RAS member and author of "A nation betrayed: Nigeria and the minorities commission of 1957" Michael Vickers reflects on the life of Harold Smith: Born 29 April, 1927, Manchester; died 3 January 2011, Bath; British Colonial Civil Servant, Labour Department, Lagos Secretariat, Ikoyi, 1955-1960.
Harold Smith, was a Colonial Officer in Nigeria. His service to the Nigerian people did not end at Independence in 1960. He fought on for another 50 years.
Smith was not regarded with favour by the British Authorities in Nigeria, nor by Her Majesty's Government (HMG). It is contended that the British press a very long time ago were informed by MI5/ British Government officials, that if they received stories about Harold Smith, they should ignore them. Harold Smith, they said, did not exist. He was a fiction.
Of course, Harold Smith did exist. His name in long-remembered by many in Nigeria.
In 1956, the British Administration at Lagos, told Smith to organise some British officials and transport, and send them to Warri—now known as the oil-rich capital of the Niger Delta—to assist the NCNC, one of the two main parties contesting the 1956 West Regional elections.
If the NCNC were successful, there was a good chance Chief Awolowo—who had been making life very difficult for the British—and his Action Group Government at Ibadan might be dislodged. The British, it seemed, regarded this ad hoc venture as worthy and desirable. Smith, however, recognising that what he was being asked to do was a Criminal Offence under Nigeria's Electoral Laws, said ‘No.’
His superiors insisted. He was warned. There would be serious repercussions if he did not obey.
Unfortunately for the British Administration and Nigeria's Governor-General Sir James Robertson, they made a grave error. They chose the wrong man. Smith, a Mancunian, and scholarship man from Ruskin, and later Magdelen Colleges, Oxford, had also impressive Trades Union and Labour Party credentials. For him, hierarchy and ‘line of command’ were not the final authority. He was ordered to ‘do as he was told.' Smith refused.
Repercussions were indeed serious. He never held a permanent job for the remaining 50 years (1960-2010) of his life. He was never permitted to publish his story. It is further alleged that HMG ensured his communications and movements were monitored. He was struck down near-fatally in 1960—and suffered grave and painful recurrences for the rest of his life—by what eventually was identified as 'sprue.' Sprue is a rare tropical disease, not easily diagnosed, and known to few outside Porton Down—HMGs Scientific and Research Establishment near Salisbury.
As his wife Carol repeated in her moving eulogy at his funeral: ‘It wasn’t a difficult decision for Harold. He was there in Nigeria to serve the interests of the Nigerian people. He knew what he was being asked to do was illegal. There was never any doubt in Harold’s mind that he could do anything other than what he did.’
Smith’s story is a sad, sobering and tragic one. Yet like the miner's ‘canary in the cage’ whose life is extinguished by deadly emissions deep underground; Smith’s experience provided a powerful warning of the potential fate of Westminster-style liberal democracy in Nigeria.
It is no consolation that the condition persists to the present day.
The high regard in which Harold Smith was held, was mirrored in the wide range of persons, African and European, from near and far, attending his funeral, held 20 January 2011, at Bath, England.
He is survived by his wife Carol, and two daughters, Helen and Louise.
Note: Harold Smith refused to participate in British election tampering against the Action Group in 1956, and for this principled refusal he was victimised by the colonialists. Smith's eyewitness report and later reflections remain visible at this address: