By Toyin Falola
On Friday, September 15, 2023, President Obasanjo returned to his role as a General. The Generalissimo issued a command: “Stand up”. They all did, “bloody civilians,” the General thought. “Sit down!” they all did, and the General felt vindicated by the title of his book, My Command. He was looking stern and stubborn. When the troops dispersed, slaves and booty were captured, taken home, and shared.
The conversations afterwards have been swift and torrid: swift as many commentators released their bitter voices; torrid not because of sex and love but about the emotions of the past, traditions, and notable personality. They must read the mind of the General: is he anti-chiefs, anti-Yoruba, anti-people? Is he pro-Obi, and a Tinubu hater? Was he attacking his enemies, among whom was a king at the event? What motivated him to become a Molue bus conductor? Was this a payback to the Olugbon of Orile-Igbo, who had previously attacked him?
Are the commentators seeing Obasanjo for the first time in this warrior role? Not me. He had served twice as the Chair in two of my Keynote Addresses and grabbed the microphone from the MC. I sat beside him at the Toyin Falola Annual Conference at Babcock in 2019—When HE Dapo Abiodun, the Governor of Ogun State, called Eleyi (“that one”) by President Ahmed Tinubu, walked in as a guest of the conference, I asked President Obasanjo to let us go and greet the governor; he said a President does not stand up to greet a governor. Yes, I agreed with him on this protocol. I have been at his residence with dozens of crowds visiting and leaving, and he is careful in treating them. Some could wait for hours. Recently, at Rutgers University, when a member of the audience asked the Olowu a question, President Obasanjo stopped him from answering and spoke on his behalf. He is given to occasional outbursts, both verbally and in his letters. He can display the characteristics of a peasant on Monday, a successful farmer on Tuesday, a palm wine tapper on Wednesday, a Pastor on Thursday, an Imam on Friday, an imperial Emperor on Saturday, and no one can predict what comes on Sunday. Thus, that September 15th Zombism is not new. What is new is the set of actors he addressed, the venerable chiefs and kings with crowns on their heads.
A calamity followed the command. Obasanjo is seen as a pariah who insulted his people and desecrated their values. Like Nollywood films that have elevated the Babalawo and kings to an extraordinary level never found in Yoruba tradition at any time in history, commentators went back to the mythologies of Yoruba kingship. They revived Oduduwa and Sango. They suddenly remembered the Olowo who stood up to Awolowo, an angry Alaafin who abused Commissioners and their Governor, and videos emerged showing Obasanjo having previously prostrated to such kings as the Olowu, Ooni of Ife and the Olu of Warri.
[Obasanjo] can display the characteristics of a peasant on Monday, a successful farmer on Tuesday, a palm wine tapper on Wednesday, a Pastor on Thursday, an Imam on Friday, an imperial Emperor on Saturday, and no one can predict what comes on Sunday. Thus, that September 15th Zombism is not new. What is new is the set of actors he addressed, the venerable chiefs and kings with crowns on their heads.”
Here is the argument that the angry Yoruba offered. Beyond the enthusiasm of political leadership, kingship among the Yorùbá serves a semi-supernatural role in enhancing the collective sustainability of their people and, in the process,bringing forth progress that spreads to the generality of the populace. While kings in the Yorùbá world have always been known to enjoy some specific privileges, those privileges are the real compensation for what they are communally expected to go through on behalf of their people. Literally, they are objects of sacrifice, drawing breath and waiting for the appropriate time when they fulfil the sacrifice wishes of their people. You must have heard about how some kings in Yorùbáland were encouraged to look inside their crown, a gesture meant to serve as the time to commit suicide for their people’s benefit. In fact, they are not just encouraged to carry out such acts; it is assumed to be a natural part of their responsibilities as kings upon their assumption of office. This shows that, although they are the designated political leaders, they are in the real sense, societal sacrificial lambs whose existence is meant to serve the community’s interests.
I am aware, for example, that traditionally, among the Ondo subcultural Yorùbá group, there usually was a day dedicated for the masses to show their grievances to their king and other important traditional political office holders among them, where they threw invectives at the king unprovoked, showed him the undersides of his leadership and warned him of the impending doom in case of his persistent defiance of their collective will. I am sure too of many other kings in Yorùbá history who have resorted to taking their lives when the conditions of the society over which they presided on their affairs were becoming unbearably bad, bringing all manners of agony and pains to the people. The interpretation in such a situation was that the gods’ cosmic energies did not back the king’s reign and that unless or until they chose to sacrifice themselves for the collective good of the society, the cessation of such calamity was simply impossible. This was such a period when kings fought battles against enemies. On the battlefield, they were seen alongside their town’s Generalissimo, fighting to ensure the safety and preservation of their people. When one now sees that they enjoyed a reasonable privilege in the past, one cannot say they were undeserving of it.
The commentators reminded us that, for context, kings among the Yorùbá are called Igbákejì Orisa (second-in-command to the gods), and for us to understand the socio-spiritual importance of that designation, we need to understand first what the Orisa means among them. Orisa are the forces singled out of the multitude for their ability to stand out in what they do. Among other things, they are exceptional beings in their engagements. Fortified by their spiritual powers, they easily navigate between the material and the immaterial universe to bring about things that are not ordinary. Generally, they sacrificed their lives to enhance a better life for others. If the kings are therefore regarded as their second-in-command, it goes without saying that they have similar but not necessarily equal status. Kings were highly placed and respected among the Yorùbá. They offered both leadership roles and spiritual essence for their people to thrive. To talk about the excesses of some kings in history, there also had always been institutional adjustments made to correct anomalies brought by such individuals.
By returning to the historic past, those provoked by Obasanjo provided an intellectual justification for their anger. But they forgot to add the changes that have taken place since the late nineteenth century. Here is a reminder. The recent disrepute brought to that institution by the utterances and conversational disposition of Chief Obasanjo is a testament to the ordinarification of traditional institutions occasioned, first, by the experience of colonialism and second, by the ignorance of postcolonial products about the sacred traditions of their identity. Different from the available political structures built by the socio-spiritual imperatives of the people were the irreconcilable Western political traditions forced on the throat of African cultural identities since the nineteenth century. This external system obviously could not accommodate the existing ones and was not ready to share the privileges and power that came with it. That was the beginning of the subordination of the traditional institution of kingship that culminated in the gradual but speedy erosion of the indigenous values, a part of which was displayed by the kingship political system itself. Since then, there have been contradictions, controversy of unimaginable proportion, and condescension from postcolonial political office holders to the Oba. Would it not surprise you, ladies and gentlemen, that in the constitution of Nigeria, even the Commissioner of Chieftaincy Matters of a State can depose a king if he so desires and decide?
Let me shock those who don’t understand history as I do. I do not expect you to express any surprise about this, for we all know that contrary to the tradition where indigenous kingmakers engaged in thorough spiritual screenings of the would-be kings, the contemporary time has almost relegated Ifà’s voice to the background, exchanging it with postcolonial political officers’ voices who now have the constitutional power to confer kinship on individuals they so decide. If that itself does not appear like a thorn in Yorùbá’s cultural flesh, I don’t know what is. This has opened the kingship position to manipulations and sheer indignity for individuals with the right financial resources, and strong political connections are suddenly the choices of postcolonial Ifà. And who still remembers the saying that “he who pays the piper dictates the tune?” After all, we were all alive when a certain governor woke up and decided to create kings in Ibadan until irresistible pressure became foreboding and overwhelming. In essence, when there is a mixture of postcolonial officeholders ignorant of this sacred culture and drunk with their momentary powers on the one side, and they show interest in the traditional institution on the other side, the damage they will do can only be imagined. While Obasanjo is the recent defiant of this age-long sacred institution, others would always fill in that shoe as long as the people refuse to understand that traditional institutions, especially that of kingship, should be separated from postcolonial politics. While Africans can outgrow postcolonial politicking, history has shown they can never outgrow the traditional institution of kingship.
Obasanjo deserves the rebuke that he has received. While Obasanjo might have wanted to communicate that respect begets respect, commanding them in public with such General tone is undignifying of a statesman. To intone that the Obas should stand up in recognition of the presence of any governor rubbishes that institution of kingship. For God’s sake, Chief Obasanjo is a Yorùbá man, and he is aware that regardless of the age of a king, he stands to bow for no one from the day of ascentto the throne till his death, including but not limited to his biological parents! The whole scenario becomes utterly surprising in the light of the awareness that General Obasanjo himself has prostrated flat out to greet Ooni Olubuse Ojaja II, regardless of their wide age difference. If the age difference is the factor of respect to people among the Yorùbá, you do not need the intelligence of Wole Soyinka to know that such classification excludes the royal heads, the kings. And unless one is bent on steering avoidable social eruption, one would notice that such affront would always meet public resistance. We can see how swiftly the people responded to this ungentlemanly effort. That attests to what I mentioned earlier: postcolonial political systems may be outgrown in Africa. Their indigenous institution, not least the kinship institution, cannot be outgrown, for it means more than political designation; it is the plate of communication between the material and the immaterial world.
Meanwhile, nothing is cast in iron. Ideas, attitudes and reactions are products of human thought processes and are not immune to evolution. Perhaps, as a coping mechanism or strategy, the kings must not underrate mutual respect for “constituted authority” to use the language of the former Governor of Oyo State, of blessed memory. I can understand the view of advocates who do not expect them to stand up to greet not even the President, but it would not reduce their honour if they raise and shake their Ìrùkèrè (horsetail) when an equally important dignity, not only the President or Governors emerge in their gathering. The advocates hold this position tenaciously because when we conclude that their standing up is the highest form of respect they could accord a highly dignified person, we are saying that their position is eternally placed under the carpet of these individuals.
Two things are likely to happen shortly. First, it would decrease the respect they receive from their own people; and second, which is the product of the first, it would reduce the involvement of kings in sociopolitical engagements, which would have devastating consequences on several things. When kings do not honour such social calls, it means they have no confidence in whatever the political class is doing, and we cannot underplay how this would affect the communal and general spirit of the people. Unless the average postcolonial African leader takes much interest in what is called hero-worshipping, I do not understand why, apart from the retinue of almost redundant followers saluting and paying homage to them now and then, it is the standing up of the kings in public occasions that the political class need. I cannot imagine Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, expecting King Charles III to stand in recognition of him at any public event. But then, it is what it is in Africa, as the younger generation would say.
A word to my angry people. Don’t narrate the history of that long past and revive the evidence of politicians prostrating and respecting the kings. That past is no more. Even your youth don’t respect their elders anymore. A young man of 40 can now abuse an elder at 80. A wise elder should avoid the Gen X as men and women of faith avoid Satan. Don’t expect people without respect for their parents to respect you. They think those elders, making naira, are worthless once they earn the dollar.Students that you train at the University of Ibadan will later abuse their teachers when they escape to the diaspora.
A word for the kings who want to respect themselves: seek your independent sources of income and don’t beg politicians for money as they will insult you; if you enjoy Fuji music, don’t dance in the open and drink beer with band boys—do so in private with the friends you made before you became a king. Stop calling yourself Imperial Majesties, but use the ancient titles our people created for you. The crown made of plastic Chinese beads does not make one “imperial”. If you were a Bale elevated to a King by a Governor, respect the governor as your office and title do not derive from your people but from the politicians. Don’t leave your thrones to go to the United States to work as a janitor or bus driver; instead, organize farms and live on agriculture. Don’t sell land that belongs to other lineages, exercising a false claim that the kings own the land. Kinshipsowned their lands until the British and modern government created their own regulations to steal land from poor people.Stop collecting money and rent from Fulani herdsmen and performing crocodile tears when your people are killed. Or do you think we do not know that some of you keep the herders in your palaces and you own many of the cattle that destroy the farms of your people? Do not give honorary titles to charlatans and thieves because of money. Remember not to convert yourself to an emir, like Oba, who had no objection to wearing underwear and photographing it after sniffing and snuffing like a Yahoo Plus.
To President Obasanjo, like President Tinubu, let me give you the bad news. Forget the lies people tell you in private and know the truth: you have yet to enter the pantheon of Yoruba heroes. The contemporary heroes—Obafemi Awolowo and M. K. O. Abiola—did not get what they wanted: the highest office in the land. And to Obasanjo and Tinubu, who got what they wanted, the nature of their politics and how they practice it meant that they violated the desires and demands of their own people. So bad is this in the case of Obasanjo that they call him an Igbo man! Tinubu may still transform himself into a progressive, away from his mastery of corrupt transactional politics. For Obasanjo, September 15 was the day he sealed the nail on his coffin. Maybe apologies can work, I don’t know. He has been accused of not wanting another Yoruba President in Aso Rock, working against Abiola and Tinubu, and preventing the rise of Yoruba entrepreneurs. In other words, his Yoruba people and his city of Abeokuta did not benefit from his presidency. He has been cast in the mould of a betrayal. He should no longer expect forgiveness from his detractors. Fewer cows will be slaughtered at his funeral.
*This article by Toyin Falola, Historian and Professor of African Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, was published by The Nigerian Tribune