By Femi Olugbile
(an excerpt from the forthcoming book ‘PELEWURA’)
Donald Cameron sat on the hard-backed chair in his new office, regarding his desk with something akin to wry amusement. It was late into the Lagos evening, and he could see it was pitch black outside the window. The whole atmosphere of Lagos House was eerily silent.
Nighttime and solitude always brought a clear head. It was a habit he had acquired in his six years as Governor of Tangayika. He had just completed a book titled ‘Principles of Native Administration and their application’ which he would shortly be sending to the printers in London. Tangayika, of course, was a different kettle of fish from Lagos, Nigeria. Still, he hoped to use his instincts and the insights he had acquired in East Africa to smoothen his journey.
Lagos would his last posting, he hoped. A part of him already looked forward to retirement in a few years. He would go to his home in the English countryside with his dear Gertrude. This was his vision of heaven.
But now there was work to be done.
The file on the desk before him was the test of his mettle and his passport to what he hoped would be a successful tour of duty in Lagos. Written boldly across the file was ‘THE ESUGBAYI AFFAIR’.
Reading the handover notes of his predecessor Governor Graeme Thomson, he could discern the ire that dripped from every word. The man disliked this local King and felt hard done by by His Majesty’s Privy Council. In the end, he left what he described as the ‘difficult’ decision on how to solve the problem for him, Donald Cameron, his successor.
Donald smiled grimly. It was not difficult at all. It was a Hobson’s Choice.
He would restore the King to his throne. Clearly that was what the people of Lagos wanted. In the past, he had had running battles with colleagues in the colonial service who felt they knew better than the natives about what was good for them. In East Africa, he had argued against the efforts of Governor Grigg of Kenya who wanted to use heavy handed tactics to stamp out female circumcision among the natives, instead of educating them and trying to carry them along. It wasn’t that he loved black people and curried their favour, as some accused him of. It was just that it was easier to lead people, and even change them, if they could see you understood and respected them.
The issues, as he saw them, were simple. Esugbayi , a king popular with his people, had offended His Majesty’s government in sundry ways over several years. Matters came to a head. In 1925, he was removed from the throne and banished.
Lagosians had gone to court to challenge the Nigerian government’s decision. The Lagos High Court, expectedly, threw out the case for lack of merit.
Unexpectedly, the locals had the gumption to take the matter to the Privy Council in London. The court directed the Lagos Court to hear the matter again.
Some Lagosians celebrated prematurely, thinking this was already victory for them. A local newspaper called ‘The Lagos News’ carried a cock and bull story about a gunpowder plot to assassinate the King. A celebrated local gadfly named Macaulay was sent to prison for six months with hard labour for authoring the rumour.
The Lagos Court sat again, and again threw the case out.
And, again, Lagosians went to the Privy Council.
And yet again, the highest court in the Empire threw the ball back to Lagos, effectively directing the Nigerian government to clean up its own mess. The message was clear. Find a political solution.
Poor Graeme Thomson could not bring himself to do it. It was like asking him to swallow hemlock juice.
Governor Donald Cameron sat up, picked up his pen, and began to write instructions for his Secretary.
He would ease out the incumbent Pretender from the throne. A soft landing – a house on Broad Street, a comfortable pension.
He would bring Eleko Esugbayi back from Oyo and reinstate him. He would even cultivate the Macaulay chap and see how far he could get. And the famous market woman who was rumoured to be able to put two thousand women on the street to protest in a jiffy – what was the name – Pelewura. He was eager to meet with her.
He sensed he could crack Lagos and generate goodwill and cooperation for his Majesty’s government.
He rose to his feet, his day’s work done.
The streets of Lagos were agog with excitement. The celebrations had begun early in the morning when it was confirmed, by Herbert Macaulay, that Governor Donald Cameron had personally sent him a message that Eleko would return to Iga Idunganran today. Women had been seen around the grounds of the palace, cleaning and washing the floor for several days now.
From early morning, white cap chiefs and members of the Ilu Committee could be seen arriving at Iga.
There was a loud cry as the motorcade finally appeared on Carter Bridge. The noise of drums and singing in the massive crowd made it impossible to hear anything. As the King alighted from the leading vehicle, the crowd broke through the ranks of the few policemen on ground and tumbled into the palace grounds.
Eleko stood on the threshold of his palace and waved his whisk in all directions. He was speaking at the top of his voice, but little could be heard. He was thanking his ancestors, and thanking his people, and the names of Macaulay and Pelewura could be heard, but the rest of his speech was drowned out in the din.
Suddenly, under the thick press and the Lagos heat, the King swooned on his feet, and almost fell to the ground. The people around him on both sides pulled his arms around their necks.
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In this manner, carried forward by the sheer mass of his jubilant people, Eleko Esugbayi returned to the throne of Lagos.
Dateline Lagos, 1931; The return of the King
By Femi Olugbile