I do not know why the Yoruba are so unsettled by the recent claim made by the Oba of Benin to the effect that Oduduwa was a felon expelled from Benin kingdom. The story is not new. The Bini have known and told it before now. I know because I heard it two years ago from a Bini friend of mine. My friendship with the Bini prince has been oiled by my interest in the history of his people.
On that day I had asked him if, as the Yoruba claim, Eweka — the first Oba of Bini after the dethronement of Ogiso — was indeed a grandson of Oduduwa. The story he told me varied a little from the Oba’s. In that conceit typical of the Bini, he chuckled sardonically before telling me that Oduduwa escaped from Bini prison and went on to found the Ife dynasty. Is it possible that the Yoruba have not heard this Bini version of Oduduwa story before now? Or, is it a case of being rattled because the almighty Oba of Benin has lent his voice to it, raising it high to the bookshelves from mere mumbling of village folks. Even if the story is “revisionist” as they claim, is it so difficult to swallow a little dose of their own pill of historical propaganda from the Bini?
On the face of it, one can easily pitch one’s tent with the Bini in this Oduduwa saga, as Oba Akiolu of Lagos has done. Besides having lesser of the Yoruba sin of making spurious historical claims, the Bini have at least identified Oduduwa with a real name, Ekalederhan, while the Yoruba Oduduwa remains a mythical entity without real name except the descriptive words used for him by the autochthonous Igbo he invaded and colonised. But the Bini version also fails to achieve a clear historical perspective on the man and how he became the overlord over the natives of Southwest. As for the Yoruba version, it is exclusionist. It then follows that to know, not just the true Oduduwa but the ethno-cultural circumstances of Southwest before him, we must set aside the contending stories of the Bini and the Yoruba and go to reliable oral traditions and books written without tribe in mind.
What indeed is the fact about Oduduwa? To answer this question we need to acquaint ourselves with the political development in Southwest Nigeria at about A.D. 1100. According to Yoruba oral tradition, the aboriginal inhabitants of Southwest were the Igbo.
One morning, when the dews were still heavy on the leaves because the sun had not ascended their sky, they woke up to discover that their land had been invaded by a foreign army. The fight that ensued was fierce. The Igbo were brave, but the invaders had more sophisticated weapons of war. The Oyo and Ife areas which, it seems, did not have dense a population of the Igbo, were the first to fall to the enemy army. Here, in Ife to be exact, they established their headquarters, installed their leader as king, and, as the Fulani, used the natives against their own in other parts.
In the Ekiti areas, where the Igbo were large, coherent, and strong, the invaders were given a good sum for their money. They were held back for a long time by the “Igbo warriors who masqued themselves with raffia,” until they too capitulated, not to the superior fire power of the invaders but to the bottom power of a certain Moremi, who was to the Yoruba what Delila was to the Philistines.
Oduduwa was the leader of the invaders.
Having conquered the native Igbo of Southwest, Oduduwa appointed his lieutenant as Oba in all the towns and became the overlord of the Southwest. And “the defeat and conquest of the Igbo in Southwest Nigeria was celebrated by the Yoruba at the annual Eid festival.” [See: The kingdom of the Yoruba, Robert Smith, 3rd edition, University of Wisconsin Press.]
Writing under the heading, The Igbo origin of Egba Yoruba, Ishaq Al-Sulaiman, an African American researcher, had this to say:
Southwest Nigeria marks the location of the present day Igbo tribe. However initially the Igbo were the rulers of the entire South including Southwest which is currently classified as Yoruba territory. The Yoruba first entered the Southwest part of Nigeria as invaders and coloniser of the original Igbo inhabitants.
On the spread of the Igbo, Dr. N. A. Fadipe wrote in his book, The Sociology of the Yoruba, thus:
It is tolerable certain that the Ekiti people, the greater bulk of Ijesa people and to some extent Ondo belong to this older culture group. It is possible that the group comprises much larger number of tribes than those just specified, which is to be regarded as minimum denotation term for the early wave of immigrant.
What is the meaning of Oduduwa? As I said earlier, the name Oduduwa or Odua for short is an Igbo phrase: Odudu wa or Odu wa, all meaning “their leader.” “Odudu” in Igbo is “one who leads” or “leader.” “Wa” in Asaba Igbo and some other Igbo of Delta, Abia, and the Waawa area of Enugu and Ebonyi States is “them.” The “defeated Igbo of Southwest Nigeria” could have, on identifying the leader of their tormentors, say among themselves: “Nke a bu onyeodudu wa” or “Nke a bu Odu wa.” (This is their leader).
Anybody whose mind has not been foreclosed by ethnic bias must see this meaning more tenable than “knowledge of how to behave,” which some Yoruba meta-historians postulated as the meaning of Oduduwa.
The next question to consider is whether the Igbo colonised by Oduduwa and his people in the Southwest were of the same stock as the Igbo of Southeast and Southsouth. I was asked this question by the writer, Akin Adesokan, who is now living in the United States of America.
He traced his ancestry to the autochthonous Igbo of Southwest but asked me if I thought his Igbo ancestor were of the same ethno-cultural makeup as my own Igbo of Southeast. My answer was “Yes” — “because , in the first place in the absence of written records going back to the childhood of the world when the Igbo emerged as a culture, scholars have been persuaded to treat linguistic relationships as providing by far the most dependable evidence of historical connection.” Thus wrote the erudite professor of history and the first indigenous awardee of doctorate degree by the University of Ibadan, Professor A. E. Afigbo. I am convinced that I have been able to provide such linguistic connection between the Igbo of Southwest and the Igbo of Southeast and Southsouth.
But if the Yoruba think otherwise, I will still refer them to their friend, the poet and philosopher, Odia Ofeimum. In a thought provoking article he wrote recently, he had said among other things that “the Igbo and the Yoruba speak the same language apart from the borrowed words” (the words brought in by Oduduwa). Unless they think also that the poet lied.
In addition, the Igbominas who are among the Southwest towns that retain their Igbo name, have another name – Omu Ara. They say it is in honour of their founder, a woman named Omu. `Omu’ in Igbo means `one who gives birth’ and by implication `woman’. In Ekiti State, there is still a town that celebrates New Yam Festival like their brothers in Southeast. These are besides the fact that the Igbo and the `Yoruba belong to the same language group – kwa.
Even the word “Yoruba” metamorphosed from a derogatory phrase the Igbo had used for the Oyo people. Before Oduduwa and his Oba put the whole Southwest to rout, the Oyo, who thought they were enjoying Oduduwa’s civilisation, would call the Igbo “bush people.” The Igbo, to pay them back their insult, would call them “Oyo, Oru Oba'” (Oyo, slaves of the Oba). That is how the name Yoruba came about.
From the foregoing it is clear that the Oduduwa children have deliberately revised and falsified the history of Southwest Nigeria for the sole aim of covering the Igbo root of most Southwesterners, thereby denying Nigeria the long-sought-for unity. What unity could we not achieve if the Oduduwa people had not denied a larger population of Southwest people the knowledge of their blood affinity with the Igbo of the Southeast. Would we not be having a real handshake across the Niger? But truth is like smoke which nobody buries and celebrates victory for a long time. It must surely show itself indomitable.
It is on this understanding that I think the The Comet Newspaper deserves our pity for the editorial they wrote on Monday, May 11, 2004. That editorial epitomised how lowly a people could go to falsify and revise history without recourse to any oral or written evidence. The writer must be one of the die-hard Yoruba Igbophobists, whose education has not purged them of the fear of the Igbo. Besides its glaring Igbophobia, the editorial was empty.
For instance, while it conjured up all the ancient city states under the sun and even those in Mars and claimed Yoruba affinity with them, it never mentioned Igbo. The only place it mentioned Igbo in brackets was as a disclaimer. It said that those the Oduduwa people invaded were “Ugbo” (not being able to discover that Igbo Ukwu arts had existed for more than four centuries before Ife/Benin, that Ife/Benin diffused from Igbo Ukwu and not the other way round.
My last words: history is no longer “myths that have no proofs but only can be believed by those who wish to believe them.” History, oral or written, must be backed up by related disciplines of archeology, linguistics, and anthropology.