Our consciousness of freedom has evolved over the years. Freedom has meant different things at different times. In the 19th century, freedom was defined as the right of the individual to do what
he wishes without fetters or impediments, as long as it is lawful under the state. Thomas Hobbes and others had laid the framework of the liberal tradition of political philosophy. Which placed a premium on the right to own property, to accumulate wealth, to defend property by arms, to mobility, expression, and political particpation.
This definition did not extend to us, CLR James, chronicled this brilliantly in his seminal book, The Black Jacobins, which narrated the San Domingo Revolution in Haiti, the only successful slave revolt in history. It showed how heirs of European revolutions, fresh from breaking the shackles of royalist oppression, sought to maintain a brutal regime of economic slavery on a people whose leadership were exposed and enamored to the philosophy, ideas and texts of Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Robespierre.
In the 1890s, Nigeria was an odd collection of trading entities which provided specific problems to the colonial administration;
1) balancing the books
2) building a rail network to the ports
3) quenching the bush fires of native aspirations to self governance
4) navigating local intrigues and politics
5) managing health risks for Europeans
To an occupied people, freedom is easier to articulate. It is viewed as the absence of occupation or a reduction of the constraints that came with being occupied.
The story of the Jaja of Opobo is a case in point, born free in 1821, the Jaja exercised his rights freely as he deemed fit. He was adept in the trade of commodities and as most of the trade houses were in Opobo, he effectively controlled the palm oil trade in his zone.
He also successfully prevented Europeans from trading with the hinterland directly strengthening his position as a trader and power-broker. Furthermore, he exported cargoes of palm oil directly to Liverpool, circumventing the trading companies.
In 1884, at the Berlin conference, Opobo was ceded to the English and the colonial army was sent in to enforce the concession. The Jaja of Opobo was arrested and exiled to the West Indies.
Some might argue that Africa still operates in a similar economic context. The issues of resource control, exploitation and pricing are still very much at the fore of African contemporary affairs and the ability or inability of Africans to determine or influence pricing mechanisms effectively will always influence the narrative of how we develop and achieve global relevance.
What does democratic freedom mean to us in a post-colonial context of globalisation? The exploitation and control of our regions’ resources is still fueling coup d’états, wars and regional instability. Our brethren have become our leaders but the high stakes remain.