The British Empire Library

Was It Only Yesterday? The Last Generation Of Nigeria's 'Turawa'

Edited by Trevor Clark

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Martin Lynn (Queens University, Belfast)
This is an important book. It consists of a collection of reminiscences from retired Colonial Service officers - the Tarawa ('red-skinned people') of the title - who worked in Northern Nigeria in the last decades of British rule. The contributors mainly served from the 1940s through to the 1960s, though a few refer back to earlier periods and one or two 'stayed on', in a few cases, even to the 1980s. As such, these reminiscences are the raw material of History and they overflow with valuable insights into the workings of Empire and the development of Northern Nigeria in a critical period.

The collection is arranged in a series of thematic chapters - army life, surveying, mining, forestry, agriculture, engineering, education etc - dealing with the realities of life 'on the ground', before moving seamlessly to deal with the political events of these years and the move towards self-government and then concluding with chapters covering independence and the early post-independence years. Although there are linking passages which helpfully contextualise the contributions, by and large the editor allows the writers to speak for themselves. Regrettably, a plea for Nigerian officers to contribute went unanswered, but the volume is comprehensive in its compass, giving space for a wide variety of professions who served in Northern Nigeria: vets, doctors, agricultural officers, surveyors, engineers, museum curators, police officers, journalists, broadcasters, secretaries and town planners as well as DOs. Given that the history of several of these professions in colonial Nigeria still remains to be written, this is an immensely valuable resource for historians. It balances contributions from the 'Holy North' with those from the Middle Belt, includes the Northern Cameroons and even on occasion ventures into Chad. For the comprehensiveness of this coverage, if for nothing else, the editor should be commended. Not least of the book's merits is the space that is given for the voice of women in this story.

This is a book that challenges many of the stereotypes of colonial rule. It avoids the hackneyed approach that sees colonial administration as being about larger than life DOs and Residents (though there are plenty here) 'up against it' in the bush. While many of the expected features of administrative life in the North are present - the tensions between officers on the ground and headquarters in Kaduna, between those in the emirates of the North and those serving in the Middle Belt, between the Northern Region and Lagos, and the oft repeated assertion that if the Africans left Nigeria then civil war would break out between the Europeans of the North and the South deservedly finds a place here - what is striking is how this volume emphasises the multifaceted texture of colonial administration, that colonial rule was as much about bridge-building and locust eradication as about tax collection and justice.

This is far more than just a collection of reminiscences. What then, do these contributions tell us? It may seem odd to commend the way many writers emphasise the humdrum nature of their work, but the daily grind was indeed what work was about for most people in the service for much of the time. Occasionally dramatic events from outside would intrude - a Royal visit, an election, a UNO inspection - but for most, work was humdrum, routine and even monotonous. This point in itself is important. This is a story of people struggling with limited financial resources to improve the lives of their charges. No doubt sometimes they got it wrong but usually they got it right. But it is a story of small steps rather than giant leaps, undertaken by sincerely motivated officers working alone and with little support, best summed up by the (anonymous) governor who stated that nothing in his career gave him more satisfaction than when as a young ADO he managed to purloin a few sacks of cement from the PWD to put down an unauthorised floor in a remote school. Humdrum it might have been, but as one engineer who planned to stay for only a year or two notes, T little knew how addictive the life was to become'.

Revealing too, is the network of relationships that the Tarawa developed. They were never remote from the society they lived in. What is striking from these contributions is the resilience of the relationships that were established between colonial ruler and ruled in these years, seen not least in those Tarawa who hid the vulnerable in their homes during the 1966 massacres. 'Their concern for the people they governed was wonderful' comments one relative outsider, while the editor, in his own contribution to the volume, writes that 'memories of comrades, still here or passed on, are warm - but memories of so many Africans still make the heart pound'. Another contributor notes that 'we remember the peaceable, decent, kindly folk with a lively humour who showed great loyalty and respect for the British they knew in Nigeria'. As the volume proceeds, these relationships move centre stage with 'Audu in the bush' being replaced by figures of more immediate prominence in Nigeria - Muhammadu Ribadu, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Aminu Kano and more ominously, the Sardauna. The portrait of the Sardauna that emerges here is striking.

Indeed it is the political events of the 1950s and 1960s, as these figures come to the fore, that leave the deepest impression, on this reviewer at least. It is noticeable how little impact the moves to self-government during the 1950s had on many of the contributors here, at least initially. In the early 1950s few had premonitions of what was to come; more than a few comment that independence was seen as being 20-30 years in the future. Only by the mid 1950s did this time-scale appear to shorten: 'the rumblings of independence were making themselves felt, and we were beginning to wonder if this was going to be the life time job we had thought'. Remarkable too are the chilling, eyewitness accounts herein of the 1966 coups and the accompanying killings. As throughout this book, what is notable is how grippingly the contributors tell this story.

All this emphasises the importance of this collection. This is reinforced by the array of contemporary photographs, the excellent bibliography, and the useful biographies of the contributors. Historians will regret the absence of an index and the relatively limited information on editorial policy, such as how the contributors were chosen and what factors determined how they were edited (more editorial footnotes would have helped here), but this is a major book that deserves the widest circulation among historians of the region as much as among those with an interest in the Colonial Service. 'We have been through much together' comments one writer of Nigerians and the British. The editor and his contributors have produced an immensely readable volume that genuinely does justice to this story. Not just historians are in their debt.

British Empire Book
Trevor Clark
British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Press
0 9530174 8 6


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