Demola Rewaju: The truth about the Yorubas

by Demola Rewaju


There is a Sango grove in Ile-Ife where the fiery god entered the earth. There is a Sango grove in Ekiti where the fiery god entered the earth. Elders in both places swear by the truth of their history.

I grew up in a compound with six Igbo neighbour families but I can never claim to know the truth about their tribe because to know this would require walking in their shoes – through the civil war and the pogrom that preceded it, understanding the hate with which our nation campaigned against their tribe in negation of how a civil war should be prosecuted – conflict between brothers not enemy engagement. Truth is also relative and to know it a deeper pursuit than my egbon Femi Fani-Kayode had attempted. I can speak about my tribe though – the Yorubas who occupy Nigeria’s southwest, making the strongest claims on its former capital and commercial nerve centre.

There is an area in Ibadan called ‘Monatan’ and it describes how most of our people are: Yorubas rarely open up to others on how they feel about them entirely. Of all tribes in Nigeria, the Igbos appear the bluntest, the Hausa most volatile – capable of swinging from one emotional extreme to the other but Yorubas are most capable of holding one emotion internally and expressing another outwardly. The Ijeshas have a saying – ‘oni d’eje s’inu t’o mi tu’to funfun jade’ that means one who hold red bad blood within yet emits pure white sputum from the mouth.

I hate generalisations and there are always exceptions to any general case but the empirical truth of my people cannot be faulted: Yorubas are most likely to deceive people on how we feel about them because though we don’t fear conflict, we dislike unnecessary confrontation. It is our nature to be polite even when we hate a person’s guts. Check out our politics – any politician who relies on Yoruba solidarity will find much division when elections come. Only recently have deputies become loyal to their principals (at least outwardly) but since the first republic, we have more leadership feuds than any other tribe: from Awolowo/Akintola, Ige/Olunloyo to Ajasin/Omoboriowo then Akande/Omisore, Tinubu/Bucknor-Akerele/Pedro, Ladoja/Akala – no other tribe has a penchant for political backstabbing like ours – ‘adiye nje’fun ara won’ is how we describe the situation where hens eat the intestines of other hens. Ma jo lo! A nw’eyin e! – iro nla! Even the Yoruba campus fraternity – Eiye – has an aberrational saying ‘eiye o ki nso f’eiye p’oko mbo’ which means birds don’t alert each other that a missile is incoming.

The astounding political fact since 1999: of all six geopolitical zones, the southwest has returned office holders to power the least number of times. Since 99, only four governors have won and enjoyed a second term in office: Bola Tinubu, Gbenga Daniel, Raji Fashola and Olusegun Mimiko. With Lagos, the influence of non-Yorubas in the voting pattern is obviously a major factor.

Our people are critical of leaders. Only the Yoruba empires of all in Africa had a perfect impeachment system that required the king to die when the people got fed up with his antics. It was customarily required though that once dead, the whole kingdom would go through a period of mourning the disgraced king and proclaim that he hasn’t died but transmorphed into a deity. Our kings are called ‘Kabiyesi’ but it is the character of the Yoruba to question and query the sovereign.

Unlike Beautiful Nubia told me in this interview, I am proud to be Yoruba but only because I am Yoruba. If I were born Igbo, Kalabari, French, Portuguese or Martian, I would be equally proud of my origins but it is not a pride of achievement, only one of assertion: we are after all who we are.

No one else since Oduduwa has enjoyed the privilege of acceptance as a father-figure across this tribe, maybe arguably Awolowo but that would be to ignore the vilification Papa suffered during his lifetime from many of his tribesmen especially what he termed ‘the Egba perfidy’ – a tendency of his own Egba people to snub his political ambitions which Uncle Bola Ige found quite petty. Awo had a very popular nemesis (not even Akintola) in the person of Adegoke Adelabu aka Penkelemesi who campaigned against free education, saying that Awo would deny parents of much needed child labour on the farms. When he bought his own car, Adelabu rode it all over Yorubaland, parking on hills, throwing both doors open and letting villagers climb in one door and out the other – saying Awolowo didn’t let the masses enjoy his own good fortune. Awo is deified today in death but in life, his own people did not absolutely support him – even MKO Abiola opposed him bitterly. Other tribes have their own lodestar so it was important and easy for Awo’s supporters to prop him up as the Yoruba counterpart of Zik and the Sardauna.

This is not to say Awo’s legendary achievements are diminished by this writer or in doubt – contrarily, the joke is on his tribesmen not the sage. As one of our ancient minstrels sang in ‘Yoruba Ronu’ – YO-RU-BA: yo yo yo b’ina ale/ YO-RU-BA: ru ru ru bi omi okun/ YO-RU-BA: baba ni baba nje, our people are strange and fiery like a night fire, ever restless and troublesome like the sea but yet patriarchal.

Think of the over 100 years of civil warfare within Yorubaland which ended only when Lugard made an example of 500 valiant men and women ending the Egba riots in 1918 and you may understand why the idea of an Oodua Republic repels some of us. Old ethnic bloodlines are strictly maintained and passed down generations and only the Nigerian nation gives the semblance of unity among tribes, united against other tribes. Someone asked where my fiancée is from and I told him. ‘Good’ he said ‘Ijeshas like us don’t marry Ijebus successfully’ and I wondered what ‘marital success’ means exactly but there is a town called ‘Ijebujesha’. ‘Ijesha o daa’, ‘Ijebu o sunwon’ – ewo wa ni ti Ijebujesha?

How did our forefathers manage it? fighting the Fulanis around the Ilorin areas yet carrying on several internal wars at the same time? It is our nature you see….

Our people enjoy life with gusto and take much pride in hardwork, respecting collective wisdom, despising the haughty and proud, respecting other tribes with measured reciprocity, forgiving but never forgetting: only fools forget. We are a superstitious tribe but there is wisdom in our superstitions: ‘children sitting on mortars’ is unhygienic but the fear of spirit is a better deterrent to the act than explaining hygiene. Whistling at night disturbs the neighbours but say it invites evil spirits and people won’t whistle at night. Whipping a boy with a broomstick can injure his penis but say it automatically renders him impotent and the mother wouldn’t attempt it in her moment of anger. A child sat at the entrance of a house is an impediment to a person rushing in from outside but say evil spirits would whisk the child away and children won’t sit at doorposts.

We can never be united – unity is a sign that someone is no longer thinking. Gbogbo wa o le sun k’a k’ori s’ibi kan na. the Odu Ifa chapter ‘eji ogbe’ has verses that express our duality. Things (we believe)are created in twos or the creation of one means the creation of the other or the fact of creation presupposes the option of non-creation: duality. Create life, have death; create good and you inadvertently have created evil – this is our essence and we do not fear disagreement. There is a Sango grove in Ile-Ife where the fiery god entered the earth. There is a Sango grove in Ekiti where the fiery god entered the earth. Elders in both places swear by the truth of their history.

I do not swear by my truth about the Yorubas but I affirm it and some may disagree – duality is one of our traits: so it has been, and even now shall be.




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