MKO Abiola and Aare Onakakanfo mystique

Jun 12 2016 - 3:06pm
MKO Abiola

MKO Abiola

This article is in honour of the last Aare Onakakanfo, BASHORUN MKO ABIOLA. Is there a mystique of tragedy around the title or because of political conflicts? Form your judgment

By Albert Oladapo Ogunwusi

In ancient times, it was a position that symbolized the might of Oyo Empire. The Aare Onakakanfo was the generalissimo of the Yoruba army. He either conquered or died. The kakanfo must never be defeated. To everybody’s shock, the mystique and tragedy have refused to depart from that office even in modern times.

Kakanfo Akintola was the first Aare of the modern era. On the night of January 15, 1966, a company of soldiers marched on the residence of the Premier, Western Region. Akintola omo Loogun, Ajalaagbe omo kulodo, yagboyaaju omo kara, took up arms against Nigeria’s first coupists. Reports have it that he wiped out the entire contingent before reinforcements arrived. One man, officially a civilian, nearly overpowered a company of professional soldiers armed with offensive weapons! Hollywood must be green with envy.

He fought till daylight, before he was mortally wounded. Eyewitness accounts have it that several hours later, with his body riddled with bullets, lying on the bare floor in the old Adeoyo Hospital in Ibadan, he was still breathing and remained so until he gave up the ghost at sunset. One of his predecessors, Kakanfo Afonja, also battled Fulani warriors in Ilorin in 1834. Even as the arrows rained on him, Afonja did not fall. He died on his feet, held up by the hundreds of arrows trained on him. That day, the Yoruba lost Ilorin to the Fulani hegemony. The Kakanfos were consummate tragic figures.

I must turn at this stage to the more capable hands of Samuel Johnson, the foremost authority on Yoruba history who describes the Kakanfo as fearless and courageous; irascible and prone to warfare. To buttress his position, Johnson submitted a most effective piece of evidence, Kakanfo Ojo Aburumaku had no war to fight. He fomented a civil war in his native Ogbomoso which he then had a good sport of putting down with severity. Afterall, he was Aare Onakakanfo, the Supreme head of the Esos, the 70 military commanders who make the Yoruba warrior caste.

Eso Ikoyi won kii gbofa leyin,
iwaju ni won fii gbota.
Agba Ikoyi to gbojo iku toree gbalu.
Ikoyi Eso, arogun yo.

Kakanfo Kurumi was even more spectacular. He insisted that the Aremo must die with the Alaafin according to tradition. The truth was that he had been part of an earlier conference in which that convention was abolished. To enforce his desire, he made war on the rest of Oyo kingdom from his garrison city in Ijaye. His reputation as a warrior was legendary. He is portrayed in art as a no-nonsense nimble wit with a commanding presence. Aare Kurumi npe o, o londifa. Bifa ba fore ti Aare o ba fore nko? There was no excuse for refusing a call from the generalissimo. In a surgical commando strike, Ibadan special forces attacked at night his troops in Iseyin and wiped out the entire rear brigade. All of Kurumi’s five children who were company commanders died in that attack. Like his name, Aare Kurumi was ruined by death, indeed. I-k –u-r-u-m-I.

OBA Isaac Babalola Akinyele is my starting point here. For about ten years, precisely 1955 to 1964, the city of Ibadan was held spellbound by perhaps its most unusual traditional ruler known to history. A Pastor of the Christ Apostolic Church who was more at home on the pulpit than the shrine, he prayed a lot. One of his prayers was recorded for posterity in the Iwe Itan Ibadan, a book he authored. Oba Akinyele prayed that no Ibadan son would ever be Kakanfo. A strange prayer indeed.

It must be acknowledged though that a few of the kakanfos had glorious tenures. Oyabi was based in the garrison town of Jabata. He kept off the internal strife of the kingdom with the wily Osorun Gaa killing the Alaafins in quick succession until the reign of Adegoolu who linked up with the military to destroy the prime minister. The Eso were led into the city like Caesar did across the Rubicon River and Basorun Gaa was killed. Nontheless, Oyabi died rather young. In Ibadan, the new city full of promise where Kakanfo Obadoke Latoosa had taken up residence, the scourge of the notorious slave dealer, Efunsetan Aniwura, was ended by the Aare Ona kakanfo Asubiaro Agadagudu.

Akintola: Killed in Ibadan

Akintola: Killed in Ibadan

The drummers would beat: ‘Asubiaro npale ogun mo. Edumare ma je o tenu mi jade’ However, even he Latoosa was victim of the mystique of the office of supreme commander. Latoosa was confronted by a palace coup and in very dramatic circumstances, he committed suicide. He had a notorious slave according to history, who grew increasingly disrespectful of the generals. Latoosa did not curb this behaviour until the deputy commander, Balogun, was insulted by the slave. Ibikunle could not believe his eyes when Latoosa asked the slave to state his side of the case like two equals squabbling. Ibikunle simply beheaded the idiot there and then.

Latoosa then asked his deputy if he was ready to take the sceptre of office, to which he answered in the affirmative. There was no negative response from the other commanders present. Latoosa had overrated his own popularity. Depicted as an overbearing and brutally magnificent warrior who went about like a masquerade, he was stunned by the turn of events and swallowed poison. He simply laid down and covered himself like one in sleep. It was the dramatic end of yet another Kakanfo.

MKO Abiola started life as an accountant, then became Mr. Big-Business, philanthropist extraordinaire and ladies’ man. He took up the office of Aare Onakakanfo and from that day onward had a date to keep with destiny. Spectacular fame and tragedy also befell him. He was at the end of the day, just another Aare Onakakanfo. Another foil for the greedy god of strife.

I turn to Samuel Johnson again for a full list of the Kakanfos: Kokoro Gangan, Oyatope, Oyabi, Adeta Oku, Afonja laya loko, Toyeje, Edun, Amepo, Kurumi, Ojo Aburumaku, Obadoke Latoosa [and of course SLA Akintola and MKO Abiola]. There have only been 14 Kakanfos.

It is on record however that Kakanfo Abiola did not perform these rites, yet he got into trouble within 24 hours and was mauled by soldiers within 48 hours over a rather insignificant non-event. Indeed, his life became a permanent roller-coaster of turbulence until he was murdered in confinement. He exhibited every bit of the Kakanfo mystique and ended so spectacularly in iconic tragedy. He was branded a ceremonial Kakanfo. But his life was that of a quintessential generalissimo. Irascible, implacable over his June 12 mandate, he embraced death rather than defeat.

Unarguably, the greatest traditional military office in Yorubaland, its irrevocable demand is glory or death. The question since Abiola died has been if the title made all the difference; or was it all factored in his destiny? The Yoruba insist, Ori la ba bo ka forisa sile, igba t ori ngbeni, kilorisa nwo? And even more importantly, who is the next Aare Onakakanfo? Who is the 15th fellow?

The Scourge of 201 incisions.[okanlerugba gbere]
OBA Isaac Babalola Akinyele is my starting point here. For about ten years, precisely 1955 to 1964, the city of Ibadan was held spellbound by perhaps its most unusual traditional ruler known to history. A Pastor of the Christ Apostolic Church who was more at home on the pulpit than the shrine, he prayed a lot. One of his prayers was recorded for posterity in the Iwe Itan Ibadan, a book he authored. Oba Akinyele prayed that no Ibadan son would ever be Kakanfo. A strange prayer indeed. At least one of his logical predecessors was Kakanfo. Obadoke Latoosa, Asubiaro Agadagudu, who died in 1885. Ibadan drummers would beat ‘Asubiaro npale ogun mo; Edumare ma je o tenu mi jade’. An extraordinary Kakanfo who like the others, lived and died spectacularly.

What Oba Akinyele omitted to explain was why even in 1955, the title was still so dreaded. All Kakanfos ended tragically. WHY?

I must yield at this stage to the hallowed scriptures of Samuel Johnson who points rather obliquely at the inauguration rites of the Kakanfo as the foundation for the mysticism and tragedy that attend the holder of the office. 201 incisions are made on the occiput [ipako] of the new Kakanfo using 201 lancets and 201 vials of very special preparations. Okanlerugba gbere. This Johnson insists, makes them ‘very stubborn and obstinate. …due it is supposed, to the effects of the ingredients they were inoculated with’.

It is on record however that Kakanfo Abiola did not perform these rites, yet he got into trouble within 24 hours and was mauled by soldiers within 48 hours over a rather insignificant non-event. Indeed, his life became a permanent roller-coaster of turbulence until he was murdered in confinement. He exhibited every bit of the Kakanfo mystique and ended so spectacularly in iconic tragedy. He was branded a ceremonial Kakanfo. But his life was that of a quintessential generalissimo. Irascible, implacable over his June 12 mandate, he embraced death rather than defeat.


It is a notorious fact of history that all the Kakanfos were destroyed through political intrigues. Indeed, fine soldiers tend to meet their Waterloo through the intrigues of politics rather than the war front. I recall a few parallels.

All the Kakanfos at the point of death were confronted by overwhelming odds. Afonja in 1834 fought gallantly against Fulani traitors who trained over 100arrows at him. 100 arrows at one man! The same for Kakanfo Akintola and the huge complement of soldiers who besieged him. Latoosa died peacefully but no less tragically. All the commanders merely looked askance as Ibikunle got the better of him. It is my humble suggestion that we may have to look beyond Johnson’s okanlerugba gbere for the Kakanfo quandary.

One must add yet another shocking component to an already formidable perplexity. The Kakanfo title is not a particularly ancient office as evidenced by the rather small number of people who have been made Kakanfo. Indeed the office was a creation of the 16th Alafin, Oba Ajagbo [1650ca].

Julius Caesar, a tragic figure

Julius Caesar, a tragic figure

The curse of 1807 by Alafin Aole has also been identified by authorities as the reason for the Kakanfo mystery. Referred to as Alafin Afepeja [one who fights with a curse], Oba Aole cursed Yorubaland as he was about to commit statutory suicide when he lost out in a power struggle that eventually consumed him. I produce here a verbatim translation of the terrible curse of Alafin Aole:

“My curse be on you for your disloyalty and disobedience, so let your children disobey you. If you send them on an errand, let them never return to bring you word again. To all the points I shot my arrows will you be carried as slaves. My curse will carry you to the sea and beyond the seas, slaves will rule over you and you, their masters, will become slaves.”

It is quite difficult to locate any reference to the Kakanfo here. Except perhaps one may underline the fact that Kakanfo Afonja was part of the chain of events that destroyed Aole. One significant flaw with the Aole theory is that the title had always its tincture of tragedy even before Aole was born. That suggestion in the face of common sense, must necessarily fail. Perhaps there is another.

It is a notorious fact of history that all the Kakanfos were destroyed through political intrigues. Indeed, fine soldiers tend to meet their waterloo through the intrigues of politics rather than the warfront. I recall a few parallels.

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49BC [10 January to be precise] in a classic military coup. Five years later, this general who was feared all over the world, was knifed to death by his own friends. Itzhak Rabin was the most successful Israeli general. He restored Israel to the Biblical boundaries in the seven day-war. He did even better than King David. He became a politician and was felled by the assassin’s bullet. I recall Collin Powel in his fine autobiography making a case for the immediate retirement of Norman Schwarzkof after a successful Iraq campaign in 1992. He argued then rather discomfittingly that storming Norman had become too much of a political article for the colours. Never mind that Schwarzkof was eased into comfortable retirement in a cushy 17 million dollar job as consultant to Nigeria. Is politics the scourge of great warriors?

All the Kakanfos got embroiled in political intrigue and rapidly got consumed. Oyabi was the only one who stayed on top of his politics and even he as has been noted, died young. The pattern was pathetically uniform; from the ancient ones like Edun, Afonja, Kurumi and Latoosa to the more recent fellows like Akintola and Abiola, they all uniformly got entangled in the web of intrigue. And once in the stranglehold of politics, death and destruction were inevitable. Perhaps the tragic flaw rests somewhere in the ambience of politics. Perhaps.

This article, (a concluding part of two series, originally entitled AARE ONAKAKANFO: Who is the 15th fellow?) is culled from Albert Oladapo Ogunwusi’s FB wall (12 June 2015)

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