October 4, 2022

In praise of the vocation of dissent in Nigeria (2) – Vanguard

  • November 29, 2021
  • 7 min read
In praise of the vocation of dissent in Nigeria (2) – Vanguard

This is the concluding part of the piece published last week, highlighting the historical background of dissent in Nigeria against the backdrop of the EndSARS protests
SEVERAL issues crystallised these flash-points. One was the Water Tax (for the establishment of Iju Water Works) in 1908 and another was the control of traditional lands. The so-called “water riots” that followed upon the imposition of Governor Egerton’s Water Tax in 1908, were the protest of the people of Lagos under the Eleko against the colonial Water Tax.
Egerton had taxed the natives to raise money to build the Iju Water Works which was to supply pipe-borne water exclusively for the White people. The natives, led by the Eleko, rose up in protest, arguing that since the piped water was meant mostly for the White people, the responsibility for paying it should have been theirs.
In the aftermath of the “riots”, three things happened. In 1909, first the Colonists established Kings College, KC. In the same year, they also passed the Sedition Ordinance(s) of 1909.  While the Sedition Ordinance became a ready tool in dividing and co-opting Nigerian public opinion, KC (or the Old School as it would come to be known) became the school of choice for generations of children of Nigeria’s elite. It was not the last time the elite would profit from the aftermath of dissent. The third thing was the onset of party political organising in Nigeria.
Christopher Sapara Williams, who was also a member of the Legislative Council and whose candidate, Adamaja, had lost the stool to the Eleko, nevertheless, challenged the Sedition Ordinance, describing it with considerable prescience as “a thing incompatible with the character of the Yoruba people, and has no place in their constitution…; hyper-sensitive officials may come tomorrow who will see sedition in every criticism and crime in every mass meeting”. Sapara Williams was one of Nigeria’s first defenders of dissent.
In 1903, he denounced the adoption of a Newspaper Ordinance as “repugnant to all senses of justice and an outrage upon the established principles of English liberty, which we as subjects of his Majesty, the King, have undoubted right to”. Nevertheless, deploying the fear of prosecution, the colonists successfully split elite opinion, attracting the support of some pro-establishment types, led then by another famous lawyer, Kitoye Ajasa who would later become a close confidant of Lord Lugard.  
Conscience vs collaboration: The difference between Sapara-Williams and Kitoye Ajasa foreshadowed the ideological divide in Nigeria between conscientious voices of dissent and a collaborationist elite who have consistently profited from it in politics and the professions.
Sapara Williams was not afraid of going against colonial inclinations. He was, arguably, the father of the “restructuring” debate. In 1904, he reportedly proposed to Governor Egerton that “the present boundary between the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria be re-adjusted by bringing the southern portion into Southern Nigeria, so that the entire tribes of the Yoruba-speaking people should be under one and the same administration.”
He lost the argument but triggered a battle over internal equity and re-balancing of Nigeria, which is still very much alive. While Sapara Williams had his nomination for a knighthood turned down, Kitoye Ajasa, who would later go on to become the leading Freemason in the territory as seven-time Worshipful Master of Lagos Lodge No. 1171 between 1901 and 1928, won the confidence of Lugard, becoming both a knight and a judge. For most observers, it seemed clear that the material benefits of collaboration with officialdom far outweighed the troubles from dissent.
The issue of control over traditional lands in Lagos would end up before the highest court with jurisdiction over the territory, in the case of Amodu Tijani, decided by the Privy Council in July 1921. The Eleko rallied behind the Idejo Chiefs, led by Amodu Tijani, who had the support of Herbert Heelas Macaulay, grand-son of the first African Anglican Bishop, Michael Ajayi Crowther and veteran dissenter.
For the hearing before the Privy Council in 1920, Herbert Macaulay travelled to London with the Oba’s Staff of Office in support of Amodu Tijani and the Chiefs. While in London, Macaulay issued a statement claiming that the Eleko was the King of over 17 million Nigerians and in possession of territory more than three times that of Great Britain.
Despite a healthy revenue of over four million pounds, he claimed the British had reneged on a treaty commitment to compensate the Eleko. Embarrassed at being publicly called duplicitous in this way, the British required the Eleko to disown Herbert Macaulay. 
He issued a public statement clarifying his position on Herbert Macaulay’s statement but declined to disown him through the Oba’s Bell Ringers as required by the colonists. Unable to secure the support of the popular Oba, the colonists chose to head off rising tension by deposing him.
On August 6, 1925, they issued an ordinance de-stooling him and, two days later, on August 8 they arrested and removed him into internal banishment in Oyo. Oba Ibikunle Akitoye was installed. His rule lasted an uncomfortably brief three years largely because he lacked the support of the people of Lagos.
Indeed, in 1926, he suffered physical attack. Supported by the elite and people of Lagos, the deposed Eleko took his case to the courts, fighting all the way to the Privy Council who decided in favour of his claim for leave for a writ of habeas corpus on June 19, 1928.
Just as the Eleko was being reinstated in Lagos, the Aba Women’s uprising took off in 1929. Like the Lagos Water Riots, it was also dissent over colonial taxation in the foreground of what would become the colonial head count in 1931. On November 18, 1949, the colonial authorities killed 21 miners and injured 51 others in Iva Valley, near Enugu.
 The result of the inquiry that followed was the creation of the Ministry of Labour. Following the adoption of McPherson Constitution in 1951, Ladoke Akintola became Nigeria’s first Minister of Labour, as a direct result of the Iva Valley Massacre. He had broken into political leadership as one of the nominees of the Action Group into cabinet. Until then he was the Legal Adviser of the party. 
On November 20, 1953, Akintola’s colleague and friend in Cabinet and Deputy Leader of the Action Group, Chief Bode Thomas, died suddenly. Early in the following year, the party elected 41-year-old Akintola to succeed Bode Thomas as the Deputy Leader. Fast-forward to independence in 1960 and the party of collaboration with the colonists, which had opposed independence, emerged as the party of power. 
Profiting from dissent: This theme of collaborationists profiting from dissent has defined Nigerian politics. It is true of what happened with the return to civil rule in 1979. Twenty years later, in 1999, the politicians who were rooting for the interminable rule of General Sani Abacha were there to profit and banish from political leadership the human rights, pro-democracy and NADECO activists who had made it all possible. 
In the Niger Delta, a mutual admiration club of politicians and their contractors have plundered the NDDC and 13 per cent derivation for which activists paid with their limbs and lives. This is an abridged version of a much longer detour through Nigeria’s history.
The lessons are evident. Dissent has a long tradition in Nigeria. Indeed, it is the only thing that has guaranteed progress in Nigerian history. Its exponents in every generation have paid a heavy but ultimately worthy price for, without them, the country would be nowhere.
Nigerian women, workers, students and youths have been leaders in this enterprise. In every generation, dissent has also entailed inter-generational engagement.
Mahmud Aminu continues to be an exemplar of the best of this tradition. Even more, he is now investing in ensuring that dissent has a guaranteed future in the post-digital Nigeria.
For that, we must be grateful to him and to successive generations of Nigerian dissenters. The #EndSARS generation are proud legatees of a consistent tapestry in Nigerian history. This is both a burden to be borne with responsibility and an opportunity in need of translation.
Prof. Odinkalu, a human rights activisit, wrote from Abuja



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