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Modern And Traditional Elite, 1890-1920: The Coalition (3)

08 March 2015   |   11:00 pm
The presentation of the book, Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos holds on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at the Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, V.I., Lagos. Time is 10am prompt. Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka will anchor the review of the book. BUT in 1904, Sir Walter Egerton succeeded MacGregor…


The presentation of the book, Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos holds on Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at the Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, V.I., Lagos. Time is 10am prompt. Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka will anchor the review of the book.

BUT in 1904, Sir Walter Egerton succeeded MacGregor as governor. Egerton’s governorship saw the beginnings of a series of stormy protests which covered almost every aspect of governmental activity; opposition against Egerton’s hinterland policy (1905); against his Public Lands and Ikoyi Lands Ordinance (1908); against the Seditious Offences Ordinance (1908); against the Water Rate (1908).

  For the background to the vehemence and unity of this opposition, we must again look at the modern elite. In 1905, a short-lived Aborigines Protection Society (later succeeded by the more famous Lagos Auxiliary of the A.P.S. in 1911) was formed. It elected Oba Eshugbayi Eleko as its president. This move is significant, for it was the formal inauguration of the alliance between traditional and modern elite. The purpose of the society was not to manufacture discontent but to correct the imperfection, as the founders put it, of the Crown colony system of government. 

  The time had come, declared J.P. Jackson, one of the founders, when the native, i.e. indigenous, point of view ought to be emphasized. The Record described itself as ‘the exponent of the native point of view.’ Hitherto the European way of life had been prominent; it was no longer so.

  Egerton’s problem in Lagos must be seen against this background. The almost hysterical opposition to the Water Rate in 1908 can only be understood in terms of the press largely reflecting local indigenous opinion. The educated elite defended native rights not so much because the British assault on these rights and customs were unintelligible to them but simply because they questioned Britain’s right to subvert African customs. In 1880, the modern elite claimed to be the purveyors of enlightened, i.e. Victorian, opinion. In 1910, they claimed to be custodians of African custom and of the people’s liberty. The change in attitude was momentous.

  By 1905, the chiefs of Lagos had become so influential that they petitioned against the activities of the traveling commissioner (T.C.), Captain Ambrose, in Ilesha. The agitation against government policy in Ilesha showed new features in the co-operation between modern and traditional elite. The scope of the agitation was altogether larger than the Forest Ordinance protest, which was signed by only 759 persons. Four thousand, four hundred signed the Ilesha petition: the protest was better organized mainly because Macaulay was the protest secretary and used the well oiled machine of both the Ekiti Parapo and the Aborigines Protection Society. The petitioners expressed belief in the homogeneity of Yorubaland and alarm at Egerton’s abandonment of MacGregor’s wholesome policy of peace, conciliation, respect for the chiefs and non-interference in the internal affairs of the hinterland chiefs. They regretted that Egerton had substituted instead a policy, which was tantamount to ‘unquestioned and unqualified obedience of the chiefs to young and inexperienced officers.’

  The trouble at Ilesha began after Captain Ambrose had imprisoned Chiefs Loro and Oba-odo for bribery and extortion. The travelling commissioner secured Acting Governor Mosoley’s consent by stating that the Ilesha council had found the chiefs guilty, but asked Lagos to pass sentence. The Owa (the paramount chief of Ilesha) and council denied this and they also denied that the chiefs received bribes. Ambrose had not taken time to study native custom or he would have found out that chiefs like Loro were overlords of many tributary villages, which paid tribute to their liege lords whenever they took up a village’s individual case with the Ilesha native council. It is beyond the scope of this work to discuss the legality of the activities of British officers in the hinterland countries, except to note that much discontent was caused in Lagos because of the alleged insensitivity of these officers.

  The Owa and council refused to meet with the travelling commissioner after the imprisonment of the chiefs. Ambrose recommended that the Owa be deposed. It was at this juncture that Governor Egerton arrived at Ilesha and promptly carried the Owa off to Benin. This was a rash decision, since the Owa was barely persuaded not to commit suicide, an act which would have provoked war between the Ekitis and Lagos. It also prompted the petition of the Lagos chiefs.

  The Ilesha incident reveals the working of the alliance for opposition; it also indicates the close relationship between the Lagos Ekiti Parapo movement and the Ilesha authorities which began in the 1870s. Egerton and Ambrose charged that the Owa was under the influence of Lagos agitators, particularly Sapara Williams, who regularly received fees from the Owa to act on his behalf. The Parapo Society’s principal aim was to install one of their members as clerk to the Native Council. But neither Egerton nor Ambrose produced any evidence to show what the ubiquitous Lagos agitators of their imagination would gain by fermenting unrest in the hinterland.

  What was new in the Ilesha case was the interest shown by the Lagos chiefs, an interest born of the new coalition after 1900. So sophisticated had the new alliance become that Reverend Ataondaolu, one-time adviser to the Owa, alleged that Jackson had been employed by the Owa and the Ekiti Parapo to vilify the travelling commissioner.

  Travelling commissioners were the scourge of Yorubaland. Captain Ambrose, Major Mitchell and Captain Bower were the worst examples of the blustering and blood-thirsty officers who plagued Yorubaland. The politically vocal in Lagos were determined to remove such violent men by exposing their atrocities. The commissioners resented such publicity and blamed the Lagos elites for fermenting agitation, without stating how this served Lagos interests. Ambrose wrote a spirited defence of his action stating that since the hinterland chiefs had signed treaties of friendship and protection with Britain, they were therefore obliged to accept the advice of the commissioners and step down. This was a strange doctrine. Ambrose was stubborn, vindictive and totally irresponsible; he showed no interest in studying the inner reasonableness of some of the customs he was so eloquent in condemning.

  MacGregor knew that tact and patience could achieve a great deal in relations with native princes whose predilections for punctiliousness were proverbial. Egerton’s lack of these essential qualities was partly responsible for the difficult problems which he faced during his governorship. Four years after he took over the administration, Egerton had alienated all classes of African opinion in Lagos – the educated elite by his white colonial church scheme and his anti-black official policy; the traditional elite by his high handedness, as we shall see in the examination of the Water Rate dispute, and by his land schemes.

  Yesufu Agoro, a member of the Central Native Council, complained that ordinances were passed by the Legislative Council before the Native Council had discussed them. This never happened under MacGregor. Agoro was unhappy about ‘English rule… for it seems to me that there will now be some hardship under that flag.’ Eshugbayi Eleko, the Oba, deprecated the daily increasing burden on the people. The traditional elite had lost some of the trade privileges which they enjoyed previously because of the expansion of European firms in the interior. Other governors had suggested ways of improving trade: Glover regulated weights and measures, Moloney secured the Ejinrin market, Denton encouraged agriculture, especially cotton, and MacGregor the marketing of rubber, timber and Kola: the traditional elite upbraided Egerton for not doing the same.

  The opposition to Egerton’s Seditious Offences Ordinance is another illustration of the coalition between modern and traditional elites. The ordinance was supposed to muzzle the alleged rabid anti-white propaganda of the press, which was itself a response to Egerton’s all-white government supported colonial church scheme and similar racist projects. The Ordinance was directed mainly against the educated African elite, but the support which the traditional elite gave to the predictably indignant press surprised the government. The traditional elite had come to accept the division of society into white and black. In 1908, one European was pushed off his bicycle and beaten up; anti-white feeling was responsible for the sacking of the expatriate firms and houses in 1908.

  The members of the Central Native Council requested three meetings to discuss the Seditious Offences Ordinance. Yesufu Agoro thought the Bill was invidious since the government merely wished to use it to punish its opponents. The opposition to the Bill was unanimous. The members of the Council felt the Bill was unnecessary and Chief Ashogbon likened Lagos to a hen laying eggs which the government sold: the government, by passing the Seditious Offences Ordinance, was about to cut the hen open.

  It was during the discussion of this Ordinance that the members of the Central Native Council revealed what they thought the Council stood for. When Lt. Governor Moorhouse told them that the Ordinance had already been passed by the Legislative Council and that the Central Native Council could do nothing, Alli Balogun, a wealthy and prominent leader of the traditional Muslim hierarchy of Lagos declared: ‘Is it a fact that this Council has no power to make laws or prohibit laws? If so, why are we all here? Apparently there is a higher council than this who makes the laws.’ This is a revealing statement, since Alli Balogun, after nine years as a member, apparently did not know that the Central Native Council was merely a deliberative body. 

He had always regarded it as the place where laws were made and translated to the people through its members. Alli Balogun recognized that Sapara Williams, Kitoyi Ajasa and Dr. Obadiah Johnson were supposed to represent Lagos on the legislative council, but, he said, ‘They are not representatives of Lagos; they are not the Chiefs of Lagos. The Chiefs are here.’

  Members of the modern elite were nominated to the legislative council as early as the 1870s. Before 1910 most of those admitted to the council were men of standing in the community – C.J. George, the prominent Egba merchant; Dr. Obadiah Johnson, a successful physician whose brother, the Reverend Samuel wrote the important History of the Yorubas and was often employed by government on diplomatic missions to hinterland chiefs; J.J. Thomas, another rich Egba merchant; the Reverend James Johnson, the Ijebu nationalist; Sapara Williams, a lawyer and leader of the Ekiti Parapos. Their speeches in the Legislative Council (for example, Johnson on Ijebu, Sapara Williams on the railways in northern Nigeria, Obadiah Johnson on government land policy) do not suggest that they were mere collaborators: in fact, they were strong opponents of some aspects of British administration.

  It was not until 1910 that it became a general government policy to use appointments to the legislative council as a reward to the modern elite who collaborated. The social value among the modern elite of being a black legislative councilor had risen by then, probably because it was one of the very few ways to ‘social’ acceptability by whites. But what was Lagos like in 1910?

  Leo Frobenius, the German anthropologist, visited Lagos in October 1911 and drew a vivid picture of bustling economic activity in an atmosphere of intense racial hatred. The Africans, whom he described as ‘noble simpletons’ showed no respect, rather an active hostility, for white officials. Frobenius recounted stories of black policemen and postal clerks who bullied whites; of blacks who did not leave the streets to let whites in carriages through; and of stones thrown by ‘excited blacks’ at merchants’ windows and furniture. ‘Even the Government is powerless against the mob… the white race is running the gravest risk,’ Frobenius wrote of Lagos in 1911, ‘of letting its authority pass out of its own hands and thus staking its own existence.’

  Frobenius left this impression of a Sunday evening in Lagos: ‘A walk through the streets… is all that is wanted to give one a correct notion of what goes on. The people pour in and out of numerous buildings like music-halls, glaring with electric light. They come on bicycles, swagger canes in their hands, cigarettes between their lips and top-hats on their heads. They can be seen from the outside sitting in tightly packed crowds, singing for hours together. They display all the outward signs of advanced European civilization, from patent leather boots to the single eye-glass and every other individual wears either spectacles or eye glasses of gold. And the ladies! Good Gracious me! The picture hats! The stoles! The frocks of silk! These temples of vanity blazing with illuminations like Variety theatres are Christian churches.’

  Frobenius asked a Roman Catholic missionary, ‘a clever man of large experience,’ what he thought of Lagos and ‘these apes out here.’ The missionary replied that ‘there would be the makings of a magnificent future for the country in this colony if we began by giving every nigger, from the top downwards, twenty on the seat of the trousers they wear every Sabbath day.’