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How not to be an ‘Ogboni king’ in 21st Century


Demonstrators shout slogans during a rally at Ojota in Lagos on June 12, 2021, as Nigerian activists called for nationwide protests over what they criticise as bad governance and insecurity, as well as the recent ban of US social media platform Twitter by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. – Hundreds of protesters gathered on June 12, 2021 in Lagos, a sprawling megapolis of over 20 million people, and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Yoruba nation’s mega rally in Lagos has not been forgotten just yet. While the family of the young lady alleged to have been killed by a stray bullet still mourns her demise, there are about 49 persons in police custody, though for questionable offences that only the police could explain. Among those detained is a character now popularly known as ‘Ogboni king’. His role actually sets one thinking of what has become of the most revered and enduring Ogboni cult in an African traditional setting.
Perhaps you have seen video clips of his performance at the rally and thereafter. One of the clips showed the ‘Ogboni king’ in his white regalia and his boisterous self. Under the influence of make-believe supernatural powers, he threatened hell and brimstone on all oppositions to protest and agenda of the Yoruba Republic. But the music changed dramatically after he was arrested by men of the Lagos Police Command. He suddenly became meek and as gentle as a dove. The clown even denied attending the rally, forgetting he earlier performed on the stage and for cameras. He has since become the butt of jokes on social media platforms. We thank him for making us laugh at these tough times, and hope he will find laughter too when the Magistrate Court rules on their case July 27.
But beyond the comic relief is the sour aftertaste he accords to beleaguered tradition he represents. As a self-acclaimed Ogboni, his self-denial and insincerity clearly negate principles and trademarks of the prestigious ancient club. On one hand, it is heartwarming to find good number of practitioners and custodians reawakening ancient lore in a modern society that has almost lost its heritage. But it is most disappointing to find blatant abuse by the same adherents. I think the ‘Ogboni king’, is more of an impostor, and therefore lacks a fair idea of what the esoteric cult represents.
To set the record straight, the Ogboni cult remains alive till date, especially in the Southwestern part of the country. An Ogboni literally means ‘an elder’ and the cult serves as an umbrella for notable elders to have a fraternal setting of their own. In the past, only notable personalities with exceptional track record of achievements and of 70-year-plus were admitted into the esoteric cult. Those were the role models and moral exemplars of their communities. It was more of their social symbolism that earned them respect than their spiritual role within the cult. Simply put, Ogboni is the aristocratic and elite club of the elderly and top achievers; the rallying point of communal knowledge and spirituality.
The Ogboni have their dedicated lodges i.e. Iledi for meetings and some of these are still around even in parts of Lagos. There, back in the days, they discussed political affairs and adjudicated in disputes that are both civil and criminal. R.C. Abrahams noted that these meetings were held every 17 and 33 days. Thus, the Iledi was the seat of the Town Council. Nowadays, powers of the Ogboni have passed to the Local Council Administrators and Magistrate Courts. Ogboni are now largely limited to ceremonial roles in the community.
In theory, the Ogboni were advisers and directors of the activities of the State as well as being the judiciary. In the 19th Century, the War Chiefs began to have more dominant roles that brought them in conflict with the Ogboni. For instance, the newspaper, Iwe Iroyin in 1865 reported that “there are the War Chiefs and the Ogboni – between whom there always exists strife for influence and power. The Ogboni chiefs are, according to the original constitution of the country, the rulers, but war has brought the War Chiefs forward, so giving them (Balogun) power”.
Notwithstanding, the elders and their circle are critical to functional society. In 1914, an attempt was made to form a purged Ogboni society. The principal mover was an Anglican priest, Reverend T.A.J. Ogunbiyi, who aimed at founding Christian Ogboni Society. A ban was placed on the use of the name ‘Christian’ by two Anglican Bishops – Tugwell and Oluwole. Besides the Anglican, the Muslims and the Catholic communities also frowned at Ogboni, though couldn’t stop inauguration of the reformed fraternity and its membership by some of the most prominent persons in the society. So much for the chequered history of the Ogboni. The point to draw is that the cult has existed for so long and should have gone beyond gross misrepresentation and ridicules of charlatans.
Perhaps out of fear and police intimidation, Ogboni king backtracked so cowardly in self-abnegation. I’m not aware of any Ogboni that shows off his membership just to frighten others, or ridiculously cave in, in the face of danger. That is neither the Ogboni that is well known, nor how to represent them in modern times. Suffice to say, this Ogboni king clearly lacks self-conviction of the course he once pledged to die for. And that is in sync with the popular trends around protest matches that I have seen. More often, protesters are rented crowd. They neither have a clear understanding of the cause they are ‘fighting’ nor able to have good discussion on it. But at the end of the walkout, in the rain or sun, they are paid N500 or N1000 as reward. It is not unusual to see street brawls ensue over shortchange in the negotiated sum. It is also not unlikely that this Ogboni king was a rented audience too, with white-snow regalia to add weight to his presence. Maybe he underestimated the police warnings, and should have shown a better discretion and stay out of trouble. Ogboni king failed on all fronts.
Beyond that folly, it is more important for modern practitioners and custodians of African traditions to reevaluate their place and essence in modern times. The world is changing faster than some of our elders will admit. There is enormous wisdom in the saying that ogbón odun yi, were eemii ni (the wisdom of today may be folly tomorrow). That is the imperative of laying down the cards, sort them in the order of relevance, dispassionately thrash the obsolete and incorporate the most relevant ideas, irrespective of where they can be found. That is how the valuable ancient lore will stand the test of time without becoming an obstacle to contemporary trends.
In as much as dynamism is imperative, it behooves on Ogboni and other devotees to as well purge their folds of black sheep and leprous fingers, in the fashion of self-renewal. Besides questioning the relevance of traditional practices of old, the mode of public engagement cannot be by instilling fear in the public. Rather, it should be intellectual engagement, with heavy dose of moral and spiritual reawakening that project the African indigenous culture and traditions as the springboard of sustainable modern development and innovations. That is how to be a real Ogboni king of the 21st Century. Ire o!

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