The invention of Lagos
Rethinking Nigeria with Chief Femi Okunnu
For the past three and half weeks or so, the state of Lagos has been seized by a cultural and political extravaganza the like of which has not been seen anywhere in the history of the country. A series of events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Lagos State has turned into a grand carnival of urban renewal and collective euphoria.
To be sure, all this has not been without the faint murmur of disapproval from certain quarters. There are those who believe that in a condition of economic meltdown and crippling national poverty, this is good money thrown away in a Vanity Fair. This is to be expected from a very articulate and politically sophisticated people.
But on the whole, it has been a historic showstopper; a moveable feast rich in culture, history, traditional politics and the economics of perpetual self-invention. Lagos does not do things in half-measures. It is not for nothing that Lagos is also known as “Eko for show”. See Lagos and marvel. “Go to Lagos, young man”, was the traditional war-cry of self-actualization from the hinterland.
In the event, if Lagos had not existed, it would have had to be “invented” as a tribute to the capacity of the Black people to rule themselves or to ruin themselves accordingly. The story of Lagos provides redemptive tropes for the whole of Nigeria and how a nation of heterogeneous tribes and diverse people can successfully congeal and cohere around a central idea of political freedom and economic liberation for all its denizens.
In an inspired and brilliant intervention at the lecture to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Lagos State held at the Eko Suites last Wednesday, Alhaji Femi Okunnu , SAN and former Federal Commissioner in the military reign of General Yakubu Gowon, rued publicly as to why the rest of the country cannot be like Lagos. The answer is blowing in the wind and in the womb of time and history.
Okunnu went on to name two notable Nigerians, Phillip Asiodu and Allison Ayida, as being instrumental to the creation of Lagos state. Neither is of Yoruba origin. According to Okunnu, since Nigeria has been ruined by his generation, the highly regarded legal luminary called on the teeming youths in the hall to rescue their country and redeem the original dream. It was a call to youthful arms in a moment of revolutionary desperation and disappointment.
But nothing that is destined to endure comes easy. As a city and now a globally indexed megalopolis, Lagos has also had its share of tribulations and adversities. It has survived a naval bombardment from a British Frigate moored off the Marina, a civil war triggered by royal succession, the much earlier displacement of its original ruling caste by Edo warriors, political turbulence, civil unrests, revolts against colonial rule and savage post-independence military uprisings which have framed the contours of modern Nigeria.
Lagos, like an invincible heavyweight slugger, has taken it all in the chin and has remained standing. Originally known as Eko, it was renamed and invented as Lagos by Portuguese adventurers who were reminded by its topography and ecology of a similar place in their metropolitan homeland. The name has stuck as a result of sheer imperial cultural aggression. Yet in an engrossing historical irony, Lagos is now more famous and globally celebrated than its original forebear. Such are the wonders of history.
Unlike Nigeria, Lagos has no doubt been helped by its racial and ethnic mix which has infused a political, economic and cultural virility and power into its being the like of which has not been seen on the West African coast. After the first wave of Awori settlers came the Egun from Badagry and parts of what have now become Benin Republic, Ghana and Togo. Other Yoruba came from the hinterland followed by the Nupe, the Hausa, the Ibo, the Efiks and others.
A foreign menu was introduced to this local diet with the infusion of returning former slaves and their descendants from Europe and Sierra Leone. They were joined by Brazilian émigrés, former slaves and their offspring who had obtained manumission upon the declaration of independence from Portugal by Brazilian nationalists after a civil war of liberation, and a dash of Cuban returnees.
These western educated and acculturated former indigenes completely revolutionized and reinvented the politics, literary culture and education of the native tradition they met on ground turning the whole place upside down. With their radical journalism and irrepressible pamphleteering, Lagos eventually became a hotbed of political and intellectual insurrection against colonial rule and the racist assumptions of the entire imperialist mission.
In the case of the returning former Brazilians with their skilled artisans, talented workmen and enterprising entrepreneurs, they pioneered an economic, cultural and architectural revolution which took the rustic former fishing and farming community by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into western modernity with a dash of old Iberian grandeur. Some parts of Lagos reminded one of little Havana or Rio de Janeiro.
One of these Brazilian immigrants who arrived in Lagos as a boy speaking only Portuguese became so fabulously wealthy that his riches became a subject of outlandish mythical speculation. In his old age, Da Rocha was said to emerge promptly on his balcony at the stroke of noon to throw coins at secondary school boys.
Another returnee, James Labulo Davies, the son of Sierra Leonean recaptives, had taken part as a British naval officer in the bombardment of Lagos only to reinvent himself as a leading Lagos businessman and major philanthropist of his time. This gifted and visionary adventurer pioneered the fiscal revolution of the colony when a deal struck with Messr Alli-Balogun in the old cowry system was paid for in modern currency, saving the renowned merchant from a financial meltdown.
Thus the modernization of Lagos was not without its momentous contradictions and immense ironies. So westernized and Anglicized had these returning luminaries become that they no longer regarded themselves as belonging to the indigenous tribes they had left behind. They had become a new breed famously and implacably dismissed as negro-Saxons by Edward Blyden. In a remarkable encounter, one of them pointedly told Reverend Henry Townsend that they regarded themselves as middle-men between the British and the Egba people.
Yet from within their rank also came Herbert Macaulay, the great Black nationalist and father of modern Nigerian politics. A descendant of freed slaves, so refined was Herbert Macaulay in manners, so polished was his diction, so exquisite was his sartorial taste, so distinguished and imperious of carriage was this African nobility that he was known as the Black white man or “oyinbo alawo dudu”. Yet he identified completely with the local populace and their political aspirations and was ready to defend them at grave personal risks and heavy political costs.
So what makes Lagos tick? And why has it proved impossible for this magic to be replicated in the larger Nigerian society? History we can still access, but not lost time. Yet in order to recoup lost time, we must return to history in order to learn the correct lessons and pinpoint where the rain started beating us. This was precisely what happened last Wednesday when the organizers of the “Lagos at Fifty” put together a formidable array of pundits to do justice to the topic: Lagos yesterday, tomorrow and the future.
The keynote speaker, Hakeem Olumide Danmole, a prominent professor of History and distinguished Islamic scholar, did more than justice to the topic. Danmole is scion of an illustrious Lagos family and comes from the finest pedigree of omoluabi Lagosians. An hour into the lecture, Danmole was still warming up and puckering with a poker-faced relish. But he had already established and secured all the parameters for the discussion to follow.
In an engrossing and intriguing intervention, Alhaji Okunnu, makes a compelling case for Lagos Exceptionalism without really saying so or being aware of the great irony of the situation. He plotted the Lagos trajectory with brilliance and aplomb. With his deft touch, history came alive in the hall.
All the bare facts were there: the beginnings as an Awori settlement later joined by the Egun, the centralization and modification of the ruling system by Benin warriors— despite an existing Ilaje counter-narrative which insists that the Edo warriors were worsted and taken prisoners at Itebu Manuwa— the renaming by the Portuguese, the naval bombardment which saw Kosoko worsted and banished into exile in Epe, the forcible acquisition as a crown colony and British Protectorate which gifted Lagosians with British citizenship while other Nigerians were regarded as subjects, the oscillation of Lagos between a splendid insularity and grudging commonality with the Yoruba hinterland and the rest of the country and of course events and intrigues leading to the creation of Lagos state.
In retrospect, it was easy to see why Lagos could not be replicated on the canvas of a gigantic multi-ethnic nation bristling with colonial mischief and miscue. Whereas in Lagos ethnic diversity and different racial mix led to virility and potency, it has led to massive state paralysis in the larger Nigerian nation. The failure of vision on the part of Nigeria’s post-independence political elite, their lack of tolerance and inability to grasp the need for compromise, conciliation and elite pacting in a multi-ethnic nation with self-regarding nationalities in varying stages of collective hubris has led to a war of all against all.
Unfortunately, the failure of politics and modern governance in Nigeria and of the political class as a national lodestar leads Alhaji Okunnu to a curious leap of logic. So disdainful of regular politicians has the elder statesman become that he pooh-poohs the very idea of restructuring claiming not to understand what the whole thing was all about.
Yet his story of the invention of Lagos is nothing but a chronicle of relentless structuring and restructuring by the colonial and military authorities as historical and political exigencies demanded. Even then, while it can be argued that the restructuring of the national space into a twelve-state administrative unit by the Gowon administration on the eve of the civil war was nothing but a strategic ploy to deprive the burgeoning Biafran rebellion of regional sympathy and support, it can also be advanced that the earlier creation of the middle-west region from the old west was part of a plot to weaken the already vanquished Awo and put him in his place.
So often in Nigerian history, genuine restructuring coexists with malign structuring. But while this politicization of restructuring is to be regretted, it does not obviate the fact that when undertaken with integrity, restructuring optimizes governance and service delivery. Restructuring does not replace and is never intended to replace good governance and visionary leadership.
On the contrary, it is meant to facilitate this by devolving responsibility and burden from an already overcrowded and overwhelmed central government in a situation of mutual hostility and suspicion. By so doing, authority and legitimacy are returned to federating units thus creating the conducive environment for explosion of local talents and a democratic decentralization of national genius in what is an iron cage of stifling and suffocating unitary confusion and national paralysis.
In the absence of an overriding national ethos such as it is possible in organic and homogenous nations, or mega-cities homogenized by centuries of continuous co-mingling, restructuring and the devolution of power from the centre allows each unit of the nation to develop at its own pace and with its own local resources without threatening national viability.
If anything at all, the events of the past two years and the second advent of General Buhari tend to support the overarching imperative of an urgent restructuring for the nation. Despite a historic regime change and the collective clamour of Nigerians for change, it is clear from recent developments that Nigeria is yet to produce a politically coherent and ideologically unified counter-hegemonic alternative political elite.
In the absence this elite nationalism, the crude and forcible homogenization of a country of contending nationalities and uneven economic development can only lead to unending civil wars and permanent hostilities. In retrospect, it can now be seen that this garrison mentality of a unified command under one central authority such as can be seen in countries with a militarized political elite or residual feudal tradition is what has crippled Nigeria and many African nations and aborted the march to modern nationhood.
If there is any lesson to be taken away from the emerging miracle of Lagos and its golden jubilee anniversary, it is that all countries need the constant restructuring which allows individual units to develop according to their own pace and internal resources. Secondly, the success story of this roiling African megalopolis, particularly the explosion of economic possibilities such as witnessed in the Fourth Republic, showcases the fact that a multi-ethnic nation can no longer be powered by a univocal vision but by a multivocality of visions. The success story of Lagos in the last eighteen years is standing rebuke to centralized civilian tyranny in Nigeria and the hegemonic assaults of unitary federalism on the nation’s federating units.