Fifty years ago, a green innocent 22-year-old, I took a plane to Nigeria. Four days later, on 15 January 1966, there was the first coup d’état and life in Nigeria was never the same again.
It changed my life too. The previous year had not been good: I messed up my Finals, got a poor degree and had to abandon the planned postgrad research. Then I had two operations and an unscheduled two months in hospital. (You see, the habit of long hospital stays started young… …).
I was adrift and, on impulse, applied to do Voluntary Service Overseas, saying I wanted to go somewhere remote and rural. In those days standards were less demanding, so I got a posting, to Kashmir. But then war flared up in Kashmir, so I was sent to nice, safe Nigeria. Ha ha.
I landed at Kano in the night and stepped off the plane to another world, warm, pungent smells and nearby, a band of horsemen, armed with rifles and swords. (They were apparently waiting for the plane of the Sardauna of Sokoto – prime minister of the North).
I stayed a couple of nights with a British Council officer, who gave me his take on Nigerian politics. Six years after independence the received wisdom was that Nigeria was a successful example of the ‘Westminster model’ of democracy. But the BC man thought otherwise: one of these days, he said, the shooting will start.
He then put me on the tiny pre-war Dakota which was to take me the 400 miles to Sokoto, where I would be teaching in a brand new Federal Government College. At the school I was greeted by the Principal, the only other non Nigerian and shown to what was to be my first home on campus.
The next morning another Englishman turned up in a Land Rover. He explained that he represented the British community in Sokoto and he was there to advise me there had been a ‘spot of bother’ in Nigeria. But nothing to worry about – Brits were not in danger.
The spot of bother was a military coup in which several key politicians, including the Nigerian Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the head of the Northern state parliament, the Sardauna of Sokoto, had been killed. It was the Sardauna who had been going to officially open our school!
There then followed an amazing year – another coup, massacres and riots, the army billeted on our school, and at one stage a swap of pupils, with us receiving northerners fro the East, and our Ibo pupils being sent home for safety.
If you are 22/3 and pretty feckless, all this was quite exciting. But I cared also for our pupils, some of the sixth formers were my age, the younger ones were twelve and upwards. And I had already identified with the north of Nigeria, populated mainly by Hausa and Fulani, and predominantly Muslim.
After my travels, I wrote this article for the Guardian. (My Nigerian experience was a major factor in my decision I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.)
I had a great time in Nigeria, with a challenging teaching job and busy social life. I was cosseted by my steward, seen here with me and his wife. Trying hard to remember his name…. a delightful, gentle Fulani.
I made a lifelong friend, Wenol (teaching in another a Sokoto school). After Nigeria we did a memorable overland trip, from Cape Town to Cairo. And she and her husband, Paul, have stayed here in France.
All of that is fifty years ago! Hard to believe. But my memories of this year have remained vivid all my life.