Sola Ebiseni

The history of Lagos has recently been of public interest especially since the episode between the Ooni of Ife, Oba Ogunwusi and Oba Akiolu of Lagos. Our contribution is to unravel the aboriginal tribes of Lagos that prepared the city and the state for what it is today.

Awori/ Ilaje factors.

The most significant are the Ilaje and Awori, the two great Yoruba coastal tribes who, from time immemorial, dominated the Atlantic corridor from the estuary of the Benin River in the south eastern boundary with the Itsekiri and the junction of the Kokotoro and Adabrasa creeks which is Ilaje’s north eastern boundary with the Ijaw and Benin.
The Ilaje territory extends thence along the coast westwards joining and mingling with the Awori and later Egun for over 300 kilometres almost to Port Novo along the coast and having as northern neighbours, the Ikale, Ijebu, Egba and Egbado (Yewa).

The Egun and Dahomian Incursion:

The push by the Eguns in the various Yoruba wars with the Dahomey towards the end of the 18th and larger part of the 19th century, as confirmed later in this paper by the Alafin of Oyo, accounts for the conquest and occupation of a large part of Awori land including in the Ado-Odo areas of Soki, Ere, Ikoga, Bandu, Obakobe and other Awori towns of Apa, Sigi, Erekiti, Omfo, Ikoga, Mowo, Ibereko etc.

Benin’s 15th Century failed Military Campaigns: Obas Orhogbua and Ehengbuda

The Benin military mercenary forays into this territory dated back to around the 15th century when Oba Orhogbua( c 1550- 1578) led military expedition through Ilaje to Lagos. According to Oba Erediuwa, the immediate past and intellectually resourceful Benin monarch, in a lecture on ‘The Evolution of Traditional Rulership in Nigeria’ which he delivered at the Conference of Traditional Rulers in the Governance of Nigeria held at the University of Ibadan on the 11th September, 1984 and which essentially later formed part of his book and memoirs, Oba Orhogbua met stiffest opposition by the Ilaje Mahin kingdom, which was so organised and civilised, that it was there the Benin, according to Orhogbua, first tasted rock salt, which they did not only savour but took home and celebrates till today in Benin songs and anecdotes. British accounts as will be shown hereafter, also confirmed Ilaje’s manufacturing and extensive trading in this special salt.

In the words of Oba Erediauwa,..’we the Edo people say that ‘Orhogbua gbo’Olague, ona y’ukpe abekpen z’umwen rie Edo, meaning that Oba Orhogbua defeated Olague and used the sword to bring his salt to Benin. This is in allusion to the exploits of Oba Orhogbua while in his camp (eko) from where he overran the place known as Mahin with its ruler whom the Benin people nicknamed Olague. There, Orhogbua discovered the common rock salt and brought it to Benin who thereby tasted it for the first time”.

This Benin/Mahin war was confirmed by all historical accounts including Andreas Joshua Ulsheimer’s ‘Lagos Before 1603′.
However, contrary to the Benin account, the true position is that this war, during the reign of ObaJagbemi the 9th Amapetu of Mahin, worsted Orhogbua during the era the Mahin towns of Aboto and Atijere on the only water route to Lagos were naval garrisons of the kingdom.

There were heavy casualties on both sides’ armies, forcing Oba Jagbemi momentarily out of the capital at Ode Mahin to the kingdom’s northwestern town of Igboegunrin, while Oba Orhogbua was left with only a rag tag Benin army escaping with him through Langbasa lagoon to Lagos.The unsavoury military encounter with Mahin prevented Orhogbua from going back to Benin through the coast; he elected, instead, a tortious journey through the Akure and Ado countries.

Oba Ehengbuda/ Mahin War and end of Benin hostilities:

The attempt by Orhogbua’s son and successor, Oba Ehengbuda, with the support of Itsekiri mercenaries, to violate Ilaje territorial integrity on his way again to Lagos, was fatal as he and his army met their Waterloo in the hands of the Mahin army at Eluju-Ibila where the Benin were utterly defeated ending Benin’s ambitious expedition.

Although, Benin historians and supporters, including Andreas Ulsheimer, claimed Ehengbuda (1578-1606) got “drowned in river midway between Benin and Lagos (which is the exact geographical description of Ilaje), when his boat capsized”, the routing of Ehengbuda’s army was total, an incident described in Ilaje anecdotes as ‘Eluju Ibila, a m’ode, m’oko, m’ojigwe, mu’gbangbanmi’, which literally referred to the war at Eluju-Ibila as one ‘where the Commander, the Captain, the ship, crew and all perished’.

Mahin/Ijaw Apoi War and the Ayelala goddess of Peace:

Also, after unsuccessful attack on Mahin along the same waterway, by the Ijaw Apoi under the Kalasuwe as monarch, a Covenant of Peace was finally entered into by the Commanders of the two armies, Idiogbe of Aboto for Mahin and Agbileki of Igbobini for the Ijaw Apoi, ending all wars between the two riverine neighbouring kingdoms. This Covenant which involved the sacrifice of a female slave from the hinterland, at the confluence of Oluwa/Ofara/Italita rivers on the way to Lagos, is symbolised in the origin of the Ayelala goddess where the shrine is located till this day with the descendants of Idiogbe and Agbileki as chief priests.

Mahin/Epe War and the implications for Kiriji armistice.

According to Samuel Johnson in his book History of the Yoruba, pages 465-467, another group which tested the Ilaje military might was the Ijebu Epe which waged war on Mahin over the control of the Lagos lagoon. The Epes were defeated and surrendered to the Ilaje superior naval military prowess in the aftermath of which the lagoon was closed and movement from other parts of Nigeria to Lagos was disturbed because Atijere, an Ilaje town, was the gateway to other parts of Nigeria to and from Lagos.
Thus, the message of the Alaafin of Oyo to the Governor of Lagos requesting intervention to end the Yoruba internecine wars was delayed, first at Ondo and later at Ayesan for a total of 20 days before it could get to Lagos.

Alafin Adeyemi’s peace efforts : Request for British intervention in Yoruba wars:

In his letter from the palace at Oyo dated October 15th 1881, to Lt. Governor W.B Griffiths Alafin Adeyemi (great grandfather of the present Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi) who signed as ‘King of the Yorubas’ wrote in part ” Sir, I hereby approach your Excellency and through you to the Imperial Government of England with this humble request: (1) My country has long been disturbed by a desultory war, which has put a stop to all trade and impoverished the country and thousands of lives have perished by death or hopeless slavery…I crave your assistance both to come to settle this unfortunate war between the belligerent powers, and to stop the Dahomians who have made an inroad into my kingdom…”

The remaining of the Epe warriors were detained at Ilaje town of Itebu Manuwa for 3 months. It took the intervention of the Governor himself to end this war in January 1882.

It needs be stated and as evident in the Alafin’s letter that the four independent kingdoms of the Ilaje Yoruba (Mahin, Ugbo, Aheri, Etikan) have never been under any other empire not even Oyo at its zenith.

Analysis of Benin claims on Lagos:

It is thus preposterous and illogical to suggest that Benin, on a military mission, founded Lagos. It is a different thing to say it had a territorial mission to conquer and subdue the existing settlements and kingdom, yet the vast Ilaje territory was the impediment and albatross to the ambitious Benin empire which had neither the military strength nor population for conquest, for the purpose of permanent occupation or imposition of any enduring culture over such a large territory and long distance from base. As a proven tool of judicial enquiry as with other forms of social investigation there is the need in believing particularly oral historical account to have regards (as in section 167 of the Evidence Act) to have regards for common course of natural events, human conduct. The Benin apologists may need to show how many Yoruba towns even so close to Benin like Ifon, Owo, Idanre etc were subdued by Benin kingdom thereby imposing a sustainable monarchical succession. It needs be stated here also that with its superior military arsenal, the British, in its move against Oba Overanmwen of Benin in 1889 clearly appreciated the difficulty in traversing over 200 kilometres through the Ilaje territory of the Lagos-Benin waterways but circuitously and strategically accessed the kingdom through the Benin River.

Rulership of Lagos Island.

From the beginning, rulership of the Lagos Island was not of any significance as no kingdom or empire was created thereat not even by the much vaunted Ado from Benin. Rather, it was a rulership, haphazardly based on the survival of the fittest of the Yoruba groups. The ascendancy of Oba AKINSEMOYIN of Ilaje ancestry began an organized monarchical order. Subsequent Obas are of a mixture of Awori, Ilaje and of curious, non residential Ijesha blood.

The same Ilaje blood is traceable in many Lagos royal and notable families including Olumegbon, Oniru and Asogbon. Thus, the frequent crisis between the Ilaje and Olumegbon in Ajah area is mere war of brothers which pains, according to Chinua Achebe, is felt only on the skin and not in the marrow. The Portuguese and the African returnees after the abolition of slave trade joined the existing groups to make Lagos what it now is.

Pattern of and naming of indigenous settlement.

Among the two indigenous tribes of Awori and Ilaje, while the Awori families particularly through the Idejo chiefs were focused on acquisition of land, the Ilaje families, except for a few ones, were more concerned with developing settlements which they often abandoned and moved on in pursuits of fishing and coastal trading. The naming and pattern of settlements in Lagos put beyond reasonable doubts that while the Ilaje has greater indigenous population followed by the Awori in the coastal areas including all of the Lekki Peninsula, mixed with Egun and Aganyin later settlers, the Awori and Ilaje also occupy the territories around the creeks of Apapa, Ajegunle, Makoko, Iwaya, Bariga, Oko Baba, Oto, Ebute-Metta, Oyingbo, Ijora, Igbo Elejo, Ojo, Aloro Island (off the coast of Kirikiri) Ajah, Badore, Iton Agan, Oworonsoki, Agboyi, Bayeku etc.

In the east of Lagos, Ilaje shares indigenous existence with the dominant Ijebu groups in the Epe and Ikorodu divisions in Majidun, Ijede, Owode, Ajegunle, Agbowa, etc. In the Egun/Awori area of the old Badagry Division, there are established Ilaje indigenous settlements amidst dominant Egun and Awori areas in Ojo, Apa, Erekiti, Ajara, Topo etc. Some popular communities in Lagos such as Obun Eko, Idunmagbo, Majidon, Igbo Osere are obvious Ilaje names. Igbo Osere, for instance, is named after the predominant ‘osere’ trees in that forest for the carving of canoes, the occupation of my biological father. Not coincidentally, there is another Ilaje Igbosere settlement between Araromi in Ondo state and Ise in Lagos state.

Land Acquisition.

Writing on the Ilaje situation in Lagos, Ajose Kudehinbu, former Head of Service of Ondo State and prince of the Ilaje Aheri kingdom who spent his early childhood in Lagos, recalled that one of the several places Ilaje had occupied and which he visited with his father, growing up then, in the city was ‘Agege-Odo’, now Akoka and present site of the University of Lagos from where the original Ilaje occupants were evacuated to establish the University. He remembered how his father who died years ago at 96, and a Baale in a Lagos suburb stated that “when he got to Lagos, the whole of Ebute Meta to Apapa was water, with the Ebute Meta end notorious or famous for its many crocodiles that the Ilaje like to bait and hunt down, then and elsewhere, even today.

He lamented in conclusion, ”the decision of the Ilaje to concentrate all attention on their fishing occupation along the coast, rather than move upland and take ownership, must remain their greatest undoing in socio-political life of Lagos”.
Evidently, in none of these areas do you find any community traceable to Benin establishment and no family requires the consent of the Oba of Benin in land alienation as obtained in Benin customary land tenure system.

European Powers and British colonialism.

At the inception of European contact with West Africa first through the Portuguese, Professor Babs Fafunwa in his book ‘History of Education in Nigeria’ page 74, noted that the Mahin lagoon of which much has been said here, served as the route to other parts of the West African sub region.

Traditional trading activities in aso oke cloths existed between the Ilaje and other hinterland Yorubas particularly the Ijesha and Akure, the latter which till today has strong population presence in Ilaje only next to the Ijebu. The Ilaje in turn supplied fish and salt made from mangrove trees and sea water. Of course, the Ilaje relied absolutely on Ikale Ijebu and to some extent on the Apoi for the supply of farm produces particularly garrri and pupuru both cassava products serving as Ilaje staples. In paragraph 3 of the Ilaje Intelligence Report 1936, British author, RJM Curwen wrote that the Ilaje ‘occupied themselves in making salt from the sea and a savoury form of potash from the small white mangrove trees which grow near the coast. With the proceeds of these two crafts, an extensive slave trade was carried on with the Yoruba people inland. The potash industry still continues, in the hands of the Jekiris (Itsekiri) who obtained from Ilaje concessions to cut the mangrove trees. The salt trade, however, was killed when the importation of European salt increased”
Of course, Intelligence Reports prepared by colonial officers have received judicial approval by the Supreme Court of Nigeria as ‘not only a source of local history, social, economic and political-but also materials of useful information to which reference may be made as and when necessary” ( Oju v Adejobi (1978) 11 N.S.C.C. 147 at 160.

British Colonialism and The Treaties: King Dosumu of Lagos, Olugbo of Ugbo and the Amapetu of Mahin.

At the beginning of what the historians call the scramble for Africa, according to Curwen (supra), the British in December 1884, led by Mr WAG Young, Governor and Commander in Chief of the Gold Coast Colony arrived the coast of Erunna in Her Majesty Ship Alecto and signed a Treaty with the Ilaje Ugbo kingdom. This treaty, arguably, is perhaps next in date in Nigeria, only to that signed by King Dosumu of Lagos in 1861.
In quick successions, on 29th January and 11th March 1885, the German Emperor, Dr.Natchtigal signed Treaty of Protection with the Amapetu of Mahin. However, following the declaration at the Berlin Conference of 26th February 1885, a British Protectorate was on the 5th of June 1885, proclaimed over Nigeria from Lagos to the right bank of the Rio dey Rey (bordering present day Cameroon). To give effect to the proclamation, there was the need for the British legal occupation of the Ilaje country contiguous with Lagos which already was a British colony. Thus, on the 24th October 1885 at the Mahin town of Aboto a Treaty of Friendship and Protection was signed between CW Griffiths as envoy of Queen Victoria of England and the Amapetu of Mahin Oba OGUNSEMOYIN (compare with Oba AKINSEMOYIN of Lagos). One of the highlights of this Treaty was the abolition of slave trade necessitating the hoisting of the British flag in several parts of the riverine areas of present Ondo State.

Ilaje as part of Lagos Colony 1895.

By the Act of the Legislative Council of the 12th November 1895, signed by George C Denton, Acting Governor and pursuant to Ordinance No.5 of 1890, Ilaje territory earlier described up to the estuary of the Benin River in the east and the junction of the Kokotoro and Adabrassa creeks (consequently named ‘Lagos Junction’), effectively became part of the Lagos Colony.
Ilaje was only excised from Lagos and joined with the others to create the Ondo Province in 1915 (after the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914), forming the present Ondo and Ekiti states.

Ilaje and Lagos Politics.

The aboriginal evidence of Ilaje settlement is so incontrovertible that the present Governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode of Ilaje ancestry is, unarguably, the most indigenous of the Governors to have ever ruled Lagos. Of all the indigenous tribes of Lagos state – Awori, Ilaje, Ijebu and Egun, Ilaje is the singular most ubiquitous group found significantly in all Lagos administrative territorial divisions and spreading even to the Ogun state Awori towns of Ado-Odo where I was born and spent a great part of my childhood and still remains, over a hundred years, home to the larger part of my grandfather’s large descendants. The Ilaje for centuries are also found among indigenous Awori and Anago along the Yewa River up to Isalu, Ijako, Isagbo, Owo and Ajilete on the Lagos-Idiroko Benin Republic border.

Sola Ebiseni, former Commissioner for Environment, Ondo State, is a legal practitioner.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s