No Man’s Land

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Although there were early settlers in Lagos, the modern identity of the city was influenced by the Portuguese and British and burnished by the fire of green-white-green nationalism, write Solomon Elusoji and Ugo Aliogo

In an interview published in one of the national dailies recently, distinguished legal luminary, Femi Okunnu, argued that the designation of Lagos as a no-man’s land is ‘rubbish’ and an insult to the locals who first settled in the water-city. “There are always some people who are original settlers,” he said. “Lagos was peopled by the Aworis and Awori land spread from Badagry through to Ota.”

But Okunnu also goes on to credit immigrants from Nupe, conquistadors from Benin the Edo state capital and resettled former slaves from Brazil and Sierra Leone as part citizens of one of the world’s most famous port cities. He couldn’t quite settle on the ‘truest’ owners.
Since the beginning of the year, a flurry of activities have been put in place to celebrate Lagos’s golden jubilee as a state in Nigeria. One of the eye-catching demonstrations of the celebration was the ‘My Lagos Success Story’ campaign, which saw billboards of eminent personalities put up across major roads in the city.

The campaign came under criticism from a plethora of commentators, as it was judged to have been unrepresentative of the ‘true heroes’ of Lagos. But does Lagos possess ‘true heroes’? And through what criteria are these ‘true heroes’ chosen? This is a question that can only be decided by what historical lens the city is viewed from: as a pre-colonial kingdom lying on a sandy, swampy island of only about two square miles in size, as a British colony central to the mission of the Queen in West Africa, or as the pulsing, crowded and constricted metropolis of modern Nigeria?

An abridged history of the city
Lagos, located in a large lagoon that opens onto West Africa’s Bight of Benin, was first settled by migrant fishing peoples, which meant water and canoes have always played a prominent role in the lives of its inhabitants. Prior to the 16th century, a number of Aworis, the southernmost of the Yoruba-speaking peoples, dispersed from Isheri, a village 12 miles up the Ogun River, seeking refuge from a conflict remembered as the “war of the world”.

A group of them settled at what is now Ebutte-Metta, on the mainland, until the need for greater security drove the community to a smaller island in the lagoon opposite Lagos Island. There, they established two settlements, Oto and Iddo, and soon attracted fresh migration. Over generations, the Awori immigrants intermarried with the earlier inhabitants, learning fishing, navigation, and other water-related skills from them and absorbing some of their population.

In her breathtaking book, ‘Slavery and the Birth of an African City’, Kristin Mann notes that, in time, people from Iddo moved to the northwestern corner of the larger island opposite, which eventually became known as Lagos, looking for land to farm. The settlers recognised the authority of a ruler called the Olofin, based at the more populous and powerful community of Iddo, but tracing mythical descent from Isheri and via the founder of that village to Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba civilisation. Elsewhere on Lagos Island, Aja, Ijebu (also Yoruba-speaking), and other peoples founded autonomous settlements.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a maritime revolution in Europe enabled navigators to conquer the Atlantic Ocean, which had previously constituted a barrier separating the continents that ringed it. By the 1470s, European ships had sailed as far South along the West African coast as the Bight of Benin. Within 30 more years, Portuguese sailors began trading across the lagoon behind Lagos Island with the prosperous southeastern Yoruba state of Ijebu. There, they bought slaves, cloth, and ivory, the first two of which they sold for gold on the Coast of Mina (later known as the Gold Coast) West of the Volta. Soon, a few Dutch navigators joined them. The name Lagos, given by Europeans to the large island in the lagoon and, eventually, to the city that developed there, came originally from the designation “lago,” or lake, on early Portuguese maps.

However, beginning about the thirteenth century, Edo-speaking peoples had forged a powerful kingdom at Benin City to the East. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Oba of Benin had introduced a series of political reforms which concentrated military power in his hands, and begun a process of imperial expansion West into Yorubaland. Throughout the 16th century, Benin was the largest and most powerful state between the Volta and the River Niger.

In the second half of the 16th century, Oba Orhogbua sent fleets of war canoes to attack Iddo, an eight-to-ten-day journey from Benin City. These expeditions, Mann writes, may have represented an effort to retain control of European trade, which was beginning to shift west with the rise of a powerful Aja state at Allada. Repulsed on more than one occasion by a courageous and popular Olofin, Benin established a military camp on Lagos Island, presided over by a number of generals, and used it as a base for pursuing its Oba’s political and commercial ambitions in the area.

Andreas Josua Ulsheimer, a German in Dutch employ who left an eyewitness account of the settlement in 1603, referred to it as a frontier town, surrounded by a strong fence, belonging to the Kingdom of Benin and inhabited by none but soldiers and four military commanders. Subsequently, the island, lagoon, and channel connecting them to the sea were sometimes known as “Curamo”, “Korame”, “Ikurame”, or other variants of a term that was probably Edo in origin. The modern city that originated on the island is still known to its indigenous inhabitants as Èkó, which most likely derives from the Edo word for war camp.

Soon after encamping on Lagos Island, Benin military commanders established a ceremonial meeting of the heads of local communities. This body developed into a governing council, reminiscent of early processes of state formation in both Benin and Yorubaland. The rulers of Iddo, Oto, and Eko were incorporated into the council, as were those of other local settlements that became important. Of disparate origins, the council members and their followers gradually took on through intermarriage and assimilation the Awori identity of the early settlers of Iddo and Oto. Their successors became known as the Idejo chiefs, and they are commonly remembered in local traditions as descending from the sons of the first Olofin. Forging shared Awori identity built unity among the Idejo. It also gave them first-settler status, which legitimised their claims to control fishing and, what has been more important in modern times, land rights in the area.

Benin’s dominance in the region, however, did not last. Around the turn of the 17th century, Oba Ehengbuda drowned while returning from an expedition on the lagoon east of Lagos. Subsequently, Obas were forbidden to command troops in battle, and the responsibility devolved to war chiefs, ending the king’s control of the military. Throughout the 17th century, conflict in Benin City between the Oba and chiefs and among different categories of chiefs themselves weakened the empire, which lost control of parts of eastern Yorubaland. During the seventeenth century, moreover, powerful empires emerged among the Yoruba at Oyo and Aja at Allada, rivaling Benin’s influence west of Lagos. The borders of these three states shifted and overlapped in the second half of the century, as they fought for control of the region.

While these developments were taking place along the Bight of Benin and in its interior, across the Atlantic, in the Americas, a system of agriculture plantation introduced from the Mediterranean basin in the first half of the 16th century was expanding to supply growing European markets for sugar. By the second half of the century, plantation production had created a demand for slave labour in northeastern Brazil, which after the 1640s spread with the plantation system to the eastern Caribbean as well. During this period, Africa became firmly identified in the Western mind as the source of slave labour for the New World plantations and Lagos became a prime channel through which hordes of slaves captured from the hinterland were ferried to a life of misery.

The Saro connection
The slave trade transformed Lagos in so many ways. But most importantly, it attracted a diverse number of peoples to the city, helping it rise to the status of an Immigrant’s dream. In 1861, the British annexed Lagos as a colony, a move the British argued was for the good of the locals. Annexation, the Crown argued, was indispensable to complete the suppression of the slave trade in the Bight of Benin and support the development of lawful commerce. As a colony, the city began to attract former slaves in foreign lands who sought the comfort of home.

Prominent among the returnee slaves were the Saros, who started migrating to the city in the beginning of the 1830s. They were from Sierra Leone, Brazil and Cuba. Many of them, whose ancestry trace back to Yorubaland, chose to return for cultural, missionary and economic reasons. The first African Bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was a Saro.
In a recent interview with THISDAY, famed photographer and journalist, Sunmi Smart-Cole, argued that the Saros were one of the major developers of Lagos.

“Dr. Chester Adeniyi-Jones, who graduated with a first class degree in the United Kingdom, started Yaba Mental Hospital, and was the first medical doctor in Nigeria to build a hospital in Lagos,” Smart-Cole said, “the piece of land housing the Lagos City Hall was owned by him. When Lagos Government acquired the land, his family was compensated with five plots on Victoria Island. By 1920, he had a hospital there. Again, he formed the first Nigerian political party, and the likes of Herbert Macaulay, Obafemi Awolowo, Ernest Okoli and Nnamdi Azikwe were his followers then. He was the first spokesperson for Nigeria in the first legislative assembly. Two brothers, Dr. Maja Pearce and Dr. Akinola Maja were surgeons and were also great contributors to Lagos development.”

Interestingly, as Smart-Cole was quick to point out, the Saros were only one of many contributors to the rise of Lagos.

A giant melting pot
On May 27, 1967, Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, divided the newly independent Nigeria into 12 states. Lagos State was one of them. By then, Lagos had become Nigeria’s capital city and a melting pot for all the diverse peoples that make up the country. Every Nigerian tribe is represented in Lagos and its identity, rather than being sourced from a pre-colonial market, is forged from the colonial work of the British and burnished by the fire of green-white-green nationalism.

Although the Yorubas, most especially the Aworis, believe that they are the ‘true owners’ of Lagos, their faith is flawed and their judgment mired in ambiguity. Due to its strategic location, the history of the city is chaotic and, as we have seen, the Aworis themselves were migrants who inter-married with a number of different peoples. Perhaps, by virtue of being the longest-standing inhabitants, the Aworis should be reserved privileged seats, but Lagos, the city that oversees the Atlantic, belongs to no one.