Capitalism Central A History of Lagos and Migration

Few issues have raised more global concern in recent time than the issue of migration—the movement of people and goods within and across borders. Migration trends have shaped politics—as seen in the 2016 United States elections; determined economic directions—in financial trends following the UK’s Brexit referendum; and exacerbated geopolitical tensions—Nigeria-South Africa relations in the aftermath of xenophobic attacks in South Africa being an instance. Yet, often under-discussed is how migration trends can be traced to a capitalist root cause.

Capitalism is an economic and political system characterized by the private ownership of factors of production and, more importantly, an overarching profit motive. The word itself, ‘Capitalism’ is a derivative of the Latin word ‘Caput’, which literally translates to ‘head’ and was once a figurative expression for ‘leader’ or ‘being vital’: as a Roman legal expression, the term caput was used to indicate the significance of an individual’s status. One of the earliest references to capitalism in literature was in Hollandsche Mercurius, the yearbook published by Haarlem bookseller, Pieter Casteleyn, as early as 1633. The idea of capitalism is simple: factors of production create goods and services, which create wealth that is then used to procure more factors of production. The owners of these factors of production, and consequently, the wealth generated, are the capitalists.

Before Casteleyn recorded the idea of capitalism, its ideals may have already been in practice in Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, the economic foundations of the Yoruba people were, arguably, built on capitalist agricultural systems. The major factor of production was land, which was used to grow crops that were traded for wealth. The wealthiest and, by definition, the most successful capitalists, were those who owned the largest and most productive farmlands. Since land was wealth, creation of new wealth often meant creation of new land. The Awori people, a subgroup of the Yorubas, which founded Oko—what grew into the city of Lagos—migrated from Isheri, in the seventeenth century under the leadership of the Oloye Olofin, and settled at Iddo. The Olofin, then, divided the island and parts of the neighbouring mainland among 16 Idẹjọs, chiefs who were to maintain dominion over the lands apportioned to them. This marked the beginning of a long history of migrations to Lagos in search of wealth, and was probably the most uneventful of all.

Among the earliest of migrations as conquest in the history of Lagos was the invasion of envoys from the neighbouring Benin kingdom in the late-eighteenth century. According to oral legend, the envoys’ mission was as a result of Benin traders complaining to their Oba of being marginalized in Oko. There was no sovereign king in Oko before the envoys arrived, and the Idẹjọs submitted themselves to the invaders. The Idẹjọs accepted a king from the envoys, agreeing, also, to pay tributes to the Oba of Benin and adopt him as overlord. Later, the name of the settlement was changed from Oko to Eko. More towns were founded to accommodate the growing population as migration to Eko continued with the influx of Yoruba and Dahomey traders, and Benin chiefs. This set the foundation for the plurality of Lagos for centuries to come, and, with the consequent immigration of goods and services, the growth of capitalist trade within Lagos.

As at the time of envoys’ invasion of Oko, the indigenes of Oko had already begun trading with Portuguese merchants who frequented the West African coast. European copper and brass were exchanged for African spices and, more lucratively, slaves. The French and the British would later join the Portuguese. According to Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City, the first recorded export of slaves from Lagos occurred in 1652. More than 200 slaves were kept aboard the Constant Ruth, an English ship sailing to Barbados. The discovery of the Americas had increased the demand for labour to build the ‘New World’. Slave labour was the cheapest labour and so slaves became a source of wealth as slave-owners became the prime capitalists of that era. The rapid expansion of the Oyo Empire during this period was a result of the increased slave demand; neighbouring towns were raided in a bid to exploit the prospects of profit from the slave trade.

The slave trade marked the beginning of the history of Eko—which, later, the Portuguese and other Europeans referred to as Lagos—as a major international commercial centre. Europeans were discouraged from travelling inland and, instead, dealt with indigenous slave-owners at coastal towns. The slave trade also coincided with oppressive capitalism in Lagos, the pursuit of wealth by any means necessary. By 1840, about half of the Lagos population were slaves; domestic slaves and slaves being processed for export. Generally, these were people that had been captured during slave-hunting expeditions and wars between rival towns.

Oba Kosoko, who ruled Lagos at the time, even imported slaves who had, previously, been exported to Brazil, to build Brazilian styled houses in Lagos. Oba Kosoko’s ‘shrewdness’ and ‘ambition’ are mentioned in the records of his rule of Lagos. In 1850, for instance, he declared independence from the Oba of Benin and halted the payment of tributes. At the centre of authority within his kingdom, which stretched from Badagry in the west to Epe in the east, power was delegated to the Idẹjọs to ensure efficient administration and that wealth was generated through taxes. Oba Kosoko went further to consolidate his kingdom’s economic viability by supporting trade with Europeans, positioning Lagos as a major hub along the trans-Atlantic slave trade route. However, Oba Kosoko continually struggled with internal politics, especially against Akitoye, his uncle, who disputed the rules of succession that secured Oba Kosoko’s claim to the throne.

At the time of Eko’s independence from Benin, Akitoye—who was based in Badagry—and his supporters, had already launched two unsuccessful campaigns to claim the throne by force. Akitoye’s masterstroke was securing the assistance of John Beecroft, the British Consul General at Fernando Po, who was stationed in Abeokuta. Under the guise of authority from the British foreign secretary, Beecroft concluded a treaty to end slave trading and made demands for Oba Kosoko to abolish the slave trade. Considering it a move that, if successful, would serve an economic blow to his kingdom, Oba Kosoko responded with an outright rejection. Without receiving specific permissions to carry out a violent attack, Beecroft prepared and executed an invasion of Lagos, marking the second instance of migration as conquest in the history of Lagos.

Claims through contemporary history that Beecroft’s invasion of Lagos was primarily a quest to end slave trade prove inconsistent with facts of that era that showed the King of Dahomey, a neighbouring kingdom to Lagos (what is now Benin Republic) was a greater proponent of the slave trade and went untouched by the British. Other slave markets further east in the Igbo lands also continued to prosper. In Possessed: A History of Law and Justice in the Crown Colony of Lagos, Olasupo Shasore ascribes Beecroft’s invasion to the abundance of cotton, palm oil and cocoa beyond the coasts that would have been made available to untaxed trade if Oba Kosoko was out of the way. Despite strong initial resistance, the British invaders conquered Kosoko’s defence of Lagos after 35 days. Hundreds of lives were lost and thousands fled. Within two months, the new king, Oba Akitoye, signed a treaty to abolish slave trade in Lagos, and a consulate was established to promote British interests.

The pronounced British presence that sprouted from the ruins of Oba Kosoko’s deposition did not purge the vestiges of the slave trade, which continued in Lagos, even till Oba Akitoye’s death in 1853. The transition of British presence in Lagos from trade partnership to colonization began in 1861, when the British Consul, William McCorsky, began pressuring Oba Dosunmu—Oba Akitoye’s son and heir—to sign a treaty ceding his rights as sovereign ruler of the kingdom of Lagos, including all revenue exacted from trade, to the British Empire. Oba Dosunmu refused and the British replied by positioning two brass guns and several marines in the waters opposite the palace. Within a week, the treaty was signed and Oba Dosunmu, along with his Idẹjọs, was granted a pension for life by the British Empire.

British trading companies operated and thrived in the Lagos region, but the British did not officially occupy the city until 1884, following the Berlin Conference, which saw the partitioning of Africa between European powers. The foremost British motivation in securing the Lagos colony and the region that would be Nigeria was two-pronged. Firstly, the British balance of trade had been experiencing growing deficits due to a prolonged economic recession, and the new market Lagos offered presented an avenue for increasing revenue. Secondly, the British believed Lagos could serve as a stopover port for British ships heading to India and their other Asian colonies. The Royal Niger Company, a trading company that had operated in the region under the name of the National African Company, obtained a royal charter to control British interests in the area. This arrangement continued until 1899, when competition from French and German protectorates pressured the Royal Niger Company into ceding trading rights to the British government for 865,000 British Pounds. The Royal Niger Company had secured over 400 treaties with local leaders, mandating their communities trade exclusively with the company’s agents. Most of this trade passed, eventually, through Lagos.

The virtual monopoly over trade within Nigeria that the British obtained systematically disrupted traditional economies outside the urban areas. The primary concern of the colonial administration was to extract as much as possible Nigeria’s agricultural and mineral resources. As a result, the infrastructure the British colonizers set up and the policies they implemented worked to create best possible conditions for exploitation, the most disruptive of which was the introduction of the British money economy. Slave trade in Lagos had ended by the late-nineteenth century, but the money economy put in place still exploited indigenous labour. The British Pound-based market determined the price of labour, taxes on wages, and also dictated the prices of goods and services. As tax was payable only in British Pounds, people who had been engaged in subsistent economic activities all over the colony had to adapt in order to enable them earn British Pounds. This meant either cultivating cash crops or migrating to urban centres like Lagos in search of waged labour.

The cultivation of cash crops eventually became just as unattractive as subsistence farming, as a result of the British monopoly on crops. Through middlemen who bought cash crops collectively from rural farmers and sold to foreign organizations, British companies were able to manipulate the prices of goods, and set prices low enough to maintain their profits while dramatically reducing the revenues of local farmers. The migration of people from the rural areas of less economic activity to the urban centres and their prospect of waged labour became inevitable. The British Pound became the standard of wealth and the British colonial administrators that controlled it assumed the position of the prime capitalists of that era.

While other urban areas like Enugu and Ibadan offered waged labour prospects like mining and cocoa production, Lagos grew in significance as the centre of administration and wealth. The growth in significance corresponded with the growth in migrant interest as the Lagos population surged from 73,766 in 1911 to 267,407 in 1953. The declaration of Independence by Nigeria from the British in 1960, the consequential and gradual vacation by the British administration and the nationalization of state assets resulted in an even greater migration surge driven by adolescents searching for better educational opportunities; educated young adults looking for administrative jobs in the new government; and rural farmers and craftsmen looking for all types of waged labour. Over the years, nearly every major town around the country had developed a bus park connected to the major roads leading to Lagos.

As at 2006, the population of Lagos was under 10 million. Between 1953 and 2006, not only did the population of Lagos significantly increase, the line between the successes and failures of rural migrants also widened, creating the gully that is the current social divide between the upper class minority and the lower class majority. Propelled by prospects of prosperity, population grew even faster than the capacity of Lagos to sustain it. Public schools, health centres and transport facilities buckled under the pressure of population; unemployment and underemployment became prevalent as the rate of increase in job seekers superseded the rate of job creation. The excess of supply of labour in proportion to its demand, in accordance with basic economics, also ensured the cheap cost of labour.

Meanwhile, exponential population growth led to exponential spatial congestion. And, in order to decongest, Lagos looked to expand. Low incomes placed a budget cap on prospective homeowners, as the people looked for housing in proportion to their incomes. Huge sections of the unemployed, with little to no income at all, decided to find housing for little to no costs. And so, as migration to Lagos continued over the years and the unemployed amassed, slums and shantytowns were founded around the city to accommodate its poor. Since the 1980s, the number of slums and shantytowns in Lagos has more than doubled, from 42 to more than 100.

Presently, Lagos is among the top destinations for rural to urban migration in the world, and is predicted to be the third most populous city in the world by 2050. Lagos also accounts for over a quarter of Nigeria’s housing deficit and rapidly growing slums where a day’s loaf of bread is more expensive than a day’s rent are still emerging in every corner of the state. The state government has made many attempts to stem the tide over the decades; the Lagos State Development and Property Corporation (LSDPC) established in 1972; the New Towns Development Authority (NTDA) founded in 1980; and, in more recent years, the Lagos Building Investment Company (LBIC), the Cooperative Home Ownership Scheme (CHOIS) and—launched this year—the Lagos Rent-To-Own scheme, were all positioned to reduce the housing deficit. However, the collective efforts of these programmes have proven insufficient and, often, unaffordable to those who need it most.

One of the major barriers to home ownership for migrants is the cost of land. Few things are in greater demand than land and, as it was four centuries ago when the settlement was founded, the owners of land in Lagos are yet again poised to be the prime capitalists of this era. Conflict typically arises when the needs of migrant slum dwellers that have appropriated land, and the wants of the ancestral owners of the land do not align. A notable example was the 1990 forced eviction of Maroko slum residents, during which thousands of people were rendered homeless, their houses demolished without compensation. Most of the people were displaced and more than 100,000 evictees were recorded to have died in the first 12 years that followed. Ownership of the lands was transferred to the Oniru family—a dynasty that can be traced back to a founding Idẹjọ of Oko—and the area was developed into modern-day Oniru Estate and parts of Victoria Island and Lekki Phase 1.

On October 9, 2016, the Lagos State government announced plans to demolish all waterside slums within the state, putting the lives and livelihood of at least 40 communities and more than 300,000 residents at risk. After a slum, Ilubirin, was demolished on October 15, a group of 14 waterside communities engaged the state government in the court of law seeking redress. It proved futile: in March 2017, armed officers forcefully evicted more than 30,000 people in the Otodo Gbame community using guns and tear gas.

Specifically, the evictions were yet another episode in the underside of Lagos’ long history of wealth creation and the effects of a poorly regulated capitalist drive on migration trends into, out of and within Lagos. To treat the evictions as an isolated case of oppression would be too simple; a more rigorous alternative would be to add to calls for justice criticism of the capitalist motives behind those evictions. Recall, the despicable horrors of the seventeenth-century slave trade routes that opened up Lagos to international trade much earlier than neighbouring urban centres set the foundation for a network of commercial empires that serves as the stronghold of one of 21st century Africa’s largest economies. The exploitative money policies of the British that spurned the first great wave of rural-urban migration to Lagos set the benchmark of low wages upon which most of our legacy institutions were established, and from which these institutions profited. Against this history, the forceful eviction of today’s slum dwellers is a familiar stepping-stone.

Judging by history, it is likely the Otodo Gbame evictions will not be the last of their kind. The Lagosian brand of capitalism is poised to thrive and, in turn, profit the city’s wealthiest. The worrying unknown, however, is the consequence of a growing number of internally displaced Lagosians. For hundreds of years we have decried the exploitation of our resources and displacement of “our people” from Lagos and beyond. We have, also, accused the world of staying silent, for the most parts, “as we died”. But if we keep our mouths stuffed with the profit of our own people’s exploitation and displacement, aren’t we just as complicit?

The Justice and Empowerment Initiative (JEI) has been at the forefront of raising awareness about the displacement of Otodo Gbame residents and other victims of forced evictions and land grabs coordinating campaigns on both social and mainstream media. Other civil society groups that have lent their voices to pressurize are the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), Enough Is Enough (EIE), Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE) and the Centre for Defence of Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CDHRDA). And the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation has repeatedly called for pro-poor housing agenda in the state.

However, reconciling media campaigns and real-time protests with actual reforms has always proven difficult in Nigeria. And even when legal mandates are obtained on paper—as instanced when, earlier this year, the JEI obtained a court order from the Lagos State High Court prohibiting the government from demolishing the Otodo Gbame community—such mandates have proven difficult to implement as the state government shows blatant disregard for court rulings without suffering any consequence. It leads to asking the kind of future we tend towards when prosperity is synonymous with the suffering of the most vulnerable.

There is, ultimately, a series of dilemmas: how do we eschew capitalist exploitation if, for centuries, such exploitation has been our foremost instrument of wealth creation? Furthermore, to what extent is it hypocritical to mourn Maroko from churches in Lekki? More so, how fervently can we laud the prospects of foreign investment into Orange Island and the attendant benefits, and criticize the destruction of Otodo Gbame? In either case, are mourning Maroko or lauding FDIs not tantamount to trafficating in both directions at the junction of common sense? Vicious capitalism is the bedrock of Lagos: a style of capitalism that, history reveals, has no regard for social equity. The final question, then, is can beneficiaries of Lagosian capitalism be completely absolved from its brutal consequences?⎈