By Obi Nwakanma
The Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi recently opened a longstanding debate about the relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba, and did affirm that the Igbo were ancient inhabitants of Ife. The Ooni’s asserts that the ancient Igbo connections to Ife is still evident in the traditions preserved in the oral narratives of Ife itself, and in the extant lineages of the Igbo still present in their habitations inside the Ooni’s palace. The Igbo quarters are still present in Ife. What the Ooni brings to this debate is legitimacy, because Yoruba tradition confers the authority of national memory on the office of the Ooni.
The Ooni in a sense validates the accounts of the eminent Nigerian historian and anthropologist, the late Professor Ade Obayemi. Obayemi accounts for a first pavement of culture in what is now known as the cradle of Yoruba origin, but which was once originally settled by the Igbo led by Obatala. This is not a new argument, and the Olugbo of Ugbo’s disputes with the Ooni about an ancient Igbo habitation and displacement is either ignorant or mischievous. The Igbo were the original inhabitants of Ife and had installed, and practiced a culture based on their ancient Odinala religion of peace, of the divine rights of the individual and not of kings, of the protection and validation of the weak and infirm, of an artistic and creative value rather than of war and destruction. All these values are embodied in the myth of Obatala the sculptor and creative “demiurge” of current Yoruba mythology. And of course of he also models the value of the Republic over the monarchy.
The Igbo had been marked by the multiplicity of their settlements in Ile-Ife which the Igbo know by its more ancient name as “Igbo-Omoku.” As a matter of fact, Obatala was a High Priest in the mold of the Igbo priesthood, like the EzeNri, and aspects of this priestly function was absorbed by the Ooni who equally then also absorbed the monarchical order that replaced the Igbo republican order of the Obatala era. The current Ile-Ife is therefore a hybrid system between the displaced Igbo culture and the settler order that replaced it. The war over Ife between the Igbo and the new wave of migrants to Ife was over two different ways of life: the freedom associated with the Republic or the order and control associated the monarchy.
Obatala’s group was defeated, and was driven into exile, and scattered into places including as far as Ketu, and places as far as what we call Dahomey and Togo today. The republic disappeared and the monarchy as embodied by Oduduwa replaced it. The rivalry between the Igbo and the Yoruba continue to mirror this. The wars the Igbo levied consistently against the new settlers is preserved and enacted even today in the Yoruba Egungun festivals, the Oreluere, the Obameri, the Moremi and the Edi festivals. The eminent modernist playwright, Femi Osofisan, gives a new sheen to it in his play, Morountodun, based on the Moremi myth. The Egungun festival is preserved as the Yoruba Festival of liberation from the marauding and masked Igbo “Egwugwu warriors.”
The Obatala festival celebrates the canonization of the era of peace as embodied by Obatala and the Igbo, at a time of national regret, years later, when the Yoruba began to rue the tyranny of Kings in their new order, and regret the loss of the period of peace and creativity of the old order represented by the Igbo. They turned and memorialized the leader of the Igbo, Obatala, into a god, and the period of Igbo culture as the highest moment of creative fluorescence in the Yoruba world. The Ifa preserves this for us. And to this day, the Yoruba inhabit two souls: there is the fiercely republican Yoruba, many of whom find close affinity with the Igbo, and there is the Yoruba monarchist, who fiercely defends the settled order of kings. But that is as far as the Ooni’s knowledge of the Igbo situation in Ife goes.
There is an alternative narrative tradition that says the Igbo themselves in their wave of migration following Amadioha’s destruction of the ancient world met an even older settlement in Ife of people whom they absorbed and protected and introduced to a settled and peaceful way of existence. What this story points to us is that human migration – settlements and resettlements have remained a constant in man’s development and search for security.
That is why the evolving story of the Fulani herdsmen today is interesting and complex. The Ooni suggests that the Igbo moved from Ile-Ife to their current settlements in Igbo land. That is not true. In fact archeological evidence proves that a place like Igbo-Ukwu is a much older settlement than Ife. So in fact, in current Igbo historiography, and assessment of their movements, Ife is a newer settlement of the Igbo, and may have been part of a wave of migration leading to a pavement of Igbo history following an ancient catastrophe.
There are many hypothesis of these settlements, and there is no doubt that the Yoruba and the Igbo are close and related. The language and the cultural patterns suggest points of very recent contacts and break-offs. The Idu – the Benin – is the medial culture between the Igbo and the Yoruba. Indeed, the Benin suggest that Izoduwa was Oduduwa, and they know precisely when he left Ani-Idu (Benin City). So, who indeed are these people? There is the Nok hypothesis which suggests a coagulation that broke off at the Niger-Benue valley, with the Jukun, the Igbo, the Yoruba and the Igala, and possibly the Idu, moving apart into their current settlements.
There is the Igbo-Nupe-Yoruba hypothesis of a movement from Egypt, through the crags of Air, that settled in their current locations. Indeed, two studies published by the English colonial anthropologist, M.D.W. Jeffreys, “The Winged Solar Disk, or the Ibo Itchi Scarification Marks” (1951), and “A Triad of gods in Africa,” (1972) explore and affirm these links, and the possible Egyptian origin of the Igbo, and their worship of the Sun god. The Igbo still call their first-born sons, “Opa- RA” (priest of the Sun-God, RA). MDW Jeffreys identifies in the symbols of the “Ichi” scarifications carved into the forehead and cheeks of the Igbo titled aristocracy, Ndi Nze, the “sun, moon and the wings and tail of the hawk” and the ram-headed symbol of the “Ikenga,” as associated with ancient Egypt, particularly the winged solar disk symbol of Pharaoh Usertsen III.
The problem is that Jeffrey thought the circulation of the symbols were from Usertsen’s conquest of Nubia and the lands of the Meroetic ridge, and may thus have been, rather than of Igbo origin, of a specific Egyptian colonial origin. MDW Jeffrey writes that the resemblance of the Egyptian symbols has an amazingly close resemblance with the Nri-Igbo symbol, and raises the question of who may have borrowed from the other, and concludes that there is no evidence in Igbo of an independent invention of the symbol. This is profoundly inaccurate, of course, because of Jeffery’s project of attempting to sustain an idea of Egyptian cultural priority, or hegemony, and possibly maintain the fiction of a lack of cultural agency in Sub-Sahara Africa until it was brought from outside, a fiction that has long now been put to rest by works done by the likes of Cheik Anta Diop. There is no doubt that the Egyptian symbols may have Igbo origins. The Igbo stories claim that the Igbo once ruled the world and destroyed it.
They may have founded Egypt. The Igbo consider Igbo land, “Ala-Nso” and established the code of Eje-Alo. They are great travelers, but they always return, following the path of the Sun. Even the Egyptian priests, guardians of the Kemetic gnosis affirmed in their teachings to Solon, the culture patriarch of the Athenians, that they had preserved in their temples, nine thousands years to the day Solon asked the question, the ancient knowledge of a people by the great Atlantic who had been destroyed in their quest to conquer the known world. The Igbo themselves have the story of Kamalu, who took the impudent title “Amadioha” – and who destroyed the ancient world, and was himself blown to smithereens as he and his scientists experimented with “orisha-Akalum” or the “ore of the heavens,” or “Igwe” in his bid to create a powerful, all-conquering weapon of war. Amadioha’s recklessness remains a cautionary tale among the Igbo to this day, and you often hear the Igbo say, “onye emena ihe Ike” (let no one mess with energy), or “Anyi maara dowe ike” (We know the secret laws of energy, we just sealed it that no one should use it). That ancient secret was unraveled by Einstein, and thus the Atomic bomb.
Following Amadioha’s heresy, the Igbo abrogated the making of kings, forbade human sacrifice, and established a religion of peace. They dispersed in great numbers from their ancient habitations by the Atlantic in search of new habitations. Obatala and his group settled in Ife. And the story of these great Igbo settlements traverse the world. There are five sub-nations of the Igbo: the Agbaja, the Oru, the Isu, the Nri, and the Idu. That is why they say, “Isee!” or “Ihi aa!” at the end of the kolanut ritual that commemorates this filial unity, and its invocation of peace, and its summoning of the ancestral spirit. The Idu, who call themselves Benin today, are part of the larger Igbo, and are possibly the bridge with the Yoruba. The value of Ooni Enitan’s assertion is the necessity for strategic collaboration between these groups who must understand that the Igbo, Yoruba, Igala, Nupe, Jukun, and so many of the cultures in the West and Central West Africa have so much more in common, and must work together for their own security and prosperity. Of that, I endorse.