PING LAGOS (EPISODE 10)

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The order of precedence of the chiefs, seniority and therefore roles in making the new Oba had not been settled; the competing stories of custom yet to be reconciled until 6 June 1933 when the hearing was treated to a little drama by the presentation of three exhibits: A,B and C, two petitions and a list of subsidy payments by the government to the chiefs. Attention fell on the receipts.

Firstly, the payments by the government were not widely known to the public. Each one of the receipts suggested that Ajayi, the Chief Ojora, whose name appeared first on the receipts, was the senior chief opposed to Obanikoro who also appeared on the lists and all along claimed superiority.

The sudden revelation caused the senior lawyer and prominent barrister, Eric Olawolu Moore (later Sir) to strenuously urge the commission not to draw any such inference from the receipts. However, it appeared the harm had already been done, at least enough to raise uncertainty as to a natural pre-ordained order of precedence as claimed by Eletu Odibo. Moore was by this time a senior member of the bar having been called in 1903. He rose to great prominence following a short-lived partnership with his brother Olaseni Moore.

Eletu Odibo was naturally flustered at the revelation. He said, ‘I do not know why the Ojora was put first or why his subsidy was larger than others’. But the Eletu offered no counter evidence to support his earlier assertion regarding the supposed natural precedence of Eletu over the other chiefs. The harm had already been done.

The fourteenth witness before the Commission was a curious choice given that he held no traditional title in law and custom. He was Herbert Samuel Heelas Macaulay, a city engineer and grandson of Bishop Ajayi Crowther, a foremost African nationalist and the first African Bishop of the Anglican Church. Macaulay stated that he had ‘for forty years taken a great interest in the affairs of this colony. I have a good library of the History of Lagos’. This was his strongest resume on the issues at hand. Macaulay put 48 documents in his testimony to the Ward-Price commission. His oral testimony turned on simple posits – the Ifa oracle makes the selection of a new Oba. Macaulay said:
It is contrary to custom to consult Ifa in the presence of all chiefs. The house Docemo is not a private house it would create trouble to tell them that they have no connection with the town as a whole. It would destroy the social position of the chiefs. There should be chiefs each with his duty not to rule Lagos but to assist Government.

In Macaulay’s view, it appeared that social position was all that was at stake. Perhaps social position was the reason that Macaulay’s testimony was permitted in the first place. Lest we forget, Herbert Macaulay was a civil engineer by training, a disaffected and unsuccessful tenure with the government had taught him the ill-effects of employment and opportunity discrimination. For this and other reasons he saw the grave need to fight for the emancipation of the African worker and quickly became an opponent of colonial policy.

While the government may have preferred to deprive Macaulay of the opportunity to testify, a safer strategy may have been to give Macaulay the platform to contradict the anti-government views and at the same time disagree with the pro-government testimony.

Whatever impact Macaulay felt that his testimony may have created, it was soon countered by the introduction of Sir Adeyemo Alakija, another senior barrister highly regarded within government circles. Alakija stated very quickly that he was impartial and therefore disinterested in which ‘side’ turned out to be victorious but merely wished to put some of his own observations on record:
I have at various times visited the Iga and know that there is a special place for the senior chief; and i have seen Chief Ojora’s sitting in it even when Eletu Odibo was present. Since Ojora’s death i have seen Obanikoro sitting in the same seat as being senior to Eletu Odibo. The chiefs always sit in order of seniority. I have seen Ojora and Obanikoro sitting as first and second senior chiefs.

Ward-Price still sought compromise on the disparate views he had heard, and called for yet another private meeting with the chiefs. Following his request, Ward-Price tried to confer privately with the Chief Eletu Odibo. As he approached the Eletu Odibo, the chief scurried away, expressing anxiety at being seen with the Commissioner at all and the possibility of such a meeting being construed as ‘crossing over’ by his supporters, a most uncooperative stance. Interestingly, Ward-Price noted on the contrary that Obanikoro and his supporting chiefs were willing to do anything they were asked by government’.

The call of the Alake the ruler of Ake, a town in Abeokuta, by the Ward-Price commission to give evidence was a confounding choice for testimony. The title of Ake was not as antiquated as Lagos; the cultural nexus between the Ake community and the old Lagos Kingdom is difficult to appreciate. In fact it conjures wonder for what, if any, true addition could have been made by the Alake in his evidence on a topic as deeply rooted in Lagos local culture under consideration by the commission.

The Alake’s evidence should have been assessed with caution at the outset. The Alake said, ‘The Lagos people are Yorubas; their former connection with Benin does not alter this. The Benin influence vanished from Lagos many years ago, and as far as i know Yoruba custom is followed at Lagos.’

The witness admitted that Benin customs was relevant by way of influence yet curiously – in his view – at the same time the people of Lagos were still under a Yoruba influence.

The same comment of misplaced evidence would apply with modification to the commission’s decision to consult for testimony – Ife Chiefs, Ilesha Chiefs and the Bashorun of Oyo for their views in contributing to the commission’s decision.

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