NIGERIA, A PERSONAL HISTORY
by Ian McCall

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Chapter 32 - LEAVES

The social scene, as far as Europeans were concerned, was punctuated by people going on leave and being replaced by new faces. By the end of a tour of duty, expatriates began to feel the need of a holiday and to look forward to visiting their friends and relatives whom they had not seen for 18 months to two years. The arrangements that had to be made for this were quite extensive. You had to prepare handing over notes for your successor, go over them with him and effect introductions to all and sundry if he arrived prior to your departure date. There were the loads to be packed. One of the useful items I had acquired (from the same disaffected Canadian from whom I had bought the canvas camp bath during my first days in Lagos) was a brass-bound Christie trunk which took things like bed-linen and clothing and was completely air-tight. Arrangements had to be made for storage with the Public Works Department. You had to make similar arrangements for the car unless, as I preferred, I left it for friends to use. I recall that my car which I had left in Calabar with Dan McKeown looked cleaner than I had ever seen it when I got back to collect it. Then there was the house and furniture to be checked off in preparation for the next occupier. After that you had to get to Lagos where the plane or ship left from, and find accommodation until its departure. Unless of course you were in the North and travelling by air in which case you had to get to Kano where there was an international airport. Then you had to pay the servants for the period of your absence and give them a point of contact to find out when you would be back in the country. Even without that their grapevine worked efficiently to advise them the when and where of your return to Nigeria. Their ability to obtain all the information they felt necessary, including details of your next posting even before you were advised, never ceased to amaze me.

If some of us were exhausted after a tour, even as we were enjoying ourselves, it was for a variety of reasons. The reason usually trotted out was the lack of the kind of food to which we were accustomed but this was nonsense as far as most of us were concerned. We exulted in the difference. Sometimes there were people who found the food disagreeable, but they were unlikely to come back after a tour of duty if indeed they lasted that long. Then there was the argument that the discomfort of the constant humid heat and the inability to get a good night’s sleep had a cumulative and debilitating effect on the system. If that was the case, why did the change to a temperate climate have an immediate effect? While there were those among us who had periodic bouts of malaria or some other tropical ailment and needed a period of recuperation, I felt that the reason for the exhaustion was mental rather than physical.

Some of us were exposed to a number of irreconcilable pressures which was probably the source of stress even if we did not recognise it as such. There was the constant battle against unprovable corruption which resulted in a kind of cat-and mouse game. Nearly all officers at some time or other found an underlying venality among certain members of staff who expanded the custom of mutuality to include doubtful methods of going about their duties. In produce inspection, certain inspectors tried to defend not meeting the daily target for gradings set to reduce their ability to withhold services or otherwise delay the delivery of the service. Their supervisors and myself sought to counter any move that might delay inspection and be used to extort illicit payments over and above what might be considered a traditional gift for a service rendered or the acknowledged illicit fee that replaced it. It was easy enough to say that if one Nigerian paid another to do something he was paid to do in any case, then it was crass stupidity on the part of the payer. The nagging idea in the background that it was wrong raised the question as to whether you were living out a lie by ignoring it or not spending more time trying to eradicate the practice, if not the underlying reasons for it.

There were other little dilemmas. If you were a government official, did you put loyalty to your employer before principle or doctrine when the two were in conflict? I became increasingly sceptical of the monopoly of the marketing boards when the world was rapidly returning to a market system, perhaps because I had settled into a routine by this time and was able to give more thought to the works of the economists I had read at university and my professor Alexander Gray or because it was possible to look at things from the outside when on leave. Questions were already being asked about similar monopolies in the United Kingdom with regard to such commodities as milk and coal which had been subject to central control in the war and to the tenets of a centralising and a well-meaning but inflexible Labour government after it. The system of Boards, I was more and more convinced, was an honest attempt by civil servants not necessarily skilled in political economy, to put right a system which had discriminated against the African merchant aspiring to have a piece of the commercial action and which had been indisputably manipulated by the larger expatriate companies that made up the Association of West African Merchants. A market system would rely on a course of dealing over a period that enabled trust to be built up between the growing band of African merchants and potential overseas buyers. The problem was not with the economics but with the creation of this trust which, on the part of overseas buyers, was related to adherence to the norms of business as they saw it and African merchants who were still prone in some cases to break contracts, as already perceived by the buyers of non-board produce, very often for reasons of under-capitalisation or overtrading.

There were those who claimed that if the boards were not necessary, then neither was the produce inspection service. This I challenged for a number of reasons. Its usefulness was acknowledged by the produce merchants themselves. I particularly valued in this regard the views of significant officers of the companies with a vested interest in the quality of their chocolate and the ethics of its production like the Rowntree-Fry-Cadbury local representatives and their visiting chairmen - Adrian Cadbury was one who was years later to have a prize-winning article on ethics in business in the Harvard Business Review. These companies had bought their own cocoa before the war and were now mere licensed buying agents of the Cocoa Board and relied on inspection to get the quality of cocoa their organisations needed. A cocoa broker from New York on a visit to Nigeria gave me an external confirmation of the need for continuing inspection. Indeed he suggested I would easily find a job among cocoa brokers in New York and would assist me to obtain a placement if I wished. My own experience in Lagos of adulteration of cocoa and its destruction either by burning or by dumping in the Iddo Pool convinced me that an inspection system was still required. The palm produce buyers were not quite so adamant but also favoured the maintenance of the inspection system.

Whatever the cause of the exhaustion, many officers took proprietary medicines or tonic wines like Sanatogen which claimed to feed the nerves, for the last months of a tour of duty. Others preferred to take cigarettes or similar substance to keep them going. There was an insidious tobacco advertisement at this time which urged you to ‘let Capstan take the strain’. There was a brand called ‘Pirate’ that was made in Nigeria and enjoyed extensive sales. Cigarettes were kept in a box and offered round on a regular basis even by non-smoking hosts.

Occasionally, someone returned to Europe feeling better than they did when they arrived. So it was with Mary. By the end of her second tour the rheumatic pains that she had continued to suffer disappeared completely and doctors put it down to the effects of the humid heat. She was later in our second leave to be diagnosed as having a defective mitral valve in the heart. After that leave we would be returning to Nigeria for one last tour, myself by air and Mary later by sea.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003

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CHAPTER 33