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Author: Funso S. Afolayan
Title: Reconstructing the past to reconstruct the present: the nineteenth century wars and Yoruba history
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Reconstructing the past to reconstruct the present: the nineteenth century wars and Yoruba history
Funso S. Afolayan

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 6, pp. 12, 1993
Author Biography: Funso S. Afolayan is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Religions, Amherst College.



This paper examines how the memory and the impact of the nineteenth century wars in Yorubaland continue to influence and color the consciousness of the Yoruba about their identity, their perception of themselves, their construction and re-construction of their past as well as their definition and ordering of inter and intra-group relations in the present. It shows the influence of British colonialism on historical recollection and representations among the Yoruba in colonial and post-colonial times.

The nineteenth century has received more attention than any other aspect of Yoruba history. At least three reasons can be adduced for this development. The first is the far-reaching consequences of the wars, especially the destruction of states and settlements and the rise of new urban conglomerations, consequences that are still very much alive with the people today. Secondly, fascination with war and conquest, the excitement of politics and diplomacy, missionary activities and debates over slavery provided the inquisitive scholar much to explore. Lastly the century, more than any period before it, is also rich in source material, oral or written. But even with the nineteenth century, the concentration has been on the main protagonists in the conflict, Ibadan, and reactions against Ibadan in Ijaiye and Ekiti.

Like the nineteenth century, the colonial period has also received some attention. There are two reasons for this: its nearness in time and its continuing relevance to the present, and the availability of abundant source materials in the form of colonial records. But even then, the coverage has not been satisfactory. The focus of studies has been mainly on British colonial policy and reactions to it. Only two areas, the Oyo province and the Yoruba in the Benin Republic, have received a survey treatment. The others have been left as if nothing of significance happened in them. There is always the assumption that once indirect rule has been studied in one place it is sufficient for the whole group. This is a misleading position. Colonial rule varied from place to place and period to period. The conclusions reached about Oyo, for instance, are not valid for the north eastern Yoruba experience of colonialism under the Fulani emirate system.

Against the background of nationalism in mid-nineteenth century Europe and the cultural nationalism provoked by missionary education in southern Nigeria in the second half of the nineteenth century, a new class of western educated elite emerged committed to the welfare of their countrymen. One of the most prominent of this new class was Samuel Johnson, a C.M.S. minister imbued with an ardent love for his people and a sincere desire to see them united under a single government. His revulsion against the internecine turbulence of the nineteenth century, which he blamed on intra-group rivalries, led him to advocate the corpus of Oyo traditions which postulated a conception of a Yorubaland united under the rule of Oyo before the nineteenth century. He jettisoned the Ooni's claim to paramountcy by popularizing an Oyo and Ijesa tradition which portrayed the Ooni as the son of a slave, a sacrificial victim "omo oluwo ni." The god-like reverence accorded the Ooni he explained away by postulating a new order of affairs in pre-19th century Yorubaland in which the Ooni was the spiritual while the Alaafin was the political head.

While it is clear that Johnson never realized that the united Yoruba empire under a single monarchical head, which he dreamt about, desired and constructed for the pre-nineteenth century Yoruba history, was a creation of his own imagination, his "distortions" must be placed in their proper context. Though not deliberate, they were purposeful and well targeted. It was the onset of colonial rule and the British colonial masters were busy looking for individuals with claims to traditional authority to invest with power as paramount chiefs. Johnson's reconstruction of Yoruba history worked its trick. The British were taken in. The Alafin was made the paramount Native Authority of the Oyo province, an arrangement that negated the developments of the nineteenth century. Other Yoruba groups were uncomfortable with this arrangement. Ibadan, for instance, rejected the use of the pre-nineteenth century history, since it was not favorable to it and, in fact, implied her subordination to Oyo. In a flurry of memoranda and a series of protest actions to the British administration, Ibadan argued that the pre-19th century situation had been changed by the event of the 19th century, a time when Ibadan was for long the most powerful state in Yorubaland overshadowing and in fact protecting Oyo. The vehemence of the protest and the effective appeal to "history" made the British yield. In 1934, Ibadan was made an autonomous division.

Ife rejected the Oyo version of Yoruba history as presented by Johnson, affirming a "history" that established the Ooni's historical and traditional political paramountcy throughout the Yoruba country. Modern scholars here also joined in the fray. Oyo's position has received sympathetic leanings from Robin Law, while Ife's position has been espoused and defended by Adeagbo Akinjogbin and supported by Ade Ajayi. These conflicting reconstructions of the past have resulted in considerable tension and acrimony among the Yoruba, laymen, as well as scholars. The break-up of the state, to which the two contesting monarchs belonged, into two, Oyo and Osun, in 1991 by the federal government was seen as a deliberate and timely attempt to stem the crisis by separating the two "warring chiefs" and their people.

Johnson's "history" inspired and provoked similar efforts in other parts of Yorubaland. As "opposition histories," most of these writings were meant to reject and counter the Oyo bias of Johnson which the writers believed might mislead the British colonial masters in their administrative and political arrangements. Depending largely on oral traditions and shaped by their political agendas, these accounts were often tendentious. Their emphasis was on political history concentrating solely on kings and war leaders as if they alone made the history.

British rule had other consequences for the reconstruction of the Yoruba past. Coming from a strongly monarchical background and reversing the trend of the 19th century, the British colonial masters through the system of indirect rule enhanced the status of Yoruba crowned rulers. Since connection to the Oduduwa throne at Ife alone (why?) conferred the right to wear the beaded crown, there was a feverish attempt throughout the Yoruba country to establish a plausible link with Ile-Ife or through one of its offshoots such as Oyo. Thereafter the standard version of history often began with "Our ancestor came from Ile Ife. He was from the Oduduwa family ..." Yoruba history and affairs during the colonial and post-colonial period were dominated by claims and counter claims for the right to wear the beaded crown. Panels after panels were set up to look into "history" and settle the matter. These efforts bore fruit. From the "original" seven crowned heads recorded by Johnson in 1897 the number grew to 21 in 1903 and 41 in 1966. A report in the Daily Times of 16 May 1977 reported that the Oyo state government had recognized no fewer than 67 Oba in that state alone who were "entitled" to wear the beaded crowns.

The British predilection for the crown also had another consequence. Last year, a Professor of African Studies visited the Library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to find pictures to illustrate his interests in the social and political history of the Yoruba. To his surprise, but quite understandably, 90% of the hundreds of pictures relevant to Yoruba history were pictures of crowned rulers.

The pervasiveness of the consequences of the 19th century crises, especially the demographic and social dislocations and the ever-recurrent problem of integration, made the 19th century the most dominant theme in the oral tradition and in the historical consciousness of the people. Everything in the society was explained through reference to the nineteenth century. Naturally the early local historians from Johnson in 1897 to Akinyele in 1950 all concentrated on the 19th century. Johnson, in his monumental study, gave 77 pages to the pre-1800 period covering close to seven centuries while the 19th century alone received 453 pages. It is not surprising that the pioneering academic historians of the 60s and 70s almost without exception (Biobaku 1957; Ajayi and Smith 1964; Ajayi 1965; Awe 1964; Ayandele 1966; Oguntomisin 1979; Akintoye 1971; Ayantuga 1965; Oroge 1971; Falola 1984; simply followed in the footsteps of Johnson. They concentrated on the 19th century. The preceding centuries were treated as mere background, a prelude to the great century of change. This was a disservice to Yoruba historical consciousness. But even more damaging was the fact that before long the published local histories became the standard histories of the various communities with which they dealt—it became difficult to go behind them. Versions of them became texts in school books. Authorities approached for historical information simply quoted the published local "history" to the inquirer as "the History."

The emphasis on warfare in the historical tradition is reflected in the plastic and literary arts of the people. On carved doors and veranda posts, in large sculptural figures such as the Elempe on the palace veranda in Ila, or the Epa and Elefon Masquerade headpieces among the Ekiti there were references to Jagunjagun (warrior) or Ologun (war chief). Also in the beating of war drums, singing of war songs, dancing of war dances, in mock battles and in the ritual brandishing of antiquated weapons the theme of war is annually and constantly re-enacted and driven into the consciousness of the people.

Similarly, the emphasis on the nineteenth century division and inter-group rivalries led to the development of negative attitudes and stereotyped perception of other groups. It became fashionable to project one's group identity by disparaging others. For instance, the Alafin's tortuous and secret diplomacy, his precarious manipulation of Ibadan and Ijaiye in the 19th century Yoruba power politics gave the Oyo the reputation of being regarded as cunning and slippery. Ethnic stereotyping is constantly manifested in sayings like "Oyo dodo bale inu re loso" (when an Oyo man is lying prostrate before you, his hearts and intentions are standing erect). The use of these terms today is meant to warn the non-Oyo Yoruba to be careful and cautious in their dealings with the Oyo. Ibadan's reputation for street fighting, extortion, pillage and brigandage in the nineteenth century provoked a negative attitude to them by other Yoruba groups. Even today a non-Ibadan man is often warned to be careful in his dealings with an Ibadan man or else he will live to regret it. Ibadan on its part still sneers at the Ekiti describing them as women because of their easy conquest in the nineteenth century, and they preserved songs disdainfully describing the Egba as a lazy and spineless people because of their defeat by Ibadan during the Ijaiye and Iperu wars. Several examples of ethnic stereotyping have survived in different parts of Yorubaland, where they continued to negatively influence and affect inter-group relations and integration.

The memory of the nineteenth century division and intergroup rivalry threatened to undermine the influence of the Yoruba in twentieth century Nigerian politics. It made them vulnerable to the schemings of the leaders of groups from the North and East of the country who time and again have successfully attempted to sustain their hegemony by allying together, driving the Yoruba into a permanent state of opposition. Whenever the other two blocks are in competition they tried to split the Yoruba in search of subservient supporters by playing on the memories of the 19th century intra-ethnic animosities. In this they have been quite successful. Yoruba division became a constant element of Nigerian politics making them the constant loser and the permanent opposition group in Nigerian power politics. It became a practice and indeed a norm that when groups get frustrated in Nigerian politics they tend to strike out at others; the Hausa against the Igbo and the Yoruba, the Igbo against the Hausa and Yoruba. But the Yoruba time and again, and with virtually no exception, have always turned their anger and frustration inwards by striking at themselves. The impression is clear: the war of the last century is far from being over.

Periodic attempts that have been made to rally the Yoruba and counter the influence of the nineteenth century conception of hostile inter-group relations have not been very successful. The most vigorous effort was by Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987). Appealing to Johnson's conception of Yoruba unity but rejecting his bias for the Alafin (he was an Ijebu-Remo), he attempted to channel it for political purposes. De-emphasizing the 19th century changes, he appealed to the Oduduwa myth, founded the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Association of the children of Oduduwa), made the Ooni the governor of the Western Region, sited the regional university at Ile Ife and established Yoruba newspapers in an attempt to develop a pan-Yoruba ideology as a rallying force for Yoruba unity within the framework of Nigerian national politics. He had only limited successes, as his appeal to Oduduwa and the courting of the Ooni alienated the Oyo and the Alafin who continued to resent every attempt to use an Ife version of history to establish the Ooni's paramountcy.

Again in September 1986, another attempt was made through the centenary conference of the Kiriji-Ekiti Parapo war, to bring together at Ile Ife scholars, elite and rulers from throughout the Yoruba country to ponder on the legacies of the crises of the last century and chart a new course for the future. According to Adeagbo Akinjogbin, one of the pioneers of Yoruba studies, who spearheaded the organisation of the conference, the meeting was organised to completely wipe out some of the negative consequences of the nineteenth century wars which had led to the perpetuation of siege mentality, mutual suspicion and divisiveness in inter-group relations in the present. The conference ended with a communique calling on all scholars of Yoruba history, language and culture to put their intellect and training at the service of promoting a comprehensive historical consciousness and incipient unity among the Yoruba. All these efforts notwithstanding, the historical consciousness of the people, being more oral than written, continued to reinforce the ideology of division and intra-ethnic rivalries. In both internal and external relations the memory of the 19th century continued to be put to different, often conflicting uses in the present.

The development of inter-group animosity is not an unusual by product of a gruesome and protracted century of war. Within one hundred years of war, whole generations appeared to have arisen, who knew nothing but war, and whose views of society and of inter-group relations were wholly shaped by the mores and attitudes connected with war and conflict. As these "abnormal" views were transmitted from one generation to another they became accepted as the norms and ideology of normal inter-group relationship. In the course of time, reinforced by historical recollection, oral and written as well as by literary and plastic arts the enduring consciousness of intra-group antipathy created a new orientation, a new perception which began to see crisis as being a problem of the enemy from within. The new philosophy became encapsulated in popular local proverbs such as "tara ile o ba da ni, t'ode o le se ni" meaning "if your kinsman does not betray you, then you have nothing to fear from the external enemy" or "kokoro ti nje obi, inu obi lo ngbe," meaning "the pest that consumes the kolanut is the one that lives right inside it." There is no sense in looking outside for the enemy. Before long it became fashionable, in time of failure and frustration at the local and national levels, to turn inward in violence and internecine crises. It would appear that having fought with one another on and off for close to one hundred years it became difficult to envisage or adjust to a form of inter-group relations characterized by any other thing but mutual suspicion and hostility.

So far in this paper we have shown that there is a convergence of two historical forces that have shaped both scholarship in historiography and inter-group relations in Yorubaland today. On the one hand the British colonial policy of indirect rule and their definition of who and what is politically important and, on the other hand, the enduring memory of the divisive consequences of the convulsions of the 19th century wars among the Yoruba. "History" became handy in the attempt to understand, explain and legitimize the present while at the same time the reconstruction and re-presentation of the past became a means of effecting and provoking changes in the organization of the present. The Yoruba experience is a clear demonstration of the pervasiveness of social memory, its mediation of historical consciousness and present identities and its creative construction and manipulation for ideological and political ends.


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