by Ian McCall

Chapter 13 - PORT HARCOURT

I was posted to my first charge in Port Harcourt, the biggest port in Eastern Nigeria with a vast hinterland and a rail system completed in 1916 that facilitated evacuation of export commodities grown or extracted in the country it traversed from the closer producing areas around Enugu, Aba and Umuahia. It was eventually extended to join the line from Lagos to Kaduna and Kano which would be further extrended to Gusau and Nguru in the far north. This is where I would learn by doing. Named after a British colonial secretary of the time of its conception, Port Harcourt had special port and warehouse facilities built when the railway was extended there from Kaduna in 1916. It became a focal point for the transfer of goods from the interior to ocean-going ships and was connected to the south by water-borne transport in the creeks of the eastern side of the delta and the palmlands inland from the mangrove swamps.

I was accompanied by my steward Richard whom I had engaged in Lagos. The trip to Port Harcourt was our first extended one and was my first introduction to the long drives on corrugated, red laterite roads. The highlight for me was seeing a sign Beware! Elephant Pass somewhere between Ife and Benin. It appears elephants are creatures of habit and have a periodic circuit they do not deviate from. The trip was an opportunity to find out more - myself to get to know Richard and obtain from him as much information on the country and its customs as I could and Richard to get to know me better and to demonstrate the skills he possessed. His village, Obinze, was on the way. I tried to get him to talk.

Initially, Richard was unwilling to indulge in any conversation save to answer questions or carry out instructions.
‘Tell me, Richard, I said,’ what do you do in Obinze in the evenings when everybody finishes work for the day’?
‘We talk, sah.’
‘What things do you talk about?’
‘All tings’.
‘Tell me about them’.
‘We talk. We tell story’.
‘What kind of stories, Richard?
‘Good stories, sah’
‘Tell me one’
‘No sah’ Richard protested, ‘I no fit tell Európean African story.’
‘Pretend I am a black man.’
‘You not be black man’, Richard laughed in embarrassment at the impropriety of such a suggestion. ‘Some tings dey for dis world’ (some things are ordained on this earth of ours).

We spent the night in Onitsha and left refreshed in the morning. Richard could hardly contain himself. He was now in his home territory which he had not seen for two years.. His home village, Obinze in the Owerri province, was not far away and he grew more excited with each passing minute.
‘How many miles to Obinze now, Richard?’ I asked
‘It nevah be far’ Richard replied
‘How many miles do you think?’
‘I never see de stone mile.’ This latter was a concrete post or milestone erected every so many miles with the intials of a destination and a number indicating the distance in miles. When eventually we reached Obinze there was no option but to let Richard spend some time with his family. We somehow made room for the bags of yams they quickly assembled for him and after this break we resumed the journey.

The posting to Port Harcourt was part of my training or learning-by-doing programme. I would have an area responsibility but a senior and a principal produce officer would be on hand in the station to keep an eye on me and provide advice should I need it. There was much to learn in a diverse region where the major production of palm produce took place and which took in the eastern side of the Niger Delta, involving extensive travel by car, launch and canoe. It also entailed visiting the best palm producing area in Nigeria in the lands just north of the delta.

On one of my first tours of inspection, I was cornered by market women in Mbawsi, in the heart of the palm producing region, who complained in the strongest possible terms that they were not being paid the full price for their palm kernels at the local buying station. This was not strictly within my remit but I talked to them as best I could and wrote out a form of words they could incorporate in a letter to the appropriate authority. It appeared to assuage them somewhat. When I recounted this to Bill Holland, the Senior District Officer, he told me I was lucky to get away with my clothes on - no doubt one of these statements meant to signify the exercise of extreme caution in such circumstances, I thought. His coded caution went back to how the Ibo women, when they believed a rumour they were going to have to pay a head tax just at the time of the Great Depression of 1929-31 that caused prices to plummet and virtually wiped out demand for palm oil and kernels, eventually gathered together in their thousands to give voice to their complaints. This was as a result, it is believed, of deliberations in secret societies which they were known to have. Such was the scale and force of the protest that it became known as the ‘Ibo Women’s War’ although there were some Ibibio women involved too. The women of Mbawsi had been to the fore in what for a time was a situation that the administration could not handle. The women had brushed aside police rushed to confront them and had injured many including Europeans. Some of the older women among them protesting at the price the produce buyers were paying them could well have been among the ‘soldiers’ of the Women’s War, less than 25 years before. A similar group had destroyed the commercial and administrative buildings in Aba and Opobo. The feminine militancy collapsed only when a British officer, presumably interpreting an administrative instruction, ordered Hausa troops to open fire on a gathering of them which had got out of hand. Well over 50 women died in the shooting and subsequent panic and many more were injured. This happened during my lifetime for goodness’ sake. It was only ten years after the Amritsar massacre in India when Ghurka soldiers opened fire on Hindu demonstrators on the command of a British general. Yet the shooting of the women was neither nationalist fervour nor an emotional response to the murder of Europeans as in Amritsar. It was women who believed they had a legitimate complaint about commercial matters that was not being addressed by the authorities and who had taken violent but not life-threatening action in an effort to seek redress. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any account in the histories of the time. It is not even mentioned in the History of Nigeria written by a former Acting Governor Sir Alan Burns, originally published in the year of the Ibo Women`s War and updated in 1947 some four years before I read it prior to going out to West Africa. Neither does it appear in the major imperial histories, presumably because it was not a turning point like Amritsar in the fortunes of the emerging Nigerian political opposition. It is nevertheless surprising that the issue has not been aired more widely considering the number and sex of those who died, the nature of their protest and its underlying cause. There is an enlightening study of the women`s revolt, The Road to Aba, by an American researcher H A Gailey.

The root cause of the tragedy was neither the depression nor the rumoured tax on the women but the failure of the system of indirect rule which had worked successfully in Northern Nigeria and which had been introduced by decree into the south of the country. It depended for its efficacy on the authority of the traditional chiefs through whom the system was given effect. In the Yoruba West the chiefs were established and by and large their authority was still recognised, albeit reluctantly by some. Among the Ibo and Ibibio people in the East, traditionally organised in family groups in their villages in what was a fairly complex social structure, the appointment of warrant chiefs unrelated to the traditional system was a complete disaster (pace Lord Lugard, military adventurer, mercenary, serial adulterer, colonial theorist and administrator and member of the League of Nations Mandates Commission, who has been credited - with only limited justification - with the initiation of this policy which was adopted in the North and extended later to Western and Eastern Nigeria and widely implemented in other colonies).

The rioting convinced the British authorities that they could no longer continue to impose this system on the Ibo people and others in the predominantly Ibo East. As a result, they had to revert to direct rule and eventually to a system which, if not through the traditional authority, was a reasonable compromise between traditional and modern colonial forms of administration producing decentralised local government agencies. A similar system was introduced in the Yoruba west anticipating the fact that an educated elite was beginning to challenge the authority of the traditional chiefs there. Indirect rule was seen for what it was, a flawed idea which might be put to use successfully in certain places but was anything but a universal concept in the governing of subject peoples despite the advocacy of Lugard, prompted and supported by his intellectually equal and politically astute wife Flora. Recent British imperial histories mention indirect rule and the influence of Lugard in introducing its general use in Nigeria and its adoption in other colonies, but fail to point out that it was in certain instances an abject failure, leaving the impression it was the one tried and applicable orthodoxy. It was dependent on the continuing power of the traditional rulers where hierarchy prevailed and presented a bulwark against educated nationalists and other radicals.

Touring in the creeks of the delta was dependent on water-borne transport and presented difficulties from an unexpected quarter. The Department of Marketing and Exports was looked on by some of the Nigeria Marine, it transpired, as an upstart department usurping some of its functions. Marine Department officers were reluctant to make a touring launch available claiming that the department should use its own launches. Since the Marketing and Exports launches were designed for harbour work only, they hadn’t a strong argument. I still had to resort to talking about the Produce Inspection Service rather than the department to which I was attached, for they had made launches available to it willingly when the service was attached to the Agricultural Department and that designation did not evoke the same astringent response. It was as if there was no common purpose underlying the work of the departments. I found it hard to credit that so petty a subject as allocation of resources, even scarce ones, could be subject to such childish animosities.

The last verse of the Lanark Grammar School song came to mind:
We may be four yet four in one,
One team with but one race to run,
One motto o’er all other flies
That all our strength in union lies.
A D Robertson, rector of the school and author of the words of the song would have been appalled as I was.

In Port Harcourt I again came across the Nigerian press as a raw force in politics. The Nigerian Eastern Guardian was a vigorous promoter of the Ibo cause and of Nigerian autonomy in the manner envisaged by Dr Azikiwe without the unrelenting editorial venom of that leader’s West African Pilot. It appeared to have a policy of finding stories to the discredit of Europeans and particularly civil service and business expatriates. When my turn came it was to inform me through its columns without any specific detail, that all was not well in my office and it was time I found out about it. If there was any truth in it, it did not surface again. If there was something - and I checked everything that I could think of - it could well have had a useful effect. Despite it’s sniping, as it might have been called from the standpoint of the authorities, the local news sheet struck a note of optimism for the future of Nigeria. That optimism was widely felt and was reflected in things like the name of the local bus company The Hope Rising Society.

It was also, I think, the Nigerian Eastern Guardian that gave me an early example of the use of euphemism having no place in the written language as indeed it most certainly had not in the spoken one, and in which the particular and the detailed are given emphasis at the expense of the general and the conceptual. A young man and woman, having engaged in the sexual act, could not get uncoupled. Hearing their cries, neighbours had entered the house they were in, lifted the unity on to a hand-cart, covered it with a sheet and wheeled it to hospital. The paper’s report of the incident described it as a series of actions in the order in which it happened, drawing on the accounts of eye-witnesses at each stage. At no time was reference made to the broader physiological and psychological aspects of the unusual but not unique occurrence.

Inevitably, because of the continuous delivery of produce to, and evacuation of produce from, its warehouses and wharves, the port had to have regular supervision. It was here I first came across phantom shipments when non-existing palm kernels were tallied out of the warehouse and into a ship. It was only shortly after that I came across the tallying into port storage of produce that never was. The first was only discovered on receipt by the buyer (produce tended to be sold in the terminal markets while on the high seas or in overseas warehouses) and often meant carelessness or collusion between the ship’s tallyman and Board’s tallyman or the diverting of the Board`s tallyman while the deed was done; it was without exception carried out when the warehouses were full as the accurate checking of stocks was nearly impossible in these circumstances. The second was more handlable and provable. Also associated with the port was the BOP or Bulk Oil Plant where drums and casks were emptied and pumped into tanks awaiting bulk shipment - one more development in reducing the costs of handling and distributing palm oil. The BOP was a place where I learnt much about the adulteration of palm oil by the process of adding chemicals that gave a distorted positive reading when standard tests were made before the drums were decanted.

Activities like these provided the backcloth to much of my learning. I realised that the process by which we eventually simplify the thousands of new signals received regularly, and make sense of them, is by classifying this welter of experiences, images and feelings. At 26 there are plenty of brain cells to cope with apparent complexity. As the tumblers began to fall, I started to realise that I was acquiring skills. The annual evaluation process was intended to measure the extent of these skills. My initial appointment was for three years. If I performed satisfactorily during that period I would be confirmed in my appointment. Those of us who joined at about the same time could be forgiven for thinking, even at this late stage of the colonial period, that a career could be pursued in the country.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003