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Yorubaland 150 years ago

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IT is proof of the vanished vigour of traditional rulership in Nigeria that the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, cannot compel my appearance before him for stating that he was wrong about the origin of the phrase ‘the lion’s share.’

The Alaafin told a newspaper last year that the phrase originated from the practice of a lioness giving the largest part of her kill to a lion. The Alaafin said only lionesses hunted, that lions sat in the shade, as it were, to be served their large and luscious meals.

It is true that lionesses do much of the hunting, but lions are not hopeless hunters. They possess the skill to kill and do kill preys.

Indeed, a lion and not a lioness, featured in the tale told by Aesop, from which the phrase ‘the lion’s share’ originated. The lion, the fox, the jackal and the wolf went hunting. They had a frustrating time, but eventually caught and killed a deer.

The lion ordered the three other animals to divide up the deer into four equal parts. The fox, the jackal and the wolf must have begun to smack their lips. The lion, they must have believed, wanted all of them to have an equal share of the deer.

The lion spoke after the carcass had been carefully cut into four equal parts. He said the first quarter was definitely his because he was the unchallenged ruler of the jungle. The lion also claimed the second quarter of the dismembered deer as the leader of the hunting party. The third quarter was his without question, the lion said, for his part in killing the deer. The fourth would be for any of the three other animals that was rash enough to physically dispute how he had shared the deer. The other animals fled and the lion added the fourth to the three other quarters. His share was the whole deer. The animals must have said ‘oh dear!’ as they fled.

Aesop’s gluttonous, selfish lion must have reincarnated as the Nigerian ruling class. They not only take the largest part of the country’s resources - ‘the lion’s share’ now means taking the largest part of something and not everything as the lion in the fable did - but they also take what they do not need in their greed.

Oba Adelu, the Alaafin of Oyo, did not behave like Nigeria’s modern rulers. Robert Campbell, a Jamaican who taught in the United States, met him in 1859. Campbell was in Yorubaland to negotiate for land to resettle some former black slaves who were keen to leave the United States. Campbell wrote about his observations and conversations in A Pilgrimage to My Motherland.

Alaafin Adelu was not proud and distant like some of Nigeria’s recent rulers. He prostrated himself before the elderly ‘Onoshoko’ - ‘Father of the King’, according to Campbell. He did not do it in desperation, but in affection. The late Chief Lamidi Adedibu said the then president Olusegun Obasanjo prostrated himself before him six times to get him to agree to the settlement of a political dispute. Chief Obasanjo wanted to continue to enjoy Chief Adedibu’s controversial support.

Oba Adelu had about 300 wives, many of them inherited from his father. The women left the palace on rare occasions. They did so in a body and were accompanied by eunuchs. Oba Adelu’s wives did not work.

The situation was different in Abeokuta (spelt Abbeokuta by Campbell). The wives of the Alake left the palace to trade. They had no choice but to labour as there was no free lunch in the palace. They had to support themselves and they were ‘generally among the most industrious traders of the place’, according to Campbell.

Oba Adeyemi must be pleased that Campbell called Oyo ‘the capital of the Yoruba nation.’ This was the new Oyo settlement, of course, and the Binis, whose king has been celebrating 30 years on the throne, cannot claim that their son founded ‘new’ Oyo. According to Bini oral history, Oranmiyan, who founded old Oyo, was the son of a Bini king who ruled over Ife. The king’s adopted name was Izoduwa

Oranmiyan - called Omonoyan by the Binis - was sent by his father to take over the throne he felt too old to ascend. It is doubtful that Oranmiyan’s opinion uttered in exasperation - ’Ile Ibinu’- became ‘Benin’ and the new name of Edoland. It was not a christening. It was a comment made in despair and accepting defeat; it was not a decree.

And is it not possible that Oranmiyan, driven to distraction by war-like palace intrigues, did not have the time or the urge to make love? A local boy could have made the Egor chief’s daughter pregnant. If Oranmiyan was not related to the Edo royal household, why was he not given a princess as his partner? The woman who allegedly bore him a son was a lowly chief’s daughter. The DNA of the Oba of Benin and that of Alaafin Adeyemi, said to be direct descendants of Oranmiyan, may need to be compared.

Oranmiyan left Edoland and returned to Ife and later founded Oyo. Ilorin is almost equidistant from the old and the ‘new’ Oyo. Campbell saw slaves on sale like salt in Ilorin. Gambari was the largest slave market.

Ilorin had a Big Brother. It was a Big Brother that was not a mere watcher. He also walked with visitors. Nasamo, the emir’s aide, accompanied Campbell everywhere. It was coerced companionship.

Ilorin is quite different these days. Governor Bukola Saraki is said to have transformed it into a modern but orderly city. The streets are well lit at night. And the white Zimbabwean farmers who have defaulted on the repayment of their huge loan - almost one billion Naira - do not live in Ilorin. They treated their black employees like slaves back in Zimbabwe.

Campbell had come to Yorubaland to escape from the choking environment of slavery in the United States. But his sight was assaulted by slavery in a part of his ‘motherland.’ Aesop, a former slave, had the wisdom of some kings of old. But many traditional rulers in Nigeria today behave like fools. They are involved in scandals and make idiotic political statements. They have made themselves the slaves of politicians. Their demeaning desires have led to the diminution and virtual death of their institution.

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