FROM THE PUNCH NEWSPAPER,NIGERIA
Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, 1930-2015
Olofin Oduduwa. Iku Baba Yeye. Iku Alase,Ekeji Orisa. Orisa gbogbo Oba Yoruba. Oba Olori Alade. Jingbinni bi ate akun. Ekun Olori aye gbogbo. Kabiyesi, Ebora Ile-Igbo!
The above excerpt from the oriki (praise incantation) of the Ooni of Ife, draws attention to the supremacy of the Ooni among Yoruba monarchs, while also highlighting the deification, if not mystification, of the monarch in Yoruba tradition. Once enthroned, the new monarch is believed to have been transformed through various rituals into various roles, which he is believed to perform at various times. Various appellations are used to reflect these roles, including Kabiyesi, Ekeji Orisa, Ebora, Iku Alase, and Iku Baba Yeye.
These attributes recall a past when monarchs were truly revered and rated over and beyond their humanity. I spent my youthful years in that past, when the reigning Owa of Idanre, my hometown, was that legendary monarch, who was believed to have lived beyond 120 years. It was widely believed then that whenever the monarch came down to the valley below to celebrate the Ogun festival, he would, on his return, vanish at the bottom of Idanre Hills, being carried aloft by egbe, into his palace on top of the hills.
Over time, the belief system which supported the ritual, if not magical, powers of monarchs was grossly eroded, beginning with the subjugation of the monarchy under colonial powers. The status of monarchs in the power structure of the state was further relegated to the background after independence when politicians became superior to traditional kingmakers in the selection and installation of monarchs. Today, monarchs even have no constitutional role. These developments led to the AGIP (Any Government in Power) philosophy adopted by many monarchs today. Besides politics, the two major religions of conversion, Islam and Christianity, and the new media of communication, including the ubiquitous social media, pose serious threats to royal rituals and secrets.
Perhaps, nothing demonstrates the confluence of these forces than the reign and death of Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, the 50th Ooni of Ife. The clash between tradition and modernity came to a head when the Ife Traditional Royal Council found it necessary to debunk the news of the Ooni’s death, which flooded social and mainstream media in the evening hours of Tuesday, July 28, 2015. It would have been sufficient for the Council Chiefs to appeal to the public to await the official announcement of the monarch’s death, which eventually occurred on August 12, 2015, than to deny it and even claim he was “hale and hearty”.
Underlying the ritualists’ action is the idea that, although Oba Okunade Sijuwade might have died, the Ooni never dies. This is what the transition rituals are meant to ensure. The drive to preserve the sanctity of those rituals led to a conflict between the ritualists and the news media. They also would later clash with the organisers of the interdenominational service in honour of the deceased monarch.
These conflicts provide a lesson to palace ritualists in Yorubaland as to how to handle the death and burial of a monarch in this age of social and tabloid media. It was difficult to contain the news of Oba Sijuwade’s death in part because he died in a London hospital, where there is no tradition of concealing information. That the Ooni, like many other notable Nigerians, had to be flown abroad for emergency care is itself a scathing indictment on the poor state of health care in Nigeria.
The major dualities which pervaded Oba Sijuwade’s 35-year reign already foreshadowed these conflicts. First, Oba Sijuwade was a frontline businessman, which made him the second or third wealthiest African monarch.
Trained in business management at Northampton College in the United Kingdom, he worked as a manager in A.G. Leventis and later as the Sales Director of National Motors at the special invitation of the Western Nigerian Government. However, his big break came in 1964 when he discovered business opportunities in the then Soviet Union, which led to the formation of WAATECO, a company which distributed Soviet-built vehicles and equipment in Nigeria. This became the nucleus of a big business empire, which later included real estate and a hotel business. One of the estates was the then famous Sijuwade Estate in Ile-Ife, which was leased to the University of Ife and used as Senior Staff Quarters for academic staff. I was among the first generation of university teachers to live there in the early seventies.
By the time he ascended the throne in 1980, he had become a wealthy businessman, with social, business, and political connections across the globe. Those connections and the crown coexisted in a symbiotic relationship from which one benefited from the other. There were occasions, however, when those connections, especially his business involvement and the attempts at political arbitration, conflicted with the crown.
Another duality that resurfaced at his burial ceremonies was the combination of Traditional and Christian religious obligations. In 2010, when I was his guest for a week, he shared historical details about a number of palace rituals and sacred shrines. He spoke from conviction about the efficacy of those rituals. He claimed that even Nigeria was once saved by the observance of some of those rituals.
“How,” I asked, “has the Kabiyesi been able to combine this with his Christian beliefs?” He did not see any contradiction. An Oba, he asserted, is the custodian of all traditions within his domain. He quickly drew my attention to places of worship for Traditionalists, Christians, and Muslims all within the palace walls.
The third duality, which drew the most controversy, arose from his involvement with military and political leaders. Oba Sijuwade was clearly the most courted monarch by military and political leaders, especially at moments of crisis and during elections. The notoriety of some of the military and political leaders sometimes rubbed off negatively on him.
Be that as it may, no monarch to date in Yoruba history has exploited the confluence of traditional, business, and modern political systems as much as Oba Sijuwade. Just as he created pseudo crowns within his kingdom, including the elevation of Ogunsua of Modakeke to an Oba, he doled out chieftaincy titles to socialites, businessmen and women, and politicians of all stripes from within and beyond the country. This is yet another area, where the traditional and political systems negatively rubbed off on each other as the award of National Honours by the Federal Government has attracted sharp criticisms as is the award of honorary degrees by the nation’s universities.
None of these criticisms, however, detracted from the grace and unparalleled majesty that surrounded Oba Okunade Sijuwade. He created a majestic persona through his clothing, cap, shoes, and carriage. Besides, he initiated the tradition of travelling in a convoy of monarchs, even when he travelled outside Nigerian borders. True, there might have been personal differences between him and some Yoruba monarchs, the royal aura he created around himself and the high esteem in which the position of the Ooni is held certainly played into the periodic conflicts between Oba Sijuwade and other monarchs.
Oba Sijuwade was revered across the African continent and by the Yoruba in the Diaspora, especially in Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and the United Kingdom. His appearance at local festivals among the Yoruba in the Diaspora, such as the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia, often marked the high point of the festivities.
Oba Okunade Sijuwade might not have been everyone’s favourite in his politics, business, and royal carriage. But no other Yoruba monarch came close in royal aura and prestige. By whatever measure, Oba Sijuwade was a class act. He will be sorely missed across the globe. I personally will miss his friendship, advice, and telephone conversations.
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