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Kabiyesi, where is your certificate?


Abiola Ajimobi

It would take years before the full implications of what happened on Sunday August 27 in Ibadan to manifest. On that day, Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State installed 21 new persons as monarchs in Ibadan to superintend over the affairs of the city and its satellite towns and villages. With this masterstroke, he has tampered with age-long traditional system in Ibadan that has become ossified for generations. For better or for worse, something has happened in Ibadan that has shaken the traditional elite class. Twenty-one men have just been installed as Kabiyesi. And they were not even princes!

Ibadan was a unique experiment in nation building during the turbulence of the 19th Century following the collapse of old Oyo Empire. After Oyo, the capital of the empire was destroyed by rebels from Ilorin, aided by the Fulanis, the old city and all the adjourning settlements were evacuated and the refugees, including members of the soldierly class, moved south. This was to have serious demographic impact on the rest of Yorubaland. A band of soldiers, led by Lagelu, an Ife war commander, was the first to settle in Ibadan. He was succeeded by another Ife man called Maye. Oluyole, a war commander from Oyo was the third ruler. He was the one who instituted the republican Constitution for Ibadan. There had been tampering since then, but nothing as fundamental as what Ajimobi did on Sunday.

One thing that set Ibadan and Ilorin, its old rival, apart from other Yoruba towns was the scant regard paid to the old Ife system which dictated that for someone to become an Oba, he must trace his roots to the House of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife or to one of its princes or princesses. Ibadan, a city built by soldiers, had no time for such niceties. It saw itself as the rightful successor state to the Oyo Empire and after its subjugation of Aare Kurumi of Ijaiye, tried to bring other Yoruba states under its wing. It was spectacularly successful, bringing a large part of Yorubaland under its influence, if not direct rule, until checkmated by the Ekitiparapo Grand Alliance in the Kiriji War.

Ibadan shared a similar ideology with Ilorin, its main rival for empire building. As expected, Ilorin had no regard for the Ife ideology after rebels seized power from Afonja, the last Yoruba ruler of Ilorin, and installed Alimi, a Fulani man, in his place. Ilorin welcomed all comers from Yorubaland and beyond as long as you agreed to become a Muslim and you grew a beard if you were a man. In its sweep to the south after the destruction of Oyo, it was only halted by the Ibadan forces at the battle of Osogbo in 1840. Ibadan’s strength lies in its egalitarianism and its reward system which emphasizes merit instead of bloodlines.
At the ceremony on Sunday, Governor Ajimobi pleaded that he had not come to overturn history and tradition, only to build on it. Said he: “I wish to state categorically that we are not changing history, we are not changing tradition, we are not changing the culture of Ibadanland; rather, we are elevating and consolidating our traditional institution, the exalted position of the Olubadan of Ibadan as the Imperial Majesty in Ibadanland, the Olubadan-in-Council and the chieftaincy institution without tinkering with the traditional succession and ascendancy system of the Olubadan chieftaincy structure.”

In the beginning, Ibadan tried to be different. Now it is trying to be similar to the other Yoruba states. In Yorubaland, the major states are headed by the Oba who wears the bearded crown. The smaller settlements, which are often subject to a bigger town, are headed by a baale. Overtime, these settlements have grown and acquired the right to independence and their rulers the right to wear beaded crowns. But Ibadan, despite its role in Yoruba history since the 19th Century, continued to have its ruler referred to as the Baale of Ibadan. It was only Abass Aleshinloye, who ascended the throne in 1930, who proclaimed himself the Olubadan in 1936. Earlier attempts by past rulers to be called Olubadan were opposed by the Alaafin of Oyo, indulged by the colonial masters, who proclaimed that “we are the owners of Ibadan up to Ogbomoso.”

Of course, Ibadan was not a creation of Oyo. It was a creation of crisis. It dealt with the revolutionary era of the 19th Century in novel ways, thanks to the ingenuity and statesmanship of its leaders like Lagelu, Maye, Oluyole, Ajayi Ogboriefon, Ogunmola and Latoosa. By the 20th Century, it has become pacified under the British and mollified by the mores and dynamics of modern Nigeria. None of its rulers ever considered himself inferior to any member of the House of Oduduwa, those who panegyrics resounds with the chants of ancient history. The issue came to a head during the Second Republic when the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, led the revolt against the old order and demanded that the leadership of the Oyo State Council of Obas be rotated among some leading members. Of course, the Olubadan was one of those listed to be the chairman of the Council of Obas in rotation.

However, those on the Ajimobi list are not really new entrants into the traditional power game. It is understandable and, indeed, in trend with modern development in Yorubaland, that those baale who control definite territories like Erumu, Ido and Akanran, should be upgraded. No traditional ruler wants to be a baale anymore. That is the phenomenon we have found in many states, especially Lagos and Ogun States. The baales are parts of their communities and they cannot be promoted or transferred. But what of the high chiefs who are on the line of succession to the Olubadan throne? They are now obas. Suddenly, the Olubadan-in-Council is now the Council of Obas of Ibadanland. In the past, every one of those high chiefs was senior to any of the baale. Today, there is a distinction without a difference.

These newly minted obas of Ibadanland, how would they relate to the other obas in Oyo State? When has it become the norm that Kabiyesis would collect their certificates from the Governor’s Office? Those on the queue to become the Olubadan, how many certificates are they going to collect before they ascend the throne of His Imperial Majesty? These new obas, how would they relate to their other colleagues across Yorubaland? How would they relate to the Alaafin, the Soun of Ogbomoso, the Okere of Shaki and the Eleruwa of Eruwa, among others? How many of them would be entitled to attend the meeting of the Oyo State Council of Obas?

Ajimobi said he was doing this after a careful consideration of Ibadan history and cultural practices. In other parts of Yorubaland, if a baale is to become an oba, then it would be with the consent of the paramount oba of the domain. In Ile-Ife for example, the Ooni is the consenting authority. In Ijebuland, it is the Awujale. In Oyo, it is the Alaafin. It is simply unthinkable that the governor of Osun State would crown a new oba in Ife territory and present him with a staff of office at the Governor’s Office, Osogbo, while the Ooni seethes in his palace. But this was what has happened to the Olubadan, Oba Saliu Adetunji, who is supposed to be the consenting authority in his territory. The mass coronation sounds more like the mass wedding we use to have in the Catholic Church.

Soon Their Majesties would acquire all the necessary paraphernalia, the palaces, the kakaki and the praise singers to complement their new status. They too, like obas are wont to do, would soon start giving out honourary chieftaincy titles to the worthy and the not-so worthy. Would they then still be prostrating for the Olubadan? Indeed in Ibadan, the baales of the smaller towns and villages are appointed by the mogajis in the city. Would these new Kabiyesi still be prostrating for their mogajis, especially when the mogaji is not one of the new Kabiyesis in the city? Then the new obas in the city, what would happen when they are promoted?

Yet this new change in the Ibadan chieftaincy system is not a fly-by-night fancy decision. For many decades, many Ibadan elite have been worried by the small pace of ascension to the Olubadan throne. By the time a mogaji finally becomes the Olubadan, he is already old, passed his prime and may have received his visa for the journey to God’s headquarters. That was why the reign of the Olubadan was usually short. One of them, Oba Gbadamasi Akanbi Adebimpe ascended the throne in 1976 and the following year he was dead. It is good now that with the intervention of Ajimobi, the journey of 42 steps has now been shortened to 20 steps. It may mean that in the nearest future, we may even have an Olubadan who would be below 70. That would be the day!

This is a developing story that is not reaching denouement very soon. One of the high chiefs who refused the new crown, Rashidi Adewolu Ladoja, former governor of Oyo State, had already gone to court to challenge the legality of the whole exercise. We are waiting for the court’s pronouncement. On Monday, 24 hours after Their Majesties collected their certificates, His Imperial Majesty, the Olubadan, decided to embark on a road show across the old city to demonstrate that the people were in his support in his opposition to the whole drama. The Olubadan says he is not a politician. I believe him. He is not campaigning for any new office or for promotion. He is the Olubadan of Ibadanland and in Yorubaland, an oba cannot be promoted or transferred.

One thing that is also not clear from those who have been defending the governor is what is in this for the people? The government is interested in boosting the prestige of the Olubadan compared to the other obas in Yorubaland! This is a tall ambition. An oba’s prestige is not dependent on his being called His Majesty or His Imperial Majesty or His Eminence or, indeed, His Highness. Respect must be earned and cannot be bestowed by the government. Indeed, what is the Yoruba translation of His Imperial Majesty?

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