by Ian McCall


He was a man of authority in the community. The local cocoa farmers, and particularly the intermediaries who brought in most of the cocoa for inspection, held him in awe because he could hold up the approval of the quality of the cocoa they had brought to the buying station and therefore the release of the payment for their produce by the company acting as buying agent for the Marketing Board. In effect, this reduced their ability to finance further purchases. The Board was determined to maintain the quality of cocoa from Nigeria and the Cameroons (or that part of them administered under the Nigerian Government) and the produce inspector was the local enforcer, sometimes with an exceptionally heavy hand, of that determination.

Chocolate was originally discovered by Spanish conquistadores at the court of Montezuma in what is now Mexico. The cocoa or cacao tree Theobroma cacao (Cacao, Food of the Gods) was brought in the first instance by the Portuguese from South America to São Tome, a fertile island just touching the equator off the coast of Gabon, and its cultivation spread from there to other parts of West Africa where it was taken up mainly by Christian farmers, in Nigeria by the Yoruba whose efforts stimulated the economy to the benefit of many at a time when the market for palm oil was weak and prices poor. The earliest attempt to grow cocoa in what was to become Nigeria was made by a Chief Iboningi who established a plantation in Bonny in 1847 with little success as the land of the delta was not suited to the growing of cocoa.

The ancient Aztec and Maya civilisations drank Xocolatl (literally ‘bitter water’) ritually, believing it to have restorative, aphrodisiac and even magical qualities. They often took it with hot peppers as a stew. Later when it was combined with sugar as that commodity became progressively cheaper with the increasing, slave-driven production in the West Indies and in South America, it assumed a popularity that it has maintained ever since. Nigerian cocoa had a reputation for constant quality but less flavour than South American cocoa. Its advantage was that it was mild and could blend well with any flavouring a manufacturer cared to use. It was the produce inspector who was the local enforcer of the Board’s determination to show that the quality of the cocoa transplanted into Africa, and into Nigeria in particular, was as good commercially as, if not better than, that which grew in its original habitat.

It was the inspector’s job to ensure that cocoa was of the right grade, that is, did not contain an undue proportion of under-fermented and defective beans for the grade as defined in the regulations made under the Produce Inspection Ordinance (these give an undesirable taste to the cocoa), or any trash or animal ordure, that every bag weighed the required 142½ pounds without the weight of the bag and bore the allocated identification markings of the Licensed Buying Agent and the identification of the store where it had been graded. The Board Executive had had enough complaints in the past. One of its officers liked to tell the (apocryphal and linguistically inexact) story of the German buyer who was disappointed that the last shipment was ‘with goatschitt gemixt; please ensure cocoa and goatschitt are sent separately in future consignments so that we can blend to our own formula’. The Produce Inspector had to be vigilant. It was his steel seal press number that was impressed on the seals which secured the bags as a guarantee of quality and which could be traced back to him. There was also a dropmark on the bags which could connect any consignment to its place of origin. Woe betide him if a supervising officer found he had been negligent. And there was the additional checktest done at the port of shipment which could undo him if it was found not to conform to the grade indicated.

The produce inspector’s powers, although not as extensive as those of supervisory and senior staff, put him in a position of influence in relation to smaller local traders and employees of politically less powerful licensed buying agents. This was especially so in one-man stations. There were many stories, unsubstantiated but convincing, of petty tyranny and corruption on the part of some inspectors. There was in some places a recognised scale of (illicit) fees payable to produce inspectors to have the produce inspected and passed. Any traders who refused to pay were allegedly made to wait for such long periods that their cocoa fell below standard. Occasionally a licensed buying agent or his senior employee would complain that these payments were above what was recognised as the norm but would not be prepared to confirm this in court. This was a kind of situation that I was continually faced with. I just could not obtain proof.

The frustration was such that a focus on corruption could become obsessive. I eventually decided that if I could not beat the rotten system, then perhaps if I could go about it in a more subtle way that allowed the straight inspection staff to get on without being cajoled or bullied into slowing down their rate of work. The instance of rubber illustrates the point. I received so many complaints in Benin that inspectors were slowing down the period it took to attend for inspection and the rate of inspection itself - again without a willingness to be a witness - that with the very considerable help of my assistant produce officer I conceived a strategy. After satisfying ourselves of the amount of rubber a reasonably diligent inspector could grade in a day, allowing for rejections, I issued a standing instruction to the effect that if anyone could not meet this norm they should draw it to the attention of his assistant produce officer. It also implied that such was the importance of the instruction that failure to implement it was prima facie an admission of incompetence. This was reinforced by supervisory staff rewarding desired behaviour and penalising that which was not. There was a constant game on the part of some bolder inspectors of trying to get round the instruction and of supervisors aiming to frustrate their wiles. It was as well that there were many produce inspectors who played within the rules, whether written or unwritten. Some were indeed exemplary.

The relative wealth of the produce inspector extended the power he exercised to the social sphere, particularly in remoter stations. Earlier in his career Ade Olusanya (real name best forgotten) realised the power he could exercise in the creek village of Frukama. The girls adored his life style and he had made a number of conquests to the consternation of the elders and the young men of the village. I received a letter presumably written at the behest of the elders of the village or of someone with an axe to grind. It is reproduced below.

The Produce Officer Frukama town
Warri 9/2/54

We have the honour most respectfully to forward this my application to you that the Produce Examiner always fornicated the women in Frukama and for this reason he has no time to go work. Now in this case, he will give the other to the head labourer as to pass the kernels. The action of this produce examiner that is living at Frukama is quite difficient from the other one which you are transfering here. So if you think this matter of his fornication to be lie, he has paid £8 for the damage. We have the honour to be Sir
your Obedient Servant

N.B. The name of the woman which he has fornicated is called Olome.

As usual there was no name to connect the authors to the allegation lest they be discriminated against when their produce was being inspected. The inspector was transferred when his time for leave came, as he would have been in any case, to a bigger station where he was supervised and did not exercise the same power. But the long time organising his own time had led him into slipshod ways and his representations were eventually called for when he was found in contravention of the regulations, as to why disciplinary action should not be taken against him. He had to submit these representations in triplicate within 24 hours of its receipt and had sat up all night making his defence. He had told his Area Officer that he was sure he, the Area Officer, ‘would not want to see his interest in his work sacrificed on the altar of prejudice’. Such use of metaphor was exceptional and almost certainly lifted from a text he had read as I came upon the identical phrase on at least one other occasion.

Despite an appeal to the Director, he was given a Letter of Warning which meant that if he slipped from grace once more he would receive a Letter of Warning and Severe Censure which would put him at risk of dismissal if he should offend yet again. There were considerable advantages in being a P.I. and later developments showed he did not want to ruin his chances of a rewarding career. There is little doubt that Produce Inspector Grade 11 Olusanya pulled up his socks. His appearance improved. He bought a new helmet of the sola topee variety with fresh-looking red puggaree round it which marked him out as a produce inspector, started to press his trousers and generally comported himself in a way that would commend him to anyone. He seemed to feel the part as well as to look it.

Transfer to a station far from home was sometimes preferred by an inspector. If, as a result of a father’s early death, an uncle steps in to assist and educate the family, he is considered a generous and decent person. If an Ibo did not do so, he would be roundly denounced. A clerk or a teacher or a produce inspector or anyone in a relatively profitable or exalted position, and having a good income in the eyes of his fellows, was well and truly fleeced by his impecunious relations. He might well have been helped by them to obtain an education by which he reached his position, and they regarded it as a good investment for the future. They expected him also to use his influence to get good jobs for their children. It was not surprising that some of those from whom the dividends were expected sometimes requested to be transferred as far away as possible from their relatives. This was not that they could avoid their obligations but that they wished to limit the number to whom they made periodic payments. The general view among officials was that excessive hospitality and indiscriminate maintenance of relatives were likely to diminish as the economy grew and commercial and social life increasingly shed the habits of a subsistence economy. It was perhaps no coincidence that a number of inspectors should choose to supplement their earnings with unacceptable demands on those whom they were paid to serve.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003