SIGNAL AND NOISE Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria
By BRIAN LARKIN
Duke University Press Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4108-6
Infrastructure, the Colonial Sublime, and Indirect Rule
In 1932 Kano city unveiled its new Water and Electric Light Works. Based in Pan Shekara, an area just outside the city, it not only was intended to bring the infrastructural benefits of colonialism to Nigeria but was the first project of its size and ambition financed entirely by the Native Administration, at a cost of more than a third of a million pounds (Crocker 1937). Befitting such an important moment, European dignitaries traveled from Britain and from around Nigeria; the emir of Kano, chief of the Native Authority, presided over a number of Hausa-Fulani notables and the senior British officer of the North, the lieutenant governor, headed a distinguished European contingent. The opening was a spectacular event. As Mallam Dauda described it in a newspaper account, "The Southern gate of the Emir's house was magnificently decorated. Date palms had been put there and look as if they had grown there on the spot; brightly colored cloths were hung up, red, white, green, blue, and yellow and different places were railed off for people to stand in. Electric lights were put all the way around from the office of the Galadima to the Tax Office, the whole place was a mass of lights and coloured cloths of all sorts" (Northern Provinces News [NPN], 14 November 1931, 6). Along with this, stands were built for European and Hausa-Fulani dignitaries; a fountain was erected in front of where the ceremony was to take place, and near where the emir of Kano was sitting a large metal frame had been built with lights on it forming Arabic letters.
In his report, Mallam Dauda stressed the scale of the event and the size of the crowd: "There were so many that some were unable to see anything. ... The dust rose up so that one could scarcely breathe and the number of people could not be counted" (ibid). The British were more precise, fixing attendance at over fifty-three thousand (NPN, 1 December 1935, 14), though Dauda's imprecision gives a more tactile sense of the overwhelming nature of the spectacle. This was a simply enormous number of people congregated to watch the event of a work of colonial infrastructure being opened. C. W. Alexander, the lieutenant governor of Northern Nigeria, made a speech to the assembly, pointing out that many had said that this project was a waste of time, but that now everyone could see for themselves just what had been accomplished. With that, the emir of Kano threw the switch and thousands of colored lights hung over the wall and along the streets exploded into florescence. Fireworks erupted from the rooftops, "and the whole place was a blaze of light and very beautiful to see" (ibid.). There was a gasp from the crowd and shouts of "Lantiriki, ya kama-the lamps are alight." Water came gushing out of the fountain, and at the center of it all a frame of tiny lights spelled out, in Arabic script, Sarki ya gaisheku (The king [emir] greets you all).
For Muslim Hausa, Hausa written in Arabic script (ajami)-the standard mode of literacy until the British introduced Hausa written in roman script (boko)-was, and is, a domain of religion and tradition, a reserve from which the modern advances of colonialism were kept well away. The sign, "The king greets you all," thus represents the coming together of two discrete realms. On the one side, Arabic Hausa represents an intimate domain of tradition. The statement itself references the emir's power and the continuing legitimacy of precolonial modes of government. But the material the letters are made from, electric lights, represents the spectacular heart of modernity. When the emir addresses his subjects in this fashion he is melding his traditional legitimacy with a new form of government emanating from colonial rule. Engineered into these thousands of colored lights, into the streetlamps and fountains, was a new sort of authority located in technology as the visible evidence of progress. For the British, the Water and Electric Light Works was evidence of their success in promoting modernizing improvements which they were increasingly using to legitimize their suzerainty. The Works was also a public display to the people that the emir of Kano and his administration recognized the importance of progressive infrastructural projects such as this. In the latter stages of colonial rule, when colonization had to be justified to its mounting critics in the colonies and the homeland, British colonial government legitimated itself by an argument of exchange: the giving of "voluntary" political subjection in return for technological progress. What every streetlight and tap in Kano now made clear is that this form of exchange had been reproduced in Hausa society itself. The lights and fountains were not just effects of colonial rule; they were a mode of it. Mallam Dauda's account of the opening of the Water and Electric Light Works sums up the success of the initiative: "Now the waterworks and electric light have done much good to Kano. Everywhere there are stand-pipes and washing places have been built, some for men, some for women and some for children. If anyone wants these things in his house they are brought there for him and he pays for them every month. If you were to see Kano now at night you would say that it is like the stars on a summer night" (ibid.).
What must it have been like to live in Kano at that time and see the coming of electric light? To grow up with the busyness of daytime curtailed by the oncoming of night, and then one day know that night would never be the same again? What would the feeling be to know that such things as electric light existed, but until that time they always existed elsewhere in a world where Europeans lived? The coming of electricity effected a split in Nigeria between electrified and modern towns and those that remained without electric power. Those conurbations now became cities yet to be electrified, pregnant with the future, yet remaining in the past. A year after the Kano opening, one Halilu Bida wrote a short piece for the newspaper depicting the town of Ilorin. In it, he described the town's great size and admired the broadness of its new roads. "But," he enthused, "the most marvelous and splendid feature of Ilorin is its electric light.... There are more than a hundred lamps on standards set up in the market which is held at night. The light from these lamps is very powerful and one can see everything in all directions, while people moving about in the glare of the electric light look quite unreal, and their white garments shine brilliantly" (NPN, 9 April 1932, 17). Frozen in aspic inside this short description is the sense of the experience of electricity, the excitement of seeing something for the first time. Electrification can only carry this excitement for a short time before the sense of wonder becomes exhausted and, like a bulb, goes dark. As electricity becomes familiar, possessing it will no longer make Ilorin exceptional. The adjective electric before the noun light will become unnecessary and cumbrous-stating the obvious-rather than an exciting piece of description. Yet at this point, for Halilu Bida, technology and the life it creates are charged with force. Electricity has the power to recast a mundane world and present it again to one of its inhabitants in a new way so that real people look "unreal" and everyday garments seem to shine "brilliantly" and one can see "everything in all directions" even though it is night. That moment must have been an exciting one indeed.
Grand openings of infrastructural projects like the Kano Water and Electric Light Works are both a visual spectacle and a political ritual. They possess their own codified genres: the parade of military bands, processions by British troops and by the traditional emirate cavalry, speeches by eminent dignitaries, firework displays, and the spectacular presentation of modern technologies such as the wireless and the cinematograph. Rituals like these are moments where the public display of colonial authority is made manifest (A. Apter 2002, 2005; Cohn 1983; Ranger 1983). But openings were also about the spectacle of technology itself. They celebrated the completion of long, complex projects and focused attention on the existence of the object at hand-a power plant, a bridge, or a railroad. In colonial Nigeria, an object such as a bridge was intended to operate on several levels simultaneously: it had a technical function of facilitating transport from one side of a river to another; it trained a class of workers versed in the technical skills necessary to complete the job; it embodied successful bureaucratic organization; it confirmed that Northern aristocrats understood the benefits of modern infrastructures; and it displayed British scientific superiority and, by contrast, the gulf in education and civilization separating ruler from ruled, implicitly legitimizing the rule itself. Just as the ritual surrounding the opening of the Kano Water and Electric Light Works was designed to represent the plant as a technical object, so that plant was itself involved in a representational project intended to signify the future and promise of an electric Nigeria, bright and modern.
Understanding the provision of infrastructures as a work of state representation as well as a technical process pushes us to examine the conceptual mechanism that lay behind infrastructures and translated these objects into cultural forms. In this, the erection of bridges and the building of railways in colonies such as Nigeria had much in common with infrastructures back home in Britain. What was different in Nigeria was the context of colonial rule and the way these technologies were tied to that rule. It is this link to rule that gave rise to the planning, funding, and completion of infrastructural projects and created an aura surrounding them, guiding how Nigerians and British related to them. Yet because technologies have their own material shape and design, they can never fully be reduced to the intentions with which they were constructed. They do not simply enact relations of ideology. Because they give rise to what the historian Rudolf Mrázek describes as the "sensing of colonial modernity," the phenomenal, lived experience of a world undergoing colonial modernization, the material qualities of these technologies are excessive, creating possibilities and setting in motion forces that cannot quite be contained. Mrázek (2002) gives an example of this in his account of road building in the Netherlands East Indies. Hard, dark, and smooth, these well-built highways embodied the speed and rationality of colonial rule, and stood in contrast to the mud and dust of the chaotic Indonesian world they replaced. "The newness, the hardness and cleanness" are the material qualities that embodied the roads' modernity, Mrázek argues. "Cleanness of the roads, in this logic, was the purity of the times, democracy even" (8). Mrázek's aim here is to tie the sensate experience of the objects to the larger logic of rule they express. But once in place, that logic has to jostle with competing modes of reasoning. Just as the railroad was introduced for the elite but taken up far more quickly by the poorer classes, roads were introduced in Indonesia to facilitate a fast, modern world but quickly gave rise to vrachtautos-native trucks. Traveling too fast to be safe, overladen with goods and people, in poor repair with frequent breakdowns, these trucks disrupted the streamlined, modern world of which they were meant to be part. Europeans saw these buses and trucks as "wild," renegades from the proper behavior that road traffic was intended to inculcate. The existence of the road, intended as a model of ordering, thus gave rise to new machineries that seemed, to European eyes, bowdlerized copies of the vehicles they should have been. Yet sleek Dutch trucks and decrepit Indonesian ones were both products brought about by the road and both equally modern. This dynamic, whereby the agency of the object (Latour 1993) has an independence from the intentions governing its introduction, opens up the sensate, material world of the technology itself.
For a book on media and urban life, dwelling in detail on the administration of colonial rule might seem an unnecessary burden. Yet one cannot really understand what the Hausa reaction to cinema, or to radio, was without understanding the structure of politics in Northern Nigeria. Such understanding moves analysis away from the inherent universalism often associated with modern technologies and toward the idea that technologies come to be within specific historic conjunctures. But by insisting on the mediating capacity of infrastructural technologies-how they operate as objects-I also wish to insist that these objects cannot be reduced to their contexts or to the order with which they were invested-in this case the colonial order in the first half of the twentieth century in Nigeria. Media are messier than that. The British use of infrastructure was not about simply staging the representation of rule; it was about addressing and producing a particular sort of modern colonial subject. Technologically adept, forward thinking, mutable, this subject was formed by the criss-crossing of new communication networks. Railways, roads, and radio broadcasts were erected to bring into being a technologically mediated subject proud of his past but exposed to new ideas, open to the education, knowledge, and ideas traveling along this new architecture of communication. By the 1950s, there emerged the modern salaried office worker, an ideal of colonial development, well educated, speaking English, working in a modern technological office, and spending his leisure time at the cinema or in private clubs. In a sense, it is this imagined subject that is immanent in the building of new infrastructures, the fantasy to which those structures are addressed. It was a subject position with which many Nigerians were uncomfortable, while others saw it as an object of desire. When, in the 1950s, a young Hausa man went to the cinema, stood in front of the post office to listen to the radio, or took the train to a nearby city, an encounter took place between subject and technology. This chapter will tease out what was at stake in such encounters to explore why infrastructural technologies took on the shapes and meanings they did in Hausa society. To do this one needs to understand the politics of indirect rule in Nigeria.
PRESERVATION AND TRANSFORMATION: THE DIALECTICAL LOGIC OF INDIRECT RULE
Northern Nigeria was conquered by the British in 1903 and established, initially, as a country wholly separate from Southern Nigeria. In 1914, these states were amalgamated to become one nation, Nigeria, ruled from the capital in the South, Lagos. The country was divided into three semiautonomous areas, the North (mainly Hausa-Fulani), West (mainly Yoruba), and East (mainly Igbo). Each region, as they came to be called, had its own lieutenant governor, its own regional assembly, and its own capital. Famously, the North of Nigeria was administered through a policy of indirect rule, a system by which the British attempted to rule through existing structures of political authority and to preserve existing cultural and religious lifeways. At the time, this was seen as a contrast to previous forms of rule which had resulted in a much more thoroughgoing transformation of indigenous life. Indirect rule was intended to avoid the "mistakes" of overly rapid transformation and was guided by the ambivalent British reaction to the growing class of Western-educated, nationalist colonial subjects in differing parts of the Empire.
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