The British Empire Library

JuJu and Justice

by John Blair

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Nigeria - 1952-1989)
The best part of this book (if you were not at school at Westminster) is between pages 60 and 210 - from the time John Blair went to Nigeria in 1926 until he returned there after the 1939-45 war and three years confinement with West African troops in a support role in the desert, which "taught me more about how an African mind works than 1 had learnt in the preceding 16 years''. Before page 60 the author describes a typical upper-middle-class childhood and youth, culminating in the General Strike of 1926, and after page 210 he is swept along in the maelstrom of pre-independence politics which for him had its nadir in the Abeokuta riots of 1948. Readers of Soyinka's Isara will get a different impression of Nigeria (and Abeokuta in particular) at this time when Mrs. Ransome Kuti's Womens Union members were on the march seeking much more than the limitation of the Alake's powers. Their marching w(as a demonstration of the general demands for freedom, a demand with which the Author demonstrates again and again that in principle he sympathises, but which the fact of colonial status made at various turns unacceptable to him. We have all, to a lesser or greater degree, experienced the feeling and can feel the twist of the knife in John Blair's wound.

So - turn to the long joyful core of this book. It is no run-of-the-mill 'boy's own' account of a DO's life. It has passages which might have come from the pages of Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa or Paul du Chaillot's Exploration and Adventure in Equatorial Africa (both written in the mid-Nineteenth Century); for western Nigeria in the late 20s and early 30s of this century had comparatively few roads and many of its corners were still unvisited by Europeans. While it is difficult to recognise, knowing Nigeria today, the comparative inaccessibility of Akure or Haro in the early 1930s (the frontier crossing at Idiroko - now heavy with motor lorries - could be reached only on a bicycle), the author's description of the countryside is totally apt and very well written. His walk from Meko (page 169) is vividly described and the feelings to which it gives rise have been experienced by at least one of a later - and last - generation of DOs.

There is little overt political comment, but underlying the writing as a whole is a spirit best summed up in the author's own words - "In the southern provinces, where the traditional system of administration had disappeared, we aimed to re-establish it as long as it did not conflict with our ideas of material justice''and "we endeavoured to build up local governments grounded in native tradition but capable of developing into a form still rooted in native modes, but flexible enough to meet the more complicated needs of the years ahead".

However, Nigeria could no longer be thought of in isolation from the rest of the world: the troubles which brought John Blair back to Abeokuta, and are the subject of his final pages, were destined to occur. No one in Haro in the 30s could have predicted the post-war political developments. Nor today is his comment (quoted above) about'an African mind' totally acceptable: there are as many individual differences in European minds as in African. To some extent they reflect each other, which is what John Blair's book says to this reader, providing in every chapter rich and enthralling detail to back the claim and explaining the inevitability of the conclusion as much as the author's disappointment.

British Empire Book
John Blair
Paul B Press


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