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Harold Smith, the big lie, and Nigeria 2019

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Harold Smith was an Englishman who was born in Manchester in 1927. He was educated at Oxford. He joined the Colonial Service in 1954. He was deployed to Nigeria in 1955 and lived in Lagos, working in the Ministry of Labour headquarters under the administration of the then Governor-General James Robertson.
Sometime in 2013, at the age of 80, he gave an interview on BEN Television, a UK-based network much patronised by Nigerians in the diaspora.
The long and short of his interview with BEN Television was that he wanted to get a burden of guilty feeling off his mind in the twilight of his days.
He had travelled to Nigeria at the age of 26 with his wife. He had settled into the rhythm of a colonial officer’s life with its genteel perquisites.
As time went on, he began to learn that things were not quite what they seemed. The colonial project and the preparations for Independence in the erstwhile colony of Nigeria were not being executed with honesty and transparency, but with a hidden agenda based on the British perception of who were the most pliable among the people on the ground, and what arrangements could best guarantee British interests in perpetuity.
He was, he disclosed, approached by other officers and told, off the record, that if he “cooperated”, he would be rapidly promoted and set up comfortably for the rest of his life. There might even be a knighthood on offer down the line. There were a number of ways he was supposed to “cooperate”. One of them was in falsifying the results of the census to give the northern part of the emerging nation a much larger population than the south. Another was in facilitating the “rigging” of elections against the Action Group in the western region.
Mr Smith described his initial shock at the things he was asked to do, and his refusal to “play ball”. In the end, apparently, the actions were “successfully” executed, even without his cooperation. Much has been made of the sensational disclosures of this frail and dour-looking Englishman, who has since died.
For those who believe Harold Smith, Nigeria the nation was founded on a big lie. Population figures were deliberately doctored to favour one section over another. The nation was a booby-trapped project, programmed from the start to fail.
There is an additional detail to Harold Smith’s story.

After his Nigerian experience, and indeed for much of the rest of his life, he was plagued with ill health. He was diagnosed with Tropical Sprue. Tropical Sprue is a chronic disease of the small intestine characterised by ulcers in the mouth, weight loss, tiredness and perpetually poor absorption and digestion of food. It is a miserable existence that often defies cure.
As the discussion wore on, Smith dropped a suggestion that it was possible for such a “disease” to have been inflicted through the sinister work of the British Secret Service, who were past masters in such matters. This, and his failure to get a golden handshake or be rewarded with a knighthood were the price he paid for his refusal to cooperate with the project to distort the Nigeria project, even though the distortion was still accomplished over his objections.
The Harold Smith narrative plays pat into the script of many people who see fact that Nigeria is structured to favour one section of the nation over the rest as the root cause of the country’s failure to thrive. Suspicion of manipulation of census figures has affected even the census exercises conducted after Independence. Since political power and financial allocations are substantially based on numbers, it seems guaranteed that whoever “has the numbers” will rule (or misrule) the nation in perpetuity.A ready example of present-day reality that plays into this narrative is that Lagos – recognized internationally as the most populated mega-city in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated population in the region of 20 million people, the “official” population figure from 2012 is barely 11 million people. This figure and its small number of local governments remain the basis for determining its entitlement from the federal purse.
Many people have queried the Harold Smith story in its very essence. Some of the times and details do not add up. The census whose figures he was allegedly tasked to manipulate took place a number of years before his arrival in Nigeria. Despite his claim that he was summoned to the office of the Governor-General James Robertson to be “ticked-off” for refusing to “play ball”, he was still able to go on his six-month furlough subsequently, and he was reappointed for a further stint of duty, lasting till 1960. Something is fishy, somewhere. Or did he actually “play ball”, and regret it later, leading to his recanting?
The real take-away from this story is that, whatever mischief the colonials put in their script for Nigeria sixty years ago, Nigeria and Nigerians have no excuse to still be crowing about it in 2019. By now, Nigeria should have written its own script and be playing with it. The country has had enough experience of lopsided leadership to realise objectively that it doesn’t work.
The parts of the country most consistently favoured by political power and population figures have the highest out of school population figures in the whole world, and the lowest rankings on Human Development Index in the country, despite holding “power”. Nobody has truly profited from warehousing political power in any part of Nigeria.
In such a situation, nobody needs Harold Smith, or any big lie – if there ever was one, to conclude Nigeria needs a rethink of its structure and operation if it wants to be a great nation and bring out the best in its people – north and south. The nation needs to re-structure and re-strategize. It simply cannot continue to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.

Published on Businessday.ng on Aug 23, 2019

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