By Bola Bolawole
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The Yoruba traditional institution and the Obas and Chiefs that perch on it are no longer what they used to be in terms of effective power and royal – even regal – bearing and esteem. In those days, an Oba is someone who sits (perches) atop everything (O ba l’ori ohungbogbo). He bore effective rule but today he only reigns. He has no effective powers, not even over those that are still referred to as his “subjects” In the real sense, Yoruba Obas have no subjects anymore; everyone is now a citizen with equal rights and privileges as the Oba himself, and those rights must be respected by all, the Oba inclusive. Any Oba that breaches the rights of a citizen will face the wrath of the law.
That was not so in times past when the Oba himself was the law and the sole arbiter of the law. He was the three arms of government – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary – all rolled into one. What best approximates this was the statement often credited to the French Bourbons despotic king, Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi”, meaning, “I am the State” That was exactly the same thing in times of yore in Yorubaland when the Obas were divine and despotic rulers. Hence, many appellations described their powers and authority such as “Igbakeji Orisa” (second in command to the gods); “Iku Baba, Yeye” (one who decrees death to both male and female). And, truth be told, Obas were despotic in those days. Their words were commands that must be swiftly carried out to the letter, be they just or unjust, and from stories we have heard, many of them were not just despotic but also tyrannical and criminally-minded. Hence the Yoruba saying: “Ori yeye ni m’ogun; t’aise lo po”, meaning, many were those put to violent death, most of whom were, however, innocent. The nooks and crannies of Yoruba land where an Oba ever ruled in times of yore have a plethora of such stories in their repertoire.
Do we want a return of such a time when an Oba could seize any subject’s wife or daughter – or both, if such catches his fancy! – and the victim dare not offer as much as a whimper? In fact, he would be required to celebrate and even present the Oba with gifts! The new wife to a very powerful Chief was invited by her husband to assist him as he had his bath in the morning; whatever must have come over her, she chose to run her mouth: “Imagine your frail frame; yet, people fear you like Hell!” He simply retorted, “Don’t mind me” But immediately he left the bathroom, the powerful Chief sent orders to bring the head of the parents of the errant wife in a calabash, an order that was carried out in a jiffy! The Chief then called his wife and said to her: “For helping me in the bathroom a while ago, I have a precious gift for you”. He then commanded that the covered calabash be handed over to her. You can imagine what happened when the beaming wife opened the calabash and beheld the heads of her father and mother! “True, then, is the saying: “Ori yeye ni m’Ogun…”!
If you say this wife deserved what she got, how about this powerful but moody and tyrannical Chief that was celebrating something and one of his wives, heavily pregnant, prepared and placed before him a hefty bowl of pounded yam with egusi (melon) soup garnished with assorted bush meat? The Chief summoned everyone and said:”Is it not that my wife thinks of me as “jeun ko ku” (eat-and-die; apologies, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti) “that she has placed this mountain of pounded yam before me?” She commanded the woman to sit and begin to eat. She ate until her tummy exploded!
Grandma told me many such stories of the despotic rule of not only Obas but also of powerful and wealthy people in her own time growing up. One such story was of her grandfather, Ologun-maj’ejo- ti-n-j’ori-oka. He does not eat snakes but only eats the heads of cobras! The foundation of his house was erected on slaves buried alive! The story is also told of an Oba who was brought the cheery news – or so they had thought! – that one of his wives had just given birth to a bouncing baby boy. He sprang up from his throne, took the blood-covered boy and handed it over to his herbalist to make a potent “juju” for him! Asked why he chose to use his own child when there were a legion of slaves and other subjects he could have used, he was quoted as saying that his own blood offers more fidelity than that of a stranger! The saying is alive in the town to this day!
We can go on and on! At the very least we have the story made into films of one of such powerful and wealthy women, Efunsetan Aniwura, while the Bible records the stories of Naboth and his vineyard and David versus Uriah. King Ahab coveted the vineyard which Naboth had just inherited from his father but Naboth, nostalgic about his inheritance, refused to sell or exchange. Ahab and his wife Jezebel conspired with some others; levelled false allegations against innocent Naboth and had him unjustifiably stoned to death, after which Ahab took possession of the vineyard. David gave himself to the unrestrained pleasures of a king while his country was at war; in the process, he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his dutiful soldiers, and when his lecherous act was about to be exposed after his efforts at a cover-up had failed, he gave orders that Uriah, Bathsheba’s innocent husband, be put to death, after which King David took Bathsheba to himself as wife. In both cases, only God was able to avenge the death of Uriah and Naboth. This is not to say, however, that there were no excellent Obas in Yoruba land and elsewhere recorded by history. Not all Obas were despotic and tyrannical.
In many places these days, what has happened is a move away from despotism to the assertion of citizens’ rights, now referred to as fundamental human rights or, to quote the authors of the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, as the “inalienable rights” endowed every man and woman by God. Said Thomas Jefferson, the man acclaimed as the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these Rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…” After the French Revolution of 1789 whose rallying cry was “Equality, Liberty and Fraternity”, the French abolished the monarchy and became a Republic on 22 September, 1792. The English may not have abolished the monarchy but today it is a constitutional monarchy and no longer despotic. The Queen or King reign, they no longer rule. Britain is a parliamentary democracy. All Animals are now equal, even if some are still more equal than others! And as the Yoruba Nation’s anthem posits, “B’a se b’eru, l’a b’omo” (meaning that both slave and free born were born equal).
The colonialists put an end to the rule of kings and Obas. At the Berlin conference of 1884/1885, the African continent was partitioned amongst the then colonial powers of Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium. Wars were fought between the colonizing powers and some African kings but, in the end, the colonizers prevailed because of superior fire power; the division amongst the African kingdoms and the treachery of some of the African people did not help matters. The colonizers imposed their rule, adopting different systems of government; for instance, the French adopted assimilation while the British adopted indirect rule. Thus did the rule of African traditional rulers come to an end! Under colonial rule, their greatly-moderated influence and power varied from place to place. Since after Independence, they have operated subject to the dictates of the rule of law but have never ceased from demanding more relevance, power, influence and authority – but all of these under the law .Those nostalgic about the days of yore when traditional rules held sway must bear the above in mind. Never again must we – or can we – return to those days of absolutism. Nor must we exhume the ghost of a Bode Thomas versus Alafin and wish that today’s Obas possess similar mystical powers to curse and make the errant bark like a dog unto death.
Are today’s Obas as “powerful” as those of yore? And do the Oke-Ogun, Oyo state Obas deserve the indignities they were subjected to by an ex-this and ex-that, a compulsive attention-seeker, someone whom destiny has bestowed the status of a statesman but who prefers, instead, the role of a gadfly, busybody and meddlesome interloper? Next week, God willing!
*Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.
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