The United Kingdom’s current High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, trended lately. The occasion was when she rejoiced with a fellow female, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, selected recently as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization. Laing joined the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge online in which females dressed in the unique style of Nigeria’s former Finance Minister. That time, her surname once again makes me wonder if she’s a relative of a former senior British colonial officer in Nigeria, E.H.B. Laing. As of 1922, until the end of the decade when he retired from colonial service, E.H.B. Laing was the Resident (equivalent to a state governor now) of Zaria Province (now Kaduna State) in Northern Nigeria. He was praised by his superiors for the many years of excellent service he rendered to the Crown at the time he left.
Efforts made to ascertain whether or not Catriona Laing and E.H.B. Laing came from the same family didn’t yield result. It would be interesting though to know that the female Laing and the male Laing were indeed relatives, as both rose to great heights in the service of the Crown. For in a way, and now that I think of it, both are diplomats, as they both work overseas for the UK Government and prove themselves to be worthy representatives.
However, this isn’t the only reason I focus on the ebullient UK High Commissioner. Calling attention to her in regard to her family history and the contributions they have made to country provides me an opportunity to generally look at the British diplomats, whether as colonial officers serving overseas or members of a Mission. It makes me zero in on how Nigeria’s representatives can be the best for the nation as the UK’s have traditionally proved to be.
For the purpose of some materials that I’m working on, I’ve had to do some extensive documentary research as well as visit historical landmarks left behind by colonial officers in Nigeria. In the process, I’ve had cause to marvel at how the British government sent its people to remote corners of the world; there they co-opted people into their own social, political, economic and even religious patterns. Officers who were in the field sometimes paid the ultimate price even, their graves spreading across Africa to Asia, especially India where Britain had been several decades before it directly took over the administration of Nigeria’s north in 1900. In fact, lives of several generations of Brits were irredeemably impacted by absentee fathers as colonial officers who sometimes never spent more than a month at home with family and friends in any year. The colonial enterprise was implemented at a great personal cost, if not national cost; yet these selfless officers did their job in such a manner that they earned the respect of native sarakuna (leadership) in Nigeria’s north.
When one considers a certain period when there were no concrete buildings with corrugated roofs, no tap water, no cars, no electricity in parts of Nigeria where colonial officers served, one would begin to wonder how these patriots of their nation left comfort in the UK for discomfort in bush houses in the colonies. I’ve been to sites of the dilapidated, and mostly abandoned houses that these colonial officers lived in especially in northern Nigeria. The best of them erected with mud and plastered over came into use from the 1930s and 1940s. Some of these structures wouldn’t even pass for Boys’ Quarters by today’s standard. Some had wells where residents fetched water, and a laundry, a combination of which hardly looked better than a local dyer’s operational area. If these were the luxuries of the 1930s onward, then what was the situation in the decades before then? In some places, the residence of the British Divisional Officer was made of locally hewn stones and cement-like mud from the same source. Many of these structures have collapsed, their stones strewn across the ground, and where they lay in rows on some wasteland the only means of knowing that a wall once stood there. Yet, such ruins were of such historical significance that I took pictures of them just to indicate in my books thus: “This was the site of the residence of the first Divisional Officer” of so and so Division. This is especially the case with regard to some of the more colourful British colonial officers whose names and exploits persist in local sayings till today.
Different commentators have focused on different aspects of the British colonial enterprise; some of them not so complimentary. Having visited the difficult terrains where these colonial officers operated decades ago, I don’t give attention to uncomplimentary narrative. Rather, I consider the kind of courage some these officers must have had to live and make a success of a national policy for their country as they did. The place and prestige of the British on the world at one stage (Pax Britannica) depended on the dedicated efforts of these officers who worked and died for their nation no matter what the odds were. They brought under British rule some of the wilder areas of the world. These officers braved it all, travelling for months in the bush, across hills and valleys, to reach tribes in their remote locations; they trekked in rain forests and across the savannah without an idea of where they would lay their heads when night fell. They hardly spoke the local language and they had to take time to understand local cultures. But with tact and will, they got the job done. I hardly see them give excuses for failing in the records which they left behind; rather, they made the most of whatever situation they found themselves in.
How these individuals did what they had to do under tough conditions has remained a thing of wonder for me. Yet, their type is what gives a nation its character, its greatness, men and women who don’t give excuses but confront difficult situations wherever they are sent, bringing results home to people and country. It’s a virtue, or is it strength of character, that I don’t fail to admire.
The foregoing is against the backdrop of some Nigerian diplomats and representatives who travel high and low to get appointed by the government. Then, they turn around to give excuses why they don’t make the most of the assignment allotted to them. On this page, I’ve praised some of Nigeria’s representatives who, in spite of challenges, manage to leave a mark where they are posted. Perhaps, my on-the-spot assessment of what the British colonial officers had to pass through in order to bring under British rule remote parts of Nigeria makes me have this disposition. Perhaps, my personal view with regard to getting things done first and later complain about the challenges faced makes me have enormous respect for these courageous colonial officers. Whichever it is, when Nigeria’s diplomats excuse non-performance as some often do, I switch off. Even a president or a state governor doesn’t have all he needs to do all he desires to do. Everyone essentially manages to make the most of every situation in which all things are never always equal.
As such, I expect the latest batch of Nigerian ambassadors to not return home and tell some of us why they cannot project the positive image of Nigeria, as well as bring in investments. The President whom they go out there to represent didn’t say less in the course of their induction. As for Okonjo-Iweala that Laing celebrated the other time, she’s always given me and this nation good representation, both in her unique dressing and her performance. She did it at the IMF. I’m sure she will do the same at the WTO. At the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adeshina, about whom I wrote on several occasions in the past has proved that he would never bring shame to me and Nigeria. It’s representatives like these I like to applaud.
As for female Laing proper, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference whether or not she’s related to the male Laing. What matters is that she’s been a good representative of her nation just as the late Laing was. Such long line of worthy representatives that the UK has traditionally produced is what I want Nigeria’s new ambassadors to emulate wherever they are located.