By Segun Apata
Since about the 10th century AD, we Yoruba have been enjoying a high level of civilization in our towns, cities and kingdoms. By 1750, one of our kingdoms, the Oyo-Ile kingdom, had conquered a large empire comprising most of western Yorubaland and many non-Yoruba neighbours – the largest empire ever in West Africa’s forestlands. In eastern and southern Yorubaland, our other kingdoms were, in the same era, also thriving gorgeously.
But, about 1750, according to available records, we began to have a recurrence of self-serving (and therefore disruptive) leaders in our political history. It started in our great city of Oyo-Ile, specifically with a high chief named Gaha. As soon as Gaha was sworn in as Basorun in 1754, he started a headstrong war against the established order. He seized powers that did not belong to his position, and forced Alafin after Alafin to bow to his will or to commit suicide – until, at last, one intelligent Alafin managed to stop him.
Gaha was probably insane. Nevertheless, he started a plague that we have never managed to remove from our land – a tradition whereby some leaders emerge now and again who are dedicated only to their own purposes and interests. Soon after Gaha came one Alafin named Awole, a man clearly unfit for the Alafin’s throne. Awole’s self-centred crookedness produced an era of instability.
Soon after him came Afonja, the Are Ona Kakanfo of the empire. Afonja had some blood relationship with the Oyo-Ile royal family and wanted the Alafin’s throne. But since the Oyo-Ile Council of Kingmakers did not select him, he embarked on a wholesale rebellion against his kingdom, and ended up turning the town of Ilorin into a center of rebellion. Afonja perished in his rebellion, but his Ilorin continued to be a potent center of rebellion. Attempts by the Alafins to destroy this danger steadily sapped the energies of the kingdom and ultimately ended in one of the worst disasters in Yoruba history – the decision of the citizens of the proud city of Oyo-Ile to abandon their city in 1835. Yoruba people often say today that Fulani jihadists destroyed Oyo-Ile, but that is not true. Ilorin and its powerful leaders after Afonja were over 95% Yoruba.
The disintegration of the Oyo Empire spilled wars into the rest of Yorubaland, wars that continued until the Europeans seized control of Yorubaland in the 1890s. Throughout the century, leading Yoruba men tried for peace again and again. At every crucial juncture, some leaders just would not give up their personal ambitions and interests for the national good.
When Europeans came conquering Africa in the1890s, the Yoruba, if united, could have easily preserved the independence of the Yoruba nation – in a way similar to Ethiopia in northeastern Africa, or Japan in Asia. The most important European attack on Yorubaland was the British invasion of Ijebu in 1892. As at that date, because we Yoruba had been fighting wars for nearly a century, Ibadan had well trained, well-armed, and seasoned forces numbering over 80,000 at Ikirun, about 25,000 at Oru in Remo, and about 30,000 near Abeokuta; the Ekitiparapo had more than 60, 000 at Imesi-Ile, and about 20,000 near Ile-Ife; Ilorin probably 40,000; Abeokuta probably 50,000. Each of the powerful kingdoms of Owo, Ondo and Ketu had armies that numbered 30,000 or more. Small Ife armies of probably 20,000 each camped near Ile-Ife, and at Ifetedo and Okeigbo. An Ijebu army of about 20,000 camped near Ife; another of about 30,000 camped at Oru; and the main Ijebu army itself numbered about 50,000 and was armed with sophisticated breech-loading rifles. In short, if all these forces had been re-orientated to defend their Yoruba homeland, there would have been over 500,000 troops poised to defend Yorubaland – a magnitude of forces never encountered by European invaders anywhere in Africa, and that would have discouraged any European attack on any part of Yorubaland.
Moreover, the large class of Yoruba merchants based in Lagos, consisting of some of the most informed and richest merchants in tropical Africa, easily commanded the expertise and commercial connections to keep Yoruba forces well supplied with latest weapons. And the already strong Lagos literate elite of lawyers, doctors, engineers, pastors, accountants, journalists – and newspapers – could have whipped up propaganda campaigns in support of their nation’s military men, thereby discouraging European invasions of Yorubaland.
Unhappily, such Yoruba unity did not happen. The leaders of each Yoruba group, while expressing great sentiments about their Yoruba ancestry, were too focused on their own goals. The main Ijebu army single-handedly fought a gallant battle against the British invaders, but lost. Ultimately, most of Yorubaland became British possession. France and Germany seized the rest.
However, in 1952, most of the Yoruba again had some control over their own affairs – in the Western Region of Nigeria. Demonstrating great unity and ability, Yoruba leaders immediately gave their people the most progressive and most productive government in Africa. But then, the old disease showed up again in 1962, allowing a hostile Federal Government of Nigeria to launch a war of destruction against the Western Region. The Yoruba people have not come out of that cloud till now.
Today, Nigeria is manifestly spluttering towards a final collapse. Confusion, corruption, poverty, hopelessness, conflicts, and terrorism are wrecking Nigeria. Every Nigerian people fears imminent danger. Admittedly, in socio-economic development, the governments of the Yoruba states still manage to perform above the Nigerian average. But that is not sufficient at all today. We Yoruba nation need to be prepared for the huge danger that is coming. And to prepare, we desperately need a major surge of unity among the Yoruba elite, among leading Yoruba of all professions and political persuasions – resulting in a leadership structure able to speak confidently for the Yoruba nation in the increasingly perilous Nigerian situation. We should not be deceived: the way Nigeria is moving now, only the nations that are strong will be able to avoid horribly painful devastations. A strongly united and well-led Yoruba nation would be a significant power that would easily earn respect, and that respect by itself could prevent a lot of dangers from coming our way.
Today’s inability of the Yoruba elite to unite for their nation’s well-being is horribly dangerous. There is really no conflict between participating in Nigerian politics and taking care of one’s own nation. Many leaders of other Nigerian nations combine the two, but most Yoruba leaders refuse to do so. Even though Nigeria appears to be dying, most significant Yoruba leaders still prefer to cling solely to their Nigerian partisan politics and ignore the obviously pressing needs of their own nation – and, by so doing, they jeopardize their possible access to leadership opportunities in their Yoruba nation’s near future. That is, they are betraying our nation and, unfortunately, committing political suicide thereby. It is today’s version of the old family disease – the disease of traitorous self-serving that has shown up from time to time since the era of Gaha, Awole and Afonja.
Happily, however, there is hope. Dedicated patriots, at home and abroad, responding to the growing danger in Nigeria, have already started the war for Yoruba national unity and strength – and they cannot possibly lose. Good Yoruba men, women and children will stand up and be counted.
Article written by Segun Apata
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