LONDON, JAN. 8 -- "It was a bit of a punch-up," acknowledged prime ministerial press secretary Bernhard Ingham, a burly, red-faced Yorkshireman who looks like he would know a punch-up if he saw it.
Touring with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher today in Nigeria, Ingham and other close Thatcher aides took part in what one apparently aghast British reporter on the scene described as "amazing pitched battles with armed troops and baton-wielding police."
Ingham later told reporters that he was on the receiving end of a rifle butt "in the guts."
The fracas took place during the last day of Thatcher's two-nation visit to Africa.
The first stop was Kenya, where she arrived Monday for a three-day visit, during which she cut sugar cane with a machete, tasted fresh-picked tea leaves and agreed to disagree with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi on the subject of sanctions against South Africa.
Thatcher has been condemned by a number of African leaders for her adamant opposition to economic sanctions. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda has accused her of "kissing apartheid."
Thatcher's first state visit to Africa was carefully planned for maximum diplomacy with a minimum of discord.
Moi has been one of the least enthusiastic black African backers of sanctions.
At the same time, U.S. and Scandinavian charges of human rights abuses under his government have left him looking for friends, and Thatcher indicated that she thought the rights situation there was fine.
The three-day stop went smoothly. As one correspondent pointed out, Kenya, once considered the epitome of British colonial life in Africa, "has seen enough English matrons in its history to know how to handle them."
Nigeria, despite the shared colonial heritage, has been a much more rambunctious country. When she arrived in Lagos yesterday, Thatcher was greeted with protesters and placards calling her everything from a "butcher" to a "Boer."
But Nigerian leader Gen. Ibrahim Babangida withheld harsh public criticism, and beyond the demonstrations hundreds of thousands of people turned out to greet her at all stops she made.
It was the friendly crowds that seemed to lead to trouble today. In Kano, a large city in northern Nigeria, the ruling emir had invited Thatcher to a durbar, where she was treated to a horsemanship display by thousands of riders.
As the dust of the seasonal harmattan winds swept through the streets, at least half a million people jammed into the old city center to join the festivities.
Even Thatcher and her husband, Denis, were reportedly "shoved and jostled" as Nigerian soldiers and police struggled to prevent the crowd from engulfing them.
As the Thatchers climbed up to the reviewing stand, access for her staff was barred by Nigerian troops determined to allow no one to follow.
Charles Powell, Thatcher's private secretary, reportedly was locked in hand-to-hand combat with a female security officer. As "fists flailed," the situation became "a potentially dangerous affair," reported Chris Moncrieff, the chief political correspondent of the British Press Association, whose words generally are accepted at home as gospel on such occasions.
In the end, Moncrieff reported in a bulletin, "everybody managed to get through at the expense of some bruising, torn shirts and cut ankles." A number of Thatcher's secretaries, he said, had been "reduced to tears."
The only one in the British party who seemed unperturbed by the melee was the prime minister.
She reportedly was interrupted only once during the show, to be handed a telex message saying, "Dollar firmer."
Heading home tonight, she told reporters she thought the crowd controllers had done a pretty good job. "You're always worried that when that number of people are about that they might get crushed," Thatcher noted.