Obasanjo: Day Obas Ate In Public

By Suyi Ayodele 

AT the installation of an oba in Yorubaland, he is given a list of taboos and red lines he must never cross. One of them is that he must never eat in public. I once attended a royal banquet in one of the palaces in the South-West, where I saw two foremost traditional rulers eat in public. The two of them are the biggest masquerades in the pantheon of natural rulers in the land. The host oba is also one of the most respected obas in Yorubaland with a deity-like figure. His oriki (panegyrics) says he is the òrìsà of his people. I was not the only one who saw the mouths of the two òrìsàs as they ate openly and broke the taboo with relish. I saw them and my mouth could not be closed. I knew that in my place, obas are called “Odidimode” (the mysterious one) who must forever remain a mystery to mere men like me. My people say no one sees the mouth of an Odidimode (a kii rí enu Òdìdìmodè). It means no one beholds the mouth of the spirit – Òdìdìmodè – while eating. Why? It happened that during the time of ìwásè (time of creation), one oba ate too much, drank too much, and broke the gourd of respect. Since then, an oba who feels the pangs of hunger must repair into the inner recesses of his palace and do what mortals do in public.

The two obas who ate in public did not stop at eating. One of them topped it with two bottles of a beer brand. If that had happened in my place, the Alálès (ancestors) would have kicked at least a tooth out of the mouth of that desecrator of tradition. But modernity changed all that at the royal banquet. The two potentiates suspended tradition and all its vows.

Yet, they could have assuaged their hunger with wisdom. There is a cultural heritage I am familiar with. The head of the festival is the head of his clan, though not the main oba of the town. He prepares pounded yam for his kinsmen to eat to round off his clan’s festival every year. By tradition, the pounded yam must be prepared early in the morning before the first fly, appears. No fly must perch on the mortal or pestle, or when the food is being eaten (Esisi kò bà). After feeding them, all males in the clan, by protocol, must prostrate to pay homage to the chief. This is without exception. Yoruba tradition, however, does not allow a father to prostrate to a son. There was a time when the father of the occupant of the chieftaincy was still alive. No male is also exempted from the eating of the pounded yam. How did elders resolve the logjam? Before the last mould of the pounded yam was consumed, one of the elders stylishly excused the father of the chief to come and see something outside. As the two stepped out, the man saddled with the duty of calling out the traditional salutation gave the tributes cry. All the males went flat on all fours. The man who escorted the chief’s father rushed in and shut the old man out. Homage was paid. The chief got up from his traditional stool, went out and prostrated to greet his father good morning. Others took their turns to also greet the old man, who by virtue of his age, was then the oldest man in the clan. That is wisdom. If the father had stayed when the traditional homage was paid, by protocol, he would have prostrated to his own son!

Modern state protocol and tradition are two opposing phenomena. One is superior to the other. And there is no controversy about which is superior. When tradition and state protocol meet, tradition takes the back seat. Painful! But that is the bitter truth. I am a child of culture and tradition. Equally, I am a realist. We are in a situation where the entire world is upside down all in the name of civilisation. The erosion of the powers of traditional rulers is not limited to the Yoruba race. The General Muhammadu Buhari military regime of December 31, 1983, to August 27, 1984, demystified the thrones of the Ooni of Ife and the Emir of Kano, when he had Oba Okunade Sijuade and Alhaji Ado Bayero suspended as the Ooni of Ife and Emir of Kano respectively for a period of six months, and restricted to their domains for the same period. The two foremost traditional rulers were accused of visiting Israel, a diplomatically unfriendly country as at that time, without permission. The government then decreed that no traditional ruler must leave his domain without the express permission of the Chairman of his local government. When the expired dark-goggled tyrant, General Sani Abacha, held sway as Head of State, the 18th Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki was dethroned in 1996. On March 9, 2020, Governor Abdullahi Ganduje, of Kano State, dethroned Sanusi Lamido Sanusi II as the Emir of Kano and replaced him with the current Emir, Aminu Ado Bayero. In 2016, some three weeks to his exit as the governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole suspended the Onojie of Uromi, Anslem Aidonojie, for travelling abroad without the permission of the governor. Then three days to the terminal date of his administration, the embattled monarch was dethroned by Oshiomhole, as his ‘parting gift’ to the people of Uromi. The Onojie was only reinstated by Governor Godwin Obaseki in 2017. So, like we say in street lingo: no be today.

To show who is more powerful between traditional rulers and the governor of a state, every traditional ruler’s letter of recommendation is signed by the Secretary to the Local Government (SLG), of the council where the traditional hails from. As a matter of protocol, during the selection process of a traditional ruler, the SLG must be physically present to monitor the process. Otherwise, the selection becomes a nullity. This goes to show that in terms of protocol, the SLG reigns supreme above the traditional settings. By the arrangement, the order of protocol for an oba is the SLG, the Local Government Area (LGA) Chairman, Commissioner for Chieftaincy Affairs and then the governor. The distance between an oba and a governor is what my people describe as “Imú elédè jìnà sójú” (the nose of a pig is far from its eyes).

So, what happened at Iseyin in Oke Ogun, Oyo State, last Friday? There was a project to be commissioned by Governor Seyi Makinde. As a mark of honour, the governor invited former President Olusegun Obasanjo as Special Guest. Traditional rulers from that axis were also in attendance to underscore the importance of the project. All set and guest seated. The governor walked in. Everybody got up as protocol demanded. The traditional rulers remained on their seats. The governor walked to the podium to speak. Everybody, including Obasanjo, stood up. The obas, again, remained seated. Governor Makinde noticed that and took it in his stride. General Obasanjo equally noticed the breach of protocol. He decided to do something about it. When the opportunity came for the man known as Ebora Òwu to speak, Obasanjo upbraided the traditional rulers. After greeting them for taking time to be at the event, the Balógun Òwu told the obas that in any function, where either a governor or the president was present, everyone in attendance must stand up as a mark of honour for the governor or the president. In such a gathering, the retired General emphasised that the governor or the president would be the highest person. Then he erred when he commanded the obas to stand up. They all did. He ordered them to sit down. They all obeyed. He went further to lecture them that while he was the president, he, Obasanjo, openly prostrated for obas. But in the closet of privacy, obas paid obeisance to him. Ever since, the Yoruba landscape has lost its peace as ‘cultural reformists’ invaded the space, dishing out all manners of theories. They say Obasanjo must apologise for desecrating the land. Let us address the issues.

The desecration did not start today. Obasanjo did not start the so-called denigration and desecration of Yoruba obas. History is a beast. On May 9, 2014, at the special prayer session held at the Ijebu-Ode Central Mosque to mark the 80th birthday of the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Adetona, this is what the then National Leader of the All Progressive Congress (APC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who today is President of Nigeria, said of Yoruba obas while addressing the Awujale: “You are not part of the useless obas in Yorubaland who will sell out. We know them and it is not yet time to mention names. In Yorubaland today, you are the best monarch and that is not contestable. The good obas in Yorubaland, who are forthright, firm and who stand by the truth are not up to five; they are just three: Oba Awujale, Oba Akiolu and another.” Tinubu named only two of the “best” obas, he said others were “useless”. He did not even list the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi as one of the good ones. Yet, Oba Adeyemi was alive then. The then Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade (jingbinni bi ate akun) was also alive when Tinubu broke that calabash of taboo. Just like this Obasanjo wahala, there was an uproar, and, because Tinubu was not in government then, the same moral policemen of today came out to abuse him. They said he should apologise. And, like Obasanjo, he ignored them. But, responding to Tinubu, Oba Sijuwade, through his media aide, High Chief Funmilola Olorunnisola, reaffirmed his earlier position that: “If any of our leaders wants to make a categorical statement on an important issue like the oba in Yoruba land, he should please try to check records to know exactly what each one of them has done, because there is so much blackmailing… When our country was upside down, it was the traditional rulers in this country that saved the situation. If we left the country as politicians did, there would have been no state for the leader of APC to rule when he came back.” The present Olubadan of Ibadan, Oba Lekan Balogun, who was then the Osi Olubadan of Ibadan land, had this to say: “How can Bola ever say such things about our traditional rulers? What else can an ignorant non-Yoruba politician say about our obas? Instead of just abusing them, Bola should strive to identify one particular area where they have failed to identify with their people’s interests. What else can an oba do in a modern political system when his “people’s interests” are divergent, and sometimes, in direct conflict? I am very disappointed with Bola.” There were other reactions to that assault. You can check online; the Internet does not forget.

One of the questions to ask about the Iseyin incident is: Is it right for the traditional rulers to sit down when the governor walked in to the event? The answer is capital NO! That is a breach of protocol. The age of the governor is immaterial; he is the number one citizen of the state. I have seen videos of former Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola of Osun State at public events, where after the traditional rulers in attendance had stood up to receive him, the former governor went back to where the obas were seated to prostrate and greet them as tradition demanded. But he did that after the obas had observed the required state protocol at public functions. That was not the case in Iseyin on Friday. The first breach was by the obas. What were they thinking? Who coached them to do what they did? Who appointed them in the first instance? Former Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State ran into problems with obas in the state when he attempted to distort the Pelúpelú (Crowned Oba structure) settings in the state. When the heat was becoming consuming, Fayemi ran to the departed Alaafin Adeyemi III for counsel and intervention. The ex-governor was pictured prostrating to revere the monarch. One of the Obasanjo-denigrated-Yoruba-obas choristers sent Fayemi’s picture to justify that a governor prostrated to greet an Alaafin. I told him that Fayemi’s issue had no iota of relevance to the issue at hand. One, Fayemi, was in Alaafin Palace. He had no choice than to obey tradition there. Two, the governor was in distress as at that time and he was not in any position to remember protocol. The event in Oyo Palace was not a public function and as such no government protocol was required and none was offered. A senior journalist, while speaking on the same issue said that in all the functions that the departed Oba Adeyemi III attended, he would be the first to rise in honour of the governors and the governors would in turn pay homage to him as a foremost oba in Yorubaland.

One of the obas who is angry that Obasanjo denigrated Yoruba obas is the Oluwo of Iwo, Oba Abdulrasheed Akanbi. I wonder where morality lies with Oluwo, who on February 21, 2020, was suspended by the Osun State Traditional Council for six months. The Council took the position after Oba Akanbi physically beat up another Oba, the Agbowu of Ogbaagba, at a peace meeting over land matters, presided over by an Assistant Inspector-General of Police (AIG). It is the same oba who threw punches openly that is at the vanguard of the campaign against “Obasanjo for desecrating Yoruba crowns.” Which is more sacrilegious? Just as the Obasanjo issue broke out, another picture went viral, showing another oba from the same Oke Ogun area, who removed his crown and put it on the floor, publicly, leaving his head uncovered. Strange nobody has blamed Obasanjo for that sacrilege!

The major issue for me in this Obasanjo-Oke Ogun obas saga is the primary school-like command of ‘all-stand-greet’ order Obasanjo barked at the obas. Was he right to have done that? My answer is capital NO! There is a saying in my place that when a child defecates in the family mortar and the elder uses a rag to clean it, it is a movement from one dirt to another (Omodé ilé ya ìgbé sínú odó, àgbà fi àkísà nu; àti ègbin dé ègbin). Obasanjo holds the title of Balógun Òwu. He is equally an old man, and he has promoted Yoruba culture socially and spiritually very well. He had in the past been pictured prostrating for obas in and out of office. A man who has seen it all at that stage should not, in my judgement, have ordered obas to stand up and sit down like naughty school children the way he did. Much more, his obas-prostrate-for-me-inside comment leaves much to be desired. If that statement is true, the Òwu chief and elder statesman should have been more circumspect and ought not to have behaved like a common kiss-and-tell late adolescent! He opened his flank and that is why a man like the Oluwo, who in the past, and in the full glare of the public, threw punches like an enraged Mike Tyson, had the guts to come out to condemn Obasanjo for “desecrating” Yoruba obas. Those whose conducts in and outside the palaces have made a mess of the thrones they sit on are now out, wearing the garment of culture renaissance to get even with Obasanjo. Agba (elder), my people note, speaks more in his stomach than his mouth. Whatever came over Obasanjo and made him see those obas as troops of his 3rd Marine Commando can only be explained by the cosmic. That notwithstanding, we must make it clear to our obas that any oba who does not want to obey protocol and stand up when the governor walks in should not attend any state function. Such an Oba should stay in his palace. At state functions, protocol prevails over tradition.

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, September 19, 2023)

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