Have Yoruba Obas lost their mojo? 2, by Bola Bolawole

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Generally-speaking, the traditional rulers of today have, in many respects, lost the mystical or spiritual powers associated with their fore-fathers or ancestors. And this is not restricted to traditional rulers; there is hardly anyone, family or institution that has not lost something. We are all not as “powerful” as our forebears. Many families have lost what their families were noted for in spiritual and mystical prowess. We have lost our traditional medicine. My grandmother cured all manner of aches with the tip of a broom stick. She would prick your navel as she uttered some incantations – and that would be it. Because I am Ojo, there was a small earthen pot filled with concoctions covered with red palm oil: Each time I took ill, she would rub my body with this material and ask me to go and take a nap. By the time I wake it, the illness would be gone!

My friend, Laresco, recently recounted how his mother specialized in taking difficult delivery of babies just by preparing “agbo” for the pregnant women to drink. My grandmother had specific periods of the day to go fetch this or that herb, and the words to speak before, during, and after harvesting the leaves, roots or barks of trees. We lost that knowledge or power because my mother had no time or inclination to learn it from her own mother. We have lost much of our traditional cuisines, religion, culture, ways of dressing and ways of life. We have lost our traditions, dances, music, and education. We have even lost our language and land. Yoruba land today swarms with other ethnic groups not just competing with us but also contesting the ownership of our land with us! Something you dare not try on their own land!

The Yoruba are one ethnic group that has no regard for the sanctity of their land. They exhume their parents’ corpses buried on the land and sell the land! Because we are the ones mostly affected by the “japa” syndrome, our towns and villages are desolate of natives and it is a matter of time before Yoruba land is completely taken over by foreigners. And Yoruba Obas are not exempted from the dangerous trend of indiscriminate selling of Yoruba land. In fact, the allure for many of those who fight tooth-and-nail to ascend to the throne is the opportunity to sell land and get rich overnight. Like the biblical, despised Samaritans, some Yoruba Obas dilute; nay, pollute the “blue blood” running in their veins by marrying foreigners as well as desecrating the throne in many other villainous ways!

The unbridled love of money (which the scriptures say is the root of evil), Western religion and “civilization” (which have eroded our traditional religion and values), and the destruction of our traditional system of government by the colonial powers and its replacement with the Western-styled democratic system of government are some of the reasons why birds no longer chirp as birds and rats do not squeak as rats in the Yoruba traditional setting. The story is told of two Yoruba Obas whose people fought wars and elders came together to make peace between both. Peace made, each time the senior Oba stretched forward his hand for a handshake, the lesser Oba prostrated instead of reaching out and taking the outstretched hand. Asked why, the lesser Oba was reported as saying: “You saw a hand stretched forward for a handshake but I saw the head of a viper!” The story is also told of another Oba who, once he placed a curse, it was like the heavens had spoken! It is possible that we still have such Obas in Yoruba land. It is even possible that some of those drilled by a former president at Iseyin the other day possess such powers but the element of surprise, which the former army General sprung on them, might have unhinged them. Surprise is a very potent strategy in warfare.

Should we expect present-day Yoruba Obas to be as mystically or spiritually endowed as the Obas of old? The answer is yes, when occasion demands. Why should kidnappers enter a palace and kidnap Obas and their Oloris (wives)? Why should Obas fall to the bullets of assassins, kidnappers and bandits? Where is “afeeri” and “egbe” of yore? Why should an errant and loquacious ex-this, ex-that not be taught the lesson of his life, even if not as sweeping as the one the Alafin taught Bode Thomas? Such extraordinary powers must, however, not be put to oppressive and tyrannical use. Like we said here last week, this is the age of fundamental human rights and not that of the divine right of kings.

The Oyo State governor procured the agent provocateur who scattered ground, as they say, at Iseyin. At what cost, if I may ask, and for what purpose? Was the governor privy to what his guest did at Iseyin or was he also taken aback? That he has kept mute since the incident happened may or may not mean that he has not moved behind the scene to offer the needed apologies and calm frayed nerves, regardless of the fact that his guest, like a stubborn goat, has remained recalcitrant. True, then, is the saying that those whom the gods will destroy, they first make deaf. The dog that is destined to get lost in the forest will not listen to the hunter’s whistle. All said and done, history has been made and there is no way the Oyo State governor can wash himself clean of the mess at Iseyin. Each time the incident is mentioned; he, too, will be named for, as my people would say, when a tortoise is mentioned, the forest from which it was picked will also be mentioned.

The blame for the Iseyin incident must be partly shared by the governor who invited the former president-turned village headmaster: “E dide! E joko!” Some reports said the governor must have intimated the ex-president with his grievances and grouse of lack of electoral support against the Obas. And the latter, reeking with rage that his candidate in the Saturday, 25 February, 2023 presidential election was resoundingly rejected at Oke-Ogun, must have seized with both hands the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Besides, the former president is alleged not to be a full-blooded Yoruba son; he has also persistently been castigated for having not benefited the Yoruba either as military Head of State or as civilian president.

The Obas, on the other hand, have been lambasted for obeying the orders barked at them by the ex-president like frightened school children, looking, thereafter, like rain-soaked chicks! But we would be harsh on them if we continue to arrogate unto them powers, authority and influence they lost decades ago. The Obas of today and the traditional institution they represent are mere relics of the past. Effective power and authority reside with the government which appoints and can dis-appoint any Oba. Under the law, Obas without an exception are under the authority and control of local government chairmen who, in turn and in actual fact, are appointees/errand boys of state governors. The Obas and their chiefs are allocated a certain percentage of the funds accruing to their local government. So, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. The Obas must design a way to be financially independent of government funding before they can lay any claim to being outside of the control of a LG chairman, not to talk of a state governor. The 1999 Constitution (as amended) must also be amended to give the Obas the teeth to bite.

Truth be told, how many of today’s Obas are the rightful occupant of the throne on which they perch? These days, not only politicians but also Obas have godfathers! These days, not only political godsons but also princes eyeing the throne are dragged before shrines to swear oaths of allegiance! These days not only political offices but also traditional stools are sold and bought. The highest bidder, and not Ifa oracle, has the last say these days! Everywhere: Lagos, Ife, Ibadan, my dear Ondo state, the traditional institution has been desecrated via so-called modernization; everyone wants to wear beaded crowns; Baales want to be promoted to Obas and Obas want to be upgraded – by who? Is it not by the same political office holders? The greatest offence anyone can commit to any Oba is not to know the grade difference between His Royal Majesty, His Royal Highness, His Imperial Majesty, etc.!

Today’s Obas are caricatures of their former selves not only in Yoruba land but all over the country. The Constitution of the country has no special dignified and constitutionally-guaranteed role for them. They hold office at the pleasure of political office-holders and are, at best, glorified public office holders. A few of them, however, still manage to carry themselves with dignity. As it is, it promises to remain a pot-pourri of compromise, confusion and controversy.

  • Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers and Chairman of its Editorial Board