Oba Eshugbayi Eleko was the only Oba of Lagos that assumed the title of ‘Eleko of Eko’, others took the title of ‘Oba of Lagos. However, his reign is remarkable because he was fiercely defended his subjects against colonialism like they were co-owners of the bustling city of Lagos in the early 20th century.
Eshugbayi’s struggle with the British colonial government would also symbolise the tussle between indigenous rights and colonial rule in Nigeria. The Lagos townsfolk were against the waterworks project largely because believed in the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’. If the people had not been consulted what justification would the government have to tax them? It was a basic principle which guided resistance across cities in the new Nigeria of the early 20th century.
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The travails of Eshugbayi would not end at the paucity of his stipends; he even got into more trouble as his purse was being tightened by the colonial government. But as the reality dawned on the townsfolk that Eshugbayi – who is fighting hard to defend their interests against the colonial government – is being blackmailed, market women led by Alimotu Pelewura flooded Eshugbayi Eleko’s palace with foodstuff. Likewise, Chief Amodu Tijani Oluwa – one of the Idejo chiefs who are the kingmakers – and other members of the Ilu committee ensured that the Oba’s needs were being provided for while his stipend remained suspended.
After Barrister Egerton Shyngle led a mission who defended Eleko’s action in approving the Muslim titles successfully, Eshugbayi was reinstated by Sir Hugh Clifford in 1919 from his temporal suspension.
After a propagandist stunt which Herbert Macaulay pulled while on a trip to London with Chief Tijani Oluwa over a controversial Apapa land case, insinuating in a press statement that Oba Eshugbayi was the traditional head of 17 million Nigerians and that Eleko was earning peanuts despite his grandfather Dosumu ceding Lagos to the British. The British government felt embarrassed anew and moved to finally end the reign of Eshugbayi. The colonial government reacted by withdrawing recognition of Eshugbayi Eleko as a native chief and stopped his stipend once again.
In what was believed to be an action led by the colonial government to finally break Oba Eshugbayi’s back, 19 princes who are known to be pro-colonial government jointly signed and thumb printed a petition on June 10, 1925, demanding that Eshugbayi should step down from the Eleko throne and quit the Iga Idunganran palace within 14 days. Eshugbayi was also notified by the colonial government backed princes on June 26 that Ibikunle Akitoye had been chosen to replace him.
Eshugbayi was arrested and exiled to Oyo town after the colonial government sanctioned the deposition petition by the princes in August 6, 1925. Two Obas ruled between 1925 when Eshugbayi was deposed and 1931 when he had won his case at the Privy Council in London – with Herbert Macaulay’s assistance – and returned to the throne after successfully challenging his deposition by the Governor-General of Lagos Colony.
With the intervention of the incoming Governor of Lagos, Sir Donald Cameron, an out of court settlement was reached which compensated the sitting Oba, Sanusi Olusi, to vacate the throne while Eshugbayi Eleko retakes his seat.
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Another important outcome of Eshugbayi’s rebellion and his case victory at the Privy Council would be the preservation of the fast degrading customary laws of Nigerian settlements in the face of a fast-gaining colonisation by the British colonialists. The Privy Council in London had discovered and ruled against the over-handedness and lawless actions of the British administrators in Lagos. It stated that “it is the assent of a community that gives validity to a customary law” and ruled that the deposition of Eshugbayi Eleko was contrary to customary law.
Eshugbayi Eleko died on October 24, 1932. He did not live much longer to administer from his old throne. But he died valiant – as a man who could have chosen to cut deals with the colonial government but instead chose to defend his people and speak for them and the customs of the land.
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