NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 51 - THE BLACK AND WHITE KEYS

The perceived wrongs that have been perpetrated in the cause of justice, the unintended offence that may have been given in interactions between people of different cultures, the doubtful causes that have been embraced for the noblest of reasons and the mutual misunderstandings induced by ignorance that may have occurred, were all probably the kinds of sources of inter-racial conflict that MacAulay felt could be avoided when he talked of the best tunes being played on the black and white keys. The Gold Coast visionary, that is, not the MacAulay who wrote ‘How Horatio Held the Bridge’. Such a consummation presupposes a sympathetic understanding of each other’s culture and a suspension of judgment allowing a mutual respect to develop.

In Nigeria, some tried, some did not bother and some just did not know. Prejudice operates both ways but the onus is on those who are educated or have by dint of other qualities reached a state of grace, to show others by example. That education is presumed to include insights into one’s own culture as well as that of the other party. There were individuals, both black and white, who exemplified all that was best in human nature in the way they behaved to others and as a result promoted harmony between the races. It is not to be wondered at that the ideal was not always achieved for not everyone is disposed by upbringing to have the attitudes and values that lead them to that comfortable state, nor did the history and politics of Britain’s colony and protectorate of Nigeria lend itself to good race relations. There were still a few who had to learn that a black man may be a gentleman and a white man otherwise. There are many for whom the world past the end of their nose is foreign parts

At the official level, there was no longer supposed to be discrimination in terms of race but history has undermined this. Segregation of Europeans and Africans was necessary from a health point of view, so the old argument went. But it has older historical roots. Under the regime of indirect rule given effect by Governor Lugard, local chiefs in the North were to be left to administer their fiefs under the guiding hand of a District Officer, which presumed no Europeans would upset the traditional relationship between ruler and ruled. As a consequence, Europeans would live in quarters away from a chief and his people. Rulers like King Jaja of Opobo in the south of the country required European traders to live apart from his people so as not to influence them in undesirable ways. Separate residential areas were laid out and that for Europeans termed the ‘European Reservation’ changed in my time to the ‘Government Reservation’ to take account of the policy of Africanisation. This inevitably led to many educated Africans, who were neither European nor government employees, seeing it as a slur on themselves that accommodation of a kind they had become used to and which reflected their current status, was denied them. Having had to listen to late night drumming, apparently without cease, from my quarters in Calabar, I shudder to think what it would have been like had I been closer to the source of the music - unless of course I had become ‘hooked’ on it.

While integration was beginning to take place and in some ways was quite advanced, it was possible from time to time to see black colleagues being treated differently from their European counterparts. I recall a senior colleague in Ibadan going round the Europeans in an invited gathering asking sotto voce if they would like a café cognac and having their coffee liberally dosed in the kitchen while the African guests (with one exception) did not get the opportunity. It always seemed to be the same Europeans who declined the offer. When I think of it I am often minded to discriminate among guests at home by offering those who want to add water or other adulterant to their drink, a grain whisky, reserving the single malt for those with more cultivated taste buds. But my early upbringing taught me not to discriminate among guests and that everyone under my roof should have the best the house had to offer. Discrimination was also practised by some Africans, doubtless the expression of a frame of mind that had developed during the colonial period and felt in some way to be an appropriate way to declare their opposition to it.

During the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Warri during her tour of Nigeria in 1956, the Royal Rolls Royce, an acquaintance informed me, broke down en route although driven by the government mechanical engineer in situ who was required to drive HM in place of His Excellency the Governor’s (HE’s) regular driver as a precaution against such a contingency - no doubt the decision to dispense temporarily with the services of the regular driver was a spin-off from the very British belief that an engineer was someone with a facility for mending broken mechanical items with his hands and also a symbolic act to demonstrate the reliability of the white races, and in this case, the Anglo-Saxon race. Indeed, Her Majesty, from the knowledge she obtained from her training as a mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the name for women’s branch of the army during the war), would probably have had at least as much idea of on-the-spot repairs as the man who had been allocated the task of driving her.

That old attitudes take a time to change was reflected in all manner of things. The wife of a senior colleague referred to the Anglo-Indian wife of another colleague as a chichi which had a strange, old-fashioned, prejudiced, out-of-touch ring about it. It was well known in the department that there was a shop in Oron displaying the same unusual but striking name as one of our assistant directors and I myself had seen it. People drew their own conclusions. In the days when wives only came out for the school holidays, it was not unusual for some Europeans to take local mistresses. In a sense there had always been a kind of integration in the liaisons that were formed between men and women of a different colour. Some formalised the relationship in marriage but that was the exception. Those senior African staff who had studied in the United Kingdom, usually in London, sometimes returned with English wives. There was a residual resentment against mixed marriages on both sides and only the children can suffer from such prejudice. It seemed that, as far as the European community was concerned, the further down the social scale you went the more did that lingering prejudice persist. Indeed, some officers in government who ascribed such prejudice to people were asserting an ancient superiority. Snobbery was a stronger social force than racism among some of the old guard, racism being an indicator of class, albeit modified considerably by the inclusion of specially selected personnel over the last quarter century. It was with the latter in mind that the American philosopher George Santayana said ‘Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, boyish master’.

On the positive side, interactions multiplied across the communities and more and more friendships were formed at the personal level, often as a result of people who could be considered as role models having given a lead in the preceding years. People mixed easily on the field of sport. Another colleague who had played rugby for East Midlands enlivened the Akure scene by turning out to play soccer with a local team in Akure at the age of 43. His grey hair won him the nickname of ‘Babá’ (Grandad). At the institutional level the Island Club in Lagos, set up by Nigerians who found it impossible to penetrate the Ikoyi Club dominated by Europeans, maintained specifically it was not discriminatory. It was frequented mainly by Africans whose interests were either politics or business which excluded a number of others whose concerns lay elsewhere. It was at least as enjoyable as the Ikoyi Club which had a vast majority of European members.

One institution that set out with the specific objective of bringing the races together was the Lagos Dining Club where a mixed membership met regularly in a spirit of goodwill to enjoy each other’s company. I attended on one occasion as guest of Adeola Odunsi, one of the African Licensed Buying Agents of the Western Nigeria Cocoa Marketing Board. Each member brought a guest to the meetings of the club and so extended its influence to those of like mind. A moving spark in its formation was Sir Kofo Obayomi, a man of honour and wisdom as well as of multifarious interests. Initiatives of this kind require to be responded to.

The certainty that characterised the British in the colonies had been slowly eroded since Lowes Dickinson said just before the First World War that the virtue of the Englishman was that he never had doubts - about his superiority to the black man, about the moral imperative that he had a God-given right to be in his country and that he had a duty to do his best in that situation for the people for whom he was responsible. Questions were being asked, I discovered in many discussions, even before the Second World War, that challenged this blind attitude. Even those who spoke with the accent of the superior ones were more sympathetic as far as the African was concerned and more humble than their predecessors. Early administrators had had an army background and unquestioning minds, perhaps easily conditioned by Cecil Rhodes’s injunction to his countrymen never to forget that they had won first prize in the lottery of life by being born English. With the development of a tradition whereby the best people for the job were appointed as the authorities saw it, so did a greater understanding of, and sympathy for, African views and aspirations grow. The aggressiveness that was a necessary accompaniment to the spirit of empire was gone. Such doubts as our superiors in their own wide experience had, were increased by a post-war intake many of whose values were not those of the old establishment but who brought new values to service in the colonies or chose to think for themselves and drew conclusions from their experience in other colonial settings during the war.

Thoughts of this kind were reinforced by the forces driving decolonisation, for example by the experience of Nigerian troops both in the Western Desert and in India and Burma where they saw local people with more decision-making authority than themselves; by the withdrawal of the British from India and the need no longer to protect the bases which protected the sea routes to the sub-continent; by the ejection of the French from Indo-China after the defeat of Dien Bien Phu, the British withdrawal from Palestine, the humiliation of Suez and the quicker march to self-government in the nearby Gold Coast soon to be designated Ghana. Each constitutional change - and there were four constitutions between 1948 and 1960 - gave a further impetus to the Nigerian surge to independence and caused the British government to reassess a number of times, i.e., to shorten, the period within which self-goverment would be granted. It was accelerated by the belief on the part of a significant number of Nigerians that the benefits of British rule were now outweighed by the promise of greater ones that would result from their ceasing to be a subject people. Some, like the officer who was designated the Local Authority in Sapele, still maintained that the key factor would be the Colonial Secretary’s decision as to when it would happen. The truth of the matter was that the British minister’s hand was continually being forced from within Nigeria and his choice of date was restricted to that period within which failure to withdraw posed a greater threat to life in terms of law and order than the enforced continuation of colonial status. The ministers of the Crown preferred to call this movement ‘nationalism’ and hinted at agitators. They spoke of it in such a way that it had a faintly disreputable ring to it, especially if the fact that the leaders had usually been in jail for their activities was mentioned in the same context, a fact which made them martyrs for the cause of independence and gained further support for it.

There was also an external influence on the speed with which independence was granted in the end. That was the so-called Cold War and the US fear of colonies falling to Communism if independence were not granted at an early date to a government well disposed to the West, with the associated fear of loss of the huge petroleum potential of Nigeria. The ghost of Senator McCarthy, the scourge of all liberal thinkers on East/West relations and witch hunter supreme of those he perceived to be engaged in un-American activities as he saw them, still haunted the minds of American administrators. A programme intended broadly to facilitate the training of Nigerians for autonomy, envisaged when many thought there was time to do it at leisure, was not so much thrown into disarray as overtaken by the speed with which the transformation of expectations of Nigerians took place and the pace of the events that unfolded as a result. Nigerians did not care if efficiency was surrendered in the process. Their ability to celebrate the diversity of their own culture, to create and to write their own history and learn from their own mistakes were more important in their eyes. If political stability was threatened by such developments, it was a price that had to be paid.

Of one thing I am sure. I am glad that I did not have that absolute certainty of my country right or wrong, of the unquestioning moral certainties that were part of the cultural baggage of the earlier men who made the empire and had been handed on to a few contemporaries, even if such suborning attitudes on the part of myself and others of like mind weakened the fibre of empire and hastened its demise. By this time, I had no doubts about what the British government should be doing. When a group of Greek Cypriot merchants hissed and remained seated when ‘God Save the Queen’ was being played after a cinema performance in Ibadan, I was resentful that my angry reaction was at odds with my intellectual convictions just as I felt when the same national anthem was played and derided by many at Murrayfield on the occasion of a rugby international between England and Scotland. I had a friend in that Greek Cypriot community and knew what his feelings were about colonialism in his own backyard where there was also a backlash against the colonial regime and was the root cause of the booing. Friendship and cultural identity were in separate compartments and I found I could live with the dilemma they induced.

While the best tunes may be played on the black and white keys, you have to know the chords to play to harness the harmonies. There was little point of anyone whose ideas did not go along with the desirability and inevitability of self-government to attempt to change the views of the vast majority of Nigerians, if we exclude the Northerners who feared a coalition of the south would be to their disadvantage when the majority of oil was thought (wrongly it turned out) to be in Ibo country and trade was dominated by the Yoruba people. True friendship between black and white survived such political upheavals. When the politics had run its course, there would be a knock-on effect on the economic and commercial situation. It was to have a profound effect on what the Marketing Boards had been trying to do since their inception and the Produce Inspection Service had been trying to do over a period of thirty years.

I decided to leave my work as a government official in Nigeria when I was asked if I would like to consider leaving the service. I was thirty four years of age and had been aware for some time that something like this was bound to happen. Rather than be one of many with my kind of experience, I hoped that I would find work that I enjoyed by being among the first from the colony to leave. The alternative would have been to have stayed on with the possibility of getting preference in some kind of official function in the United Kingdom. When I discussed this with Mary in the light of our decision on our previous leave to make one more tour, we concluded that it would be better to attempt to carve out a new career sooner rather than later. It only dawned on us slowly, having done the analytical bit, that we would be leaving behind much that we cherished.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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