The Corrupting Influences of the West

One of the stated assumptions of colonial administration was that elites would emerge from among African peoples to provide leadership in the effort to create independent states.  These people would combine African and European knowledge in their leadership roles.  Before reading this excerpt, think of earlier statements you have read.  How did Nigerian leaders see themselves on the eve of independence?   How did the writers of the 1945 Declaration to the United Nations and the 1921 London Manifesto portray themselves?  What does this author, writing in the World War II era, think of the people who had "European" knowledge and worked with the British in the colonial era?

With the decline of the influence of the kings comes the loss of prestige of the nobles and warriors. Warriors are disarmed by the British and the spirit of aggression on the part of the young warriors is destroyed by Christianity. War is looked upon as evil--even a defensive war. In all the important military centers of Nigeria, the first step taken by the British was to destroy all arms, and in 1890 there was a declaration during the Brussels Conference enforcing a restriction on the importation of arms and ammunition into Africa. Native manufacture was also prohibited. But disarming alone could not have put a stop to the warlike spirit of the Nigerian warriors. The government could not have been altogether successful in the attempt to suppress all the spirit of aggression and the use of guns. What really disarmed Nigeria was the Christian missionary. While the generals and admirals in Europe were receiving their national recognition, by being granted medals and knighthoods and other titles, the brave warriors of Nigeria were being branded "savage barbarians." While the monuments of English soldiers find places in English cathedrals and churches, the Christian missionary taught the gospel of turning the other cheek until every initiative toward repelling an enemy was lost. With this condition in operation, and with the involuntary loss of sovereign powers of the kings, the warrior class has just about disappeared. To talk about war in Nigeria has become taboo. The king's nobles were mostly "recruited" from the military class and from those that contributed some ammunition and other materiel for the prosecution of war. Now that there is no military class, the number of nobles has declined until the class only exists as a ghost of a past regime. There are still, however, those of the nobles who attend upon the person of the "chiefs," but no one realizes more than they that the substance of their power and prestige has been removed from its venerable abode!

Under this new regime in which the military and noble class do not count for much, a new class is emerging to take the place of the old. This is the so-called "educated" class or intelligentsia. By this is not meant a very highly educated group schooled under a realistic system; nor am I talking about that purely disinterested elite trained to understand and able to interpret its life in relation to other lives and to evaluate its culture in terms of other cultures. Rather, this class will be traced first to the "foreigner"--that African class which I have mentioned before--the immigrant who came in the early 1850's from Sierra Leone and the West Indies. Not much is written about this group, but it appears that when they came they able to understand they were able to understand the English language, which Nigerians did not then understand. When the British government came in, its officials made them interpreters, chief clerks, heads of police departments, and so forth. They were first lawyers and business middlemen. They had access to the kings, and thus were something of a go-between for the Europeans and the African potentates. They took advantage of the situation by initiating a system of bribery never known in Nigerian political history. This was made quite easy for them by their unchallenged ability to misrepresent words and even views while acting as "interpreters." The party which gave the "interpreters" the greater bribe won the case. The ease with which this was done can be understood. By suppression of evidence, by manipulated emphasis, and by sheer intimidation, these men wielded a power against which even the chiefs" themselves were impotent. Instead of trusting their lords and warriors, and the elders who had religious and moral sanctions in such cases, these paramount rulers found themselves at the mercy of the interpreters and clerks and lawyers on whose shoulders the British placed the responsibility of advice and direction in their relations with the indigenous Nigerian governments. But these "educated" lawyers and interpreters, although originally African, knew nothing about Nigerian culture, and they did not care to know. Most of them were Christian, and everything in Nigerian culture, to them, was a sign of heathenism. Their, power came from the British, and hence the tended to despise even the Nigerian rulers whom they could control indirectly in many ways at that time.

As time went on, English schools were established in Nigeria, and young boys attended these with but one ambition: to learn enough to become clerks or interpreters, or employees of European traders. From these "pinnacles" they thenceforward surveyed their ancestral culture with high contempt, obeying no laws and observing no rules but the Englishman's. This contempt for culture and institutions of their own people, then, became the sign of "education."

Nwafor Orizu