"How Britain Undermined Democracy in Africa": An Exclusive Account of Nigeria's First Elections

By Ankomah, Baffour; Price, Stuart | New African, May 2005 | Go to article overview

"How Britain Undermined Democracy in Africa": An Exclusive Account of Nigeria's First Elections


Ankomah, Baffour, Price, Stuart, New African


Today, Britain goes around the world preaching against election malpractices. But in 1956 and 1959, Britain deliberately interfered with Nigeria's independence elections so its favoured friends in the North would dominate the country after independence. On 13 April 2005, we went to interview one of the British colonial officers involved in the affair, Harold Smith. "A Methodist, brought up to be decent, honest and obey the law" (his own words), Smith was the only British official in Nigeria at the time who would not do Whitehall's bidding and influence the elections. For that, he has suffered for the past 45 years during which the British authorities have offered him "inducements", including a knighthood, to keep quiet or ... Having refused the inducements, Smith has not been allowed to work since 1960. He believes he was even poisoned, and his phone constantly bugged. This is a story that shames London and makes its criticisms of other people's elections sound hypocritical and insincere. Baffour Ankomah and Stuart Price report.

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When you hear British government officials thunder about election malpractices these days, you think butter will not melt in their mouths. But in 1956 and 1959, the British deliberately influenced Nigeria's independence elections so that the Northerners would dominate the country following independence. And for 45 years (since 1960), one of the British colonial officials involved in the affair has been trying in vain to blow the whistle, but the UK media which likes to think of itself as being free and fair, will not touch the story even with a barge pole apparently on national interest grounds.

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This story will shock most people, especially Nigeria's multitude of ethnic groups who are still discussing the mechanism of living together as one nation at the national conference convened in Abuja by President Olusegun Obasanjo's government three months ago. New African can now reveal that but for the British dirty work, the Northern domination of Nigeria which has caused so much angst in the country and which led both to the coup of January 1966 and the subsequent "civil war" (1967-1970) that killed two million people would not have arisen and, therefore, the current national conference in Abuja would not have been necessary.

To fully understand this shocking story, we need to go back in time to 1956. The sun is about to set on the mighty British Empire over which the sun was said to never set. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's landmark "winds of change" speech delivered in South Africa is having an effect. After much agonising, the British are retreating from West Africa almost in a panic.

As Harold Smith, the star of this story, puts it: "The withdrawal took place in haste, because world opinion was beginning to demand that the colonial powers spend money on their African possessions. If this suggests that Britain enhanced its colonies, it simply is not true. If this had been the case, then Britain would have left behind many more factories, plantations, roads, ports and means of communication in Africa than she did ... In 1947, Sir Hugh Foot found that there was not a single university in Nigeria or technical school, and in the North not one secondary school."

But there is no turning back. Britain has to grant independence to its African colonies. But in Nigeria, the same Britain, led by the same Harold Macmillan, will not leave until it makes sure that in Harold Smith's words, "its stooges in the North" will dominate the country after independence. It does not matter whether the Northerners are up to the task or not. As it happened, they were not! And Nigeria has suffered for it until this day.

Perhaps the Africans were expecting too much from Britain. As Harold Smith says: "When did Britain itself become a democracy, and has it yet achieved that state? With universal male suffrage in 1884 or when all women got the vote in 1928? …

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