AuthorJimoh, Mufutau Oluwasegun


In early July 1924, the medical department formally notified the people of Lagos of an outbreak of bubonic plague. The first victim of the disease was confirmed to be a kola nut trader who arrived from the Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana). Further investigation showed that the victim contracted the disease in Sekondi, a major hub of regional trade in West Africa. Though the disease claimed its first set of victims in 1924, the aftereffects of the plague transcend the domain of clinical science. The social and political implications of the outbreak later played a central role in the sociopolitical debates that heralded Nigerian independence. (1) The primary agenda of this paper is twofold. First, the article establishes the nexus between slum clearance and the cantankerous politics of ethnic representation in the post-plague period. Secondly, it emphasizes the need to reevaluate historiographies of urban development, colonial medicine, and the post-1924 epidemic period.

More than any other space in Nigeria, debates over the desirability of public health measures became a central issue over the political future of Lagos on the eve of independence. The fight against the control of the plague altered the physical morphology of Lagos and left lasting effects on the social, economic, and political matrix of Lagos. Attempts to combat the disease generated a chain of reactions that touched on the issues of urban land management, slum clearance, and the intricate politics of ethnic representations in Lagos during the transfer of power. The plague epidemic was combated in two phases. While the first phase involved quarantine and other Western therapeutic practices, the second phase involved urban planning, land allocation and management, and public health reforms.

To achieve all these objectives, I draw evidence from archival materials from two major sources: the Nigerian National Archives located in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria, and the British National Archive, London. Other sources, such as newspapers (West African Pilot, Daily Service, Lagos Weekly Record, Nigerian Pioneer, and Lagos Standard) gave significant insight into the thinking and perceptions of leading nationalists and imperial agents in Lagos and London. This class of documents remains the most reliable source for understanding the nexus between epidemic control, urban space management, and the politics of decolonization in Lagos, Nigeria's colonial capital. This paper stands at the intersection of decolonization, modernity, development, and public health.


Diseases control regularly was entangled with politics of space management to the extent that medical issues became one of the factors that galvanized nationalist agitations for political representation. The Indian and Malay experiences underscore the tremendous impact of disease on the policy directions of colonial administration. (2) India provided a model for other colonial spaces on how a public health epidemic was capitalized on to entrench colonial rule. Public health initiatives became a pretext for the colonial government to regulate political behaviors, social othering, and geo-body. (3)

In Africa, studies have shown in Senegal, The Gambia, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo the connections between public health policies, colonial medicine, and the pressure by colonized people for political inclusion. (4) Of particular interest is the case of South Africa with institutionalized racial policy, public health was a dominant factor in relocating people of color, especially Africans and Indians, they were moved from urban centre to the periphery. This action became a rallying point for sociopolitical agitation. Studies by Swanson and Echenberg in South Africa and Senegal, respectively, revealed the wider sociopolitical context in which medical policies were contested by the people and ultimately resisted. (5) In the case of Senegal, the French colonial authority seized the initiatives with the outbreak of bubonic plague in Senegal to create a comfort zone and pushed for political reorganization of the Senegalese urban space. (6)

In Nigeria, Ayodeji Olukoju argued that the fear of an epidemic outbreak led to the expansion of water facilities during the Governor Glover regime in Lagos without much reference to the sociopolitical underpinnings of such initiatives. (7) Physical development in the global south during the colonial period was not a willing act of benevolence but a safeguard against an epidemic outbreak. Urban planning and infrastructural development were not deliberate policies of the colonial state; rather, they were instigated by the threat of epidemic outbreaks that would hamper the colonial economy. (8) This study, however, argues that the history of decolonization, urban space development, and colonial medicine is incomplete without a critical engagement with politics of public health as one of the instruments and symbols of imperialism.

Peter Marris and Mathew Gandy's works on Lagos in 1967 and 2001 lend credence to this perspective. Marris argues that the outbreak of plague and consequent slum clearance were the main driving forces behind the creation of new urban frontiers and expansion of housing schemes in the late 1950s. (9) In the years that preceded the outbreak of the bubonic plague, the need to redefine the urban architecture of Lagos was placed at the front burner of colonial discussion. Total urban planning and the evacuation of Lagos slums were recommended by experts of the colonial establishment. Liora Bigon, although calling attention to the differentiation in perceptions of what constitutes a slum, fell short of seeing the politics of slum as a prelude to space politics that would later characterize the decolonization period. (10)

The works of J.S Colman, Gifford Prosser and Louis Rogers, Ajayi and Ekoko, and Olakunle Lawal, undoubtedly the four most important works on the growth of nationalism and the decolonization process in Nigeria, expanded our understanding of the intricacies of the political process that led to the transfer of power by the British. These scholars advanced many reasons, ranging from changing the international political environment to agitation by the colonized people for political representation. (11) These works failed to acknowledge the importance of public health and politics of space control in galvanizing the movement against colonial rule and how the question of ethnic politics of representation played out in the post-plague slum clearance exercise. In other words, slum and urban planning should not be seen as issues of physical development but should be studied as part of the wider politics between the colonized and the colonizers and as part of the dynamics of Nigeria's cantankerous politics of the 1950s.

The making of Lagos as a motley urban environment has been adequately studied by Sandra Barnes. (12) Her work brings to the fore how the social and political fabric of the city weaved through several social variables. Though she situated her study within Mushin, a suburban Awori community in Lagos, the work was a reflection of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the latter part of 1950, land ownership in Lagos, particularly in central Isale-Eko, acquired a meaning that was beyond commercial value. It became a symbol of ethnic ownership of the city. Although it was not a new phenomenon, the status of Lagos and the commoditization and commercialization of land intensified the contestation of the ownership of the city. The contestation and the controversies over the desirability of slum clearance and the anxiety over the ownership of the land in the post-plague period fit into the narrative of Barnes on land and status in Lagos. One fundamental omission from previous studies was their inability to link the outbreak of plague, slum clearance, and the cantankerous party politics of the decolonization era (1945-1960).


Confrontations between the colonial state and the people of Lagos predate the outbreak of the plague of 1924. It should be recalled that the first attempt to introduce pipe-borne water into Lagos, in 1908, to improve the sanitation and hygiene of the town was contested and resisted by the people on the grounds that they would be made to pay additional tax. (13) The dispute led the people to form what could be regarded as the first political platform in British colonial Nigeria, the Ilu Committee, to resist what the people perceived as bad sanitary measures. (14) The water rate provided the first test of the British policies and programs, as it affected the economic well-being of the people. (15) A few years after the water rate crisis, British public policy was again contested by the increasingly agitated Lagosians. (16)

The Oluwa land case marked a watershed in the history of African resistance to colonial imposition in Lagos. (17) The acquisition of a tract of land at Apapa as part of measures to improve the sanitary conditions of Lagos and to build a military outpost was resisted by Chief Amodu Tijani, the Oluwa of Lagos and Apapa, based on the fact that the colonial government was not willing to pay compensation for the land acquired. The chief sought the intervention of the court of law first in Lagos and later in the Privy Council in London. The case was decided in 1920 in favor of Amodu Tijani after a five-year legal battle. (18) The importance of this case to our study lies in the fact that Lagosians successfully resisted a colonial policy that sought to appropriate their properties and means of livelihood. Land acquisition in Africa was a major contentious issue during the colonial and postcolonial eras. Public health policies and programs became a major pretext for the colonial state to impose what Michel Foucault called "governmentality." (19) Such...

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