Hello Presh Nation,
It’s Wednesday and it’s a beautiful avenue for us to take a trip down history lane in a bid to bring back good values from our past heroes, whose labour’s we do not want to be in vain. Let’s take a look at the story of King Jaja down south in Opobo where some true leadership values lie.
Jaja of Opobo whose real name is Jubo Jubogha lived between 1821 and 1891. He was the first known Nigerian richest man, nationalist, a merchant prince and the founder of Opobo city-state in an area that is now the Rivers state of Nigeria. He was known as Jaja of Opobo, first, by the Europeans and later by most people. Born in Umuduruoha, Amaigbo, in Igboland, At birth he was given a native Igbo name Mbanaso Okwaraozurumba and was the third son of his parents. According to different oral sources, He was sold at about the age of twelve as a slave in Bonny in the Niger Delta under circumstances which are far from clear. One version of the oral traditions says that he was sold because, as a baby, he cut the upper teeth first, an abominable phenomenon in traditional Igbo society. Another version claims that he was captured and sold by his father’s enemy. Regardless, he was bought by Chief Iganipughuma Allison of Bonny, by far the most powerful city-state on the Atlantic coast of Southeastern Nigeria before the rise of Opobo.
Jubo Jubogha later took the name “Jaja” for his dealings with the British. Until the end of the 19th century, the Delta communities played a crucial role in European and American trade with Nigeria. Acting as middlemen, these communities carried into the interior markets the trade goods of European and American supercargoes stationed on the coast and brought back in exchange the export produce of the hinterland, basically palm oil.
Jaja proved his aptitude for business at an early age, earning his way out of slavery. As a youth, he worked as a paddler on his owner’s great trade canoes, traveling to and from the inland markets. Quite early, he demonstrated exceptional abilities and business acumen, quickly identified with the Ijo custom of the Delta, and won the hearts of the local people as well as those of the European supercargoes. It was unusual for a slave of his status to make the transition from canoe paddling to trading, but Jaja through his honesty, business sense, and amiability soon became prosperous.
For a long while, Jaja turned his back on Bonny politics, concentrating his immense energies on accumulating wealth through trade, the single most important criterion to power in the Delta.
In 1863, Alali of the Anna House died, bequeathing to his house a frightening debt of between £10,000 and £15,000 owed to European supercargoes. Fearing bankruptcy, all of the eligible chiefs of the house declined nomination to head it. It was therefore a great relief when Jaja accepted to fill the void.
Jaja’s successes incurred the jealousy of opponents who feared that, if left unchecked, his house might incorporate most of the houses in Bonny and thereby dominate its political and economic arena. Oko Jumbo, his bitterest opponent, was determined that such a prospect would never materialize.
Meanwhile, two developments occurred in Bonny, serving to harden existing jealousies. First, in 1864, Christianity was introduced into the city-state, further polarizing the society. While the Manilla House welcomed the Christians with a warm embrace, the Anna House was opposed to the exotic religion. Not surprisingly, the missionaries sided with the Manilla House against the Anna House. Second, in 1865, King William Pepple died and, with this, the contest for the throne between the two royal houses took on a monstrous posture.
Three years later, in 1868, Bonny was ravaged by fire, and the Anna House was the worst hit. In the discomfiture of his opponent, Oko Jumbo saw his opportunity. Knowing that the fire had all but critically crippled Jaja’s house, he sought every means to provoke an open conflict. On the other side, Jaja did everything to avoid such a conflict, but, as Dike states, “Oko Jumbo’s eagerness to catch his powerful enemy unprepared prevailed.”
On September 13, 1869, heavy fighting erupted between the two royal houses. Outmatched in men and armament, though not in strategy, Jaja pulled out of Bonny, accepted defeat, and sued for peace with a suddenness that surprised both his adversaries and the European supercargoes. Peace palaver commenced and dragged on for weeks under the auspices of the British consul. This was exactly what Jaja planned for. It soon became doubtful if the victors were not indeed the vanquished.
Jaja had sued for peace in order to gain time to retreat from Bonny with his supporters with little or no loss in men and armament. He relocated in the Andoni country away from the seaboard at a strategic point at the mouth of the Imo river, the highway of trade between the coastal communities and the palm-oil rich Kwa Iboe and Igbo country. There, he survived the initial problems of a virgin settlement as well as incessant attacks of his Bonny enemies.
In 1870, feeling reasonably secure, Jaja proclaimed the independence of his settlement which he named Opobo, after Opubu the Great, the illustrious king of Bonny and founder of Anna House who had died in 1830.It is characteristic of the man that he had not only a sense of the occasion but of history. Kingship was impossible of attainment for anyone of slave origins in Bonny. Instead he sought another land where he could give full scope to his boundless energies.
Long before the war of 1869, Jaja had been carefully planning to found his own state. The war merely provided him with the occasion to implement his design.
In naming his new territory Opobo, Jaja was appealing to the nostalgia and historical consciousness of his followers while giving them the impression that he was truly the heir of the celebrated king. That this impression was widespread and accepted by most Bonny citizens may be judged from the fact that of the 18 houses in Bonny, 14 followed Jaja to Opobo.
To no avail, the British consul tried to coerce Jaja to come back to Bonny. Against the admonition of the consul, and in the face of Bonny’s displeasure, many British firms began to trade openly with Opobo while others transferred their depots there. By May of 1870, the Jaja revolution had driven the death-knell on Bonny’s economy. British firms anchoring there are said to have lost an estimated £100,000 of trade by mid-1870. The city-state fell from grace to grass as Opobo, flourishing on its ashes, became in Ofonagoro’s words, “the most important trade center in the Oil Rivers,” and Jaja became “the greatest African living in the east of modern Nigeria.”
For 18 years, Jaja ruled his kingdom with firmness and remarkable sagacity. He strengthened his relations with the hinterland palm-oil producers through judicious marriages and blood covenants which bound the parties into ritual kingship. He armed his traders with modern weapons for their own defense and that of the state. He thus monopolized trade with the palm-oil producers and punished severely any community that tried to trade directly with the European supercargoes.
In 1873, the British recognized him as king of independent Opobo, and Jaja reciprocated by sending a contingent of his soldiers to help the British in their war against the Ashanti kingdom in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Queen Victoria expressed her gratitude in 1875 by awarding him a sword of honor. It seemed a honeymoon had developed between Opobo and Britain.
Jaja’s reign has been described as a striking instance of selective modernization. He retained most of the sociopolitical and cultural institutions of Bonny, such as the house system, and stuck steadfastly to the religion of his fathers, arguing that Christianity was a serious ferment of societal destabilization. While recognizing the value of Western education and literacy, he objected to its religious component. Thus, he sent his two sons to school in Scotland but insisted they acquire only secular education. He established a secular school in Opobo and employed an African-American, Emma White, to run it. An Englishman who visited Opobo in 1885 stated that the standard of the pupils in the school compared quite favorably with that of English children of the same age.
The honeymoon between Jaja and the British turned out to be meteoric: the ultimate ambitions of the two ran at cross-purposes. Jaja guarded his independence jealously, had a tight grip on the interior markets and confined British traders to Opobo, away from these markets. He made sure that the traders paid their comeys (customs and trade duties) as and when due.
But in the 1880s, the clouds of British imperialism were closing in menacingly on Opobo, the overthrow of indigenous sovereignties having been initiated by John Beecroft, the first British consul to Nigeria (1849-54). British imperialism had begun to assert itself forcefully; British officials on the spot were increasingly ignoring indigenous authorities, while British traders had begun to insist on trading directly with the hinterland palm-oil producers. Jaja tackled these formidable problems judiciously and with restraint.
At the 1884 Berlin Conference, the other European powers designated Opobo as British territory, and the British soon moved to claim it. When Jaja refused to cease taxing British traders, Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British vice consul, invited Jaja to negotiations in 1887. When Jaja arrived, the British arrested him and tried him in Accra in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) then took him to London for some time, where he met Queen Victoria and was her guest in Buckingham Palace. After some other turbulent history, he was exiled to Saint Vincent in the West Indies. Plans were also made for him to be relocated to Barbados.
In 1891, Jaja was granted permission to return to Opobo, but died en route, on the Island of Teneriffe, allegedly poisoned with a cup of tea.
His people gladly paid the cost of repatriating his body and spent a fortune celebrating his royal funeral.
Today, an imposing statue of Jaja stands in the center of Opobo with the inscription:
”A king in title and in deed. Always just and ever generous.”