Trevor Clark, ed. Was It Only Yesterday? The Last Generation of Nigeria's "Turawa." Bristol: British Empire Commonwealth Museum Press, 2002. xi + 352 pp. Photographs. Maps. Appendixes. Bibliography. 5 £25:00. Cloth. 5 £15:00. Paper.
This is a remarkable book. Yet it may discomfit many Americans, for it makes clear why the "boy scout" approach to imperialism may in the end be more successful than the bluntly commercial variety. Indeed it is possible that the subtleties of Indirect Rule, as demonstrated so brilliantly in Turawa ("White Men") may yet gain appreciative consideration in Washington as options are pondered in these increasingly difficult days of post-Saddam occupation in Iraq.
Aside from compiling a masterly portrait from an enormous variety of highly individual, brightly colored creations on the Turawa canvas, Trevor Clark has edited a book with several strengths. First, from his selection of topics and arrangement of contributions, the reader gains a panoramic yet detailed "feel" for the country of the north, a land of astonishing variety, great power, and appeal. I was particularly captivated by descriptions of the well-forested and watered Cameroonian border territories: their wild, remote, mountainous terrain and their fiercely independent animist peoples, many of whom have managed to hold out over the centuries against the sword of Islam and dominance of the Fulani. To the consternation of the "politically correct," these same peoples voted against independence in the U.N.-monitored 9 199 59 plebiscite.
Turawa's second major contribution is the picture it conveys of the north-south politics of colonial Nigeria, and more specifically, of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, leader of the north's approximately 30 million people during the turbulent, politically intense 1950s and early '60s, who figures in nearly every section. What comes through is the extent to which Bello was a fiery autocrat of almost lethal force, with the result that successive governors had to handle all administrative matters-which perforce were almost always highly political-very carefully. Supported by most of the Muslim north and many fiercely loyal British officials, the Sardauna wanted nothing to do with the south, with democracy, or with Nigerian independence. To the Sardauna, opposition party leaders were enemies of the state. One British DO who spoke up for the opposition leader Joseph Tarka so enraged the Sardauna that he demanded his execution. Yet it was along the democratic path that Whitehall had decreed Nigeria must go, and quickly.
How then to keep the Sardauna, supreme leader of the vast and numerically dominant north, "on board"? Comments made by many contributors offer compelling insights into the persistent efforts requiredingenious initiatives at which the British, under pressure, excelled. The concluding observations in chapter 30 add still another dimension. Rather surprisingly, the immediate public response of many northerners to the assassination of the Sardauna in the January 1966 coup was not one of shock and sadness, but rather "indifference, even suppressed elation, as though a great weight had been lifted" (312). Yet at a deeper level, other more powerful and dangerous feelings connected to regional pride and outrage at perceived religious sacrilege had been ignited. We are all-too-aware of the horrific results that came about when these burst forth. Muslims revere their faith with a fierce passion and with a directness and sincerity that few non-Muslims comprehend. Perhaps in this experience there is a very modern cautionary tale.
For me, the final message of Turawa relates to the extraordinary Brits themselves. What incredible industry these astonishingly few men (and in the later stages, women) showed in every aspect of their work. Often only one British field officer had responsibility for up to a million people and for most of the work that such administration entailed: all the reports, touring, Native and Magistrate's Court hearings, tax collection, adjudication, and police actions; the battle for sparse public funds, and then, if successful, the arduous tasks of building roads, schools (all too few), dispensaries, of supplying piped water-the list seems endless.
Out of all this diligent, purposeful activity there emerged the preeminent feature of the Pax Bntannica, namely, the grass-roots "field rule" that met Whitehall orders yet operated with a light hand and sought to advance and protect the interests of the local peoples. Measured by the Lugardian ethic that each man was expected to bear his burden and to perform independently and effectively, these Turawa, to a remarkable extent, succeeded. As Clark observes, "For the great majority of working officials it was always obvious enough what the immediate job was, and they simply got on and did it.... Their loftiest ambition was very local, in no way global." Not surprisingly, he adds, "those who did all this were gradually becoming the local people themselves" (289). The local people, for their part, as they came to recognize that these Turawa were often not only persons of great character, astonishing eccentricity, and passionate pursuits, but also skillful, dedicated, sensible people who truly cared for them, responded in kind. The most telling testimony to the respect and affection with which this "thin white line" of British field officers was regarded was the earnest request of local people throughout the north at the time of independence that the Turawa not leave. After the debacle of 1966, a senior Nigerian official pleaded, "We want the British back." Casting a wistful retrospective eye over a truncated sixty-year period of imperial rule, the British officer concerned could only respond: "The British are not coming back. You will have to sort this out for yourselves" (320).
Insofar as there is any substantive weakness in this book, it is that there is an enormous amount, arguably too much, to take in; Turawa is many books in one. While the topogaphical and political maps are most useful and the many photos fascinating adjuncts to the text, it is a pity that the type size is small and hence difficult for older eyes to read. The list of contributors at the end is in itself an interesting read; and the bibliography (compiled with the assistance of Anthony Kirk-Greene) provides a good balance of older and more recent references. The appended "Hausa Words and Expressions" is redundant, since most are defined in the text. The most serious drawback of Turawa is the absence of an index. Given the vast number of personal references in particular, much time is wasted and frustration generated by the need for repeated searches.
East Grinstead, Sussex, England
Copyright African Studies Association Dec 2003
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved