There was an open rally against the entity called Nigeria on the streets of Ibadan on Saturday. The organisers wanted a Yoruba country. That it happened where it happened should worry everyone. The Yoruba believed so much in Nigeria and sacrificed so much to make it live and work. Now, the medicine man no longer cares if the child dies. The first call for secession in Nigeria came from the north in 1966. They called it Araba (separation). The train soon moved to the East the following year with the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. Saturday’s event would appear to be the first time such would hold on the soil of Western Nigeria. For the West to move from hosting ‘Save Nigeria Group’ rallies a few years ago to rallying for ‘Oduduwa Nation’ today is tragic for Nigeria. We can blame this on the pro-north impunity of today’s Federal Government and its tenacious incompetence. But it should also be argued that the tragedy started at the very birth of Nigeria. The British created Nigeria by tying down the southern Leopard (Amotekun) for the northern dog to feed on the big cat’s tail. You can’t do that and expect the forest to benefit anyone.
The British consecrated Nigeria as a “union” between “the promising and well-conducted youth” (the north) and “a southern lady of means.” For several reasons, the union is in very bad shape – and it has always been. What took place in Ibadan on Saturday was a rally for divorce. I do not know how many people participated in it but I know that the street did not boo them. And that is where the problem lies. The Yoruba, ordinarily, are not rebellious to the point of seeking divorce or separation. They understand what an abusive relationship is and would do everything to patch up things. But everyone has a breaking point beyond which they may not care what follows again. And I will use some stories to paint a portrait of tomorrow.
Professor Karin Barber did her doctoral work on an aspect of the culture of the Yoruba. The result of that study is her classical work: ‘I Could Speak Until Tomorrow.’ It dwells on ‘Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town.’ I am interested in the ‘past’ part of the book and the Yoruba concepts of loyalty and rebellion. Barber quotes an elderly farmer: “I worked from childhood for my father on his farm. When I was about thirty, my father lent me out as an iwofa in exchange for a loan of £4. I was to live in the house of my father’s creditor…After three years, the debt was paid and I was allowed to leave and go to Abeokuta as a P.W.D labourer on the roads. I spent ten months there and got £1/10s for it. When I got home, I handed over the money to my father. A girl had been betrothed to me but my father did not produce the money to pay the bride price. So, I left. I joined Jacob Ajayi of Ile Oluawo (a maternal relative) and went to Ghana with him. That was in 1930. I worked as a firewood gatherer, serving Ajayi. In 1932, I came back and paid the bride price out of my savings. It was fixed at £7/5s. After the wife had come to my house, I refused to work for my father any longer. I told him he could not expect me to continue serving him, since he had not paid the bride price or helped me in any of my difficulties. I went to the farm and seized the plot I wanted to use. I cleared it for myself without my father’s consent. All my younger brothers by my father’s other two wives did the same thing one by one…until only one young boy was left working for my father” (See page 216 – 217).
I hope the drift in this personal, local narrative won’t be lost. In that story, we see a greedy, domineering father who took without giving. Today’s Nigeria is that father. We see how the unfeeling father indentured his ‘obedient’ son for £4 and how the boy took the ‘slavery’ as a duty he owed his needy father. We also see how, just a few years later, the man lost, not just the control of the boy but also valued portions of his farm to the young man, now liberated. At the community level, the story is the same. The founding history of almost every town in the region is an enduring narrative in initial accommodation of autocracy and then, rebellion and divorce. When a king became too dictatorial or his aural destroyed the people’s destinies, the Yoruba moved. Abuja and all its enablers should read what is happening correctly.
American political economist, Sara Berry, did an original work on Yoruba cocoa farmers and their descendants in western Nigeria. The product of her study is the “densely written” book, ‘Fathers Work for Their Sons,’ published in 1985. Her position is that among the Yoruba, socio-economic and even political relationships are organized in symbiotical orders. The state can be both an ally and an oppressor. The people readily give loyalty to the leader and the state. But they do because they expect those ones, in turn, to provide “maintenance and protection.” Leadership, or what she calls ‘seniority’ may convey authority and access to the productive services of others but it is also dependent on them. She says: “A chief, an elder, or a ‘big man’ who failed to satisfy his subordinates’ expectations ran the risk of losing their support and, in consequence, much of his own influence and/or wealth.” There are several cases of intra-regional agitation for freedom (ominira) in Western Nigeria in the last two decades before independence. Very early in the 1950s, the old Ifelodun District Council with headquarters in Ikirun faced the kind of agitation being witnessed today by Nigeria from its subjugated south. Berry captures it in the right context and perspective. She says that for many reasons, including cornering of benefits which should go to all, marginalization and injustice, a majority of the towns in Ifelodun district in 1952 “began agitation to have the district divided into two parts.” And when such popular demands were made, everyone around was expected to fall in line. Opposition to the request was seen as an enemy action. And it did not matter who the enemy was, he/she was confronted with sanctions or with threats of sanctions. By January 1953, Berry says: “specifically, the majority of the towns, Iree and Eripa included, wished no longer to be subordinate to Ikirun. In the midst of the ferment, several Iree chiefs requested permission of the district officer to discipline the Aree of Iree (their oba) who had opposed division against the wishes of his own constituents” (see page 170). The District Officer begged the chiefs “to do nothing” to their oba, but in 1954, the district was broken into two.
There are bigger examples for Nigeria to learn from. Long before colonialism, there was the Old Oyo which had to fall because it decayed in leadership and in compassion. Ibadan, which forced its own freedom from 19th century Oyo also became too powerful and perverse in its dealings with other Yoruba groups. It grew big, strong, confident and became what the Fulani Federal Government is today – a haven for plunderers and an enabler of impunity. It invited resentment to itself. The results were the century-long Yoruba wars. Sixty years after the wars, the story of the creation of Osun Division came and it is particularly instructive. The refrain of the Ibadan overlords after forcing tributes from Osun people was “omo yin yio d’agba, d’agba, yio to igbaa sin k’aa to tun wa (your children would have grown big enough to also be our servants like you before we come again). Soon, obas and other leaders from the area felt they had had enough. They challenged the status quo and changed the refrain to “omo wa yio ti d’agba, yio to iya a gbon, bi e ba tun wa (our children would have grown big enough to resist you and shake off our yoke if you come again). That yoke was removed on April 1, 1954.
That is how the Yoruba collect their freedom from seedy, greedy overlords. Because they have the benefit of (early) education and exposure, they very rarely lose; sometimes they win without fighting wars. They act decisively and get the table turned – we saw it in Karin Barber’s father-son relationship above. Indeed, a Yoruba farmer told Sara Berry in 1966: “formerly, sons worked for their fathers, but today, we have schools and civilization, and now, fathers work for their sons.” And it is not as if the ‘fathers’ acquiesced without a fight or that they did not foresee the looming reversal in their fortune. They just lost to the liberating properties of education and civilization. A century before Berry, there was pioneer CMS missionary, Anna Hinderer in Ibadan who lamented in one of her various entries that “our school does not increase at present, people are afraid to send their children; they think ‘book’ will make them cowards…” That was it. ‘Cowards’ here may not be interpreted as being lily-livered; it is more a pejorative term reserved for the rebel who won’t serve his ‘lord’ and ‘father’ again because of olaju (civilization). Pre-colonial and colonial ‘fathers’ (like Boko Haram enablers in the north) had reasons to be ‘afraid’ of ‘book’ because it represented education – and civilization, and liberation. We saw how the ‘obedient’ young man in Karin Barber’s book went to Ghana as a ‘good boy’ but came back a fiery, no-nonsense freedom fighter.
Nigeria is a very grisly, ghastly example of an abusive, barbarous union. Experts say you are in an abusive relationship when your partner threatens you with injury or inflicts you with it; when you are afraid, even, scared of the partner; and, more importantly, when the partner sees you as an inferior and treats you so. The south feels all these from the north. A marriage where one partner wantonly stabs the other is a tragedy happening real time. The foundational husband-wife metaphor employed by the British creators of Nigeria did not hide its hideous future. The British, in 1914, after “issuing the special licence” marrying the resource rich south to the bankrupt north prayed that “the union be fruitful and the couple constant.” Has the prayer been answered? What fruit and what constancy from a predatory partnership? And constancy in what? But, despite the precariousness of today, I still believe it is not too late to pull back from this brink. The colonial prayer can still be answered if the sinners stop sinning; if there is mutuality of respect in the form and content of Nigeria’s affairs; and, if it restructures itself back to its negotiated pristine, unspoilt form. Divorce is painful and expensive but abusive partners are death.
* This article is published in the Nigerian Tribune, Monday, April 19, 2021