Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Jaja and Nana in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Proto-Nationalists or Emergent Capitalists

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Jaja and Nana in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Proto-Nationalists or Emergent Capitalists

Article excerpt


The extant literature on the evolution of nationalism in Nigeria generally portrays King Jaja of Opobo and Governor Nana Olomu of Itsekiri as pioneers of the nationalist struggles against British imperialism in the Niger Delta. This paper, however, argues that the resistance of Jaja and Nana were basically meant for the protection of their personal economic interests and that the narrow pursuits of profit cannot constitute the effective beginning of nationalist ferment in Nigeria. Thus, Jaja and Nana's greatest national significance lies in their roles as Nigeria's first modern capitalists and entrepreneurial giants rather than as proto-nationalists. This study thus articulates and critiques their influence via nineteenth century proto-nationalists biographical assumptions by pointing illustrating the contradictions in historical portraits that slant towards proto-nationalism rather than commercial enterprises, thereby, raising important issues in Nigeria's nationalist historiography.

Keywords: Proto-nationalism, emergent capitalists, entrepreneurship and palm oil trade


The present corpus of Nigerian biographical research tends to focus mainly on the lives of leading Nigerian political figures (Osuntokun 1978; Cookey 1974; Arifalo and Ogen 2006:2). This over-concentration on political biographies is so pronounced to the extent that a number of Nigeria's pre-colonial commercial heroes and entrepreneurial gurus in the Niger Delta, such as King Jaja of Opobo and Governor Nana Olomu of Itsekiri have been wrongly classified and portrayed as proto-nationalists, rather than business gurus. Indeed, as far as Nigerian nationalist historiography is concerned, Jaja and Nana were among the first set of nationalists in precolonial Nigeria (Ikime 1980:276; Onabamiro 1983:56; Fajana and Biggs 1976:137). The present study, however, contends that contrary to the widespread claim that these distinguished personalities were proto-nationalists, they were instead, simply super merchants and prescient business strategists.

In this study, traditional or proto-nationalism within the pre-colonial African setting is conceptualized as the series of movements or resistance by Africans to the various attempts by European powers to penetrate and occupy pre-colonial African states. It was the earliest form of resistance to alien political control. In this respect, proto-nationalism is quite different from modern nationalism which entails sentiments, activities and organizational developments aimed explicitly at the attainment of the independence of colonial territories (Coleman 1983:169-70). With this conceptualization, it appears difficult to fittingly situate fierce struggles that were borne out of the desire to protect personal business interests within the theoretical trajectory of proto or modern nationalism.

Indeed, this work is not simply interested in the biographical sketches of Jaja and Nana as outstanding historical figures. Its primary focus is on their contributions to the development of capitalism and indigenous entrepreneurship in Nigeria. Consequently, the study underscores the considerable ability with which Jaja and Nana organized their commercial enterprises and enormous wealth, and further argues that there is little evidence to suggest that they actually opposed the imposition of colonial rule. As a matter of fact, rather than outright colonial resistance, what they fervently fought against were the clauses that granted free access to British traders in their territories. Apparently, their resistance emanated from their desire to protect their trading monopolies at all cost. In fact, they admitted that they were willing to relinquish the sovereignties of their respective states if only the British would allow them to retain their trading monopolies (Ogen 2006:24; Pedler 1974:76-77). Thus, as far as the literature on Jaja and Nana are concerned, this biographical study represents a historiographical revision of the prevailing view on the evolution of nationalist consciousness in Nigeria. …

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