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Late Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade: An era ends

Today marks the end of an era in Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba. The ancient town will be united in mourning and celebration of the passage of the Oonirisa Adimula, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse 11. The body of the Arole Oduduwa will be interred in the Tombs of Owooni, amid the chanting of the cognomen of his ancestors, and to the admiration of the gods. Only few traditional wise men will witness the funeral, which will be shrouded in secrecy. They will include some chiefs, selected symbols of sacred societies, custodians of traditions and other ancient fathers of secrets.

Traditionally, it is also a historic moment in Yorubaland. The Ooni is the keeper of the Household of Oduduwa, the progenitor. Thus, the attention of monarchs in Oyo, Oke-Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Ijebu, Remo, Ikale, Ilaje, Ekiti, Akoko, Ijesa, Egba, Igbomina/Ebolo, Awori, Sabe and Popo will focus on Ife, their orirun (roots) and symbol of racial unity.

Historically, all Oonis were colourful. Before they ascended the throne, they were perceived as first class princes. Apart from Oduduwa, the founder of the race, others who have made impact when they reigned as Owoni included Oranmiyan Akinorun, the founder of Oyo Empire, Obalufon Alayemore, who left Ile-Ife to establish Efon Kingdom, Geesi, Ayikiti, who ascended the throne, based on the support of Are Ona Kankanfo Latoosa Asubiaro, Oba Derinola Ologbenla, who was ruler of Oke-Igbo before becoming the Ooni, Oba Abewela, who was attacked by Oyo rebels, Oba Adelekan Olubuse Eriogun, who re-assembled the dispersed people of Ile-Ife and fortified the town against onslaught by Modakeke, and Oba Ademiluyi Ajagunlaforikan, who brought the people of Modakeke back to Ife to boost the population of the kingdom so that he could earn a fatter allowance from colonial masters.

However, the last two Oonis, Alayeluwa Adesoji Taniadewo Aderemi and Oba Sijuwade Olubuse 11, raised the prestige of the throne in the post-colonial era. During the colonial era, the colonial masters, led by Governor David Cameron, were fond of Aderemi because he was educated. During a conversation with Governor Donald, he told Aderemi that a time would come when political elite would displace traditional rulers, adding that the revered institution might be relegated to the background. Responding, Oba Aderemi said the possibility could not be ruled out. But, he added that, when the time would come, his children would be part of the ruling elite. It was an understatement. Aderemi produced lawyers, judges, commissioners, and a Head of service, Mrs. Tejumade Alakija.  Today, his grandson, Jide Omoworare, who was born by his tenth child, is a senator.

Aderemi became Ooni in 1930. According to historians, his coronation was a turning point in Yorubaland. Before then, he had already made name in the colonial service and private business. He was the first educated Ooni. He served as a member of the Colonial Legislative Council and later, the House of Representatives, where he became a minister. When the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo became the Premier of the defunct Western Region, Aderemi became the Governor.

Okunade Sijuwade was the grandson of Oba Adelekan Olubuse 1. He was born around the period of Aderemi’s coronation. From infancy, he had the royal mark and many townspeople perceived him as a future king. Everything about him was royalty. His mettle of speech, his walking style, mode of conversation, dressing and choice of friends cast him in the mould of a rare prince with a special royal taste.

According to his colleagues at the Baptist Grammar School, Abeokuta and Oduduwa College, Sijuwade was always conscious of his royal background. At Ife, he was fond of dressing like a king, with his peers hailing him as Kabiyesi. While in Abeokuta as a student, he earned the respect from tutors and students. He once told his principal, the highly respected Cannon Ransom-Kuti, that he was the future Ooni of Ife. After ascertaining his claim, the foremost educationist admonished him to always be of good behaviour because only an Omoluabi could command the admiration of his subjects and survive on the prestigious throne.

Before going abroad for further studies, Sijuwade had exhibited the traits of a man of the future. He was hardworking. When he returned, he worked as a Sales Manager in Leventies Motors. He made good money and invested. He loved life and led it to the fullest. It was during his glorious career that he invited the eminent Benin chief, Gabriel Igbinedion, to join the business group. Both remained as friends till he joined his ancestors. At Ife, Sijuwade became a household name. He was a charismatic figure. As social functions, his presence was always electrifying. Prominent musicians, including Evangelist Ebenezer Fabiyi Obey, waxed records eulogising his magnetic personality and business prowess.

Reflecting on his business career, Sijuwade said that, at a point, he was not nursing the ambition to become a monarch reign again.  Having re-located to London, he faced his business squarely. But, Oba Aderemi passed on in 1980 at a ripe age of 98 years.  The late sage, Awolowo, the Odole of Ife, broke the news to the prince and urged him to return home. In December 1980, Sijuwade fulfilled his destiny.

Awo was full of nostalgia. The cornerstone of his administration in the old Western Region was the traditional institution. Five royal fathers were at the forefront of his struggle for political relevance. They were the Ooni Aderemi, the Olowo of Owo, the late Oba Olateru-Olagbegi, the Ewi of Ado-Ekiti, the late Oba Anirare Aladesanmi, the Odemo of Isara, the late Oba Samuel Akinsanya, and the Sakiof Arigidi, Oba Olanipekun. During the formation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which later became the Action Group (AG), Oba Aderemi was the patron. The first meeting of the party was hosted by Oba Olateru-Olagbegi in Owo. The Alaafin, the late Oba Adeniran Adeyemi, was a fanatical supporter of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). In that capacity, he and the AG Vice President, Chief Bode Thomas, the Balogun of Oyo, clashed. Although Saki Arigidi and Olowo later abandoned Awo during the AG crisis when the late Chief Ladoke Akintola rebelled, Ooni’s support for the AG continued to give the party an edge.

Thus, when the curtains were drawn on Aderemi’s reign, progressive forces supported Sijuwade’s bid for the throne. Sijuwade was very close to Awo. He had worked in The Nigerian Tribune owned by the eminent politician. In the late sixties, Bola Ige, the activist-lawyer, was the AG National Publicity Secretary. When the stool of Ooni was declared vacant, he had become the governor of Oyo State and the consenting authority. Since Sijuwade was backed by Awo and his wife, Hannah, the coast was clear for him to ascend the throne. On the day of his coronation, it was evident that he was a crowd puller. The Staff of Office was presented to him by Ige, amid applause by his leader, Awo. It is ironical that, many years later, the cap of the Cicero of Esa-Oke was seized from him and hung on a tree at the same palace by hoodlums allegedly instigated by political foes.

After his coronation, Sijuwade’s first duty was to pay visits to his brother Obas in the Southwest states. Later, he made HID Awolowo the Yeyeoba of Ile-Ife and later, Yeye Oodua of Ile-Ife. Following Awo’s demise, he also made Chief GOK Ajayi (SAN), the Odole of Ife.

Oba Sijuwade endowed the stool with honour, dignity and visibility. He was rich. Thus, through sheer philanthropy, he warmed himself to many indigenes. The monarch was also highly respected by the government. Before he ascended the throne, he had courted many eminent Yoruba.

Oba Sijuwade had a unique dress code. In the gathering of royal fathers, he was always the cynosure of all eyes. He was sociable. He was versed in Yoruba history. He was also humorous. During a television programme, the moderator asked from the Kabiyesi whether he was good in bed. The Ooni was unperturbed. He replied: “Do you have a mother? Bring her and you will know.”

However, reminiscent of his grandfather’s reign, crisis soon broke out in his kingdom. According to Rev. Samuel Johnson, Oba Adelekan Olubuse had succeeded in wiping away any trace of Modakeke from Ile-Ife. In his book, The History of Yoruba, he wrote: “Thus, it came to pass that, on 27th day of March, 1909, twenty-three years after the imposition of the Treaty, the town (Modakeke) was broken up. Those of them who were descended from Owu removed to their ancestral homes to Owu Ipole, between Ife and Ijebu; others to Gbagan, some to Odunabon, others to Ede; the bulk of the people, however, with Ogunsua or Bale of Modakeke removed to a place called Odekomu, somewhere midway between Ede, Ife and the Ijesas, about ten miles from Ife, just beyond the River Sasa, which after the war was made the boundary of Ife territory.

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“Adelekan seems to have been raised up for the purpose of breaking up Modakeke, for he commenced his hostilities against the town soon after he was raised to the stool of the Owoni, and he died the year after the breaking up of the town. They drove us twice from our home”, he used to say, “and we must see that they are driven permanently from theirs.”

But, Modakeke regained their lost land at Ife. The two monarchs, Ademiluyi, who invited them back to increase the population of his kingdom, and Aderemi, who married Segilola from Modakeke, struck a peace deal with them.

To many people, the resumption of hostilities between Ife and Modakeke, barely a year after Sijuwade became the Ooni, was unnecessary. A hundred years of communal relationship and inter-marriages should have erased the memory of strife and rancour. Time should have become the healer of wounds. The deaths and destruction of property were avoidable. According to historians, crisis broke out when Ife leaders attempted to rename Modakeke as “Isale Ife.” To Modakeke, an identity crisis was imminent. Thus, the Ogunsua and his kinsmen perceived it as another liberation war. The losses on both sides were lamentable. Many Yoruba obas, whose crown were from Ife, agonised over the fate of the cradle.  Even, when Ogunsua Adedoyin later prostrated for Ooni Sijuwade, the acrimony did not end. To restore peace, the military government had to create a separate local government for Modakeke. It was in recognition of the indisputable fact that the agitation for autonomy and preservation of identity are the anthems of the millennium.

The hand of the military was also heavy on the deceased Ooni. When he travelled to Israel along with the Emir of Kano, the late Alhaji Ado Ibrahim, he incurred the wrath of the government. His passport was seized, based on the order from above. But, he was kingly in his response to the embarrassment. When he was restricted to his ageless palace for six months, he refused to sign the restriction letter. Instead, he asked a chief to sign on his behalf. He also bore the vicissitudes with understanding and philosophical calmness. Reflecting on his ordeal, Oba Sijuwade alleged that a prominent monarch and a deceased business mogul, who was honorary chief of Oyo lied to the military government that he travelled abroad to import arms to fight the government.

When Oba Aderemi was alive, other Yoruba monarchs looked up to him for leadership and direction. But, when Sijuwade succeeded him, there was a curious personality assertion. Thus, crisis broke out between the Ooni and other monarchs-the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, Owa Obokun Adimula of Ijesaland, Oba Adekunle Aromolaran, and Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Jimoh Oyewumi Ajagungbade-over the chairmanship of the Oyo State Council of Obas and Chiefs. Thus, the leadership of Ooni from time immemorial became a subject of dispute. But, following the creation of Osun State by the military government, the crisis was resolved. The Ooni became the Permanent President. The chairmanship is being rotated among other first class obas.

Oba Sijuwade wanted the best for Ile-Ife. He urged the Federal Government to consider Ife for the capital of Osun State. In fact, townspeople were full of eagerness. There were speculations that the Ooni was planning to ride round the town on a white horse, if his dream came to reality. But, Ife lost its bid for the capital. The Federal Government preferred Osogbo. To compensate the Iku Baba Yeye, a local government with its headquarter at Enuowa (the palace of Ooni) was created.

Also, Ooni Sijuwade’s agitation for Oduduwa State failed to see the light of the day. He had proposed that Ife and its environs, Ijesaland and parts of Ekiti, particularly Efon-Alaaye, should be part of the proposed state. The Ooni was particularly fond of Efon Kingdom. In fact, according to legend, at any public function, the Alaaye of yore, being the younger brother of Ooni, must sit on the Ooni’s lap for some seconds as a mark of reunion and assurance of an unbroken brotherly affection. It was tradition.

When Oba Aderemi was on throne, there was no acrimony between him and Alaafin Adeyemi 11. Oba Sijuwade even claimed that he was among the people that were instrumental to the ascension of the Alaafin to the throne. He said he agreed to support him, based on a request by his friend, Chief Ashamu. But, when Sijuwade became the Ooni, they parted ways. They were both locked in a media war over claims and counter-claims of superiority. Oba Adeyemi described himself as the descendants of eminent Alaafins who were overlords in the days of the Oyo Empire. Oba Sijuwade said he was not excited by that relic of history, saying that the empire had ceased to exist. But, Alaafin Adeyemi 111 delved into history, emerging with documents to buttress his claims that the colonial masters were dealing with the Alaafins as the Oba of Yoruba in the early days of colonialism.

Few years ago, the Ooni responded to the quest of some community heads in his domain for upgrading into obaship.  When he upgraded them, his authority was not questioned.

During Oba Aderemi’s reign, there was no tension between Ife and Benin. Oba Aderemi and Oba Akenzua related well as brothers. In fact, when Aderemi was the governor, Akenzua was the President of the Western Regional House of Chiefs, with Ewi Aladesanmi as the Vice President. But, Oba Sijuwade and Omo N’oba Uku Akpolokpolo, Ereduwa, had a reason to clash.

According to scholars of history, Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa and founder of Oyo Empire, had influence on Benin monarchy. But, the Benin monarch disputed the historical claim that Oranmiyan’s children ruled Benin Kingdom. Oba Sijuwade cried foul, saying that history was being distorted. He said even Oba Akenzua acknowledged his Ile-Ife and Yoruba connection. He explained that, up to the 1930s, the official language at the palace of the Oba of Benin was Yoruba.

To many Yoruba, Oba Sijuwade was also controversial monarch. When traditional rulers were summoned to Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) by the late Head of State, the late Gen. Sani Abacha, to view video clips on the coup involving Gen. Oladipo Diya and others, reporters played a fast one on the Ooni. The military was trying to justify the trial of the alleged plotters. Oba Sijuwade was among the monarchs interviewed by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). “He (Abacha) is speaking sense,” he told the reporters. But, observers contended that it was evident that the interview was edited to suit a particular purpose. Many Yoruba frowned at the remark credited to the monarch.

Oba Sijuwade was also unable for forge unity in Yorubaland at the twilight of his life. The Southwest has been bitterly divided by the pursuit of antagonistic political interests by the sons of Oduduwa in the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). When former President Goodluck Jonathan visited Ife and he was taken to a semblance of the traditional power house of Oduduwa for royal blessing, it was the last straw that broke the back of the camel. It was misinterpreted to mean that the Arole Oduduwa has abandoned political neutrality.

However, many Yoruba agree that Oba Sijuwade left indelible marks on the sands of time. He made his mark as a successful businessman, philanthropist and royal father who was held in esteem beyond Yorubaland.

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