By Femi Fani-Kayode
In his 2,000 page book entitled, ‘’Ile-Ife-The Source of Yoruba Civilisation’’, Prince Adelegan Adegbola wrote the following about the Yoruba people: “The Yoruba are the progeny of great kingship, efficient kingdom-builders and astute rulers.
They have been enjoying for centuries a well-organized pattern of society, a pattern which persists, in spite of all the changes resulting from modern contacts with the western world. Their kings have, from 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-conscious 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 amounts 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.’’
Professor Adegbola’s research is as fascinating as it is outstanding. It is a ‘’must read’’ for all those that are interested in finding out who the Yoruba are, where they came from, what they stand for and what their contribution to religion,culture, the arts and civilisation really is. Adegbola’a research into the history of the Yoruba and the various Yoruba kingdoms is second to none.
His findings certainly put 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 history, heritage and culture which, in my view, was far more advanced and goes back for thousands of years more than even his own.
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. I will focus on their origins as a people and their migratorary patterns.
The Yoruba are 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 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 migrated to the banks of the great River Nile in Egypt where they intermingled and inter-married with the Egyptians, the Nubians and the Sudanese of the Nile. The Egyptian roots and connections of the Yoruba are deep and irrefutable and the third and final part of this essay is dedicated solely to exploring and explaining those roots.
For thousands of years, many of the Yoruba remained on the banks of the Nile but the bulk of them eventually migrated to what was to later become known as north-eastern Nigeria and once again they settled, mingled and inter-bred with the Shuwa Arabs and the Kanuris of Borno.
From there, they eventually swept across the whole of the north and 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 traditional worshippers what Mecca is to the Muslims and what Jerusalem is to the Jews and the Christians.
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, including Bini Kingdom.
It was after that that we broke up into various kingdoms and communities within what later became known as the old Western Region of Nigeria. Some of those kingdoms and empires were sophisticated, powerful, large and great (like the Oyo Empire) and some were not so great and large.
Yet each was fiercely independent and established it’s own sophisticated system of government, customs, legal codes and conventions.
Sadly these Yoruba kingdoms spent one hundred years fighting one another in totally unnecessary civil wars before the arrival of the British but it is a historical fact that they were never defeated in any war or conquered by any foreign army. Yet the only things that they had in common amongst themselves was their language (which broke into different dialects), their historical heritage, their affinity and respect for Ile-Ife and their acknowledgement of that town as being their spiritual home and finally their acceptance of the Oonirissa of Ife as ‘’the living manifestation of Oduduwa, the quintessential icon of royalty and splendour and God’s chief representative on earth’’. This collection of different kingdom states with a common ancient root were collectively known as the ‘’Yoruba’’. Yet 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. This really is very strange and is indeed a deep and unsettling mystery. For all we know, it could even be a deep and 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, across the vast plains and desert lands of northern Nigeria and then finally settled in the forests of the western region?
Historians have ventured a number of reasons for this but the truth is that no-one knows with much certainty. My own personal theory is that the reason that our forefathers kept having to migrate until we found somewhere of our own was either because of war or because we refused to give up our pagan beliefs and practices.
I believe that when Islam was eventually introduced into the areas that we once settled, our forefathers suffered all manner of persecution for their tenacity to their ancient pagan faith and their refusal to convert and consequently they had to move on.
I may be wrong and many historians have offered one or two other explanations for these mass migrations yet whatever the reasons for them may have been, whether they were due to war, famine or religious persecution, it is clear that the influence of the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Nubians, the Sudanese, the Kanuris, the Nupes and all the other nations that we once lived with, mingled with and mixed our blood with through breeding and marriage is very strong amongst the Yoruba people, their music, their language and their culture till today. We shall return to this theme in part three of this essay.
For thousands of years, the Yoruba were pagans and Ifa was their cornerstone. Their faith was polytheic in nature and they believed, like the ancient Egyptians, not in one Supreme Deity, but in a pantheon of gods each of which had it’s own place and served it’s own purpose.
As a matter of fact, most of the ancient gods that the Egyptians worshipped were introduced to them by Yoruba diviners, sorcerers and pagan priests. Such was the level of our influence on Egyptian culture, religion and history. The monotheic faiths of Islam and Christianity were both espoused by the Yoruba thousands of years later and were both established primarily by the strong trade links that existed between them and the Hausa/Fulani from the north, the Turkish traders of the Ottoman empire from the southern Atlantic coast, the Portuguese and European traders who plied that same southern Atlantic coast and the Christian missionaries who vigorously evangelised the whole territory.
Both Christianity and Islam eventually took full root in the land and in the hearts and minds of the Yoruba people whilst paganism, ‘’Ifa’’ and the practice of their more traditional faith was eventually pushed to the back seat. This was quite an achievement because, for thousands of years, both Christianity and Islam were fiercely resisted by the Yoruba and even till today many Yoruba people still tenaciously hold on to their traditional faith. That is why it is very difficult 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 the Yoruba from Arabia, Egypt, Borno, through northern Nigeria and to their own homelands in the south-west is why they, together with the other numerous tribes in ‘’mid-western’’ (the Bini, the Ishan, the Urhobo, the Itsekiri, the Isoko and all the other tribes that were once part of the old Western Region of Nigeria) and ’’northern’’ Nigeria are generally known as the ‘’Sudanese Nigerians’’.
This is because they all migrated from north Africa and the Sudan to their present locations. By way of contrast, the various tribes from the rest of southern Nigeria who migrated from eastern and southern Africa to their present locations comprise of the Igbo and the people of the eastern Niger-Delta area (including the Ijaws, the Ikweres, the Kalabaris, the Efiks, the Ibibios, the Ika Igbos and all other tribes that were part of the old Eastern Region of Nigeria).
These people are known as the ‘’Bantu Nigerians’’ and they are very different from the Sudanese in terms of their outloo
k to life, their culture and history. Permit me to explain this assertion. The history of the people that are known as the ’’Sudanese Nigerians’’ is well-docuemented, well-entrenched and well-acquainted with strong and respected hierachial structures and the administration of extremely large and powerful, culturally-diverse, cosmopolitan and sophisticated empires that once stretched across thousands of miles of different territories and civilisations.
These great empires, which were headed by powerful kings and emperors, such as the Oyo, Habe, Nok, Nupe, Tiv, Borgu and Sokoto Empires, conquered many lesser peoples in centuries past and administered many territiories when compared to the Bantus.
The Bantus only experience and knowledge of ancient empire and kingship is limited to a few relatively small yet notable kingdoms and coastal states in what is presently known as Nigeria’s eastern Niger-Delta area. Examples of these are the Kalabaris who have their Amayanabo, the Efiks who have their Obong and a few others. The most populous tribe amongst the Bantus are the Igbo.
They are originally of Jewish stock and they have absolutely no history of kingship, empire and organised hierarchical structures. 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 and their ancient heritage.
That is why the Igbo often take pleasure in saying ‘’Igbo enwe eze’’, meaning ‘’the Igbo have no king’’. Outside of the royal kingdoms of Onitsha and Asaba, to have kings and chiefs amongst the Igbo was a relatively new phenomenon which certainly does not pre-date the last 150 years.
As a matter of fact, the kings of those two towns and communities were not even originally of Igbo stock but were offshoots of the royal house of Bini in what is presently known as Edo State. The Obi of Onitsha and the Asagba of Asaba and indeed most of their subjects were descendants of the Oba of Benin and the people of Edo respectively. The Igbo did not even have chiefs until 150 years ago.
It was when the British colonialists arrived in the east that they appointed ‘’warrant chiefs’’ for them. This explains why the Igbo particularly find it exceptionally difficult to understand the complexities and subtleties of people that do not share their republican heritage or beliefs.
Yet the truth about the Nigerian situation is that everybody and every tribe and nationality, no matter how big or small, brings something to the table.
That is what makes us so special and unique as a people and that is what makes our country so great. There is indeed unity in diversity and whether you are a Yoruba, an Igbo, a Fulani, a Hausa, a Tiv, an Idoma, a Nupe, an Urhobo, an Ishan, an Itsekiri, an Isoko, a Kalabari, a Kataf, a Shuwa Arab, a Kanuri, a Berom, an Igbira, a Bini, an Ikwere, an Efik, an Ibibio, a Jukun, an Ijaw or any other tribe or nationality, it is in the greater collective and the beautiful racial and cultural melting pot that Nigeria has become that we can find our true power and greatness.
The Yoruba, no matter how rich our history, are only a part of a much greater family of peoples, each with their own noble heritage and proud history. In the third and final part of this essay, we will explore the Egyptian roots of the Yoruba and we will consider the remarkable similarities between ancient Egyptian culture, religion and language and that of the Yoruba people.