• Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Ancient and Modern: Ile-Ife in 2015


Every time I reflected on the passage of the 50thOoni of Ife, Oba OkunadeSijuwadeOlubuse 11 while his demise remained unconfirmed in deference to tradition and after it was affirmed that the great King of the Yorubas had joined his ancestors;my thoughts centred on tensions between ancient traditions and modernity that Oba Sijuwade, the chiefs and people of Ile-Ife, Yorubaland and the world continuously grappled with. The phrase “ancient and modern” lurked in the inner recesses of my sub-conscious and I needed a burst of mental energy to bring it forth. “Ancient and Modern” is a popular hymnal in the Church of England (in Nigeria, Anglican Church) introduced in 1861 through the so-called “Oxford Movement”, an ecclesiastical reform movement that sought to recover ancient Christian Hymns as well as write new ones, hence “Hymns Ancient and Modern”. I was born and educated within Anglican and Methodist traditions accounting for the phrase’s residence in my remote memory. Oba OkunadeSijuwade’s early upbringing and education at Igbein School, Abeokuta and Abeokuta Grammar School were within a CMS-Church Missionary Society (Anglican) context.

Mysteriously I had bought Jacob K. Olupona’s seminal book, “City of 201 Gods: Ile-Ife in Time, Space and the Imagination”a few weeks back. Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions, African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. He also authored “Kingship, Religion and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals” and edited “Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity”. Olupona’s father late Venerable Michael Olupona served in Ile-Ife as Archdeacon of St. Phillips Anglican Church and was much beloved enabling access to Ife’s traditional and religious elite to his son who had also taught at the University of Ife. Immediately speculations arose about Oba Sijuwade’s departure, I knew it was time for a more detailed reading of Olupona’sremarkable book.

Olupona makes the historically uncontroversial statement-“To the Yoruba people, Ile-Ife is the place where the Yoruba connect to a historical and mythic lineage that defines, creates and promotes an understanding of the world and a source of identity throughout West Africa and the diaspora”. He notes that “Ile-Ife is one of the world’s principal sacred centers” recalling Paul Wheatley’s groundbreaking work on ancient centres of the world which included Ife as “a focal point in which the divine meets the corporeal” and affirms that there is no ancient African city whose artistic traditions and archeological findings have been more thoroughly studied as Ile-Ife. Everyone is familiar with popular Yoruba creation myths-Oduduwa supplanting Obatala in carrying out Olodumare’s creation assignment; coming to earth with a cock and sand-“the place where Oduduwa accomplished this task was named Ile-Ife, the place where the earth spreads”; or Oduduwa as crown prince of Lamurudu, a supposed King of Mecca, or from Egypt or elsewhere in the “East” or the Niger-Benue Confluence, who migrated to Ife; and the historical “dispersal, migration and odyssey of the children of Oduduwa, who left the sacred city of Ile-Ife to conquer, inhabit and establish new dynasties and new cities and towns-Ondo, Owo, Benin, Ado-Ekiti, Ijebu-Ode, Ketu and Oyo”and others, a pattern of establishment of Yoruba states based on “cosmological relatedness”; “ebi” (lineage);a sacred pact based on semi-autonomous kinship groups; or ajobi-kinship and religious association. Whatever mythical or historical foundations of Ile-Ife and Yoruba establishment one resorts to; the common factor is Oduduwa as ancestral reference point!

With regard to Ile-Ife’s historical importance in Yoruba politics, it is sufficient to quote Olupona-“the significance of Ile-Ife in Yoruba political life is especially revealed by two incidents: the visit of the Ooni, paramount ruler of Ile-Ife, to Lagos in 1903; and the formation, in the 1940s and 1950s, of a centralized pan-Yoruba cultural and quasi-political association based on the Oduduwa myth, EgbeOmoOduduwa (Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa) and its political successor, the Action Group”. Ooni’s visit to Lagos in 1903 was unprecedented-until then it had been considered taboo for Ooni to step outside Ife! Other Yoruba Obas were petrified by this development, and they all, including the Alaafin of Oyo vacated their palaces and went outside their city walls until Ooni returned to Ife! Many Ife natives followed Ooni to Ife’s boundary with Ibadan at Asejire and stayed there until Ooni returned to Ife!! Ooni himself performed rituals throughout the trip to placate the gods! The monarch had been invited by the new power, the colonial Governor to Central Native Authority in Lagos to advise on the dispute between Akarigbo of Ijebu-Remo and Elepe of Epe in Remo over Elepe’s right to wear a beaded crown. Ooni’s ruling, pronounced in Lagos, that only Awujale and Akarigbo of Ijebu monarchs got their crowns from Ife settled the matter!!!

In 1903 it was inconceivable for any Yoruba Oba or individual to dispute Ooni’sverdict evidenced by the response to Ooni’s ruling-“It is instructive to read the astonishing concurrence of the members of the elite Native Council of Lagos in their response to the Ooni’s decision. “If a crown does not come from Ile-Ife, it is a worthless thing” remarked Sufiano, one member. Another, SuleGiwa, declared, “The Ooni has issued crowns to all the members of Yoruba from the Alaafin of Oyo downward. If the Elepe did not receive his crown from the Ooni, that crown has not come from Ile-Ife.” One AlliBalogun stated, “We also pray for long life for the Ooni, we beg the Ooni to forgive the Elepe. The Elepe has sinned; he has no right to wear a crown.” And Ogbogun stated, “We are very much thankful to the Ooni. This sort of matter brings trouble. The strongman crowns himself and brings on war. This matter is in such a case. It is well known that only the Ooni can issue crowns. Ife is the cradle of our race. All power and authority come from Ife.”TheOoni who made that first visit to Lagos, was AdelekanOlubuse 1 (1894-1910), grandfather of Oba OkunadeSijuwadeOlubuse 11 (1980-2015). The visit signaled the final capitulation of traditional authority to the British colonial state but also re-affirmed Ile-Ife’s authority as the source of legitimacy in Yoruba kingship and traditional power.

OoniAdelekanpredicted the ascension of his grandson to the throne. Oba Sijuwade recounted the story of a young girl (later OkunadeSijuwade’s mother) who on visiting the palace, fell in love with his grandfather. Oba Adelekan counselled the girl to marry his son instead and blessed her with cowrie shells in a white bowl. She subsequently met and married Sijuwade’s father leading to the fulfilment of OoniOlubuse 1’s prediction.Oba OkunadeSijuwade was born on January 1, 1930 to the Ogboru Royal Family of Ilare, Ile-Ife to Omo-Oba AderetiSijuwade, son of Olubuse 1 and Yeyelori Emilia Ifasesin. He schooled in Abeokuta under Reverend I. O Ransome-Kuti before returning to Oduduwa College, Ife where on his first school day, he was mistaken for one of the new teachers! Sijuwade worked as a journalist at Nigerian Tribune, owned by his mentor, Chief Obafemi Awolowo; studied business at Northampton; and worked at the Leventis Group. His subsequent business endeavours were successful and by December 6, 1980 when he ascended the crown of “the holy city of the Yorubas” (apologies Leo Frobenius) aged 50, he was a very wealthy man. Oba Sijuwade’s reign was marked by his tripartite nationalistic partnership with late Emir Ado Bayero of Kano and late Obi of Onitsha, OfalaOkagbue; sanctions on Sijuwade and Bayero by the “Buhari-Idiagbon” military regime over a private visit to Israel; the Ife-Modakeke “wars”and their eventual peaceful resolution; the June 12 crisis over annulment of an Egba-Yoruba, MKO Abiola’s victory in the 1993 presidential elections and controversy over Abacha’s constitutional conference; the eight-year presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo another Egba-Owu Yoruba; strains over the politics and governance of Osun State; international recognition of Ooni and Ife’s place in Yoruba mythology from Yoruba diaspora in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Benin Republic, the Caribbean and elsewhere; growth and development of Ife; and tension between traditional religious worship and evangelical Christianity especially in relation to the rituals and religious practices of the monarchy in Ife and the rest of Yorubaland.

This last tension, a contemporary illustration of the contrasting pull of tradition and modernity, is well documented in Olupona’s book, which ironically for the son of an Anglican Archdeacon, whose father planted the seeds of Christian evangelism in the Ile-Ife palace, Olupona seemed to have been lamenting! Professor Olupona carried out extensive interviews with OoniSijuwade and his OloriMorisade, a staunch Christian whom Oba Sijuwade referred to as “Prophetess in the Palace”! The interviews confirmthat Oba Sijuwade rejected the traditional conception of Ooni as “God-King” dismissing such as blasphemy! He accepted the sovereignty of God (“There is only one God, and that is the Supreme God on High, Olorun” Sijuwade declared) easing away from his earlier acclaimed title of “Oluaye”; built a Christian Chapel within the palace; and lived his latter years maintaining a delicate balance between his new Christian fervency and traditional responsibilities as Ooni.OloriMorisade’son her part was categorical-“I really loathe idol worship (traditional religion)…I refuse to attend these festivals-even the Olojo Festival, I refuse…for me to go to OkeM’ogun there, I would prefer God to take me!”

Oba OkunadeSijuwadeOlubuse 11 reigned for thirty-five years and passed on July 28 2015, at 85. It is noteworthy that each time Oba OkunadeSijuwade renounced his divinity, his chiefs and court present directly contradicted him. OoniSijuwade is gone, but the tension between history and ancient traditions on one hand and modern politics, powerand religionon the other,will continue.


CORRECTION-Last week in “Dangote and African Economic Integration”, I inadvertently omitted some sentences in the penultimate paragraph, “…and other Nigerian businessmen are acting! Dangote alluded to one factor that could speed up the process-visa free (or visa-on-arrival) travel within the continent. This should be easily feasible at least for business and tourist visitors across Africa. A second enabler may be easing capital flows, especially in relation to repatriation of profits….”


Opeyemi Agbaje