‘Michael Palin in Nigeria’ stirs old memories

The Trailer for Palin’s 2024 series on Nigeria

My father went out to work in Nigeria in 1970; joined after a few months in December 1970 by my mother and their three vacationing children.

They left Nigeria in 1974 when my father’s parents confronted multiple sclerosis and cancer. Both my parents were only children. There were family obligations. They had to return to the UK.

I have not really thought about this but would they have stayed on in Nigeria if they could? I suspect so.

For vacationing children it was mostly a place of privilege and open-eyed adventure.

My parents had settled into a white managerial and professional community with housing, cleaners, drivers and cooks. With a local golf course, horse riding, a large swimming pool at the Lagos Airport Hotel, and with occasional restaurant and movie nights out.

But there was no television to speak off. There was the BBC World Service on short wave radio with dodgy sound and irregular connections.

There was no internet, no wifi, telephone connections were unpredictable and international calls unaffordable. Air mail letters took up to two weeks in each direction.

But for my father – there can have been few harder, yet few more rewarding places to work. It was a place where he could make a difference.

And the friends they made in Nigeria remained friends back in the UK for the rest of their lives. These were long-lasting, valued friendships.

But think for a moment about 1970 Nigeria. Nobody sat us down and said this is what you need to know about independent Nigeria and Britain’s colonial legacy.

The Europeans had arrived in the 16th century and had named the coasts of West Africa after the “products” that were of interest to them there. The “Ivory Coast” still exists today. The western coast of Nigeria became the slave coast. The Gold Coast was further west and is today’s Ghana.

It is remarkable that there was not more resentment.

The three year Nigerian civil war (the Biafran War) only ended in January 1970; it was an uncertain peace and severe ethnic and regional fissures continued to exist, preventing the establishment of a strong national identity.

A military dictatorship ruled the country.

But on the plus side the Nigerian economy was growing drastically due to the rapid expansion of the petroleum sector in the early 1970s. Petroleum became Nigeria’s chief export and single-handedly made Nigeria the wealthiest country in Africa during the 1970s.

Of course that new wealth was not distributed equally, benefiting primarily those people who had access to state power and, therefore, to the licenses, contracts, and revenues that accrued to the government from the petroleum sector. The majority of Nigerians remain mired in perpetual poverty. There was hope. There were promises of a return to civilian government.

General Yakubu Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless coup in early 1975. General Murtala Mohammed became Head of State.

And through their four years in Nigeria there was relative stability and security.

In 1970 the Nigerian population was 55.6 million. It is now a breathtaking 229.2 million.

Demographic projections show that the Nigerian population might experience a constant increase in the next decades. By 2050, it is forecast that the population will grow to over 377 million people compared to 2022. Part of a growth of the African population that could have a massive impact on global demographics.

Almost 50 years later Michael Palin, perhaps the UK’s most genial traveler and narrator traveled to the country for the UK’s Channel 4. In the first episode he crosses Lagos harbour to go to Tarkwa beach – and is seen staying at the Federal Palace Hotel (I am amazed that still exists and still bears the same name). Tarkwa beach was where many companies had beach properties to give their senior staff a change of scenery at weekend. The Guinness Beach house would have been able to tell a few stories.

I always remember Lagos as chaotic – full of life and noise. Magnify that by four times and that is the world that Michael Palin was traveling in.

Of course he is being well looked after; and his encounters are mostly pre-arranged. But he does retain, even in his 80s, a healthy curiosity and wonder.


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