George Padmore 1938

West Africans, Watch Your Land

Source: International African Opinion, Vol. 1, No. 3, September 1938;
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for 2007, with thanks to Marika Sherwood.

Communal Land Tenure

Because West Africa was known as the white man’s grave, the native inhabitants have until now been spared the worst depredations of British Imperialism. The malarial climate, and the absence of highlands saved the people from land alienation.

Allotments are cultivated in conformity with certain prescribed laws and customs, and their sale to foreigners is prohibited. On the Gold Coast the chiefs allot land to the heads of households.

A communal land tenure system has precluded concession-holders, and has given rise to an indigenous peasantry. Gold Coast agriculture is restricted almost entirely to cocoa. Palm oil is the premier product of Nigeria, which produces also ground nuts and cocoa. The production of exportable crops occupies the peasants almost completely. Thus even most of their ordinary staples, tools and manufactured goods have to be bought at European stores.

Although the West African natives have so far been spared from the “proletarianising” which has overtaken the Bantu peoples of South and East Africa, British imperialists, despite climatic handicaps have not failed to squeeze the peasants as producers and consumers. By combining into “buying pools” and “selling rings,” they have on the one hand depressed the prices paid to the peasants for their products, and on the other maintained at arbitrary levels the cost of the goods the natives are obliged to purchase from the stores.

In many instances buyer and seller are one, so that when, under pressure of strikes or hold-ups, they are forced to increase the prices paid to the peasants for their agricultural commodities, they correspondingly increase the price of manufactured goods. A consequence of this double extortion was the combined cocoa hold-up and boycott of imported goods which occurred on the Gold Coast last winter. As a result of this strike, Unilever’s West African subsidiary (United African Company), prime instigator of the pool, lost 1,000,000. Yet, because of its wide interests, the company could declare a profit of 1,811,099, 374,073 increase over the previous year; dividend was improved from 10 to 11 percent.

Not satisfied with such handsome profits, Unilever is anxious to eliminate the peasant, and by monopoly production on a plantation system, reduce the natives to wage slavery. Thus, Lord Leverhulme some years ago tried to obtain concessions in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, second to Nigeria in palm oil production. Sir Hugh Clifford, the then Governor of Nigeria, informed him that the land belonged to the people and any disturbance of the tenure would precipitate revolt. Leverhulme then turned to Central Africa, and obtained a concession of 1,800,000 acres in the Belgian Congo, where his Huileries du Congo Belge established extensive plantations on the system practised in Dutch Sumatra, with whose products he is successfully competing.

These plantations form an enclave 75 miles in diameter, and break into the native villages, whose interests have been entirely disregarded. Whole communities have been forced into the service of the company, to whom they are obliged to forfeit their products. There have also been forceful confiscations of the natives’ own crops on the false pretext that these have been stolen from the company’s concessions. Thus, out of the misery of thousands of native toilers, is produced the soap which retains “that schoolgirl complexion.”

But the Congo is not wide enough for Unilever. Eyes still upon the West coast, the combine has managed, through United Africa Company, to establish the N’dian estate in the Cameroons, which is administered by the Nigerian Government under a mandate. This 7,000-acre plantation is an experimental one, and its staff works in close collaboration with the Department of Agriculture of Nigeria. For the present Governor, Sir Bernard Bourdillon, looks more favourably than his predecessor upon the Leverhulme schemes. In his 1938 Annual Address to the Legislative Council, Sir Bernard pays tribute to the assistance which the N’dian estate has given and the service it has rendered in supplying seeds and seedlings to the Government.

An insidious propaganda is aiming at the industrialisation of the palm industry. West Africa, (July 9, 1938), mouthpiece of British vested interests in West Africa, declares that “organized plots on plantation lines will have to be provided unless a more co-operative spirit is induced in the native producer,” which can be translated if the African peasant will not accept the impossible prices United African and other companies offer, vested interests will push for a change in the land tenure system. As West Africa has bluntly put it, the present land tenure system does not hold out much promise for them (the companies). “It is definitely unhelpful if a scheme of improvement of the oil palm is being considered.”

So the Leverhulme Trust has appointed a commission comprising certain reactionary Members of Parliament with imperial interests, namely Col. J. Sandeman Allen (Member of the Council of the Joint East African Board); Mr. E. Clement Davies, K.C. (member of the Colonial Empire Marketing Board and a director of the Unilever group of companies!), and Mr. C. G. Ammon, M.P. The chairman is Dr. L. Haden Guest, and it is a shameful thing that the Labour Party, of which he and Mr. Ammon are Parliamentary Members, cannot discipline its members so that they will not associate themselves with openly imperialist commissions, or publicly censure them if they do. How can the Labour Party expect the colonial peoples to have any faith in the British working-class movement when it sees responsible members allying with the imperialist class to exploit them?

The Leverhulme Commission is to investigate, study and report on the British West African colonies generally, but in particular it is to investigate “the present system of land tenure and its effect on agricultural development with a view to indicating what system is likely to be most advantageous for the fullest development of the inhabitants and the land.”

“The inhabitants of the land” will cynically discount the solicitude for their welfare expressed by those who have been foremost in exploiting them, and must be on their guard against even a suggestion from such quarters that their system of land tenure requires investigation. They must oppose any hint at change, for while Imperialism exists they must jealously watch the rights they have, and the communal ownership of the land is one to which they should cling.

The money economy which has been introduced into West Africa has created a landlordism which has benefited only a few. The masses of the people are being strangled by monopoly capitalism. When the chiefs are willing to associate themselves with the peasants against monopoly interests, the people should accept their assistance and be loyal to them. The moment, however, the chiefs subordinate the people’s interests to their own and show the least sign of collaborating with the exploiters, the people must denounce them also as agents of the capitalists and traitors to their country. The West Africans have before them the example of the Omanhene of Akropong who signed the quota agreement with the European cocoa buyers against the wishes of the Akropong farmers, who, alive to this treachery, have passed a vote of censure upon the chief through the Native Council.

West Africans must unite to protect their land rights against the imperialist aggressors. West Africans, watch Unilever!