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6.1 Anonymous research assistant, 1990-1994: Background information and report on slavery and its aftermath in dependent villages around Ilorin

This is a record of a project that met with serious problems and left my research assistant very fearful for his safety. In spite of all this, however, he was still able to provide interesting information on the state of relations between Ilorin “owners” and their dependent villages, and an indication of the control that the “owners” still exerted over the people who remained in the villages, although this had not prevented numbers of younger people from going to the south to find work.

My research assistant/informant in this case was a native of Ilorin and had worked successfully for me and for other researchers. In the early 1990s, he was teaching at a secondary school in the area around Ilorin, and I hoped this might assist him in gaining access to inhabitants of dependent villages.

In August 1990 I sent him a variety of slavery-related questions. In my notes, I  told him I thought it was best left up to him to decide exactly how he should ask them. Some of these were questions for any well informed persons in Ilorin or its districts. But I also asked him to elicit information from “at least one village where former slaves live . . . at least one [interviewee] should be of slave descent . . . if possible. . . You will have to go very carefully here, as people are not likely to be interested in admitting they are descended from slaves, but you may be able to work out by indirect means whether they are or not. . . . I do realise—as you have said—that some of this is very sensitive information, and you may not be able to get all of it. So just do your best, and send me what you can. Don’t rush it—you don’t want to do anything to antagonise your informants.”

Unfortunately, in the event he met with serious and potentially dangerous antagonism, which caused him to abandon the project, despite the fact that he had tried to exercise caution and had elicited the help of a student from the area. Unfortunately, our inability to remain in contact precluded any on-going discussions about the project and its viability or otherwise. In addition, the statements my research assistant made to villagers during a preliminary visit, alleging that “the Kwara State government wanted to establish some industries and that some of us wanted one or two of such industries to be sited in their areas. So we wanted to know what type of raw material” was produced there and who produced it, proved to be unwise. His statements may well have reached the ears of the “owners” of one or more of the villages through reports from village heads (Bales), and thus triggered the antagonism that he met.

Communication with Nigeria had become very difficult in the first half of the 1990s. The first (and only) report I received from my research assistant was contained in a long letter which he wrote on 10th June 1994, indicating that he had sent me a “comprehensive report” in July or[?] August in 1991, and that he had written again in 1992. By 1994 he had concluded that the reason he had not heard from me was probably that I had not received the letters. In June 1994 he was able to send his latest letter with a friend who was travelling to London and who mailed it on to me in the United States.

In the letter he describes his experiences. He had identified three villages not far from his school (identified only as Villages A, B, and C in the extended extract from the letter which is transcribed below) as potential sources of information. He had obtained a motorcycle because the roads were very bad and motor vehicles did not regularly go to these areas (an indicator of their poverty and lack of easy access to the city of Ilorin). He proceeded with caution, paying two preliminary visits to the villages. He paid a first visit to the three villages, telling their Mogajis or Bales that he was doing some work and would want them to do some things for me. On his second visit he took along one of his students to improve his credibility. This student was a native of Village C and was well known to inhabitants of the other two villages. On the third visit, he planned to conduct his interviews.

The text that follows has been extracted from his original handwritten account contained in the letter of 10 June 1994 and transcribed.

The portions of the text that I deleted to protect the identity of my informant and that of his student and to disguise the location are indicated thus: [ . . . ]. I have also removed the names of the three villages , and replaced them with references to Villages A, B, and C.


Since you told me of your interest on slave research and I enumerated some villages said to be “initially” or originally occupied by slaves. The villages not too far away from [ . . . ] where I was then teaching, include Villages A, B, and C, to mention just a few along the [ . . . ] side of Ilorin. I started visiting these villages to familiarise myself with them. In my school then, there were students from the villages. [ . . . ] However, there was another from Village C. His name is [ . . . ]. To enhance my movement I got a motorbike of [ . . . ] who is a medical personnel at [ . . . ]. I settled for his motorbike because vehicles does not ply these areas on regular basis. Vehicles that do ply on regular basis do stop at [ . . . ].

On my first visit, I got to Villages A, B and C. Remember, I told you the roads are very very bad. That’s why commercial vehicles does not ply the areas on regular basis. I told their Mogajis or Bales that I was doing some work and that I would want them to do some things for me.

On my second visit, I took along [the student ] from Village C to enhance my credibility. Of course the boy was known in the three villages. In fact, Village B and Village C are [so] close that you find it difficult to distinguish which is which unless you are told. I had to tell them some lies in order to get their cooperation. First, I told them that the Kwara State government wanted to establish some industries and that some of us wanted one or two industries to be sited in their areas. So we wanted to know what type of raw material is produced there and who and who [sic] produce such. You see, I said this, to know about how slaves work or what they produce et al. I equally told them that Dr. Olusọla Saraki was interested in the project and that he too wanted to do same. You should know that Dr. Saraki is well respected and regarded in Ilorin and its environs. So I told them I would be coming back for the interview.

So on my third visit, I took [the student] with me . . . We got to Village A and I told them, I would se them on my way back from Village B and Village C. When I got to Village B, the Bale did not cooperate at all. He was with two of his brothers, all elderly. One of his brothers, called Salimọnu, was indeed very hostile. He [words unclear] and warned his brother not to tell me anything. That if I wanted anything on slave or any thing about the village I should go to Balogun Gambari in Ilorin. (That portion of the village belongs to Balogun Gambari, and a sign post was still standing as at when I last went there in 1991 March-April indicating that the village belongs to Balogun Gambari.) I told them I have been to the Balogun and he had told me almost everything, that I was only trying to corroborate. All my plea went on deaf ear. So I proceeded with the boy to his village, Village C (very close to Village B) but there also stood another sign board indicating that Village C belongs to Balogun Ajia (a junior war commander in the then Ilorin Army).

I think because of their son, and me been his teacher they attended to me. Those in attendance were mostly old women about eight of them, and [ . . . ]’s uncle who simply identified himself as [ . . . ] surname. I was able to ask them some questions which they answered very cautiously. Indeed, they sometimes look at each other or before answering some of my questions.

Immediately I finished at Village C, we took off to go to Village A. I thought I was through with Village B people but I was very wrong. The Bale [of Village B] was waiting for me outside his house along the road. This time around, he was with about ten able bodied young men whom I guess had just returned from the farm. He stopped us and asked me to come into his house. I told him it was better for us to stay at the veranda. He agreed. He asked for all that I have been doing at Village C. I just told him I was not doing anything special, since he refused to answer my questions. Then he said he would not allow me to go. Seen those people around me, I decided to play cool. I sat with him. In fact to cut the story short he detained me for more than one and half hours. Ma, I don’t always want to remember this episode, the agonies I went through (psychologically) was depressing. Here I am, in a place where there exist no police station, nobody except [ . . . ] knows my whereabout. So, I started praying within me, and some other people were begging him on my behalf. Later my consciousness began to function. I started boasting of my birth and family in Ilorin. I remember I told him that I am related to the [ . . . ] of Ilorin. I think this did the trick. He warned me very sternly and insisted that whatever they told me at Village C represented theirs and not in any way that of his village, Village B. Anyway, I left him eventually but I was trembling, imagining what could have happened had it been all entreaties failed. It was in this state of mind that we arrived [at] Village A.

At Village A, many people were waiting for me. They were all outside sitting under the tree. I think they were about twenty, old women and men. There were about four motorbikes parked beside them. I was never expecting such a crowd. I was afraid. An old woman who dressed half-naked demanded from me what I wanted from them. That they were and [?] that I had called several times. I realised the atmosphere was not conducive for me to conduct any interview there. I equally felt that probably the Bale of Village B must have sent to them and that’s why he detained me so that his messenger could get there before me. And probably the motorbikes were at standby to pursue me in case. So with all these, I told them I was very tired and that I would call the following day for their own interview. That was how I left them. But I was not composed. I rode with fears and was speeding thinking they might consider my excuse as not genuine enough and pursue me. In this situation, I had an accident. The boy I was carrying had a deep cut on his head and lost one of his fingernails. While I had a deep cut on my left leg. The accident occurred very close to a village called [ . . . ]. So I got assistance from the villagers. I took the boy to [ . . . ] health centre where he was treated and I also. The machine was [so] badly damaged that I had to spend about five hundred naira to repair it. That was how the whole thing went.


I asked them how they came to stay at Village C. I was told that the village was set up by Ajia on one of his war expeditions. That seen that the place was close to a river [ . . . ] he decided to settle some of his people there.

I asked whether he settled his slaves there. When I asked this question, they looked at each other before answering yes. From their attitude I guess they are of slave origin. (I confirmed this from Ajia Ogbonde at Ilorin.)

On how the slave then worked. They said the slave cultivate land and the produce given to their owner, i.e Ajia. That the locust bean trees around [unclear] still harvested and taken to the Ajia up till today. That they keep some or part of the produce for themselves. They couldn’t remember or say whether the slaves then worked in gang. They say they worked in the farm and return home later.

They said it was the practice for slaves to have a small separate farm called Abuse on his own. Proceeds from such is his and can also be shared with his master.

I asked if they still pay Isakọlẹ to the Ajia. They said yes, and that part of the locust bean harvested each year is still taken to him, so also other farm produce. (The sign post indicating the land as belonging to the Ajia is still there.)

Another pointer to the fact that they are probably of slave origin was that I asked them if they have home in Ilorin or elsewhere. They said, Village C is there home and that it is only the Ajia who is there master that could be regarded as there home in Ilorin. I asked maybe they have settlers from other places. They said no. (All these were confirmed in Ilorin as well.) However, the number of houses in the village are so small. Say about four or five building comprising the village. I asked them about others, especially their children, I was told many are in Lagos, working. These children do come home during important festivals and ceremonies.

I asked them whether many slaves ran away from their area during the colonial era. They said they could not remember but that the influence of their master became weak, though they still regard the Ajia as their master.

On whether they know anything like Murgu, they said no. When I realised they were becoming uncomfortable with my questions and were becoming too suspicious, I ended the interview.

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