Fellow Nigerians, the controversy surrounding the health status of The Ooni of Ife would have been unnecessary if many of us had understood or respected the Ife tradition. Ile-Ife being the cradle of civilisation is steeped in endless myths and the ancient town parades countless pantheons for about 401 deities who are worshipped all year round. Ile-Ife and Benin City cherish their culture and never joke with tradition. They revere their kings and hold on fastidiously to the belief that these kings can never die, they can only retire to the ceiling, a concept that is probably alien to members of the modern generation. This is why it is possible for a powerful king to depart this terrestrial space unannounced for months by the traditional institutions. The people have accepted a system that may seem abnormal to foreigners but not to us.
What has made The Ooni’s case so contentious is because the news of his departure escaped and exploded from abroad and our Ife Chiefs are righteously miffed about the antics of some busy-bodies who seem hell-bent on rendering them irrelevant. This is unacceptable no matter how modern the world as become. Traditions the world over are either kept or wholly jettisoned. There are sacred rites or protocols that are observed and performed by the Catholics at The Vatican. For example, there cannot be an emergence of a new Pope without the appearance of the famous white smoke. It is the same for the Muslims who must search, find and sight the moon before proceeding on starting or ending the Ramadan. Modernity has not been able to obliterate those age-old traditions.
Thisday newspaper was able to capture this terrific clash of tradition and modernity so poignantly in its story of Wednesday, July 30. I loved the way it placed the press conference held by the Ife Traditional Chiefs side by side that of those apostates or infidels (whatever you wish to call them) who betrayed Ife tradition by announcing what should never have been their remit. It would be interesting to see how this battle of wits plays out. The reason I’m anxiously awaiting its denouement is simple and straight forward. I had cause to speak with some of the key participants, such interesting dramatis personae to say the list, and none was able to predict the outcome of this unusual debacle.
If indeed The Ooni passed away in London, a precise hour and specific date would have been logged and inscribed in the death register. Such records, unfortunately, cannot be fabricated, falsified or altered, for whatever reasons, and certainly not in obeisance to some esoteric African tradition or superstition. Now that Ife Chiefs are insisting that the influential monarch is alive and kicking, but not the bucket, would they have to manufacture a new date or admit to the date earlier announced by both the traditional and social media?
I’m aware that certain funeral rites must precede an announcement but these are unusual times. It is obvious that the Ife custom and lore never envisaged or prepared for this kind of hullabaloo where an infirmed king would have to be flown abroad for medical treatment and may never return home in body and spirit. Ile-Ife as a university town has lost some of its ancient innocence to Western incursion.
This infiltration has thus filtered through and adulterated its original pristine state. The Benin kingdom is the only place I know that not much has changed. The Oba of Benin is rarely seen in public ordinarily. If something untoward then befalls the awesome traditional ruler, it may be difficult to unravel such mystery for months or even years. All that would happen is for people to discuss in low or loud whispers and so be it. Please, tell me who wants to invade the palace to probe what the ordinary eyes have never seen!
My humble submission is that we must allow a delicate marriage of modernity and tradition on this one occasion. It would be sad and tragic to enmesh the memory of this great descendant of Oduduwa the Yoruba progenitor in this type of banal and unproductive debate. And if indeed The Ooni has only retired to the loft or, by his modern equation, to the penthouse, he deserves to be celebrated by those who knew him well enough. He would be more than delighted to read his own obituary from the gilded chamber.
I was very privileged to speak to The Ooni of Ife Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, exactly four weeks today. I had received an august visitor in Lagos, a most cerebral monarch The Orangun of Oke-Ila, Oba Adedokun Abolarin Aroyinkeye I, who had honoured me with the traditional title of Basorun of Oke-Ila few years ago. He’s a very close associate and confidant of The Ooni. Somehow, our discussions dovetailed into how generous The Ooni and his Crown Prince Adetokunbo has been to Oba Abolarin’s Educational pet project in Oke-Ila, and we decided to call him in London. Baba, as we call The Ooni was exceedingly happy to hear from us. Oba Abolarin was the first to speak to His Imperial Majesty and he informed Baba that he was at my place. Baba’s voice was as sweet and sonorous as ever.
“Akowekowura (the man with the golden pen), how are you?” Baba asked in his funky fashion. He then poured prayers on me: “Emi e a gun, ayo e a kun.. I’m always proud of you…” (you will live long and your joy will be bountiful). We spoke for a couple of minutes before I handed the phone back to Oba Abolarin. I find it strange that barely one month after that special conversation there are speculations that Baba has joined his ancestors. Whether true or false, this provides me with a unique opportunity to say a few things about a man who was my boss some 29 odd years ago. Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge, whether calm or tempestuous.
Let me say emphatically that you won’t be wrong to call me a thorough-bred Ife Boy though my father had migrated from Ihievbe, Edo State. I was born and raised substantially in Ile-Ife between 1960 and 1988, when I moved to Lagos in search of the proverbial greener pastures. I had all my education at Ife, from primary to post-graduate level. In between 1983 and 1985, I had worked as Private Secretary to former Deputy Governor of Ondo State, Chief Akin Omoboriowo. My job had become comatose once the politicians were hauled into detention camps. But I was lucky to have a benefactor in Chief Omoboriowo’s cousin, Prince Adedeji Adelabu, the Chief Librarian at the Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library, University of Ife. He knew about my predicament and lack of income while I was also trying to return to Ife for a Master’s degree program in Literature-in-English. Prince Adedeji informed me of an opening for the post of Public Relations Officer at Motel Royal Limited in Ile-Ife, owned by The Ooni and I said I was interested. I was interviewed for the job and was immediately engaged.
I rose quickly on the job because the Board of the hotel which was headed by Chief Alex Olu Ajayi recognised my extensive networks with the university students and I was appointed as Manager. This new responsibility brought me in direct contact with our Chairman, Oba Okunade Sijuwade. I will never forget the first day I visited the palace to meet the boss of all bosses. I was already familiar with the geography of the Ife Palace due to my close affinity to the family of The Ooni Oba Adesoji Tadeniawo Aderemi. I had also been previously sent on errand from Chief Omoboriowo to The Ooni Oba Okunade Sijuwade but I knew he might not remember me. At any rate, this was a different ball game entirely. I was now working for one of the most famous kings in Africa.
I was there to see my new Chairman and I didn’t know what to expect. Kabiyesi as we called him received us warmly and sternly at the same time. He said the hotel had been bastardised and cannibalised by some of those he entrusted to run the massive edifice that boasted of world class badminton and Lawn Tennis courts, swimming pool, horse stable, and so on. I promised I would do my best to bring the place back to life and I did within a few months.
I learnt many lessons while working for The Ooni. The harder I tried to resuscitate Motel Royal, the more I stepped on toes of some parasites who had fed fat on the place. They did not want anyone to stop the rot. It was similar to the story of the Nigerian nation where people tend to resist change by all means. Those guys gave me hell by spreading tales by moonlight. They bombarded The Ooni with all manner of cruel lies. It was then I realised how vulnerable men of power can be. Most of those around you were not interested in any progress but certain regress. For example, Kabiyesi would call me today and shower me with praises and recall me tomorrow for a severe rebuke. If I told him “but, Sir, you told me only yesterday that I was the best thing to happen to the motel”, he would respond that “a star is as good as his last performance.” It is one useful lesson I hold very dear to heart till this day; that one must continue to thrive without any excuse for failure.
The Ooni taught me so many other things, in thunder or in rain. We hosted friends across political divides. He was never tired of receiving visitors. Even before he woke up we would have decorated the swimming pool area of the palace in readiness for fresh visitors and our motel catered almost non-stop. He had sweet words for everyone. His ability to make friends was legendary. He was fond of saying “Allah dey” in every conversation and you would have thought he was a Muslim. His best friend was The Emir of Kano who joined his ancestors only last year. They were inseparable. He was friends with President Shehu Shagari just as he was with his arch-rival Chief Obafemi Awolowo. As a matter of fact, Chief Mrs Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo (who’s getting ready for her hundredth birthday next November) was decorated as The Yeye Oba (mother of the king) of Ife. He was close to Chief Bola Ige who installed him as The 50th Ooni of Ife just as he was to the man who dethroned him, Dr Victor Omololu Sowemimo Olunloyo. That was Oba Sijuwade for you.
This lack of discrimination landed him in several troubles. Those who wanted him to choose between right and left complained loudly and bitterly but The Ooni was never one to be swayed by the noise of the market place. He was a man of his own instinct, debonair and sartorial. He lived the life of a true Royal long before he became king. I learnt from him that it was not how much money you had but how you spent what you have. He enjoyed life to the hilt while many of his contemporaries were slaves of money who had so much but were too stingy to spend it on themselves or anyone for that matter. He knew how to unlock powerful doors, almost effortlessly.
At London airports, he was known as the king of Africa with his portrait adorning private and exclusive lounges. His home was once at Chester Terrace facing the Regent’s Park in the heart of London and just a few doors away from Chief Moshood Abiola’s own terrace. When he moved some years back, he birthed majestically in a Mayfair apartment, just a stone throw from the American Embassy. The Ooni never shied away from living larger than life.
He faced many challenges, the toughest being the internecine wars between Ife and Modakeke. It reminded me of the intractable clashes between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is to his eternal credit that he managed to reconcile with the people of Modakeke after a most fearsome and destructive war. Baba ran into troubled waters with the Buhari military regime after travelling to Israel with his Siamese twin The Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero. It was a most humbling experience but he quickly put it behind him as always.
One of Baba’s most traumatic fiascos was over his handling of the June 12 crisis which angered many youths including me. I wrote several scurrilous articles against his position but Baba took it all with equanimity. As a matter of fact, that unfortunate saga drew us closer. He told friends he respected my guts and steadfastness…
• To be continued