The emergence of Lokoja as a modern Nigerian city has its origins in the African Colonial Expedition embarked on by some British missionaries in 1841 with the support of their government. Its objective was to sign protectionist treaties with local nationalities, convert them to Christianity and boost trade with the British Empire. In other words, Lokoja owes its existence to the role the Niger River played in British penetration into Nigeria’s interior and eventual colonization.
On its journey upriver from the Atlantic, the group, comprising 150 Europeans, signed anti-slavery treaties with Obi Ossai, the king of Aboh, and the king of Idah, and then purchased land at Lokoja, at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers for the purpose of building a missionary school and a trade centre. Afterwards, the expedition couldn’t proceed beyond Raba as 42 members had succumbed to illness and died and so beat a quick retreat, with many people on board already sick, to the Atlantic Ocean island of Fernando Po.
Sixteen years later, William Baikie, the British adventurer and fortune-hunter, returned to the site to set up his trading operations. From then onwards, Lokoja became a focal point and a base for a lot of British colonial activities in the central region of Nigeria. With the amalgamation of the Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria in 1914, Lokoja became the seat of government from which the British Governor General Fredrick Lugard reigned.
Before then the area around Lokoja had been inhabited for thousands of years by Nigerians of different ethnic groups including the Nupe, Gwari, Hausa, Bassa-Nge, Igala and Igbirra, among others. The presence of the two big rivers ensured high mobility of people in and out of the area.
During the four centuries of slavery that preceded colonial rule, Lokoja was a hub of the trade, taking human cargoes from the northern parts of the country, through the river, on the journey to the sea. Bishop Samuel Ajayi-Crowder, who was a freed slave, later joined the anti-slavery campaign and was a member of the British expedition of 1841 to Lokoja. He was to later erect the ‘Iron of Liberty’ memorial at a spot in Lokoja where slaves were freed. Nearby, he built the first primary school in what became known as northern Nigeria.
City of Relics
Given its history, Lokoja is the site of many historical relics. The liberty memorial still exists in Lokoja, and so do many colonial era buildings, such as Lugard’s office and residence as well as the guest house he built on Mount Patti. Lokoja has a cemetery where more than 100 British, European colonists and missionaries were buried in the 19th century. The city also has another cemetery for Emirs and traditional rulership from the country’s north, banished to Lokoja for not cooperating with the British and eventually dying there.
Lokoja lies in a region straddling rainforest and savannah grasslands, some 200 kilometers south of the capital, Abuja, with a temperature range of 28 degrees to 37 degrees celsius. The dominant occupations were fishing, farming, trading and hunting. The modern city has seen a huge influx of other Nigerians, including the Igbo, Yoruba and Tiv, and the expansion of commercial activities with its added role as a major road transit centre.
With a mix of different ethnic groups making up Kogi state and its capital, no one single ethnic group or religion is dominant. Muslim festivals in the city are celebrated as widely as Christian ones. An urban elite of bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, professionals such as bankers and lawyers, live in well appointed parts of the city. The poorer majority live in lower quality housing and slums strewn across the hills and river banks around the city.
All the groups reflect their various identities through festivals and cultural events. The period between February and April features several traditional festivals related to fertility rites kicking off the planting season, such as the Agbo masquerade festival by Oworo people, the Oro night masquerade of the Yoruba Okun clan as well as fishing festivals that feature boat regattas.