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Dr. Dele Cole’s Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos

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Land and politics

 In this season of high-octave electioneering campaigns leading to the general elections in less than four weeks and the centrality of Lagos in the socio-political and economic evolution of Nigeria, a flashback on how Lagos grew politically to become one of the great metropolises of the West African coast is desirable. More important is the perception that the situation in Lagos as regards the forthcoming elections has a way of impacting other parts of the country. While history books are replete with detailed accounts of the fundamentals of Lagos as political and economic capital of Nigeria, the latest release, Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos by Dr. PATRICK DELE COLE is a worthy addition. Essentially, the new publication under the African Studies Series, whose public presentation is billed for Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at the Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, V/I, Lagos, is an account of the gradually developing co-operation between the indigenous elite in Lagos, the chiefs and traditional political leaders, and the ‘modern’ western-educated newcomers, in the period leading up to the movement for Nigerian independence.  Featuring the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka as the anchor of its review, Dr. Cole’s expose profiles how the two groups were drawn into a coalition by their common opposition to certain aspects of British rule, and how both sections were frequently torn apart by internal dissension. What distinguishes the new book is the extensive use of the oral traditions and written records of Lagos to produce a detailed and lively narrative of a vital period in the history of this country. It is in this context that The Guardian begins the serialisation of the seven-chapter book starting from Chapter Three sub-titled “Modern and traditional elite (1890 – 1920):The Coalition” because of its deep connection with the current situation. Excerpts:

FROM the 1890s onwards, the educated African elite suffered increased racial discrimination in the church and the colonial service. In the 1890s, G.W. Brooke, J.A. Robinson and F.N. Edem, the white agents the CMS sent to the Niger Mission to investigate its activities, had discredited the work of Bishop Ajayi Crowther, its first black head. The request for a black bishop who was solely responsible either for the Yoruba Mission or the West African Mission was denied. In fact the creation of breakaway African Churches in the early 1890s was a consequence of the hardening of anti-black feeling in Salisbury Square. Economically, increased competition from European firms both in Lagos and in the hinterland had diminished the profits of the African merchants. Indeed, the pressure for British expansion had been supported by the white merchants in Lagos because of the increased economic opportunities such a policy promised. After the military expedition to Ijebu, several European firms established agencies and trading posts in the hinterland to the detriment of the middleman position of the Lagos traditional elite, the African educated merchants and the hinterland traditional elite. The construction of roads and railways which followed the pacification diverted labour from the firms of the hinterland. Most of this labour had been provided by ‘slaves’ or domestics who deserted the farms and their masters in large numbers. The resulting decline in farm labourers was reflected in the economy of Lagos. The white merchants, by forming limited liability companies, fared much better than the African merchants who could not, or would not, use similar tactics.

  Fewer Africans were promoted to the top cadre of the colonial administration after 1890. The number of whites in the administration increased as Colonial Office policy changed under Chamberlain. Before 1890 the Lagos administration more or less just maintained law and order, and attempted through diplomatic pressure to keep the trade roads open. After 1892, a new dynamism entered the relationship between Lagos and the hinterland states. The Government felt that it needed to create conditions favourable to trade expansion. It took an active interest in ‘civilising’ the native: the Government based this policy on some not clearly defined theory of trusteeship. With the expansion of the colonial service, and the resultant increase in whites in Lagos, the need to accept qualified black candidates into the white dominated elite social club was no longer pressing. Increased discrimination, aggravated by economic discontent and political disillusion with the pacification, led to a new appraisal by the educated black elite of their relationship with the traditional elite both in Lagos and the hinterland and the Lagos government. This appraisal led to the strengthening of cultural nationalism in radicals like R.B. Blaize, James Johnson, J.P. Jackson, Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Orisadipe Obassa, Dr. J.K. Randle, J. Began Benjamin and a few others – each of whom personally felt the effects of discrimination. The advocacy for the native way of life, and the preservation of those elements which the radicals felt were essential to that way of life became more consistent and general. Several of the modern elite left Lagos for the hinterland states to act as secretaries, advisers or mere letter writers of the various governments and others became correspondents of the Lagos press.

  The traditional elite, both in Lagos and the interior, had good reason to be disillusioned by events after 1892. The pacification meant that the hinterland states did not have as much control over the markets and their respective territories as before. It threatened the virtual commercial monopoly of the Lagos traditional elite over the important markets that fed Lagos commerce. Within the traditional structure of the hinterland states, several powerful groups resented the loss of power and privilege which the British presence occasioned. It is fair, however, to note that some sectors of the traditional elite in the interior, notably the paramount chiefs, welcomed the pacification because of the economic, political and social advantage which the British presence conferred upon them. The hinterland traditional elites complained against the excessive interference of the British in their affairs; worse still, the activities of the British officers in the interior caused alarm to both the traditional and modern elites. The latter took up the cause of the traditional elite, attacking British excesses, and in doing so, forged closer links between the two African elites, as we shall see when we discuss the protest over the activities of the travelling commissioners in Ilesha in 1905. But it was land that cemented the coalition. The land question brought together layers (all of whom were virtually disqualified from office in the colonial civil service), surveyors (most of whom had resigned in protest from the colonial civil service because of some alleged injustices: e.g. Herbert Macaulay) and chiefs who owned the land. Because of increased governmental penetration, more land was needed for the construction of roads and railways and for housing the ever increasing number of white teachers, missionaries, merchants and particularly civil servants – in Lagos. The coalition feared that the government would attempt to confiscate the land or pay only a pittance in compensation for large-scale land alienation.

  By 1910, the old social distinction of Lagos – European, Brazilian, Saro and indigene – had become politically unreal. Instead there were two political divisions in Lagos – white and black. The blacks became a united opposition from 1897 to 1915, obstructing government policies on principle. The Seditious Offences Ordinance, the municipal rate proposals, the water rate scheme, as we shall see, are merely a few examples in a long list of protests by both sections of the black elite – traditional and modern – against governmental measures

Nativism in Lagos 1890 – 1910  

Although protests against racial prejudice were common in the 1880s, several black men held posts in the civil service which were comparable to those held by whites. For example, Charles Pike, in 1885, acted as deputy governor; before that he was the head of the customs and treasury departments. A.C. Willoughby was promoted in 1881 to the post of assistant inspector and deputy sheriff – a post previously held by a European. J.A. O. Payne’s was the chief registrar of the supreme court; W.T.G. Lawson was the assistant colonial surveyor. At least two Africans, Nash Williams, a lawyer and J.A. O. Payne at one time or another, acted as district commissioner or Crown prosecutor. But in 1900 only Henry Carr, who was then inspector of schools and assistant colonial secretary, held any post comparable to that held by a white man. Just before Payne’s retirement after over thirty years of meritorious service to the colony, Acting Governor Denton, in 1898, came to the unprovoked conclusion that ‘the time has now come when the Chief Registrar should be a European.’ So accepted was the idea that all top posts in government service should be reserved for Europeans that Denton gave no reason for his conclusion, and the Colonial office did not ask why another equally competent black man could not be appointed registrar.

  Several top African civil servants resigned from the colonial service because of the effects of increased racism. Dr. J.K. Randle and Dr. Obadiah Johnson’s left the colonial service because of disagreements with their white colonial surgeon. Mr. Herbert Macaulay, a surveyor and civil engineer, also resigned from the government service over what he regarded as racial injustice. In 1892, Carter recommended that Macaulay, who was then studying surveying on a government scholarship, should sign a bond to serve the government for a specific period at a salary not less than E250 a year. When he was finally appointed as surveyor of crown grants in 1893, he was offered a salary of only E90 a year; his salary was increased to E120 after the intervention of the Hon. C.J. George (Egba merchant) and the Hon. C.T. Millins (white merchant) in the legislative council.

  The educated elite reacted bitterly to the increased discrimination. The press attacked the lack of a pension scheme for black civil servants and the refusal to promote qualified Africans to high posts in the civil service. 

  In the business community, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce broke up on a racial issue. The Record, commenting on the split and the subsequent attempt to create a new all-white chamber of commerce in 1896, stated: ‘We shall be very sorry if this rumour is well founded as it points to the unwillingness on the part of Europeans to work with Natives. In social circles many whites began to refuse to have contact with blacks. 

  For example, in 1903, Mrs. Read, wife of the colonial surgeon, bluntly refused to be escorted to dinner at Government House by Mr. (later Sir) Kitoyi Ajasa, a prominent lawyer, despite Governor MacGregor’s entreaty.

  The modern Europhile elite, whose policy in the 1880s was ‘what holds good in Europe certainly holds good in Africa’ began, by the late 1890s, to condemn more insistently western civilization. Whereas in the 1880s the governor was accepted as the pace-setter of the society, in 1897, Jackson complained about the ‘barrenness’ of Government House parties where ‘intimacy and real knowledge of white and blacks is out of the question.’ This was how Jackson saw Lagos society in 1897: ‘We are marching to the grave in Parisian habiliments, in patent leather shoes and silk stockings,’ the Europeanised African, Jackson concluded, would suffer the plight of extinction which faced the Maoris and the Red Indians, unless he learnt to live like an African.

  Jackson’s attack on the evil influence of European custom on the culture of the Yoruba included both Church and State. He attacked the government for interference of its agents in the administration of the hinterland kingdoms; he attacked the Church because of the missionaries’ attempts to impose ‘civilisation’ on the people, instead of preaching the doctrine of Christ crucifieChristianity was a curse in 

Africa, for it produced ‘complete and absolute dislocation and demoralization’ in the society. 

The cultural nationalists, led by Jackson, James Johnson, Dr. Mojola Agbebi, J.K. Coker (wealthy merchant) and J.W. Cole (Egba merchant), followed the opinions of Edward Blyden, in regarding the spread of Islam as a vindication of what the black man, without the restrictions of an alien civilization, and a hostile god-parent, could achieve. 

  For example, Jackson believed that polygamy, an issue which met with implacable opposition from the Church, was a social matter which had nothing to do with Christianity. Each nation ought to be left to choose such ceremonies as it saw fit in setting forth God’s glory and honour. African native customs were right for Africa, and if Africa ignored them, she did so at her own peril.

  The struggle for equality and meritocracy in the church was crucial. In the circumstances the failure of the blacks to be accepted as equals was more important and fundamental than the right of acceptance in the civil service. If humanity was not equal in the sight of God, there could be no equality anywhere else.

  In the nineteenth century, the essentials for progress from higher beast to man were education, Christianity and civilization. In the 1890s many whites were not convinced that the change was complete, successful or even possible for the African. Faced with this obdurate denial of their humanity, more and more of the African modern elite became nativists or cultural nationalists in reaction. They delved into African history for examples of African achievement in an attempt to raise their own values.  

The press devoted pages to the fortunes of Cetewayo, of Menelik of Ethiopia, of the Bey of Tunisia and Samory. The cultural nationalists had an idyllic vision of Africans as yet uncontaminated by civilization. They called for an Africanised Christianity, for vernacular education, for African dress, native forms of marriage, music and plays. They took up the banner of defender of African customs and sought to restore the respect and dignity of the traditional kings, which were under attack from British officers.

  The Africanists blamed the Saros for their readiness to copy western modes of culture. 

The Saros were, in Jackson’s opinion, the ‘non-productive element’ of Lagos since they depended on the foreigner for culture and the aborigine for wealth. Jackson rejoiced at the discomfiture of the Saros who, already in 1897, were losing their position as middlemen and merchants because European merchants had been going direct to producers in the hinterland. The ‘aboriginal man’ was the only hope for Africa: Jackson put the position like this: ‘Both in their material prosperity and their social condition, they (the Saros) must give place in the next generation to the aborigines who are producers and who confirm to climatic and racial conditions.’ The educated African was a passing phenomenon, ‘a geographical, a physiological and psychological monstrosity.’ He would be succeeded, Jackson continued, by the dignified and noble farmer.

  It is easy to pick holes in this idyllic vision of the ‘aboriginal man’ but the significance of the illusion needs emphasis. By holding up to ridicule the Saro initiative caricature, the nativists induced many of the modern elite to reconsider their values. By praising the native character and way of life the nativists forced the modern elite to an inner consciousness of their origins and of African values.

  Some left Lagos and took up large-scale farming, e.g. J.K. Coker, the mentor of the African Church; others took up jobs with the native courts of the hinterland states. Following the example of G.W. Johnson and his Egba united board of management, Reverend Atandaolu took up the secretaryship of the Ilesha council. Mr. Adolphus Williams, a Wesleyan Catechist, became secretary to the Alafin, and Tinney Shomoye to the Alake. There was a decided re-alignment of the modern African elite with the traditional elite, and a conscious rejection of the excesses of western acculturation. Some, however, like Kitoyi Ajasa, Henry Carr, continued in the old Victorian ways, spurning all that was not European, and seeking complete assimilation.

  The cultural nationalists, it seems, did not make any distinction between race and nation: sometimes they saw the whole of black Africa as a nation, at other times only Yorubaland or individual kingdoms. But the nativists wrote within the context of Yorubaland society and culture, a society with strong ethnocentric influences which gave the phrase ‘Yoruba nation’ some meaning. It was a notion in the sense that they believed it had a common ancestry, a common political tradition and organization within which various units had similar political institutions with a supra-political identity. It is true that this national identity was withering but the national unit was still recognizable; the Yoruba people admitted that it claimed their loyalty and allegiance. Jackson believed the divisive influences ought to be arrested in the interest of political consolidation and national growth. He advocated the abolition of the innumerable and incongruous kingships, to be replaced by one king and councilors to rule over all Yorubaland.

  Had there been less discrimination in the 1890s, Lagos might have escaped the acute cultural nationalism of that decade. No generation had been promised more and received less than the first two generations of Saros in Lagos (1851 – 1900). Since all of them were either liberated slaves or their descendants, they were profoundly grateful for their freedom. They had complete confidence in Britain, which had sacrificed much to secure their liberation. Moreover, they had been promised the government of their own affairs provided they became sufficiently educated to guide the traditional chiefs. By 1900 many were bitterly disillusioned.

  The Central Native Council was the advisory body formed by Governor MacGregor in 1900 to advise the government on specific issues affecting the indigenes of Lagos. Its minutes provide for the first time information about what the traditional elite thought of some governmental proposals.

  In 1897, Governor McCallum, acting on Chamberlain’s instructions, put forward proposals to set up a Lagos municipality which would collect rates for the improvement of health facilities. The proposal caused a storm of protest because of the threat to introduced taxation. The traditional elite and the modern elite united in their opposition. The Oba and council of traditional chiefs went to Government House in a deputation, which McCallum described as a ‘shouting and noisy mob,’ and informed him that ‘the people were determined never to pay any tax.’ They threatened ‘that trade and markets would be stopped, food supply cut off,’ and that they would rather die of filth and bad water than pay towards any improvements.

  McCallum, in a revealing statement about the politics of Lagos, said that there was ‘no disguising the fact that the native community of Lagos have been spoilt and pampered to the last degree; ‘‘anything for a quiet life” has been the reigning principle, and the community therefore have been left much alone. When anything has been proposed not to their liking, the natives immediately agitated and the measure has been dropped. In this agitation they have been prompted and coached by the trousered African with European veneer… for amongst these are the principal holders of property in town and therefore those likely to be affected by any municipal measure.’

  There we have the first indication of an incipient coalition of Lagos traditional and modern elites against a colonial government measure. McCallum’s statement also contains the principle of government up to the 1890s, viz: ‘anything for a quiet life.’ But even McCallum could not force the municipal scheme in Lagos, and the matter was dropped. The agitation testified to the power of the opposition, however, and in an attempt to facilitate communication between government and people, and hopefully to diffuse the opposition of the latter, McCallum instituted the Native Advisory Board.

  The activities of the French north of Oyo and Abeokuta prompted the Lagos government to send troops to Bariba. McCallum needed carriers for the two West Indian regiments that were en route to Bariba. But the carriers panicked and ran away when a rumour was circulated that they were to be conscripted to fight the powerful and dreaded Samory. McCallum called on the assistance of the Lagos chiefs, who promptly calmed the fears of the people in and around Lagos so that the carriers returned from their hiding place.

  cCallum was so impressed with the effectiveness of the chiefs that he instituted the Native Advisory Board (later to become MacGregor’s Central Native Council) which included eight principal chiefs and subordinate chiefs of town wards (giwas) of Lagos, and three representatives of the modern elite who, according to McCallum, had influence with the native community, namely J.S. Leigh (Egba), Sapara Williams (Ekiti), and J.P.L. Davies, (probably Egba). The Native Advisory Board constituted, in McCallum’s words, ‘a much required buffer between the Government and the (Lagos) Community.

  Sir William MacGregor, one of the most remarkable governors of Lagos, decided soon after he arrived in 1899 that even with McCallum’s advisory board, the government was still not sufficiently in touch with native opinion. He set about to establish what he called an organic connection between the government and the indigenes. Lagos, he said, could never be a white man’s colony. Its industrial development must remain exclusively in the hands of the indigenes, who, because of their intense conservatism, could hardly be expected to adapt easily or completely to the European and native forms of administration. This had been impossible before 1897, because the colonial staff, modeled on the European system, hardly came into direct contact with ordinary native life.

  MacGregor, for reasons similar to Lugard’s, envisaged a system of indirect rule. The government could not afford to provide for a network of European officers and police to administer Lagos, nor was this necessary. They traditional elite was well established and had performed administrative functions for several years.

To be continued



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