An oba is put on the throne to keep “the bush at bay.” Collectively and individually, the successful oba is praised as “so’gbó di’lé/sò’gbé dì’gboro/ oba a s’ààtàn d’ojà – the successful king is he who turns forest to home; the one who turns bush to town. Karin Barber’s ‘I Could Speak Until Tomorrow’ (published in 1991) is my book of reference here. An oba that would turn his town’s rubbish heap into a market would not be deficient in legitimacy; he would not owe his ascension to the throne solely to money and its filthy influence. A king whose reign would be well would come courtesy of the blessing of God and man. In the past, “nobody could be a good oba unless he had a very broad-based support in the town” (Ulli Beier). But royalty in Yorubaland today suffers the violence of money; money is the principal speaker who speaks and gets listened to. It is our parliament and our executive; it is the judiciary. It is true that a palace needs money to breathe; it is a necessity, but it should not be the reason for a king and his super-elector.
At a project inauguration event in Iseyin, Oyo State, on Friday, the state governor, Mr Seyi Makinde, announced that the vacant throne of the Alaafin of Oyo would not be allowed to be sold to the highest bidder. “Those of you fighting over Alaafin of Oyo’s stool should stop. Those who have collected money from people should know that Alaafin’s stool is not for sale. The stool is very important to Yoruba land; we will not allow it sold to the highest bidder.” That was quite cool, pleasing, and reassuring. The governor spoke as an authentic Yoruba patriot who understands the place of the oba as the ori (head) and what it does in the life of the Yoruba society.
One of the most difficult moments for a governor in Yorubaland is when a prominent oba’s stool falls vacant. The skies, at that moment, wear an incandescent shroud of lightning, thunder claps, and storms of intrigues. Dr. Omololu Olunloyo was Western State’s commissioner in charge of chieftaincy affairs when the last Alaafin was chosen in 1970. He tells dusky stories of what went into that decision. When a first-class king dies and the governor allows the lowering of his guard, his face will suffer the ugliness of pimples. Where the soil is fertile, kingmakers sell thrones for princely sums, and princes of means buy stools. Shortly after the immediate past Timi of Ede, Oba Tijani Oyewusi Agbonran II, joined his ancestors in August 2007, the then Osun State governor, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, asked the most senior kingmaker in that town which royal house’s turn it was to present the next oba. “It is everyone’s turn” was the answer the governor got. It cannot be every prince’s turn, the governor countered the kingmaker, asking him if what he was saying was that the family of the one who just died could also present a candidate. And the kingmaker replied to the governor: “Ṣebí oyè bàbá won ni” (Why not? It is their father’s chieftaincy). That final answer was a code (or a red flag) for rent-seeking and rent collection – a recipe for an interminable litigious crisis. The governor understood what was not said, and, I am aware, that he quickly closed all roads to trouble.
Sometimes, it is the princes and their houses who run after kingmakers and assail them with irresistible cash. Throne purchasers pursue chiefs up the hill and down the valley. The same happens to key people around the approving authority, the governor. Even small me, as the governor’s spokesman, I received august visitors from the town of Ede who said they came to thank me. Thank me for what? They said I issued a statement in which I promised that the government would “follow due process in filling the stool” and because of that they brought gifts. Where I come from, a child’s most precious possessions are his mother’s and father’s prayers. I got plenty of such prayers against missteps before I became an orphan, and I pray daily for those parental fortifications to dictate what I do, what I say, and what I eat. My elderly guests said they brought kola nuts for me; I told them I inherited hectares of kola nut farms from my father but I don’t eat kola nuts. They fixed their gaze on me; I also looked at my ‘appreciative’ throne-seeking visitors and smiled. I showered them with rejective thanks. They left with their kola nuts in their pocket.
Who or what should choose the next Alaafin? The answer is in tradition and religion, encased carefully in lore and anecdotes. Priest and professor of Ifa religion and former vice-chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile Ife, Professor Wande Abimbola, offered an insight in November 2022 in an interview published by the newspaper I edit. He told this story: “In ancient times, there was a vacancy in the stool of the Alaafin. In those days, Ifá would choose from among the princes. So they had the list of all the princes; they presented all to Ifá and Ifá rejected all of them. After exhausting the names of all the princes, the kingmakers were worried about what to do next. One of them said: ‘There is one person who lives in a village far away. He carries his load of firewood to the town once a week. He goes to the bush, cuts firewood, and takes it to the town every week to sell. After selling, he would go back to the village. His name is Otonporo. Why don’t we try him?’ So they consulted Ifá if Otonporo would be fit for the throne, and if the Oyo Empire would be prosperous under his reign. Ifá said yes. At that time if Ifá had chosen you as the new Alaafin, the kingmakers would meet you in the house wherever you were. Otonporo had just put his heavy load of firewood on his head, coming to the town. They met him as he was leaving his abode in the forest. They shouted: ‘Otonporo, da’gi nùn; ire ti dé’lé kokoko’ (meaning ‘Otonporo, throw away your firewood; great fortune is awaiting you in the city.’) Otonporo became Alaafin and ruled for a long time. He was a successful king….” None of the rich princes in the metropolis got the throne; it was one hewer of wood somewhere deep in the bush who got the crown – and brought peace and prosperity to Oyo and its people.
A good leader is to his people what a good child is to his parents. When a child takes the right steps, the mother sings delightsome tunes; when a child opens its arms, it delights its father (omo sí’sè o wù’yá/ omo sí’pá, omo wu baba). Every Yoruba person should be proud of Governor Makinde’s stance on the Alaafin stool. His vow that the stool won’t be sold to the highest bidder is good news. It means we won’t have an Alaafin that has no regard for etiquette and protocols; one who routinely violates values and would be beating up other obas in private and public places. When a government makes a vow to do good, the people assist themselves by helping it to get the promise fulfilled. We should be interested in what is happening in Oyo town and what will happen to the stool there. We should particularly note the governor’s choice of words. What he said was not guesswork; he was sure of what had happened and may still happen in the process. He hinted that some people had taken money to force unworthy stuff into the vacant ààfin in Oyo. Who took money and who gave money?
Things happen daily around us; only that we are too blind (or too drunk) to see them. But if the eyes are attentive enough, they should have no problem seeing through the dank alleys of nostrils. It is not as if the decay in our obaship system started today. Maggots and nestling peckers have, long before now, been gutting the Yoruba royalty. Pioneer arts, culture, and tradition scholar, Ulli Beier, was here from 1950 through the ’70s. He observed the Yoruba society’s unique monarchy and its democratic mainframes. He noted that in the selection of an oba, every part of the community had a say in it. He added that the Yoruba held the belief that an oba who lacked broad-based support in the town could not be a good king. In exasperation, he lamented that “now, people more or less buy the office, or they are imposed by the government.” The German uttered those words decades ago. Ulli Beier said more about the journey with so much poignancy in this narration: “In the 1950s, I met a generation of oba like Timi Laoye of Ede, Oba Adenle of Osogbo, the Olokuku of Okuku (Oyinlola) and many more. They were Christians and they understood the changed political situation. They believed in education but they were also strongly committed to upholding the dignity of their office. They also understood the value and wisdom of ancient Yoruba traditions. They were an impressive group of men, of kings. They did not use their office to enrich themselves, and they were absolutely accessible to the people. Now, you have a generation of Oba, many of them political appointees who have bypassed traditional election procedures in a shameless way. A surprisingly large number of these new oba have been accountants or big businessmen before ascending to the throne. Some see the office as a means of making money. Various governments keep them in tow by throwing a few contracts their way. You now have an oba who shamelessly asks: ‘Where is my envelope?’ – a new euphemism for ‘Haven’t you brought any money to give me?’ So, how is Yoruba society going to cope with such problems? Should this ancient institution be abolished? Can it be rejuvenated, and, in such a way that we can keep politics out of it? Can it still play a vital and positive part in contemporary and future Yoruba society? If not, can it be replaced by something else? And what will that ‘something else’ be? Who or what will give a sense of direction and cohesion to the Yoruba town?” (Ulli Beier in Conversations, 2012; page 84-85). Beier asked the right questions: in the face of this thing we call ‘democracy’, shouldn’t the institution of obaship be abolished? Or can it be saved with rejuvenation? How? Who will save it?
The kingmakers in the Otonporo case above had a choice: they could sell the Oyo throne and strut the metropolis in accursed beaded wealth. The priest too had a choice; he could collect money and pick a candidate his oracle did not command him to pick. But both sides did not take the route to personal and communal ruin. They knew that every bad behaviour had very bad consequences. A purchased throne, most times, results in having a bad oba. And, what is the effect of having a bad king? A bad king is exactly the public equivalent of a bad head. A town can survive a lack of rain but no society survives the ravage of bad leadership. Leaders without legitimacy reverse gains no matter what riches they inherit – they make bush of their society and ruin their people’s good heads. Look around you. It is real. I quote Karin Barber again: “…the ruins of abandoned houses overgrown with bush, the traces of whole ruined settlements, remain as a warning that at any time, the conquest of the bush can be reversed…” True. The quickest way to reverse “the conquest of the bush” is to invest the powers of the state in the wrong hands. Athens and Sparta were Ancient Greece’s powerhouses. They convulsed and lost their luster to bad choices. The frailty of the polis is a constant warning that we must never plant thorns and thistles where a rose is desired. Oba Lamidi Adeyemi died in April 2022; he was a very successful king and a pride to the Yoruba, home and abroad. When he died, the question was: who stepped into his shoes and when? That we are still asking that question in September 2023 is to our collective shame as a people.
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