“The time-hallowed tradition was bastardised by the British colonial masters in order to weaken the authority of the monarch, abolish slave trade, extend British Protectorate, and promote Royal Niger Company commercial enterprise”.
By Chief Afe Babalola, SAN,
Last week, I commenced a discussion on the concept of traditional rulership in the pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria, the legitimacy of, and the socio-economic-cum-political weight of traditional rulers and the dwindled relevance of monarchs and traditional chiefs in the colonial political domain.
This week, I will examine the factual and spiritual significance of traditional rulership – the godlike, sacred status of pre-independent monarchs and the factual and mythical consequences of their dethronement, both in personal and corporate spheres as well as how the time-hallowed tradition was bastardised by the British colonial masters in order to weaken the authority of the monarch, abolish slave trade, extend British Protectorate, and promote Royal Niger Company commercial enterprise.
Traditional rulers: The demi-gods on earth: Beyond the political, economic and the all-inclusive heads of their respective governments, a traditional ruler equally stands in a place of spiritual significance amongst his people. As I noted in my last week edition an Oba in Yorubaland is regarded as a replica of god on earth, by virtue of which his words become the law, the infraction of which oftentimes attract corporeal and sometimes, capital punishments.
Representative of gods on earth
Traditional rulers from pre-independent South Western Nigeria are seen and regarded as spiritual heads of their respective domains, and as the representative of gods on earth. Thus, they represent the divine symbol of the people’s wellbeing and sustenance, and any disrespect to these traditional rulers is deemed an affront to divinity.
In similar terms, the Islamic Fulani Empire was a confederation in which the ruler, Emir, owned allegiance to the Sultan, who was the temporal and spiritual head of the empire. The Sultan’s powers, in turn, were circumscribed by the obligation to observe Islamic principles.
The demigod status of traditional rulers in pre-independent Nigeria is accompanied by a morbid reality – a deposed ruler was required to die to avert his being a potential focus of opposition to his successor. This was conceptualised by the belief that an Oba never dies – he only changes position. There was an adage that a king must have died before a successor could be enthroned.
The influx of the British colonials vis-à-vis the existing socio-cultural structure: The advent of the British colonial rule in Nigeria heralded a change in many of the customs and traditions erstwhile considered acceptable amongst the governed.
The mandatory requirement for a deposed traditional ruler to die was certainly one of the many customary practices that the British axed, considering it obnoxious, inequitable and repugnant. Under the colonial dispensation, the fate of the deposed Oba produced a dilemma around which revolved two contrasting viewpoints.
One was the traditional demand for the death of the deposed Oba; and the other, the colonial discontinuance of the practice. Deriving from the traditional view was the adage that a new Oba could not be appointed while the holder is still alive.
With traditional rulers becoming pivotal to the effective implementation of the British colonial indirect rule, the deposition of those traditional rulers was bound to create a major offset in the administrative polity. However, the British response to the deposition of a traditional ruler was banishment, either to avert or in response to political complications.
The Deposed Chiefs Removal Ordinance 1917 provides thus: ‘When a Native Chief… has been deposed the Governor may, if satisfied that it is necessary for the re-establishment or maintenance of peace, order and good government, direct that such Chief, shall leave the area over which he had exercised jurisdiction…, and that he shall not return to such area without the consent of the Governor’.
It is to be noted that while deposition of traditional rulers is still in practice in Nigeria, the consequence of such deposition has, seemingly, been forever altered from death sentence to exile due to the incursion of the British who, in turn, altered the previous belief system.
More often than not, in recent times, the deposition of a traditional ruler is sanctioned by the government of the day, acting on its own or prompted by the people, usually due to acts of disobedience to constituted authority, disregarding, disparaging or desecration of customs and tradition.
A good example is the deposition of the Deji of Akure land, Oba Oluwadare Adesina in Ondo State who was deposed because he could not maintain his household, his relationship with his chiefs and his subject.
He did not only maltreat his first wife, but also held his community to ransom by flouting traditional rites, grabbing peoples’ land, including his subjects and repeatedly trampling on their civil rights. He was deposed and banished from the throne after the Ondo State Government had investigated and found him guilty.
Also, in Igburowo town, Odigbo Local Government Area of Ondo State, the Akamuja of Igburowo, Oba Akinfesola Adewola, was suspended from the throne for allegedly perpetrating various atrocities in the community.
Some of the atrocities were fraud, forceful acquisition of land, frivolous litigations over his subjects’ properties, assaulting his chiefs and failure to perform traditional rites. The suspension of the monarch by the Ondo State government came after mass protest by people of the community who chased the traditional ruler and his family out of the palace, forcing them to trek barefooted for several kilometres.
Certainly, the British Colonial rule in Nigeria occasioned a paradigm alteration of the existing socio-cultural structures and generally bastardised the time-hallowed customary practices of the people, weakened the central authority of monarchs and paved way for the extension of the British Protectorate, including the expansion of their business frontiers.
In this regard, I will in this week edition consider two notable cases: (1) Oba Kosoko of Lagos – 1851; (2) King Jaja of Opobo – 1880. In these cases, the British intervention not only changed the political landscape, but completely altered the predominant socio-economic and cultural values of the people. Consequent upon their dethronement, they were all exiled by the British
Oba Kosoko of Lagos – 1851: The 1851 incursion of the British into Lagos came at the height of the fiasco between the deposed Oba Akitoye who had fled into Abeokuta and later to Badagry; and Oba Kosoko who seized the throne from him. The British intervention was influenced by a series of events.
First, the deposed Akitoye, now in Badagry, allied himself with the British concept of abolishing slave trade, a move seen as being borne out of self-interest considering his connection with the well-known slave trader Domingo Martinez who backed his unsuccessful attack on Lagos in 1846.
Second, the Anglican missionaries in Badagry who were in contact with Akitoye, and third, the Egba and European traders who wanted freer movement of goods. Oba Kosoko rejected the British proposal in November 1851 for friendly relations and the giving up of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade on the ground that it was only the Oba of Benin that could deal with foreign powers concerning the status of Lagos.
On December 4, 1851, Oba Kosoko successfully repelled the British forces, a move considered by the British as declaration of war on England. The British threatened that Kosoko had till the end of the month to surrender, otherwise “Lagos would be totally destroyed by fire”.
True to their threats, the British, through a flotilla of war boats and gunships, attacked the Oba’s palace on December 26, 1851 in what is now known as the Bombardment of Lagos. Kosoko put up a spirited defense but by December 28, 1851, the battle known locally as Ogun Ahoyaya or Ogun Agidingbi (after boiling cannons) was over with Kosoko and his followers fleeing to Ijebu.
The earlier deposed Akitoye was now installed Oba of Lagos with British support. On January 1, 1852, Akitoye signed the Treaty between Great Britain and Lagos abolishing the slave trade. On his part, Oba Kosoko was exiled to Epe.
Oba Kosoko’s exile in Epe was eventually sealed when, on September 28, 1854, he signed the Treaty of Epe with Consul Benjamin Campbell, agreeing not to make any claims to Lagos or to endanger commerce in Lagos, and in effect, being completely rooted out of the Lagos throne till date.
King Jaja of Opobo – 1880: King Jaja of Opobo, born in Igboland, was sold into slavery at the age of 12 to the people of Bonny where he earned the name Jubo Jubogha by his first master. The name was later shortened to Jaja by the British. At that time, Bonny, like the other city-states, gained its wealth from the profits of the slave trade.
Here, an individual could attain prestige and power through success in business, meaning that even a slave stood a chance at becoming a ruler if he worked hard enough.
King Jaja, recognised as one of the smartest businessmen in the city-state, eventually rose to become the head of a prominent slave-trade family in Bonny, the Anan Pepple House, absorbing 14 out of 18 of Bonny’s other trade houses, thus giving the Anan house quite a strong dominance on the palm oil trade.
Jaja eventually broke away and established the Opobo city-state in 1869, retaining most of the socio-political and cultural institutions of Bonny. While recognising the value of Western education and literacy, he rejected Christianity.
For 18 years, Jaja ruled the independent Opobo city-state with firmness and remarkable authority. The Opobo city-state dominated the palm oil trade and since the British were blocked from carrying out direct business with the hinterland, the Opobo city-state exercised monopoly over the business.
With this, the British people were made to pay taxes and trade duties as and when due to King Jaja. It seemed like a balanced relationship was enjoyed between the British and King Jaja. But all of these was short-lived as trouble soon ensued between the two seemingly peaceful partnership.
In the 1880s, the British Imperialism began to assert itself fully. As the time went on, British officials were becoming more defiant to the indigenous authorities and British traders began direct trading with the hinterland palm oil producers. In 1884 during the Berlin Conference, the European powers declared Opobo as British territory, and the British soon moved to claim it.
As expected, Jaja believing in his own authority, refused to stop taxing the British traders. This was the beginning of trouble for him. Under the guise of peace talks, Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice consul, invited Jaja to negotiations in 1887.
Although Jaja turned down the invitation because he was suspicious of the motive, he was assured a safe return back home by Johnston and so he eventually honoured the invitation. Unknown to King Jaja, this was the last time he would ever set foot in Opobo.
Once aboard the warship Goshawk, Johnston confronted him with a deportation order or the complete destruction of Opobo. Although the choices offered were between the devil and the deep blue sea, it appears King Jaja chose to be deported. He was then deported to the Accra, Ghana.
On his arrival, he was immediately arrested, tried and declared guilty of actions ‘harmful’ to Britain’s interest. Probably still afraid of his influence and charming ways even in captivity, King Jaja was later deported to the West Indies, at St. Vincent Island.
The injustice meted out to King Jaja left a rather deep scar in the hearts of the indigenous people of Opobo and trade with the British all but ceased.
According to several reports, King Jaja while in exile, carried himself in his kingly dignity. He wrote several appeals to Britain to allow him return home back to his throne and his people. After several declined appeals, he was finally allowed to return in 1891.
Sadly, King Jaja never got the chance to see his homeland again as he died en route on the Island of Teneriffe, allegedly poisoned with a cup of tea. He was buried on the Canary Islands but the strong protest of his people led to his body being quickly exhumed and then taken home to be reburied.
The people of Opobo gladly paid the cost of repatriating his body to Opobo where he was mourned for two years and a ceremony was done to celebrate him as a deity.
Next week, I will consider the interesting cases of Ovonramwen, Oba of Benin – 1897; Akarigbo Oyebajo – 1891 to 1915; and Awujale Adenuga – 1925 to 1929.