The yoruba people of south-western Nigeria are a nationality of approximately 50 million people the vast majority of whom are concentrated primarily within Nigeria but that are also spread throughout the entire world. They constitute probably the largest percentage of Africans that live in the diaspora and they have made their own extraordinary contributions in virtually every field of human endeavour throughout the ages. Descendants of the yoruba and indeed various ancient derivatives and forms of the yoruba language can be found and are spoken in places like Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, the United States of America and various other parts of the western world.
Today first, second and even third generation yorubas have settled down and spread all over the world and are amongst the best and most sought after lawyers, nuclear scientists, doctors, industralists, academics, writers, poets, playwrites, clerics, theologians, artists, film producers, historians and intellectuals throughout the world. Wherever they go they tend to flourish and excel.
This is nothing new and indeed has always been the case. The first Nigerian to be called to the Bar was a yoruba man by the name of Sapara Williams who was called to the English Bar and started practising as a lawyer in 1879. Yet Sapara Williams was not a flash in the pan or a one time wonder. Other yoruba men followed in his footsteps in quick succession and were called to the English Bar shortly after he was. For example after him came Joseph Edgarton Shyngle who was called in 1888, then came Gabriel Hugh Savage who was called in 1891, then came Rotimi Alade who was called in 1892, then came Kitoye Ajasa (whose original name was Edmund Macauly) who was called in 1893, then came Arthur Joseph Eugene Bucknor who was called in 1894 and then came Eric Olaolu Moore who was called in 1903. Ironically Sapara Williams was not the first Nigerian lawyer though he was the first to be called to the English Bar. In those days you did not have to be called to the Bar to practice law in Britain and the first Nigerian lawyer that practised without being called to the Bar was yoruba man by the name of William Henry Savage. He was described as a ”self-taught and practising lawyer” and he was a registered Notary Public in England as far back as1821. These were indeed the greats and every single one of them was a yoruba man.
My friend and brother the respected Akin Ajose-Adeogun, who is a historian by calling and a lawyer by profession is a man for whom I have tremendous respect. I have often described him as the ”living oracle of Nigerian history” simply because he has a photographic memory, a knack for detail, first class sources and has read more books on Nigerian history than anyone that I have ever met before in my life. Akin has an extraordinary mind, he is a living genius and I have often urged him to write a book. You can ask him anything about anyone or any event in any part of our country since or before independence and he will give you names, dates and the sequence of events immediately and without any recourse to notes, books or sources. After he has given you the information he will then cite his sources and tell you which books to go and read in order to confirm what he is saying. I have learnt so much from him that I must acknowledge the fact that I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
He once told me something that I found very interesting and that reflected the semi god-like status that our earliest lawyers, including some of the names that I mentioned earlier, enjoyed amongst the people. These men were not only reverred but they were admired by all, including the British intelligensia and elites. Akin told me that many years ago in the mid-80’s Sir Adetokunboh Ademola, who himself was one of the legal greats, who was called to the English Bar in 1934, who was the third Nigerian to be appointed as a magistrate in 1938, who was the third Nigerian to be appointed as a High Court judge in 1948 and who was the first Nigerian to be appointed Chief Justice of the Federation in 1958 said the following words to him. He said, ”when you saw the way that the earliest Nigerian lawyers conducted themselves in court and argued their cases you would have been filled with pride and you would have wanted to become a lawyer yourself. Members of the public used to fill the court rooms to the brink and sometimes even the forecourts and passages just to watch these great men perform and enjoy their brilliance and oratory. They spoke the Queens english and they knew the law inside out. It is not like that today”. This is a resounding testimony from an illustrious Nigerian and it speaks eloquently about where the yoruba, as a people, are coming from and the stock and quality of minds that they are made of.
Yet the dynamism of the yoruba and their innovations and ”firsts” did not stop there. It went into numerous other spheres of human endeavour quite apart from the law. Permit me to cite just two examples. The first is Dr. Nathaniel King who was the first Nigerian to become a medical practitioner. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1875 and he was a creole of yoruba origin. The second example lies within the ranks of the clergy. The first African Anglican Bishop and the first man to translate the Holy Bible and Book of Common Prayer to any African language (outside of Ethiopia) was a yoruba ex-slave who gave his life to Christ, won his freedom and rose up to become one of the greatest and most respected clerics and leaders that the African continent has ever known by the name of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Unknown to many his original name was Rev. John Raban but he changed it in his early years. Crowther got his first degree at the famous Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leonne (which at that time was part of Durham University). He was ordained an Anglican Bishop in 1864 and that same year he was awarded a Doctrate from Oxford University.
This extraordinary man who was blessed by God with an exceptionally brilliant mind was, as far as I am concerned, one of the greatest Africans that ever lived. He not only translated the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to yoruba (an extreemly difficult, complicated and painstaking venture which he began in 1843 and which he completed in 1888) but he also codified a number of other christian books and he translated them into the Igbo and Nupe languages. He was literally the pillar and foundation of the Anglican church in west Africa. Throughout his adult life he courageously stood up and fought for the rights and the dignity of the African and he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the spread, influence and power of the Anglican church and the christian faith in Nigeria in the late 19th century.
He was also the maternal grandfather of the great nationalist Herbert Macauly who, together with Nnamdi Azikiwe, founded the political party known as the NCNC in 1944. Crowther was also the father-in-law of Rev. Thomas Babington Macauly who founded the Christian Missionary Society Grammar School (CMS Grammar School) in 1859 in what was then the Lagos Colony. CMS Grammar School was the epitomy of excellence and a citadel of great learning in those days and it was the oldest secondry school in Nigeria and the main source of African clergymen and administrartors in the Lagos Colony and indeed in Nigeria. It is not surprising that it was the son-in-law of the great Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther that founded such a school and that it was his grandson that founded one the greatest political parties that the African continent has ever known. This is another first for the yoruba.
Yet who are these people and where did they come from? What is their origin and what is their source of strength? What makes them so special and so peculiar all at the same time? What makes their religious set-up so complicated and so profund and what allows each of the great monotheic faiths of christianity and islam together with the traditional religions to flourish and excel amongst the very same people at the same time? Why are the yoruba so accomodating of outsiders and what is responsible for their liberal disposition when it comes to their dealings with people from other cultures, other faiths and other nationalities. Some of these questions may never answered but in the sequel to this essay we will attempt to at least view and analyse the yoruba from a historical perspective and this may explain why they are what they undoubtedly are- ”primes inter pares”, the first amongst equals.