The spirit of Kiriji summons us to re-membering on this 23rd of September.
As we remember the civil wars that tore apart the Yorubaland of the 19th century, we must also remember the torn pieces and strive to make them whole again for the realisation of the goal of unity that has been so sadly elusive.
I concede that this is a tall order in view of the obvious political and ideological challenges. The silver lining on an otherwise cloudy sky of the land of Oduduwa is that religious and spiritual differences have not been allowed to aggravate and complicate political divisions. Therefore, unity for the sake of cultural advancement is not impossible.
Scholars have sought to understand the causes and consequences of the civil wars that ravaged towns and villages in Yorubaland, sending entire populations into refugee camps and forcing the relocation of a lot more to other places sometimes in unfriendly territories. Whether it was the economic and material greed of the military class or the insatiable appetite for territorial control by the political class, or yet, the external push by forces outside the control of both, seeking the enslavement of able-bodied men and women for the New World plantations, the consequences were far-reaching.
Oduduwa’s immediate offspring had pushed not only the frontier of the kingdom but also the civilisation that it spawned beyond the confines of the original territories such that we could talk about the establishment of an Oyo empire to the north and west. Sadly, however, the wars not only led to the fall of the empire but also to the balkanization of the original kingdom. Yet more than this material consequences, the psychological and sociological consequences, which many have attributed to the symbolic breaking of the pot of charms by Awole, have been far more devastating.
The significance of Kiriji is two-fold. On the one hand, it was the spirit of freedom-loving, independence-craving resistance against internal colonialism. It was the spirit of cultural democracy and economic liberty. It was the spirit that took over control when a people have had it and can take it no more. That spirit resides in every human group and in every human being.
On the other hand, Kiriji and other conflicts before it tragically strained the ties that bound the people to a common progenitor. And if consciousness can be projected on to the abode of the ancestors, there is no doubt that the fratricidal wars violently disturbed the peace of its illustrious occupants.
There is every good reason then for people to heave a sigh of relief at the signing of the peace treaty on September 23, 1886, even if it was facilitated by an outside power, whose active participation in the trade in humans had been responsible for much of the devastation in the first place. It was also true that the interest of Britain in colonial expansion into the hinterland had been an additional impetus for its intervention. Whatever it’s motivation, the initiative prevented the total collapse of the entire Yoruba civilisation.
Where are we one hundred and thirty (130) years since that historic treaty? In 2004, Yoruba Foundation under the leadership of Ambassador Olu Otunla proclaimed September 23 as Yoruba Day, no doubt in commemoration of the peace treaty signed on that day but also as a conscious expression of hope and a commitment to work for the unity of the Yoruba nation.
We deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us if we remotely believed that there is unity among the Yoruba. Perhaps, it couldn’t have been otherwise. The external facilitators of peace took over political power and forced their brand of governance on a diverse population that included the Yoruba. Their brand first dealt a death blow to traditional rule, brought those rulers under its control and pitted them against their subjects. It was the first step in what was to become an effective divide and rule policy. The next step was to drive a wedge between one part of the new nation and the others.
As far as the Yoruba situation is concerned, the fault lines established by the civil wars had tragically endured and new political relationships followed those lines as evidenced by the party affiliations of major towns during the First Republic. That period saw further entrenchment of the divisions and the emergence of new ones, consequent upon the outbreak of the Action Group crisis.
Words have the power of life and death, with the ability to fetch soothing kolanut from the pocket or deadly arrow from the quiver. The average Yoruba tongue, like its capable surrogate, the talking drum, is extremely effective in producing an arrow.
Through demonising, stereotyping, or casting aspersions on other groups, we have managed to keep alive the memories of the 19th century civil wars and the 20th century political divisions and conflicts. In so doing, the cause of unity has been inadvertently hampered. More tragically, we have allowed the proverbial lizard from externalsources to enter through the gaping cracks on the walls of the Yoruba nation.
The evidence of this anomaly is the innumerable associations that have been established for the promotion of Yoruba culture and civilisation. Naturally, we gladly celebrate our fierce independence and freedom of conscience with the wisdom of the elders: “We cannot all sleep and face one direction”. But if the purpose of sleeping is to get a good night rest, that purpose is defeated if you point your feet in the direction of my nose. In other words, if we share the common purpose of Yoruba unity, it must not be jeopardised by the insistence on the freedom of individuals to hold opinions that are averse to that unity. That “if” is obviously significant and it is also important to agree that unity does not mean uniformity.
What then are the burning purposes that unite or must unite us? One indispensable link in the chain of Yoruba being and consciousness is culture, including customs, ethos, aesthetics, language and spirituality. Of this, I think it is commonly agreed that language is what makes for Yoruba identity. For this reason, there must be a common interest in the preservation and promotion of Yoruba language.
In the current dispensation, however, Yoruba language is in danger of extinction. Go to the home of any middle class Yoruba family and you will be shocked. When parents insist on their children speaking English or French and they censure the speaking of Yoruba even inside the family home, then we have a serious problem on our hands.
There is a need for our political leaders, whatever their party affiliations, to see the threat for what it is and engage their fertile minds in the search for appropriate response to this challenge. The need for a purposive unity based on the threat to our linguistic and cultural identity thus recommends a political unity of purpose that does not infringe on the freedom of conscience of each person. By the same token, what recommends the unity of purpose for our political leaders also recommends a unity of purpose across the various organisations and groups.
Finally, since it is the biggest masquerade that is accorded the honour of being the last to exit Igbale, our royal fathers must understand that the reason of their being is the culture of which they are the custodians. The erosion of that culture from whatever source should be of utmost concern to them. If they agree on this principle, there is good reason for them to jettison all personal animosities and work together for the survival and prospering of the culture.
From the Yoruba experience discussed above, it should not come as a surprise to other nationalities why the Yoruba have been in the vanguard of the struggle for political restructuring in Nigeria. If they fought against internal colonialism and tyranny within their primordial group with a common identity, they will struggle with all in their control for cultural democracy and true federalism within the larger Nigerian society. The lesson to learn from the Yoruba antecedents is that freedom ultimately prevails.