INTERVIEW: Why A Prince Whose Father Is Alive Can Become Alaafin — Wán̄dé Abím̄bọ́lá


Says ‘Competence, Not Religious Affiliation, Should Be Major Consideration In Choosing New King Of Oyo’

Chief Ògúnwán̄dé Abím̄bọ́lá is a Nigerian academician, a professor of Yoruba language and literature, and a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). He has also served as the Majority Leader of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Chief Abimbola was installed as Àwísẹ Awo Àgbàyé in 1981 by the Ooni of Ife on the recommendation of a conclave of Babalawos of Yorubaland. In this interview, the revered academic speaks about the throne of Alaafin of Oyo, Nigeria’s education sector, among other issues.

As a foremost Oyo son, what kind of person do you expect should occupy the office of the Alaafin, considering the passing of Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III?

If those who are vested with the power to choose the next Alaafin would make us proud, they should select someone who has a good reputation. I understand that many princes have shown interest in occupying that high office. But we all know people who are honorable. The person must be honorable and respected. It should not be based on the highest bidder. When something like this happens, people come with lots of money to buy the office. We want someone who is a respected person and he should also be a well-educated man.

If we have a king who is well respected, well educated, and who loves the town as we ought to do, there is a lot that he can do to invite investors who will commit their money, their resources to the development of the town. They should not choose a riffraff or someone who doesn’t know what he is doing as a king.

The office of the Alaafin is an exalted office. He is the chairman of the House of Chiefs of Oyo State. I think the kingmakers should know what they are doing; and if they don’t, the governor should. If the Oyomesi chooses someone who will not help nor enhance the position of Oyo, the governor should reject the recommendation. There is still a lot that the king of the stature of the Alaafin can do for the development of Oyo town and the Yoruba race, both at home and abroad. If they don’t choose a person who is really respected and who will hold his own among the numerous kings that we have in Yorubaland, the consequences will be dire. We need to know what we are doing.

As a foremost Ifa priest, is there anything wrong with a Christian becoming the next Alaafin of Oyo? There are reports that there are attempts to sideline a candidate whose candidacy ticks all the boxes but who is from a Christian background. Shouldn’t this be disturbing?  

If we are going to involve Ifa in the choice of the new Alaafin, question of whether a person is a Christian or Muslim will not arise. Ifa will be on the side of someone who will deliver, an Omoluabi, a respected person, a person of worth. It will be someone who will have the interest of Oyo at heart.

It has happened before in Ifa. In ancient times, there was a vacancy in the stool of Alaafin. In those days, Ifa would choose from among the princes. So they had the list of all the princes; they presented all to Ifa and Ifa rejected them. After exhausting the names of all the princes, the kingmakers were worried about what to do next. One of them said: “there is one person who lives in a village faraway. He carries his load of firewood to the town once a week. He goes to the bush, cuts firewood, takes it to the town every week to sell, after selling he would go back to the village. His name is Otonpooro. Why don’t we try him.” So they consulted Ifa if Otonpooro would be fit for the throne, and if the Oyo Empire would be prosperous under his reign. Ifa said yes.

At that time if Ifa had chosen you as the new Alaafin, the kingmakers would meet you in the house wherever you are. Otonpooro had just put his heavy load of firewood on his head, coming to the town. They met him as he was leaving his abode in the forest. They shouted: “Otonpooro dagi nu, ire ti dele po kooko” meaning “Otonpooro throw away your firewood, great fortune is awaiting you in the city.” He ruled for a long time. He was a successful king.

There are allegations that some members of the Oyomesi are trying to disqualify one of the aspirants vying for the throne of the Alaafin just because his father is still alive. The claim is that the Oyo people only recognize the mother of a king and not the father of a king. What should matter: competence or such sentiment?

If that is rooted in the tradition of Oyo, you cannot change that just by the decision of the Oyomesi. If you do that, you have to divine on it and offer sacrifices. For the sake of argument, let us assume that is the only prince remaining, and the father is alive, if you don’t choose him, where will you find another person? You would have to consult Ifa about it and offer the sacrifices recommended.

There are many Yoruba traditional thrones today that are vacant as a result of all kinds of litigation. What are the implications of this?

That is the order of the day. People go to court; the court cases must be disposed of before the exercise of installing someone as the new king. There is nothing you can do about that.

Despite the large number of traditional rulers in Yorubaland, there is a horrible decline in the appreciation of Yoruba culture and values. There is the case of a particular Yoruba traditional ruler who tells people that the Orisas (Yoruba pantheon of deities) should no longer be worshipped nor given their pride of place. Is this not worrying?

It is because they are not thinking deeply enough. If they are thinking deeply, is the Orisa not part of our tradition? Is it not even the backbone of our tradition? If a king wants to throw away the Orisas, the next thing will be to ask if there is any need to have that system of kings anymore. If you throw away the pedestal on which they are standing, what then happens? It is obviously a lack of deep thought. The relevance of the kings today is based largely on our culture. Today the only place left for the kings is what they call council of chiefs, not even council of kings.

At the level of that council, there is nothing they do that has anything to do with the day-to-day governance of each state. I cannot find a state where the state house assembly would formulate a bill, the governor would sign it into law, and then the people would expect the traditional ruler there to give his approval before the law takes effect. There is no such thing.

The relevance of kings in Yorubaland is based on our culture. It is the same people who are supposed to be the custodians of that culture that are saying: “throw the culture away; we don’t want it again.” What they are saying is that they should also be thrown away, because that is the only arena that they are relevant. The so-called obas are relevant because of our culture. If not because of our culture, we would have done what India did in 1947 when she gained her independence. One of the first laws that were put in place was a law which says that the children of hewers of wood and fetchers of water would rule over India. Since then, they removed kings from the governance of the country. If you multiply the area that Nigeria occupies by four or five, probably it is not even up to the area of India. Their population is about 1.1 billion.

However, we could not do what India did because of one reason or the other. We have retained our kings, and this is largely because we want our culture to count for something. The same people who are supposed to sustain that culture are saying that they don’t want it again. They want to be Christians; they want to be Muslims, or they are already Muslims or Christians and they don’t need the culture. What they are saying is that they are irrelevant. They should be the greatest advocates of our culture. Standing on that, they should ask the people to create a position for them. If they are saying they don’t want the culture anymore, a time will come when people will say “well, what is your relevance? Let us do away with you.”

Are you convinced that the present agitators for a Yoruba nation are doing it the right way? What is the Yoruba nation of your dream?

There is nothing if a people are asking for their own autochthonous state or nation. The Yoruba are an important part of the so-called federation of Nigeria. And since Nigeria has ceased to be a federation, people have clamored for years that we should return to the original federal structure of three regions, after which a fourth was added. If that is no longer going to be the case, if we are going to continue with the present squalor and poverty in which we are dwelling, I don’t see any reason people will not agitate that they don’t want to be any part of that. They want to have their own part of the country and rule over it and make sure that that part that is their own is prosperous.

The way Nigeria is today, nobody can rule over Nigeria and lead it to prosperity. In 1992, I contested an election and became a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I was made the Senate Majority Leader by my colleagues.  In early 1993, there was a newspaper wherein I granted an interview which was reported. I made the following point. There is no way that Nigeria can become a prosperous nation if we keep our current number of states. Then, the number of states was even smaller than we have today.

Look, I live in the United States now. The 36 states of Nigeria are about the size of the State of Texas and a small state northeast of Texas called Oklahoma, put together. We have divided ourselves into 36 administrative units. Each one with its own civil service, administration and the full paraphernalia of thousands of officials.  To start with, Nigeria is not a rich country. The little money that we are making is being shared into thousands upon millions of people who are working for all these administrations, and loans serviced. By the time all that is done, very little is left to provide roads, electricity, and development. Nobody is even talking about water anymore. In my town of Oyo, if you visit anybody in a school and have running pipe water, he probably did that by himself. People have resorted to digging wells and boreholes within their compounds. How healthy is that when you use the same water to flush your toilet? Oh, how many people have the means to dig well or sink a borehole? People defecate in the open. It will continue to be like that unless the component parts of Nigeria are given freedom to go their separate ways, or if they are ready to go back to the original structure of three regions. Nigeria is the only country in history that has a size equal to the size of Texas and Oklahoma put together and which has divided itself into 38 units of administration. What Nigeria has now is not responsible and it can never lead us to prosperity


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