by Ian McCall


My first meeting with an administrative officer was a few days after my arrival in the Catering Rest House in Lagos. How normal and post-war he seemed to be after the tales I had read about life in India and other places born of stories like The Consul at Sunset by H E Bates. He was the most junior of all the administrative personnel, a recently appointed officer who had not yet been on an outstation and might never be as more and more administrators were moved into Secretariats and the duties of District Officer were progressively seen as a local matter to be performed by local appointments. He represented a generation that had experienced such a change in outlook from those who had not left Nigeria during hostilities that they made life slightly uncomfortable for them by saying ‘why’ not ‘yes’ if he received an instruction he did not understand or thought foolish. That is not to say he did not have much to learn from those who had spent their working lives in the country or indeed that he did not want to show them respect. What he had was a healthy curiosity bred of an attitude induced by the war or by a regional culture with different values or by intellectual conviction. This particular representative of the administration had a grammar school education and a good degree from Oxford. He was a product of the wider trawl in recruitment for administrative officers than had been the case pre-war. One or two of the administrative officers exhibited an apparent superiority complex and thought roughnecks in commerce a lesser breed, but the vast majority were gentlemanly and dedicated officers. A colleague whose uncle had been a Governor-General of the Sudan and who had had a brother or cousin in the Indian Civil Service, on being subjected to a superior harangue from one of the former, responded unkindly and perhaps inaccurately, by stating that the said brother or cousin had had power of life or death and had not the kind of responsibility of some minor Nigerian administrators who booked people into rest houses already full.

Gradually my contacts with administrative officers extended, particularly in the early days when I toured my area extensively, at the level of District Officer (DO) and ADO or Assistant District Officer. They were the point of contact when I was on tour. As a Produce Officer in the Department of Marketing and Exports, my area spanned a number of administrative areas. When I was moved to another area, my contacts with administrative officers expanded. Some ADO’s had a boyish, public school tradition which included the singing of rugby songs that contrasted starkly with the sharp minds some of them exhibited. Others showed a versatility which could have taken them on the boards with ditties such as

My ambition was always to go on the stage
And now my ambition I’ve got am
They say that in pantomime I’m all the rage
I’m the hole in the elephant’s bottom

In larger townships there would be a District Officer (DO). Sometimes they were called ‘The Local Authority’. Like ADO’s they had a responsibility as magistrates for minor offences, more serious offences being subject to the jurisdiction of Magistrates’ Courts with a Supreme Court as higher court for the worst offences and as a court of appeal. Their first responsibility was as an administrator. A Senior District Officer was yet further up the hierarchy and was responsible for a ‘division’ of which there would be two or three in a province. The DO’s and ADO’s reported to him. This simple classification was obscured by the appointment of many of these officials to ministries when strong regions were established with a relatively weak centre in 1955 and the more senior officers became Permanent Secretaries and the like in the various Secretariats, responsible to ministers.

Perhaps the most important official that non-administrative functionaries came in touch with was the Resident. He it was who had responsibility for a whole province which could be the size of, or bigger than, one of the smaller European countries. He would make a point of getting to know all the officers on his station and indeed throughout his jurisdiction. He would set standards of behaviour without seeming to. He was said to have a substantial entertainment allowance - I’m sure I knew the figure once upon a time and it didn’t seem all that much - and he certainly did have frequent drinks parties, even the odd dinner party. Some complained that he saved on his entertainment allowance by plying guests with Empire sherry which one would have thought was something to be promoted in the circumstances.

The residents wife would support him in what he did. One Resident’s lady hoped that the younger officers would invite her and her husband to dinner which was one way of getting them to do things properly, i.e. following the ritual proprieties (‘Butter with supper, yes: with dinner never’). They responded by giving them experiences they would remember like an excruciatingly hot curry preceded by strong pink gins and dinner parties where different courses were served in different houses to allow the cooks concerned to concentrate on one course only and demonstrate their art. When I was taken into hospital in Ibadan with malaria, over three hundred miles away from my station, she demonstrated her concern clearly. The fever caused a haemorrhage of the anterior chamber of the right eye, leaving me with eyes that didn’t match until 20 years later when the offending one would be removed to ensure the other did not become infected, and a beautiful, plastic one fitted,. I don’t know why I was surprised that she should write a charming letter to me wishing me a speedy recovery. When I returned to the station she took a continuing interest in my getting back to normal. Graciousness is a quality I have come to admire and I hope I have acquired a modicum of it. Her presence permeated the Residency. We learnt that no one left until the senior lady present made her excuses, a custom extended to all official, semi-official and even departmental occasions which some of the more recently appointed officers and wives did not bother to heed, observing their own latter-day decencies in excusing themselves. I could not get over the fact that the Resident as representative of the monarch on the station was served first at table. The newly created regional administrations had Lieutenant Governors in charge and embryonic regional parliamentary institutions.

The Chief Secretary and His Excellency the Governor (‘H.E.’) completed the administrative hierarchy. They operated at the highest level. In naval parlance the Chief Secretary acted as ‘Jimmy the One’ or first lieutenant being accountable for the running of the Civil Service and perhaps standing in for the Governor if he was indisposed. He would receive important visitors and lunch them or dine them or whatever depending on the circumstances. It was said that when Stanley Matthews brought an English football team to play against Nigerian teams, he was invited to have lunch with the Chief Secretary acting for the Governor. ‘Tell me Matthews,’ he is reputed to have said, ‘what do you athletes eat to keep yourselves fit?’.
‘Nothing like this, sir’ Matthews is said to have replied nodding in the direction of the poor looking meat swimming in fatty gravy.

Once in a long while the Governor would visit the provinces and everybody would be on their best behaviour. Schools and organisations would be mustered for the occasion. My superior’s wife paraded her Girl Guides on one occasion when it rained in tropical fashion as it is inclined to do. The ceremonies were rather protracted and she complained to His Excellency that her guides were getting soaked and inferred he should be getting on with it. ‘I too Madam am under orders’ he said.

But the hierarchy I have described above was becoming less and less relevant. With the establishment of self-government in Western Nigeria, the post of district officer at all levels of seniority were abolished and decision-making at official level concentrated on the secretariat in Ibadan with local politicians taking greater responsibility for local affairs advised by these officials who were aware of the process of government. This concentration in a secretariat often provided officers with an overall viewpoint that highlighted the much narrower view previously held by identifying with a particular area. Indeed, officers in the bush very often were fully committed to the district they administered and grew strong links with the local people. Local needs had often been at odds with the broader policy issues determined or executed in a central secretariat. Concentration into ministries gave a focus and direction to their activities which they previously had not had. The need to be seen as acting within the same policy framework put an emphasis on cooperation with others rather than operating on their own in a much smaller pool. The biggest and most significant change was the greater authority of ministers who increasingly determined policy which administrative officers had to facilitate. These administrative officers, and their counterparts in other government departments, had over the years developed a greater humility than their predecessors, embraced a more modern concept of service and exercised a greater duty of care for those less powerful and privileged than themselves.

Today’s values are vastly different from those of earlier times. I do not see why anyone should today have to apologise for the colonial period any more than the President of the USA should apologise for slavery or the London government for its neglect of those affected by the Irish potato famine (which was repeated in the Highlands of Scotland, a fact not always acknowledged) or the British royal family for the atrocities perpetrated on the Gaelic-speaking peoples on the order of their Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ancestor, William (‘Butcher’) Duke of Cumberland, after the Jacobite uprising; or, for that matter, the leaders in the Westminster parliament today for the Highland clearances, a 19th century example of ethnic cleansing which left a legacy of land-holding iniquities in which fewer people own more land than in any Latin American countries and hold it in a feudal manner imposed after the collapse of the clan system. It was the outcome of a number of factors facilitated by the development of new navigational techniques spearheaded by the Venetians and the evolution of ships that could sail quickly and safely against the wind. The wider spirit of inquiry that sparked off the great exploration of the seas was followed by the arrival of a capitalist economy and later of a mid-Victorian economic confidence and overweening moral certainty which drove the makers of empire until a gentler and more questioning generation arrived to undermine that certainty.

The American investment bank partner is the late 20th century equivalent of the colonial administrator; he is the man who moves into weaker countries and tells them how to behave. Let us hope it provides people of the calibre of those administrators who stayed on to assist in the transition to self-government in Nigeria. Then, perhaps, some good may come of it. But that implies a primary commitment to principle rather than to shareholder value.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003