Bandele Omoniyi – the Nigerian who fought for the equality for black in Europe

Posted by Timige, On 1 Jan, 2021 | Updated On 7 Dec, 2021 No Comments »

Bandele Omoniyi was an unknown Nigerian feat and an African Nationalist. He dropped out of Edinburgh Medical School to fight for freedom and equality for Africans in Britain and British Colonies. Check out his feat!

Bandele Omoniyi is one of the foremost Nigerian activists and pan-African. He was an African anti-colonial activist. Bandele was deeply involved in activism of equality of freedom and opportunity for Africans and all races in Europe. His social action led to formation of African Socialism in Edinburgh and heightened passion for Ethiopianism.

Ethiopianism is an Afro-Atlantic literary-religious tradition that emerged out of the shared political and religious experiences of Africans from British colonies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Personal Profile of Bandele Omoniyi

Bandele Omoniyi was born in Lagos in November 1884. He often referred to himself as ‘Prince’ and claimed to be the nephew of the King Lupono of Modakeke.

But one official report says his father was only a ‘headman of a gang of day labourers at the Lagos customs’. His father, Aina Omoniyi, did nevertheless own land in Lagos and received funds from the government for its compulsory purchase. This money funded Bandele Omoniyi’s travel to Europe and medical education.

Omoniyi enrolled as a student at Edinburgh Faculty of Medicine in the academic year 1906-1907, but gave up his studies in the middle of the year “to devote himself to literary work in support of the claims of his countrymen.”

Bandele Omoniyi lived in Liverpool throughout 1905 and early 1906, and it is possible that he first came to study at the newly-opened School of Tropical Medicine there rather than Edinburgh.

Bandele Omoniyi’s Dream

Omoniyi, living in Edinburgh, consistently put forward a coherent reformist agenda for progressive imperialism, integrating black nationalism and Fabian socialism, to demand continuity as well as change.

Writing numerous critical letters, and publishing as many as four books including:

  • A Defence of the Ethiopian Movement,
  • Socialism Examined
  • Is the Negro a Beast?

Omoniyi produced a body of work that envisaged a British empire where:

  • Black Edinburgh doctors continued to play a prominent role

At the same time as he demanded:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Absolute equality before the law
  • An end to job discrimination
  • Economic exploitation and military intervention
  • Abolition of hut and poll taxes
  • The widening of the franchise in the colonies
  • An increase in the number of African members of the legislative councils

Omoniyi defended the black nationalist Ethiopian Movement, so that a

Renovated Africa will take her place amongst the nations of the world.

(Adi, 1979, p582)

In 1908, a footnote in a book about a missionary skeptically quipped:

His Highness Prince Bandele Ominiyi (A West African educated at Edinburgh University)…claims social and political equality for all adult British subjects in Africa, irrespective of race, creed or colour. He also advocates the fusion of the black and white races by intermarriage…The essential difficulties of the [‘Native’] problem are entirely ignored.

(Wells, 1909)

Bandele Omoniyi Struggle of Equality for Africans in Europe

In Liverpool, Omoniyi connected with members of Ethiopian Progressive Association. Association founded in 1904, a year before Bandele arrived Liverpool. This is the step that brought him first to public prominence.

In February 1906 he wrote to the editor of the Lagos Standard (the most prominent Nigerian newspaper founded around late 18th century) complaining about the lack of West African support for this newly-formed association, an organisation that looked to teach “our governments that taxation without representation is tyrannical”.

Omoniyi’s literary engagement with socialism whilst he was still a student was “something of a new departure for West Africans”, but started a rich tradition of ‘African Socialism’ among Edinburgh alumni stretching from South African Yusuf Dadoo in 1920s to East African Julius Nyerere in the 1950s and ‘60s.

While in Edinburgh, Omoniyi wrote pioneering tracts integrating Ethiopianism and socialism – linking the latter to “the equality of freedom and opportunity of all races.” (Adi, 1979).

Addressing the ‘Labour Question in Africa’, Omoniyi compelled readers of the Lagos Standard in February 1906 to

compare the conditions and treatments of the working classes in all the departments all over the coasts of Africa with those in other places and thereby try with all possible efforts to insure a change of condition of things for the better…

Lagos Standard, 1906

On the improvement of African working-class masses Bandele claimed,

rests principally upon themselves and is mainly dependent on their realising that ‘Unity is Strength’” calling for “one great community for the general good of Africa

Omoniyi maintained belief in the ‘supremacy of parliament’ and reformist, Fabian socialism rather than the more militant interwar ‘agitation’ of Garvey and Nyambo.

In support of Zulu agitation against the colonial rule in South Africa, Bandele Omoniyi declared to fellow African Edinburgh students:

the Empire is greatly absorbed in African questions, which is due to the war going on presently in South Africa

Lagos Standard, 1906

He also said that the Zulu cause “was that of the oppressed resolved to be free”, but was criticised by British officials who used talk of “sedition and mutiny to excuse their own acts of oppression.”

In support of Bambata Rebellion – agitation of Zulu people against British rule and taxation in the Colony of Natal, South Africa, Omoniyi said:

Natives should be incited to renewed efforts for a better national life in no revolutionary or theoretical way but in a thoroughly conservative and practical spirit

Shepperson, 1968

For him, self-rule did “not in any way imply secession from the mother Country” – and, trying to maintain position within the British empire at a time when opportunities were being taken away, he argued that “a true British course will certainly benefit both countries.”

Omoniyi was however bitterly set against the racist “servants of the system” or “the man on the spot”, who was “destructive and despotic of Africa, but also un-British and suicidal to Britain” – in particular the white doctors in Africa who were by-and-large the dregs of the imperial medical school system.

Bandele Omoniyi an African Nationalist and a British Tolerant

As noted by Adi, Omoniyi’s ‘Ethiopianism’ was a common trait of early African nationalists and even British liberals – but it also arguably reflects the specifics of imperial medical labour market, with Edinburgh and Liverpool’s early Ethiopian Associations dominated by African doctors, who pointed out 1902 that

as citizens of the British Empire, West Africans have for over a hundred years enjoyed full rights and privileges of British citizenship” and that “under the enlightened rule of Great Britain almost every civil post of West Africa has, in the past, been accessible to competent West Africans

Johnson, 2010, p246

For Omoniyi, British “talk of ‘the blessings of civilisation” was “nothing short of the demoralisation of the natives by gin, oppression and disease”, and Britain’s so-called “tender mercy for the Black Man” had “taxed him without representation, made him a beast of burden, and kept him in ignorance lest he rebel[s]” – but he did want the British empire in Africa to endure in a ‘renovated’ manner (Edinburgh Magazine, 1907).

Omoniyi’s reformist demands were “only such as must be conceded if constitutional freedom and progress are to develop among the native African people and serious trouble and woe to be averted.” (Labour Leader).

He did everything possible to avoid “a Blackman’s Republic” – an idea that swept throughout a disgruntled black British world in the interwar years (promoted by Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and James La Guma of the ICU – Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union and Communist Party of South Africa) seriously threatening to overthrow white rule.

Omoniyi’s Effort Opened Doors for African Doctors

Setting himself within the British world, a meticulous Omoniyi critiqued colonial officials, setting out in 1908:

I have never attempted, nor will I ever attempt to prove that the British rule is either unjust or impartial. But I have said and will say that the British representatives have been unfaithful to the charge committed to them

Adi, 1979, p593

Bandele’s critique and petition against the anti-African activities of British officials led to opportunity of good jobs for African doctors in Edinburgh.

After being petitioned Alexander Simpson, the dean of Edinburgh’s medical faculty, pointed out that:

the “European parentage” requirement would “leave the door open to French, German, Italian and other Europeans…whilst it would exclude qualified candidates hailing from the various Colonies of the British Empire…such Colonials have done well in their various classes, and have proved themselves fully qualified in their professional examinations, it would seem a hardship that they should be excluded from official services in any part of His Majesty’s Empire because of their parentage

Johnson, 2010, p246

As a Bold African

In the wave of alarming rumour of the white imperial Britain, Bandele Omoniyi had critically defended Ethiopianism as

a struggle between those who recognise their claims to an equal participation in social and political rights with others, and those who for themselves and their order assert a certain fictitious superiority of race, and claim for it as a consequence of causes, however accidental, exclusive consideration and special privileges and immunities, who are being impelled to this injustice and impolicy by the aggrandisement of power, the tendency of the greater to swallow up the less

Omoniyi, 1908

Bandele Omoniyi’s Involvement in Militant Demand

Despite been a British tolerant and a peaceful reformist, Bandele was frustrated into engaging in agitative and militant demand.

The white-dominated British world, however, chose another path. The failure of his moderate, reformist proposals to gain traction, together with the closing down of employment opportunities for blacks, meant Omoniyi’s post-World War I intellectual successors – including Peter Nyambo, and Edinburgh medical graduates Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo – had to make much more radical allegiances and militant demands; connections that reached out across the Atlantic to the international labour movement, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and to communist Russia.

The following Omoniyi’s statements underpin his frustration as a peaceful reformist.

Fearing future marginalisation he warned, prophetically, that

if the present state of things were to continue in which [the black man] simply lives in dread of the white man’s maxim guns, the least chance that he may have will be used in plotting against those he lives in constant dread of, and who can say what tomorrow may bring…

Omoniyi, 1908, p80

Far from ‘ignoring essential difficulties’, Ethiopianism was the articulate response of numerous black Edinburgh students to being banned from medical practice in the British Empire – a response from a cohort of junior doctors who wanted to be successful black Britons, ‘men of the empire’, but who instead became ‘radicals’. Drawing parallels with white political activists in Britain, Omoniyi did

not think that any movement by the natives to support their natural rights can be regarded as seditious…there are hundreds of movements today in the different parts of the United Kingdom to make right what is wrong, and why the natives would not all as a man unite to make right the present wrong is what I fail to see

Lagos Standard, 1906

Bandele Omoniyi’s Death

Omoniyi died in 1912 of acute beriberi in Brazil at young age of 28.

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