The Ooni of Ife: Conflict of modernity and tradition
THE controversy generated last week over the reported demise of His Royal Majesty, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse 11, the Ooni of Ife, has again brought to the fore, the peculiarity of post-colonial Nigeria where modernity is in conflict with the age-long traditions of doing things particularly in the area of culture preservation.
In what is apparently an information leak by the modern mass media outside the cultural confinement of palace control and the limitation of the gong-wielding town-crier, the news of the demise of the Ife monarch, a foremost traditional ruler and custodian of the royal shrines of the Yoruba people of South Western Nigeria, was broken without recourse to traditional guidelines in such matters.
The news led to some apprehension in the land as hundreds of residents of Ile-Ife thronged the palace to confirm its authenticity. Expectedly, the palace, in a statement issued the second day, denied “the rumour” saying that the monarch was hale and hearty and that he was even preparing for a son’s wedding that was scheduled to hold next week.
But events after the palace denials, even when a definite announcement has not been made, seem to have confirmed that the monarch had indeed “entered the ceiling” as the demise of a Yoruba Oba, regarded as a deity for reverence, is described after necessary rites of passage have been observed.
Reports have it that the Oro rites, a male-exclusive rituals associated with the highest traditional authorities in Yoruba land, has commenced in the town to signal the final announcement of the rites of passage.
Observing tradition According to Ife tradition, the announcement of the demise of the Ooni, one of the 201 deities in the ancient town who is also regarded as the personification of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race, can only be announced by the Obalufe, one of the traditional kingmakers who is saddled with that responsibility.
A very senior source who craved anonymity “because of the sensitive nature of the matter”, said certain rites have to be performed before the death of an Ooni could be announced to the public to satisfy tradition and to protect the immediate family of a deceased monarch.
According to him, “the announcement of the demise of an Ooni can only be made by the Obalufe of Ife. He is the only person authorised by tradition to do so and until he does that, the king lives on.
The position is currently occupied by Oba Folorunso Omisakin “Besides the announcement must not be made until the family of the late occupier of the throne remove all their personal belongings from the palace otherwise the property would be forfeited to the community because nobody would be allowed to take a pin out of the palace once the Obalufe made the announcement.”
The Obalufe’s announcement will be followed by immediate closure, for seven days, of all the markets within the town and the cutting of all the trees to signify that the monarch has indeed joined the ancestors.
The myths about Ile-Ife Although archaeological evidences in priceless bronze and terracotta sculptures excavated from the Ita Yemoo quarters in Ife showed that the town may have been inhabited around 350 BC and oral palace history traced the lineage of kings to about 500 AD, a lot of myths are woven around the town and its palace.
Former Oyo State governor, Dr. Omololu Olunloyo was once quoted to have said that he was first proclaimed as the next governor of the state at a spiritual spot within the Ife palace before it manifested in the physical while stories are told of a former Military President who was allegedly taken to the innermost part of the place to get spiritual fortification against “a devilish political act” against the Yoruba people.
There are also stories of chains that connected directly to the world beyond and doors that must not be entered except a person wanted to disappear and be seen no more while many parts of the palace are said to be inaccessible to the uninitiated except those who want to be visited with dire consequences.
Not only is the town regarded as the first place of human habitation, it is believed to be “the source” where the sun rises before any other place in the world and where the mythical direct link road to the heavens is located.
It is also said that different sacrifices are offered daily to the deities throughout the year except one day that is known only to the Ooni alone.
Chief M.A Fabunmi, the late Odole Atobase of Ife and a custodian of Ife history even went further to claim that the biblical creation story actually took place in Ile-Ife and that the Garden of Eden was one beautiful garden called “Ogba Idena” located within the town.
Ife in Yoruba tradition and history According to oral tradition, Ile-Ife is the centre of Yoruba cosmology because of the belief that it is the first place of human habitation in the world.
In the peoples creation story, Oduduwa descended by a chain from heaven with a handful of sand and a cock, to Ife which was then covered with water and uninhabitable for humans.
The cock was believed to have spread the sand to cover the whole Earth thereby pushing the body of water to one side. This narrative was heavily supported by verses from Ifa corpus, an anthology of Yoruba belief system that is closely related to the people’s spirituality.
Another school of historians, probably because of the dispersal theory of humanity from the Middle East and some linguistic and cultural traces found along the “migratory routes” north-eastwards towards Sudan, believe that the Yoruba, instead of originating from Ife, actually came from somewhere in the East to settle there.
According to this version of history, Oduduwa came with his people to Ile-Ife and took over the administration of the town from the original inhabitants.
His son, Okanbi had seven children who dispersed to the various parts of the Yoruba country to found kingdoms which till this day, still look towards Ife as their ancestral home.
The seven children, including Oranmiyan, the founder of the powerful Oyo Kingdom, were said to possess the original crowns of Oduduwa. Two of the seven kingdoms, Sabe and Popo are located in present day Benin Republic.
Perhaps two evidences that strongly supported these assertions that the race migrated from the east and met some aborigines in Ile-Ife are the “Opa Oranmiyan”, the obelisk in a sacred grove of Ife palace that is said to be similar to other historical monuments in the Middle East and the myth of Moremi and her son, Ela, which not only bore incredible similarities to the biblical salvation story of self-sacrifice, the trinity and the expectations of a Messiah that will “redeem the world” but also corroborated the history of the Ugbo-Ilaje, a Yoruba sub-ethnic group, who according to their monarch, Oba Obateru Akinruntan, claimed to have been driven to the shores of the ocean by the newcomers to Ife.
According to Olu Agbi, a Professor of History and former Nigerian Ambassador to Australia, “Oduduwa and his people met some autochthonous people in almost all parts of the Yoruba country but historians are still piecing information together to reconstruct this aspect of history.
But evidences show that one of the sources of conflicts in modern day chieftaincy tussles is the over-lording of the Oduduwa descendants over the original inhabitants. “In Akure, Asodeboyede, the first monarch met people in Alakunre when he got there.
The Osemawe, also an Oduduwa descendant like Asodeboyede, met the Idoko people in Ondo while the Ogoga met the Olukere in Ikere-Ekiti.
The ongoing crisis in the town today can be traced to that origin.” The claims by Oyo and Benin Although other city-states traced their origin to Ile-Ife, like the Ibadans, the inhabitants of a war camp founded by Lagelu, a prince of Ife, new realities particularly the rise in the influence of the Oyo and Benin Kingdoms, are challenging the superiority of the Ife crown.
But Agbi, in an interview with The Guardian yesterday said “while the supremacy tussle between the Alaafin of Oyo and the Ooni is traceable to the politics of the First Republic which pitched the two occupants of the two foremost thrones into different political camps, the case of the Oba of Benin, is an attempt to rewrite history. “The claim by the Oba of Benin that his crown is superior to that of the Ooni is not correct.
The present occupier of the Benin throne is a Cambridge graduate and former Permanent Secretary who probably didn’t want to see himself playing second fiddle to the Ooni.
That is why he set up his own historical panel to rewrite the history of Benin. Benin according to history was founded by an Ife prince who also founded Oyo.”
In the “History of the Yorubas” written in 1897 by Samuel Johnson where the Anglican Cleric, based on oral traditions attempted to construct the history of the people “from the earliest times to the beginning of the British Protectorate”, documentary evidences particularly of the early days of colonialism and the period of inter-tribal wars tilted heavily towards the Alaafin probably because the historian was based in Oyo and it was not too far from the twilight of the formidable Oyo Empire.
While Jonhson’s accounts may be very accurate about Oyo, Ibadan, Egba and Ilorin history, Agbi said “it may not have been a true account of Ife history which is far laid back at a time that was shrouded in mystery. One thing that is however clear is that Ife has pre-eminence in Yoruba history and religion and almost every Yoruba recognise the crown as that of Oduduwa.”