By Festus Adedayo
The most appropriate representation of the impending 2023 presidential election contest for the Yoruba is what is called the Odun e’gunor the Egungun Festival contest. It is a festival cum contest in which masquerades file out in their rainbow colour regalia, with a mammoth crowd gathered to watch them dance. As of today, Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Yemi Osinbajo are the Yoruba people’s two biggest masquerades in this odun egun. The Alagbaa, one entrusted with the traditional right to preside over the ancestral rites of the festival is however a Fulani – Muhammadu Buhari. By the way, the Alagbaais very central to every masquerade festival. He is a hereditary chief who heads the Egungun society and who determines the tone and tenor of the festival. Preparatory to the contest, the Alagbaaof the 2023 Nigerian Egungun Festival had literally decapitated the masquerades, succeeding in destroying the masquerades’ worth and credibility in the estimation of the mammoth crowd at the marketplace.
The masquerade festival is also a time to offer sacrifices to divinities, one of whom is Èsù-Òdàrà, known as the mediator divinity. Yoruba do not joke with making such propitiations to their dead. It is believed that if the wrath of these divinities is not appeased and in this case, through the Egungun festival, incongruities will besiege the land, so much that rats in the forests will lose their divinely ordained squeaking sound and birds, their chirps – “eku o ni ke bi eku, eye o ni dun bi eye”.
The masquerades, wearing long, multifarious colourful robes to court the aesthetic sense of the spectators, are masked according to the insignia of the spirits of their deceased ancestors and are welcomed to the marketplace by shouts of excitement and melodious drumming. The Egungun then file to the marketplace to perform several shades of dances. Though humans, but generally perceived to have transmuted into spirit beings on account of their regalia, the Egungun is expected not to be in conformity with the sedate norms of this world, and are thus held on a leash by men who wield cudgels, preventing intruders from coming close to spirit beings. Worshippers then dance to percussions of batadrum and in the process, become possessed by ancestral spirits, with those holding the whips flogging everybody within the precincts of their whips.
A religious practice of the people that has lasted centuries, the Egungun Festival is a ceremony in which the Yoruba honour what they perceive to be the annual return of their ancestors to the world of the living. At the marketplace, when the Egungun dances eclectically to the front to contest, he invokes the spirits of his ancestors long deceased, precursors of such interventions with the people, to grant him the grace of making brilliant dancing strides in the contest and go home with the village’s trophy of success.
For the Yoruba, however, even at this preparatory stage for the Nigerian 2023 Egungun festival, it is getting ominous. The omen writ large is that, even with Tinubu and Osinbajo dancing this spasmodically to the crowd’s frenzied excitement, the opportunity for the Yoruba Egungun to coast home with the trophy by succeeding in occupying the Aso Rock seat of power in 2023 is becoming almost a mirage. Either as a reflection of that hunch or premonition, in the last couple of weeks, especially on social media, Yoruba analysts and commentators have drawn three unpleasant anchors and images in the service of an explanation for the race’s impending plight. One is that they are drawing a similarity between the 2023 contest and the First Republic consuming fight between two of their recent ancestors, Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Ladoke Akintola. Second is that these analysts are fleeing into Christian eschatology to locate their plight in a similar relationship that went haywire in Israel some 2000 years ago, between Jesus the Christ and his sidekick, Judas Iscariot. The third of their engagements is to go into the ancient Yoruba narrative of the curse of Alaafin Aole who, miffed at his betrayal, had reportedly cursed generations thereafter that they would be afflicted by rancour at critical points of their national development.
Whichever way you choose to look at their dilemma, the Egungun still represents the best explainer of the Yoruba crossroads. A secret society, on the day of the Egungun festival, masquerades come to the marketplace in various long, coloured regalia to perform the dual role of deity, listening to the requests of the living who gather by their feet in supplication and who are then believed to carry the supplicants’ requests back to their ancestral community in heaven, ultimately depositing them by the feet of Olodumare– God. Thus, women facing challenges of procreation beseech the masked spirit to grant them children and the people as a whole ask for continued guidance from the spirit being. The Egungun, in a high-pitched voice, in turn, prays for the supplicants, to which they answer ase– amen.
By especially shuttling into the First Republic to bring out the ghosts and personas of Awolowo and Akintola as referents and explainers for the 2023 contest, I submit here that this trait has always been part and parcel of the Yoruba. Indeed, in African cosmology, ancestors play very conspicuous and important roles. They represent very important sources of power and are believed to be capable of acting on behalf of or against their descendants. Ancestors also function as divinities even though they exhibit less spiritual power than the gods – Orisa, somewhat. When a descendant of an ancestor faces existential challenges in life, they go to their family groves, offer sacrificial offerings and invoke the destiny – oriof their fathers in heaven to intervene in their plights. Ancestor worship is very central to the religion of the Yoruba.
While the two big masquerades, Tinubu and Osinbajo, prepare to dance in the marketplace, their supporters have been invoking several epithets, parallels, epigrams and symbols as prologues to explain the two masquerades’ impending dancing steps. The epilogue has been coming in the form of a narrative put in the public sphere that Osinbajo, foremost professor of law and attorney general was moulded by Bola Tinubu while he was governor of Lagos state. Indeed, the strategy of interfacing Tinubu with the public by his supporters has been an audacious carving of the ex-Lagos governor in the mould of the Yoruba god, Orunmila, the orisaof wisdom, knowledge, and divination. Orunmila’s epithet is one who moulds the destinies of his appendages, the “mo’ri mo’ri omo tuntun“. Tinubu’s apologists have since cited people at the top who, upon coming in contact with this orisa, got their destinies moulded and catapulted to the top.
One of a series of devious stratagem used in the service of this bid is drawing a parallel between Awolowo and Akintola’s feud of the First Republic as an explainer of the interface between Tinubu and Osinbajo. This came to the fore with brute force immediately after Osinbajo’s declaration for the 2023 presidency. Upon examination, however, it will be found to be very hollow, shallow and lacking in any rigour of a historical understanding. Let me explain.
After being systematically rigged out of the 1959 federal election, Awolowo decided not to go back to his premiership of the western region. This is unlike eastern region premier, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who accepted Prime Minister Balewa’s overture to form a government with him, thereafter becoming Nigeria’s only ceremonial president. Azikiwe left his turf in the hands of Michael Okpara, a very grits-full medical doctor with a very strong mind of his own. while Ahmadu Bello of the northern region sent a junior politician, Balewa, to the centre to become Nigeria’s prime minister.
It is no longer news that though Akintola was his deputy in the Action Group, Awolowo favoured either Anthony Enahoro or Chief FRA Williams as his successor. He however had to succumb to party elders like Dr Akanni Doherty and Akinola Maja who articulated the need to pick Akintola who had then become the deputy leader of the AG after the death of Chief Bode Thomas. In his own words, however, Awolowo maintained that those who dissuaded him from picking Chief Williams as successor were Chief S. O. Gbadamosi and Dr Akanni Doherty.
In late 1961, the Action Group constituted a group of young men who prepared memoranda for a cogent ideology for the AG. The party’s federal executive council meeting thus agreed on the adoption of democratic socialism as its ideology and, among others, that, “nobody, especially government or party functionaries must have more than one plot of government land; fringe benefits and perks for ministers and parliamentary secretaries were slashed; and thirdly, the party pronounced that the party was supreme and that anybody who held office did so at the pleasure of the party and that anyone who held any governmental position must see that his policies were either laid down by the party or were in line with party policies”. This did not go down well with the premier, Akintola, who mocked the ideology of democratic socialism openly. More fundamentally, while Akintola believed that the west should bond with the north to gain power at the centre, Awolowo believed that the west must go eastwards in seeking allies.
To buttress this, Akintola, in his witty aphorisms and government policies, slammed the managing director of the Nigerian Railways, Dr Ikejiani Clark, for nepotism in his recruitment of staff into the railway company. This he did in his famous “ikeji a ni, iketa a ni” and in the squabble for the VC-ship of the University of Lagos between Professor Eni Njoku and Saburi Biobaku, Akintola played on the Yoruba common denominator of “death” in the names of the VC contestants and asked why the Lagos university community would prefer someone who ate dead bodies (literal translation of Eni Njoku) as against someone who did not want to die (literal meaning of Biobaku).
What the above signifies is that the duo of Awolowo and Akintola disagreed and fought on the place of their Yoruba people in the scheme of things in post-colonial Nigeria and not on inanities of who made who and who betrayed who. I scooped many documents, newspapers and magazines on the tiff between Awo and SLA and never for once did I stumble on that petty magisterialism of Awo ascribing Akintola’s rise to the premiership to his imperious power. So, when supporters of especially Tinubu try to reduce the contest to betrayal, it smacks of a spurious attempt to leave the substance of the right of a sixty-something-year-old man to aspire to any office in the land and pursue shadows of tar-brushing him as a turncoat.
In the last eight years of Tinubu and Osinbajo people’s sufferings under Buhari, both of them never demonstrated any fidelity to them or the boldness to wear their Yorubaness on their lapels. They never demonstrated that their people’s plight was worthy of any amplification and resolution. When kidnappers killed and ransomed their people of the south-west without let, the duo of Tinubu and Osinbajo bonded with the Alagbaain his taciturn cold-bloodedness. They even literally abetted him in his nepotistic embrace of his Fulani people and discard of others. While Tinubu told the world that, to become the Nigerian president has been his lifelong ambition, Osinbajo has not demonstrated that he is possessed of any unique love for his Yoruba people, nor that Yoruba people should queue behind him as a matter of mutual kinsman fidelity. Yes, while in their respective political offices, they have both favoured their political and religious clienteles – apologies again to Professor Farooq Kperogi – I am not aware that any one of them bent over backwards to articulate the plight of the Yoruba in a different pitch, in a federal Nigeria under Buhari.