BBC's The Empire's Last Officers

On that note, last weekend (two separate post because otherwise Blogger seems to be deleting those videos), there also was an interesting (and I use the term in its most ambiguous sense that has been suggested to me by an English friend) documentary about John Smith, one of the last colonial officers to be posted to Nigeria, in his case, somewhere outside of Kano (and the author of Colonial Cadet in Nigeria. He genuinely seems to have loved his time in Nigeria and identifies it as the best time of his live. This is Smith’s one commentary as posted by Jeremy Weate on Naijablog.

"In late June this year the BBC took me to Kano for four days, in connection with programmes being made to celebrate Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary on 1st October …

I have no idea how the programmes will turn out. I was constantly being recorded and no doubt contradicted myself time and again! My apologies if the result offends. This letter, sent out with the blessing of Nigel Beazley, is primarily to give you notice of the programmes but I’ll include my impressions, which may or may not come across in them.

The BBC aim was to link me up with somebody to whom I had handed over at Independence who, it was naively imagined, would still be doing the same job today! I explained that not only was this impossible but that anyone under 60 would have little idea of what life was like under the British.

As I had rather expected, we are not much remembered even by those well over 60 except as a bit of an interruption to normality. This was, of course, Kano! I linked up with Sulaiman Baffa, who I had trained as an administrator at the Institute of Administration, just after Independence. He lives in Kano, looked after us well and was extremely generous of his time and in his hospitality. His family was very supportive and his well-educated daughters and granddaughters a huge plus because they belied preconceptions the BBC team had about Islam. The best time of all, unrecorded and unfilmed, was one evening when the Baffa family entertained us. It could have been an Islington dinner party! We visited Hadejia, where I first met Baffa, and the Institute of Administration at Zaria where Sam Richardson is well remembered but he and he alone. Sadly, there was no time to go anywhere else.

Generally, I felt that things were better than when I was last in Nigeria in 1991 and I came away mildly optimistic. The first rains had arrived and it was encouraging to see the same good farming practice. There was more ploughing with oxen, however, especially in Jigawa State (Hadejia, Gumel, Kazaure and the new emirates of Ringim and Dutse that incorporate a substantial chunk of the Kano emirate we knew). Food crops dominated, groundnuts and cotton seemingly almost a thing of the past close to Kano.

The roads were excellent. In Kano the single track road I used to cycle down to the NA offices (still there) from the Provincial Office (unchanged but now the State Ministry of Works) is a six lane highway at the Kofar Nassarawa end. I saw more motor cycles (Chinese 125ccs) in four days than I have seen in my entire life. Traffic appeared chaotic but was extremely well mannered, courteous with little use of horns and no signs of road rage! Kano has many sets of traffic lights, superior to ours - recording the number of seconds you have to wait until they change.

Thousands attended Friday prayers in the mosque, the area round it and on all the adjacent roads. The emir still rides to the mosque but was unaccompanied by any other horsemen. His dogarai are still there in the same red and green uniforms but now ride in smart cars painted in the same colours. Gidan dan Hausa, residence of John Purdy when I arrived in 1951 is a museum, somewhat in need of care and organisation but little altered.

Talking to young people I was impressed by the quality of the English spoken. The BBC World Service Hausa programme is still immensely popular and I enjoyed finding people of all ages who had a good word to say for it, which I made them repeat to the BBC team!

Other impressions: I only saw one blindman being led by a small boy. Beggars were few but one evening I did see a big man distributing alms to some fifty people gathered in orderly fashion in the roadside by his house. In four days I did not see a single person smoking or a single person hawking cigarettes. Kola nuts are no longer hawked but sold in shops and are expensive. Dates were being hawked in their place. The hawkers at roundabouts and traffic lights all sold SIM cards for mobile phones! Wood is still the main fuel for cooking and it was good to see our communal forest reserves still being kept up. Water is at a premium. There are water stations everywhere in the city where people buy from containers and hundreds of small boys hawk plastic bags of water for ablutions before prayers. I did not see any vultures anywhere and they used to be a menace at Kano airport. I was told they had been eaten and people certainly don’t look as well nourished as they did in the fifties. Everyone was pleasant and polite to us – the only exception being one of the several security checks as we left at the airport, trying to relieve us of the poufs we had been given!"

There are bits about this that I loved but somewhat the discussion of British colonial rule in Nigeria left a slightly bitter aftertaste – here, somehow, they didn’t get the tone right. The video of the documentary is not available online anywhere as far as I can tell but the BBC provides a podcast you can listen to (c.24mins). Hope it works.


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