When Okunade Sijuade became the Ooni he was well-prepared for the throne following in the footsteps of the great Ooni Sir Adesoji Aderemi who was at a time the Governor of Western Nigeria and who had earlier on used his considerable influence in 1951 to sell the then new Action Group to the Yoruba people who had been supporters of the Herbert Macaulay-led NCNC .
Oba Sijuwade’s grandfather, Olubuse1, was on the throne when the British took over Ife. And unlike some Yoruba kingdoms, Ife did not insist a prince must have been born while his father was on the throne (Omo ori ite). In Benin, the Edaiken of Uselu (heir apparent) being the first son normally takes over when his father passes on. In Ife, one must come from one of the ruling houses apparently not sequentially.
Kabiyesi Okunade Sijuwade brought glory to the throne using his contacts and charm all over the world to spread the glory and civilisation of the Yoruba, particularly in South America and the Caribbean, most especially in Cuba, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago where there exists substantial Yoruba Diaspora as well in the West African states of Benin Togo and Ghana.
Okunade Sijuwade was a bridge builder in Nigeria and his close relationship with Alhaji Ado Bayero and later with the Obi of Onitsha is too well known to be dwelt upon here. His relationship with the Oba of Benin was a bit prickly apparently because of the old age of the Benin monarch and the pressure on him not to accept any notion of subservience of Benin to Ife. Kabiyesi was also very close to the Igbinedion family, having been of great help in the business growth of the Esama of Benin. This close rapport with the Esama may not have been favourably regarded in the palace. Kabiyesi nevertheless held his Benin son, as he called the Oba of Benin, in great respect; and in spite of his rather cold relations with the Alaafin of Oyo, he tried to get on as well as he could. Many people stoked the fire of discord between Iku Baba yeye Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi and Onirinsa Okunade Sijuwade; but the two, in spite of occasional public sniping at each other, continued to maintain reasonable and correct relationship.
The Ooni was a thoroughly modern ruler, some may say too modern for a traditional throne. The question is at what point modernisation becomes destructive of the old order rooted in mystery and mysticism. Some critics of Yoruba Obas say the institution is suffering from overexposure and that the institution is becoming too familiar and that they are many times seen at public gatherings including parties. Ordinarily, Yoruba Obas do not eat in public or should not eat in public. But in these days of thoroughly modern traditional rulers, not just in Yoruba land but all over Nigeria, it is becoming difficult to put traditional rulers in some kind of cultural straightjacket. But at the same time we cannot afford to sacrifice the institution on the altar of modernity.
People point to the Bini monarchy’s aloofness and its hidden isolation from the public is greatly admired by many people who admire African tradition. I remember some years ago, precisely in 1991; as a new ambassador to Germany, I went with some colleagues to the Emir of Kano Ado Bayero who was a close associate and bosom friend of Ooni Okunade Sijuwade, for a familiarisation tour.. The Emir, having served previously as ambassador to Senegal before becoming the Emir, was very happy to see us as colleagues, wanted to chat with us and wanted to shake hands with all of us. When it was the turn of Ambassador Subeiru Kazaure to greet the Emir, he refused to allow the Emir to shake his hand. The revered Emir got the message and he stopped shaking the hands of the rest of us. When I remember this episode, I think the Emir was right because when our rulers become too familiar we may no longer hold them in awe as we should do.
This problem is global. Even the European monarchies are struggling to be both popular and remote. The Japanese and the Thai monarchies are like the Bini monarchy in their remoteness. I would like the Yoruba Obas not to be seen everywhere and to be a little remote but not totally cut off from the people they are ruling over. To strike a balance will be a problem but the current familiarity would have to be reduced in order to preserve the sanctity of the monarchical institution.
On a personal level, the transition of Kabiyesi Okunade Sijuwade, Olubushe11, is a great loss. I used to see him visit Chief Oduola Osuntokun in the 1950s and 1960s in Ibadan. Chief Osuntokun himself being young related well with the young prince from Ife. He was introduced to him by another Prince of Ife Ademiluyi who served as parliamentary secretary to my brother who was at one time or the other minister of Finance, Lands and Housing, Health and Social Welfare and lastly Education in a long parliamentary and ministerial career spanning the years 1951 to 1966. When Chief Osuntokun left Ibadan, Prince Okunade Sijuwade, now Ooni of Ife, transferred his affection to my most celebrated and cerebral brother Professor Kayode Osuntokun.
I remember when our mother died in 1985 the Ooni sent a large sum of money to Professor Kayode Osuntokun as assistance towards burial expenses and also the royal staff of office as a mark of respect for the dead.
Since my brothers passed on, he has been very affectionate to me, sending for me and others to advise him on national politics. I remember his asking me to draft a speech for him which he delivered when General Abacha drafted him to chair an advisory committee of traditional rulers. He again once called the late Professor Kunle Olusanya and myself in the presence of the late Professor Saburi Biobaku to intervene and intercede on our behalf when the late Professor Omotola the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos was giving us a hard time after we were hurriedly recalled from France and Germany respectively by General Abacha in his onslaught on the Yoruba people who were considered enemies of his regime.
The last honour he did to me was attending my 70th birthday and giving me unforgettable gifts. It is, therefore, obvious that I lost a brother and a father just as Yoruba people lost a symbol of unity. My greatest regret is that as Bapitan of Oyo I never tried to reconcile both the Ooni and the Alaafin because I felt the division between the two was so deep-rooted and was like a riddle and a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.