Our last tour in Nigeria finished in February 1959 when we set sail from Apapa on the M.V. Accra. Our friends were at the dockside to see us off and it was a very moving moment. There is something final about a departure of a ship and the slowly increasing gap between those on board and those on the wharf when it sets sail, something that wrings the withers and renders you unable to speak or control the trembling of the lower lip.
The journey home was in a sense a journey into the unknown. It was a beginning as well as an end. We would miss what we had been doing. Mary would not forget her charges and friends at the Corona School in Apapa which she started as a class for a few in a friend’s verandah. What school would have a parrot in class which would periodically say ‘Lift me wing and tickle me ribs’? It moved to bigger and more appropriate premises as the numbers swelled and took on an international flavour with English, Nigerian, Japanese, French and Dutch children. Chinua Achebe, in his classic novel A Man of the People, makes reference to one of his countrymen speaking with a Corona School accent. So Mary must have had a lasting impact. Nor would she forget her original pupils and staff at St Saviour’s School in Ikoyi. I would miss colleagues involved in the creation, collection, inspection and distribution for export of the country’s produce as well as a group of good friends outside that particular circle. We would both miss Richard and David and would worry for them and other friends during the civil war when all communications would cease.
On looking back on what I had achieved, I knew that I was a very small part of an organisation that had seen a progressive increase in the amount and value of produce grown, inspected and sold for export through the 1950s. Groundnuts peaked with the huge efforts to evacuate accumulated stocks from their Northern pyramids. The tonnages of special grade palm oil for edible purposes had increased many times over the same period and more than compensated for the loss of markets, through competition from other lubricants, of lower grades of technical palm oil which had been progressively eliminated. Nigeria was first in the world among producers of oil palm products and had managed to compete with plantation production from other West African countries and from the Far East by the introduction of 125 oil mills and about 5,000 hand presses despite the difficulty of breaking down customary processes and local opposition to mechanical devices. It produced 50% of all palm kernel exports. Cocoa had experienced a similar take-off both in quantity and in quality. Good fermented Lagos/Accra was now the standard against which all other cocoa was judged in the terminal markets. Nigeria was the number one producer of cocoa in Africa and accounted for about 14% of world production. Today Nigerian cocoa sells at a discount to Ghanaian because the market was deregulated and entrepreneurs, unfamiliar with cocoa trade, let quality slip. The country was second just behind Senegal among producers of groundnuts and this represented about 30% of world groundnut exports, only a small amount being processed locally in Kano. This improvement would have to continue as there were other vegetable oils from other parts of the world which provided considerable competition. Its production of cotton made it an important textile producer, certainly for West African markets. Additionally, it was the world’s largest producer of columbite.
In terms of gross domestic product per capita, which is the usual measure of success in an economy, Nigeria was at this time on a par with countries like South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia. In addition to the success of cash crops in export markets, Nigeria had the potential to become a big producer of hydro-carbon fuels and it looked as if the earlier optimism of the Nigerian Eastern Guardian would be well and truly justified. It had to progress economically to maintain the living standards which had been achieved. The country’s population was increasing at more than a million and a quarter annually. That meant it had to do even better just to stand still. Politically, the country had been left with a federal constitution and a parliamentary system constructed as far as possible to avoid the conflicts of differing dominant groups in the North, West and East. What it could not do was to remove the differences in culture, social organisation and language that existed among them and the inherent potential for conflict. There was, however, a rich pidgin English based on the structures of the languages of the Delta that was increasingly being used outside these areas and could one day become a lingua franca that would overcome the differences of language among ordinary people who could belong to one of nearly two hundred and fifty ethnic groups. It was to become a legitimate subject of academic research in Nigeria and in some states soap operas were later to be played out entirely in pidgin. The elites had English as a second language.
The potential of Nigeria was such that it could become the leading country in West and Central Africa with the largest population and a wealth of untapped resources, not least those of its energetic and aspiring people. Just as the time of our departure from Nigeria marked an end and a beginning for us, so would it be in a year’s time an end and a new beginning for the new country. It would bring to an end the era of colonialism that had succeeded imperialism and would herald a new chapter in British-Nigerian relations. Hopefully, there would be progress. There was a strong agricultural base and a network of trading partnerships which, with proper management, could develop further and outlive the discovery of oil which has a limited life. There would not be the problem of settlers that has blighted relations in East and Central Africa since the holding of land by foreigners had long been forbidden by law. There was no history of entire peoples having been eliminated as in North and South America or in the Pacific. While there had been centuries of trade in local products with Europeans, the country had not been taken over in the early 20th century as a business to be milked dry as was the Belgian Congo for example. There was an educated elite capable of taking the reins of government if it had the will to do so. Mistakes were undoubtedly made but we could leave with our heads held high.
Imperialism comes in many guises. Even as this is being keyed, the US President is in Japan trying to get the Japanese to spend more and open up their markets to the beneficial effects of free trade, code for the extension of the reach of Wall Street investment banks and the Fortune 500 industrial companies. Simultaneous reports reveal that the US government is bullying foreign governments to protect the global interests of American bio-chemical industry in general, a recent instance being an unexpected rethink of impending New Zealand laws for the labelling and testing of genetically modified products, as a result of US threats to pull out of a free trade agreement. By and large, the latterday individual administrator in the old colonial system tried to interpret an arrogant system with a moral code, fairness and integrity, characteristics which were reflected in the work of officers in other government departments.
Some colonial servants used to say, more out of bravado than anything
else I suspect, that it would be a happy day when they shook the dust
of Nigeria off their feet. But the dust of Africa was ingrained. I would
look back on these eight years and make judgments based on lessons I had
learnt there. In Europe and the developed countries in general, people
are rushing, mostly through no fault of their own, to meet commitments
determined by the date and the clock - a most un-Nigerian activity. They
fall easily into habits that are hard to break. A phone call when the
recipient is having soup and a roll at lunchtime can be responded to in
different ways. Either the soup cannot be allowed to get cold and the
call has to be short, or the conversation can be extended as circumstances
decree and the soup reheated. What are microwave ovens for if not to assist
the second of the alternatives? And this would be a Nigerian response
in a latterday context. When I meet someone I know on the street, I am
not the one to break off the conversation. It is too precious to cast
off just like that. I wait for others to give the cue that it is time
to discontinue the talk. It is their ulcer and perhaps their blight. Interaction
is what keeps relationships in good repair as most Nigerians could tell
you if they thought about it. It is implicit in their lives. Those of
us who live in Western Europe tend to see ourselves as being in communities
rather than of them. As a result we are often sufficient unto ourselves
with hardly a thought for the people next door which is not a problem
in Nigeria. We see self-sufficiency as a positive quality rather than
one that is the enemy of community. It is likely there is a strong correlation
between the breakdown in community and the growing incidence of love lavished
on pets and mental illness in Western countries.
Supermarkets promised to bring lower prices to consumers through competition and economies of scale to include everyone in an ever-improving economic and social polity. As the years wore on they would merge and become bigger and bigger until today there is a strong suspicion that they are in an oligopolistic position and are no longer the consumer’s friend because the temptation under these circumstances is for the oligopolists to collude to get a quick return on investment by fixing prices. Could it be that virtual monopoly of this kind is the inevitable outcome of unbridled capitalism? The mantra that ‘the consumer is king’ has been discredited. ‘Guaranteed price protection’ means the price had recently been increased by a margin that will not need to be considered for some time. If it says ‘If you can buy anything marked with our guaranteed prices more cheaply elsewhere we will refund the difference’, that means it is a loss leader to bring people into the store and make their profit on other items with a much higher margin; other stores will not compete on these products as it would mean losses for everyone - so they choose a range of their own for this purpose. Only the consumers will lose; such is their belief in the value of the offers made that they do not realise the strategy being effected through them acts to their disadvantage in the long run.
The system of supermarket groups - and those are becoming more and more concentrated as a natural development of competition - is a long way from the perfect open markets of Nigeria in both the physical and metaphorical senses, where the lowest price was for negotiation although some of these big retailers would maintain with unsurpassed sophistry that negotiation is inherent in the system of branding. Worse still, in these huge retail food chains, and that includes the fast food outlets, real human interaction is replaced by employees who have been asked to memorise a series of scripts and sub-scripts and mindlessly recite them at appropriate points in their interactions with us. We respond by developing a set of mindless recipes of our own that we ourselves trot out in such situations. Where is that enchantment in exchange which includes feelings and emotions, and needs to be continuous and reciprocal? No more dash, no more unwritten contracts, no mutuality. How would these people respond who now shower us with gifts and free offers if we were to give them gifts instead? I suggest life would be intolerable for them for they would have no pat answers to resolve their interaction problems. Their problem is ours.
If society is about living in decent community and companionability with our fellow creatures, then that would appear to be threatened by the world of systems where efficiency is paramount or by the virtual world in which we communicate electronically in a situation where the message is divorced from interpersonal feelings. The satisfactions of touch, eye contact and spatial comfort in social interactions are increasingly denied us and people look in vain for reliable hooks to hang on to and instead create a social reality in which form takes the place of substance, image triumphs over reality and marketing over the ability to think freely.
The disjunctive nature of modern life diminishes the interconnectedness of events, activities and beliefs and increasingly flakes away the bonds of association necessary for our social wellbeing. It may even be that The Elocuted One was being prophetic when she said ‘There is no such thing as society’. We are in the process of doing things in the name of economic progress which may well produce a society that is not worth defending. The reverence we offer to the market system has sparked a philosophy that puts a premium on individualism and an unwillingness to postpone the immediate gratification of the labour of humankind at the expense of the values of family and of the group. Unlike the Ibo or Ibibio village, where everyone helped to look after everyone else and acted on behalf of the community and everyone had jobs they performed, organisations are believed to be able to succeed with permanent insecurity and a continuous turnover of employees. The loyalty of workers or management is considered to be of no influence whatsoever. Yet the great success stories of the later half of the 20th century has not been those of the European Union or the United States and the ‘new economy’. Rather it has been the success stories of the industrialisation of Japan, Korea and China where the group is more important than the individual. The abolition of the bonds between company and workers is still not universal. Yet Western management continues to chop problems into neat elements and to measure them. That there might be a link between collective organisation and creativity in a world where innovation is a nation`s lifeblood, where the world of art and of the spirit are intertwined with the world of work and where what is essential, in the words of Saint-Exupéry, is not visible to the human eye, does not seem to have dawned on it. Given this emerging scenario, the values of a developing country like Nigeria may have much to offer developed ones in the art of living. Can we absorb the lessons before it is too late?
Our return to the United Kingdom in some ways exposed us to culture shock in reverse. How would it be for the immigrants now pouring in from the West Indies and elsewhere? Would they be received like the slave Jaja in Bonny and be given the rights of the country and advancement on the basis of merit in return for their allegiance, so assisting their integration into the community? And the seekers of asylum and economic betterment who were not so-called British protected persons - would they be accepted to allow them to make the very positive kind of contribution that would help renew the spirit of enterprise and industry in the country impaired by the efforts of mobilising the entire nation in two world wars?
Events subsequent to those described earlier have cast a cloud over good memories. Chief Festus Ekotie-Eboh, the likeable rogue whose rubber I had seized, whose employees I had prosecuted and whose management style I admired on account of the easy way he shifted between cultural modes, became Minister of Finance in the federal government only to die from an assassin’s bullet in the mid-1960s in the final year of the so-called First Republic. He was the victim of a military coup originally organised to abolish corruption which was said to have tainted Ekotie-Eboh as well as many other ministers and politicians during his years of office. Sadly, the military regimes that succeeded this turbulent period of civilian rule after self-government established a pattern of corruption of their own, that was to become hideous even by Africa`s lamentable standards. Nowhere was the truth more evident of Lord Acton`s saying that all power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nigeria is paying the price. A new federal capital was built at Abuja where only a small proportion of the billions it cost were spent efficiently, much going into the hands of contractors in league with politicians; a two tier foreign exchange provided dollars at a discount for the military rulers and their cronies; money from the successful oil industry was used to prop up the naira, the local currency, the strength of which was treated as a sign of national virility. The foreign-exchange earning agricultural sector, once the pillar of the economy, was nearly destroyed as palm oil and groundnut and cocoa exporters were unable to compete internationally with such an overvalued currency. Today, cocoa is the only agricultural crop that contributes to Nigeria`s export earnings and that at a level less than half of that it exported in 1951 which was in excess of 400,000 tons. That production made Nigeria one of the premier cocoa producers in the world. Now Nigeria lags far behind the Ivory Coast, Ghana and is even challenged by the Republic of Cameroun as a cocoa producer. In the event, during the period 1960-66, the government appropriated the surpluses accumulated by the marketing boards from the so-called cash crops, which it used to finance the rapid expansion of the public sector and the development of local capitalism, although a significant proportion of the money disappeared into private pockets. The marketing boards became a vehicle for development during the ascendancy of the military rulers who took over from the civilian government. Millions of peasant farmers were impoverished. In the mad scramble for a slice of the oil wealth, many middle class Nigerians have abandoned nearly all other economic activity and made the country dependant on oil and vulnerable to a shock in oil price and the run-down of reserves. Meanwhile, the peoples of the Niger Delta have watched billions of dollars in oil money flow out from under their soil as they have grown poorer and have been denied participation in the benefits, harvesting only what remains unpolluted in their eco-system. The corner may just have been turned with return to civilian government in the last year of the millennium.
Sam Bleasby, who had in the opinion of some ‘gone native’ and who, someone suggested jokingly, might have had a mami wata he visited at weekends and who never concealed by his actions and choice of life style where his political sympathies lay, lost forever any sense he might have had of being unalone without company. There is a mami wata website in the United States for Afro-Americans wanting to keep up the old religions. Sam was to die in the Nigerian Civil War, reportedly shot by accident by federal troops who thought he was a mercenary. If he seemed old to me 15 years previously, there is no way he could have looked like a soldier at the time of his death. Many Ibo civilians perished at this time as they fled from the predominantly Hausa and Yoruba troops who harassed them continuously according to eye witnesses. The federal authorities eventually adopted a policy of starving the Ibos into submission; famine was used as a strategic weapon. Many were reported to have died of starvation, forced as they were to return in their hundreds and thousands from other areas of Nigeria where their education in the mission schools, encouraged by their relatives, had prepared them for clerical and administrative tasks at which they excelled. The massacre of defenceless Ibos in the North at a number of centres may have been one of the more immediate causes of the civil war. The number of deaths in the war has been estimated at between 1 and 3 million, the vast majority of those being Ibos and most of them civilians, many of them children. Genocide is the term used by some informed commentators. The actions of the warped minds of trigger-happy bullies are often excused by platitudes that people occasionally get caught up in the cross-fire, but this can conceal a much more sinister intent. There are people alive today who witnessed cold-blooded murder. Ibo friends and non-Ibos from the former Eastern Region in which the Ibo people were dominant, have disappeared into limbo. In all this, the British government sided with the Nigerian federal authorities in a cynical gesture of support for decisions taken earlier in its name, despite the honourable actions of Tam Dalzell MP to bring these atrocities to the attention of the Government and the British people.
The end of the civil war was characterised by a compassionate peace without any display of triumphalism thanks in some measure to the adjustment of the Ibo to the situation in which they are no longer a powerful political force. They were always able to adapt to any situation and could easily assume where necessary a low profile and apparent humility. Their ability to achieve the political power they had exercised earlier was weakened by the creation of new states in which the Ibo people were deliberately marginalised as large minorities. The problem now facing the country is to heal the long-lasting wounds of peace as well as of war to do positive things for the economy apart from the bonus of petroleum. Off-shore production will shortly account for the bulk of Nigeria’s two million barrels a day. If agreement can be achieved on the distribution of the revenues from off-shore oil which until now has gone to the federal government, then the disputes that have raged between the central government, the state governments, the oil-producing states and the people whose land and waters have been exploited by the federal government and polluted by the oil companies, the conditions will exist for the first time for the establishment of peace and prosperity. Only then will Nigeria, in my view, find the will and the means to achieve its potential. There is still time to trigger changes every bit as far-reaching as those that took place on the oil rivers just over a hundred years ago. The external influences are already there. It will need the talent of everyone who has it irrespective of their ethnic origins and the language they speak to make the most of it and provide the leadership the country so desperately needs and deserves.