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Deconstructing the Oduduwa Debate

As a practitioner of the professional field of history, I have been appalled at the lack of historicity in the on-going debate on the origin of the Yorubas or, more appropriately, the origin of Oduduwa, the acknowledged progenitor of the Yoruba. I am not implying here that there haven’t been inputs from professional historians or that historical questions, orthodoxies, and explanations are not at stake. Rather, I am concerned that the time-tested tools of historical evaluation and scrutiny have not been applied to the claims and counter-claims at the core of the on-going debate and that intellectual skepticism and rigorous rational analysis—both of which are central to historical reconstruction—have given way to emotion-laden, politically implicated discourses.

The field of historical studies is the casualty here as discursive adversaries have elevated myth, legend, and socially constructed cultural narratives to the status of history or historical certainty. The debasement of history as a practice governed by a set of rules has been most underlined by the willingness of contributors in both the Yoruba and Bini camps to subordinate intellectual curiosity to the imperatives of ethnic pride.

It is therefore hardly surprising that in spite of the discursive fisticuffs that have characterized this debate and in spite of the escalation of the discussion to far-flung intellectual territories, the major premise of the discussion, which is essentially flawed and invites circumspection at best, has remained unchallenged, even if it has been given new valences. In both the Bini and Yoruba rendering of the Oduduwa story, the motif of Oduduwa’s foundational role in the emergence of the Yoruba is undisturbed, as is the more salient point of the production, documentation, and circulation of the Oduduwa myth. The debate has thus largely been conducted around the peripheral and, in my opinion, less important question of how Oduduwa got to Ile-Ife and where he began his nation-building activity.

The Bini story contends that Oduduwa started out in Edo territory, ending up at Ile-Ife where he engineered the demographic and social nucleus that morphed into the Yoruba collectivity. The Bini have deduced from this explanation a self-serving theory of Bini primacy vis-à-vis the Yoruba, even if this is more implied than declared. The Yoruba version merely reverses the order of Oduduwa’s political trajectory, insisting that Oduduwa started out in Ile-Ife and extended his reach to Bini, through his son, Oranmiyan. Like the Bini, the Yoruba have moved from this seemingly innocuous claim to posit the more politically contentious hypothesis of Yoruba historical hegemony over the Bini. Even the radical intervention of Chukwu Eke, whose rather far-fetched analysis accuses the Yoruba of expanding to what he claims were Igbo territories that are now included in the so-called Yoruba nation, fails to interrogate the Oduduwa story. Instead, he appears to validate it with his theory of Yoruba invasion of Igboland, an invasion which he claims was led by Oduduwa. Chukwu Eke’s piece titled “Oduduwa: Saving History from Ethnic Propaganda” has enjoyed a wide circulation on the internet, as has a rejoinder to it written by one Femi Olawole.

Both pieces, as well as earlier contributions by scholars and chiefs alike, take the Oduduwa story for granted. They do not subject Oduduwa’s iconic status to any form of intellectual skepticism. Nor do they attempt to deconstruct the emergence of the Oduduwa story of Yoruba origin as a dominant orthodoxy of Yoruba ancestry. This is in spite of the fact that the Yoruba version of Oduduwa’s emergence does not stand up to the most cursory of intellectual scrutiny. Oduduwa’s supposed descent from the sky is neither verifiable nor plausible. Such a story, regardless of its social acceptance, political appeal, and its power to formulate a distinct and powerful Yoruba imaginary, belongs in the realm of mythology.

I am not suggesting here that every belief system or socially constructed knowledge must pass the test of scientific inquiry (read verifiability). In fact I am not against socially beneficial and politically useful myths, for nations and peoples need myths, symbols, and icons to bind them together and authenticate their group identities. Nor am I a historical purist, insisting that only historical figures whose existence are evidenced by tangible objects and plausible signs should be accorded intellectual seriousness. No. What I take exception to is the conflation of myth and history, illustrated most pointedly by the fact that what is at base a fight over largely mythical events has been described by protagonists as a battle over historical events. A good example is Chukwu Eke’s title, “Saving History from Ethnic Propaganda,” which pretends to confront this problem but ends up valorizing mythical events and stories that he finds compatible with his theory of Yoruba expansionism. Myths and legends are valid genres of narrative enactments, and, aside from their aesthetic appeal, they have an enormous capacity to shape identity politics and give form and coherence to discourses of cultural nationalism. But history, while not an objective science, must be driven by verifiable or plausible facts and claims. These must be the point of departure of any historical inquiry. Myths and history must therefore remain on separate territories.

In spite of the mythical signature of the Yoruba story of Oduduwa’s descent from “above,” it has been spared by not-so-neutral Yoruba historians and some non-Yoruba commentators, who, while discounting the Oranmiyan-Benin claim, refuse to confront the original story of Oduduwa’s divine origin. Why is this so? Why are we loath to question the received stories of origin passed down to us even though they rebel against our cognitive and intellectual sensibilities? I have an explanation to offer.

First, such mythical stories of origin are very common in Nigeria, nay Africa. It is instructive that many stories of ethnic origin involving a legendary progenitor are laced with heroic, divine and/or supernatural accomplishments. In Anthony Hodgkin’s book, Nigerian Perspectives, which is essentially a compilation of myths of origin from Nigeria, the agenda of ethnic pride underlay most of the stories: they are peopled by individuals from the East (which has been historically linked with civilization and prestige) and super-human legends like Bayajidda (Hausa) and Oduduwa (Yoruba), among other awesome typologies. A critical and dispassionate reading of these stories reveals that either they were constructed by latter-day self-interested aristocracies and monarchies seeking some prestigious antiquity or they were infused with contemporary concerns of group prestige and pride; to wit they were designed to serve the purpose of kingdom-building or the formulation and sustenance of ethnic identity. Either way, these stories betray attempts to write history backwards with aim of justifying or at least validating the present in a teleological way. My first contention is therefore that we are hesitant to perform the iconoclastic task of demystifying the Oduduwa myth because we either have a stake in it—being Yoruba—or our own ethnicities have similar stories of origins that appeal to our primordial sentiments.

Second, many of the commentators on this controversy assume that these stories of origin are antique narratives, and are thus oblivious of the rather contemporaneous origin of some of them. Even those capable of using a basic tool of historical verification to ascertain the veracity of stories of origin would rather believe in their supposed antiquity and truthfulness.

Third and most important, we have not confronted the Oduduwa story because we are either ignorant of or aloof to how these stories were documented. These stories of origin, including that of Oduduwa, have their documentary origins in British colonialism and were a product of what V.Y Mudimbe calls the colonial library. As the colonial conquest wound down, colonial ethnographers and anthropologists went from kingdom to kingdom inquiring about their origins and ancestry. Like all colonial ethnographies, the collection of stories of origin was agenda-laden. They were designed to produce the corpus of anthropological information that the British would use in formulating administrative policy, in demarcating jurisdictional boundaries, determining cultural and ethno-linguistic differences, and in furnishing an ethnographic dossier that would serve as reference material for colonial jurisprudence and field administrators.

A far more sinister but undeclared purpose was to validate and confirm the racist, Eurocentric belief in Africa as a land of emotion, sentiment, and myth as opposed to Europe, which was believed to be a land of reason. This racist epistemology and its Manichean simplicities already enjoyed wide currency in 19th and early 20th century Europe, thanks to the writings of W.F Hegel, Max Weber, Hiedegger, Emmanuel Kant, and to some extent Karl Marx. The intellectual demarcation of Europe and Africa was central to the colonial project: colonial ethnographers sought merely to achieve this demarcation by providing ethnographic information and stories that confirmed African’s supposed innate propensity for superstition, myths, and other modes of thought opposed to Reason, a commodity seen as the exclusive preserve of European civilization. The ethnographers who traversed Nigerian villages and towns collecting stories of origin brought this bias to their task. This prejudice colored their work, producing a curiosity acutely tainted by discriminating intellectual tastes. Instead of collecting and recording all stories being told to them, they self-consciously sought stories that were laced with myths, superstition, legend, the mysterious, the divine, and the metaphysical.

The ethnographers did not want multiple stories; they wanted a single monolithic story of origin for a particular ethno-linguistic unit. This inevitably led to the disciplining and silencing of alternative stories of origin and the emergence of dominant ones preferred by the British ethnographers who desired specific genres of stories. In most Nigerian societies, there were competing stories and legends of origin, some with different progenitors. The British ethnographers pretended to eliminate implausible and less credible ones in preference for supposedly more widely accepted and believable versions. In truth, what they were doing for the most part was the elimination of stories which were too ordinary, too mundane, and lacking the awesome mythology of the Oduduwa and Bayajidda stories, to use two well-known examples. They also suppressed stories of origin that were incompatible with the preconceived image of Africans as superstitious, overly spiritual, and incapable of reasoning.

Because the ethnographers were mostly talking to monarchs and aristocrats desirous of exalting their kingdom to attract respect and administrative and economic attention from the new British overlords, the exercise produced stories or origin or versions of stories of origin that served the mutual interests of ethnographers and kings. The spectacular stories that the British got from African (royal) informants satisfied the aristocrats’ desire to earn respect and an aura of divinity in the eyes of the British, while satisfying the ethnographers’ desire to produce stories which fitted with the Eurocentric assumptions at the heart of the colonial enterprise. The African informants were unwittingly helping the colonial ethnographers to cast them and their societies as intellectual inferiors of Europe, a domain that had supposedly outgrown the realm of myth and superstition and entered the realm of Reason.

What emerged from this process of elimination, discrimination, and disciplining is the emergence of spectacular stories of supernatural and mythical heroism that proliferated in colonial ethnographic and anthropological manuals. These stories or versions were carefully recorded, given prominence, sometimes published, orally repeated, embellished and retooled for popular consumption. Contemporary historians, Africans and Europeans, have largely relied on these ethnographic renderings of the origin of Nigerian ethnic groups. Where the historians have interviewed local elders, they’ve been fed the recorded and now accepted, dominant, and monolithic story. Repetition and the power of the written word and publishing have thus transformed these stories to historical orthodoxies which are merely perpetuated through repetition and reproduction.

This is how the Oduduwa story of origin was “produced,” socially mediated, and normalized as the Yoruba story of origin. Ironically, in the heat of the anti-colonial movement, these colonially-generated stories and myths were widely mobilized by African and Nigerian nationalist intellectuals to make statements about the glorious pasts of African societies, statements that, in hindsight, sound uncannily like the rhetoric used by gullible but self-interested royal informants who supplied the stories of origin to colonial ethnographers.

I doubt if any of those fighting to save the Yoruba version of the Oduduwa story or those on the other side of the debate who accept or tolerate the premise of the Oduduwa divine descent story would quarrel over this matter if they knew the colonial origins of the story and the political circumstances in which it emerged. They would probably be ashamed that they are fighting over a meta-narrative and a counter meta-narrative that have their documentary beginnings in the dynamics of colonial power relations and in Eurocentric colonial agendas.

Moses Ochonu, a US based Academic can be reached at

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