top of page
2.1a(ii) Reviews of O'Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria


Review by J.D.Y. Peel, in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 73, no. 1 (2003): 139‒140.


Review by Felix K. Ekechi, in The Historian, vol. 62, no. 1 (September 1999): 137‒139.

Review by Funso Afolayan, in African Studies Review, vol. 42, no. 3 (December 1999): 156‒158.


Review by Saheed A. Adejumobi, in African Economic History, no. 26  (1998).

Review by Axel Harneit-Sievers, in Afrika [Africa] Spectrum, vol. 33, no. 3 (1998): 368‒370.

Review by Joseph E. Inikori, in American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 5 (December 1998): 1664‒1665.

J.D.Y. Peel, review of Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Review published in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 73, no. 1 (2003): 138-140. Summary, including quotations.

     Ilorin is both “the most northerly of the large Yoruba city states and the southernmost emirate of the Sokoto caliphate.” Ann O’Hear’s monograph shows how slavery and other forms of dependency permeated its history. The work reveals “thorough” research, “richly grounded . . . in the colonial archives” and “extensive field interviews.”

The book begins with a literature review, which is followed by three chapters examining the history of slavery from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth, utilising the concepts of resistance and accommodation. The work then “orients itself towards” the late-1950s developme nt of a political party, the Ilorin Talaka Parapo (“Commoners Together”), which is examined in detail in chapter 7. The ITP was one of a number of “populist movements” in Yorubaland, which set themselves up against “locally dominant parties,” but the ITP was more class based than populist movements elsewhere in Yorubaland. O’Hear contends that it arose from “a growing convergence,” from the 1920s onwards, between slave descendants and free rural people. In chapter 5, she “fascinatingly reconstructs” the origins of villages in the “metropolitan districts” around Ilorin, arguing that where villages do not possess councils composed of local titleholders and people do not claim any origin except Ilorin, it may be concluded that they are descended from slaves. They were economically exploited by the Ilorin elite and were given little access to education. The ITP was suppressed by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which controlled the North, but “its loyalties later flowed” into the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). However, since the 1970s, O’Hear suggests, the “unified class politics of [the] ITP has broken up along lines of ‘origin, religion and education.’” The reviewer believes that this “valuable book sheds crucial light on the uneasy predicament of Ilorin in the current [2003] state of religious polarisation in Nigeria.”

Funso Afolayan, review of Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Review published in African Studies Review, vol. 42, no. 3 (December 1999), 156-158. Summary, including quotations, plus response (see endnote) from Ann O’Hear.

The reviewer notes that Ann O’Hear uses “an array of oral and archival sources, interpreted within the framework of resistance and accommodation.” O’Hear’s study makes many contributions. It “expands our knowledge of the history of slavery in Yorubaland”; it “extends the works of Paul Lovejoy and Jan Hogendorn,” on the extent and longevity of slavery in the “central Sudan. . . . In addition, it takes the story of slavery into the twentieth century and links its decline and its incipient transformation with the onset of British rule and the emergence of a small-scale peasantry as the successor group to the slaves.”

      Despite what the reviewer characterises as the “sketchy and fragmentary nature of the evidence,” it presents a variety of new insights. In Ilorin, it is shown that slavery was more complex than it had previously been presented: “In Ilorin, Caliphate and Yoruba norms were not necessarily followed in practice,” and people in Ilorin “did not [even] always pay lip service to them. With regard to resistance, she warns that the version of slavery presented in early colonial records, in which slaves were said to be happy with their lot probably reflected the views of the “slave-owning elite” and British fears of the effects of any “wholesale . . . emancipation.” These views contradicted the large-scale departure of slaves following the Niger Company’s defeat of Ilorin in 1897. After the British takeover “consolidated the ruling elite’s hegemony,” resistance of various types continued.

     The study offers insights on slavery and women, and on the extent of the difference, in practical terms, between slaves and other dependent groups. With regard to women, for example, it shows that women were more resistant than were men. And it argues that in practice, the differences between slaves and other dependent groups were “relatively small.” The reviewer points out that, although O’Hear has answered numerous questions, many more remain. He cites questions regarding the extent of “Islamic fervor . . . among the Ilorin elite” (O’Hear, 60), the implications of the “concept of a merger with the West” (O’Hear 169), and the lack of coverage in O’Hear’s work of the period from 1960 to 1966. 1 Even so, he believes that the book is a major contribution to the literature, “[w]ell researched, well written,

conceptually sound and solidly grounded in the historiography of slavery,” and “innovative” in its scholarship.

     However, I am not aware of any major work that has been published on the politics of Ilorin Emirate in the First Republic that would confirm this interpretation, and I fully support the reviewer in his desire for answers to his questions.

1 Note by Ann O’Hear (2021): The reviewer asks pertinent questions. I would like to offer a few suggestions with regard to his third question, on the lack of coverage in Power Relations of the period of the First Republic, which the reviewer describes as “turbulent.” This was indeed true over much of the country, but in the Metropolitan Districts of Ilorin (and in neighbouring areas where many people supported the ITP-AG Alliance), I do not believe it to have been the case. In Power Relations in Nigeria, I briefly suggest some reasons why this would have been a quiescent period for resistance in and around Ilorin, as a result of both local and national factors, which solidified the Ilorin elite’s control, and made open resistance impossible: In Ilorin, there was the accession of a young, vigorous, manipulative, and ruthless emir, prepared to use whatever methods were needed to terrorize and disempower the inhabitants. At the end of 1959 there was the overwhelming national NPC victory (and AG defeat) in the Federal Election. Then there was the expectation and final attainment (in October 1060) of independence for Nigeria, which, ironically, put the ITP completely at the mercy of the Ilorin elite and the Northern Region Government. The thugs who taunted ITP farmers with “we are now self-governing, we can do what we like,” and [w]e are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies,” were well aware of this. (167-168)

Felix K. Ekechi, review of Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Review published in The Historian, vol. 62, no. 1 (September 1999): 137-139. DOI: 10.1111/ j.1540-6563.1999.tb01437. 

p. 137 

Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. By Ann O’Hear. (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1997. Pp. x, 338. $65.00.)  

In this volume, the author critically examines patterns of resistance and accommodation among slaves and their successors in Ilorin, a Nigerian city now in Kwara State. Formerly a predominantly Yoruba town, Ilorin is now a multiethnic city, harboring, among others, Hausa and Fulani settlers from northern Nigeria. “The city of Ilorin, grew in importance in 

[p.138] the early nineteenth century as a frontier emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate (in Northern Nigeria), and amassed a large population of slaves. Control of this slave population was of enormous importance to the city elite” (188). Historically, the Hausa-Fulani took control of Ilorin during the nineteenth-century era of the Islamic (Fulani) jihad or holy war, hence a strong influence of Islam arose there. Since then, relations between the ruling elite and the colonized slave population have undergone various permutations.  

      Ann O’Hear examines this relationship in terms of a “resistance and accommodation” paradigm, a concept she borrows from studies on slavery in America and Latin America. The book is divided into eight chapters and ends with a conclusion that summarizes the major issues. In chapter one, the author provides a historiographical survey of resistance literature and accommodation among slaves and ex-slaves drawn from various areas of the world, including Africa. She examines slavery in nineteenth-century Ilorin in chapter two, while in chapters three through eight she explores the dynamics of “power relations between the slaves and their successors on the one hand, and their masters and controllers [including the British] in the Ilorin elite on the other” (1).  

      Slave resistance naturally assumed different forms, including, for instance, outright rebel lion, which at times involved the murder of slave owners and their families. There were also cases of flight (or escape) to new areas of supposed security; rejection of both political and religious (Islamic) authority; or. in recent times, refusal to vote for the dominant political class in the modern Nigerian political system. As [A participant in the protests writes,] political protest by the underprivileged class was (and still is) very common. By the 1950s, demands for political freedom or independence from the city elite had become quite strident. O’Hear writes, “Ours is the sad story of a people who have for a long time been living in bondage and under the condemnable feudalistic system whereby ‘foreigners’ were appointed to lord it over us, the existence of our own traditional rulers notwithstanding” (177). Civil disobedience was also widespread, at least as evinced in the refusal of farmers in the Osin Local Government Area (1980s) “to come in to Ilorin with foodstuffs for the feast of Id El-Kebir” (183).  

      Resistance was often tempered with accommodation. O’Hear discusses reasons for accommodation, including “the desire to improve one’s condition,” or the fear of harsher treatment/repression (15-19 and passim). Even in the colonial era, when slaves were freed, some freed slaves chose to remain with their masters, ostensibly because they had “nowhere to go” (75). Using the concept of resistance and accommodation in her analysis, the author discusses the different ways in which slaves and their progeny accommodated to their servile conditions. The analysis of political “resistance in accommodation” since the 1950s is of special interest. O’Hear writes:  

      In the early 1950s, political consciousness was stirring in the       Metropolitan Districts [of Ilorin], and. given the opportunity provided       by the major local government changes, the inhabitants burst out for       the first time into massive, open resistance to their overlords in Ilorin       (189).  

This “open resistance” included demands for “complete independence from Ilorin control” (189).  

[page. 139] Political accommodation is illustrated in the voting patterns, which, the author notes, revealed “a less resistant, more divided population.” In large measure, Islam appears to have been a mediating factor, promoting a “unified political consciousness and class unity.” Thus, demands for “independence” failed, and the Ilorin district heads and fiefholders “continued to exercise domination over their rural population” (189-190).  

      Overall, this book makes an important contribution to the growing literature on slavery and the varieties of slave reactions to their social predicament. The study is based on a wide range of archival sources and enriched by the careful use of oral evidence, which is a sine qua non in studies of this genre. However, this reviewer is not convinced that the status and conditions of African slaves were exactly the same as those in the New World. Africanists should exercise caution in applying models (“slave analysis”) that were developed elsewhere to interpret African phenomena.  

Kent State University                                                                                     Felix K. Ekechi  

Axel Harneit-Sievers, review of Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Review published in Africa Spectrum, vol. 33, no. 3 (1998): 368-370 . Summary, including quotations.

     In her study of Ilorin, Ann O’Hear does more than presenting a local case study. “For the first time in the historiography of Nigeria,” she “connects the history of slavery and its abolition in an emirate on the southern fringes of the Sokoto Caliphate with a social history of ex-slave social groups and of the areas in which they settled. She extends this . . . into the 1980s.” The subtitle . . . might more appropriately have been . . . ‘a history of the Ilorin underclass.’”

     The terms “resistance” and “accommodation” applied to slaves or former slaves are “core concepts . . . used . . . in cases as different as the study of the relationships between masters and slaves in the 19th century, and the analysis of election results of 1979 and 1983.”

     O’Hear describes 19th century slavery in Ilorin, when “slaves were closely connected to urban households. British intervention after 1897 led to a large-scale flight,” but many stayed “for want of other options.” Many were settled by their owners as “technically free but dependent” farmers in the “Metropolitan Districts.” O’Hear studies the means used by the Ilorin elite to control these farmers. But she also looks at the “politics of identity” used in resistance, including efforts “to re-construct a village’s origins as . . . ethnically independent of Ilorin (and therefore based on voluntary migration, rather than slavery.”

     In the final chapters, she moves to “politics proper,” studying the Ilorin Talaka Parapo (ITP), which developed in the late 1950s to represent the underclass against the elite. The ITP was destroyed in 1960, but further resistance became possible in the period of local government reform under the military in the late 1970s. However, the Second Republic period, which followed, “still revealed a great deal of accommodation and dependence” where the former slaves are settled.

     O’Hear’s book is the product of “meticulous” research, based on “extensive” archival work and many interviews. The author’s local experience, gained while living in Ilorin from 1976 to 1985, “is reflected in the work.” The book is “concise and readable,” and it contains a large number of references and “detailed, useful index.”

     The case of Ilorin has “peculiarities” which may limit its utility as an exemplar. A large majority of Ilorin’s people are Yoruba. O’Hear argues that proximity to Southern Nigeria made some types of resistance uniquely possible, as in the support provided to the ITP by the Action Group.

     Of great interest is O’Hear’s emphasis on continuity between the slave population and the later underclass in the Metropolitan Districts. But this “central hypothesis” involves a problem. Though the continuity probably “exists. . . in the mind of everybody conversant with the Ilorin situation, it cannot easily be “proved,” especially because most of those who were interviewed would never describe themselves as descendants of slaves; rather, they would be anxious to hide this. The Metropolitan Districts are not entirely populated by slave descendants, but O’Hear can only estimate “to a limited extent” the proportion of slave descendants as against descendants of free peasants. Thus the key hypothesis remains “a generalization” and “a conjecture.” Nevertheless, the study is “a fascinating and innovative approach to the historiography of a Nigerian underclass.”

Joseph E. Inikori, review of Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors. Review published in American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 5 (December 1998), 1664-1665. Summary, including quotations, plus response (see endnote) from Ann O’Hear.

     “The central problem addressed in this coherently written monograph is the historical development of socioeconomic and political relations between an urban-based aristocracy and the surrounding agrarian communities” in Ilorin emirate. The nineteenth-century history of this emirate as described by O’Hear “contains elements with which students of medieval European history will be familiar. . . . In the twentieth century, British colonial administration . . . did little to change things.” Decolonization provided the downtrodden with the opportunity to resist through voting. Further opportunities followed after independence, “encouraging the oppressed peasants to focus on political mechanisms” to change their conditions.

     The reviewer, quoted above, also described Power Relations in Nigeria as “a refreshing class analysis . . . by a non-Marxist historian.” It shows that class rather than ethnicity have “shaped political behavior” in the Ilorin area “in the recent past” and “that this can only be properly understood in the context” of its history from the nineteenth century onward. Its “focus on the long-term political dynamics of servitude” marks this study off from most other studies of “servitude in Africa.”

     The reviewer also points out “areas of discomfort.” 1 First, there is the title. While Ilorin is similar to other emirates in northern Nigeria, it is broadly dissimilar to southern Nigeria, where “no landholding aristocracy evolved.” So Power Relations in Northern Nigeria would be preferable. Second, the work neglects new political factors in the area of study during the late 1970s and 1980s. The reviewer, however, does not specify these factors.

     Third, and most important, is “the imprecise use of terms in the treatment of servitude.” The reviewer argues that O’Hear does not distinguish between people in servitude who live in “agricultural villages” and those who live “in their masters’ compounds in the  city”: O’Hear treats them all as one group “and calls them slaves,” while the agricultural inhabitants of the villages are more akin to serfs.

     The reviewer further argues that “implicit” in O’Hear’s account “is the idea that the city servile population, the true slaves, moved into the agricultural villages after freedom and were transformed, along with the pre-existing rural populations, into semi-free peasants . . . burdened with the remnants of feudal obligations.” Read thus, claims the reviewer, “several of the contradictions and ambiguities may be eliminated without any damage to the refreshing class analysis that is the main strength of the book.”

1 Note by Ann O’Hear (2021): I comment below on the three “areas of discomfort” referred to by the reviewer. I am particularly grateful to him for providing a Marxist historian’s perspective.

(a) With regard to the title: I thank the author for his comment, and I agree that Power Relations in Northern Nigeria would have been more precisely correct as the first element of the title.

(b) With regard to the “neglect of new factors,” I would have liked the reviewer to give at least some brief examples of the factors involved.

(c) On the use of terms describing types of servitude: I did not intend the idea (that the city servile population moved into the villages after the British takeover and were turned, like the people already there, into “semi-free peasants,” that is essentially serfs) to be merely

“implicit”: I thought I had made it sufficiently clear in my text that this was indeed the case. And yes, read in this way, “contradictions and ambiguities” are removed without damaging “the refreshing class analysis that is the main strength of the book.”

< Back
bottom of page