Asiwaju: why contestation for supremacy among yoruba Obas will linger

Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, Alake of Egbaland.

Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, Alake of Egbaland.

For Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Lagos, Anthony Asiwaju, contestation for supremacy among and between Yoruba Obas will continue to linger because of the politicisation of Yorubaland’s oral tradition. Asiwaju, who turns 77 on April 27, in this interview with The Guardian at his Imeko, Ogun State residence gave an historical and deep scholarly insight into the recent debate between the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo and the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona and advised the Yoruba Obas to be humble enough to read and learn more about their history, beyond what is traditionally transmitted in the local courts and palaces. MUYIWA ADEYEMI (Head South West Bureau) reports.

Why has supremacy tussle among Yoruba Obas become a recurring decimal?
A recurring decimal, indeed! The controversy was ignited early during European colonial rule. It all started when the British authorities tried using the Obaship institution to achieve in Yorubaland what their so-called Indirect Rule system was attaining for them in the Northern Emirates of Nigeria. The encounter with a bewildering number of traditional rulers in several parts of Yorubaland caused the colonial authorities to inquire after who is who among them. And since they had come to know that Ile-Ife is the commonly acclaimed ancestral home of most of the claimants, the Ooni of Ife became the point of reference.

The British were also informed of the Old Oyo Empire, hence their use of the Alaafin to erect the artefact that has been aptly styled the ‘New Oyo Empire,’ which in the heydays of indirect rule in western Nigeria, comprised the combined areas of present-day Oyo and Osun States.

The European enquiries of the colonial period, contained in the wide-ranging Intelligence Reports that eventually became useful source of materials for a more scientific historical research, introduced us to the reason for the controversy and its interminable nature. It is that the main source of the history on which the claims and counter-claims are rested is oral and when, as in the subject under discussion, the concern is about power and power relations, oral traditions become especially contentious and highly politicised.

Can you elaborate on this?
My thoughts on the subject were first polled together in a 1975 scholarly study, titled ‘Political Motivation and Oral Tradition in Africa: The Case of Yoruba Beaded Crowns,’ published in Africa (Quarterly Journal of International Africa Institute – IAI, London), 46, 2, 113 – 127. It touches on the contending issues of the number of what we may call foundation or pioneer ‘beaded crowns’ and their hierarchy. The publication elaborates on the inherent nature of the debate and the pragmatic character of state policy.

Take first the issue of endless debate, relating to the number of foundation-beaded crowns. The current claim by the Alake, paramount ruler of Egbaland, sharply contradicted by the Awujale of Ijebuland, was about the so-called ‘big five:’ Ooni of Ife, Alaafin of Oyo, Oba of Benin, the Alake and the Awujale in that hierarchical order.

The point in this claim and counter-claim is that both sides conveniently ignored a pre-existing popular list of the principal seven in Samuel Johnson’s admittedly Oyo-biased History of the Yorubas (CMS, 1921), namely: the Olowu of Owu, Alaketu of Ketu, the Onisabe of Sabe, the Orangun of Ila, the Oba of Benin, the Onipopo of Popo and the Alaafin of Oyo. You can see that this more widely circulated alternative list excludes not only the Alake and the Awujale, the two protagonists in the current debate; it also does not include the Ooni of Ife, whose visit to the Alake sparked off the debate.

My 1975 publication had indicated other lists in accordance with the perspectives in other competing Yoruba Oral Traditions, e.g. the Ife and the Ekiti versions of 16, though of different details, and the 29 of the Ijesa. It may serve some purpose to recall here the well-known life-long contestation for supremacy between the immediate past Ooni of Ife, Oba Sijuade Olubuse and the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, based on the contrast between the different oral historical perspectives.

Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, Awujale of the Ijebu Kingdom.

Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, Awujale of the Ijebu Kingdom.

In all of this, how do we locate the Alake of Egbaland and Awujale of Ijebuland?
This question relates to the issue of categorisation, if not ranking, which is not less contentious in the sources. But there is a point in the Awujale’s comment regarding the probability of some of the ‘beaded crowns’ being primary and others of secondary derivation. Thus, for example, we know of a fact that the hallowed stool of today’s Alake of Egbaland was originally derived from Ketu, the ancient Yoruba Kingdom, now in the Republic of Benin. This view is based on the unanimity of the oral traditions, as recorded in Ketu and Ake itself (See E. Geoffrey Parrinder, The Story of Ketu, 1956, and Saburi Biobaku, The Egba and Their Neighbours, 1957).

Of course, the Ketu connection in reference predated the Abeokuta phase of Egba history, where the stool was a resuscitation of 1854, thanks to the prodding and encouragement of the Christian missionaries and officials of the British Crown, who followed them there. By reason, therefore, of the common agreement of the Ketu and Ake oral tradition, the Alake dynasty is arguably a secondary derivation from the Alaketu, which may be reasonably viewed, as one of the originally few Yoruba Obas of direct descendant from the Yoruba ancestral home of Ile-Ife.

The present Alaketu of Ketu, Oba Basil Adiro Alade-Ife rehashed this point during an elaborate reception organised for him by the Ogun State Government in Abeokuta on June 6, 2006. The statement came as a response to an assertion made at the same occasion by the Alake of Egbaland, to the effect that the visiting Alaketu is his ‘son’, whereas the boot was on the other foot of the enshrined genealogy of the Yoruba monarchical institution.

On the other hand, the Awujale would appear to have held sway as the primary monarch of the ancient Ijebu Kingdom over the entire period that dates back to the arrival of the Oduduwa group led by Obanta or Olu Iwa, acclaimed founder of the dynasty, from Ile-Ife via an eastern route through the same Rain Forest, where the founders of Ondo and related kingdoms of Ile-Oluji and Idanre settled.

What would you say about the Ijebu in this order?
Bearing in mind the aforementioned observations, I should say the Awujale dynasty and the masses of the Ijebu are definitely a part of the larger Yoruba cultural complex, and the statement credited to the Awujale, in terms of origination of the dynasty from Wadai in present-day Republic of Sudan, west of Borno, does not contradict this obvious fact. After all, Samuel Johnson, Olumide Lucas (see his The Religion of the Yorubas… Especially in Relation to the Religion of Ancient Egypt, CMS 1948) and even Biobaku are known to have argued, though controversially, for an origination in the remotest period of history from ancient Egypt and even Saudi Arabia.

There have been stories about the migratory route passing through Nubia, Wadai, Borno and Kwararafa, a routing that formed the basis of some belief in the historical connection between Yoruba-speaking peoples on the one hand and, on the other, such other peoples as the Nubians in Southern Sudan, the Kanuri (issues of the Gogobiri legend) and the Kwararafa, particularly the stool of the Aku of Wukari. There are similar legends connecting the Kisra migration stories and the foundation of traditional ruling elites of the Bariba of Borgu with the Odudua legendary migration from ‘the East’ to Ile Ife.

Is there any established research work that supports Awujale’s Wadai claim of origination of the Ijebus?
I have already made pertinent allusions to the Wadai claim of the origination, not of the Ijebu, but more specifically the Awujale dynasty. I have suggested that the Awujale’s claim to Wadai origination was probably in reference to the controversial school of thought, pioneered by Johnson and Lucas, regarding Eastern origination of the Yoruba culture. I have emphasised repeatedly that our focus in this interview is on the Yoruba ruling dynasties, not necessarily on the larger history of the people themselves.

With regards to the people, in this case the Ijebu sub-group of the Yoruba-speaking cultural complex, reference has been made to the historical integration or fusion of the pre-Obanta or pre-Odudua Agemo stock with the in-coming Oduduwa elements, founders of the Awujale dynasty. It is in this connection that Oba Sikiru Adetona, the esteemed Awujale of Ijebuland, has made reference to the Ijebu as a distinct, if not a distinguished Yoruba sub-group and cited the book on The Ijebu of Yorubaland by Professor E.A. Ayandele, a highly renowned Nigerian historian. One other work of distinction on the Ijebu is Ijebu Under Colonial Rule by Tunde Oduwobi, Senior Lecturer at the University of Lagos.

Are you saying the Awujale throne cannot be separated from the Oduduwa Stock?
Yes. It is part and parcel of the Oduduwa hegemonic penetration that changed the historical dynamics of Yorubaland.

Does that mean the Awujale’s crown is older than that of the Alake’s?
Yes, if the reference is to the Alake in the Abeokuta phase of Egba history. Okukenu, the first Alake in Abeokuta, the great ancestor of Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo, Okukeni IV, was enthroned only in 1854, 24 years after the foundation of the Egba metropolis, thanks to the encouragement of the Christian Missionaries and visiting agents of the British Crown.

The Alake’s throne at the Ake homestead in the historic Egba Forest was technically abrogated, like virtually those of the other Yoruba Obas, following the turbulence of the infamous 19th Century Wars that led to the destruction of most of the pre-existing Yoruba ancestral cities and kingdoms, including Ile-Ife, Old Oyo, Owu, Ketu, Sabe and Ila among others and wide-spread ascendancy of the military class all over Yorubaland, including Ijebu Ode and wider area of the Ijebu Kingdom, where, for quite a while, military personages such as Balogun Kuku and Onafowokan eclipsed the Awujale and the Ijebu civil order.

In light of this inherently interminable tussle among Yoruba Obas, which threatens the unity of the land and the people, what suggestions would you offer?
My first suggestion is for Yoruba royal fathers to be sensitive to the vulnerability of historical sources on which their titles and positions are based and the need, therefore, for them to be more cautious in their public pronouncements. This is especially important, if the concern is the promotion of unity across the entire culture area in Nigeria and, why not even across the border in the Republic of Benin and beyond?

In this important regard, I would urge that revered Yoruba Obas be humble enough to read and learn more about their constituents’ history, beyond what is traditionally transmitted in the local courts and palaces.

Personally, I think it is significant that the latest outburst on the supremacy tussle, the Awujale’s understandable tirade against the Alake, was during the fund-raising for the Chair of Governance at the Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), in honour of Oba Sikiru Adetona, the Awujale and ‘Orisa Ijebu’. The event, including the statement by the Awujale, as well as the keynote by the venerable Professor Akin Mabogunje and the intervention of the Emir of Kano and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Alhaji Lamido Sanusi Lamido, all point to critical issues of governance in Nigeria.

Professor Mabogunje’s keynote was focused on the deplorable state of Local Governments, which coincided with Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State’s announcement that his administration is resolved to increase the number of Local councils in the state from 20 to 57. The Emir of Kano’s intervention hammered on the budget implications of the over-sized Federal Government bureaucracy.

The presence of the Awujale and other traditional rulers, including the Emir, at the occasion, aside the Awujale’s statement under discussion, clearly attested to yet another fundamental challenge to governance in Nigeria, namely: the contradiction in what I once referred to as ‘a republic of thousand kings’.

All together, there is an underscoring of the pertinence and relevance of the Oba Sikiru Adetona Chair of Governance at the OOU.



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