The British Empire Library

State of Emergency: Crisis in Central Africa, Nyasaland 1959-1960

by Colin Baker

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Henry Phillips (Nyasaland 1946-1965 Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland 1953-1957)
After a second reading of this book I had another look at its title. State of Emergency there certainly was; but was not the crisis as much in Whitehall as in Central Africa? The British Government had to deal not only with the Governor of Nyasaland but with the leaders of the other three governments of the Federation, and in particular with a distmsting Federal Prime Minister, Roy Welensky. To add to the confusion responsibilities in Whitehall were divided between two Departments of State, each with its own Cabinet Minister with differing views, and a Prime Minister endeavouring to hold the ring and ever-mindful of the need to preserve his majority in Parliament. He had only just survived a determined attack over his Government's policy in Kenya.

Colin Baker has deeply researched these events. He has combed all the relevant available archives; and he has corresponded with more than 300 people personally involved at every level of seniority in and out of government service. He is thus able vividly to record the interplay between British Ministers and their advisers and the harassed Governor of Nyasaland with Federal Ministers and Rhodesian Governors intervening! For the student of the conduct of Government business therefore the book is compulsive reading. Telegrams flew thick and fast, backwards and forwards. Ministers jumped into aeroplanes at every sign of dissension. Personal insults were traded and strong opinions voiced.

The root cause of the crisis lay in the imposition by the British Government six years earlier of a federal system of goverrunent on the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland against the wishes of the African populations, voiced by leaders who reckoned that this would mean white supremacy for all time, while elsewhere on the continent Africans were either in control or else busy shaking off the colonial shackles. The Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod understood this. So did the Commonwealth Secretary, Lord Home, but he had also to try and satisfy the European minorities looking to the Conservatives to protect them against the imperilling African advance. In 1957 Welensky had persuaded Home to announce that Federation was there to stay and that the Review Commission provided for in the Federal Constitution should be convened without delay, hopefully to settle the matter. This galvanised the Nyasaland African Congress. They called upon Dr Hastings Banda to come and organise the opposition. His forceful country-wide oratory, plus the urgings of his militant lieutenants, led to outbreaks of violence and there was a report that if opposition was ineffective the Governor and senior officials would be murdered. A State of Emergency was declared. Banda and a number of his supporters were detained without trial.

I was an onlooker during these momentous events. As Nyasaland's Financial Secretary I had enough to do in my own ivory tower. But as a member of the Governor's Executive Council I was kept broadly aware of the events with which my colleagues responsible for law and order were in daily contact. Baker's narrative therefore is of special interest to me, as it will be to others who had to rely on local radio broadcasts for information. And there are some fascinating disclosures too. For example we are told of the extent to which the Church of Scotland was prepared to go in support of the nationalist cause. Then we have the extraordinary battle about when and where Banda should be released - before or after Macmillan's visit, before or during the Federal Review Commission's deliberations, back to Nyasaland or to the United Kingdom. Fascinating indeed is the description of the late night session when Governor Armitage and Prime Minister Macmillan exchanged insults. In the event, no Government in Central Africa agreed with the British Cabinet's decision that, on release, Banda should return to Nyasaland. All the leaders, even the Federal Governor-General, prophesied a resumption of violence. Strangely there appears to have been no recognition of the possiblity that Banda had the power to restrain his people - which he did with a simple speech on his release.

Particularly illuminating is the account of the activities of the Devlin Commission investigating the emergency and the subsequent loss of some fifty lives. It occupies nearly half the book. Baker spares no criticism. Government witnesses did not have the benefit of their cases being presented by Counsel. In taking their evidence Devlin adopted a strongly inquisitorial role. One and all they seem to have been much discomfited by these tactics and reckoned they had been given scant opportunity to state their case. On the other hand Congress leaders had Dingle Foot to lead their representations.

Leaks that the Devlin report was going to be unfavourable upset Whitehall and we learn of the undignified efforts of officials to get hold of a draft so that they and the Governor could prepare a reasoned reply. There was a time factor. The House was about to recess for the summer. The Opposition wanted to debate the report. There was the possibUity of a General Election after the recess. Party politics again! By a series of devices a draft was got to the Governor in Zomba, who flew to London and straight to Chequers where a formidable array of politicians and legal luminaries were assembled to prepare the riposte. While saying very little about the underlying causes, the Report concluded that the Governor had been right to declare a State of Emergency but that undue force had been used to quell the subsequent outbreaks of violence. Against much opposition the Government got its explanations accepted by the House. Devlin and his commissioners were not amused. One of them referred to the proceedings as the "technique of the discarded Kleenex!"

This book ends with the lifting of the State of Emergency but it whets the appetite for what had still to come in Nyasaland's march to independence. Baker is working on parts of this and I may also have a go.

British Empire Book
Colin Baker.
I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd.


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