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2.4b(iv) “Nigeria: Dependent Status in the Twentieth Century.” Conference on “Nigeria in the Twentieth Century,” University of Texas at Austin, March 2002

Note 1: A slightly amended version of this paper, titled “Dependency Relationships in the Twentieth Century,” was included in Nigeria in the Twentieth Century, ed. Toyin Falola, 225-231. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

Note 2: As I was checking the 2002 paper, prior to transcribing it in preparation for sending it to the DigITall African History Archives, I found an error in the endnotes. Much of what should have been included in endnote 7 in the  2002 paper had unfortunately been omitted (and this error was repeated in the published version, also note 7). I apologise for this omission, and I have corrected it here (see new version of endnote 7, below, which is enclosed in square brackets). I apologise in particular to the early 1970s researcher Busari Ajani Alade, whose excellent dissertation I had intended to commend in the note.

Note 3: The paper was written and presented in March 2002 and the slightly amended version was published in the same year. Thus, even the most recent material it contains reaches only as far as the very beginning of the 21st century and may not reflect current (2020) conditions. I believe, however, that among the questions I raise in the last two sections of this paper, many are still pertinent today.

Copyright© Ann O’Hear, March 2002

Nigeria: Dependent Status in the Twentieth Century

Ann O’Hear

In this paper I am looking at the persistence of inequalities due to slavery and the continuance (or indeed resurgence) of various forms of dependency relationships in Nigeria in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. I am interested in bringing the story up to date, as far as possible. I want to examine, or at least suggest, some of the reasons why dependency relations persist or revive. And I am urging the need for further study of the various twentieth and twenty-first century phenomena that can be gathered under the heading of “dependency relations.”

A new concern about dependency relations has been sparked by recent revelations about the continuance or resurgence of dependency relations in various parts of the world. There have been revelations, for example, about a slave trade in children between Nigeria and Gabon, and about the importation into the European Union of Nigerian women and girls who are then forced into the sex industry.[1] My own interest, however, has a historical background, and is based first and foremost on my study of slavery and its aftermath in and around the city of Ilorin. This city is in northern Yorubaland, but is also [the center of] the southwesternmost emirate of the old Sokoto Caliphate.[2] I looked at the ex-slaves and their descendants and other dependent individuals and communities, especially in  the agricultural hinterland of the city of Ilorin, an area often referred to as the “Metropolitan Districts,” and I brought their story up to the early 1980s and to some extent beyond. I showed not only that dependency relations persisted well into the colonial period (which various other studies in Nigeria have also revealed)[3] but also that these relations continued well after the granting of political independence to Nigeria in 1960. I looked at periods when it seemed that dependency was declining—that is, periods of large-scale and apparently successful resistance to dependent status—but I also found that it never completely disappeared and in fact remained strong in some ways even after I left Ilorin in the mid-1980s.

Dependency Relations in the “Metropolitan Districts” of Ilorin

During most of the colonial period, the descendants of slaves and other dependent farmers in the Ilorin hinterland were tightly controlled by their fiefholders (the colonial officers’ term for the city aristocrats who controlled access to land), by their district heads and other Native Authority personnel (also from the city aristocracy), and by the so-called “intermediaries” (of similar origins) who, in Ilorin, went by the name of baba kekere, although the farmers did engage in forms of “diffident” resistance like those described by Michael Watts for areas further north.[4] The dependent farmers of the Metropolitan Districts were forced to pay tribute in produce and labor, bribes, high (often illegally high) rates of tax, and market and other fees, and they suffered other forms of interference with their freedom to trade. They provided not only goods and labor for their overlords, but also women, who became wives of city men. They failed to share in migration to wealthier areas, no doubt due to their isolation and consequent ignorance of the opportunities, but also, I suggest, due to the close control exerted over them by the urban elite. The same urban elite was also among the factors contributing to the exceedingly limited educational opportunities that were offered. A Metropolitan Districts spokesman in 1977 made a bitter accusation:

Up to the 1960s, our children were intentionally denied access to education because the overlords back at home in Ilorin felt we should have no right to education for fear that once we became educated, our eyes would be opened and we would cease to become “the soup ingredients” which they made us to be.[5]

The period of rapid political change in the 1950s, in the years leading up to independence, provided an opportunity for the Metropolitan Districts farmers to fight against their dependent status, with considerable success, at least for a time. A resistant commoners’ party, the Ilorin Talaka Parapo (ITP), gained a large following both in the city and the districts, and engaged in a struggle with the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), which, in Ilorin as elsewhere in the North, was the hegemonic party of the aristocratic elite. The ITP and its supporters reached their maximum extent of success in 1957, but between 1958 and 1960 the elite managed to retain control. Ironically, at the very minute of national independence, the farmers had been returned fully to their state of dependence.

In the 1950s, resistance to dependency relations had been aided by local government reforms which gave the farmers for the first time some taste of democratic government, and by the considerable support provided for the ITP by the powerful Yoruba party, the Action Group (AG). The ITP-AG Alliance won majorities in many of the district councils, both in the Metropolitan Districts and elsewhere in the emirate, and took control of the new Native Authority Council. Tribute, market dues, and the baba kekere were all officially abolished. Two deeply unpopular district heads were suspended. Farmers began to claim ownership of their farmland—a truly radical claim. However, the Alliance Council’s aggressive approach to the traditional authorities was too much for the Northern Region government. It was dissolved and replaced by a council consisting of the traditional elite, which proceeded to undo the work of the Alliance and reaffirm elite control and land rights, represented by the reimposition of tribute. Threats, intimidation, reprisals, the police and the alkali court system, and manipulation of the electoral process were all used to crush resistance. In one incident, in May 1959, a gang of armed men invaded the farms of members of the Alliance, saying “We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.”[6] Self-government meant the opportunity to reassert elite control.

A new period of political change, in the late 1960s and 1970s, provided a further opportunity for some of the Metropolitan Districts inhabitants. Reforms of local government were begun after the military took over in 1966. As a result of government activities, a researcher in the early 1970s found that tribute to district heads had ceased to be compulsory, at least in the areas he visited. He found that forest guards and sanitary inspectors, both of whom had harassed the local farmers, had been abolished and so had the fees charged by messengers of the district heads. Primary school costs had been distributed among the population as “Education Rates,” and the first secondary school in the Metropolitan Districts had been founded. But the pace of change was slow. The district heads were still chosen from the same city elite families, they still surrounded themselves with their relatives, and they still possessed considerable powers. The pace of progress in education was uneven, although some Metropolitan Districts people did succeed in acquiring secondary and higher education (see, for example, the personal histories of the political leaders of the late 1970s).[7]

The real catalyst for renewed activism against dependent status came with the overthrow of the Gowon regime in July 1975 and its replacement by the Mohammed/Obasanjo military government. This government introduced nationwide local government reforms, establishing almost 300 new local government areas throughout the country, each to be provided with funds, and designed to encourage and train people at the local level to participate in democratic government and local development. A Land Use Decree was promulgated in 1978, and nationwide elections were held in 1979. The Metropolitan Districts of Ilorin profited in 1976 from the creation of two new local governments which covered much of the districts’ territory and provided a measure of “independence” from the city (in the early 1980s, the boundaries were redrawn again, to the further benefit of the districts). However, the new Emirate Council set up in 1976 included the emir as chair, the major city chiefs, and all the district heads. A movement developed demanding the removal of the existing district heads, who were members of elite city families. The Land Use Decree encouraged farmers to refuse to pay tribute to their landlords. Dependent communities began to develop and publicize narratives claiming origins that were independent of Ilorin, and later to demand grading for their local rulers. Some villages began refusing to go into the city, carrying foodstuffs to their overlord families’ compounds, during the Muslim festivals, as they had traditionally done. Resistant leaders in the districts campaigned for the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), the direct descendant of the Action Group. However, the UPN did not perform particularly well in the various elections, and the general political story was more complex than it had been in the 1950s. This was due to a variety of reasons, not least the “Saraki factor.” Olusola Saraki was a city titleholder, but he had also accepted the two new local government areas, and was a vivid, forceful, sometimes threatening but often generous local personality. One influential local leader, for example, deplored “the almost perpetual socio-economic tragedy that is our lot,” blamed it squarely on Ilorin and the district heads, declared that as long as “absolute poverty reigns supreme in our area, we are bound to be diametrically opposed to the seat of the government,” defined the district and city people as related but equal, but at the same time was against the UPN and firmly anti-Awolowo and pro-Saraki.[8]

The creation of new local government areas helped to stimulate development activities. By the mid-1980s there had been considerable improvements in educational provision, at least in some areas. Local communities were carrying out development. Some communities were helped by their migrant members.

By the mid-1980s, some measure of independence from the city had been gained. Far more people had managed to migrate to the south, although the marriage migration of women into Ilorin continued. Although the “traditional” district heads remained in place, and some were still prepared to exert their power, others were essentially reduced to tax collectors. The creation of new local government areas, twice, was a significant move toward independence, though the decision of the military government which took over at the end of 1983 to reduce them to the pre-Second Republic number may well have proved a setback for some areas. In some small-scale, relatively remote villages, the conditions of dependency of the remaining inhabitants may hardly have changed. In 1991 the ex-slave residents of one small, difficult-of-access hamlet admitted that they still paid tribute in form of locust beans and other farm produce to their “master,” who had put up a sign declaring his continued ownership of the village. The inhabitants were mostly elderly, however, and many of the young people had gone to Lagos to work.[9]

Twentieth-Century Dependency Relations Elsewhere

Thus, dependency relations, although changed and for some much reduced or even virtually severed, persisted in the Ilorin Metropolitan Districts area. Struck by this evidence of their persistence, I tried to find other studies of the relatively recent history of dependency, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere, but I have found them fairly rare, aside from reports of the resurgence of slavery and the slave trade in various countries. I would like to take a very quick look at some of the relatively small number of studies that do exist.

One major work that has been sadly neglected is William Derman’s study of what he calls “a former serf village in the Republic of Guinea,” which was published in 1973. In this area, the Fulbe masters’ right to tribute from their former slaves was abolished  during the colonial period, which led, says Derman, to “a decline in the importance of the distinction between them and the free Fulbe.”[10] Much of the political significance of the distinction was ended by independence, as were “all the remaining labor obligations of serfs.” However, at the time of Derman’s research there were still strong social and ideological continuities with the past” and “older social categories remain[ed] important for the population in the countryside.[11] Fulbe economic domination had largely ended, except that very few former slaves owned land, a fact that perpetuated “some of the aspects of their former subordinate status.”[12] Villages of former slaves had achieved control over their internal affairs, through the committee system.[13] Former slave communities were creating their own myths of origin, designed to demonstrate that they were descended from indigenes, who had neither been captured in war nor brought as slaves from elsewhere,[14] a process similar to the construction of new origin stories by Ilorin dependent villages some years later. Before independence, descendants of slaves were denied access to Koranic education, but this was no longer the case when Derman was conducting his research. However, the Fulbe retained “their Islamic ‘right’ to dominate in sacred matters,” declaring that slave descendants were not eligible “to lead free men in prayer.”[15] This “ideological predominance” was also noticeable in life-cycle ceremonies.[16]

Moving northward in West Africa, Andrew F. Clark has studied another society of ex-slaves of the Fulbe, this time in Bundu, in eastern Senegambia. This study takes the story up to the 1980s, when the descendants were still struggling, as they had been during the colonial period, “to transform ties of servility and dependency.”[17] In this society, unlike Guinea, independence had no effect on servile status.[18] Freeborn Fulbe retained total political power in local government.[19] Slave descendants and others migrated, especially to France, particularly after the Second World War and in the 1970s and 1980s, but slave-descendant migrants retained ties to their “related freeborn family.”[20] Each freeborn family had its related slave-descendant (maccube) compound, and various rights and responsibilities connected the two.[21] As in Guinea, the differences in status between slave-descendants and freeborn were particularly strong in matters of religion.[22] Overall, the maccube had changed their interactions with the freeborn, but their status remains the same, and their interactions with the freeborn “continue to reflect the dependency nature of the relationship.”[23]

Thus, the picture in Bundu appears to be one of continuing, if relatively benign, dependency. Further north again, in Mauritania, benignity is conspicuous by its absence. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1980, and many slaves have managed to escape from their masters, masters have ignored the 1980 law, and ex-slaves have been involved in “struggles to establish their right to property and struggles over inheritance. Masters .  . . still claim the property of their deceased slaves.” (The 1980 law said masters should be compensated for the loss of their slaves, but this has not been done.) The government of Lt. Col. Taya has harassed activists, and “[s]laves are still forced to work for masters and are brutally punished, exchanged, separated from spouses and children.”[24]

Moving to some Nigerian examples, the story of ex-slaves and their descendants in Igboland has been a very different one, although slave descendants are still haunted by questions of status. Don Ohadike has demonstrated that Igbo ex-slaves were the first to take advantage of wage labor and other colonial-period economic opportunities, and the first to see Western education as “an avenue to wealth.” Thus, some slave descendants have been able to buy titles, have been elected to political office, have married into freeborn families, and become leaders. There is, however, a “lingering social stigma.”[25] Freeborn families do not like to accept marriages with slave descendants, where slave descent is revealed. And the osu, descendants of slaves who were dedicated to deities, still face considerable social disability.[26]

In the northern part of Nigeria, the story has been different again. Lovejoy and Hogendorn use M.G. Smith’s work in the late 1940s to demonstrate that ex-slaves in the north were obliged to become sharecroppers on the masters’ lands. “Large slave holders continued to assert their rights to the land that had constituted their rumada.” Ex-slaves paid them rent in kind. “In other words,” says Smith, “persons were . . . controlled indirectly through property in land.” This system persisted in 1940s Zaria. Part of the rent was in form of gifts to the masters during Muslim festivals (as in Ilorin).[27] The existence of sharecropping in the Kano area has been, as Lovejoy and Hogendorn point out, “debated with some vigor.” They suggest that close to Kano, masters found it difficult to impose rental arrangements because of the attractions of other occupations in the city. At this point, I would like simply to note their reference to Fika, who, they report, comments that “the existence of sharecropping in Kano Province may demonstrate a connection between present-day domestic clientage and a former relationship of slave to master.”[28] Certainly we are seeing here a development of dependency relations from slavery to clientage which again is very reminiscent of Ilorin. Indeed, Michael Watts believes that the northern elite was able not only to retain but “even extend their domination over the talakawa,” supported by the colonial state and legitimated by a “hegemonic Islamic ideology.”[29] Yet many members of the northern peasantry did have the opportunity to make ends meet through dry season migration, and they could also grow groundnuts without displacing their foodstuff production.[30] These were two avenues which do not seem to have been open to their counterparts around Ilorin.


This has been a very brief survey of some of the limited number of studies that touch, at least, on relatively recent years. It raises a number of questions. Why, for example, did dependency relations evolve in so many different ways in the twentieth century? What factors led to the long-lasting continuance of severely restrictive conditions in some areas, and not in others? What was the effect of ecological differences between forest, savanna, and desert? Why did dependent cultivators manage to migrate in some cases to areas of greater, or at least alternative, economic opportunity, while others did not?

How important a factor was access to land? What was the significance, in terms of loosening the bonds of dependency, of government actions with regard to land? In Lasta, northern Ethiopia, the landless ex-slaves were able to claim land after the Land Reform Proclamation of 1975. This raised their status to that of other peasants, but did little if anything to relieve their poverty.[31] What was the significance of the Land Use Decree (later Act) in Nigeria? Was it, as it seems to have been in Ilorin, more symbolic than substantively economic?  Whatever happened to the Nigerian Land Use Decree (Act)?  What provisions, if any, with regard to access to land are included in the latest Nigerian Constitution, and what effect have they had?

What, indeed, is the significance of economic factors generally in the continuance or rupture of dependency relationships? Or in the resurgence of such relationships? Certainly, desperate poverty is a factor in the sale of children in various parts of the world today. And poverty was a major factor in the resurgence of human pawnship during the Depression years of the 1930s.[32] Yet an earlier increase in pawnship resulted from the increasing commercialization of the economy.[33] And  considerations of ideology and social status may well last after former dependents have made great economic gains. Previously, in Ilorin, periods of political activity helped lead to the weakening of dependency bonds. Has the [1999] renewal of party political politics led to a similar opportunity? Or has economic crisis led to renewed accommodation through clientage?

What are the factors affecting the type of dependency relationship that survives or revives? And the type of affected individual? The sale or self-sale of young women for sexual purposes is a frequently recurring and persistent form of dependency, as is the transfer of girls for marriage, whether through pawnship or the payment of a price by the prospective husband or his family. Children are particularly prone to enslavement or other forms of exploitation, due to the desperation of their parents, their powerlessness, and their usefulness in carrying out menial tasks or, in the case of girls, in ultimately providing sexual services.

What are the effects of economic mismanagement and neo-liberal globalization on the continuance or resurgence of dependency relationships? What, for example, was the effect of the economically disastrous 1990s on the rural population of the Ilorin Metropolitan Districts? Was the result a strengthening of existing dependency relationships, or the rise of new forms of dependency, or both? Did the old elite feel a need to strengthen its control in a period of belt-tightening for everyone? What happened to the outlet of migration? In economies that more and more often fail to provide adequate wage labor opportunities, is there any evidence of the revival of practices that had apparently disappeared, such as pawning of oneself or one’s children? What types of dependency relationships are exploited by the wealthy for the provision of domestic services?


Obviously I do not have the answers to these questions, or to the many other questions that need to be asked. I simply pose them, in the hope that other scholars will pursue the subject of dependency relationships, however distasteful it may be to us today, in order to understand them better and hence, possibly, to encourage their eventual demise, not only in the cases I have mentioned here, but in every part of the world.


[1] See, for example, “President of Nigeria Calls for More Attention to Be Paid to Slavery,” 23 July 2001,

[2] For the following account of dependency relations in the Ilorin area, see Ann O’Hear, Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1997), chapters 5-8.

[3] For example, Paul E. Lovejoy and Jan S. Hogendorn, Slow Death for Slavery: The Course of Abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[4] O’Hear, Power Relations, 122, including quotation from Michael Watts, “On Peasant Diffidence: Non-Revolt, Resistance, and Hidden Forms of Political Consciousness in Northern Nigeria, 1900-1945,” in Edmund Burke III, ed., Global Crises and Social Movements: Artisans, Peasants, Populists, and the World Economy ( Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988), 119.

[5] O’Hear, Power Relations, 119, quoting from Nigerian Herald (Ilorin), 30 November 1977, Oke Moro and Oke Asa Development Union. Compare this statement with the Song of a Bornu Nobleman: “The peasant is grass, fodder for the horses,/ To your hoeing, peasant, so that we can eat.” Quoted in Louis Brenner, The Shehus of Kukawa: A History of the Al-Kanemi Dynasty of Bornu (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), chapter 6.

[6] O’Hear, Power Relations, 166, quoting from Daily Service (Lagos), 1 June 1959.

[7] [For this paragraph, see O’Hear, Power Relations, 175-76, and 299, notes 6, 7, 9, 12. 14, and 15, citing Busari Ajani Alade, “The Effect of Kwara State Local Government Reforms on Ilorin Division (B.Sc. [Soc.Sc] diss., Sociology, Ahmadu Bello University, 1973). This is an undergraduate dissertation of exceptional quality.

On the success of some Metropolitan Districts people, including political leaders, in acquiring secondary and higher education, see, for example, Power Relations, 299, note 16, directing the reader to 304, note 75, which cites information collected by Yakubu Adeyemi Jimoh (lead researcher) and J.F. Adetunji, 1994 and 1996.]

[8] O’Hear, Power Relations, 185-86, quoting from Nigerian Herald, 20 December 1979.

[9] O’Hear, Power Relations, 187.

[10] William Derman, Serfs, Peasants, and Socialists: A Former Serf Village in the Republic of Guinea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 3.

[11] Ibid., 4, 5.

[12] Ibid., 240-41.

[13] Ibid., 241.

[14] Ibid., 242-43.

[15] Ibid., 245.

[16] Ibid., 246.

[17] Andrew F. Clark, “‘The Ties That Bind’: Servility and Dependency among the Fulbe of Bundu (Senegambia), c. 1930s to 1980s,” in Suzanne Miers and Martin A. Klein, eds., “Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa,” Special Issue of Slavery and Abolition 19, 2 (1988): 92.

[18] Ibid., 96.

[19] Ibid., 98.

[20] Ibid., 99.

[21] Ibid., 101.

[22] Ibid., 102.

[23] Ibid. 106.

[24] Martin A. Klein, “Slavery and French Rule in the Sahara,” in Miers and Klein, eds., “Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa,” Special Issue of Slavery and Abolition, 85. See also, for example, “‘Slave Party’ Banned in Mauritania,” BBC News, 3 January 2002,; Elinor Burkett, “God Created Me to Be a Slave,” New York Times Magazine, 12 October 1997, in Abolish: The Anti-Slavery Portal,

[25] Don Ohadike, “The Decline of Slavery among the Igbo People,” in Suzanne Miers and Richard Roberts, eds., The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 456.

[26] Don C. Ohadike, “‘When the Slaves Left, Owners Wept’: Entrepreneurs and Emancipation among the Igbo People,” in Miers and Klein, eds., “Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa,” Special Issue of Slavery and Abolition, 202.

[27] Lovejoy and Hogendorn, Slow Death, 283.

[28] Ibid., 284.

[29] Watts, “On Peasant Diffidence,” 131, 134.

[30] Ibid., 140.

[31] James McCann, “‘Children of the House’: Slavery and Its Suppression in Lasta, Northern Ethiopia, 1916-1935,” in Miers and Roberts, eds., End of Slavery, 356.

[32] See Martin A. Klein and Richard Roberts, “The Resurgence of Pawning in French West Africa during the Depression of the 1930s,” in Toyin Falola and Paul E. Lovejoy,  eds., Pawnship in Africa: Debt Bondage in Historical Perspective (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994). Also see Ann O’Hear, “Pawning in the Emirate of Ilorin,” in the same volume, 234.

[33] Toyin Falola and Paul E. Lovejoy, “Pawnship in Historical Perspective,” in Falola and Lovejoy, eds., Pawnship in Africa, 20.

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