The Nigeria Voice, March 31, 2011
By Femi Fani-Kayode.
In his book titled ”Ile-Ife-The Source of Yoruba Civilisation”, Prince Adelegan Adegbola said that ”the yoruba are the progeny of great kingship, efficient kingdom-builders and astute rulers. They have been enjoyong for centuries a well-organized pattern of society, a pattern which persists basically in spite of all the changes resulting from modern contacts with the western world. Their kings have, from a very long past, worn costly beaded crowns and wielded royal scepters. No one remembers the time when the yoruba people have not worn clothes. Their character of dignity and integrity is an ancient one. In reality, the yoruba claim to be descendants of a great ancestor. There is no doubt at all that they have been a great race. They are, and they appear in some ways to be detrimentally over-concious of their great ancestry and long, noble traditions…..the yoruba are one of the most researched races in the world.
According to Professor S.O. Arifalo, by 1976 the available ”literature on the yoruba” despite many omissions numbered 3,488 items. These vast amount of works are quite substantial and unrivalled in sub-saharan Africa. Also the artefacts showed that the yoruba were intelligent, complex and wealthy people whose art and technological skills were unsurpassed in pre-historic Africa. Almost everything we know about the yoruba people comes from Ile-Ife.” Adegbola is absolutely right and his research into the history of the yoruba and the various yoruba kingdoms is simply outstanding. His findings certainly puts a lie to the controversial assertion made by Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of the best-known and most respected historians that ever lived, who once said that ”the history of Africa is darkness, nothing but darkness”. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is clear to me that this Englishman, despite his outstanding credentials, knew next to nothing about our rich and long history, heritage and culture which, in my view, was far more advanced and goes back for thousands of years more than even his. In this essay I will make my own contributions to the debate and I will concentrate primarily on the pre-historic era of the yoruba (before the coming of Oduduwa to Ile-Ife and before the establishment of the great kingdoms and princely states), their origins as a people and their migratorary patterns.
The ”yoruba” are the ancestors of the black Cushite migrants and settlers that did not go to Africa with the other descendants of Cush but that rather chose to settle in the areas and environs that were to later become the ancient cities of Mecca and Medina in what is presently known as Saudi Arabia. They were not Arabs but they were there as settlers for thousands of years and they constituted an industrious, prosperous, powerful, large and respected minority within the larger Middle Eastern, Jewish and Arab community. However they were eventually driven out of those Arab towns and communities and forced to leave them for refusing to give up their religious faith, their deep mysticism and paganism and their idol worship after islam was introduced to those places by the Prophet Mohammed in 600 AD. They then migrated to the banks of the great River Nile in Egypt where they intermingled with the Egyptian Arabs, the black Nubians and the Sudanese of the Nile (”Yorubas- The Egyptian Connection” by Olomu and Eyibira). Many remained there but the bulk of them eventually migrated to what is now known as the north-eastern zone of Nigeria and once again mingled and bred with the Shuwa Arabs and the Kanuris of the Borno people. From there they eventually migrated down south to the forests and farm lands of what is now known as south-western Nigeria making their primary place and location of settlement and pagan worship Ile-Ife. Ile-Ife is to the yoruba gods what Mecca is to the muslims and what Jerusalem is to the jews and the christians. And the establishment of Ile-Ife as the centre and source of all that is Yoruba was confirmed by Oduduwa himself when he sent his sons out from Ile-Ife to other parts of yorubaland to establish their own independent kingdoms. It was after that that we broke up into various kingdoms and communities within what is now known as south-western Nigeria. Some of those kingdoms and empires were sophisticated, powerful, large and great (like the Oyo Empire which was one of the greatest empires that ever existed on the African continent and indeed the world and which was responsible for halting the ”jihad” of Usman Dan Fodio from coming any further south by defeating the Fulanis and their allies in battle and confining them to Ilorin) and some were not so great and large. These yoruba kingdoms spent hundreds of years fighting one another in totally unecessary wars but it is a historical fact that they were never defeated in any war or conquered by any foreign army. Yet the only thing that they had in common amongst themselves was their language (which broke into different dialects depending on where you were), their historical stock, their affinity and respect for Ile-Ife and their acknowledgement of it as being their spiritual home and their anthropological source and finally their acceptance of the Oonirissa of Ife as ”the living manifestaton of Oduduwa, the quintessential icon of royalty and splendour of the yoruba and edo people and not just God’s chief representative on earth but also the earthly head of his people” (”Ile-Ife-The Source Of Yoruba Civilisation” by Adelegan Adegbola pg. 8 ). This group of different kingdom states with a common ancient root were collectively known as the ”yoruba” and the fact of the matter is that the word ”yoruba” has NO meaning in our language or any other language that is known to man. No-one has been able to tell us with certainty the meaning of the word ”yoruba” or indeed where it really came from.
There are many different theories about it’s history and meaning but no definative and conclusive consensus has ever been established about the source of this strange word. This really is very a deep and unsettling mystery. For all we know it could even be an ancient insult. That is why I have always preferred to be referred to as an ”ife” rather than a ”yoruba”. Another question that is often asked is why did our forefathers indulge in all the mass migrations from first Mecca and Medina, then to Egypt, then to Borno and then finally to the plains and forests of what was to become, thousands of years later, the western region of modern-day Nigeria in sub-saharan west Africa west? Well my own personal theory is that the reason that our forefathers kept having to emigrate until we found somewhere of our own was because we refused to give up our pagan beliefs and practices and when islam was eventually introduced or took full root in all the areas that we once settled our forefathers were no longer comfortable there and they must have suffered all manner of persecution for their tenacity to their ancient pagan and ”ifa” faith and practices.
Whatever the reasons for the the mass migrations may have been it is clear that the influences of paganism, their traditional faith of ”ifa” worship, the Egyptians, the Nubians, the Sudanese, the Middle Easterners and the Kanuris is very strong amongst the yoruba, their music, their language and their culture till today. The religious faiths of islam and christianity both came much later and were both established primarily through the strong trade links that existed between the yoruba and the north-western hausa/fulani caliphate from the north, the Turkish traders of the Ottoman empire of the southern Atlantic coast from the south, the primarily Portugese and European sailors and traders who plied that same southern Atlantic coast from the south and finally with the strong efforts of the christian missionaries of both the Anglican and Catholic churches respectively. Both of these two great monotheic faiths of christianity and islam eventually took full root in the land and in the hearts and minds of the yoruba people whilst paganism, the worship of ”ifa” and the practice of our original and more traditional faith was eventually pushed to the back seat even though initially, and for hundreds of years, they were both fiercely resisted. That is why, till today, it is very rare to find a yoruba family that does not have christians, muslims and adherents of the more traditional and ancient tribal faiths in their ranks. The slow and massive migration of our forefathers from the Middle East, north Africa and north-eastern Nigeria to our own homelands in the south-west are why the yoruba, together with the various tribes and people in what is presently known as ”mid-western” and ”northern Nigeria” are generally speaking known as the ”Sudanese Nigerians” whilst the various tribes and people from the rest of southern Nigeria, which comprises of the igbo race and the people of the Niger-Delta area are generally known as the ”Bantu Nigerians”. The history of the Sudanese Nigerians is far more entrenched and better aquainted with the running and administration of extreemly large and powerful, culturally diverse, cosmopolitan and sophisticated empires that stretched across thousands of miles of different territories and civilisations and that have conquered many lesser peoples in the past than that of the Bantus whose only experience and knowledge of ancient empire is limited to a few relatively small yet notable kingdoms and coastal settlements in what is presently known as Nigeria’s Niger-Delta area. As for the Bantus of the igbo eastern region, who are originally of jewish stock, they have absolutely no history of kingship, organised hierachial structures or empire at all but they were essentially republican in nature and they were a collection of village and forest communities that were bound together only by their common language, their ancient heritage and their noble traditions. Outside of the royal kings of Onitsha and Asaba to have kings and chiefs amongst the igbo is a relatively new phenomenon which certainly does not pre-date the last 150 years. It was when the British colonialists arrived in the east that they appointed ”warrant chiefs” amongst and for them.