The Spy who “Loved” Nigeria

By Ahmed Yahaya Joe

Sir Hanns Vischer

As they say; “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” Sir Hanns Vischer, was an agent of His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service in Nigeria. He was referred to as “Dan Hausa” due to his mastery of the Hausa language which he helped in standardizing. He was also prolific in Arabic, Fulfulde and Kanuri in addition to Greek, French and German. Based in Kano from 1907 to 1919, his cover was head of the Education Department.

Gidan Dan Hausa, now a national monument was his official residence. The building had being in existence for about a hundred years before Kano was conquered by the British in 1903. It had previously served as the base of the overseer of the royal farming plantation outside the ancient city walls known as Rumada. Vischer rebuilt it from scratch making improvements in 1907.

The spymaster first came to Nigeria in 1901 and was based in Lokoja before he was reassigned to Maiduguri in 1903. By 1906, he crossed the Sahara Desert. He recounted his journey in a 1911 book entitled; “Across the Sahara from Tripoli to Borno” Another book he wrote is; “Rules for Hausa Spelling” printed in 1912.
Kano was crucial to the British in two aspects. First, in creating an elite that would oppose national independence. Second, it was a crucial cross roads in monitoring Francophone territories and the German colony of Kamerun.

According the historian, Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman;
“The Hausa-speaking people, not only do they have dialects, which were barely mutually intelligible, but they have no tradition of a common origin.” Hausa as spoken and written today was therefore a British project. Vischer was one of the arrow heads.

Vischer’s residence also served as a school for sons of emirs from all over the North. With his wife who joined him in 1912, the couple moulded the young aristocrats teaching them how to read and write in English and Ajami (Arabic in Roman script) The school started with 30 pupils in 1909. Their hostel was within the Nasarawa palace of Kano emirate nearby.

Enrollment increased to over 200 princes by 1913 from the 11 provinces of the Northern Protectorate. It produced the first Western educated elites in the North that eventually became the first members of the House of Chiefs and Assembly both in Kaduna. Vischer’s school relocated becoming Katsina College in 1921, which is now Barewa College in Zaria.

The Vischers had two children at Gidan Dan Hausa. Their photographs including that of their house maid still adorn the main living room of the historic house to date.

The British did not come to the colonial contours of what became Nigeria for sightseeing – they came to plunder.
To pull that off they needed to apply “divide et impera” – divide and rule. They ensured no level of national consciousness could develop eventually preparing us for national independence without economic freedom.

The likes of Sir Vischer were instrumental to Pax Britannica. Such people are described as “capax imperii” – capable of ruling an empire by understanding and study of languages;
“One had only to watch him in his daily avocations in those early days to realize how completely at home he was with every class of society—whether he was engaged in grave deliberations with emirs, viziers and other high personages of the ruling hierarchy, or whether he was chaffing the hucksters at the market stalls as he rode through Kano city. No less revealing was it to see him in his own home pick up a native drum and, squatting on the floor, croon local Hausa songs to his own accompaniment. So inimitably did he do it that, if he had been hidden behind a screen, one would have said that an African musician had been engaged to entertain his guests”

At Gidan Dan Hausa, Vischer reorganized traditional Hausa building materials of “Tubali” and “Azara” by creatively using “Chafe” for plaster and “Makuba” for relieve motifs retaining “Zankwaye” (the horns at the top) and “Dakali” (the horizontal platform at the base)
Vischer used local labor sourced within the ancient city of Kano from “Unguwan Gini”

The original inhabitants of Kano are the “Abagawa” of the Nok Civilization. The “Wangara” from present-day Mali conquered and incorporated Kano into the Songhai Empire. Eventually the Habe held sway before the Hausanization process that followed the formation of the Sokoto Caliphate.

It has been the southern entrepôt of the Trans Saharan trade for millennia. Arabs and Tuaregs have been part of Kano’s mosaic for centuries.

It provided the perfect cover for Sir Hanns Vischer, a spymaster par excellence according to Nigel West in; Historical Dictionary of World War I Intelligence (2014)

Stages of Death

“Their trip back progressed quietly mostly and was rather quite uneventful until they came upon the scene of an accident that blocked the entire road, so they had to stop.

“Kengua had strolled over to the crash spot to have a closer look. He wished he hadn’t. There was a victim lying on the unpaved roadside being attended to by a number of over-enthusiastic people. These untrained first responders just kept fumbling with the man as he laid flat on his back on the dusty ground, face up and breathing unevenly heavy.

“He was foaming profusely in the mouth, with the dark part of his eyes sneaking upwards, into his upper eyelids, as if he was trying to see something overhead without trying to arc his neck backwards to look up.

“Soon his hands left his sides and started lifting upwards slightly, then falling back into place swiftly, with only his elbows bending at each time. Within the second minute, the victims legs joined in, his shoeless bare feet stabbed away from his body in a continuous stretching motion.

“Kengua was transfixed, too scared to keep looking but yet he kept his eyes on the obviously dying man, as if watching the poor chap death was an act of charity.

“Later on Kengua remembered thinking that maybe if the mans legs had found something vertically stationary to rest on, the agonized departing spirit of the dying man just might not leave when it did. Maybe it is because he didn’t strike at anything with his leg activity that his departure from the realm of the living was completed. Maybe people wouldnt die at such moments if they stood up defiantly.

“Though Kengua wasn’t alone there, he sort of felt he was the only spectator who could actually claim to have seen the man die, but he doubts if he really did see him die. He only saw a pained man briefly struggling to live on endlessly and then the same man, against all his desire to live on, became quite still and motionless. He didn’t see life leave the man. If that was ever humanly possible, the privilege wasn’t granted him that warm humid afternoon.

“So Kengua strangely romanticized that gross occurrence by curtly summarizing that the brevity of death is like an orgasm. That is if what he saw is indeed the moment of dying, which is arguably death.

“They recommenced their rudely paused journey an hour later. Kengua made a comparative analysis in his mind on what he had just witnessed and what he read some living sage wrote to win the world over into believing and accepting his listed five stages of death. Kengua was now certain that the writer has not seen these stages exhibited.

“The five stages were made easy to remember by sequencing them to DEATH as an acronym, as;

Denial, Enraged, Appropriating, Tension and Healing.

Or more aptly:

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Kengua saw none of those that afternoon as he watched the man kick the air to his death. The least of all to be exhibited is Acceptance.

“Death simply damned the mans Desires, nullified his Energy, shrugged off his Activity, Terminated his life and Held him eternally Hostage. Kengua concluded that for want of a more suitable break down of the DEATH acronym;

Desired Energized Activity Terminated and Held Hostage

….would be a whole lot more befitting.”