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Ernest Sisei Ikoli

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Title: ERNEST SISEI IKOLI: ‪1893-1960‬.
Authors: Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa and John Horace Enemugwem

Publication: 2015.

Genre: Non-fiction.

Subject Matter: Biography/Nigerian Nationalist Movement, ‪1908-1960‬.

Publishers: Onyoma Research Publications. www. onyomaresearch.com.

Page: 476.

Reviewer: Kabowei Akamande. Email: [email protected].

World-renowned Professor Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa was twice President of the Historical Society of Nigeria; Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria (FHSN); Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (FNAL); Laureate of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) and Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). Professor John Horace Enemugwen was National Vice-President, Historical Society of Nigeria, (HSN) and FHSN. Their academic backgrounds impacted heavily on the contents of their major work, “Ernest Sisei Ikoli: ‪1893-1960‬.”

The authors make distinction between “proto-nationalism” of the 19th Century when there was no entity called Nigeria and “nationalism” dating from 1908. In the former, the protagonists were African kings resisting European economic predatoriness than any specific political agenda. Their modus operandi was armed struggle. In the latter, Western-educated Africans, through non-violent political struggle, reversed the British political colonization of the newly created Nigeria:

We note that the decades of the absentee administrators, ‪1866-1886‬, was the period of proto-nationalism. The nationalist torch between this time and the close of the nineteenth century was lit by the proto-nationalists like Jaja of Opobo, Koko of Nembe-Brass, Ibanichuka of Okrika, Oba Ovonramwen of Benin, Nana of the Itsekiri, among others. Most of these proto-nationalists came from the Niger Delta of Sisei Ikoli. Bebekeola Dubakemefa was publicly executed by the British at Sabagreia (in present day Bayelsa State) on Thursday 3 September 1903, being the first proto-nationalist to pay such a price in the Southern Nigerian Protectorate. His offence was his defiance of the British declaration of Oil Rivers and Niger Coast Protectorates preceding the formal colonization of Nigeria (p.131).

At 13 Ikoli was one of Ijaw school children to travel from Twon-Brass to Lagos by sea during the holidays. Picked as one of the representatives of Niger Delta schools during the celebration of the merger of Lagos Colony with the Southern Protectorate to form the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1906, he had a clear understanding of events around him (p.133). In 1908 he teamed up with John Randle (Liberian), John Payne Jackson (Liberian), Edward Wilmot Blyden (West Indian) and Herbert Samuel Macauley (Sierra Leonean) to form the first political party in Nigeria called the People’s Union. Apart from being the party Secretary, Ikoli was the only Nigerian among them and only 15.

The formation of the People’s Union marked the cradle of Nigerian nationalist movement. Among its achievements, the party (a) Led protests against water tax imposed on Lagosians by Nigerian government (b) Compelled government to build maritime facilities for sea farers to minimize accidental deaths (c) Influenced the Lugard Constitution of 1914 that amalgamated Nigeria, and (d) Sent Ikoli, J. G. Campbell, Chief Essien Offiong Essien and Prince Ephraim Bassey Duke as delegates to Gold Coast during the 1920 inauguration of National Council of British West Africa (NCBWA).

Ikoli was among the 1909 pioneer students of King’s College, Lagos. Upon graduation in 1913, he took up teaching job with the college till 1919 when he resigned and joined John Payne Jackson’s Lagos Weekly Record, ‪1919-1921‬. Jackson trained him in professional journalism. The paper was militant while Ikoli was in its editorial board. Representative government under elective principles was championed by the paper. The Clifford Constitution of 1923 responded by providing for elective principles motivating Macauley to establish his Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) in 1923 to contest the three seats for Lagos and one seat for Calabar.

The following 1920 he joined hands with S.M. Abiodun, WB Euba, JG Campbell, etc, to form the Lagos chapter of the Marcus Garvey-led Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He became the Secretary while Amos Stanley Wynter Shackleford (from the Caribbean) led as president. Garveyism propagated Pan-Africanism and pride in African identity and history. It influenced the Harlem Renaissance led by Langston Hughes (see Hughes’ essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”); South African Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko (see Biko’s autobiographical “I Write What I like”), and Black Theology championed by James Cone (see Cone’s work, “My Soul Looks Back”). Rastafarianism is also a direct product of Garveyism.

Ikoli led Nigerians into Garveyism that saw all Africans as one. For him there was no Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or Ijaw. There was only one Nigeria, one Africa and one destiny. This is one fact yet to be adequately addressed by Ikolian scholars. Again, certain commentators have wondered why “Ikoli did very little for the Ijaw struggle and so much for Yorubas.” His Pan-Nigerian/African outlook, rather than ethnicity, shaped his politics as pioneer nationalist. He was at a different level unmatched by those that came after him.

As an aside, Ijaw nation is littered with Ijaws bitten by the Pan-Nigerian/African bug. Among them were the late Godfrey Kio Jaja Amachree, Professor Lawrence Baraebibai Ekpebu and Brigadier General George Tamunoiyowuna Kurubo, to mention but a few. Amachree was the first indigenous Solicitor General of Nigeria (known today as the Attorney General of Nigeria) in 1958 and first permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Justice. In 1962, he was appointed Under-Secretary General of the United Nations. He was the first and only Nigerian in his lifetime to have served in that position.

General Kurubo was the first indigenous Chief of Air Staff, CAS, from 19 January 1966 to 4 August 1967. From January to July 1966, he served as member of the Supreme Military Council, SMC, and Federal Executive Council, FEC. He was later appointed Nigeria’s Ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly known as the Soviet Union, on 12 August 1967 to 1973. And from 28 December 1974 until 1975, Kurubo served as Nigeria’s ambassador to Iran, also accredited to Ankara.

Professor Ekpebu, first black African to graduate from Harvard University, was the force behind the establishment of the Nigeria-American Scholarship Programme (NASP) and African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU). He further introduced other programmes, namely, African Graduate Fellowship Programme (AFGRAD) and Advanced Training for Leadership and Skill (ATLAS); bringing on-board 250 American universities and covering 4,000 beneficiaries.

These prominent Ijaw sons had the means and opportunities to advance the cause of an ethnic agenda but chose to sacrifice the aspirations of Ijaw ethnic national advancement on the altar of nationalism. To these pioneers, it appears, the patriotism hierarchy was Nigeria first, Niger Delta second and Ijaw Nation last in the Nigerian project. Arguably, part of the reasons for the exploitation and under-development of the Ijaw Nation can be traced to this Pan-Nigerian/African mindset within the Ijaw intelligentsia and political elites.

If I may borrow a popular American phrase, it is possible to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” In other words, Ijaw people’s struggle for both political and economic emancipation should have been pursued at the same time as the struggle to perfect the Nigerian nationhood. The contributory factors for the continued marginalization of Ijaw people within the Nigeria space is a story for another day. Apologies for the digression. Now back to Ikoli.

In 1921 Ikoli resigned from the Lagos Weekly Record and established his own African Messenger newspaper. Nnamdi (Zik) Azikiwe was converted to the Ikoli nationalist ideology as an avid reader of the African Messenger. Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Akintola came on board in 1934. By then Ikoli was pioneer editor of the Nigerian Daily Times, established in 1926.

Together with Dr. Moses J. da Rocha, Dr. J.C. Vaughan, Barrister Ayo Williams, etc, he formed his own political party called the Union of Young Nigerians (UYN) in 1923. In 1934 the UYN became the Lagos Youth Movement (LYM) before transiting in 1937 to the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). Ikoli was elected into the central Nigerian Legislative Council (NLC), ‪1941-1946‬, under the platform of the NYM. Ikoli and his friends modelled the UYN after the Young Turks Movement in Turkey as a means of getting young Nigerians interested in the nationalist awakening (p. 149).

In 1934 the government established the Yaba Higher College as a diploma awarding institution. Nigerians were ecstatic but not Ikoli. Why diploma when the college could be affiliated to a British university as a degree awarding institution? He was also disenchanted that government could establish the college without consulting Nigerian elites. On Saturday 17 March 1934, he called for mass rally where he educated Nigerians on the inadequacies of the College. His demands were for government to (a) Upgrade the College to a degree-awarding institution (b) Constitute a Representatives Board to run the college, and (c) Award automatic scholarships to brilliant students to study in universities in England. His demands were adopted by government but the rally led to the conversion of the UYN to LYM.

In 1939 and 1942, Ikoli mounted pressures on Governor Bernard Bourdellon to submit memoranda to the Secretary of State for the Colony, Colonel Oliver Stanley, for the creation of four regional councils of East, West, North and South to conform with Nigerian four major ethnic groups of Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Ijaw of the Niger Delta; and their neighbours. Bourdellon dropped the Southern Region and approached the Colonial Office for the creation of three regions instead.

Bourdellon’s proposal to this effect was deliberated upon by the Colonial Office Committee, London, on 22 June to 2 July 1943. The Committee faulted the NLC that had no northern representative as a result of the defective 1923 Constitution. The Committee Report birthed the Richards Constitution of 1946. Under this new Constitution, the NLC made laws for the whole of Nigeria including northern Nigeria.

No sooner did the Richards Constitution of 1946 take shape than Ikoli led Nigerian WWII Veterans and other nationalists back to the trenches for urgent constitutional reforms aimed at gaining complete independence for Nigeria. He advised the new Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, to revisit the joint proposal he authored with Bourdillon when Stanley was in office. The Stanley-approved joint proposal was for future implementation and it urged the setting up of a “Royal Commission that will take both oral and written accounts from the Nigerian nationalists, organisations and politicians who were demanding reforms” (p.299). With minor modification, Creech-Jones implemented the joint proposal resulting in the Sir John Macpherson Constitution of 1951.

While Macpherson was in office, the larger-than-life Ikoli was conferred with the Order of British Empire, OBE, but that did not slow him down as he pressed on for Nigerian independence under the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 and Independence Constitution of 1960. On 1 October 1960 Nigeria became independent only for the great Ikoli to fall ill on 7 October, probably of exhaustion; and was rushed to the Creek Hospital, Lagos. He died on Friday 21 October at the age of 67 and was buried at the Ikoyi Cemetery.