Yoruba nation, know yourself

This is your political heritage

BORN and raised in the course of the past six decades, in the era of ever-growing corruption and confusion in Nigeria’s political life, most of our younger Yoruba people are not aware that their Yoruba nation used to be a very decently governed nation indeed. Again, I urge Yoruba youths to check up what I am saying here: ask questions from older Yorubas, or read on the subject. There are many books and articles in which authentic Yoruba political culture is described.

The basic information is as follows. We Yoruba lived in many cities under kingdoms. But the details of our kingdoms’ governments were roughly the same. The king or Oba was the apex of government. We commonly called our kings the lieutenant of the gods, owner of all the land, and the holder of the power of life and death. But in reality, our system of government was one in which power was carefully divided and carefully balanced, so that abuses of power were made impossible.

Below the level of the king, there were the high chiefs – the heads (and representatives) of the main quarters of the king’s city. Below them there were the neighbourhood chiefs, and below these the heads of the family compounds (agbo-ile) in which we all lived.

The real government of the kingdom was the king and the high chiefs in council –the King-in Council. In this, the high chiefs met daily at the palace with the king, and there all decisions, all laws, all instructions, all orders, were made. There too, all highest cases were decided. Councils of the lower chiefs served a variety of purposes, and so did the council of the high priests.

Here is the structure of the beautiful system of balance of powers. It was against the rule for the king to make any decisions on his own; he could only join in making decisions in the King-in Council. But after the King-in-Council had made any decision, it became the king’s decision – and it was announced to the populace as the king’s decision. It was against the rule for the high chiefs to claim that they had made the decision – only the king made decisions. In the process of making their decision, the King-in-Council worked closely with the councils of the lower chiefs and priests. Meanwhile, the high chiefs worked closely with the neighbourhood chiefs in their quarters, and the neighbourhood chiefs worked closely with the heads of the large lineage compounds (agbo-ile) in which all people lived. The chiefs also worked closely with the heads of the various associations of citizens – such as the Age-grade Associations, and professional associations (like Hunters Association, Artists Association, Smiths Association, Market Women Association).

Underpinning all this structure was a unique Yoruba system of political freedom. The Yoruba philosophy of political life is that all power belongs to the people. Therefore, all citizens may speak and express their minds freely in all meetings and situations. It was called “to contribute their own wisdom”. That is why a Yoruba proverb says, “Both young and old has some wisdom to contribute; that is one of the foundations upon which we built our first kingdom at Ife”.

Also, because all power belongs to the people, the only way a person can become a ruler or chief among the Yoruba is to be so selected by his people. The people of a kingdom (represented by a high committee of chiefs) select their king from the pool of royal princes, and the people of the lineages select the chiefs from among themselves. In kingdoms worldwide, a king is succeeded automatically by his child (usually his oldest child), and the people have no voice in the matter – but we Yoruba rejected that completely.

Moreover, we established provisions for peacefully removing a king who becomes unpopular. If a king overstepped the established limits to royal power, or brought disgrace to the throne, we Yoruba could gracefully remove him by asking him to “go to sleep” (that is, to remove himself graciously through suicide).Unlike in other kingdoms worldwide, we did not have to start a mass rebellion against him or provoke a civil war or publicly execute him.

Even above these general provisions of governance, we Yoruba established a higher institution to safeguard lawful conduct among our rulers, chiefs and leaders. This institution was known as Ògbóni or Osugbo, which existed in every town. All rulers, chiefs and influential citizens were required to belong to Ògbóni. On being admitted to Ògbóni, a new member was sworn to powerful oaths of secrecy, and of honesty and probity in all things. Ògbóni stood above and beyond the government of each kingdom – a sort of super-ordinary institution. It could try and penalize any ruler or prominent citizen, and its penalties were fearsome, and therefore every member feared to be brought before it for trial. This promoted discipline, order and dignity among the rulers and leaders of society, and protected society and the common people from irresponsible conduct by powerful citizens. Ògbóni was a monument to the Yorùbá love of disciplined leadership, accountability in governance, and orderly communities.

Already we have, above,made some mentions ofhow our system compares with other peoples’ governments worldwide. Still, let us see what other people from other parts of the world say about our system. Here are a few comments by some Europeans, long before the coming of British rule over our country.

The first European to penetrate deep into our country and see something of our system of government, the English explorer Hugh Clapperton, did so in 1825-6. His travel record repeatedly appreciates the Yoruba people as a people living under “regular government”, obedient to the laws of their land, very hospitable to strangers, very industrious, very artistic, etc. It says that the quality of care that these explorers got from Yoruba people and governments was as good as they could possibly get in their own country. It describes the kings and chiefs as very dedicated to the business(the well-being) of their people, as particularly conscientious about peace and order in their towns, highways and marketplaces, and as highly dignified in appearance, dress and composure. The explorers arrived in a palace when an Oba was meeting with his high chiefs, and their record describes the meeting as the most solemn and most dignified gathering of people they had ever seen.

Then let us jump to the words of an American missionary, William H. Clarke, who travelled later throughout our country for four years, 1854-8. Here is how he sums up his appreciation for our system of government:

“The highest excellence of the best government among white people consists in constitutional     checks or limits to prevent abuses of powers. Strange as it may seem, the Yoruba people had studied out this balance and reduced it to practice, long before our fathers settled in America, before the barons of England had extorted the great charter from King John”.

We need some explanation here. In European history, the Great Charter, orthe Magna Carta, was forced on the king of England by the barons (provincial chiefs) of England in 1215 AD. It is the first time in European history that a king was made to agree to give up his total power and share some of it with the local chiefs. It established a balance of powers between the king and the barons, and it is therefore commonly quoted as the beginning of democratic governance in Europe. What William Clarke is saying here is that, long before this Magna Carta, we Yoruba had very well mastered the principle and the practice of the “balance of powers” (the most excellent principle of governance), and we had made it the foundation of our system of government. We might add that most of our city kingdoms were founded during the era (900- 1300 AD), most before Magna Carta, and that our system of balance of powers was common to all.

Let every Yoruba youth understand, then, that we Yoruba people created and owned one of the most orderly and decent systems of government in human history. Next week, we will look at how we Yoruba got wrapped into Nigeria’s culture of governmental corruption.