[Editor’s note: Nothing in the news is quite as simple as it seems, and this week Rye News received this thought-provoking comment below about what was possibly a storm in a tea cup]
Two stories, and the political noises off, made a particular impression on me this week. The tales played out some seventy years apart, but both concerned young Nigerian men on boats.
Early in the week the tanker Nave Andromeda was reportedly hijacked by seven stowaways assumed to be seeking asylum in the UK. At the time of writing we don’t know precisely what happened aboard, nor what they may have based their asylum claims upon. What we do know is Nigeria is in turmoil. Its security forces, regular patrons of Britain’s arms trade, have lately been shooting dead unarmed protesters. Elsewhere, extremism has plagued the country for years.
Regardless of any broader context that might have been relevant, the media informed us that the putative asylum-seekers had made threats, and armed themselves with blunt instruments. There was an inference of imminent violence by angry Africans. A Mayday signal was sent at around 9am, but despite the alleged perilousness of the situation, no action was taken until dusk.
Counter-intuitively, it was action by elite special forces more usually deployed in an anti-terror role. Though much was done by the media and politicians to conjure the spectre of terror, this was clearly less of a hijack than a maritime mugging. The defence secretary bathed in the reflected glory of the SBS and conjured with notions of public insecurity. Then the seven desperadoes were handed over by the SBS to… Hampshire Constabulary. Let’s hope they all fitted in the panda car…
Just seeking asylum?
The pantomime was widely commentated on, but it was Hampshire MP, Bob Seely, whose words stuck in my mind. He opined sarcastically on Radio 4 that the Nigerians would undoubtedly soon be “lawyered up”. Due process for asylum seekers, it seemed, was an unsavoury prospect. But that wasn’t what I found especially unsavoury about the debacle.
The moment passed, and it was not until a day later that, in my capacity as a volunteer for the Burma Star Association, I took a call from a recently-widowed lady. Her late husband, she informed me, had served in Burma during the second world war. He’d fought alongside men of the Royal West African Frontier Force – many of whom were Nigerian.
She related to me the enduring impression these young African soldiers had left upon her husband during the ferocious fighting against the Japanese. One of her anecdotes joined some dots in my mind.
She recalled that after the Japanese surrender, the surviving Nigerian soldiers had been shipped home to Lagos. They had fought long and hard for the British Empire and left many of their comrades where they fell, half a world away from their homes, in Burma.
And the families waited …
The lady’s lately-departed husband had sailed back to Lagos with the Nigerian battalions, and when they arrived at the dockside, families thronged the quayside hoping to greet their returning heroes. Many years of separation and of anxiety now heightened the the anticipation of the waiting families.
What many of these jubilant families were about to learn in the cruellest manner was that their father or brother or son was not aboard. They were long dead. The colonial bureaucrats hadn’t informed them.
The British Burma veteran had felt great shame about this incident, reported his widow. I felt the same shame. For the second time that week, in fact. And I wondered if any if those abruptly-bereaved Nigerian families, seventy-five years before, had got “lawyered up”, in Bob Seely’s words. I doubt it.
History casts a long shadow, and sometimes it’s worth peering into the veil of darkness to illuminate perspectives on today’s events.
Image Credits: Canon David Frost .