Alaafin’s death and the Yul Edochie firestorm: When tradition outlives its usefulness

In case this headline took you by surprise, I should point out that I did not decide to ditch my day job and morph into a bubblegum gossip blogger.

This is not a column about the fragments of salacious information about the 2 above named individuals, which are currently doing the rounds on Nigerian social media. I wish it was, because in that case it would probably be more fun to read than this article, but here you are.

You have clicked on this link or opened this page, so now you’re stuck with me until I’m done with what I am trying to condense into the next 1,000 words. May God help you.

The purpose of this article in fact, is to use these 2 recent occurrences as staging points for one of my favourite pastimes – lampooning parts of Nigerian or African culture that I believe are well past their sell-by date.

In the case of the Alaafin of Oyo, my point of grievance was the information hoarding and histrionics surrounding what was simply the peaceful, thoroughly unspectacular death of a Very Old Man, in the manner that Very Old Men tend to do. In the case of Yul Edochie, I have no grievance – just some commentary about polygamy that nobody asked me for. Including you, dear reader. So here goes.

A Man Died – Big. Deal.

During his eventful lifetime, Lamidi Olayiwola Adeyemi III was not short of an adventure of three. Having taken the throne in 1970 at the ripe old age of 32, he proceeded to spend the ensuing 41 years living his best life on a seat created by his ancestors and maintained by Nigerian state subvention for reasons that remain eternally unclear. Along the way, he picked up anything from 13 to 18 wives, depending on whose report you believe, and an unconfirmed number of children.

In one notable skirmish with the law in March 1998, he and his family were arrested at London’s Gatwick Airport after British Customs discovered 12.8kg of cocaine and 36kg of marijuana worth £1.5m in their luggage.

His son, Prince Lukman Oladejo Adeyemi was later charged with drug trafficking at Horsham Magistrates Court, Sussex. This gave rise to the legendary April 3, 1998 headline, “Cocaine Trafficking Scandal: No Be A Lafin Matter.” On a random and unrelated note, the lawyer who represented Prince Adeyemi, in that case, was none other than Ned Nwoko – another old man with a taste for ladies who are just old enough to be legal. I digress.

When Alaafin Adeyemi was not carrying out his official duties, boinking his endless retinue of wives or getting into trouble with UK authorities, he was by all accounts a competent occupant of the seat.

Nobody really knows what competence means in the context of a seat that serves a largely symbolic purpose and exists at the mercy of the Nigerian state, but we must take this alleged competence to be the truth because well, that’s what they said. And then last week he died, and suddenly the sky fell down.

“How can the news of the Alaafin’s death be allowed to emerge so easily?!” “How can they confirm the news of his death so quickly?!” “What is wrong with Yoruba people of nowadays!” “Is the crown not supposed to have mystery around it?!”

Several variants of these takes – including one from a notable CSO personality whose organisation exists to reduce opacity in governance – were all I saw on my Twitter feed for a good few hours.

Apparently, the death of the octagenarian occupant of a symbolic seat was supposed to be treated with the mystery, awe and pomp that it would have attracted 200 years ago when said seat actually meant something.

The question is why? Why does there continue to be such an infantile obsession with concealing information, hoarding knowledge and presenting a false air of mystique and inscrutability when issues regarding African royalty come up in the 21st century? Why do we continue to emulate (or advocate for emulating) the very behaviours that turned our ancestors into colonised serfs? If the lies and assorted bovine excrement that these institutions used to bamboozle our ancestors resulted in the outcomes we are familiar with, why do we continue to reprise them? Is it an infantile, unthinking mindset? Slavish commitment to an identity that no longer exists? False nostalgia for a time that we never experienced and may never have existed? All 3, perhaps?

Polygamy – A Bad Idea

When Yul Edochie made his big announcement, a lot of the ensuing commentary inevitably focused on gender politics, marital infidelity and the usual mind-numbingly boring themes that unfortunately animate Nigerian social media spaces. Let me just state clearly that I have zero opinion on Yul Edochie’s personal indiscretions or decisions. What a person does with their genitalia is nobody’s business but theirs and their spouse unless it involves illegal activity like rape.

Since Yul Edochie did not rape anyone, there is zero case to answer regarding the morality or lack thereof of his decision to father a child outside of his marital home. Let me repeat that for emphasis: A decision to play a metaphorical away match and come away with the metaphorical trophy is not an issue for hundreds of thousands of occupationally challenged young people to obsess over. It is none of our business and it is really not that important anyway.

My issue however, is with the ancillary implication raised by the actor’s actions. Remember how in the previous subheading, I complained about an infantile, unthinking devotion to “the ways of our ancestors,” as though our ancestors were an especially wise or successful people worthy of emulation?

Let me reiterate using the issue of polygamy: why does there continue to be a belief that polygamy is or should be a good thing simply because our ancestors did it? Could our ancestors not be wrong about many things – perhaps even disastrously so?

In 2019, while working with the International Committee On Nigeria(ICON) and the International Project for Peace Building and Social Justice (PSJ) on the Silent Genocide report that later for Nigeria placed on a US State Department diplomatic notice list, I came across something that expanded my mind.

Read also: Alaafin of Oyo joins ancestors at 83

One of the sources interviewed in the report explained that some of the tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in Northern Nigeria were caused by economic disparity directly resulting from the outcome of polygamous marriage practises in the Muslim areas.

He explained that while the Christian areas had linear inheritance practices since one man generally had only one set of immediate descendants, the Muslim areas had severe economic dislocation since one man could have up to 4 sets of immediate descendants (and sometimes more).

Thus the monogamous Christian areas were able to pass wealth down in a linear manner and retain societal cohesion while the polygamous Muslim areas ended up with thousands of angry young men who had no inheritance, no land, no education and no hope.

In addition, where 10 men and 10 women can theoretically marry each other and have 10 sets of children who are genetically diverse enough to marry each other, 1 man and 10 women in a polygamous setting may produce the same number of children, but said children are all siblings, which means they cannot marry each other.

Unsurprisingly, geographical areas with high rates of polygamy also tend to have more wars and conflicts, as the pool of marriageable women is too small to accommodate a growing population of angry, undersexed young men who soon turn feral.

If this all sounds strangely familiar to you, that’s because you have already seen all of this happen – in fact you are seeing it happen right now in front of you.

Boko Haram, Ansaru, ISWAP, and whatever designation terrorists give themselves tomorrow, are all direct beneficiaries of the economic and societal dislocation caused by polygamy. Without it, their ranks could never have been swelled to their current number. There is even a strong argument to be made for linking the 300-year long slave trade abomination in West Africa to the practise of polygamy.

The fact that our ancestors did something does not – should not – make it acceptable for us to do it. Our ancestors did lots of things. They sold human beings for coloured pieces of cloth and corrugated roofing sheets. They made Smallpox a god and worshipped it.

They created writing scripts like Nsibidi, and hoarded them exclusively for elite priests and royalty so that information and knowledge could not be saved and compounded across generations.

They became the only civilisation in human history to be completely, utterly, comprehensively and decisively conquered on their own land, to the extent of adopting other people’s gods, claiming other people’s ancestry and even adopting skin bleaching.

A wise man once said, “For what is tradition, but peer pressure from dead people?”

Think about it.