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  • Of Gender, Race, and ClassThe Politics of Prostitution in Lagos, Nigeria, 1923–1954
  • Saheed Aderinto (bio)

I cannot subscribe to the view that in Nigeria women police between the ages of 40 and 50 will be better able than the existing policemen to prevent prostitution. . . . I cannot visualise them dealing with the screaming and swearing prostitutes, drunken merchants, seamen of all nationalities, pimps, boma boys, touts and the rest of the unsavoury fraternities.

Commissioner of Police W. C. C. King to the Chief Secretary to the Government, December 1, 19441

The chief aim of this bye-law [Unlicensed Guide (Prohibition) Ordinance] is to protect foreigners from being molested by Boma boys [juvenile public criminals] or potential prostitutes; but this has been carried too far and people of unquestionable character have been arrested without necessary caution. It is therefore suggested that unless in cases of questionable character and known prostitutes and “Boma boys,” intending arrests should be carefully undertaken.

Nigerian Women’s Party, December 18, 19442


The first epigraph summarily captures the position of Police Commissioner W. C. C. King on the proposal that government should enroll women in the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), while the second best represents Lagos elite women’s stance on the criminalization of prostitution. The proposal for enlisting women in the NPF, which was first broached by the Lagos Ladies League (later the Lagos Women’s League, or LWL) in a petition to the governor of Nigeria in 1923, was officially rekindled by the Lagos Women’s Party (later the Nigerian Women’s Party, or NWP) in 1944. The women believed that female offenders, especially prostitutes, were safer in the hands of women police as [End Page 71] against the traditional male police, who were accused of exploiting and assaulting them. But more important, they thought that women police could best help in policing the influx of women of “bad” character who polluted the moral atmosphere of Lagos and lured underage girls (mostly females under age thirteen) into “houses of ill fame,” as brothels were colloquially called. The history of women police in Nigeria is therefore closely connected to the history of prostitution.

Lagos’s educated elite women were members of prominent Christian families of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Nigeria. Representative personalities like Charlotte Olajumoke Obasa, Oyinkan Abayomi, and Kofoworola Ademola, among others, received a Western education in disciplines ranging from music, law, and social science, to education, nursing, and journalism, in both Nigeria and the United Kingdom.3 They broke notable barriers and taboos characteristic of the Victorian and post-Victorian era. For instance, Ademola was the first African woman to attend and receive a degree from the University of Oxford, in 1933.4 Five years later the Lagos press gave wide publicity to the achievement of Dr. Elizabeth Akerele, “the first full-blooded Nigerian lady” to qualify as a medical doctor and surgeon.5 Not all the women were born or raised in Nigeria. Henrietta Millicent Douglas, a black woman, journalist, and pan-Africanist from Grenada who relocated to Nigeria in 1939, played a significant role in Lagos sexual politics in the 1940s as the secretary of the Women’s Welfare Council (WWC), the umbrella body of elite women’s associations.6 Elite Lagos women organized themselves into voluntary associations such as the LWL, the WWC, and the NWP, founded in 1901, 1942, and 1944 respectively. They campaigned vigorously against the British colonial-ists’ lack of interest in girls’ education.7 For them education was the pathway to the social and economic advancement of African women.8 Their agitation paved the way for the establishment of Queen’s College, the first government girls’ secondary (high) school, in 1927.9 The LWL clamored for the enrollment of women in the colonial service, condemned the practice of giving European women (mostly wives of colonial administrators) jobs that African women could successfully undertake, and demanded equal pay for men and women.10

A careful reading of the archives produced by the LWL, the WWC, and the NWP aid interpretation of how social and educational status influenced attitudes toward casual sex work. First, the elite women viewed prostitution as a profession of uneducated, poor...


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