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Who Are The Yorubas?

By Jadesola Taiwo Babatola

The Yoruba dominates the Southwestern Region of Nigeria and occupy the present-day Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Ogun, Lagos and part of Kwara and Kogi States in Nigeria which are the areas defined as traditional homeland of the Yoruba people up to the Republic of Benin (former Dahomey).

According to a source, ‘Yoruba’ consist of a number of semi-independent people loosely linked together by geography, language, history and religion and they are black people of Negroid Stock who speak a common language which belongs to the ‘Kwa’ group of Niger-Congo group linguistic family.

Though the origin of the Yorubas remain enmeshed in controversies between the myth and the realities, legends and myths of origin are not peculiar to the Yorubas. In the study of history, archeological and anthropological researches have been employed times without

number to extract historical facts on origin where they contrast with the mythical tales of creation.

For instance, critical historical-archeological analysis on Ora Hills revealed that stone, hand axes, polished stone axes, flakes, grinding stones and blades were definitely products of either a late Stone Age settlement or an early Iron Age settlement.

At Uffe Ijumu, radio carbon date of 160 A.D obtained from the site indicated transition of a stone-suing technology and the occurrence of iron smelting activities at an old Ijaye town near Moniya, Ibadan which serves as potential sources of understanding of pre-colonial Yoruba history.

For most part of Yoruba legend, what is known from tradition indicates that its founder (Oduduwa) migrated from the East and settled at Ile-Ife, died there and from his descendants

sprang the various groups of the Yoruba nation. Captain Clapperton in his travels mentioned that he found a book written by ‘Bello’, Sultan of Sokoto, which made references to the tribe of ‘Yarooba, which originated from the remnant of the children of Canaan, of the tribe of

Nimrod’. The various versions of Odudua descent from heaven and the reign of Oranyan, the eldest, who was the 1st Alaafin who founded Old Oyo (Katanga) and whose obelisk is seen today at Ife, sustain the fact that Ile-Ife is universally recognized as the most senior and most ritually important Yoruba city (the cradle of the Yorubas).

The founding of Ife is believed to date back to 850 AD while the rival Oyo town to the Northwest was founded around 1350 AD. The Ooni of Ife and the Alaafin of Oyo are still the most highly respected Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Other major kingdoms were Ijesha and Ekiti to the North East; and Shabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu and Awori in the Southeast and the Ondo, owo and Itsekiri in the Southwest. The third child of Oduduwa, a prince, became the king of Benin people. However, the Itsekiri Yoruba origin is still a subject of debate. The first variant of cosmogony of the Yoruba myth identified orishanla (obatala) – the choice of Olodumare (the supreme deity), as errand to create a solid land out of the primordial water that constituted the earth and populate the land with human beings. Obatala successfully completed this task and olodumare was greatly satisfied. Because of the success story above, Obatala was also given the task of making the physical body of human beings and he became ‘Obarisha’ (the king of Orishas).

The second variant of the cosmogonic version does not credit Obatala with a successful completion of the task assigned to him and Olodumare became worried and he sent Oduduwa to find out what was going on. When Oduduwa found Obatala drunk he simply took over the task and successfully completed it and the land created was called Ile-Ife, the sacred and spiritual home of the Yoruba. References can be sourced from Samuel Johnson History of the Yorubas, and History of Nigeria by Alan Burns, 1948: and R.C. Niven (1958) among others.

Yoruba traditions have agreed that the original founder of the race is Oduduwa who settled in

Ile-Ife at some time in the 14th century. Before his arrival, 13 semi-autonomous settlements were recorded as existing and operating a loose confederacy at Ile-Ife. Oduduwa settled among them and subsequently subjugated them, imposing his authority over them. The pre-existing groups

organized themselves into a resistance group known as the Ugbo and harassed Odudua group and the new settlement for long until solution was found to their troubles, which was eulogized in Moremi’s legacies in Ife history. It has been suggested that the aboriginal who inhabited Ile-Ife were conquered and absorbed. The Yoruba dislodged them to establish a relatively new political systems.

Robert Smith in his Kingdoms of the Yoruba wrote that ‘Oduduwa and his original followers came more...probably from the Savannah land to the North than direct from heaven to Ora hills’ (1969, p.8). Significantly, therefore, there was a pre-existing civilization at Ile-Ife to its invasion by a group of people led by Oduduwa. When oduduwa and his group came, they met aborigines of Ile-Ife, including Obatala, Ereluere, Obameri, Agboniregun (Ifa). They came to Ile-Ife, fought and conquered the pre-existing Ugbo (unrelated to the present Igbo) inhabitants by the Orewere (Obatala), integrated and assimilated them into Yoruba culture and system to form a uniquely new order and society. Hence, Oduduwa is widely accepted as the progenitor of the Yoruba people, a closer scientific investigation will reveal that he might not have been ‘a foreigner’ as many authors have thought.

The foregoing above indicates that despite thevarious readings on the origin of the Yoruba people, the Yoruba people accept a fraternal relationship among themselves and Oduduwa deserve the central place which has been accorded him in Yoruba history. It is a befitting

honour today that Ife is regarded as the cradle of Yoruba civilization and its first king as the Progenitor of all the Yoruba people. In Oyo, the Alaafin similarly stand out as a predominant figure and of course over time, became the richest and the most powerful of all the Yoruba obas. As established through historical inquiries, the Yoruba to a large extent have many broadly

identical cultural traits and claim descent from a common ancestor, yet, they were never totally controlled by any single Oba, not even the Alaafin of Oyo whose authority never covered the whole of Yorubaland.

The tradition is that Yorubas lived peacefully under the rule of their kings and the council of elders and Yoruba kingdoms were politically monarchical. The capital towns often served as the seat of the central government of the Kingdom surrounded by the subordinate towns regarded as local government units and each of the major Kingdoms and their rulers often claim the descent from Oduduwa with right to rule a clearly recognized territory.

The Standpoint of History is Unassailable in Yorubaland Let me therefore respectfully address the revisionist history propagated for the Yorubas through the recent claims of Olugbo of Ugbo Kingdom as part of his grand strategies to foist an irredentist claim with his cohorts on Yorubaland.

I believe that Olugbo’s attempt to reconstruct Yoruba history is not only fallacious, invalid and unacceptable, it is rather a forceful throw of sand in the face and legacies of Oduduwa, his successor in title – Ooni, the most powerful and respected grandchild of Odua - Alaafin and those of other crowned Yoruba Obas who had their source from Ile-Ife.

It is a further attempt to revise the undiluted and age-long history of Yorubas and its establishment, the Obaship institutions that brought glamour and stability to Yoruba race and culture, communities and kingdoms that has existed for over 10 centuries unchallenged. Looking deep at best to interpret the intent of Olugbo and what he seeks for himself in this exploit, one can only realize that he tends to gain ascendancy for his imperialistic exploits as a point of reference, a separate personality with a regalia of identity and glamour that is expected to be richer or more ancient than what exist in Yorubaland since the coming of the days of Oduduwa dynasty. Olugbo cannot

build something on nothing though in his exploit to reestablish a lost and long forgotten hegemonic interest with assault on history and desperation rather than passion for truth, his revision of Oduduwa legacies in Yoruba history that has stayed for many centuries failed to achieve desirable gains. Odua will remain so as long as Yoruba race continue to exist and spread around the world as the beginning and the source.

The hard earned reputation of Oduduwa that he made upon his conquest and subjugation of Ife has put a stop to the Olugbo’s right of ascendancy for centuries, just as Moremi Ajasoro exploits as an heroine in Yorubaland remains a perpetual historical legacies that no one can challenge in ascribing rights of tributes to those who contributed under Ooni Oranmiyan to the survival of

Ile-Ife and the subsequent dynastic rule of Oduduwa successors on the throne. Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba as it is since the era of Oduduwa remains a source of rich history of the Yorubas in which no other gods or Kings would take a higher ascendancy nor distract the sense of history and pride of the Yorubas albeit Olugbo has made another attempt in that direction.

In the writing of history, scholars are driven to positions to get a proper view to interpret issues in the light of discoveries and realities and not merely on illusions and aspirations that would not sustain the unity achieved in the course of promoting the race, its culture and tradition.

To allow Olugbo’s claim to fest on Ooni and other Yoruba Obas, even if it has a true connection to Ile-Ife, the source, in the pre-Oduduwa’s arrival, conquest and dynastic reign that spread across Yorubaland is to glorify a defeated and buried claim.

Olugbo’s claim cannot be sustained in history because it is a mere attempt to resurrect a buried order that was replaced by a new order that was established for over 7 to 8 centuries. Even if it is revolutionary in nature, it would remain rebellious, unacceptable and invalid in approach for assimilation and sustenance.

As society advances and changes, we move with the sense of history that is bestowed on us. The men of Stone Age who started the race did not conquer the world. It is the men of the Space Age

and Nuclear arms race that got closer, though not there fully. This is why history and philosophy goes hand in hand in attempting to interpret the relevance and objectivity of human advancement and the study of their historical sequence.

The Yoruba school of history that situates Ooni as Arole Odua and which does not contradict the exploits of Oduduwa as the progenitor of Yoruba race, would remain the very source of acceptable and valid history of Yorubaland for ages to come, despite the infractions or diversions here and there that will fizzle out along the line. Let it be well stated for the umpteenth time that there are evidences of the existence of aborigines that Oduduwa and his sons met across Yorubaland when they arrived to conquer and rule in the land.

The very existence of these aborigines doesn't confer supremacy or equality on them with Ooni or other Yoruba Obas who got their crown from Ile Ife since Oduduwa’s revolution changed the landscape of Ife politics and governance structure in Yorubaland. He introduced a new hegemony, culture and social direction that have survived till date.

Let Olugbo and his cohort understand one basic fact about studying history. Once a state comes under attack in war and perpetually colonized or annexed in the laws of war, the belligerent becomes the symbol and identity of the new state unless the old order can be restored.

Since it was impossible for Ugbo people to overthrow Oranmiyan at the outset, it is impossible to start rewriting Yoruba history today in connection with Ugbo Kingdom which had been subjugated, defeated and displaced by Oduduwa dynasty for over 7-8 centuries. Oduduwa’s incursion at Ife where he merely meet 13 unorganized settlements which may have included the current day

‘Ugbo’ does not confer supremacy, ancestral legitimacy, equality or superiority on Ugbo in Yorubaland, not even an ‘escapist or cowardly’ Olugbo who relocated finally or migrated far away and forever still, to probably avoid being eliminated or beheaded by the invading Oduduwa armies, on a lighter mood.

Since Ugbo which is claimed to be one of the settlements sacked at Ile-Ife by Oduduwa had relocated from Ile-Ife to establish a new dynasty where it existed today, the best is to trace or link its history with the old order in Ile-Ife in the pre-Oduduwa dynastic reign. This would not however make Olugbo, the superior of Ooni or Alaafin in any way.

A city sacked, a throne abdicated, a society upstaged, a people displaced and suppressed, that only survive in another climes will speak of history of migration and not of ascendancy. Olugbo should therefore tread cautiously from bastardizing Yoruba history. He cannot claim superiority or supremacy in the climes beyond adducing to a history of its past.

Let me also infer to the historical fact that Ugbo and Olugbo are not the first set of Yorubas that have lay claim to special sources of migration or existence in Yorubaland neither the only aboriginal people that were met at Ile Ife or that survived the Oduduwa arrival and subjugation. Yet, the various claims should be nip in the bud by substantiating it with provable archeological and anthropological findings to make their detailed historical inquiry valid.

At least in Ekiti, the Oore (Owoore) of Otun who is severally claimed to be Obatala adherent before he left Ile Ife for its present location has stated that he is not a son of Oduduwa but a benefactor. Another aboriginal ruler, the Onikere at Oke Ikere, who remains officially an unrecognized king had persistently contested the stool of Ikere with the Ogoga of Ikere in his bid to be recognized as a natural ruler.

Apart from these examples in modern day Ekiti, tradition indicated that there was an aboriginal ruler that Ewi met at Ado-Ekiti called Elesun and who oversees 17 subordinate Emure communities and relates with other autonomous communities like the Odo Ora community

of Ado-Ekiti before the advent of Ewi. Tradition stated further that Ewi on arrival as a guest of Elesun conspired with his chiefs and eliminated him. He co-opted most of his chiefs and subordinate communities into the new kingdom formation after he had totally suppressed. Ewi also entered into alliance with autonomous communities like Odo Ora, before they were gradually weakened and suppressed to be included as chiefs rather than as Obas in his Kingdom.

Conclusion: Olugbo should learn and adjust now! The implication of the stories of conquests and subjugation that changed the political terrain and traditional template of Yorubaland wherever such conquests and subjugation was witnessed introduced new political and social order for the indigenous people and their conquerors. No doubt, by 15th century, most and if not all the parts of Yoruba land was practically overrun by Oduduwa sons, grandsons and princes of Ile-Ife who went round to conquer it. Similar situation occurred in Hausa-Fulani history under Othman Dan Fodio. The change that Oduduwa introduced cannot be reversed unless we go back to the era of traditional political institutions before British colonial rule and our current day experience as a Federal Republic. Even if we go back, Ugbo kingdom is not as big as Ile-Ife and other Yoruba

Kingdoms that are traced to Ile-Ife to be able to resist them in any local wars. It is therefore imperative for Olugbo to stop interfering with Yoruba customs and traditions in his attempt to take a swap at Ooni or to go back to age-long settled issues just by using the legacies of Moremi to stir the hornets’ nest and an upheaval that he cannot sustain.

At best, Olugbo’s revisionism is a mere historical research to show his existence as one of the aborigines before Oduduwa’s arrival like many others. It would never confer any equality, superiority or supremacy on him in the Yoruba history and anyone that attempts to team up with him for a war may sink in the historical enterprise without a voice of further heresies. Yoruba history is unassailable. It is a pity that people have not learnt to understand that changes are exploits of life. Let me conclude here that the Hebrews came to promise land by divine exploit. It

was Canaan land, the land of Black people that was later inhabited by the Asians (Assyrians) before the Hebrews (Jews) came. At the time, the Jews reentered and occupied Jerusalem after captivity in foreign land, it was already dominated by and Arabs (Edomites) and known as Palestine.

The rest is history. The Whites (Boers) occupied Southern Africa and introduced Apartheid for long. The Whites also conquered the New World (America) and suppressed the native Red Indians and their Aztec culture. That is history too. It doesn't change the course of American history today as a white dominated country, built on sweat of black slave labour from Africa on their plantations. The Europeans colonized Africa for long too. It is history we cannot deny. But it is just history. What of old Roman Empire or Greek city states?

Ooni, Alaafin or Ewi will not relocate their thrones from Ile-Ife, Oyo or Ado-Ekiti to Ugbo. The survival of the Ugbos can be celebrated as a symbol of resilience and survival of the aboriginal culture among others without making reference to the legitimacy and supremacy of Ooni and other Yoruba Obas. It would rather become a calculated attempt to either insult the Yorubas, the source of the Yorubas and the respected thrones of Yoruba Obas with linkage to Ile-Ife and Oduduwa, if Olugbo persist in his magical wonderland adventurism.

Such an attempt to revised Yoruba history is not only an insult to Ooni and all sons and grandsons of Oduduwa and Ife Princes who became kings across Yorubaland including the

Alaafin, Awujale, Alake, Ewi, Owa Obokun etc, but remains unacceptable to historians and scholars vast in Yoruba history and culture. Ugbo culture and history in its current locality at best replicates what the Yoruba has established from the time of Oduduwa and since it does not derive or specifically and broadly influences the Yoruba, its ascendancy smacks suspicion and illegitimacy. No Olugbo can be as imperial as an Ooni or an Alaafin, needless to talk of an Orangun Ila, Ajero, Alara, Ewi or even the Owa Obokun.

If Olugbo – Oba Frederick Akinruntan is well versed in history, he should therefore stop asking irrelevant questions about the source of Oduduwa or his place in Yorubaland that he did not have any input in creating or reconstructing since the Oduduwa era as he repeatedly stated here:


That will not be part of history because it does not serve to justify any claim or ascendancy.

Jadesola Taiwo Babatola
Babatola is Deputy Registrar, Ekiti State University(A historian, A PhD Research Scholar in Political History of the Yorubas and a Public Commentator)

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