There is a growing debate, considering that the Federal Government is increasingly becoming helpless to curb the wave of violence sweeping the land, whether a different structure would have suited our country better.
Could the alleged Fulani herdsmen menace, with its violent dimension, have arisen or endured under a different structure? More so in the Yoruba heartland of the West now, we have seen the impudence of suspected Fulani herdsmen who continue to harass and attack farmers.
Only last Sunday, it was reported that part of the farm and implements belonging to Chief Olu Falae, former presidential candidate of the All Peoples Party and Alliance for Democracy Alliance in 1999, have been destroyed by fire set by arsonists suspected to be Fulani herdsmen. No suspect has been arrested yet.
Many of the leaders of the West in the past, notably Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his followers, have consistently campaigned for a different structure for Nigeria so that the Yoruba people within the Republic would be under a single government.
For them, this is the panacea for cultural and socio-economic development. Awolowo was vigorously opposed by those who shared a different view of the future, including some Yoruba politicians. They reasoned that Awolowo was attempting something that has never happened before since the princes departed from Ile-Ife at the dawn of time.
Secondly, Awolowo had no answer to the Yoruba on the other side in Benin Republic who were placed under French rule at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and 1886. He was concerned mainly with the Yoruba within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Awolowo’s view remain attractive today and for some, it is the ultimate meaning of restructuring. Yet no state in history has ever put all the Yoruba under one government since the time of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife.
An opportunity came for Awolowo when he became Leader of Government Business and later Premier of the Western Region. Most of the old Yoruba kingdoms were within the old Western Region. He made it known that his dream was to put all Yoruba within the Federal Republic in an expanded Western Region, a sort of assertive Yoruba irredentism.
At the 1958 Manchester House Conference on the constitutional development of Nigeria leading to independence, Awolowo had argued that the Yoruba of the North, mainly in Kabba and Ilorin Provinces should be part of the West. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of the North, opposed him. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of the East also opposed him. Both Bello and Zik were also united in their opposition to Awolowo’s proposal to get Lagos to become part of the West.
The last attempt made by Awolowo was at the Leaders of Thought Conference on the future constitutional arrangement of Nigeria in 1966. Following a proposal from the Mid-West delegation led by Chief Anthony Enahoro, the delegation from the North, West and Lagos agreed to the continuation of the Federation.
The Eastern delegation, led by Professor Eni Njoku, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, wanted a confederation and in the end boycotted the proceeding altogether. The West wanted Lagos to join the West.
The Lagos delegation, led by Dr Taslim Olawale Elias, the first attorney-general in the defunct government of Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, opposed it. As far as the Lagos delegation was concerned, gedegbe l’Eko wa! (Lagos is distinct).
Elias cited history that since Lagos came under British rule in 1861, it has always been separate from the rest of the Yoruba country. Lagos was a colony while the rest was part of the Southern Protectorate. He said there was no historical precedence for what Awolowo wanted. Indeed, when the British threatened to bombard Lagos and destroy the city, its ruler, Oba Dosumu sent emissaries to the big obas of the Yoruba country: the Ooni, Alaafin, the Oba of Benin and the Awujale. None came to his rescue.
Dosumu’s fate was better than that of Afonja, the lord of Ilorin and the head of the Oyo imperial army as the Aare Ona Kakanfo. Because of his faulty ambition, Afonja broke his oath of office and declared the independence of Ilorin from his suzerain, the Alaafin. When the deluge came in 1830, he sought help from his brothers, the Olugbon, Aresa, Onikoyi and other generals who were his comrades at arms. He got none. He fought bravely to defend his territory until he fell.
The Fulani, led by the itinerant cleric, Alimi, were merciless and unrelenting. Unlike the British, they were not interested in any civilizing mission. They carried the flag of Islam, but their object was power. When they knocked on the gate of Offa, the headquarters of the Ibolo country, the Olofa, already facing internal revolt spearheaded by some of his chiefs, fled to Osogbo, where he founded another settlement now called Ofatedo. When the Fulani finally got control of the town, they gathered the city nobles at the town’s square and beheaded them. They forbade Offa from staging its yearly communal egungun festival. The ban remains in force till today.
The seizure of Ilorin and the consequent developments, including the destructions and forceful evacuation of Oyo City and other towns, led to other developments. Among these were the rise of Ibadan, the destruction of Ijaiye and ultimately the Ekitiparapo War. The princes and other generals involved in the great struggle of the Ekitiparapo were not unmindful of the power of the British which had reduced the proud Lagos into submission and was threatening the once unconquerable capital of the Benin Empire. They welcomed the British emissaries for peace. The ambassadors, led by Reverend Samuel Johnson and Reverend Phillips, were Yoruba clergymen of the Anglican Church.
By the time Awolowo was born in 1909, the conquest of the Yoruba country was complete. The last of the Yoruba resistance was the battle at Imagbon where the Ijebu Army was smashed in 1892. In 1935, five years after Adesoji Aderemi became the Ooni of Ife and keeper of the old capital, the principal obas held their first meeting in Oyo to review their lot under colonial rule. They were to collaborate effectively with the emerging political class led by Herbert Macaulay and later Awolowo. By 1959, Awolowo was concluding his reign as the Premier of the Western Region. His deputy, Chief Ladoke Akintola, first-class journalist and lawyer, stepped into his shoes. The West seemed to have discovered the key to development: education, planning, unity, a first class civil service and a social ethos based on the age-long concept of Omoluabi.
So it was understandable how after the turbulence of the 1960s which included the AG crisis, the treasonable felony trial and the coups, Awolowo returned to pursue his historic agenda of putting all Yoruba people in Nigeria under one regional government. By 1967, when General Yakubu Gowon created the 12 states structure, the Yoruba of the North were grouped into the new West Central State (today Kwara and part of Kogi State) and Lagos remained separate from the West as Elias and others have advocated. Today, the Yoruba are in Edo, Delta, Kogi, Kwara, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Ogun and Lagos states. The dream of one regional government remains a dream deferred till another day.
Now we do not know whether the day is nearer or not. After many decades of playing the Nigerian game, there is hardly any meeting point for the Yoruba leadership and therefore, there is no common response to the new dynamics of Nigerian politics. Instead, we have some members of the Yoruba political class working apparently against the interest of their own people. They bow before the motifs of foreign beliefs and genuflect before the god of power.
Yet the Nigerian game of politics is not going to get more polite and less vicious simply because some people are less prepared or ill-prepared. This year, governorship elections would be held in Ekiti and Osun and next year some other constituted authorities would have to give way. What makes the situation less palatable in the West is that the traditional political class has been drawn into the game. There is no meeting point today for the Kabiyesi to discuss the collective interest of their people. The governors are not meeting. The obas are not meeting and the people are bewildered like sheep without a shepherd.
So like Oba Dosumu of old Lagos, if the Fulani herdsmen are burning farms in Ondo and Kwara or a gang of pirates take over an island in Lagos, to whom do we report? From where do we expect help and consolation? Where are the elders to give direction and give a sense of oneness and dignity in the face of the new dynamics dominating the Nigerian political tapestry? The obas are busy pursuing personal interests and trading in ego and meaningless panegyrics while they watch as their islands of power and influence ebb away. Some of them, suffused in misguided missions, are even looking for new fathers.
The obas should remember their oath of office and pursue a common goal that would at least restore their collective respect, if not their powers. They should not wait like Afonja before it is too late. They need to take steps quickly to restore some sense of balance and provide direction to the unfolding drama of Nigeria. If the politicians have no compass and could not find their way, it would be tragic if the obas too fall into the same temptation.