles. I heard them refer to me as 'Ce type
In 1960 when I was Senior District Officer in charge of Kano division we heard that
the Emperor Hailie Selassie of Ethiopia was going to stop off at Kano airport for a day. In the absence of the Resident, who was in Kaduna, I was in charge. I met the
Emperor at the airport. Accompanied by his daughter, he refused to speak to me,
although he spoke good English, and insisted on issuing instructions to his daughter
who would only pass them on to me in French. They wanted to see the old walled
city of Kano but would not have time to visit the Emir. I took them to the parts of the
city that could be visited by car, in particular three of the old gates that were still
standing. I explained to them how Islam had come across to Kano in the 13th and
14th centuries, and how Kano had rivalled Timbuktu as the main trading entrepot
south of the Sahara. Amongst other things we viewed the Emir's palace from the
outside, and the mosque, a modern building built by the Public Works Department.
Also of interest was the Sabon Gari, the new town area with canteens, railway
depots and trading centres.
In October 1960 Nigeria achieved independence. We had good relations with the
Premier of Northern Nigeria, the Sardauna of Sokotu, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, who
depended heavily on the remaining colonial officers for the new administration of
Northern Nigeria. I was appointed Senior Acting Resident of Kano. So when Pandit
Nehru and Mrs Gandhi, two eminent Indian politicians, had to make an unscheduled
stop for a few hours in the middle of the night it was my duty as the senior
government representative to look after them. This we did as best we could at the
airport, although neither was prepared to talk much about international affairs. As it
was still raining when their plane was ready to leave I had my car brought round to
the front of the building. With my official driver at the wheel of the car I opened the
passenger door for Pandit Nehru to get in and then went round to the other side to
open the car door for Mrs Gandhi. She refused, saying, 'Mr Bird, you must get in
first', and explaining that for security reasons she could only feel confident of her
own safety if I got into the car before her.
1961 brought a visit from HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who stopped off in
Kano on his way to take the Independence Celebrations for Tanganyika. We were
between Residencies at the time, posing a logistical challenge. The old mud built
residency with its 15-foot high vaulted mud ceiling, though an impressive historic
building resembling an emir's palace, was not suitable for putting up royalty,
whereas the new Residency had an air-conditioned bedroom. I arranged for the
local hotel manager and his staff to look after the royal party in the new Residency,
while I gave a reception at the Old Residency so Prince Philip could thank the
Commissioner of Police and the Superintendent who had provided an escort.
In 1961 we had a battalion of Belgian Paratroopers on their way home, camped at
Kano airport, having handed over to the incoming United Nations peacekeeping
forces in the Republic of the Congo. On the other side of the airport we had a
battalion of African Mali troops going to the Congo. Fortunately the Nigerian police
were able to keep them apart as the nearest units of the Nigerian army were some
130 miles away in Kaduna, so no use in an emergency.
Not long after this we had an Irish Army battalion transit through Kano, on their way
to join the UN forces in the Congo. The Colonel and a few officers came to a party
at the Residency where they were amused to find that during the war I had served
with the Regiment of Pearse, the Dublin College's local defence force who trained
with the Irish army in the Wicklow Hills and went on manoeuvres through the back
streets of north Dublin defending the city against a possible German invasion.
The Trinity College Dublin connection had proved equally useful when I was
instructed to meet Mr Sean Lemass, the Prime Minister of Ireland, who was visiting
Kano with the new Irish Ambassador Eamon Kennedy. He was most put out to find
a white official receive him on behalf of the government of the recently independent
Northern Nigeria. Mr Kennedy and I had met at the 1942 Regatta at Droghedra,
where Trinity College Dublin were the victors at the rowing championships of
Ireland, so he was able to reassure Mr Lemass that Ronnie Bird was a good sort
and an Irishman at heart.
In 1962 the office of Resident was abolished and I was appointed Provincial
Secretary with a Provincial Commissioner as the political head of Kano Province.
This role fell to a friend of mine, The Honourable Alhaji Aliyu Magajin Gari Sokoto,
whom I had known in Sokoto as a senior member of the Sultan's Council in 1957-
58. We got on well and as Provincial Secretary I continued with my normal duties
while Alhaji was the figurehead nominally in charge.
In April 1963 it was time for me to say my goodbyes after twenty years working in
Northern Nigeria. I was given a grand send-off led by Madakin Kano, a brilliant
administrator, with the whole of the Emir's Council in support. The Nigeria Police
Band played the moving tune of the Hausa Farewell and tears flowed on all sides.