Sunday, June 28, 2009


Over a hundred years ago, King Jaja of Opobo died. But before then, he was known to have fought assiduously for the preservation of the dignity of the black race in the face of scaring opposition from colonialists. He died on his way home from exile in June 1891 and that's why we bring you this piece in commemoration of his centenary, read on.

To the younger generation, the history of African nationalism would not go beyond the past four decades, the period which most African countries attained political independence from their erstwhile colonial overlords. But the truth is that the root of African nationalism dates back to the heroic defence of "national" independence by the founding fathers of traditional African nations.

One of such founding father worthy of note is King Jaja of Opobo. He lived in 1800s and for decades, he dominated the politics of Delta area of Nigeria. However, his relevance today is in the fact that the fight he began, and fought till his death in 1891, remains a living phenomenon in our dealings with the international community up till today.
Perhaps, the humble background of King Jaja was the firing inspiration which brought him to limelight in the thick of colonial adventurism of his time. Jaja was a man who had sterling qualities which suited him for the titanic roles he played in Delta politics and trade.
According to Micheal Crowther, he was a man of exceptional ability, "combined with ruthelessness that alone could ensure survival in the cut-throat competition of the palm-oil trade." It is also clear that in his time, he was a strategist of the highest order.
King Jaja was an ex-slave. In his days, he lived in a society where sheer prowess and ability made men whatever they were. And that was why he was able to rise to the pinnacle of his career as an administrator of no mean standing. At that time, leaddership was not a function of mere royal descent among the Delta people. So, when King William People died in 1865 and his son, George took the stool of Bonny, the effective administration of the Kingdom fell on another ex-slave, Oko-Jumbo who was serving as the adviser to the king. It was so because King George Pepple was a weakling.
Meanwhile, Jaja had taken up the headship of the Anna Pepple house when Alali, the regent, died. And so, the power tussle for supremacy was between Oko-Jumbo and Jaja, two ex-slaves.
The struggle for power was fierce but Jaja's strong will and strategies made it possible for him to declare independent of Bonny as early as January 15, 1870. Though he granted Bonny some concessions in the process, he was able to gain recognition for his"country" from the British government. On that date, Jaja founded a seperate Kingdom and named it Opobo and made himself the king.
As a master strategist, Jaja was able to play foreign trading firms against one another to his kingdom's advantage. The trading companies had engaged in stiff competitions for access to trading locations in the Delta and that created problems. Volumes of exports became static. Barely three years after Jaja establish his kingdom, the trading problems were compunded by fall and fluctuations in prices of goods exported, caused by slump in demand for produce overseas.
At that point, Jaja changed tactics. He bye-passed the trading companies and rulers of his time, he was equally determined to preserve indigenous religion and institutions at all costs. In the process, he incurred the wrath of European traders, who resorted to using their home government and rival states in the Delta as a canon fodder to destabilise Jaja and his kingdom.
As has been rightly observed, it was the growing strenght and confidence of Jaja, not weakness, which provoked European intervention against him.
For a period, Jaja was at loggerheads with John Holt of Liverpool over attempts by John Holt to penetrate Jaja's market in Qua Ibo river. While that was on, Liverpool members of the African Association were pressing for strong action against Jaja over what they described as "falling rates of profit".
What historians described as the "ruthless side" of Jaja would today pass for what we call "defence of national interest". To remain the power broker in the Delta, Jaja built up a formidable "army". His army was so powerful that he sent a contingent to fight in the Ashanti war of 1875. The contingent's performance eventually earned King Jaja an award of a sword by Queen Victoria, the reigning monarch in Britain then.
In trying to protect his kingdom's "national interest", King Jaja dealt severe blows on the Qua Ibo people in 1881. He raided about seven of their villages, captured many, and executed about 100 people for engaging in direct trade with the Europeans.
Jaja would in his majesty, would not allow any whiteman to underplay the importance of his position as a king. He demanded and got due respect from those who came into contact with him. It was true he placed his country under British protection when he founded it, but King Jaja ensured that there was no clause to guarantee freedom of trade in his zone.
In an attempt to break his monopoly of trade, the European traders operating in the Delta area formed an association - the Amalgamated Association. As an intelligence man, King Jaja countered their action. He meandered through and struck another deal with Alexander Miller Brothers and Co of Glasgow. He ensured that the new trading partners agreed to his terms of trade, thus once again subjecting foreign interests in his domain to another round of loss of profits.
Thereafter, the pressures became heavier on the British government to do something to curtail the powers of King Jaja of Opobo.
One such open expression of disgust was reflected in the message sent by the British Consul to the Home Office. He was apparently referring to King Jaja when he talked of "disjointed and incoherent utterances" of African protest because, all along , King Jaja made it an "operation measure for measure". He spoke his mind loud and clear over any issue which he felt the foreigner were doing anything detrimental to the to the independence of his people and kingdom.
By 1887, it had become clear that King Jaja of Opobo was a thorn in the flesh of the colonialists. As would be expected, the colonial masters framed him up. He was invited aboard a consular ship for discussions by the Vice-Cosul Johnston. Even then, King Jaja still showed high level of intelligence. He demanded that his security be guaranteed before he would honour the invitation. The colonialists tricked him into believing that nothing negative was going to happen to him and he went.
Subsequently, he was tricked to Accra, Ghana (then Gold Coast) where he was tried and found guilty of blocking the highway of trade and failure to honour an article of his treaty with Britain. Jaja was then deported to the West Indies and allowed a yearly pension of e800.
Like all men of courage, King Jaja lost life while he could still have been useful to his nation. For on his way home from exile in June 1891, the great hero breathed his last.

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