Lagos: The Tale of a City and an Empire

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Urban development of African City-States have long contributed to its proud history of civilization. On its tropical East Coast, Kilwa Koswani developed and flourished alongside other city-states. Kosami, a city-state turned Empire, formed one of Africa's most vibrant and advanced pre-colonial civilizations. Kano, another city-state, has a legacy of political independence and economic success that still holds to this day. In this last blog, we explore Eko’s (present-day Lagos) journey from a city-state to a tributary state inside the Benin Empire, how it survived annexation, British colonization, and how its history as a city-state affects its current narrative.

Established in the 12th century, The Benin Kingdom originated at the Niger Delta in the East and started expanding westward bringing it at a crossroads with existing city-states and governance structures. The Benin Empire had to make a decision to either subjugate the new acquisition by erasing its political and socio-economic structure or ensure its loyalty to the empire while maintaining autonomy over its internal affairs. In many cases, the Benin Empire went with the second choice; one of those was Eko (Lagos).

One of West-Africa's most well-known groups, the Yoruba people, settled in Southern Nigeria, Togo and Benin since the 6th century, previously established and inhabited many West African cities such as Oyo, Ife, Ibadan, and Eko. With their independent socio-economic structures, most of those cities qualified as city-states.

Eko, a Yoruba settlement, had formed a socio-economic structure, a less formal political system, and was dependent on fishery and hunting. Under the Benin Empire’s expansion to the West they decided to let Eko retain partial economic and social autonomy. However, they appointed Eko’s first Oba (Divine King), giving Eko a more organized political system, in allegiance with the Benin imperialist ideology.

It was a politically advantageous decision by The Benin Empire to allow the Yoruba people retention of their socio-economic status while keeping them as political allies due to their geographic spread around West-Africa. Generating conflict with the Yoruba people in Eko would result in conflict with neighboring and cities hence strategically managing Eko while appointing it’s Oba was probably the best political play to maintain peace and ensure alliances.

The people of Eko accepted the new Oba (granted they didn’t have much choice) and their socio-economic structure remained primarily the same. This mechanism allowed Eko’s Oba to tax productions while their financial independence enabled him to control those taxes and re-invest them into the city. The city quickly benefited from a more formal political structure resulting in prosperity.

Eko’s economic dependence had since transitioned from fishing to trade being the only natural harbor for almost four hundred miles along the Atlantic coast. Abẹokuta, Ibadan, and larger cities in the North depended on Eko as an outlet for their goods, allowing the Oba of Eko to tax those goods, control trade, thereby rendering that port far more strategically significant.

Eko was prosperous in combining an urban lifestyle with a sustainable food production stream. Agriculture and urbanism came hand in hand to create a sustainable and self-reliant city; most of the food in Eko came from Eko. The rest of the production was exported, creating wealth and contributing to a vibrant economy based on the city's ability to produce an agricultural surplus, which would be taxed and exported by the rulers. Alongside trade, agriculture was an active contributor to the economy until the 17th century.

In the early 17th century when Portuguese traders settled in Eko and began slave trade in the Eko port, enabling the city to become increasingly successful and independent from the Benin Empire. The name Eko was then changed to Lagos, which means ‘lake’ in Portuguese. The British annexed Lagos in 1851 and declared it a colony in 1862, and in 1906 it became the capital of Nigeria later being replaced by Abuja as the present federal capital. Currently, Lagos is now one of Africa's megacities with a thriving financial center and booming commercial activities making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

The governance structure of Lagos is honored to this day though currently, the Oba of Lagos does not hold any political power.  He is still considered the head of all the Kings in Lagos State, and pays homage to the Oba of Benin. He is very highly regarded among the local community, and locals reach out to him for personal matters.

Historically the existence of city-states proves the importance of urbanism in the narrative of Africa's development. They highlight Africa's sophisticated political, economic, and social structures and showcase the complexity of urban Africa. They signify that a city goes beyond its walls and buildings and extends to its political structure, cultural norms, and economic ventures. It does not take a lot of hindsight to see that cities were an invaluable part of Africa's civilization and why, to move forward, African cities have to be the center of its unfolding story, carrying with it the lessons of its past.