DATELINE LAGOS Tuesday 8th August, 1925; Eleko goes into exile
– By Femi Olugbile
(An excerpt from the forthcoming book PELEWURA)
It was a depressing time for the people of Lagos. There was a mournful air all around. The news had finally filtered out to an unbelieving public that Eleko Esugbayi had been removed from the throne of his fathers and was about to be sent into exile in faraway Oyo – on the orders of Hugh Clifford, Governor of the colonial territory of Nigeria.
Pelewura quickened her step, walking in a daze, barely seeing the people she passed on the streets.
For several years now, the king had been under a relentless barrage of criticism and offensive actions from the government. The insults came in the form of utterances of high and low officials, and a rash of written communication from Henry Carr, who was, ironically, the first indigenous head of the Civil Service of Nigeria.
She was familiar with how the story went. The government was miffed by reports that Macaulay was seen in several places in London, including a garden party at which he was presented to King George V, carrying the ‘opa ase’ of the Eleko. Then there was the matter of the interview he was alleged to have granted to a London newspaper – The Daily Telegraph, criticizing the Nigerian government.
But what really aroused their ire against Eleko Esugbayi was that Amodu Tijani, an illiterate Idejo chief, obviously with the backing of the king, had challenged the authority of the British Empire to dispossess indigenous Chiefs of their ancestral land for public purposes. The Governor initially thought the land matter was settled when Tijani’s lawsuit against the Nigerian government was thrown out by the High Court in Lagos. It was a shock, and a matter of considerable irritation, when Tijani had the audacity to take his case to the Privy Council in London, and government discovered that some notable Lagos indigenes, including herself, Pelewura, and her marketwomen, had collected substantial funds to hire a Queen’s Counsel to argue Tijani’s case. Herbert Macaulay was the man at the centre of it all, and to the government he was public enemy number one.
And so the plaintiff, Amodu Tijani on a day in 1920 that Lagosians would always remember, embarked on the long sea journey to the United Kingdom. Many ordinary Lagosians, dressed in their best attires, gathered in Apapa to see him off. He had a thick embroidered cloth draped over his shoulder in the manner the wealthiest noblemen in the land favoured. There was singing and drumming, and the air of a Lagos carnival.
The Idejo Chief was accompanied by Herbert Macaulay, ostensibly to serve as his interpreter.
They would go on to win the case and shame the government. Enraged, the government of Nigeria demanded that Eleko should denounce Macaulay for his ‘rude’ utterances in London, and for flaunting the king’s royal staff of office all over London. Eleko refused.
Whenever Pelewura gave herself time to dwell on these interesting recollections, it brought her out in a smile of admiration for her friend, Macaulay. A good man, a complicated man. He loved Lagos.
She pulled herself back to the present. The situation at hand today was dire. Eleko was headed to exile. A dark day for all Lagosians.
She was walking briskly in the direction of Iga Idunganran. She had heard that the convoy of vehicles that would convey the king to Oyo was already in the precincts of the palace. She wanted to see Eleko one last time before this great shame was visited on him and the people of Lagos.
It was midmorning. It was too late to shut down the markets in protest by the time the news of Governor Clifford’s order got around. She was so angry at her own powerlessness that she felt like crying.
As she turned the corner and beheld the gate of the Iga, she could see policemen and Fula soldiers standing by the fence. Within the compound, there were more soldiers, standing stiffly with their guns. There was a melee outside the wide-open front door. She recognized some of her colleagues on the Ilu Committee. When she looked up, she saw the King himself coming towards the door from an inner chamber.
She went down on her knees, but he brushed her effort at ceremony off brusquely.
‘No time for that now. We have to go…’ ‘Kabiyesi- ‘ she could find no words to express her grief and outrage. The tears welled up in her eyes.
Macaulay was at her side as the monarch walked past her, his hard face looking sternly ahead, but showing no anger or despair.
He patted her shoulder and spoke gently in her ear.
‘Eleko will be back. We’ll fight this to the farthest corner of the world.’
They watched as Eleko Esugbayi was ushered into the leading car. As the vehicles began to move in the direction of Carter Bridge, a band of youths ran after the cars, singing songs they composed spontaneously, praising Eleko, praying for his safe return.
Pelewura felt she was living in the middle of an experience akin to watching one of those moving pictures she had first watched when Macaulay brought Balbao films to display their cinema to an excited audience at Glover Hall twenty years ago.
‘You really think he will come back?’
Her eyes, upon his, conveyed a desperate need to be reassured.
‘We will visit him in Oyo. We will keep his spirits up.’
They stood at the gate and watched the convoy as it disappeared into the distance. Her mind raced. She struggled to think of how she would describe these events to her market women at Ereko, who would be waiting eagerly to hear from her.
‘It is not the end’, Macaulay reassured her, as they walked together through the streets of Isale Eko. ‘No, it is not the end…’
She could discern that, deep inside his soul, he was seething with anger.