"LANDLORDS OF ONITSHA": URBAN LAND, ACCUMULATION, AND DEBATES OVER CUSTOM IN COLONIAL EASTERN NIGERIA, Ca. 1880-1945*
Mbajekwe, Patrick, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
Many scholars have explored how property, particularly urban land and housing, became a resource for economic accumulation for some Africans during the colonial period.1 The penetration of international commerce and the imposition of colonial rule led to commercialization of land in many parts of Africa. This made land, especially urban land, a valuable new source of wealth-a development that unleashed enormous struggles among Africans for its control. Struggles for the control of land were, however, more than struggles for economic resources. They were also competition for power and authority, debates over interpretations of history and culture, and efforts to define social identity.2 This article explores the transformations of urban land in a colonial Nigerian city and looks at aspects of Africans' responses to social and economic changes, especially relating to land and rapid urbanization. The article presents a case study of a small family in the south-eastern city of Onitsha to show how urban land became a source of accumulation for some Africans during the colonial period, and to explore the multiple meanings embedded in the Onitsha peoples' struggles over and debates about property rights. In their struggles and debates over property rights, the people of Onitsha were also debating and defining the issues of authority, history, and culture. Members of the Mgbelekeke family or patrilineage in Onitsha used opportunities created by changes in urban land at the turn of the twentieth century to acquire enormous wealth and transform themselves from a weak and obscure position in the precolonial era to a position of influence and authority in the colonial period.
A number of studies of land accumulation and power in colonial Africa have focused on how African chiefs exploited their relationships with colonial officials; how they manipulated tradition and history to consolidate their hold on land and increase their wealth and power.3 The British colonial administration depended heavily on African chiefs, and chiefly power was closely tied to the control and allocation of land. As land became commercialized and its value appreciated, chiefs profited immensely. At the same time, however, debates over the scope of chiefly authority and jurisdiction proliferated among Africans.
The story of the Mgbelekekes' accumulation of land and rise to wealth and power, however, offers us a different perspective. They were a small lineage group that had no authority in precolonial Africa, nor did they attain any official positions in the colonial administration. Very early in the colonial period, however, the Mgbelekeke family recognized the opportunities for wealth and empowerment being created by rapid urbanization, the changing land tenure system, and contradictions in the colonial system. The investigation of the Mgbelekeke family's attempts to exploit the new system offers insight into aspects of social and cultural transformations in colonial, urban, eastern Nigeria and reveals the complexities involved in the experiences of Africans as they negotiated power and authority, and struggled for control of and access to resources under the colonial urban system. The article also shows how rapid urbanization and changes in land tenure affected social relationships and transformed cultural institutions in Onitsha.
Many of the conflicts involving the changing land system in Onitsha, as in most parts of Africa, were played out in the colonial courts.4 As urban land acquired new uses and meaning among Africans, and as the new British judicial system developed during the colonial period, land became the subject of much litigation in the city. As Mann and Roberts noted, "studying legal questions and legal records provides an excellent ... way of understanding processes of change in conditions of resource access and patterns of resource use during the colonial period."5 The courts were filled (and still are) with numerous land disputes, and the voluminous records of that litigation provide an important database for investigating the social history of the city. …