West African women and the development question in the post-World War II economy: The experience of Nigeria's Benin province in the oil palm industry.

AuthorAyokhai, Fred Ekpe F.

West African women as typified by the experience of women in the oil palm industry in Nigeria's Benin Province participated actively in the transformation of the post--World War II economy. The role of the women in the oil palm industry in West African societies has not been given detailed attention in the historiography of the region. This study historicizes the process and its impact on the development of the women in the post--World War II economy. It finds that the colonial policies that facilitated and transformed the role of women in the oil palm economy did not only establish, but also sustained their exploitation and underdevelopment. It therefore recommends that the structure of the oil palm production that was inherited from the postwar colonial economy by post-independence West African states, including Nigeria, should be radically restructured to meet the needs of women in resolving the economic crisis in the region.


The outbreak of World War II created new exigencies for Britain and marked the beginning of innovative policies in the British West African colonies, including Nigeria, between 1939 and 1960. The export oil palm industry in Nigeria thus witnessed the introduction of additional policy measures by the colonial government that facilitated its expansion in line with meeting Britain's diplomatic, nutritional, and industrial objectives. The needs of the war led Britain to declare emergency measures in her West African colonies, especially Nigeria. One of the outcomes of the emergency measures was the establishment of centralized purchasing of all primary export products from her West African colonies. A major impact of this development was that it brought about the formal incorporation of oil palm products into the West African Produce Control Board (WAPCB) under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office (C.O.) in 1942. (1)

This means that palm produce had joined cocoa in the league of commodities that was being centrally procured by Britain. This was an indication that Britain had stepped up its interest in oil palm products from her West African colonies, particularly in Nigeria. This reinvigorated interest was the fallout of Britain's loss of the Far East territories, which was a major source of oil seeds supply in the world market.

The objectives of the emergency measures of the war period were, among others, to (1) control the direction of raw material export flows, (2) prevent the rise in British consumer prices of those items manufactured from raw materials imported from West Africa, (3) increase the degree of overall control over the West African economy, which depended mostly on primary export products, and (4) ensure external markets for West African primary products under conditions of military hostility. (2) These objectives came to constitute the objective content of the developmental goals of the policy measures of colonial administrations in the British West African colonies, including Nigeria's Benin Province throughout the post--World War II era. In furtherance of these objectives in Nigeria, the British Ministry of Food through the WAPCB embarked on the procurement of all palm products exported from all the oil palm producing provinces of Nigeria. Thus, Britain became the only export destination of Nigerian oil palm products. The importance which the British government placed on oil palm products from Nigeria during the period can be gauged from the statement that:

During his recent visit to Ibadan the Resident Minister made it clear that the situation at home as regards the supply of fats has deteriorated. Stocks are being maintained at a level sufficient for consumption at home but there is little margin and His Majesty's Government have assumed definite commitment in regard to the feeding of European countries as soon as they are freed from German occupation. Add to this the fact that the dieticians have advised that the fat ration at home cannot be lowered without injury to the people's health; add again that supplies from the French colonies have proved disappointing and, consequently that it is to the British West African colonies that His Majesty's Government must look for supplies of fats--and the vital urgency of the matter becomes clear enough. As Lord Swinton remarked, it is a case of England's need. The position being what it is, we must not be content, as Lord Swinton also remarked, to point to rising production figures. We must do everything we can to ensure that the production figures are the maximum that can be obtained; that literarily so far as possible, the people are reaping all the palm fruits and marketing all the kernels. (3) From the foregoing, it is obvious that the exigencies of the war had narrowed the options available not only to Britain, but also her European allies to the British West African colonies for the supply of fats to meet European nations' desperate need. Consequently, this necessitated the maximum exploitation of the oil palm resources in Nigeria and every available labor was mobilized and deployed to facilitate the process. In this process, Nigeria's Benin Province was formally declared an oil palm belt to facilitate the application of the emergency regulations. The emphasis on export production in Benin Province in the period would appear to have been further enhanced as every effort was made to make the people "kernel minded." This does not suggest that the export production of palm oil was abandoned or paid any less attention. In the period between May, 1939 and December, 1943, the tonnage of palm kernels graded for export across the Divisions in Benin Province is shown in Table 1.

In Nigeria's Benin Province, the export production of oil palm products was the exclusive domain of women. Yet, there is a paucity of historical literature on the role of women in the oil palm industry in Nigeria and the consequences of the post--World War II economy on West African women's development. This study's aim is to fill this gap in the historiography of West Africa by producing a historical narrative of the experience of women in the oil palm industry in Nigeria's Benin Province between 1939 and 1960. To achieve this aim, the study poses and answers the following questions: (1) What were the declared development goals of the British colonial administration in West Africa, especially Nigeria, under the post-World War II economy? (2) What were the implications of colonial policies in the oil palm industry for the development of women? (3) To what extent did the experience of women in the oil palm industry in Nigeria's Benin Province reflect the existential reality of the underdevelopment of West African women in the post--World War II economy? (4) What lessons could be learned from the underdevelopment of West African women? (5) How could the lessons be applied to the resolution of the crisis of development in the post-independence economy with specific reference to West African women?


In this study, concepts such as oil palm products, West African women, and development were operationalized within the existential reality of post--World War II Benin Province. This section seeks to clarify and contextualize them within the operational utility of this study to avoid ambiguities and possible misinterpretation.

The oil palm (Elaeis guineesis) was one of the most economically important trees that grew wild in the forests, bush areas and farms in the Benin Province. According to Osagie, the "oil palm tree was among the most versatile and valuable tree crops in Esan, as every product or part of the trees is being useful and is (sic) of economic value to the people." (4) This fact is a universal one for most traditional societies in the south of Nigeria and same to a lesser degree for societies in the north of Nigeria. (5) In this study, however, the term "oil palm products," is used mainly to connote palm oil and palm kernels. Also, the role of women in the processing, extraction, and trading of these products was very pronounced in both the traditional societies in the Benin area and the succeeding Benin Province up to the post--World War II era.

The notion of West African women adopted in this study refers to the women in the different societies of Benin Province in the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria as established by Britain in 1914. Therefore, the application of the concept of West African women in this study is, in the main, limited to the women in the different societies of Benin Province between 1939 and 1960. They include women in Asaba, Benin, Ishan, and Kukuruku (later Afemai) divisions of Nigeria's Benin Province. However, for the purpose of the generalization of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations, this study also extends the meaning of West African women to include women in other Nigerian and West African societies in both the colonial and post-colonial eras.

The term development is used in this study to connote a social condition within a society. In this case, the society under reference is Benin Province and its constituent parts such as Asaba, Benin, Ishan, and Kukuruku divisions in the post--World War II era. Development therefore entails the satisfaction of the genuine needs of the population of Benin Province by the rational and sustainable use of its natural resources and systems. This utilization of natural resources depends on a technology that respects the cultural features of the societies in a given place. In specific economic terms, development is used here to signify the access of the women of Benin Province to employment opportunities, improvements in working conditions, their ability to satisfy their basic needs and fair distribution and redistribution of national wealth. In a political sense, it refers to the legitimacy of governmental systems not only in law, but also in terms of providing social benefits to a majority of the people of a given society...

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