The Osemawe of Ondo Kingdom, His Royal Majesty, Oba Victor Kiladejo, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA speaks about his life before and after ascension to the throne and interesting things about the custom and tradition in his kingdom
You were a practising medical doctor before you became a king, could you tell us more about your career then?
I’m a medical doctor as far as my profession is concerned. I finished from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) where I studied Medicine. I did my postgraduate studies in reproductive health at an equally reputable institution; University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. When I came back, I joined the Ondo State Civil Service and I rose from the level of a House Officer to that of a Medical Director before I resigned to establish my own hospital, called Kiladejo Hospital, in Lagos. I worked there for almost 20 years before I ascended to the throne of my forefathers. I’m from the Okuta ruling house and my father, the late Gbadebo Kiladejo, was a man who commanded a lot of respect.
We learnt you are from a polygamous family, was there any premonition that you would be a king someday?
My father had 22 children, and I’m the first. Growing up, our family was a lovely one and you could hardly distinguish or differentiate among us as far as our mothers were concerned. As regards any inkling, I would say yes and no. Yes, because there were some revelations here and there, but as a young man, I never took that seriously. But when the time came to choose a new king for Ondo Kingdom, I was to travel to the United States to attend a medical conference when an uncle of mine, in company with some people from the community, visited me in Lagos and invited me to come home. By the time I got home, the contest for the throne started. Before anybody is favourably considered for that position, there is always a thorough check about the person’s past, where the person worked earlier, the educational history, the position the person held while in school, the kind of work the person does, the opinions of co-workers about the person and so many other things. I was made to understand later that those things were done before they came to me in Lagos. To cut the long story short, I eventually emerged as the choice of the kingmakers. As a matter of fact, it was a unanimous decision among the kingmakers. They voted and all the six kingmakers voted in my favour, despite the fact that seven of us contested. Being chosen was by the grace of God. That is my belief. I will also say destiny had a role to play.
Ondo is believed to have a rich history and many people would like to know its origin. Could you take us through the journey to the present Ondo Kingdom?
Many years back, history has it that a favoured wife of the Ooni of Ife, specifically, Oduduwa was delivered of a set of twins. As of that time, it was an abomination to have twins. When such things happened, the expectation was that the twins and their mother should be killed. However, because the mother of the twins was a favoured wife of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race, he decided to save her. He hid her for some time and then sent them (the wife and the twins) out with a large retinue of his trusted chiefs, juju men and warriors, together with the crown, beads, the royal walking stick and all the insignia of the office of a king. The person that led them was called Ija and the first place they settled after leaving Ife was Ijama, which means the land discovered by Ija, who was the leader of the warriors. That Ijama is one of the cognomens of Ondo. There is another version, which to me is the same with the other one. This version says the wife of the king that was delivered of the twins was one of the wives of Oluaso, the then Alaafin of Oyo, who was a direct son of Oduduwa. What that means is that Ondo is a direct descendant of Oduduwa. Whether directly from Oduduwa or from the son, we are still saying the same thing. To me, they are essentially the same. History is never conclusive. They stayed in Ijama for so many years before they moved to another town, called Epe, which is about 5km from Ondo. Later, they consulted Ifa (oracle), and history has it that the oracle said they should continue on their journey and wherever the stick (yam stick) refused to enter the ground was where they should settle. The oracle also revealed that the female twin, who survived the trip, was directed to go towards where we eventually settled and she (Oba Pupupu) was the first king of Ondo. When they got to an area very close to the palace, just opposite the palace there (pointing), the yam stick refused to enter the soil. So, they exclaimed, ‘Edo du do,’ meaning the yam stick would not enter. Hence, the name Ondo is merely a product of the phrase ‘Edo du do’.
How did the title ‘Osemawe’ emerge between when they left the palace and when they arrived in Ondo?
When the favoured wife of the king had those twins, the king was embarrassed because it was then an abomination. He was so bewildered by the birth of the twins that he exclaimed, ‘Ese omo re’ (meaning these children are an abomination). It is said that this exclamation has through linguistic evolution changed into ‘Osemawe’, which is the title of the monarch of Ondo today. It is also necessary to tell you that by the time they arrived Ondo, they met some people, but because of the princely appearance, the retinue of servants and because of the perceived valour of the migrants, all the people they met surrendered to them. And so the paramountcy of Osemawe started immediately from inception, and that was over 500 years ago. We actually celebrated 500 years of documented existence in 2010 with pomp and pageantry.
The name Ondo resonates with people as being the name of a notable kingdom and that of a state. Why was the state, created in 1976, named after Ondo Kingdom?
That is an interesting one. Ondo was lucky that it never faced any war. It was never attacked by anybody. There was peace. So, development was rapid and it became a place of abode for many people and natural preference for the colonial masters when they came. Ondo also became the headquarters of most of the multinational companies, and in terms of education, religion and commerce, Ondo was a preferred choice. So, when the province was carved out, consisting of the present Ondo and Ekiti states, it was not difficult for that province to be named after Ondo, under the reign of a very powerful Osemawe. So, they were all called Ondo Province before the creation of Ondo State. Thus, when Ondo State was created, the name was equally adopted. That was how the state got its name.
There seems to be some supremacy battle among traditional rulers in Yoruba land, but not many would know the position of the Osemawe. What is the rank of the title ‘Osemawe’ among Yoruba Obas?
As far as I’m concerned, as the current Osemawe of Ondo, my current priority is not on the ranking, but to ensure the sustenance of peace in my kingdom, to attract developmental projects to the kingdom as well as ensure that the culture and tradition of Ondo is maintained. However, as far as the title of the Osemawe is concerned, documents in the archive revealed that as far back as 1885, Osemawe of Ondo was one of the first five Obas to be given staff of office (pointing to the staff) by Her Royal Majesty, the then Queen Victoria of Britain. Other Obas were Ooni of Ife, Alaafin of Oyo, Alake of Egba and the Awujale of Ijebu Ode. In the 1903 Obas’ protocol list of Sir Macgregor (a Briton who was the then governor of Lagos colony) , which is now used as a reference point, has Osemawe as number five on the list. Again, the Osemawe was once the chairman of all the Yoruba Obas in Pelupelu (meeting of Obas). But, like I said before, my priority is on the development of Ondo Kingdom and not on ranking.
It is a norm in the African setting for communities or cities to have taboos. What are the taboos in Ondo Kingdom?
There is hardly any community in Yoruba land that does not have its own taboos. The one that readily comes to mind is that in Ondo community, we don’t eat rodent (called Okete in Yoruba language). And if you are bringing palm fruits into Ondo, you don’t bring the whole bunch. You need to have detached the fruits from the bunch. Again, new yams are not to be exposed or brought to the market until after the yam festival when the Osemawe would traditionally eat the new yam. It is after this that it can be exposed. Those are the major taboos.
It is also a traditional norm for kings to inherit the wives of former kings. Does it also happen in Ondo Kingdom?
It happens in all Yoruba land. When an Oba transits, the new Oba inherits the wives and children of all the past Obas. What that means is that it is the responsibility of the king to provide their material needs, and the new king is expected to treat the inherited wives both as his ‘mothers’ as well as ‘wives.’ The important thing is the care for them. That is why the Yorubas don’t say an Oba dies, an Oba can only transit, and when that happens, whatever was left by the past Oba, the new Oba would have to inherit them. It is continuous. Inheritance, in this case, means that you take up the responsibility of providing their material needs.
You recently celebrated 10 years that you ascended the throne. What has it been like?
I would say it has been quite interesting and challenging. But, I must confess that I enjoyed every bit of it. Challenges are inevitable and they are to prepare one for more serious tasks in the future. I’m happy my chiefs and subjects are cooperating with me. There are so many visible developmental projects that we can point to that have come into existence since I ascended the throne. Many of our roads are dualised, we have many mega schools, we have modern markets and we also have universities now, particularly the Wesley University and the University of Medical Sciences. It will interest you to know that the University of Medical Sciences is the first of its kind in West Africa, and we have people coming from virtually all over the world to receive treatment from qualified, experienced doctors there with the ultramodern and state-of-the-art equipment that are comparable with what you can see in the western world. That truly gladdens my heart.
Ondo Kingdom was pronounced a city in 2015. Was that something you specifically set out to achieve when you were crowned?
Immediately I ascended the throne in 2006, I invited the sons and daughters of the community to brainstorm on what they thought we should do to move the community forward. We then established the Osemawe Palace Forum and that forum set up the agenda as to what they expected of their king. By the time I finished the traditional rites, which lasted for about six months, my high chiefs and other chiefs also cooperated with me. They reviewed the outcome of the deliberations and we came up with what they believe I should do. So, the achievements were products of combined efforts. We have an enviable history, which we are very proud of. We have detailed records of our history from inception over 500 years ago. So what we did was to celebrate the 500 years of our existence. It was as a result of the celebration that we wrote a book that detailed everything that happened in different phases; medicine, education, religion, and different facets of life. Different segments were written by professors in different fields. The book was titled, ‘The Evolution of Ondo Kingdom over 500 years; 1510 to 2010.’ That was when the idea of Ondo becoming a city came up. We set up a committee, called the Ondo City Vision 2015 Committee, to look at how we can justifiably turn Ondo from a town to a functional city within a period of five years, so that by 2015, we would be able to proclaim Ondo a city. To the glory of God, by December 2015, we justifiably proclaimed Ondo town a city.
We rarely find traditional rulers having pet projects, but you have one. What inspired that move?
It was borne out of my interest in rendering service to my people, particularly the underprivileged. As far back as 2009, I established the Oba Kiladejo Crown Foundation for the benefit of all. We have economic empowerment programmes, public advocacy and health programmes. We also assist prisoners in skill acquisition. On yearly basis, we invite doctors from the state and beyond to provide free health care to our people. We also provide drugs for those diagnosed to have chronic non-communicable diseases, like diabetes and hypertension. We also provide glasses for some, we do counselling, and we don’t normally limit ourselves to just investigation; we continue with their treatment. This year, we attended to well over 2,000 people. That is very important to us. We also give scholarship to indigenous students and we also help the widows. Some years back, we built and equipped a medical centre for one of the universities in this community. There are so many things that the foundation is doing and that gives me joy.
Before now, people used to take their conflicts to the palace for resolution, but given the civilisation and growing number of courts these days, do people still bring cases to the palace like before?
I would want to refer to what we have now as a place for alternative dispute resolution. The fact is that, we only resolve conflicts because conflicts are bound to happen. While conflicts are about persons, crime is against the state. So, in our own centre, we don’t attend to crimes at all. We use many methods, like negotiation, conciliation, mediation and then arbitration. It is only when all these fail that we think of litigation. But in most cases, I’m happy to tell you that it’s been quite rewarding because ADR is cheaper, faster and the pre-conflict relationship is always maintained. In Yoruba land, it is said that you don’t come back from court and still maintain cordial relationship, but relationships are not ruined with this approach. Let me also tell you that we are trying to reorganise it the more by involving experts, like retired judges and other professionals to give expert opinions.
There have been differing opinions on what the roles of traditional rulers are in the contemporary society. What is your view on this?
That is an interesting one. As far as the roles of traditional rulers are concerned, we have the formal and informal. The formal role is primarily to advise the government and the advisory role is not limited to the state, it applies also to the Federal Government. For example, we have the National Council of Traditional Rulers of Nigeria, which gives us the opportunity to advise the Federal Government and I’m the representative of the South West Obas in the Security Committee of that council. Also, at the state level, we also have State Council of Traditional Rulers for us to get involved in whatever the state government is doing. So, we do quite a lot. We also act as intermediary between the government and our people because we are the closest to them and we know where the shoe pinches. As for the informal roles, which is just as important, we are the custodians of the culture and tradition of our people. We provide the necessary umbrella and much desired enabling environment for peace. We also attract developmental projects to our respective communities. We have quite a lot to do and we do it all the time.
Some people are also saying there should be constitutional roles for traditional rulers. What is your view on this?
On the issue of constitutional roles, all we are saying is that those things we do should now be part of the constitution, and the kings, Obas, Igwes, Emirs and others should be appropriately recognised in that respect, and if need be, compensated for that. When we talk of constitutional role for traditional rulers, we are not saying we want to start competing with the politicians, neither are we advocating for political appointment or involvement in politics, I believe that our formal and informal responsibilities are so much that we should not be bothered with additional responsibilities of becoming quasi politicians.