Ògúnwán̄dé Abím̄bọ́lá is a Nigerian academic, a professor of Yoruba language and literature, and a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). He has also served as the Majority Leader of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Professor Abimbola was installed as Àwísẹ Awo Àgbàyé in 1981 by late Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade on the recommendation of a conclave of Babalawos of Yorubaland. In this interview by KEHINDE OYETIMI, the revered academic speaks on his years as a university administrator, the throne of Alaafin of Oyo, the state of the nation, among other issues.
How did you emerge vice-chancellor of the University of Ife now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife?
I was vice-chancellor from 1982 to 1989. You don’t apply for that position. What happened was that when my predecessor finished his first term of four years, he was not interested in a second term which would have been three years. The university published his resignation in its newsletter and called on the university community to nominate any professor of long standing and of international repute. The nominees could come from Ife, in any part of Nigeria or even beyond. These nominations were to be sent to a seven-man committee which had already been constituted. The committee was made up of three professors from the University Senate and then three members of the council of the University and chaired by the chairman of the Council.
Twenty-one people were nominated and screened. Only three professors were selected. I was number two on the list. They would then send that list of three which had already been ranked to the visitor to the university which was the president of Nigeria. The visitor would then pick one. That was what happened. I didn’t have to do anything; I only had to accept the nomination at the onset of the exercise. The night that the council deliberated on the long list of 21, I was to go to bed around midnight, and I had just finished my late evening walk when I heard so many people talking, coming in the direction of my house. I wondered what was wrong. I quickly went downstairs and saw them at my house. I could hear them giggling and so I concluded that there was no bad news. I opened the door. They told me my name had gone to Lagos and that I was the next vice chancellor. They were about 40. I asked them why they were rejoicing since my name was number 2 on the list. But they dismissed that, saying that I would be the choice. They asked for beer, tea or soft drinks. I thanked them heartily. They were with me for about 30 minutes before they left. They were all professors and lecturers living on the campus.
The then president of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari called for an investigation to be conducted to find out the background of each person. They decided to pick me even though I was number two on the list. A friend of mine came to give me the news that I had been picked. The day he brought the news, I was to travel to Europe for an academic conference. My friend told me not to worry that he would monitor the whole thing, and when my appointment was ready, he would get it to my office at Ile Ife. I spent about two weeks in Europe.
When I came back, my friend visited and told me that my appointment letter was ready but Chief Adisa Akinloye made sure that the letter was not delivered to me. Chief Akinloye did this because I was a staunch member of the opposition party, the UPN, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s party. I was unperturbed and waved it off. Chief Akinloye was the national chairman of the ruling NPN. One day, I went to Oyo, my hometown, when someone brought an invitation card from Chief Akinloye. He asked to see me urgently in his house in Ibadan. I reached out to my friend and we both went to see Chief Akinloye. On getting there, I met a crowd from Oyo. I went inside the house and late Chief Richard Akinjide also came in. Chief Akinloye then said he seized my letter of appointment because he heard that I was a member of the opposition. He asked: “Why are you a member of the UPN? What assurance can you give me that if you are appointed vice chancellor you will work for our party rather than the UPN?” He didn’t know who I was.
I responded and said: “Baba, when the Action Group was formed in 1951, you accompanied Chief Awolowo and a few others to Oyo to greet the chiefs of Oyo and to let them know about the party that had just been formed, I was at that time living in Oyo. You were the one who spoke. You said you formed this party because of Yoruba nationalism. You said you wanted the Yoruba to have a party of their own. The NCNC was a party led by a Yoruba man, Herbert Macaulay but no longer led by a Yoruba person. That was why you were going round Yorubaland to sell this new party to prominent Yoruba men and women. I went about with a dictionary in my pocket. I looked up the word ‘nationalism’”. I told him that I am a Yoruba nationalist and that the position of a vice chancellor had nothing to do with nationalism or politics because the university is supposed to have a reputation much wider than that. If it was the wish of Olodumare, I would be vice chancellor and if not, so be it. I told him I was a staunch member of the UPN.
Chief Akinloye was shocked by my reply. My friend who went with me was Prince Bayo Sanda. When I came out from the meeting, the Oyo people who sat outside Chief Akinloye’s house were still there. One of them was a cantankerous woman; she shouted at me: “Wande prostrate!” But Chief Akinloye said it was not necessary and promised to get across to me. Later on, he released the letter that he had already seized and the letter was posted to me. That was how I became vice chancellor. I am a man of my convictions.
What was the major challenge that you faced as vice chancellor between 1982 and 1989?
That was a very volatile period especially after the government of Shagari had been toppled by military coup led by the current president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy then, the late Idiagbon. The students of my university were opposed to Shagari, to start with, and more opposed to the Buhari/Idiagbon regime. There were student demonstrations and agitations throughout the country but more in my university. This was because at that time the president and the secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) were from my university. They insisted they would have nothing to do with the military regime. It was a great challenge for me. Yet, throughout the seven years of my administration, the students had no axe to grind with me; they loved me as a father and I did love them too as my children. Every day I would come out like a masquerade and the students would mill around me shouting and dancing…
The Nigerian university system is in a mess; what would you have done differently if you were a vice-chancellor today?
Part of what ASUU is fighting for today was what we were concerned with then. But more importantly today, funding has decreased. It appears that the government does not understand what the university is. They are busy creating more universities without adequately funding them. Then, we were concerned about the students and the federal government.
As vice chancellor, every month, I had a meeting with the students’ union. I remember then when the Ministry of Education directed that five lecturers from my university be dismissed. There was a strike which occurred after a disturbance in Zaria where the police, during a confrontation with protesting students, killed four students. Remember that Ife was the headquarters of NANS. In response, my university students started protesting. The major road linking Ibadan and out of Ife was blocked. There was no movement.
The then commissioner of police then phoned me early in the morning and said that if by the end of the third day, my students had not vacated the road, he would have no other choice than to use force.
Immediately, I summoned my principal officers. Many of them were scared but I said we would have to meet the protesting students and appeal to them to leave the highway. The principal officers followed me. On our way to the highway, we saw all kinds of bonfires already made by the students. I made them put them out. However when we got outside to the very centre of the protest, the students, not knowing that it was me and other principal officers that were coming, started throwing stones. I held on to my horsetail-fly-whisk. On turning back, all my principal officers had disappeared. I was left alone. But I continued going. None of the stones touched me. All of a sudden, one of the students found out that I was the one and started shouting to others: “Stop throwing stones. It is our father.” The students began to dance and rejoice at my presence. I then pleaded with them to stop the protest since their voices had been heard. They listened to me and walked back to the campus. I also had a vibrant relationship with staff members because the university is a place where all arguments and debates are entertained.
To succeed as a leader in such a setting or elsewhere, do not touch the people’s money; do not touch their women; perform your duties to the best of your ability with honesty. I never participated in any corrupt practice. The salary of a vice chancellor then was N49,000.
You just touched on leadership. As a foremost Oyo son, what kind of person do you expect should occupy the office of the Alaafin, considering the passing of Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III?
If those who are vested with the power to choose the next Alaafin would make us proud, they should select someone who has a good reputation. I understand that many princes have shown interest in occupying that high office. But we all know people who are honorable. The person must be honorable and respected. It should not be based on the highest bidder. When something like this happens, people come with lots of money to buy the office. We want someone who is a respected person and he should also be a well-educated man.
If we have a king who is well respected, well educated, and who loves the town as we ought to do, there is a lot that he can do to invite investors who will commit their money, their resources to the development of the town. They should not choose a riffraff or someone who doesn’t know what he is doing as a king.
The office of the Alaafin is an exalted office. He is the chairman of the House of Chiefs of Oyo State. I think the kingmakers should know what they are doing; and if they don’t, the governor should. If the Oyomesi chooses someone who will not help or enhance the position of Oyo, the governor should reject the recommendation. There is still a lot that the king of the stature of the Alaafin can do for the development of Oyo town and the Yoruba race, both at home and abroad. If they don’t choose a person who is really respected and who will hold his own among the numerous kings that we have in Yorubaland, the consequences will be dire. We need to know what we are doing.
As a foremost Ifa priest, is there anything wrong with a Christian becoming the next Alaafin of Oyo? There are reports that there are attempts to sideline a candidate whose candidacy ticks all the boxes but who is from a Christian background. Shouldn’t this be disturbing?
If we are going to involve Ifa in the choice of the new Alaafin, question of whether a person is a Christian or Muslim will not arise. Ifa will be on the side of someone who will deliver, an Omoluabi, a respected person, a person of worth. It will be someone who will have the interest of Oyo at heart.
It has happened before in Ifa. In ancient times, there was a vacancy in the stool of Alaafin. In those days, Ifa would choose from among the princes. So they had the list of all the princes; they presented all to Ifa and Ifa rejected all of them. After exhausting the names of all the princes, the kingmakers were worried about what to do next. One of them said: “there is one person who lives in a village faraway. He carries his load of firewood to the town once a week. He goes to the bush, cuts firewood, takes it to the town every week to sell, after selling he would go back to the village. His name is Otonpooro. Why don’t we try him.” So they consulted Ifa if Otonpooro would be fit for the throne, and if the Oyo Empire would be prosperous under his reign. Ifa said yes.
At that time if Ifa had chosen you as the new Alaafin, the kingmakers would meet you in the house wherever you are. Otonpooro had just put his heavy load of firewood on his head, coming to the town. They met him as he was leaving his abode in the forest. They shouted: “Otonpooro dagi nu, ire ti dele po kooko” meaning “Otonpooro throw away your firewood, great fortune is awaiting you in the city.” He ruled for a long time. He was a successful king.
There are allegations that some members of the Oyomesi are trying to disqualify one of the aspirants vying for the throne of the Alaafin just because his father is still alive. The claim is that the Oyo people only recognize the mother of a king and not the father of a king. What should matter: competence or such sentiment?
If that is rooted in the tradition of Oyo, you cannot change that just by the decision of the Oyomesi. If you do that, you have to divine on it and offer sacrifices. For the sake of argument, let us assume that is the only prince remaining, and the father is alive, if you don’t choose him, where will you find another person? You would have to consult Ifa about it and offer the sacrifices recommended.
There are many Yoruba traditional thrones today that are vacant as a result of all kinds of litigation. What are the implications of this?
That is the order of the day. People go to court; the court cases must be disposed of before the exercise of installing someone as the new king. There is nothing you can do about that.
Despite the large number of traditional rulers in Yorubaland, there is a horrible decline in the appreciation of Yoruba culture and values. There is the case of a particular Yoruba traditional ruler who tells people that the Orisas (Yoruba pantheon of deities) should no longer be worshipped nor given their pride of place. Is this not worrying?
It is because they are not thinking deeply enough. If they are thinking deeply, is the Orisa not part of our tradition? Is it not even the backbone of our tradition? If a king wants to throw away the Orisas, the next thing will be to ask if there is any need to have that system of kings anymore. If you throw away the pedestal on which they are standing, what then happens? It is obviously a lack of deep thought. The relevance of the kings today is based largely on our culture. Today the only place left for the kings is what they call council of chiefs, not even council of kings.
At the level of that council, there is nothing they do that has anything to do with the day-to-day governance of each state. I cannot find a state where the state house assembly would formulate a bill, the governor would sign it into law, and then the people would expect the traditional ruler there to give his approval before the law takes effect. There is no such thing.
The relevance of kings in Yorubaland is based on our culture. It is the same people who are supposed to be the custodians of that culture that are saying: “throw the culture away; we don’t want it again.” What they are saying is that they should also be thrown away, because that is the only arena that they are relevant. The so-called obas are relevant because of our culture.
ALSO READ FROM NIGERIAN TRIBUNE
- TUESDAY FLAT OUT: Between The Content Of Our Character And The Colour Of Our Currency
- EDITORIAL: Toxic Suya
If not because of our culture, we would have done what India did in 1947 when she gained her independence. One of the first laws that were put in place was a law which says that the children of hewers of wood and fetchers of water would rule over India. Since then, they removed kings from the governance of the country. If you multiply the area that Nigeria occupies by four or five, probably it is not even up to the area of India. Their population is about 1.1 billion.
However, we could not do what India did because of one reason or the other. We have retained our kings, and this is largely because we want our culture to count for something. The same people who are supposed to sustain that culture are saying that they don’t want it again. They want to be Christians; they want to be Muslims, or they are already Muslims or Christians and they don’t need the culture. What they are saying is that they are irrelevant. They should be the greatest advocates of our culture. Standing on that, they should ask the people to create a position for them. If they are saying they don’t want the culture anymore, a time will come when people will say “well, what is your relevance? Let us do away with you.”
Are you convinced that the present agitators for a Yoruba nation are doing it the right way? What is the Yoruba nation of your dream?
There is nothing if a people are asking for their own autochthonous state or nation. The Yoruba are an important part of the so-called federation of Nigeria. And since Nigeria has ceased to be a federation, people have clamored for years that we should return to the original federal structure of three regions, after which a fourth was added. If that is no longer going to be the case, if we are going to continue with the present squalor and poverty in which we are dwelling, I don’t see any reason people will not agitate that they don’t want to be any part of that. They want to have their own part of the country and rule over it and make sure that that part that is their own is prosperous.
The way Nigeria is today, nobody can rule over Nigeria and lead it to prosperity. In 1992, I contested an election and became a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I was made the Senate Majority Leader by my colleagues. In early 1993, there was a newspaper wherein I granted an interview which was reported. I made the following point. There is no way that Nigeria can become a prosperous nation if we keep our current number of states. Then, the number of states was even smaller than we have today.
Look, I live in the United States now. The 36 states of Nigeria are about the size of the State of Texas and a small state northeast of Texas called Oklahoma, put together. We have divided ourselves into 36 administrative units. Each one with its own civil service, administration and the full paraphernalia of thousands of officials. To start with, Nigeria is not a rich country. The little money that we are making is being shared into thousands upon millions of people who are working for all these administrations, and loans serviced. By the time all that is done, very little is left to provide roads, electricity, and development. Nobody is even talking about water anymore. In my town of Oyo, if you visit anybody in a school and have running pipe water, he probably did that by himself. People have resorted to digging wells and boreholes within their compounds. How healthy is that when you use the same water to flush your toilet? Oh, how many people have the means to dig well or sink a borehole? People defecate in the open. It will continue to be like that unless the component parts of Nigeria are given freedom to go their separate ways, or if they are ready to go back to the original structure of three regions. Nigeria is the only country in history that has a size equal to the size of Texas and Oklahoma put together and which has divided itself into 38 units of administration. What Nigeria has now is not responsible and it can never lead us to prosperity.