The Yoruba and the quest for true federalism in Nigeria

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Homogeneity in heterogeneity: Redeeming the Yoruba identity 5

We read that some people erroneously see the Yorubas as cowards, and how Chief Olanipekun debunked that impression, citing various acts of bravery by a number of Yorubas. He also discussed the traits that make the Yorubas distinct.

I was a beneficiary of sound and qualitative education  given and derived from the core Western Region qua State from my primary school, through to secondary school, and up to higher school (HSC). I stand here to pay tributes to the then Premiers and Military Governors of the then Western Region/State in those days. As at today, it appears no State, particularly from the South West, is in control of the education syllabus of primary and secondary school pupils and students respectively.

I venture to ask, perhaps for my education, whether primary and secondary school students in the entire Yoruba land still compulsorily read D.O. Fagunwa’s fascinating and educative books like ‘Ogboju Ode nini Igbo Irunmale’, ‘Igbo Olodumare’, ‘Ireke Inubudo’, ‘Irinkerindo ninu igbo Elegbeje’, and ‘Adiitu Olodumare’? What of l.l Odunjo’s equally tantalizing Yoruba books and poems, including the evergreen poem ‘Ise L’ogun lse’ and his ever-relevant ‘Alawiye, apa kini ati

apa keji’. Is history still even being taught in our classes? Do our children know the story of our forebears? If this trend is allowed to continue, I fear that we might become like a stream which forgets its source and therefore dries up. I am under trepidation that the millennials will go the route of  hapless and unavailing liberalism and take to ideals that might ruin not just them, but the nation itself. I disagree with the notion of exporting wholesale foreign ideas into our schools and classrooms. I differ with the idea of education

without morals, learning without discipline. Has. it not been said that “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a clever devil”?” I object vehemently to the idea of the Federal Government, through the Federal Ministry of Education, imposing curricula on primary and secondary school pupils and students all overthe country, leading to the unnecessary dissipation of energy and resources of whether Christian Religious knowledge and  Islamic Religious Studies should be taught in our primary/secondary schools. Despite the fact that education should ordinarily be on the Concurrent Legislative List, item

60(e) on the list mandates the Federal Government to “prescribe minimum standards of education at all levels?” Why this t¥f”anny of imposition of what pupils and students should be taught from their infancy? Has it not also been said that Intelligence plus Character is the goal of true  education?” If the Yoruba nation wants the Omoluabi/Bibiire orientation to cascade down to this present generation and the next, schools in the South West, from the nursery all the way to the tertiary stage, must design compulsory curricula on history of the Yoruba people and more particularly, the values of the Yoruba people. Refusal to do this, might lead to the Yorubas’ extinction as a people, perhaps not physically, but certainly in respect of their uniqueness and distinctness.


5.9 By our folklore and adages, one of the most deprecating  vices in Yoruba land is laziness; and on the converse, the hard work is one of the most lauded virtues. So, perhaps more than anywhere in this country, the biblical injunction that “he who does not work should not eat”” comes to life in the Yoruba nation. Hence, proverbs like “Oo sagi logbe, ta oguro lofa, 0 de idi ope 0 ngbenu s oke, se ofe 10 maa nro ni?,,32, “lie mo, ole pose”:”, “ole su 0 kaa kun lse?”, are injunction-like statements in the Yoruba jurisdiction. That is why I particularly like the Ogun anthem, “Ise Ya”, and I think it should be sung in all South Western States, as a reminder of who we really are. J.F. Odunjo captures these thoughts very aptly in his poem “ise I’ogun ise”

Ise I’ogu’nise – Work is the antidote for poverty Mura sise ore e mi – work hard my friend Ise la fi’ndenigiga – Work brings success  Bi a kobare’nifehinti – when there is no one to rely on

Bi ole laari- we look lazy Bi a kobare’nigbekele – when there is no one to trust

A teramoseeni – we focus more on our own work  Baba re lee lowot.owo – your mother might be rich Iya re lee lesinleekan – your father might own a thousand and one horses

Bi 0 bagboju le won – if you depend on them o te tan nimo so fun 0 – you have just set yourself up forshame.

Ma f’owuro sere oree mi – Do not trifle with your morning Mura siseojon’lo – Be diligent, the day is short.

History is replete with the strides Yorubas made by sheer hard work. Before the first colonialist ships berthed at our shores, testimonies proliferate the history books to the effect that at 1000AD, the streets if lle-Ife were paved; or that by 1300AD, the cities of Owu, Oyo, ljesa, Ketu, Popo, Egba, Sabe, Dassa, Egbado, Iqbornina. Owo, Akure, On do and the sixteen Ekiti Principalities were walled cities in their own right; or that Yoruba metal arts, circa 1200 AD, could already stand in comparison, in terms of quality, to anything that Ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, of Renaissance Europe had to offer. 3S The typical old Yoruba cities, were urban centres with farms that extended by dozens of miles or more. We were known for our excellent craftsmanship, and considered to be the most skilled and productive in all of Africa. We worked at such trades as blacksmithing, leatherworking, weaving, glassmaking, and ivory and wood  carving.

The many densely populated urban areas of Yorubaland allow for a centralization of wealth and the development of a complex market economy which  encourages extensive patronage of the arts.i’And. we were, and still are, creative, entrepreneurial and resourceful. We used a shrub to create indigo-colored batik-dyed cloth. In Ife, Osogbo, Abeokuta and Ibadan, our women dyed, in Oyo state, they loomed Aso Oke. Crossing eras, Bishop Ajayi Crowther, an ‘omo yooba’ from Osoogun, near Iseyin, Oyo State, who, amongst a hosts of other firsts; was the first ordained black Bishop in the world and the first person to translate the Bible from English to Yoruba, Igbo and Nupe”: further, in 1859, Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Ara Egba, a Yoruba and English language Newspaper, became the first indigenous newspaper in Nigeria; Dr. Oguntola Sapara, a Yoruba man, became the first medical doctor in Nigeria in 1895. Notably, Oguntola, in order to nip the small pox epidemic in the bud, so to speak, joined the cult of Sopona (small pox) to understand its spread and thereafter, threatened other members of the cult with exposure if they did not stop their activities”: and his younger brother, Sapara Williams became the first lawyer.

5.11 Today, we see a decline in this very significant aspect of the Yoruba nation. A regression in our industry, creativity, adventurism dare I say, a susceptibility to the vices preached against by our forefathers. In fact, with the discovery of crude oil in commercial quantities, there was a dramatic shift of focus to crude oil exploration to the detriment of agriculture and arts and crafts, which were relegated to the background.

In fact, agriculture’s contribution to the nation’s GDP dropped from 63% at independence, to an alarming 34% in the 1970’s. Resultantly, since 1975, the nation has become a net importer of food items The erstwhile Minister of Agriculture  and present President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, did not mince words when he stated  “Then, the quality of life was good; children went to good schools, the nation was food sufficient but today, that has become history”,” This is even more astonishing when one considers that the reputable Nigerian universities we laud today were built with revenue from agriculture.

Nigeria is now one of the largest food importers in the world. The entire Western Region built its economy on cocoa in the 1960s. The University of Ife, now named after the icon Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was built from the proceeds of cocoa alone” Then, Nigeria could afford and had people who understood the essence of value and excellence in someone like Arieh Sharon, an Israeli Architect who won the Israeli Prize for Architecture. He designed the University of Ife archetype, the resulting buildings have been said to be the

finest piece of architecture in any university in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

5.12 It is apposite to point out that while farming of cocoa began  in the South-South, farming cocoa on a large scale and with arable soil began in the Yoruba hlnterlands”, farmers in Ibadan and Egba land began experimenting with planting  cocoa in uncultivated forests in 1890 and those in Ilesha started around 1896. The planting of cocoa later spread to Oke-igbo and Ondo Town, both in Ondo State. Ife and Gbongan in Osun State and also in Ekiti land. This is part of who we are, the greatest farmers the country has ever seen.

How then did we allow Cote d’ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia overtake us as producers of cocoa in the world? In the face of the readiness of countries in the world to wean themselves off crude oil and to the line of renewable energy, it is evident that it is unsustainable for Nigeria to continue to rely on oil based revenues. We must stir ourselves up from our slumber and go back to our farms – to the cultivation of cocoa, cassava, yam, and other arable produce which grow so ferociously when properly tended on our soil.


Who says we cannot be the food basket of the country and indeed, having been blessed with direct access to the ocean, become a net exporter of food produce to countries of the world? It is our identity, and indeed our pride, to be farmers. We must take delight in the seeming contradictions between our status as the most educated in the land, yet having the capacity to till the soil to feed the country and sustain our region from the foreign exchange food exportation can bring. I submit with respect that this must be a joint drive by all western States.


5.13 It is incontestable that Yorubas are the most peaceful and  hospitable people in Nigeria. We are by nature peaceful and hospitable. We are impelled by our culture to be hospitable to strangers and friendly to aliens. It is therefore not astonishing that it is becoming common placed for persons from other regions and tribes in Nigeria to be appointed or elected into offices in western states. This is the only part of the country that this happens. It can never be over-emphasised that the Yoruba people are not just peace-loving, but also peace seeking; as a result of which, they have always been the unifying factor and tribe among the diverse ethnic nationalities in Nigeria.

Section 2 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as Amended) decrees Nigeria to be a Federa Republic and also proclaims it to be indivisible an indissoluble. By this singular pronouncement, ‘constitutional imprimatur’ was given to the error of 1914 thus perpetuating the continued marriage of the Yoruba ethnic nationality other ethnic nationalities and sub nationalities under the nomenclature ‘Nigeria’. Might I add that the above constitutional pronouncement was not a original insertion of the drafters of the 1999 Constitution; but was rather a carry-over of the effort by Nigeria’s past leaders both colonial and indigenous, to compel, by all means, unit among all the tribes and ethnic entities making up Nigeria.

The 1946 Arthur Richards’ Constitution laid the foundation of Nigeria’s federal system with the regionalisation of Nigeria, largely along ethnic, cultural and religious lines. It was on this foundation that all subsequent constitutions built, leading to the promulgation of the 1999 Constitution under which Nigeria maintains 36 federating states and a government at the centre. Under this system, the journey to true nationhood has been plagued with a cocktail of challenges. We have struggled to find common basis for our unity and collective existence as a nation. Rather, than forging a common identity as a nation, it seems that the nationalities making up the area

called Nigeria have been further driven apart and the much desired unity and commonality of purpose necessary for our development has remained elusive. Indeed, more than 70 years ago, Obafemi Awolowo in the book, ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’, described Nigeria in the following terms; “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English,’ ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French,’ The word ‘Nigeria’ is a mere distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and

those who do not” Sadly, these words still hold true, for the most part, in modern Nigeria of today.

6.2 For we the Yorubas, a federal system featuring reasonable devolution of powers has always been a recurring theme in our socio-cultural engagements. Governance among the Yorubas in the pre-colonial era was characterised by an orderly separation of administrative functions between

different societal institutions in Yoruba land. The composition and arrangement of governance in the old Oyo Empire graphically captures the federalist tendencies of pre-colonial Yoruba societies. In the days of yore, the empire was organised around the Alaafin of Oyo as its political head, a powerful group of seven king makers known as the Oyo-Mesi, headed by a Bashorun as well as the dreaded Ogboni cult,  amongst others. The Alaafin also had under his domain lesser kings, Baales and village chiefs who administered and regulated societal affairs in the major towns, tributaries,

villages and farmsteads making up the old Oyo empire. Woven into this elaborate system of governance were series of check and balances as well as clear delineation of functions. Though the Alaafin was conferred with enormous powers, the political system was embedded with a variety of

checks and balances which made it impossible for the Alaafin to transmute into an autocrat. Notably, the Oyo-Mesi and the Ogboni cult prominently served as a device to keep the

Alaafin in line. He could ill afford to offend the members of the Oyo Mesi or the Ogboni. Although he could not be deposed, the Alaafin could be compelled to commit suicide. If both the Oyo Mesi and the Ogboni disapproved of his personal conduct or policies, or if the Oyo peoples suffered serious misfortunes, they would commission the Bashorun to present the Alaafin with an empty calabash or a dish of parrot eggs. On handing over these meaningful symbols, the Bashorun pronounced a fearful formula: ‘The gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you.’ The Alaafin was thus informed that his political position had been completely undermined and his removal decided. Custom demanded he took poison”.

According to Avvitev”, the Alaafin was responsible for external and foreign relations on behalf of the empire and was also charged with the duty to protect and defend its tributaries from external aggression by invading Fulani Dahomey fighters. an the other hand, the tributary towns and villages were responsible for collecting [and remitting] tribute due to Oyo and contributing contingents of

troops under local generalship to the imperial army in times of major war. All sub-rulers had to pay homage to the Alaafin.

The acknowledgment of the duty of allegiance was renewed yearly by compulsory attendance at important religious ceremonies.” Be it noted that the empire of the old Oyo Kingdom traverse several far flung places, with varying cultures and traditional practices, thus making it impossible for a centralised model of governance. The best approach was  for a decentralised system of governance which took into account the differences between the various people under the reign of the Ovo empire. It is amazing to note that the Ovo union functioned like clock-work, without an overbearing influence of Oyo on the tributaries, they were allowed to control their own internal socio-political and economic  concerns. Stride and Ifeka comment further on this state of

affairs thus: “imperial policy toward these non-Yoruba states was to allow them almost total local  independence provided that they did not seek to escape from their tributary status”. Thus, it is evident that the idea of a mutually benefitting alliance and shared governmental powers, hinged on a realisation of the inherent strength in our diversity, within the bounds of a federal

system of government is not altogether an idea original to the west or bequeathed to us by British colonialists. Rather, it had been woven into the very fabric of our history and identity as a people. At the risk of being overly assertive, I say that the  basic concept of federalism in Nigeria today has its historical roots, not necessarily in the colonial constitutions and  constitutional conferences held in the build up to our independence as a nation, but in the lifestyle and culture organisation of the Yoruba people in the pre-colonial era.

6.3With the above background, it is thus not surprising that throughout the evolution of Nigerian politics and nationalism, and indeed Federalism and its practice in Nigeria, as has been earlier noted, the Yoruba race has always been at the forefront of Nigeria’s socio-political evolution. Olayinka Herbert H.B Macaulay (grandson of an equally illustrious Yoruba figure, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther) is widely regarded as one of the fathers of Nigerian nationalism. He pioneered the nationalist awakening in Nigeria, opposing colonial policies on many fronts and, notably, in 1923 founded the first political party in Nigeria, the Nigerian National Democratic Party. The history of Nigeria’s political evolution and the Yoruba agitation for true Federalism would not be complete without examining in some detail, the contribution of someone who has been described as ‘a leader of the modern cast who left Nigeria with standards which are indelible, standards beside which future aspirations to public leadership can be eternally measured’,  and one of the most cherished philosophers and political thinkers that Africa has ever produced’,” Chief Obafemi Awolowo (popularly described as Awo). He is credited as not only being one of the founding fathers of modern day Nigeria, but also one of the few widely accepted and undisputed

Yoruba political leader, as well as the most outstanding and impacting Yoruba political thought leader; and originator of a significant body of modern Yoruba political ideology.

Validating this view, Awo has been described as “one of Africa’s most influential nationalists, political writer and a pre-eminent Nigerian statesman whose vision and tireless work defined a modernist Yoruba political project in an emergent Nigerian post-colonial nation state after the decolonization process in the 1940s.”slAwo is important because all successive Yoruba

contributions to the debate on the fate and state of our nation almost always take their bearing from him and his ideals. He advocated, after reviewing the differences among the many ethnic groups and nations among Nigeria that “a federal constitution is the only thing suitable for Nigeria.” This, according to him, would ensure that each group within Nigeria made more rapid progress than at present and as a result, the pace of the country as a whole would be considerably quickened towards federal unity.  This tilt towards a federal state influenced Awo’s subsequent thoughts on how Nigeria ought to be governed. In his book, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, Awo detailed some of  the fundamentals of his conceived federal system; bicameral federal executive, unicameral executive in the federating units; loss of parliamentary seats by legislators in the event of expulsion or defection from his political party, clear cut spheres of operation between the central and regional governments, etc. Chief Awolowo subsequently developed what I call Awo’s four laws of federalism”, to wit:

  1. If a country is unilingual and unl-natlonal, the constitution must be unitary.
  2. If a country is unilingual or bilingual or multilingual, and also consists of communities which, over a period of years, have developed divergent nationalities, the constitution must be federal, and the constituent states must be organised on the dual basis of language and nationality.

iii. If a country is bilingual or multilingual, the constitution must be federal, and the constituent states must be organised on linguistic basis.

  1. Any experiment with a unitary constitution in a bilingual or multilingual or multinational countrv must fail, in the long run.

Needless to add, most of the ideas espoused by Awo have, to some extent, been entrenched into the successive Constitutions adopted by Nigeria. Hence, in specific relation to the practice of federalism in Nigeria, the Yoruba nation has not only contributed more to the development of the idea of a federal state than any other ethnic nationality within the boundaries of Nigeria, but has remained in the forefront of the call for a truly federal republic in every sense of the concept.

In this regard, permit me to echo the views expressed at the Abraham Adesanya Memorial Lecture on 2nd July, 2012, to wit; “Yoruba have undoubtedly made their marks, and are still making unparalleled contributions to the development of Nigeria not only in politics, but in diverse areas such as in the business and the private sector, public service, the military and security services, the mass media, education, the academia, the entertainment industry, the professions (law, accounting, medicine, engineering, etc), bringing leadership, credibility, integrity, discipline, organizational savvy, and exemplary commitment to

principles. “

But the question remains, how federal is this federalism? How much does the present constitution capture the precepts of federalism? I have asserted in diverse fora, and I maintain that what we have today is not federalism but masked unitarism. A cursory glance at the Constitution exposes the lopsidedness of our unavailing experiment. Come with me to the part 1 of the 2nd schedule to the 1999 Constitution, vesting in the Federal Government jurisdiction, control and oversight on a whooping 68 items including items like employment and trade union issues, stamp duties, posts, public holidays, commercial and industrial monopolies, the police, to mention but a few. Compare this to the bare 30 items on the concurrent legislative list,” which the central government again shares with the constituent states, and in respect of which by virtue of section 4 of the same Constitution, in the event of conflict between the legislative act at the centre and an enactment by a state, the former prevails. This situation has foisted on us all, great hardship – no state has control over its resources; states are inhibited from effectively policing and securing themselves; constituents are overly dependent on the centre going cap in hands to the centre for handouts; state high courts virtually have no job to do as federal courts

(including the Federal High Court and National Industrial Court) have an overarching, overbearing and, I dare say, overreaching jurisdictional coverage; states cannot even determine how to treat, how much to payor how to resolve disputes with their own employees. If care is not taken, or do I say pretty soon, the overarching Federal Government would or might soon lay claim to the sprawling and magnificent  Olumo Rock, demanding that tourists who come visiting should pay royalties to the federal till, since tourism is now on the exclusive legislative ltst!” In the light of these anomalies, and lot more misnomers, do we then have the right, temerity, audacity or justification to brand ourselves as a federation?

…to be continued.

Being the text of a lecture delivered by CHIEF WOLE OLANIPEKUN on 14 July 2017 at Ibara, Abeokuta, Ogun State, to mark the 78th birthday of his Excellency, AREMO OLUSEGUN OSOBA

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