IT is a new dawn in Ile-Ife, the land of the first dawn. On Monday, December 7, 2015, at a colourful ceremony attended by the glitterati of Nigeria, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, the governor of Osun State presented the staff of office to the newly crowned Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja the Second. Aregbesola would be the second Nigerian governor to present a staff of office to an Ooni.
Governor Bola Ige of old Oyo State (later broken into Oyo and Osun) presented the staff to Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, the Ooni of Ife, in 1980. Sijuwade, the 50th Ooni was 50 when he ascended the throne after Aderemi who reigned for 50 years. Sijuwade was to reign for 35 eventful years. Oba Ogunwusi is inheriting a throne shrouded in myths and glamour whose impact and influence are of universal consequences.
Ogunwusi immediate predecessor, Oba Sijuwade, was a truly universal man. He was a modernist who understood the centrality of Ife in defining the destiny of the Yoruba people both within Nigeria and outside it. In 2010, I was in Porto Novo, Benin Republic, the port city the Yoruba call Ajase. While there, I paid a visit to the paramount Yoruba oba in the city, Onikoyi Abesan. At the entrance of the palace was a giant painting depicting Oduduwa.
“Oduduwa is our father,” the Onikoyi said. “Ile-Ife is our ancestral home.” He said Ooni Sijuwade had visited him before and he had been in Ile-Ife several times. “Here is home, there is home also,” he said.
Sijuwade took his charge as the Keeper of the Source with serious enthusiasm. He travelled the globe trying to raise the awareness of Yoruba people wherever they were on the oneness of the Yoruba nation. He was tireless in his ministry and he made conspicuous success of it. It was his conviction that Ile-Ife was the source of human civilisation that made him to plunge into the Nigerian project, seeking peace, friendship and understanding. This had made him to be misunderstood in some quarters, especially during military regimes. This was more so as an Oba who has to open his palace door to all kind of supplicants and visitors.
It is worth recalling the role of Oba Sijuwade and his bosom friend, Alhaji Ado Bayero, the late Emir of Kano, during the delicate period of transition from military rule to democratic governance in 1998. After four years in detention, Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections whose victory was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida, had died suddenly. A month before his death, General Sani Abacha, the dictator who held Nigeria in a vice-grip for four years, had died suddenly, too. Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement under the leadership of the redoubtable Senator Abraham Adesanya, insisted that with the death of Abiola, the next President of Nigeria must come from the Yoruba heartland of the South-West.
In the pursuit of getting a Nigerian President of Yoruba descent, Afenifere entered into serious negotiations across the country especially with leaders from the North. The Afenifere team on this assignment was led by Chief Bola Ige and Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation. The Northern team that met Afenifere was led by the trio of Malam Adamu Ciroma, Chief Solomon Lar and Alhaji Umarru Shinkafi.
However, the meeting to finally seal the agreement was hosted by Oba Sijiwade in his home in London which was attended by many first-rate traditional rulers and leaders across the country, including Ado Bayero. It was agreed at that meeting that the Northern political elite would not support any of their own members to succeed General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the then Nigerian military ruler. It was this agreement in Sijuwade’s home that gave birth to the unique occurrence in 1999 when only two Nigerians, Chief Falae of the Alliance for Democracy and All Peoples Party, APP alliance and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, contested for the presidency. Both candidates were Yoruba.
Sijuwade understood the primacy of politics in the affairs of the nation. When he was installed in 1980, it was a period of serious political ferment. At that time, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the dominant political figure in Yorubaland and was lionised by his followers as the biggest personage in Yoruba history since Oduduwa. Indeed, it was Awolowo who tried translating the ancient protocols of the Yoruba Nation that had guided the relationship among the obas and their states into the tenets of modern politics. In forming the Action Group in 1951, he was able to form a formidable alliance between the emergent Yoruba middle class and the traditional elite led by Oba Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife and vice-regent of Oduduwa on earth. It was during this period that the quartet of the Ooni, Alaafin, the Oba of Benin and the Alake of Egbaland were regarded as the Big Four among traditional rulers of the then Western Region.
This basis of this classification has its roots in the ancient lore of Ile-Ife. Among the Yoruba, Ife is the first place occupied by man at the dawn of time. Indeed when ”Oduduwa was coming from heaven” with the pantheon of the 401 deities (irunmole), he landed in Ile-Ife. He was not only the first man; the same story also credited him to be the father of the Yoruba race as well as being the founder of the Oduduwa Dynasty which is still extant till today. Among the Yoruba, an oba does not get promoted. He retains the aura, the position, the pecking order in relation to other princes of Oduduwa at the dawn of time. The only difference is the Ooni who sits on the throne of Oduduwa and therefore is regarded as the father of other princes. He is the Orisun (the Source) while each of the other prominent obas is regarded as the Orirun (A Source).
This ancient protocol has been challenged by some of the princes who have woven new theories about Ife. Some have said Oduduwa was not from heaven, but he came from the East and met some autochonous people in Ile-Ife. Some have also said the Ooni dynasty was actually created after a successful coup by a trusted servant who doubled as priest and who supplanted the original dynasty. What is not in dispute, however, is that among the Yoruba, the Ooni’s position was not created by force of arms or the building of an Empire. His claim to pre-eminence is superior to that. It is rooted in the ancient lore of our forefathers and the time-tested protocols that preserve peace among the Yoruba states before the 100-year Civil Wars of the 19th Century following the collapse of old Oyo.
When Sijuwade came to the throne in 1980, that war was replaced with bitter politicking which soon resulted in the Ife-Madakeke conflict. It was a measure of Sijuwade’s greatness that he was able to use his ancient throne for the goodness of Yorubaland and Nigeria despite the stiff challenges at home and the bitter opposition of some his fellow obas. By the time he passed on this year, he had created a soothing equilibrium that has led to the acceptance of his pre-eminence, even if grudgingly, among Yoruba obas.
Ogunwusi, 41, is starting his reign on an auspicious note. His selection was not overhung by the cobweb of politics and every section of his kingdom welcomes him with enthusiasm. His job is cut out for him not just by what is happening in his kingdom, but within the entire Yoruba universe which looks at the throne of Ife for spiritual and moral guidance. His assignments are many. However, his most pressing one is the position of the Yoruba language in the world today. He would need to devote his energy and resources to the rejuvenation of the language which is facing tremendous assault from misguided elite suffering from Tokunbo syndrome who regard everything foreign, including second hand cloths, as better than our own.
He cannot achieve much unless he is able to rally round his fellow obas and other elite to the task ahead. He should be ready to reach out and break down old walls that have divided the Yoruba people and caused them so much pains and problems. I would like to commend to him the words of a great pan-Africanist: “The African God is weary of your wrangling, weary of your vain disputations, weary of your everlasting quarrels which are a drag upon progress and which keep from you as a people the good that is intended for you.”