The Ooni of Ife and Tradition, By Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 6 August 2015 | 4,471 times

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As a first year undergraduate at Ife in 1985, I was confronted with this myth that in the town on which our campus was domiciled, rituals were performed with human beings all-year-round except only on one day. But after Dr. Dipo Fashina (the ever-uncompromising former ASUU president popularly known as Jingo) had put enough sense into some of us (through Philosophy 101) to begin to doubt everything, I asked a roommate, indigene of Ife, whether the story was true. When he replied in the affirmative, I sought to know whether any member of his family had ever been lost to such practices and he responded: “A kii f’omo ore b’ore”.

That saying, crudely translated, means that indigenes can never be used for rituals involving human sacrifice. Of course, I must point out here that throughout my four-year stay at Ife, I was not aware of any incident of a student being lost to rituals. That is not to say we did not hear stories of some “strange” happenings at the period. That perhaps then explains why since the information broke last week that the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuade, had ascended into the spirit world, there are stories of people either avoiding travelling to/through the town or of residents going to bed earlier than usual.

However, what is happening in Ife is not strange as there are almost always rituals associated with transitions in traditional institutions. In his book, “Succession of Kings”, for instance, Sir James Frazer recounted a story from the ancient Congo which symbolises how in keeping with tradition some societies actually encourage egregious acts: “The people of Congo believed that if their Pontiff were to die, the world would perish and the earth, which he alone sustained by his power and merit, would immediately be annihilated. Accordingly, when he fell ill and seemed likely to die, his prospective successor entered his house with a rope or club and strangled or bludgeoned him to death.”

Therefore, the challenge of the moment is the odds against preserving some sacred rules in the age of information and how to do away with practices that impinge on human rights and may tend towards criminality. The point here is not in committing cultural suicide, as some people would suggest but rather on how we can situate these practices and draw lessons from them for the advancement of our society.

In explaining myth as “the presentation of the ultimate speculations of metaphysics, including cosmology, in a coherent system of symbols,” Elliot writes on its significance not only for the construction of a political and social order but also for its sustenance. That incidentally has been the central plank in the works of Jacob Kehinde Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions in African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. While his book, “Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenology of Ondo Yoruba Festivals” addresses some of the issues, it is his seminal work, “City of 201 Gods: Ile-Ife in Time, Space, and the Imagination” (which won the Harvard University Fellowship for Academic Excellence in 2006) that captures the essence of this intervention.

Published in 2011 by the University of California Press, and product of a 30-year research, it is a book that speaks to the contemporary situation in Ife as well as the place of tradition in Yoruba society. Himself a son of a popular Anglican priest (now late), Olupona explains the contradictions within many Yoruba communities with the incursion of Islam and Christianity and the way some of our people have either managed to strike a delicate balance between the ancient and the modern or have tried to jettison traditions in the name of their new religions. 

It is the opening page of “City of 201 Gods” that is particularly instructive, especially with regards to the current situation in Ife:

“My desire to carry out long-term ethnographic research in Ile-Ife was first conceived in 1976 when I was employed as Research Fellow by the University of Ife (re-named Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife. During that year, I lived with my parents at St. Philip’s Vicarage, Aiyetoro, Ile-Ife, a fair distance from the university campus, and I took a route that passed through the city centre. I began to notice as I drove back and forth from the campus that I was always running into groups of people celebrating one form of festival or another. I also noticed that as one ceremony would end another would begin. It dawned on me that what I had thought was simply a common figure of speech – that there is only one day in an entire year when a festival is not performed in Ile-Ife – was literally true. 

“As I returned home late one evening in December, I noticed that the city was not as bustling as usual in the late evening. Indeed, the city centre was quiet and almost deserted. My parents were on the balcony anxiously waiting for me to come home. As I parked and walked up the stairway, my mother scolded me for being out so late, which was not unusual as I normally held evening classes on campus.

“The difference this time around was that it was rumoured that the king had joined his ancestors. As an Oke-Igbo native of Ife extraction, my mother knew better than I that I was not safe to drive around the streets at night in those days, especially at such an auspicious time when the king-god was rumoured to have ascended to the heavens of his ancestors. Rumours abounded about the rituals surrounding the burial of the deceased Ooni and the investiture of a new Ooni…”

With extensive interview sessions with Oba Sijuade, to whom he was very close, and senior Olori, Yeyeluwa Morisade Sijuade, as well as prominent Ife chiefs and priests over several years, Olupona delved into the famous Ife ‘Olojo festival of Ogun’ as well as the issues of identity, rituals and power in the festival of ‘Obatala’ and 'Yemoo’. There are also chapters on ‘Ifa’ divination rituals and the place of goddess Moremi in the ‘festival of Edi’ with regards to gender, sacrifice and the expulsion of evil, etc. 

However, the chapter most relevant to this discussion is the conclusion: “Ancient Orisa and New Evangelicals Vie for the City of 201 Gods.” Despite the challenges from Islamic and Christian evangelism, according to Olupona, “the Ife rituals calendar, the year-round celebrations, and the ritual and festival cycle continue to provide occasions for renewing the sacred energy of the city that the Isoro priests ensure on behalf of the Ooni. Through propitiation of Ile-Ife gods and goddesses, it is assumed that the cosmos is renewed. Life is reenergised for another year.”

Yet even at that, the old order may be gradually crumbling in Ife since, in the words of Olupona, “new cultural and religious beliefs and activities, championed by evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist Islamic movements, are increasingly practised at the palace. Consequently, the palace’s pluralistic ideology and ethos as a centralising and unifying force, which had previously survived on the strength of the old structure, are gradually crumbling under the weight of globalization and modern religious ideology. Instead, the palace is emerging as a centre disseminating Christian, Islamic, and new religious traditions that now wield authority and influence. However, older traditions are not receding without a fight…”

Incidentally, it is this same sort of tension between the ancient and the modern that provoked my column of 19th September, 2013, The-olu-of-warri-and-his-god/159325 following a royal proclamation by the Atuwase II, that some ancient customs of the Warri Kingdom had been stopped after publicly renouncing the traditional name ‘Ogiame’. At that period, the Olu had vowed to replace all the rituals and practices that did not conform with his Pentecostal Christianity. But the royal father met a stiff opposition from a cross-section of Itsekiri people who called for his dethronement with several youths and women (who had erected canopies) cooking in front of the palace gate.

Although I got several critical responses to my piece, especially from many pastors who questioned the genuineness of my Christian faith, the subject of my interrogation was whether indeed the Olu of Warri could unilaterally reject the title ‘Ogiame’ which represents the ancient identity, custom, heritage and symbol of the people over whom he presides. From my own understanding, what the royal father sought to jettison without due process were established values and deep-rooted beliefs of his people which have persisted over generations – traditions over which he was appointed to serve as custodian.

History teaches that no political order can endure without effective symbols that project the values and beliefs of the people based on a constant interaction between religion and law. That perhaps explains why in traditional societies, the king combined the power of a priest and a judge. But all that may now be in the past even though the challenge goes beyond religion to modernisation and the fact that those who ascend traditional institutions are now men of means who also enjoy the good life. For instance, in the past, it was hardly ever heard of that a king would die in the domain of another monarch.

However, in our modern world, it sounds more appealing to say a prominent person, including traditional rulers of repute, dies in a British, German or American hospital than to say he had his last breath at a Nigerian university teaching hospital. Of course, it does not help that medical practitioners in these hospitals are perpetually on strike (as they have been for weeks now) so in a way there may be little or no choice than to go abroad, especially for those have the means. The problem, of course, begins when you try to infuse blatant lies into the whole matter in the name of keeping some traditions that had been rendered ineffectual by virtue of not being in control of the situation.

To the extent that traditional authorities remain a unifying factor for pluralistic societies like that of Ile-Ife, the issues surrounding the exit of one ruler and the enthronement of another should not just be about rituals but fidelity to sacred mores that hold societies together. The issue in contention though is that there are practices that might have been acceptable in the past but which are no longer sustainable. For instance, the ascendance of the nation-state comprising too many ethnic groups with all manner of traditions and primordial values has created a cultural heterogeneity which then presents the supremacy of law as the ultimate sensible source of cohesion and order.

What that means, in effect, is that there is today a serious conflict between some traditional ritual observance and the fundamental rights of citizens in a secular modern state if the safety of people cannot be guaranteed as being speculated, especially in Ife. Here I must reiterate that I have respect for traditions because long before colonialism, our communities were well-organised with monarchs who were seen by their people essentially as sacred beings with mystical and spiritual powers. But we should move with the times to discard ancient practices that may violate the rights of other people, even to live.

From the foregoing, there are too many questions which the situation in Ife presents and I hope some people will ponder over them. But before I conclude with the questions, I feel offended as a Yoruba man by some of what I have been reading in recent days. The Yoruba people have rich traditions that cannot and should not be equated with people being killed; what is happening in Ile-Ife is about the place of kings in some societies and the process by which their passages are announced.

However, I can understand the lack of appreciation of such matters by some people because it is this same sort of ignorance about Yoruba culture that led to the ban in 2002, by the National Films and Censors Board, certain aspects of Tunde Kelani’s film, ‘Agogo Eewo’ (The Gong of Taboo), a sequel to the 1999 classic, ‘Saworoide’. The part that generated controversy then was where Professor Akinwumi Isola, as the herbalist, was consulting the Ifa oracle. The verses the Censors Board considered objectionable are: “Af'ipa lowo won kii kadun” (Seekers of wealth by forceful means do not last); “Afi warawara lowo bi ologun kii dola” (Seekers of wealth employing brute force of soldiers lack longevity)
With the script written by Professor Isola, a world acclaimed authority on Yoruba tradition and culture and National Merit Award Winner, these are not empty incantations, but they make more sense when situated with the storyline of the film.

‘Agogo Eewo’ is the story of a village called Jogbo which, like Nigeria, has enough for the needs of the people in terms of resources but not enough to satisfy the greed of the succeeding kings and the chiefs. Unfortunately for the villagers, the greed of the chiefs outweighed their collective need. However, in ancient Jogbo, the ruler and the ruled had made a pact, a sort of binding social contract that engendered prosperity for all but with dire consequences for deviants. But the corrupt chiefs conspired with the king to ensure that the requisite rituals were never performed so they could continue to loot without being brought to account by the gods.

The turning point came when the corrupt king eventually met his hubris. The person who was supposed to succeed him was a young man but the corrupt chiefs who had their plans wanted somebody they thought they would put in their pocket, a retired police officer. That was how they hijacked the process, thinking the man so chosen would not rock the boat. Against his wish, they cajoled Adebosipo to accept the kingship, saying he was the only man who could change the situation of things in the town. He said he had no money, they said he should not worry. But the moment he got to the throne, Adebosipo decided to change the course of events by bringing prosperity to his community and people. How did he do it? He submitted himself and the chiefs to the sacred rituals of the community that had been jettisoned.

There are several lessons in the film depicted through differing metaphors and allegories but the real take-away is that it could deploy mere abstractions and make them understandable and entertaining with a powerful message about the place of rituals in traditional societies. But the ultimate lesson really is that in the past, our societies had their own way of rewards and sanctions and there were codes of ethics both for those in positions of authority and their subjects. At the apex of this system was the traditional ruler, the Kabiyesi, alase, ekeji orisa.

Now to the pertinent questions that we must ask in a modern society: How do you preserve the ritual secrecy that attends the passing of notable citizens like for instance a traditional ruler in the age of instant electronic communication? How does the media relate to facts of death probably communicated by an aide of a dying monarch by Twitter as against accepting the mumbo jumbo from some old men who would hide behind tradition to insist on untruths? Do all Nigerian communities have a right to partake of the larger national culture that sees death as a private experience which should impact mostly the family and followers of the departed? Do the police and other security agencies have any responsibility in ensuring that cases of missing persons in times of suspicious ritual observance are thoroughly investigated even if that entails trespassing into sacred precincts? 

For any of these questions I have no answer but they are important for critical stakeholders to interrogate as we seek to build an inclusive and diverse national society where the rights of all citizens will be guaranteed. Meanwhile, I wish my aburo, Gbite, and his lovely wife, Dolapo (now Mrs Sijuade), a successful married life.

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. Adeniyi can be reached via

Source: News Express

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