Friday 14 September 2018

The Sardauna and SuperMac

Harold Macmillan (above) and Sir Ahmadu Bello

I recently stumbled upon a short piece entitled “Supermac and the Sardauna: Macmillan’s attitude to Class and Race in the Late Empire” by Andrew Cusack which I found to be most interesting.

It was inspired by a conversation relating to a post war British adage about British officers settling in Kenya while the sergeants went to Rhodesia. This was late empire, a period of decolonisation some peaceful and others fraught with violence.

Harold Macmillan, nicknamed ‘SuperMac’ and prime minister from 1957 to 1963, is of course a stand out figure of the times because of his “Wind of Change” speech in Cape Town before the South African Parliament while on a tour of Africa. In the speech, Macmillan referred to the African national consciousness which he likened to a “wind of change blowing through this continent”.

Macmillan enraged right-wing conservatives back home by explicitly rejecting the system of Apartheid, and insisting that black African independence had to come “whether we like it or not”.

A ‘One-Nation Tory’, Macmillan was an eloquent and thoughtful man who used humour very effectively in his speeches and everyday social and work-related intercourse. He was of the patrician class and held prejudices. Although he provided refugee Jewish families with shelter on his estate, when writing to a friend at the time of the Versailles Conference, he opined that the government of David Lloyd George was not “really popular, except with the international Jew”. And later on when noting how many Jewish individuals had been appointed to the cabinet of Margaret Thatcher, he joked “The thing about Margaret’s Cabinet is that it includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians”.

His patrician heritage brought out the snob in him as recalled by Peregrine Worsthorne who noted that SuperMac once claimed to have been more comfortable with African aristocrats than he was with the British elite of southern African colonial society:

Somebody at some point has to mention, in any discussion of British politics, snobbery and class. I remember travelling and reporting on the ‘Wind of Change’ speech. We went to stay on the last bit, just before going on to Salisbury, was it the Sardauna of Sokoto who was the premier of the Northern Nigerian region. MacMillan talked to us after he had seen him, he was flying on to Welensky the next day.

Macmillan used to have a sundowner with the correspondents covering his trip, and over whisky and sodas he told us how much more at home he felt with the Sardauna, who reminded him of the Duke of Argyll - ‘a kind of black highland chieftain’ - than he would feel in Salisbury as the guest of a former railwayman, Sir Roy Welensky. Snobbery, pure snobbery.

However, Cusack’s opinion that what he terms the Sardauna’s “wisdom and experience” would have benefited Nigeria at federal level and even prevented the first army coup is one many would find misplaced. Ahmadu Bello preferred to remain Northern premier because he knew that he could function, to use Margaret Thatcher’s words, as a “good backseat driver.”

Bello, who was a direct descendant of Usman Dan Fodio, the Fulani jihadist who founded the Sokoto Caliphate, feared domination of the mainly Muslim North by the largely Christian and Western-educated South, and implemented a sort of an affirmative action strategy which discriminated against Nigerians from the South. He was in no position to lead at federal level because he would have been incapable of even paying lip-service to the idea of serving all Nigerians.

Further than Macmillan’s snobbish disposition, the British generally favoured the Northern emirs, because they fitted into the empire-ruling strategy of ‘indirect rule’ practised in Africa and Asia.

While Macmillan lived to a ripe old age, Bello was one of the civilian leaders assassinated during the army mutiny of January 1966. A counter-coup staged by mainly Northern military officers in July, would lead to the Civil War fought between 1967 and 1970.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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