‘Why Obas hold Ooni of Ife in high esteem’
Let me start with what might appeared a bit of self-centeredness, in other words, I will like to introduce my self first as a Yoruba man; two, as an historian of Africa who primary research was done on aspect of Yoruba history and a group of Yorubas. I have done a lot of works on Yoruba as one of the African nations that suffered political division as a result of colonial imperialist. The culture area now concentrated on South West of Nigeria is a continuum that stretch and still stretches across the boarder of Nigeria, to the west of Benin Republic and beyond that to central Togo and south-eastern Ghana. So you can add that to the South West Nigeria, the state of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti to the cultural complex that we are talking about. There is a way by which the Edo, the Itshekiri, substantial part of kwara and Kogi are also part of that cultural complex, the Nupe, the Idoma to a very large extent are part of this complex.
When you have that complex, it is obvious that we are talking about a people that are much bigger and larger than is often imagined by those of us familiar with Yoruba of Nigeria. What I have just described is the natural homeland; un-disconnected territory occupied by Yoruba and Yoruba-related people. The slave trade, on the other hand also brought about a very large number of this cultural complex, that created a foundation of critical Yoruba communities in Brazil, particularly the state of Bahia, the capital is El Salvador.
The core of African communities in the state of Bahia is Yoruba, that is why El Salvador, which is a Portuguese name is the language of the people Nagotedo. To appreciate that, just as the name are imposed on an area or people, we became Yoruba at a point, there was a point when we did not have a common name, but the Oyo who are close to Hausa that were first branded by Hausa as Yaruba. For a very long time, Yoruba means Oyo but because other Yoruba dialects are not fortunate to be selected for being reduced to writing, but Oyo dialect got reduced into writing and of course, we may get to what makes Oyo very powerful politically.
The group that was close to the Fon, they are also self-group of Aja, the indigenous people of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey. It is the Fon who called Yoruba, Anago and it is pejorative, it connotes a people who talk a lot, who brag but not as powerful as the way they brag. Just as the group close to the North are named Yoruba, the west, Anago, the people people in El Salvador became known as Nago, so it is in Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, so it is in Haiti, so much so that the Yoruba descendants in the New World still identify themselves as Yoruba, I mean the Latin America. The manner of cultural survival in the new world made Yoruba so well known outside the West Africa homeland.
To talk about importance of Ile Ife, we need to know the importance to what, is it to the Yoruba that covers those areas I just mentioned. The Yoruba are not just one African people. We are the leading African population, cultural group, whether you talk of the extent of the homeland, you must also know that there is a critical Yoruba Diaspora in Serra Leone as a result of a slave trade. Yoruba is among the best and the most researched African people. I did a study of Development of Yoruba Studies in the book on Yoruba history and culture that was published by Prof Olusanya in honour of Prof Saburi Biobaku. I am not sure whether there is an African people that commanded that amount of scholarly attention, whether those in Linguistics, those interested in artistic tradition, political exploits, kingdoms or in terms of prowess as traders or when the modern culture came, the missionaries came through the Yoruba especially Abeokuta as well.
Influence of Ile-Ife as the cradle of Yoruba
The importance of Ile Ife is in respect of its perception as the ancestral home of the Yoruba. And when I say ancestral home, I must quickly bring this to your attention that, the area we talked about is so extensive and the geographical location so diverse that it is not possible to attribute a single beginning for all the people that we have talked about. But in terms of the spread of the presence of Yoruba culture in all of these areas that is where Ife becomes very important. Ife is generally believed, and it has been researched to suggest that it was a centre of cultural diffusion, it is the place where the major outline of Yoruba culture was first defined. If you talk of language, if you talk of literature, Ifa for example, if you talk of the religion of the Yorubas, what Bolaji Idowu of blessed memory called “diffused monotheism” a religion of gods many, about 401 deities within the framework of awareness of high God, that is, above all these deities, that comes under the name of Olodumare.
If you also talk of the artistic traditions that are being exhibited at Museum in Ile-Ife, the ancient town is generally perceived as the home of Yoruba culture.
Oduduwa and Yoruba creation story
We are still talking about the origin of the culture. Oduduwa was the culture hero, in terms of dissection of historical analysis; there are problems about who Oduduwa was. There are two traditions. There is a tradition that suggests that he descended from heaven and that Ile Ife was the spot for the origin of man, not just the Yoruba, it is the point from where human beings originated, suggesting that it is from Ile Ife all races emanated from. The tradition that suggests this is narrative because almost word for word the story of Genesis in the Holy Bible is being replicated here. We begin with ‘the world without form covered with water and then Oduduwa came on top of this chaotic water form with a hen and a bag of sand and let loose a hen, and the hen began to spread the sand and dry land appeared inside the water or water gave way and as the hen scratches the dry land expanded’ which is the reason why it is called Ile Ife which literary means “expanded land”. That is one story.
The other story is that Oduduwa did not come from heaven. He migrated there. From where? Again different stories, some say from Mecca, others say from Egypt, still others from further distance than Mecca. But let’s say we have two traditions, one is celestial, spiritual but we historians don’t deal with the divine, we deal with concrete human situations. Interesting as the story of Oduduwa descending from heaven, historians could have only noted that. We can only note it but nothing to discuss for the historians. What there is to discuss for historians is that he led a migrant group to Ile Ife. The question is where did they come from. Those who say he came from Mecca and that the migration took place as a result of the birth of Islam say they were not Moslems and they migrated to the West of Mecca. That is based on the similarity of culture between the near Orient, the Middle East and Yoruba culture. Dr Canon Luca did his Ph.D thesis on the origin of Yoruba for the University of London, he was the first to propound that they must have come to Africa via Egypt comparing incidence of Language. We historians have examined that, I am sure you must have heard about Cheik Anta Diop, he was a Senegalese and a great Archeologist, the University of Senegal was named after him, he subscribed to the idea of ancient civilization of Egypt was essentially a black civilization, it was a negro civilization in origin and that much of the black culture that characterized the Negro of West Africa went from West Africa to Eastwards, Egypt vice versa.
But a lot of archeological works had been undertaking and one key expert to do a breakthrough in this world was the late Obayemi of Ife, an Archeologist, the idea is that yes indeed, Ife was a major cultural diffusion centre, the place where the culture first grouped and that the culture hero and whoever came with him (Oduduwa) came from outside the area, but the distance of origination is not as far as Egypt or as far as Arabia but as close as Niger-Benue confluence, southern Zaria, the farthest he must have come from. Why? Because one of the major landmarks of Yoruba cultural history is their excellence in natural artistic school, not just drawing but sculpture, the bronze head, such that it has surprised the civilized world, how those artistic traditions, artistic achievements came about and the Europeans that first encountered them thought this must have come from the Greeks, that is the lost civilization of the ancient Greece. The Olokun heads, the Terracotta heads, the excellence was unsurpassable. Obayemi, who undertook painstakingly comparison of the shapes that we are talking about in Ile Ife and those that were discovered in the area of Southern Zaria, especially in the area of confluence, in the village that came to be identified as Nok, the artifact that was unearthed there by Archeologists look as proto-types of what became refined and known as Ife arts.
We have found convincing interconnection between Ife as centre of this excellent artistic job and the other location that seemed to have emerged as extension of Ife school of artistic production, like for example Isie in Kwara State, like the artistic tradition in Benin, like the brass works among the Nupe, in comparing this artistic form and tradition that produced them, Obayemi came with the argument that Oduduwa did not originate from heaven and descended to Ife but where he came from was not as far as being imagined.
The reverence of Ife stool
The historians speak of three major phases in Ife history. The first is pre-Oduduwa; it suggests that the area we now know as Ife was inhabited by human beings and was not just inhabited by human beings but by a population that was well organized. They had culture, it was this culture that is often referred to in Ile Ife as Oreluere, the culture hero of this period was Oreluere, but whatever it is, it suggested that there was a population of people before Oduduwa migrated to Ife. There are lot of indications and glimpses to support this historical fact. Then came Oduduwa group that apparently came as invaders and as replicated almost everywhere in Yorubaland. They eventually displaced the pre-existing group and culture and developed a new culture that emerged apparently as a combination of what they brought in and what they met on the spot. And it was that combination that gave rise to Yoruba culture. Culture means the comprehensive way of the people, their language, the system of their political organization, their social institutions, social systems, and their economic organization, amongst others.
Once the Oduduwa group came, they established hegemony and this hegemony lasted for a period we did not know. But it remained a coherent group, a coherent cultural outline that had clear-cut description. But the hegemony took centuries to be established and on the basis of that establishment that he began to spread.
That comes the third phase in the Yoruba tradition described by the major political revolution in which the established Oduduwa order in Ife was scattered. Some say it was as a result of dynastic quarrel, some say other things but what is held on to is as a result of this revolution in Ife, different hegemony groups went in different directions. And it is this tradition of revolution and the collapse of the established hegemony; it is on the basis of that, that the tradition of different kingdoms emerged. How many were these original kingdoms that left Ife, how many kingdoms that were formed after the collapse of Ife, we do not know.
The timeline in history
There is a book by Samuel Johnson, History of Yorubas, but recently a book by Banji Akintoye, which looks like an updated version of Samuel Johnson’s history of Yorubas. Akintoye’s book is very comprehensive, I think it was published in 2010; he put the collapse of Ife and the spread of the kingdoms at 9th or 10thAD. There are traditions about original branch outs, one is the Western tradition, the Oyo-biased history of the Yorubas which recognizes that Oduduwa had one son, Okanbi, who in turn had seven sons and that these seven sons of Okanbi that were the founder of the original Yoruba kingdoms. Who are this? I am not listing them in a particular order, the Alaketu of Ketu (Benin Republic), Onisabe of Sabe also in Benin Republic, the Onipopo of Popo also in Benin Republic, from the West, then further East we are now in Nigeria crossing the modern boundary, the Alafin of Oyo, the Olowu of Owu, the Orangun of Ila and the Oba of Benin.
If you go to Oyo that is the way they will count it, if you go to Ketu that is how they will count it, but the interesting thing you can see about this Oyo-biased list of the kingdoms, it excludes Ife. It includes Benin which from intent and purpose not Yoruba. Whereas the other Yoruba dialects are mutually reasonably intelligible, but you need to learn Edo before you can speak Edo, it is not mutually intelligible to me for example and further East you go, the more complicated the dialect becomes, Owo is closer to Edo but it is Yoruba dialect. The same way Popo, the reference here is Aja, the Egun. You need to learn Egun as a Yoruba man before you can speak or hear it, but historically this exclusive list of seven also includes Popo another Egun town.
But this is the Western tradition of seven. There are Eastern version, such for example in Ife they will say, there are sixteen original. And don’t ask me what this 16 are because I can’t remember them clearly as that of Oyo version, which includes, of course, Ife as number one and successor of Oduduwa. As you go Eastward just 20 kilometer, Ilesha, the tradition there is different, they will say they are 29 original Yoruba kingdoms but the number expands and expands as you collect traditions that is not part of the hegemonic seven.
I did a study, which was published in 1976 on Yoruba oral traditions and issues on beaded crowns. In the mid 70s the argument that started during British rules on who are the Yoruba kings that are entitled to beaded crowns became a big row. There was this celebrated case where Ooni was brought to Lagos to testify on a case that involved a Remo monarch, I think that of Makun, did he has a right to wear a beaded crown, I did a study and the essential point of that study is that the Yoruba oral tradition like other oral traditions were subject to manipulation, depending on who is given the story. So in respect of Yoruba traditions I have illustrated four or five versions.
How powerful is the Ooni
If you say that Ooni is the most powerful, that is from a point of view. The Oyo will counter that what is it to be powerful. If to be powerful means capacity to wield authority hegemonically, then it is Oyo. Unless you are talking of Ife’s claim of authority, authority here means, divinity, aura of sacredness, I think that is where Ife becomes incontestable centre of the world of Yoruba culture. As I said all the Orishas, their history are traced to Ife not Oyo.
Is Ife then centre of traditional power?
Yes why can’t I agree with you because in the original concept of power, the sacred is more critical than the profane. In terms of sacredness of Yoruba culture, the spiritual heart of Yoruba culture, the religion of Yoruba culture which permeates the kingship institution, Ooni remains the foremost, essentially an Oba is the high priest of his community and to that extent, all Yoruba Obas traced their origin to Ife, because of this, Ife was and still remain very critical in the perception of the Yorubas because of their cultural identity. In fact there was an European explorer that described Ooni as a “Black Pope”.
Sijuwade’s 35 years reign as Ooni
Oba Okunade Sijuade, the Olubuse 11, will go down in my own estimation as the greatest promoter of Yoruba culture. One Ooni of Ife that spent all resources at his disposal, time, money to uphold the sanctity of Yoruba culture and unrivaled importance of Ife. I know for example, during his early reign he wanted to recreate what is used to be known as Conference of Yoruba Obas that began during the colonial period but it was Oba Sijuade who did not only recreated the conference of Yoruba Obas, but ensured that it included Yoruba Obas of historical significance outside Nigeria. That was why he, against all opposition invited the Alaketu of Ketu into the meeting of all Yoruba Obas in Ibadan and enlisted him as a regular member, so also the Onisabe of Sabe from the Benin Republic. Those Obas in the former French colony did not have the sheer luck traditional institution had under the British indirect rule. For the French, no official recognition accorded the traditional institutions but the people still held on to it despite the French colonial insult and assault to the institution, the kingship institution still survived.
For the first time, it was Oba Sijuade that visited other Yoruba Obas outside Nigeria. His first visit to Alaketu, I could remember very well, it was in January 1983. It was a rough road but he went and the immediate past Alaketu was a regular face at Ife. Not only that, he held on to the Yorubas in the Diaspora that I talked about in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, etc where the tradition of Ife is still held in very high esteem, for the obvious reasons that the Yorubas in the Diaspora still held on to the traditional religion. Most importantly, Olubuse was held in high esteem by the generality of Obas in Nigeria.
Though there was a contestation with Alaafin of Oyo, particularly the Oba Lamidi Adeyemi who has held on tenaciously to this tradition of original seven that excludes the Ooni of Ife.
Apart from the unfortunate incident of Ife-Modakeke crisis, if you take that one out, I think he will go down in history as one of the most elegant Ooni of Ife. He inherited carriage of dignity and reverence from Oba Adesoji Aderemi.
Besides, the political class held on to Ife as the origin of culture, if you talk of Yoruba, Ife was held on to by the political class led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as the ancestral home of the Yoruba, though it may not be the ancestral home of all Yorubas but it is seen as the ancestral home of the political class and cultural centre of the Yoruba.