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Kurunmi: Self sacrifice, obduracy in defence of tradition

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By Adekunle Adekoya, Deputy Editor
By the time Kurunmi became Kakanfo, the Oyo Empire was already in decline as a result of the events leading from the rebellion of the 6th Kakanfo, Afonja, and the loss of Ilorin to the Sokoto Caliphate, in addition to internal wranglings and power plays that saw the crowning and demise of about four Alaafin in rapid succession. One of the Alaafin that succeeded Aole was Labisi, who had a powerful Prime Minister, or Basorun, called Gaha, or Gaa.

Aare Ona Kakanfo-designate of Yorubaland, Chief Gani Adams

Basorun Gaa was so diabolical that he suborned the institutions of state, especially the Ogboni (or Osugbo) and Oyo Mesi (the cabinet of chiefs that performed executive-legislative functions in the governance of Oyo by the Alaafin), which he had in a vise-grip. He became power-drunk to the extent that he enthroned and dethroned Alaafins at will, starting with Labisi himself in 1754. Same year, 1754, Labisi was succeeded by Awonbioju. Gaa, as usual, made short work of Awonbioju, and still in the same 1754, Agboluaje succeeded to the throne, only for him to suffer the same fate as his predecessors, and was succeeded by Majeogbe.

Deploying a policy of appeasement, and cession of most of the Alaafin’s authority to the Basorun, Majeogbe survived from 1754 to 1770, when, again, Basorun Gaa got the better of him, and was succeeded by Alaafin Abiodun Adegoolu, who reigned till 1789. Abiodun eventually got rid of Basorun Gaa with the help of the incumbent Kakanfo, Oyabi. As we now know, Abiodun was succeeded by Aole. These developments had weakened the central authority of the empire substantially, such that after Afonja’s insurrection and Aole’s death, there were a series of short-lived Alaafins whose tenures registered no significant development.

In 1833, Oluewu became Alaafin but his tenure was short; he died in 1835 and was succeeded by Atiba Atobatele in 1837. Atiba, as a young prince grew up with two warlike friends — Oluyole and Kurunmi. When he became Alaafin, he appointed Kurunmi Aare Ona Kakanfo and Oluyole, the Bashorun. Kurunmi made Ijaye his headquarters since, as Kakanfo, he could not live in the same town as the king, while Oluyole lived in Ibadan, a camp of warriors from all over Yorubaland that was fast growing into a huge metropolis. Atiba ruled from 1837 to 1859, and as his health was failing, he summoned his cabinet, swore them to an oath and instructed them to install his son, Adelu, as successor. Kurunmi was not among the chiefs summoned to the oath as he was said to have a strained relationship with the Alaafin at the time. Hitherto, the custom had been that whenever an Alaafin died, his crown prince (Aremo), and his closest adviser, Samu ( a member of the Oyo Mesi), must die with him by being buried with him or by committing suicide.

So, the Oyo Mesi did Atiba’s bidding and enthroned Adelu as Alaafin.

At Atiba’s burial, Kurunmi expected to see Adelu buried along with his father but that did not happen, a breach of custom and tradition that he could not stomach. As a result, when Adelu was crowned, Kurunmi refused to pay homage to him: the set and props for a major conflict were being emplaced by the dramatis personae. An incident regarding a woman at a town called Ijanna who died intestate seemed to have brought matters to a boil. In those days, whenever anybody died intestate, the belongings reverted to the crown. Ijanna was however a village of subordinate status to Ijaye, the Kakanfo’s headquarters. Some people sent messages to the Alaafin on the woman’s properties, while others sent to the Kakanfo.

Alaafin Adelu sent people to Ijanna to go bring the properties. On their way back, Kurunmi ambushed them at Jabata, killed many of them and took 240 of them as war captives. When news of this got to Alaafin Adelu, he sent a message to Kurunmi to release the people. Kurunmi responded by saying the people are now slaves and can only be released if they are purchased as slaves.

But because Alaafin Adelu didn’t want a fight with the Aare-ona-Kakanfo, he sent to Kurunmi 1,200 bags of cowries (which represented five bags of cowries per person, which was the price for slaves then). However, Kurunmi demanded 10 bags of cowries per person. Avoiding a conflict at all costs, Alaafin Adelu sent an extra 1,200 bags of cowries to Aare Kurunmi.

Many people, including Balogun Ibikunle of Ibadan made entreaties to Aare Kurunmi, but he stood his ground. So the Alaafin sent emissaries to Kurunmi with edan ogboni (the Ogboni effigy) which symbolizes peace, and gunpowder which symbolizes war. Kurunmi was meant to pick one. Kurunmi killed all the Alaafin’s emissaries except one and he sent the lone messenger back to the Alaafin with the Ogboni effigy.

The Aare picked gunpowder; he wanted war, and so, on the 10th of April 1860, the Ijaiye war began.

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