REMEMBERING THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHIEF NANNA OLOMU (1840-1916)
BY UBAKA OKOFU
It is on record that among a few courageous paramount rulers who stood in the way of the marauding British colonial officers perhaps only Chief Nanna Olomu of Koko has been accorded befitting national recognition. The scramble for territories in Africa by the British in particular, and Europeans in general was tragic and dehumanizing. Perhaps, it was Chief Nanna’s extraordinary display of extreme valour and war sagacity during the nonsensical British / Ebrohimi war of 1894 that earned the Merchant Prince a prodigious recognition by the federal government of Nigeria.
Before the federal government of Nigeria officially took over Nanna’s mansion in 1979, Nanna’s children had on their own preserved Nanna’s personal estate, particularly his massive mansion at Koko. The edifice which is over 30feet in height with a wall measuring one and a half feet in diameter, and also encompassing several secret chambers was first made a national antiquity in 1979.
Nanna’s children could not have shared the estate of their illustrious war hero considering the rarity of the properties. Little wonder that in 1996, the government of late Gen. Sani Abacha had to upgrade the status of the Nanna mansion from a national antiquity that it was in 1979 to a National Living Museum, second to Nelson Mandela Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Nelson Mandela’s Living Museum stands as a memorial of one of the heroes of Africa and a former President of South African who was incarcerated for 27 years.
Before the mansion of Chief Nanna was accorded the status of a national antiquity by the federal government of Nigeria in 1979, Nigerians, especially those from the southern part of the country were already familiar with Chief Nanna whose historic exploits were contents of most history books.
There are a plethora of reasons for which the people of the Niger Delta shall continue to remember Chief Nanna Olomu and all that the Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta stood for.
Like other paramount rulers of the former Southern Protectorate, Chief Nanna had a genuine fear for the Whiteman’s unusual interest in the coasts of the Niger Delta. To protect the culture and economy of his people, Chief Nanna imposed several strident trade barriers along the coast of the Niger Delta.
It’s imperative to state that Chief Nanna’s suspicion of the British was not out of place. For this reason, he kept a very close watch over the activities of Englishmen and other Europeans merchants doing both legitimate and illegitimate businesses along the coast of the Benin river and the Focados river without minding subsisting treaties earlier executed by his predecessors. It’s worthy of note that the treaties in question had already ceded the entire area to the control of Her Majesty, the Queen of England.
There is no gainsaying that the British Navy was overwhelmed by Nanna’s resistance such that Obaro Ikime in his book, Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta stated that the war was so fierce that Lord Lugard had to travel down from Jebba to the Warri District for an on ground assessment of the hostilities. The historian also recounted that Lugard was awed by the stockade at the entrance of Ebrohimi that he admitted before General Ralph Moor that ‘Nanna would be a hard nut to crack, unless he willingly gave in.’ And true to this expression, Chief Nanna was never taken as a captive by the British. Neither did he surrender to ‘little officers,’ of the likes of Ralph Moor. Rather his eventual surrender was a high profile one having been negotiated by Governor Carter of the Lagos Colony and his friend, Chief Olowu of Lagos.
If nothing, Chief Nanna would be greatly remembered for his resistance to colonial rule. Significantly, Chief Nanna and a few of his contemporaries stood firm during the marauding and criminal invasion of Africa by the British imperialists. Ultimately, the British /Ebrohimi war of 1894 was fought because Chief Nanna refused the Queen of England unfettered access to settling deep into the hinterland and establishing colonial government and control over the people and their economy.
Since 1996 when the palace of Chief Nanna was upgraded to a living museum by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, there have been annual celebrations of the life and times of Chief Nanna by Nanna’s extended family, and in conjunction with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments.
This year’s edition which is the 25th was built into World Tourism Day that is celebrated on 27th of September annually. Highlight of activities lined up for the event included an interdenominational service at the Redeemed Church of God, Koko and a papers presentation, notably by Prof. Tony Afejuku of the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Benin, Benin-city. The Professor of English and Literature spoke on “Ethnic Integration in Sustainable National Development.”
Chief Nanna did not fall into the category of those paramount rulers whom Chinua Achebe tongue lashed in Things Fall Apart for not doing anything when the Whiteman ‘quietly and peaceably made inroads into the coasts of Africa with his religion and African rulers were amused at what they saw as the whiteman’s foolishness and they allowed him stay. But, in no time the whiteman won over Africans as converts. Using his religion as a weapon, soon the people of Africa could no longer act like one because the whiteman has used his religion to put a knife on the things that held Africans together and the entire African continent had fallen apart.