A Squalid End to Empire: British Retreat from Africa
By Rosemary Ekosso ekosso.com
August 09, 2007
Colonial history, seen from the side of the colonists, can be summarised as follows:
I came, I saw, I conquered. Then I lied about it.
The BBC radio 4 website has a story called Rigging Nigeria. I have not actually listened to the documentary, but I was intrigued, as you might imagine, by the title. The website claims that the British rigged the elections in Nigeria in 1960 to counter the threat of communism. You will have heard the recent outcry about the Nigerian elections and how deeply flawed they allegedly were. I decided to do a bit of digging, and came up with a mother lode of corroboration of this tale of British duplicity in dealing with its colony. All things are revealed in the fullness of time, in spite of official secret acts, hundred-year gagging orders and that sort of thing.
I have been struck, in writing this, about just how little I really know about what went on in colonial times. I think this is dangerous ignorance on my part, and I have resolved to do something about it...starting with force-feeding you the results of my peregrinations in the ether.
To return to the mother lode of information, I went to this website and found an online book by a man called Harold Smith, who reveals how he saw the rigging of the elections in Nigeria in 1960. I shall not spoil Mr Smith's tale by commenting on it; I shall just give you excerpts so that you will want to read it for yourselves.
As far as I am concerned, for the purposes of this article, this is the most interesting thing Mr. Smith has to say:
My main qualification for demolishing the myth that the British created viable democracies out of savage tribes only to see the ungrateful and greedy natives quickly revert to their tribalistic ways was my personal involvement in these events.
Then in Chapter 1, he goes on to make what I think is a very interesting statement, especially from a former colonial officer:
This is the story of evil committed by kind, nice, decent British politicians. They sought to keep Britain from bankruptcy and found a solution in the mineral-rich Empire on the point of independence. It was necessary to bend the rules and, sadly, in due course the rules were totally forgotten. Those who got in the way were innocent like the colonial peoples, but both had to be dealt with quite harshly.
Not only is Africa denigrated by the carefully nurtured fairy tale fashioned for the most part in Oxford, but with skill and cunning the British image is carefully burnished and enhanced. When did Britain itself become a democracy, if it has yet achieved that state? With universal male suffrage in 1884 or when all women got the vote in 1928? Britain's democratic traditions are of more recent origin than most are aware. When the British removed themselves from Nigeria in 1960 (though in truth they did not really surrender power to the African people) there was not even universal suffrage, as only a minority of the country's women - those in the South - were entitled to vote. As for tribalism, that well-worn cliché of colonial histories, the pre-colonial societies found in Nigeria were quite sophisticated and could be seen as city states or nations. And it is the British who have been at war with rebellious Irish tribes for centuries. Can any savagery in Africa equal the Belsens of civilised Western Europe? And the tribal skirmishes, often quoted as an excuse for the British armed occupation, pale to insignificance beside the massive bloody conflicts between the European powers. I refer of course to the two Great Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.
Then he comes to the heart of the matter:
When I suggest that the British Government meddled with the democratic elections in Nigeria, I write as an authority. I was chosen by his Excellency the Governor General, Sir James Robertson, to spearhead a covert operation to interfere with the elections. The laws of Nigeria were a sham and largely window-dressing to conceal, not mirror, the reality of where power lay. I drafted some of those laws.
I look at that in the light of the recent outcry about Nigeria's allegedly rigged elections, and I think cheating and dishonesty are a question of perspective, and that in this regard, while I do not wish to be seen as excusing corruption in any way, our greatest critics live in enormous glass mansions. Mr. Smith continues:
Unfortunately most of the early scholarly works on Nigeria did not choose to raise the curtain to see what was happening backstage, so that all too often the analysis is curiously superficial and lacking in bite or significance. Of course, academics or others who were seeking to teach or work in Nigeria, not only before but after Independence, would need to be very careful not to bite the hand of their colonial masters if they were not to be branded unreliable or unsound.
This next one is as revealing to me as the story I read in King Leopold's Ghost about how, to impress upon Congolese chiefs their superior powers, some white people used to conceal a live wire in their hand when shaking hands with the chiefs so that the chiefs would receive a jolt of electricity when they took the white people's hands.
Sometimes a Labour Officer would awake from a nap himself and creep up on his sleeping messenger and roar in his ear giving the poor man a fit.
There are days when I think that such language should never have gone underground. It makes it that much clearer when you know what people really think. This was made very clear in a comment on one my articles about Zimbabwe, in which the commenter, quite likely one of the white farmers (or possibly his brain dead offspring) who were divested of what they thought was their land referred to Africans variously as Zamboons, etc. It does suggest that this sort of language might have been common about white Zimbabweans talking about black people. It makes me even gladder that Mugabe, for all his myriad other faults, kicked those people out.
"Wake up, you lazy bastard," he would shout.
Or they did in 1955. As Independence approached in 1960 African staff began to be treated more politely, and 'wog', 'coon', 'black monkey', and other racist language went underground.
Here's a bit of honesty for a change:
Yet we were acutely aware of how privileged we were to live so well, while the many thousands of people in Lagos, who were paying for Ikoyi, our flat and our salaries out of their miserable wages, were living in mud huts for the most part, without running water and proper sanitation. When the rains came they would be flooded. In no way would we minimise the discomfort or suffering of people living in such difficult circumstances. Yet in spite of these privations, the people from these shacks were all clean and neatly dressed. Their children too, were clearly well taken care of and loved. When we think of the nauseating racism which permeates white societies and compare it with the tolerance, kindness, good manners and hospitality which we received without exception during our five years in Nigeria, we feel ashamed of our compatriots. The Nigerian people may have been poor in those years, yet they had qualities any civilised society could envy. We Europeans would drive out from Ikoyi in our posh cars, grim faced and tense, and see those proud erect people full of gaiety and laughter. I often felt that we had forgotten how to live naturally but they still had that secret.
Now, this is startling:
It was fashionable for some expatriates in those days to taunt the Nigerian elite with being too clever by half. This was the reaction of people who knew themselves to be inferior or inadequate. Often dogged by injustice, poverty and by lack of opportunity, considerable numbers of Nigerians - often aided by dedicated Christian missionaries - had gained an education and become leaders of considerable stature. And if one thought Nigerian men were often brilliant, one only had to meet some Nigerian women to be stunned by their high intelligence, perception and wit. It would not surprise me if West Africans proved to be of a higher intelligence than many people in Western Europe.
On the much-touted merits of British indirect rule:
The politics of the colonial regime are employed in the selection, destruction and manipulation of the leaders of the native people. Although the idea of indirect rule has become closely identified with Nigeria, it is not a new idea as every conquering power exercises its authority using existing power structures in the community. To this end in Nigeria a highly efficient intelligence service operated both through the administration who routinely completed intelligence reports and through the army, police and special branch. The Labour Department also played a key role. The major aim of all this is to encourage friends of the colonial regime, people who are 'sound,' that is prepared to betray their own people's interests for personal advancement, and to put down irresponsible elements, that is to say nationalist politicians who act in their people's interests and cannot be bribed.
On the choice of Nigeria's post-independence leaders:
A major proportion of the politicians who made Nigeria notorious for corruption after Independence were selected by the British before Independence. The politicians and leaders and men of eminence not chosen were often honest, trustworthy and responsible people. Why were these people not brought in by the British? The answer is that the British needed people they could control. They sometimes selected crooks whom they knew they could control after Independence.
On the origins of corruption in Nigeria
Ronald Wraith, in a fascinating study of corruption in Nigeria, fails to mention the involvement of the British at all. (Although he does demonstrate that corruption was rife in Britain up to the middle of the nineteenth century.) It does seem a little unfair. After all, although corruption undoubtedly got worse after the British left, it was clearly much in evidence while the British were in charge. I shall demonstrate later an even more sensational fact. The British not only tolerated and indulged corruption. They actively took part at the highest possible levels and instigated it and encouraged it in Nigerian politicians, the better to control or blackmail them.
I suppose the most corrupt act of all is colonialism itself. What could be more corrupt than to steal someone else's country?
Echoes of our world today:
Our world was in a state of chaos. The seventeen stone Governor General of the most populous British colony in Africa, in his white uniform and plumed hat, while posing as a liberal to visiting VIP's, was secretly rigging elections and destroying the very foundations of democracy in the new state which outwardly would be the fifth largest democracy in the world. Sir James Robertson, not content with that, was urging his newly elected Ministers to loot and pillage the State and make Nigeria's first great nationalist political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) almost totally dependent for funds on levies and bribes from British and other multinational firms which already had a powerful grip on Nigeria's economy.
The truly funny:
"You will be expecting me on this long awaited day," said the Chief Clerk, "to regale you with platitudes expressing my gratitude for having been able to work with such a splendid body of officials serving Her Britannic Majesty here in Nigeria. The truth is that I, as an educated person, have been forced to work under generations of stupid, often illiterate expatriates, who were lazy, uneducated, patronising, selfish and of no use to anybody." At this some of the expatriates began to rise, but the Chief Clerk waved them down. "I have waited a long time to tell you these truths," he went on. "Sit down and listen and learn something from my heart which may yet be of service to you..."
I leave you now so you can go and download Mr. Smith's absolutely riveting book by yourself. I am surprised that I have never heard of it before. Any guesses why?