The British Empire Library

Harmattan: A Wind of Change: Life and Letters from Northern Nigeria at the End of Empire

by Carolyn Johnston

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Sir Frank Kennedy (Eastern Nigeria 1953 - 63)
One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is written by a daughter about her parents. Carolyn Johnston tells the story of her father's career in the Administrative Service in Northern Nigeria from 1936 until 1961, his marriage to Berrice and their life together over five decades. By the time of independence Tim had risen to the post of Secretary to the Premier of Northern Nigeria and then Deputy Governor.

Tim Johnston was born in Belfast of staunch Northern Irish stock. He was a man of high principle and firm conviction. "Uncompromising" was the description he was given in one Annual Confidential Report. He served with distinction and great bravery in Fighter Command during the war and was awarded a DFC and bar. In 1941, with the war still raging, Tim and Berrice were looking forward to marriage when Tim wrote asking whether it might not be wise to postpone the date of the wedding. He was worried that marriage might make him softer, more timid, less effective in aerial combat with the Luftwaffe. Male comradeship, he explained, encouraged fighting efficiency but female influence was 'negative'. Later Tim issued bleak warnings about the ordeals and privations that were the lot of the wife of a junior Administrative Officer in the bush in Nigeria. But Berrice cleared all hurdles, accepted all conditions, and lived happily with Tim for more than fifty years.

Berrice was a stunningly beautiful young woman but she was at the same time excruciatingly shy and insecure. In her first posting with Tim in a remote, one-man station named Nsarawa; she was so happy that she was often referred to as 'The Queen of Laughter'. But postings to larger stations inevitably involved greater socialising with the wives of colleagues and other expatriates, and this Berrice dreaded. After one tour in Kano Berrice confided to Tim that she had come close to breaking point. One of the leitmotifs of Carolyn Johnston's wonderfully candid book is Berrice's sad progress from 'Queen of Laughter' to 'Ice Queen'.

Carolyn reminds us of how dedicated were the lives of so many Colonial Service officers in remote stations and what extraordinary sacrifices their wives and children were often required to make. So often and for so long were the Johnston children separated from their parents that when they were finally reunited Tim and Berrice were mortified to hear them address aunts and uncles as 'Mummy and Daddy'.

Tim and Berrice do not hide their feelings towards Southerners in general and Ibos in particular in debates about Nigerian politics on the eve of independence. "Those upstart Ibos", writes Berrice in one letter. "How dare they", she appears to be saying, "question our right to rule?" Quite. One Emir is quoted as saying that the North might, just might, ally with the Yorubas but with the Ibos never! In the event this is not what happened. The North did enter into an alliance of convenience with the Ibo-led NCNC party but not with the Yoruba-led Action Group. The famous remark that the Sardauna, whom Tim at that time was serving as Permanent Secretary, regarded the hurly burly of democratic politics with 'aristocratic distaste' is quoted with relish.

Writing as Deputy Governor on the eve of independence Tim warned London that if ever the NPC were to lose control of the Northern House of Assembly, northern Emirs could be expected to renew overtures to neighbouring Islamic emirates in the former French-speaking territories. A Colonial Office official dryly commented that if the North chose to leave the Federation, no one in London was likely to lose much sleep. Of course, by the late 1970s the North was concerned not so much with access to the sea as with access to the oil that had been discovered in such prodigious quantities along Nigeria's southern coast. By then politicians from noble northern families were as eager to get their hands on a share of the oil loot as any other of Nigeria's politicians.

It is surprising that in a book that takes as its subject the wind of change that swept through Nigeria in the 50s and 60s, no mention is made of the two men who were (arguably) the country's most famous politicians at the time. Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe were among the principal agents of that change which was the subject of Harold Macmillan's famous speech. Of the two omissions, that of Azikiwe is the more difficult to understand or to justify. Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna, cut a majestic figure in Nigeria in 1960. He and Tafawa Balewa, the country's first Federal Prime Minister, were widely admired throughout the Eastern Region. But Azikiwe was every bit as charismatic a figure as the Sardauna. Zik was born in Zungem, in Northern Nigeria, where Lugard built his famous railway and not far from Kafanchan where Tim Johnston would later serve as SDO. Zik spoke fluent Hausa and was always conscious of the Northern dimension in Nigeria's politics. He never defined his political agenda or ambitions in the narrowly ethnic terms that sometimes deemed to circumscribe those of Awolowo. Zik was a peerless orator. Those of us who have been privileged to witness him working his magic on an Igbo crowd, whether in the Eastern House of Assembly or in one of the village gatherings so brilliantly described by Chinua Achebe, are unlikely to forget the experience.

Finally, we should recall, this 'upstart Ibo', Nnamdi Azikiwe, was, after all, Nigeria's first President. He would not expect to be applauded by members of OSPA for his many clashes with the colonial authority. But in his speech to the Regional House of Assembly, commending the Independence Settlement, he did say that Britain had handed independence to Nigeria 'on a platter of gold'. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a great Igbo, a great Nigerian and a great African.

Carolyn Johnston has given us a fascinating book. One small point with which we might quarrel is the title. Carolyn's analogy of the Harmattan does not quite work because in the case of Nigeria the wind of change that Macmillan spoke about in Cape Town blew not from north to south but from south to north, from the sea up to the Sahara. I believe that I speak for many of her readers when I say that we hope not that Carolyn Johnston will now give us further analysis of the politics of Nigeria on the eve of independence but that she will tell us how the story ended; the great love story of Tim and Berrice Johnston that she has begun so wonderfully in this book.

British Empire Book
Carolyn Johnston
I.B. Taurus


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