Ooni: reign sweet and sour By Olakunle Abimbola

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First, some conceptual clarifications.

Court records, of the late Ooni, Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, (reigned 1980-2015) often referred to him as “His Imperial Majesty” — how so?

This is not only a historical negation (the Ooni never headed an empire, so he could not have been His Imperial Majesty), it is also an affective downgrade of the Ooni institution in the Yoruba essence.

Despite all the power and the glory (echoing Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican reggae star), empire building is essentially evil.  The conquerors flaunt prestige and power.  But the conquered suffer greed and plunder.

In all of Yorubaland, only the Alaafin could rightly claim “His Imperial Majesty”, for only Oyo historically enforced the prestige of power and the notoriety of plunder.

But Oyo, even at the height of its glory, only compelled love by force; while Ife, even at the nadir of its decline, commanded love by choice in the Yoruba soul — if not in the secular realm, then on the spiritual plane.

“For about five centuries, Ife was the most revered of all kingdoms of the Yoruba people,” wrote Prof. Banji Akintoye, in his definitive and much more inclusive book, A History of the Yoruba People.  “Its territory was sacred and inviolate to all Yoruba people, by a universal consensus.”

Even the much more Oyo-centric The History of the Yorubas, by Samuel Johnson, the 19th century ethnic Oyo cleric and Pastor of Oyo, confirmed the primacy of Ife, even if it also blared the Oyo imperial glory.

True, at the height of its glory, when Ife was but a humble settlement, Oyo struck naked fear.  Also at its decline, and wind-down with the Kiriji War (1877-1893), a pan-Yoruba armed rebellion against Oyo imperialism, the Ibadan army, the most fearsome back then in the Yoruba country, still regarded the Alaafin as their sovereign, since Ibadan was only a garrison town, with pan-Yoruba appeal for all the rough necks that loved war and plunder.

But at its own zenith (14th century AD, though the Ife civilisation spread from 11th-15th century), according to Akintoye, Ife was close to what pertained in the Athens of Pericles — the most golden age of any of the ancient Greek city states — when no thinker, philosopher or general literati was complete, before benchmarking his acute mind with peers in the great academies in that city.

Prof. Akintoye, again: “ … A cultural ferment (with strong intellectual character) was in progress in Ile-Ife in the centuries following the creation of the city, a cultural ferment whose light gradually spread to the rest of Yorubaland.”

So, as Greece was the bastion of Western thinking, Ife was the fundament of Yoruba civilisation: spiritual, political and economic.

So, how much of that Ife all-round awe did Ooni Sijuwade retain, compared to his predecessor,Ooni Adesoji Aderemi (reigned 1930-1980)?

That is no straight question.  For one, both monarchs reigned in two dramatically different epochs, with dramatically different dynamics: Ooni Aderemi under colonial rule (30 years: 1930-1960), and the first 20 years of independence (1960-1980); and Ooni Sijuwade, 35 years, the bulk of which was under military rule, with its cascading decay of public morality.

For another, feudalism (the bastion of royalty) suited military rule just fine, for as unelected rulers, soldiers-in-government courted the royal fathers to shore up their legitimacy, in exchange for some visibility in governance.

But even with that, Ooni Sijuwade was much diminished in perceived influence than Ooni Aderemi was enhanced, both under colonial indirect rule (somewhat, a legitimacy-starved precursor to military rule), and under democracy, as 1st Republic, first governor of Western Region (1960-62), under the Action Group (AG) government; and even under early military rule (1966-1979).

Besides, the military-era Land Use Decree (now Land Use Act) eroded the royal economy, so much so that the landed wealth of many a royal father was drastically curtailed, sentencing not a few of them as military contractors, to the quiet chagrin, if not open disdain, of their subjects.

Indeed, there is this school of thought that claims Chief Obafemi Awolowo and associates actively encouraged Oba Sijuwade’s ascendancy because of his established wealth which, they thought, should come in handy to preserve Ife’s primacy, in the conclave of Yoruba royal courts.

Besides, that financial muscle should also help to checkmate any untoward politicking, backed by mischievous extant powers, from the Alaafin end, for the Alaafin, Oba Adeniran Adeyemi II, paid dearly with deposition (in 1954), for his rebellious disposition to the Awo AG establishment.  But with his son, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III already back on the throne by 1970, an Oyo-Ife tussle for Yoruba primacy was anticipated — the one claiming its latter-day imperial exploits, the other leveraging its pristine spiritual-cum-civilising sovereignty.  That indeed came to pass.

So, how did Ooni Sijuwade fare?  On the culture front, very well.  To the Diaspora Yoruba, there was probably no better ambassador of pristine Yoruba tradition and splendour.  Add that to his ultra-regal fashion sense, and he was almost nonpareil.  It is no surprise, therefore, that the Cuba Diaspora Yoruba are deeply mourning his passage.

He also distinguished himself as custodian of Yoruba history, particularly regarding Ife’s place in it.  The only dark clouds, in the late Ooni’s glittering sky of culture, was his seeming penchant to merchandise Ife honorary titles, rebranded as whatever titles “of the Source”.  It bordered on crass venality, with awards to some really controversial characters.

It was, however, on his perceived lack of empathy with Yoruba popular aspirations, especially on the political plane, that Ooni Sijuwade dragged that institution into the mud — at least by popular perception — from the immaculate and dizzying heights that Ooni Aderemi had vaulted it.

On 12 June 1993, Moshood Abiola, an ethnic Yoruba, won the presidency, in a spectacular pan-Nigeria mandate, hitherto thought impossible, given the balance of regional powers.  It was no thanks, in part, to the late Ooni’s pathetic hee-haw, that the criminal annulment of that historic mandate was sustained, at the end of which Chief Abiola lost his life in detention.

Later, the military conspirators would fall upon themselves, when Sani Abacha declared himself the victim of an attempted coup, in which Oladipo Diya, his No. 2, was allegedly implicated.  If Gen. Diya escaped the gallows, it was not because the Ooni, his pan-Yoruba spiritual monarch, raised a voice in his defence — in any case, not in public.

It was the cumulative effects of such faux pas  that diminished the late Ooni in the estimation of not a few, at least in Yoruba streets.  Still, it is only fair that as he inched towards his creator, the late monarch became much more tempered than his early years on the throne.

‘Ooni Sijuwade was not the angel his co-elite piped at his passage. Neither was he the devil many in the streets would swear he was. He was rather an embodiment of his age, warts and all’.

Ooni Sijuwade was not the angel his co-elite piped at his passage.  Neither was he the devil many in the streets would swear he was. He was rather an embodiment of his age, warts and all.

It is therefore left to whoever succeed him to vault the Arole Oodua throne to that height every Yoruba would be proud of.

NATION