How elites inherited Nigeria on a platter of gold

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Olasupo Shasore

A Platter of Gold is almost a generic description and eponym of the essential character of nationalist struggle in Nigeria. The view takes cognizance of the independence struggles in other climes (with their violent details, leading to loss of lives and livelihood) but the nationalist struggle in Nigeria was without human casualties and incidental skirmish. However, reading through this work, A Platter of Gold (which ordinarily should end with a question mark) Making Nigeria: 1906-1960 (Quramo Publishing, Lagos; 2016), one comes plain to historical inquisition and properly curious as to why the independence of Nigeria, full of these details, could be said to be given on a platter of gold. Were the details not there for the pontificators of the platter of gold theory? Of course, the details are there but they are treated in isolation, in the view that each had its dead end. The book first makes its reader develop an inclination that history has no innate materials because all events will end up ultimately to form an aggregate.

The author, Olasupo Shasore, a writer, historian, commercial lawyer, and former Attorney-General Lagos State, through the work, has refined and reframed existing events and prevailing ideas from a more nuanced perspective. He develops his method of interrelation between object and representation by extracting essential details of events, which fit the theme of the book. For instance, he argues that referring to the Aba Market Women episode with the colonial authorities, as a riot was a degradation of the agitation of that community and in his words, “These women bravely confronted the imperial system.” The book perceives the common appellation of Aba Women riot, as a misfit in spite of the widely held view that what happened in Aba in 1929 was a riot. This approach pushes the taste of the book away from just satisfying accustomed criteria of levels of analysis.

There are two generating sources of interest for this work. One is the constant reference to individuals and institutions that have not enjoyed copious historical mention in Nigerian history and the book credits them with events of epochal historical values. This method largely contextualises the book, as taking its own path. For instance, hitherto amalgamation in Nigeria was all about Lord Lugard, but the work has shown that Lord Lugard benefited from throes of revolutionary, historical changes (which are natural to colonial and oversea possessions), which led to the 1914 amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates. While the book does not stress the point that amalgamation was a natural point of tangency in colonial system, the call for it was both consistent and coordinated. The Niger Committee had suggested it in 1898, and the War Department in 1902, individuals like Herbert Read, E.D Moore, Reginald Antrobus in 1904 and as late as 1913 by Charles Temple. The book shows that the call for amalgamation by Lugard in May 1913 was almost presumably irreversible to the survival of colonialism in Nigeria. Similarly, the author mentions Sir Henry McCallum as the first who suggested a cost effective and minimalist idea of colonial administration, which later was adopted as indirect rule. The entire pages 33-35 of the work could have waived the historical privilege of Lugard in the amalgamation story, but for the interest which history attach to seals in the writing of authentic history.

The book is a making of a novel out of a history. The book can be read by anybody, especially those who see historical events as too academic and burdensome because the author makes history that appeared vigorous in life full of freshness. It is a book that can be read without fuss. The presentations of warfare, riots, protests, and even the description of places and individual are done in superlative imagery, giving a sense that one is reading eye-witness accounts.

The author explains colonialism within its exclusive derivative possession – the seed of the cost of running imperialism must be sown in the soil of the colonised societies. The book develops a fusion of history, economy and administration and all crystallize into the form, which historical events took in Nigeria from 1906-1960. At the centre of colonialism is how to run it, the running cost of colonial system, and how imperial forces achieved this, is a major determination of the lifespan of colonial system and the relationship with colonised communities. More often, taxation is found most plausible to defray colonial expenses. One other option is to establish a plantation or find mineral resources. Historical evidence shows that where the latter applies, nationalism and agitation for self-government is a bitter, deep-seated combative affair. This book explains the bitterness, which greets colonial taxation.

THE author mentions Nigeria Bitumen Corporation under John Beigheim, which started oil prospective efforts in 1906. He is of the view that if the effort of NBC had been supported, there could have been another course of Nigeria history and “John Bergheim was just the man to save everyone a lot of pain’. Perhaps, the issue of taxation of Nigerians could have been limited, as the oil exploration would have met colonial administration cost. This discovery could have changed the direction of history; if not aborted, it could have gone anyway in our annals. Although plagued by doubts, the discovery of oil in 1906 could have elongated colonial system in Nigeria. The book leaves one with the inference of 1956, which is general date that oil was discovered. With some calculated degree of certainty, a reader could imagine what would have been the flow of Nigeria colonial history if the 1906-7 was not aborted and perhaps grateful that 1958 (when exploration started) was the period when agitation for self-government in Nigeria had reached its culminating point and anyone could not have toyed with a reversal of date for self-government in Nigeria.

Another salient point, which aligns with the above, is how the author presents the details of how Nigeria escaped being a plantation country as a result of the proposition of Leverhulme, (Lever Brother) to Clifford.

There is a general appropriateness of chapters and their titles, each providing evidence to the topical scope of the book. And there are quite a number of them, which prove the author’s mettle and also serve as scholarly apparatus and ‘piquing the interest of the most casual readers’. Chapter one is a reader’s delight, both in content and context, a precise treatise and preliminary to the main expectation of the entire book. Somehow, the entire colonial history of Nigeria could have been told around the Court Square (later Tinubu Square) where amalgamation of Nigeria was proclaimed on January 1, 1914 and Race Course, where Nigeria attained independence in October 1, 1960. The mention of Alan Burns as the interlacing strand, who was present at the Court Square in 1914 and who was also at the Race Course in 1960, as a special guest on Independence Day is both lofty and sublime.

The book, in this chapter, also promotes some rate of interest in our historical heritage, the Race Course, the Federal Palace Hotel and the Independence Bridge are instant links to the independence of Nigeria. And for the regular visitors to Freedom Park on Broad Street, this chapter tells its genealogy as the former colonial prison built in 1872.

SOME chapters in the book are very sharp in the direction of the central theme of the book, keeping in focus the conceptual framework of A Platter of Gold. For instance, chapter six is a complete stalk of the book’s theme, when the various agitations and sacrifices of women from the Eastern region of Nigeria, from Oloko to Opobo, are brought into solemn historical consciousness. Chapter nine is another stem of the stern where Alimotu Pelewura is presented as an anti-colonial matriarch. Understanding the author’s argument about the Alaga’s (Pelewura’s leadership title) opposition to the Pullen Price Scheme is indispensable in the ultimate search of the general objective of this book. Quite significantly, the book shows the relation between the Pullen Price scheme and the vagaries of World War II, to the extent that price control was presented as a colonial schema, which served imperial interest. The author presents Pelewura as a local comeuppance and a confrontational force to imperial system and not as a leader of market women in search of some outlandish profits. The book further demonstrates this in explaining Pelewura’s apparent resolutions to confront the imperial powers. This was demonstrated during the food control and gari uprising, opposition to taxation and the support she gave during the general strike of 1945.

Shasore shows keen sensitivity to what he considers as major historical circuit in the build-up to independence. He detects and analyses an assemblage of events, which are useful for the book’s central argument. The author argues that the roles of the following events: opposition to taxation by women of Oloko-Opobo, Alimotu Pelewura, Frances Olufunmilayo Ransom-Kuti, the food control and gari uprising, COLA agitations, the go-slow of Coal Workers Union in Enugu, the Iva Valley Massacre, the aftermaths of World War II, the Fitzgerald Commission of 1949, etc, are overlooked when the story of Nigeria’s independence is told and this failure is responsible for the ascendancy of a Platter of Gold theory.

The author’s endeavour in this book is historically delicate given the irksome task the book sets to perform. The author shows courage when he shows his intent in the early pages of the book. He sets out almost at once to show that the book will credit the historical significance of individuals and institutions and their roles in the course of Nigeria’s struggle for independence. The book is replete with underlying assumptions that the individuals who came in the 1950s to Nigerian historical scene stole the show from the original ‘agits’ many of whom paid the supreme price. The author laid his thesis on this threshold that these newcomers were actually rewarded on a platter of gold for a struggle that was already nearing its terminal point. And he laments the exclusion of the forebears of de-colonisation of Nigeria from the reward of independence.

The author’s task is, however, made more arduous when he does not pay attention to precise reference of some information in the book, which affects the course and content of Nigerian history. Example is the author’s reference to oil exploration as having started in Nigeria in 1906 and not 1956 (as he put it). Of course, the author later explains what led to the failure of the 1906-1907 exploration efforts by NBC. However, a precise source of this information is essential, especially when it tampers with what is considered as general historical knowledge. This fails to save the book from some queries of historical accuracy, which will later dot some of the book’s positions. There are other few instances of this in the book. However, the author could have gotten away with this because his writing style is quite vivid, giving the impression that he is giving eyewitness account. And when a book produces such strong impression on the human sense, it could submerge further academic query.

Shasore’s approach to Nigerian history from 1906-1960 is original and striking, especially in conception and style. The concentration on the activities of what can be referred to as track two nationalists’ has left in its wake some unintentional omissions. The book addresses the issue of amalgamation with unparalleled vigour by showing how the North and South related separately until the 1950s. But there is little mention of the constitutional conference, which held in Ibadan in 1950 and its effect on what has been referred to as the real amalgamation of 1950 (which supersedes the paper amalgamation of 1914). Again the book does not say much about how the various constitutional changes affect ethnic groupings in Nigeria, which was a major political theme in Nigeria between 1952-1960.

This observation is, however, not a deficit of the book but a recoverable condition, especially when the author is clear that the book seeks to account for the contributions of “lesser-known participants in the making of our history, the unknown and the unsung ordinary Nigeria”.

This book reads more like a historical creed. It shows that Nigeria did not attain independence on a platter of gold, but the elite who were saddled with the governance of the country in October 1, 1960 attained their positions of prominence and superiority on a platter of gold leaving the real “agits” in the cold.

• Olawale Lawal PhD, is of Political Science, University of Ibadan

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