Mojola Agbebi

Mojola Agbebi
Mojola Agbebi. Source: Cambridge University Library Special Collections

Mojola Agbebi is the native name of the poet and advocate of Ethiopianism, who was born April 10, 1860 as David Brown Vincent in Ilesha. Mojola repudiated his European name in 1894, the year he was ordained as a Baptist minister in Liberia. He frequently used his pulpit to deliver anticolonial sermons, which was also a common feature of his poems, for which he is hailed as the uncrowned poet laureate of Lagos. Between 1880 and 1914, he sat on the editorial chairs of nearly all major Lagos newspapers.

Agbebi participated in the founding of the Native Baptist Church (now the First Baptist Church), Lagos, in 1888. Later that year he helped establish the Ebenezer Baptist Church. An offer of high position from Bishop Tugwell was turned down by him, reportedly becaause of his cherished independence. Agbebi’s aspirations were most reflected in his immortal Inaugural Sermon delivered at the first anniversary of the African Church in 1902. In 1903 and 1904, he toured universities in Britain and USA lecturing on African customs and establishing ties with members of the Marcus Garvey movement. Agbebi was editing at one time or another every newspaper that was published in Nigeria between 1880 and 1914. His pamphlets and articles regarding the unbalanced state of affairs of his people were also widely circulated. He disapproved of the Americanized behavior of resettled slaves in Liberia, and he made attempts to reconcile Christianity with African institutions and customs. Agbebi instructed converts in local languages and appreciation of African arts and music, in consonance with his philosophy that the genus of Africa must unravel its own enigma. His passion will often be carried to the extreme, as was for his 1911 papers on inter-racial problems in which he defended human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Agbebi was one of the first Africans to hold a degree in Civil Engineering from a British university but he was primarily known for his missionary work in southern Nigeria and the Cameroons between 1890 and 1910. Poverty, libel suites, and death of his eldest children contested for his resolve. Waning was his energy which he exerted on his wide constituency. He died in May 1917. In his lifetime, he was romanticized as an apostle of African personality, and Moses Da Rocha of Edinburgh University wrote to Agbebi’s bosom friend, the African American leader, John Bruce, who had created a fictional hero character, The Black Sleuth, that he sincerely thinks the sleuth looks like Agbebi. A mention was made of his “poems, and special elegiac songs” in a call for the creation of the Nigerian literature in the Daily Times of 5 October, 1934. His poems at the time was evidently not in print.