By: Ismail Ali Ismail

Those persons of my generation who were finishing school at the time the sun was setting on the British Empire and were contemplating their future as the wind of change was blowing through the length and breadth of Africa will remember, with nostalgia, (like the generations before them who actually served the Empire) the beautiful words with which colonial officialdom used to end its correspondence with members of the public:  “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant.” The beauty of these words lies in the fact of a colonial officer admitting, without qualms, his being a servant of the public. The irony of it, however, is that British colonial officers were masters, not ‘servants’.  Nor were they ‘humble’, let alone being ‘obedient’.  They were in fact snobbish, overbearing  – even openly racist – and obviously hypocritical in adding that sentence as a subscript to their replies to petitioners.  The British saw their colonialism as a vehicle for civilizing ‘inferior races’ in the ‘dark countries’, and it was one of their imperialist pioneers, Cecil Rhodes, who called for the African continent to be colonized “from the Cape to the Canal”; and so it became “the most universally colonial continent”, though not colonized entirely by the British.  Rhodes also said: “ Have you ever thought how lucky you are to have been born an Englishman”.  By ‘dark countries’ they did not mean only Africa but also other areas where the people were of a skin darker than white and, not coincidentally from the racist point of view, also in the dark about development.  A latter-day proconsul actually relates how his own father, a country parson, inculcated in him a feeling of superiority to the people he ruled.  In trying to explain what that superiority meant the father told him: “It’s whatever it is that makes a million Indians in a district accept the authority of a single Englishman, who has nothing more than a handful of police at his back.”  British racism in India was indeed the subject of an old film called, ‘Passage to India’.   Though Europeans in general benefited a lot from the Arab civilization T.E. Lawrence (better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) writes in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”:  “ I am proudest of my thirty fights in that I did not have any of our own blood shed. All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman”.  That of course is a racist statement. But, a lot of Arab blood was spilt to ‘free’ Arabs from the Turks only to divide them secretly, while they were still fighting, between the British and the French as a result of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  How typical of the Perfidious Albion!

Doubtless from the British officials point of view “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant” was a polite statement which was perfunctory and did not really mean what it said.  But those members of the public who also used it in their supplications to them really meant it. This reminds me of a little story which a friend  told me about a short military training he had undergone in Aldershot (U.K.).  The drill sergeant told him: “You call me ‘Sir’ and I call you ‘Sir’; you mean it and I don’t”. It is also related that in Hargeisa the colonial director of medical services chanced upon a Somali dresser one early morning in one of the Group Hospital’s corridors and greeted him with the words, “Good morning, Sir”.  The poor dresser, visibly perturbed by being addressed as ‘Sir’ by the superior of his superiors, blurted out the words: “Good morning Sir; I am not your Sir, Sir; you are my Sir, Sir”.

But, we should not really blame the British; it is human to think when you are so successful or so far ahead of the others that you are innately superior to them.  Others, before them (Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabs) had all been too arrogant, racist and condescending in the heydays of their respective civilizations towards less fortunate peoples; and there has not been a colonial power which considered itself on equal footing with its subjects – not even under some colonial policies of assimilation.  In the glare of historical lessons one has to be blind not to see that imperial power and hubris are two sides of a coin.  The British felt understandably superior at a time they were ruling much of the world in terms of land mass and population (40% of the World Population) and they took pride in the fact that the sun never set on the British Empire.  Britain was then a great power deserving its title as  ‘The Mistress of the Seas’. But there was resentment of course, and when that illustrious son of India, Krishna Menon, was vexatiously reminded that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, he retorted, “ It is so because God could not trust the British in the dark”.

However, in the natural scheme of things empires, like all else, rise and fall and the British Empire is no more.  British power and influence in the world have waned and the kingdom is now, by its own admission, but a second-rate power.  Writing eloquently in the mid-sixties on this transformation the late Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) described Britain as “a bothered and painted matron with a middle-aged spread, clearly worried about her housekeeping, unable to employ domestic staff and harassed by her grow-up children.”  The ‘grown-up children’ are none other than the dependencies that became independent.

Colonialism, lasting a century on the average, has been inevitably a vehicle for cultural diffusion (with cultural imperialism as a byproduct) and as such has brought countries together – even created them.  Nowhere is this more true than in Africa where by dint of historical association we have been divided into Anglophones, Francophones and Lusophones.  And of course we have on the larger world stage the Commonwealth and the Francophonie both of which bring together countries that share a common colonial heritage.  We have learnt a lot from colonial administrations, both good and bad – including some mannerisms and some habits of mind.

I was told decades ago of an African district commissioner who having stepped into the shoes of his British predecessor insisted on speaking English to his own people through an interpreter just like the white man he had replaced.  He thought that ‘coming down to the level of the people’ would be demeaning to his personality and position.  In all fairness, however, we cannot blame such obtuse behavior on British education and training.  Unlike the policies of some other the colonial powers in Africa, British colonial policy was in fact so enlightened that it required expatriate officers to learn to speak and write the local language.  Examinations were held and those who did not pass had their annual increments withheld and their promotions kept in abeyance.  But, in failing to emulate their senior officers junior officers have tended to mimic or copy from them – and sometimes they copied very badly.  It was even said that there was a junior clerk from India who so imbibed the hackneyed and insipid style of routine correspondence that he sent the following letter to his supervisor who had just got married in London while on leave:

Dear Sir,
With reference to your marriage of recent date I wish to congratulate you most heartily and I hope that God will give you a son at his earliest opportunity.

                                   I have the honour to be, Sir, your
                                   most obedient and humble servant.”

To be honest, I am not sure whether the story about this blasphemous letter was genuine or apocryphal, but it is one of the humorous anecdotes we have from British India.  It underscores non the less the grim reality of bureaucratic life that a person created to think for himself can be so absurdly mechanical and so astonishingly robotic.
However, the British bequeathed to India at the time they were leaving in 1947 a world-class civil service (the ICS) which even used to supply trained manpower to other British possessions and was second to none in terms of excellence. 

But the situation in Somaliland Protectorate was entirely different, for there was always a dearth of sufficiently educated and trained Somali staff to fill even the lower echelons of the service: Indians had to be brought in. The educational attainment of the Protectorate was so hopeless that even most of the few Somalis who were employed in the clerical profession had come from Aden. Even when two friends of mine and I joined the service in Hargeisa on 4 September, 1960, having finished secondary school in Aden, there was not a single Somali civil servant who had a secondary school certificate including the officers themselves, some of whom were heads of departments.  The officers owed their exalted positions to their longevity in the service, seniority of grade, attendance of short courses in the U.K., and the fact that they were the best ones available to fill the shoes of departing British officials. We were deployed to different departments and assigned to clerical positions because we were considered to be too green: too young and too inexperienced.   We ourselves did not mind since we were not hunting for positions: interested only in higher education, we were looking for scholarships abroad in parity with the graduates of Sheikh Secondary School (then the only one in the former Protectorate) who were receiving scholarships upon graduation and were not absorbed into the service.  But, on our part we appreciated the fact that the officers were struggling hard to cope with new national roles they had not been prepared for and they often took refuge in routine correspondence and rule application.  In any case, that beautiful subscript “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servants” remained alive and well.

However, the matter did not end there as the heads of departments were transferred to Mogadishu to fill the top positions in the ministries as well as ambassadorial and other diplomatic posts with the result that key positions in the northern region fell to second and third class officers. Independence brought in fresh and daunting challenges for which our civil services in both the North and South were not equipped.  In the South there was no excuse as the Italians had a lead of ten years to prepare them.  Until 1964 we in fact had two parallel services with two completely different systems and orientations which often caused frictions and accidents of personality.  Still, when their integration was adopted that year it took some time for the two to merge properly.  The process was not unlike the merger of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, for if you look down from the bridge over their confluence in Khartoum you can see the two waters with their recognizable colors running side by side for quite a distance until they fully mix to form a single river flowing in full spate.

Regrettably, one of the first casualties of Independence was the sentence “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant” which disappeared from official correspondence with the public, not only in Somalia but also in other Anglophone countries in Africa. Concern about this regrettable lapse was expressed so often in our annual meetings of the African Association of Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) – meetings that brought together academics, practitioners (including Heads of Public Services), international experts and politicians (particularly ministers in charge of the civil services and their reform).

But, was the discussion of one simple sentence in official correspondence much ado about nothing? No. What prompted the discussion every time was the feeling that the public services have lost a sense of serving the community – a sense of being the servants of those who pay their salaries, namely the tax-payers. It was recognized that that simple sentence was pregnant with a lot of meaning: it actually gave meaning to such concepts as responsibility, responsiveness, ethics, accountability and of course democratic control.  It raised consciousness of these principles and imbued the service with a sense of duty. It is quite reassuring to see officials taking pride (‘I have the honour’) in being the ‘servants’ of the public and showing in all humility (‘humble’) responsiveness (‘most obedient’) to their needs.

It has been said that the patience of the Chinese is proverbial.  We Somalis are poor in this regard, for patience is not one of our attributes.  Nations and institutions take a long time to build, and patience and perseverance are the two essential ingredients.  We have come a long way from the sixties and we now have highly educated and qualified people though most of them are outside the country.  Without them the country cannot be built.  It is for them that I wrote this piece and I hope they will not shun their duty to their country and will help in building a robust public service which will be guided by, “I have the honour to be, Sir/Madam, your most obedient and humble servant”.  Undoubtedly, an equally beautiful formulation of its equivalent in Somali can be found.

I have been embarrassed many times by the question why I was not helping my country instead of working for the United Nations.  I am sure every educated Somali faces the same question and shares the embarrassment. 

Ismail Ali Ismail