Sometime in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a certain government functionary in Yorubaland lost his head as an excess of office. Literally. This incredible tale, no myth of course, took place in Yorubaland (though the area went by a different name then, and was only beginning to assume this moniker due to the interference of the imperialist incursion). I would like to share the tale, and draw one or two pointed lessons, if I may.
We know from the study of history – that is, those of us who have before now deigned to study our history – that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the emergent state of Ibadan was holding together a partially restored Oyo Empire wrested from the marauding hordes (or civilising cum reforming influence, depending on whose view is being aired) from the far reaches of the northern wastes (not unlike Charlemagne’s partially restored Roman Empire wrested from the marauding Vandals in the eighth century of the Common Era, but I digress) as a fief-in-perpetuity for a rather figure-headed Alaafin lately restored to his throne in a newly-built capital. We doubtless must have learned that Ibadan maintained its vast empire holding by a system of overseers (Ajele, or district officer, to use the earliest extant English rendition of this political title) presiding over conquered territories which nonetheless were allowed to retain their natural rulers, like in the the old Oyo Empire before it.
The absence of a lettered bureaucracy, and the sheer distances of the furthest reaches of the empire from its capital metropolis, however necessarily dictated that these overseers be given a lot of leeway in the discharge of their functions. This gave scope for a lot of petty highhandedness in these imperial officials, and against the backdrop of military opportunism and its attendant administrative impunity that pervaded nineteenth century Ibadan imperial ethos, this administrative highhandedness of its overseers degenerated into frank tyranny.
The tale alluded to in the first paragraph took place in one Ekiti dependency of Ibadan, and the hero of the piece is one Fabunmi, a type of the condotierri that featured prominently in Yorubaland’s sanguinary landscape of internecine warfare. He, according to the most reliable accounts, cut off the head of a particularly gormless Ajele (whose name did not pass down with the tale) who was interfering with his wife (others say it was the wife of his liege ruler, and a few give her as the wife of his commanding general) and sent the parcelled head to Ibadan by the late Ajele’s slave. Of course, such a course of proceedings was interpreted by Ibadan as an act of war – particularly after his town refused to hand him over to face judicial proceedings in Ibadan – and hostilities were accordingly initiated.
Soon the Ekitiparapo (fielding a sizeable Ijesha contingent that accompanied Ogedengbe Agbogungboro – the undisputed generalissimo of the condotierri of nineteenth century Yorubaland – who was invited to lead the Ekiti forces, and Ijebu mercenaries) and the Ibadan allies were ranged against each other on the low-ranging hillocks that separated the Ijesha commons on the plains and the Ekiti dwellings in their hilly country, a region that would soon acquire a moniker of Kiriji, reputedly from the sound made by the field guns utilised for the first time in Yorubaland (and those hills soon assumed that name as well) and see the founding of a new town near the site of a sixteen-year bloodbath. All because of the stupid entitled act of one government official, which stimulated an equally rash reaction of a hot-blooded mercenary captain.
The war eventually ended with a truce brokered by British Captain Bower (of Bower’s Tower fame in Ibadan) and ushered in the occupation of most of Yorubaland by British Government forces (Lagos had been annexed almost a quarter century earlier, Ijebu country had been lately conquered, and the rest had been either tricked or cowed into surrendering their sovereignty; only the Egba managed to hold out for another quarter of a century by initiating extensive reforms in government before the juggernaut of the British Empire steamrollered them as well). The situation might have developed into a North Korea/South Korea type of antipathy but memories are quite short in this part of this world and the two sides in the conflict have quite forgotten their quarrel and the ensuing sixteen-year mutual blood-letting by the time the British left some seventy-five-odd years later (though other rivalries had flared and petered out in the intervening period, but it is not my purpose to discuss those here).
Now what lessons do I wish to draw from this tale? There are undoubtedly many lessons that may be drawn, but I wish to draw only two.
The first is that the people that people inhabit this geopolitical space addressed in international diplomatic discourse as Nigeria have a chequered history of forcefully altering the conditions of their society when it becomes too intolerable (the other nations making up this ethno-political hodgepodge of a state have their own similar tales of tyrannicide too). But the functionaries of the governments of the day that subsist in various parts of the country seem blind to this fact. The political behemoth recently introduced into the Nigerian political concourse particularly seems to be towing the path trod by the Ibadan Empire of yore, and its many votaries, functionaries and acolytes seem to thrive on giving offence to all and sundry by their rank unfitness for many of the high offices they occupy, and the uncouth addresses of a good number of them to the masses of Nigerians that elected them to office and underwrite their enormous expense accounts while in office (which add biting brine to already sore sores).
Here’s a warning to them. The uncertain social and economic conditions that threw up Yorubaland’s own condotierri in the nineteenth century have once more been at work, subtly though, since the commencement of this fourth republic. The seeds sown then are in full flower now, and soon will begin to bear fruit. Let not the grisly harvest of heads become an inevitable outcome of this current round of the national democratic intercourse. If heads will roll, those of the heads will assuredly fall first this time.
The second lesson is like to the first: if this country fails, we will all lose our birthright, and history’s verdict on those that watched it and helped it happen will be very damning. Also, we keep better records in the present day, and we have longer memories in the land now. No villainous name will be lost to history again. And their progeny will wear their toga of ignominy for as long as the Nigerian people subsist on this terrestrial plane.