|Chapter 5 - LAGOS STILL|
After my induction to the grading and inspection of produce and prior to my visit to Kano, I was transferred temporarily to headquarters of the Department of Marketing and Exports in Lagos. The Department was divided into three sections: the Produce Inspection Service transferred from the Department of Agriculture in 1948 when it was set up with its own Produce Inspection Board and underpinning legislation; it was self-contained and easily transferable as would be seen again in four or five years’ time. There was a Marketing Division responsible for administering the produce schemes and for commercial relationships with licensed buying agents of the board, and a Shipping Division responsible for storage at the ports and for getting the produce from the ports to the overseas destinations.
My stint at headquarters was to get to know the work involved in the marketing of produce. At that time the jobs of Marketing Officer and Produce Officer were interchangeable, the knowledge of both jobs being seen as a required background for officers performing either function. It was during this attachment that I went to Kano. I was asked if I would like to continue working in the Marketing Division but declined as I was sure I would prefer the outside work. I hadn`t come to Nigeria to spend all my time sat behind a desk. I was to have no regrets.
The boards were set up to give a stable environment for farmers who until then had been subject to the vagaries of a volatile market and did not possess the resources to cope with a severe downturn in price. There was therefore a cushioning effect if the market price dropped because the boards accumulated surpluses when revenues were high and released some of them as price support when they fell. This process was assisted by a long-term bull market which saw produce prices increase steadily and vast surpluses accumulate. At the same time there was a need to maintain and improve quality to cope with an increasingly demanding and competitive market, particularly the competition from the neighbouring French and Belgian territories where mammoth, efficient plantations preducing palm oil and rubber, and to a certain extent cocoa, were encouraged at the expense of the traditional social organisation. There was also increasing competition from Asian countries. The boards financed research institutes to improve the practice of husbandry and the quality of crops and their storage within Nigeria - the West African Stored Products Research Unit and the West African Institute for Oil Palm Research were financed jointly with the Gold Coast (to be known as Ghana in a few years time). They also established production units to process peasant crops more efficiently. Add to this the development of high yield strains giving six to seven times the oil content, free distribution of seedlings by the Department of Agriculture and the export potential can be imagined. By such means the boards intended to preserve peasant production and existing social structures and simultaneously ensure the ability of Nigeria to compete with other countries in the world commodity markets
Away from the hurly-burly of downtown Lagos, I began to have space to look around rather than just experience sensations. Space to read the papers and take note of the what was happening, not to pass judgments at this stage I kept telling myself. I remember being initially appalled at the apparently seditious stance taken up by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (‘Zik’), leader of the Ibo-dominated National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons and his paper the West African Pilot. I vaguely resented the anti-European stance reflected in every issue and found that new entrants like myself had that kind of initial reaction. Those of us who joined at that time had come, in the summer of 1951, with a kind of post-war idealism and the possibility of a worthwhile career helping Nigeria forward into the autonomous and prosperous future British governments had envisaged for it for a long time. At the same time, it was difficult to conceive of myself as a young, educated Nigerian like Joe Beckley, my fellow student at university, who would not want a say in the running of his country and who would not resent the presence of foreign rulers even if their declared intention was to grant eventual autonomy to the people. But this constant vituperation from the press was something we had not expected. If we had known to ask Yorubas about the West African Pilot, they would have told us that they too came under the fire of Zik’s editors and that the paper was pro-Ibo and against the rest. Fortunately, all Nigerians were not like the impression formed of them from the papers which were responding politically on behalf of a group of educated and politically motivated persons who felt there was no other way to further their views as the ballot box did not meet their aspirations. There was, however, a small core of educated Africans whose antipathy to the white races compelled them to ignore Europeans when they met or who went out of their way to be rude. I remembered Andrew Young’s advice to be in control always despite provocations and resisted the temptation, if not to plant one on them when they became intolerable, certainly not to inflame the situation by saying something cutting. It was easier to take this kind of behaviour from clerks in the post office or from people in humble posts who did not know any better.
The very different backgrounds of the Hausa/Fulani who inhabited large swathes of the north, the Yoruba who lived in the south-west and the Ibo who predominantly populated the south-east of the country, and the three-way suspicions these differences engendered, provided problems of cohesion. As I arrived, a new constitution was being implemented after long consultation with interest groups. The Macpherson constitution was aimed at preserving the unity of the country. A House of Representatives was set up at the centre with the members from the more populous North being exactly balanced by the combined numbers from the East and the West together with a Council of Ministers comprising 6 officials and 12 Africans. This was the first time the North had been represented at the centre. Regional Assemblies, previously advisory bodies, were now enlarged and given legislative and financial powers over a considerable range of subjects. It was they who chose representatives from their ranks to look after their interests in the House of Representatives. This house could reject any legislation passed by the Assemblies. The Governor retained reserve powers. Dr Azikiwe of the NCNC chose to stand for one of the Lagos seats and was returned to the Western House of Assembly. Traditional chiefs and British-trained lawyers were no longer acceptable to his party as representatives of the people even though they were black; nor would institutions be acknowledged as democratic because of the colour of the skin of those occupying parliamentary benches. They wanted nothing less than the immediate removal of colonial rule. Any means of tarnishing the British reputation in the eyes of as yet non-aligned fellow Nigerians was considered a legitimate tactic in pursuing this end. As I came to know some of the people embracing this philosophy, I realised that the press action was not a personal one and that some of the adherents to their viewpoint were quite charming people.
I discovered that Badagri, a drive of just a few hours or so west of Lagos, had been one of the main ports in the time of the slave trade. It was the place Richard Lander had returned to after his trek with Hugh Clapperton on his journey of exploration from the West African coast to Sokoto in the desert region of what is now Northern Nigeria. Clapperton, a native of Annan in Dumfriesshire had earlier crossed from the North African coast to Lake Chad which washes the shore of what is now north-east Nigeria. So he was the first European to cross the African continent. He died of fever in Sokoto in 1828 and was buried by Lander, his servant, who showed himself to be a man of mettle by assuming control and returning to Badagri against all the odds. He appealed for assistance to the captains of Portuguese slave ships stood by to receive slaves from the barracoons or fenced depots where the slaves were assembled. But for his pains they put out the rumour that he was a spy and within hours he was hauled before Adele, King of Badagri, where he was sentenced to drink a draught made from sasswood bark, a poison from which no one had recovered for a number of years. Dressed in his best for the occasion he swallowed the poison and made his way back dizzily to his hut where he took an emetic when nobody was looking and vomited up the poison. This was proof to his judges that he had not come with evil intentions and from then on he was supplied with all he needed until he was able to board a British ship, but not before he saw what might have been his fate. That was the sight of the fetish tree where the bodies of the less fortunate victims of the trial by ordeal were hung after their hearts had been eaten by the king.
Lander was to return to Badagri with his brother from his native Cornwall two years later in a successful attempt to prove conclusively that the Niger flowed into the Bight of Benin and not into Lake Chad or the Nile as people had earlier believed. He followed the route he had taken with Clapperton and returned down the Niger by canoe to Brass in the Niger Delta, braving all sorts of hazards on the way. He it was who heralded the possibility of water communication on the Niger and its tributaries and the water-borne trade that would follow. In the process he discovered the remains of an earlier intrepid explorer, Mungo Park, at Bussa on the Niger. Like Park, he himself had a violent death on the river. Park is commemorated suitably in his native Selkirk.
Badagri was at the end of one of the slave routes to the coast from the north of the Yoruba country. Surprisingly, there is still evidence of the slave barracoons from where slaves were sent in earlier times during the early period of Portuguese maritime dominance in the 15th and 16th centuries, initially to Portugal and later to what is now Ghana. There the gold mining Akan tribes preferred, or even insisted on, receiving part of the price of their gold in slaves and the Portuguese operating out of their base on the island of São Tome obliged as did British, French, Dutch, Danish, Brazilian, American and Swedish slavers two centuries later. By then the Americas were the destination of West African slaves in a triangular trade whereby ships from European ports took goods to West Africa to exchange for slaves who were carried across the Atlantic and sold for cash. With this money they purchased cargoes of sugar and molasses, cotton, rum and tobacco and loaded them for eventual sale in Europe after disposal had been made of the human cargo.
Gold was the lure of the early explorers. The Company of Scotland, fated to be ruined by the promotion of the Darien Scheme, did make one journey to West Africa returning at the turn of the 18th century with a cargo of the precious metal out of which the Darien pistoles were made – the last gold coins struck in the old Scottish Mint. The Guinea Coast gave its name to the Gulf of Guinea, to the English guinea coin (21 shillings or £1.05) and later to the slave ships or guineamen that plied their trade in human beings with the willing compliance of local chiefs for whom slavery was part of the economic system, as well as to guinea-corn or local millet, guinea-worm, a parasite which causes filaria, a most painful condition, and guinea-fowl, or ‘dinda bird’ in pidgin English, which was a good source of food in the bush. The children of the Badagri area knew the sad history of the slaves and showed the infrequent visitor to their town the manacles and chains used to restrain them, totally ignoring the fact that the Badagrians at the time of Lander ran five slave ‘factories’ and were hard taskmasters while awaiting the arrival of the Portuguese slave ships. These youngsters would pose for photographs unasked and would wind chains round their wrists and ankles, one of them even holding aloft a branding iron which in the slaving days had been heated in wooden fires and dipped in palm oil so as not to stick to the skin. They assumed that the handful of visitors calling there in the course of a year would see them as the descendants of slaves when in all probability they were the descendants of the enslavers. It is an old ploy to play the victim when you want to be considered sympathetically. The enslaved people had been snatched from their homes by raiding parties and driven to Badagri on an infamous slave route from Ilorin.
Badagri spanned an area between British and French influence and had been a place where British traders from the oil rivers and French traders from Dahomey frequently interacted at the turn of the 20th century. Dahomey is now the Republic of Benin, a state which is not inclusive of the age-old city state of that name situated in Western Nigeria. It was given the designation of the ancient kingdom to dignify it although it included only a small portion of the medieval empire of Benin. The indigenous population of Benin City, known as the Edo or Bini people were indeed related to a relatively small number of people in the new state but had been cut off politically from them in the ‘scramble for Africa’. It is close to Whydah or Ouidah in French, which was the equivalent of Badagri in the French colony and is immortalised in Bruce Chatwin’s classic novel of the continuing Brazilian connection from the slave trade days, The Viceroy of Ouidah. Chatwin`s story nicely leaves us to assume the arbitrary nature of the border between Dahomey and Nigeria and its permeability as the characters move easily from one country to another driven by their relationship to a Brazilian who had become the friend and blood brother of the mad king.
The space to look around applied equally to the social milieu in which I found myself. Another recently appointed colleague and I were invited to coffee and a drink after dinner by a senior colleague. We had coffee and a quick brandy. Then our host stood up, rubbed his hands and said ‘Well, tomorrow is another day’. I have long admired the urbanity of some of my countrymen of a certain upbringing. I liked the way that they smiled and said ‘I’m sorry?’ when they didn’t catch what you were saying, head half turned, eyebrows raised in question and an ear half inclined to catch your response, rather than the bald ‘I beg your pardon?’ or ‘Could you say that again?’ This particular person lacked that kind of graciousness. People who pride themselves in calling a spade a spade tend to become boors as they grow older. Thankfully, such people were the exception. I prefer to remember the others who were the epitome of hospitality. Particularly, I liked the custom in informal situations of handing you the open whisky bottle to help yourself. It had a symbolism that appealed to the sense of hospitality handed down to me by my parents.
The residential area of Ikoyi, where I was first accommodated in a non-catering rest house after a brief stay in the catering one, was of a very typical colonial design with the older houses being big with outside balconies and situated in large compounds. The newer houses were smaller but still with largish compounds. Some of the houses, and the better ones at that, were owned by the big companies who were responsible for the upkeep. Government quarters were the responsibility of the Public Works Department. Many of the new ministers from the House of Representatives, particularly the Northerners, declined to live there as there was not enough accommodation for their wives and retinue. They preferred to find more suitable quarters in the town. An unexpected sight was the cutting of the grass in government-owned properties by prisoners from the local jail. One man would beat out an appropriate rhythm with his own cutlass and a piece of metal and the others would cut the grass with cutlasses more willingly as a result. They were even known to sing as they worked. The sole warder never seemed to have any trouble with them and the prisoners themselves were invariably well-behaved if understandably taciturn except when in song. It was said that many of them lived better in prison than outside. This gave rise to the tale that when two men lagged behind on the way back to prison, the warder called ‘Run, quick quick or we go leff (leave) you-o’. And the prisoners, fearful of being denied return to prison, complied at the double, calling out ‘Makee no leff we, sah’ (Don’t leave us, sir).
When I first arrived in Lagos I noted a particular facility for using the English language in a punchy way. Now I had time to view a poster which caught the eye. It advertised a coming attraction - Grand Dance Yaba Rex Saturday Night with the added injunction No Knicker. ‘Knicker’ is the name given to shorts as distinct from the dressier longs. So the Yaba Rex was trying to set standards. Once you started to think in the Nigerian way, such linguistic licence was not seen as such and was not so apparently funny.
When confronted by official English, my erstwhile staff tended to become flummoxed because they found the written language of the expatriate plus the civil-service-speak an unfamiliar medium. My very first disciplinary procedure was in Lagos where I was delegated at the instance of Daniel Nosiri, presumably to get me used to the idea, to call for the representations of a member of the junior staff as to why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for acting contrary to Standing Instructions. These were free interpretations to meet local needs of the general guidelines in Colonial Regulations and Financial Instructions as well as the Produce Inspection Ordinance and Regulations. Apart from having to acknowledge receipt of my missive by return, he had to submit his defence within 24 hours in quadruplicate - and that before the era of the photocopier. So the longer his defence, and such defences were invariably long, the longer the agony of writing it three times more plus a copy for himself. Despite my short time in Lagos and my relative youth, he assured me I was his father and his mother and that I was already aware of his diligence. If he were condemned now I would perhaps be succeeded by someone ‘who knew not Joseph’. For good measure he suggested that any punishment would be ‘ultra vires (beyond your powers)’. The biblical reference, the appeal to the emotions and the embellished language are all devices that reinforce the spoken rather than the written word. The legal tradition is prized in the south of Nigeria, legal expressions being used freely by people without training in the law. The parenthesis was probably an insurance against the contingency that I did not know the meaning of the phrase. If this was Nigeria, then it was getting to me through its capital and the people I was meeting there. The personal files of staff that came before me revealed to my amazement that before and during the war government officers had the authority to fine staff for misdemeanours, subject to approval by senior officers.
The nature of these happenings and those I was to experience in the future were largely shaped by events that started at a much earlier point in time and developed over the years. It is to these we now pass.