Opobo Town

Author: smith on 17-09-2013, 19:00, views: 4 163


Chief Shoo Peterside, an Opobo Town chief, shrewd businessman and politician, signatory to the Protection Treaty of 1884 and a member of Jaja's delegation to Britain in 1887, member of Opobo Town Native Counci until December 1923. His beach at Egwanga housed the Ibibio Trading Corporation Office at Opobo (Source: NAI)Chief Shoo Peterside, an Opobo Town chief, shrewd businessman and politician, signatory to the Protection Treaty of 1884 and a member of Jaja's delegation to Britain in 1887, member of Opobo Town Native Counci until December 1923. His beach at Egwanga housed the Ibibio Trading Corporation Office at Opobo (Source: NAI)The Opobo, as was adumbrated above, had been exposed more intensely to European contacts and Western education, than any other group in Opobo Division. A government report in 1932 noted that the Opobo were well educated for a Nigerian tribe and that:

the educated element dominate the management of their own affairs. Their Paramount Chief (Arthur MacPepple Jaja) was educated in Scotland and England for 18 years; Chief Cookey Gam went to School in Liverpool; Harry Toby, in Sierra Leone; and Jim Shoo Peterside is very literate. They form the majority of the inner Council of the clan heads. Then most of the ordinary people are educated, as Opobo has both the Government and a large Mission assisted school.(Cheesman, 1932 B)


The majority of the Opobo went into trade; the remainder, into the Church and teaching. The situation certainly contrasted with Obolo, then reported to have only two educated chiefs; or with Ogoni, where Western education was then a comparatively new thing - the first elementary school in Ogoni having been established at Kono only in 1926 by the Methodist Mission4 (Cheesman, 1932 B).


The greater enlightenment among the Opobo had important consequences. First, the Opobo reportedly developed certain municipal ideas and a strong desire for amenities like drainage, bridges, water supply, dispensary, public latrines, and postal and telegraphic facilities, bombarding visiting government dignitaries with requests for them (Purchas. 1921; Hunt, 1937). Occasionally, Government responded with a special grant for drainage or for building a bridge.


Secondly, although representation in the Opobo Town Council of Chiefs established by the British in 1937 under the NA System was, as in Andoni, by the House Heads, the Opobo, of all the groups in the Division were the first to adapt modern governmental methods like the ballot, which they used in selecting or deposing the House Heads and the Amanyanabo of Opobo (Cheesman, 1932 B). As the Amanyanabo had considerable authority and privileges, his selection to the office from the ruling Jaja house, such as the one which occurred in 1936 and 1943/44, was characterised by turbulence, intrigues and cabals, and intense politicking among the 15 Jaja House Heads who elected him as the Head of Jaja House - sometimes by secret ballot; as well as among the Opobo Chiefs, who voted to endorse him as Amanyanabo of the whole of Opobo (Smith, 1936,1943; Harcourt, 1944 A; Jaja, 1991: 102).

Thirdly, the Opobo used, advantageously, the methods and language of international law and diplomacy in their dealings with the British. This was best illustrated in their successfully obtaining, after volumes of petitions to, and wide ranging correspondence with, the British and Nigerian Governments, and British and West African politicians, between 1938 and 1944, the sum of £ 11,420 as reparation from Britain for a quantity of guns and war canoes confiscated from Opobo chiefs in the 1889 disarmament operation by the British Consul (Jaja, 1991: 165, 442-457; Harcourt, 1944 A).


Lastly, as in Andoni, the educated Opobo played important roles in community development, mainly through the Opobo Improvement Union (OIU) and the Opobo League (OL). The OIU, comprising intelligent, well-educated, young men, was led in the 1930's by Manfred D. O. Epelle. In 1937, Epelle became secretary of the newly created Opobo Town Council of Chiefs and spearheaded a movement by educated Opobo youths for reform, through petitions to the Council. As District Officer J. S. Smith observed:

They work through the Council of Chiefs to whom they submit sensible, constructive suggestions. They perform a most useful function in 'gingering up' the Council as well as in assuring the Council of outside support, without which the Council would be most reluctant to act in enforcing any measure in the least degree unpopular (Smith, 1936).


As in Andoni, Opobo youths sought to be represented in the Council by six well-educated men; but the Council said it was always willing to listen to them, but never to grant them a vote. Only after the personal intervention by District Officer H. N. Harcourt did the Chiefs concede that representatives of the OIU could address the Council (Harcourt, 1944 A). Indeed, the Opobo youths - some of whom harboured republican ideas - were so far at variance with the Chiefs that the Lagos branch of the League proposed that the idea of having an Amanyanabo is out of date and should be scrapped and replaced by an Amadabo (an equivalent of President), to be elected from among the Chiefs every three years and to be paid a salary of £480 a year (Harcourt, 1944 A). The colonial Government never seriously considered the proposal.


Both the OIU and the League were much concerned with educational development, and, not surprisingly, participated in the heated debate about how the £ 11,420 reparation should be spent. While the chiefs desired to share - and did in the end share - the money among themselves, the Calabar and Port Harcourt branches of the OIU advocated spending the money on educational development. More specifically, the Lagos branch of the League proposed the setting up of an Opobo Improvement Fund with the money, with which to establish a Jaja Memorial College, a fish processing factory and a ferry service between Opobo Town and Ikot Abasi (Jaja, 1991: 111). As it transpired, the self-interest of the chiefs and constraints imposed by the colonial situation largely negated the aims and aspirations of the Union and the League.


Chief Arthur MacPepple, Amanyanabo of Opobo, 1916-1936Of all the early products of Western education and enlightenment in Opobo Town, who contributed significantly to community or national development, the most outstanding was Chief Arthur MacPepple Jaja, the Amanyanabo of Opobo Town (1916-1936). Described in 1922 by District Officer E. B. Wauton as a man of the highest education and Europeanised in every way yet deeply respected and trusted by his people (Wauton, 1922), Chief Jaja was the Native Authority for Opobo Native Court Area under the Indirect Rule (or Native Court) system (1917-1934); and a member of the Legislative Council in Lagos, representing the Oil Rivers (1923-1933). In July 1935, the British Government awarded him the King's Silver Jubilee Medal for distinguished service to the British Empire (Shute, 1933).


Partly due to trade contacts and the greater enlightenment of the Opobo, the British treated the Opobo people with noticeable preference (Richards, 1930). They respected their chiefs; granted amenities; tolerated Opobo's notorious habit of evading tax or paying most grudgingly. Indeed, they granted, up to 1944, the privilege of extra-territorial tax collection; whereby the Opobo living outside Opobo Town paid their tax, not to the treasuries of the host communities where they lived or worked, but to the Opobo Town Treasury (Whitman, 1928; Harcourt, 1944). Government dignitaries on tour to Ikot Abasi would, almost invariably, also visit Opobo Town where the people entertained them elaborately with displays of war canoes and traditional dances (Swanston, 1920). In 1937, the Chief Commissioner, G. G. Shute, described the Opobo complimentarily as one of the most advanced communities in the Eastern Provinces. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Opobo developed a superiority complex towards their neighbours and a tendency to live on their past glories (Harcourt, 1944 A; Murray, 1944).


Yet, behind the facade of Opobo's enlightenment, there were signs of grave social malaise and decline as from 1920's (Wauton, 1922), partly traceable to the abolition of House Rule in 1914 (Brooks, 1917). Throughout the late 1940's and early 1950's, protracted disputes and litigation over which Houses should receive comey subsidies paid by the British Government weakened the Opobo Town Council and hindered community development (Schofield, 1948; Home, 1953). Worse, economic down turn caused by the Great Depression and World War II, inadequate revenue generated by the Opobo Town Council, and increasing competition by neighbouring peoples against Opobo's control of trade as middlemen led to economic decline (Shute, 1933; Gibbons 1935). Everywhere, there were symptoms of decrepitude and dilapidation, so vividly and independently described by two British visitors to the Island in 1944, viz.: District Officer H. N. Harcourt (1944 B) and K. C. Murray (1944) of the Education Department. Declared Harcourt:

For some years there has been no progress, not even a marking-time; the roofs are brown with rust, some houses have collapsed, others are propped up with sticks, others are only half built after years, all the windows in the Royal Palace are broken..., the Island is being washed away, and a mad woman wanders through the town singing of the Consular days; an atmosphere of decay pervades the whole place (Harcourt, 1944 B).


In the absence of fundamental economic, social and political changes for the better, the decline of Opobo Town persisted driving away the best of its educated young generation.

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Category: Ikot Abasi in the Socio-Political Development

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