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OPINION: The Merits of Ooni’s Claim that the Igbo are of Ife Ancestry

Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adeyeye
Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adeyeye

The Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, seized the occasion of the 2019 Aje festival to pronounce that the Igbo people are aboriginal to Ife. Since then his pronouncement has shocked many Igbo and Yoruba. At the same time the pronouncement has brought a great relief to many Igbo who have for long been in search of a true account of origin with verifiable evidence and that is free from the clutches of any form of Hermitic hypothesis that renders them historically alien to Africa, an appendage of the Jew’s historical progression across space and time. Reactions from many perspectives keep pouring in, littering the media space with heavy stench of many more to come. Indeed, it is like a tornado sending all into scampering.

Incidentally Ooni’s disclosure has brought about an interesting moment. For peoples who have for long been conducting themselves with different historical orientations framed in a postcolonial context to a point of dangerous hostility, suddenly sensing each other as historically linkable has been a shock, rude on the one hand but pleasant on the other. In the rumpus, the Ooni seems to be unperturbed, in a grand-fatherly manner, he has allowed the one-in-a-millennia discourse initiated by him to engage the attention of whoever is interested without a word of mediation. It would appear also that the Ooni is simply proverbially teaching us good manners, since for a long time, the Igbo and the Yoruba have been living together but under conditions of silent hostility and mutual suspicion. As can be deduced from experiences of parts of Africa with such delicate relationships that had been taken for granted before full-blown wars, the two sets of humanity have only been enjoying fragile peace. Whereas nothing is as worthy of investing in as peace since without peace all will eventually come to nil.

For sure, Ooni Adeyeye Ogunwusi has shown himself to be a peace-maker in many ways with various steps in uniting divergent interests both within the country and in countries outside Nigeria. Though nothing can be too much a sacrifice for peace, yet his declaration is being queried from different angles. Many of the objections to Ooni’s revelation have been inspired by known parochial goals with which some prominent Yorubas have shot themselves to undeserved prominence.

Such objections have, in many instances, been based on historical accounts put together unprofessionally to serve equally parochial interests. Whereas many worry in silence over such pursuits of narrow goals in total indifference to grave consequences they portend, only a few take action to save the intertwined fate and future Igbo and the Yoruba who until now have never been so seriously considered as unitable classes of people. Perhaps in time this is a thesis that will be invalidated with greater evidence. For now it hasn’t. So, it remains a dominant discourse subject for scholarly valuation.

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It is for this reason I wish to see Ooni’s claim that Ife is the ancestral home of the Igbo as having foundation in scholarship and merit in crisis management. These two angles of assessing the historical claim will serve as our compass for navigating through Ooni’s intuitive revelation to a point of hibernation of the germ of Ooni’s claim in a dark corner of contemporary scholarship.

In term of scholarly merit, Ooni has raised from dust a powerful thesis hitherto hidden from the public because of our poor reading and book culture – a thesis that should have served a crucial interest of society. For instance, not many knew the Ijare-Ondo born Professor Bolaji Aremo, a retired lecturer and one time Head of Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, had published a book in which a similar claim is made. Even a few who knew like the present writer never gave his thesis any serious attention. However, since the Ooni claim’s has become seriously topical and received with mixed reactions from so many notable individuals across Nigeria and beyond, one has been forced to look into the social value of the book whose copies keep gathering dust on the book shelf of .

In Aremo’s How Yoruba and Igbo became Different Languages published in 2009 and revised in 2012, long lists of examples on how the two languages are evidently products of the same parent language are provided. According to the book, many West African languages have been seen to be genetically related. Such languages include Igbo, Yoruba, Agatu, Bini, Ewe, Twi among others. Citing R.G. Armstrong’s “Grottochronology and African Linguistics” published in Journal of African History 2 in 1962, pages 283-290 and The Study of West African Languages, Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1964, the book informs further that, “evidence acquired through the use of the linguistic dating method of glottochronogy” have been used to explain that the Kwa linguistic subfamily must have started separating from their ancestral stock some 6000 years ago. The book uses examples from basic vocabulary of the two languages and further supports its thesis with examples from non-basic vocabulary of the two languages.

These are in addition to other linguistic methods deployed in defence of the thesis that the two languages are genetically related.
In this book, the author, Aremo, is confident, unequivocal, persuasive, and positive as he focuses on the thesis that the Igbo and the Yoruba are of common ancestry. In his words, “the Igbo and the Yoruba people even have a great deal of their age-old cultural traits in common” and that “it would in fact be absolutely right to conclude not only that Yoruba and Igbo used to be one and same language, but also that the Igbo and the Yoruba people are actually brothers and sisters who used to live together as members of the same community.” Aremo goes further so persuasively: “One would only wish that members of the two ethnic groups would, for the good of all, try and jettison their patently counter-productive legacy of mutual distrust and once again relate with one another as real brothers and sisters.”

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On the count of the groundbreaking proposition of Aremo alone, Ooni’s sacredly inspired claim is not an assault on critical sensibility of anyone with any. Of course, not all are with critical sensibility, so what lies in between is for the deep to see. Why therefore has the thesis of Aremo not furthered for the social benefit it offers in terms of social cohesion and harmonious social relationship and even advancement of knowledge? Or why has it not been countered to reveal its scholarly demerits? Ooni’s inspired claim which agrees so well with Aremo’s thesis is therefore an indictment on scholarship, our system of knowledge production in Nigeria which promotes falsehood, pettiness, parochialism, vainglory, insensitivity to grave social need and relegates to the background the truth by which crucial social needs would have been shown to all stakeholders. Ooni has challenged us to pursue greater scholarship. He has questioned out of sacred intuition our neglect of a critical gap in scholarship, particularly historical scholarship while our ivory tower poses as an active part of the knowledge network. One hopes that Ooni’s pronouncement will now be taken seriously by academics, particularly in Nigeria whose disciplines should be challenged into taking up the pronouncement of Ooni as a worthy thesis for the purpose of growing a more harmonious society.

The second count on which Ooni deserves accolades is with respect to social management. It is obvious that averting crisis is a best approach in social management. And of course, reconciliation and rehabilitation after experience of crisis is by far of lowest value in relation to averting crisis. While Ooni’s claim may be opposed to the principle of social organization and acquired modes of reasoning about and making sense of the social environment of many in Nigeria today, it scores highly as a novel social propeller. That is, for instance, if this contradicts the ethnic nationalistic principle of relationship among peoples inhabiting the Nigerian geo-political space today, that should not diminish the value it holds as the onset of a new orientation towards real progress in Nigeria. I mean, let this first step succeed and let’s see the next moving us totally out of social atrophy.

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A quick reminder on our contemporary history must be provided here. Yoruba nationalism, Igbo nationalism, or Hausa/Fulani nationalism only emerged prominently when we were about to be left and after being left to govern a haphazardly arranged nation-state. Prior to then, The Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) had served as one umbrella body for the entire people of Nigeria. Our British colonial master had partitioned our vast spaces of social existence into manageable constituents of a country to be referred to as Nigeria in line with their principle of domination and exploitation. So, the NYM could not but fail thereby paving the way for the three major nationalism (See The Egbe Omo Oduduwa: A Study in Ethnic and Cultural Nationalism by S.O. Arifalo). The political nature of the nationalism in question had thrown up figures who became ethnic leaders more or less and ethnic aspirations had to replace broader Nigerian political goals. The ethnic political leaders then became gladiators of some kind and peoples of Nigeria have had to think in line with the sentiments propagated by the gladiators. Many have also stayed committed to those sentiments after the death of the gladiators had been conceived as martyrdom.

Today, any sensible Nigerian would realize that changing realities in the country should call for new philosophy of social interaction. For instance, the Igbo and the Yoruba continually change the demographic structure of the country through their activities in commerce and the promotion of Western education. This is where the Ooni is to be seen as boldly taking the matter of Igbo/Yoruba beyond programmatic postcolonial social construct by going backward in history to retrieve a lost segment of the noble race of the Olufe, his own sons and daughters, who have become ethnicised into the Igbo of Nigeria today.

It is rather unfortunate that some don’t care how this blossoms for the good of all. Yet should Ooni budge if he truly means business?

How much patience he exercises for this matter to resolve in favour of truth of history and merit of positive social reordering which many are already appreciating will attest to his grandfatherly position. One logical deduction from the whole of this is that the Ooni is a custodian of more than Yoruba history and probably Yoruba culture too. Indeed, it is an interesting moment. For us all.

Credit: Morufu Bukola Omigbule (Ph.D), Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife
Via: Olufemi Lawson Akindele


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