The Kind Of Politics Traditional Rulers Must Play, By Oba Gbadebo
The Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, marked his 10th coronation anniversary, last week. He tells CHARLES COFFIE GYAMFI how, out of 52 siblings and 11 contestants, he ascended the throne, and denies rumour that Egba monarchs eat the flesh of their predecessors before they are installed. He also talks about politics, President Muhammadu Buhari and late General Tunde Idiagbon, with whom he closely worked while he served in the Army.
Did you at childhood have inkling you would become king one day?
I knew that my grandfather was an Oba and that my great grandfather was also the first Alake in Egbaland. I had so many concerns when my grandfather died. He had 52 children. That shows you that every male child among the 52 children or their offspring would be entitled to the throne. My uncle who was three years older than my father became the Alake in 1863, that is Oba Adesina Gbadebo. So, it was normal for us to be called ‘Obalola’ (future king). People called every Prince Obalola. It didn’t mean you are automatically going to become an Oba, No. It was a title given to any child of an Oba. I never thought it could be my turn because of the number of people involved. And as they say, ‘if God has destined you to be an Oba, nobody can stop you.’ No power on earth can stop you, because with God, nothing is impossible.
Did you apply for the position?
I applied. Everybody had to. You cannot become an Oba without showing interest. You have to write an application and attach your curriculum vitae, to guide the kingmakers. You are then invited to appear before them. They ask you questions before the voting.
After voting took place, I got a phone call from the late Solicitor-General of the Federation, Chief Siji Soetan. He called and said, ‘you have just emerged the next Alake! Of 23 votes, you got 15!’ I felt highly elated and prayed to God and thanked Him because it was a fresh start, something I had never experienced before. My security aide brought out his pistol and started firing into the air in jubilation. We were very happy. That was how it all started, and we had to wait for 21 days for confirmation by government.
Isn’t tradition mounting pressure on you to have more than one wife?
I’m not aware of the tradition that says an Oba must have a new woman. The day they brought me from Lagos, they took me straight to Ile Ogboni-Itokun. Somebody had already whispered to me, ‘you have become the Alake; don’t let anyone dictate to you what to do. Dictate to them. Don’t let anybody use any traditional story to bamboozle you. Take only what you want and reject whatever you don’t like.’
So, this story you (reporter) are now telling about a new Alake taking a fresh wife is totally untrue and it has nothing to do with tradition. As for pressure, well, normally we use marriage to cement friendship. That happens even between Britain and Germany, between Britain and France and so on. It happens all over Europe. I am a product of a polygamous home and I do not intend to put my children through what I experienced.
A traditional ruler should participate in politics of development, politics of better schools, politics of good hospitals and politics of good roads. That is the kind of politics a traditional ruler should play, not partisan politics, because you are the father of all, whether they belong to PWD party or AAG party or whatever. You cannot play partisan politics. You welcome all to your domain; you welcome all to your palace. Let them come and say whatever they want to say. You cannot be seen turning away some and admitting others
Has becoming king changed your lifestyle?
Well, when I became the Alake, I told some people that I was going to play golf and the chiefs said, ‘Ah! No! It is forbidden! The Alake should not go near where football, tennis, lawn tennis and what have you are played.’ I told them, ‘there’s no way I would sit down, morning, afternoon and evening without exercising myself.’ I said, ‘I would not take that.’ I just packed my things together and went to play.
Oba Lipede (predecessor) used to walk around the palace every evening. For him to live a healthy life even at the age of 90… Anyone who came to see him and who could not run after him would not be able to talk to him. So, if Oba Lipede, who did not join the army, who was in marketing and shipping all his life, knew the value of exercise, how much more I? I must exercise my body, so that I will not have any sickness or high blood pressure. Everything will disappear with exercise. That was how I managed to escape pressures from people. If I had allowed them to put that pressure on me, if I had not been advised at Ogboni-Itokun that I shouldn’t take anything contrary to my will, then I would have been deceived into doing many things that I would not have loved to do.
What then has tradition taken away from your normal life?
Tradition has taken away my normal going out, coming in, and the way I like to do things, which I can no longer do. I have to be careful what company I keep and where I go. I cannot go anywhere, like nightclubs, or anywhere that is not decent for an Oba. So, tradition has taken away my personal liberty. I have to live in conformity with the demands of my office.
If you look back at the last 10 years, what are those things you regret doing and what are those things you are happy this position has given you?
Well, I did many things with the hope that funding would be forthcoming and it would never dry out. The summer garden in the palace here, I have attempted several times to rebuild it. I have acquired a 150-year-old tortoise and some other exotic animals that I want to put in it, but I have not succeeded in doing so. I’m still determined to raise the level of that garden to be better than what it was before. I have already established my private residence just as Oba Ademola did in Idi-aba, where he went to rest for some days, and just like Oba Lipede did in GRA Ibara. An Oba must have his private moment; otherwise, he would die of exhaustion.
When people come to see you, they come from far and near. They do not notify you that they are coming. I cannot see myself going out if somebody has come all the way from Mowe or Ibafo or Agbado to see me. When you tell them, ‘please, book an appointment,’ they will answer in the affirmative. But they will never do so. I will still see such person because I want to go down in history as somebody who was everything to most people, who changed the cries of people to laughter, somebody into whose palace they came crying and returned happy. I want to leave that legacy. So, it is better for you not to be around at all than to be here and somebody has travelled from far, and you go behind such person and leave. No! I must see the person. So, that’s why my residence is outside. Even if it is for a short while, I will still feel much more relaxed.
Rumour has it that tradition requires a new monarch to eat the flesh of his predecessor. How true is this?
That is the kind of stories people tell. It is totally untrue. Now, when an Oba passes on, they embalm the body, and it is not possible for anybody to take a part of that body and preserve it until when somebody is ready to eat it. It is not possible. Even when they want to deceive you and bring something and say, ‘this is what you must eat,’ you tell them, ‘no.’ I know that Oba Lipede did not eat any part of my uncle who died at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan and whose body could not have left UCH without embalmment.
So, the story is totally untrue. Let’s erase that kind of nonsense people peddle about becoming an Oba. It is the kind of thing people say about soldiers who go to war. They tell you they lick the blood of the enemy to make them bold. It’s all lies! If they ever did that in the past then they had to be very close to cannibals. I believe no human being in his senses would put in his mouth the body of another human being.
At what point or in what form should an Oba participate in politics?
A traditional ruler should participate in politics of development, politics of better schools, politics of good hospitals and politics of good roads. That is the kind of politics a traditional ruler should play, not partisan politics, because you are the father of all, whether they belong to PWD party or AAG party or whatever. You cannot play partisan politics. You welcome all to your domain; you welcome all to your palace. Let them come and say whatever they want to say. You cannot be seen turning away some and admitting others.
Should traditional rulers be given a constitutional role in politics?
Well, this has been on for quite a long time. Even the military had promised to fashion out constitutional role for Obas. I don’t know how they want to do it. We have moved from the era of absolute monarchy to that of democracy. So, how do we now mix it? Is it a diarchy or how do we take out the Oba? Is he going to displace those elected by the people? Or is he going to impose his own will on those elected by the people? In Britain, the constitutional monarchy they practice is one that makes the king or queen mere decorations. Even the speech from the throne is written by government and all references by government are put there by government.
So, unless we want to deceive ourselves with that kind of show, I do not think that the kind of constitutional monarchy they are thinking of will be practicable here. But it’s good for them to say something, Politicians always promise but they hardly ever deliver anything that has to do with kingship, because all the power they exercise, they got from the kings. So, how do they now reverse that trend? When power has gone to the people, and you take it back to the king, you know…I don’t understand.
Should traditional rulers receive salary from government?
If they are not going to be involved in looking for contracts or executing contracts, they deserve to have stipends. If you realise the role they play in ensuring peace among our people, then they deserve to be paid remunerations.
As a military officer, you worked with President Muhammadu Buhari and late General Tunde Idiagbon. What is your impression of them?
I have heard stories that the two of them could be very mean; they could be devoid of human kindness and so on. But it is not true. General Buhari, no matter how tough looking he might be, is very humane. It was the same with Late Gen. Idiagbon.
The day my mother passed on in 1985, the message went to Late Gen. Tunde Idiagbon. He called me. I thought, ‘we just left the office together, why is he asking me to come to his house.’ But I went. And the way he preached to me. He was telling me that we should thank God that we are no longer young, that we also are already having children and that we have reached the age we had attained. At a point, I asked, ‘excuse me sir, is it my father or my mother?’ This was because he didn’t hit the nail on the head. He just kept preaching about being grateful to God. So, for anybody to call him a mean person would be a very false statement. Gen. Buhari and Late Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, in their own ways, were very humane and very sympathetic to the cause of the less privileged. They didn’t create problems for others; rather they tried to solve them. I worked with them and I suffered retirement from their overthrow.
You suffered retirement, what did you do?
I was retired with Gen. Buhari and Idiagbon. Buhari was number one; Idiagbon, number two; Magoro, number three; I was number 14 on that retirement list. If you go back to the newspaper of that time, you will find my name there. So, talking about a mistake that they made, I don’t know the particular mistake you want to put your fingers on. But I know that for a military government that comes into power through a military coup, there can never be peace because some of those who took the risk to chase that government will not be satisfied as to where they are placed or what responsibilities have been given to them. So, you can never have peace until the thing keeps going round and round. The person that announced the coup was General Sani Abacha. He eventually became the head of state, making number three head of state out of the three governments. So, it could be part of the imbalance that happens whenever there is change of government through coup.
Have you been able to reconcile with those who contested the throne with you, including your own brother? And secondly, what is the relationship between you and the immediate past governor, Otunba Gbenga Daniel?
First, those who contested against me, none of them came to me and I turned them away. In fact, one of them is handling the building of our grandfather’s house in Ijeun and I am also contributing towards the building, and he is the one coordinating.
I’m not aware of the tradition that says an Oba must have a new woman. The day they brought me from Lagos, they took me straight to Ile Ogboni-Itokun. Somebody had already whispered to me, ‘you have become the Alake; don’t let anyone dictate to you what to do. Dictate to them. Don’t let anybody use any traditional story to bamboozle you. Take only what you want and reject whatever you don’t like.’ So, this story you (reporter) are now telling about a new Alake taking a fresh wife is totally untrue and it has nothing to do with tradition
As to the second question on my relationship with Gbenga Daniel, Daniel went to my school; he was a year old when I was in form one there. He was born in1956, and I went to school in 1957. So, he never met me in school at all. All students of Baptist Boys High School (BBHS), Abeokuta are one large family. What happened (Daniel’s administration attempted to dethrone him) was very unusual, I must admit, because we were taught to respect our elders. That, notwithstanding, I have forgiven him. He has been here. The Sultan brought him here to see me and we all had dinner together.
Should that be interpreted to mean your relationship with him is still cordial?
We meet at various functions and we greet all the time. Nobody can know that anything had happened between us. You see, when God has helped me out of any tight situation…even his own newspaper reported it and said, ‘Going, going, gone!’ at the time. Then why would I not forgive him? God has proven me right; I am victorious. So, the glory goes to God.
You have told us that your social life has been restricted because of your new position. Once in a while, do you take a bottle of beer or wine?
You see, once you have had your quota, you will stop. When I get to my quota, I too will stop. If you do not overdo things, we do not need to totally cut off. In France, when people are eating, no matter how poor they are, they have their wine. There is wine for the rich; there is wine for the poor. It is part of the meal; it helps digestion, So, I do not see anything wrong. When Oba Lipede stopped at 70 years, remember, he was the first African president of the multi-national Apapa Club in Lagos. He was into shipping…those involved in long periods at sea, and it can be very lonely. So, they have the company of drinks. If at 70, he stopped, that is very okay.
You have worked with two governors. How many governors more do you look forward to working with?
That, I believe, will come from the Almighty himself. He knows the time that He has put for each and every one of us. My prayer is that I live long, longer than the longest reigning Alake. So, I have many positions to catch up with. The longest reigning has been Oba Ladapo Ademola, who was there for 42 years.