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A Reintroduction To History, By Akin Osuntokun

March 4, 2022

If we have a flawed understanding of where we are coming from and we are not sure of where we are then we are fated to the logic of the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ cliche.

Following from our preceding outing a fortnight ago, the task with which I have saddled myself is a reintroduction to history. Understood as the theory or practice of revising one’s attitude to a previously accepted situation or point of view what I have embarked upon is better cited as historical revisionism shorn of the pejorative characterization.
And it borders on the need to reexamine received wisdom on the pre-and post-colonial historiography of Nigeria as it concerns the wherewithal of the incorporation of the Yoruba into the Nigerian state specifically and of other comprising subnational groups generally. It is a task that is prescribed by the cyclical sociopolitical trauma Nigeria routinely visits on Nigerians since the 1914 amalgamation. If we have a flawed understanding of where we are coming from and we are not sure of where we are then we are fated to the logic of the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ cliche.
It is therefore time, once again, to go back to the drawing board to discern what we might have missed out on in the continuous interrogation of our past and present with a view to remedial action. For the Yoruba, the favourite nodal point of historical retrospection is the tragic 19th-century sociopolitical implosion and the theme of self-betrayal to the ‘Fulani’ enemy.
The tendency has been to exaggerate the definition of the encounter as that of a Yoruba penchant for treachery sans an all-wise, all-conquering adversary. In this perspective, the Yoruba commander in chief was the arch-villain in whose DNA the gene of treachery was uniquely seeded. Afonja was a villain quite alright but only as the most prominent of many rebellious warlords who had little consciousness or notion of the Yoruba national unity that we now presume and take for granted. To begin with, it is true that Yorubaland was the Oyo empire writ large but both geopolitical identities were not coterminous. I am not happy to say so but Peter Ekeh was substantially right in the opinion that ‘by 1820 an Ekiti man would have been astounded if he were called a ‘Yoruba man’ whom he understood, if he was so knowledgeable, as a man from Oyo. In any case, an Ekiti man would probably need an interpreter in order to communicate effectively with a Yoruba man in 1820’.
The historical archetype of the Afonja corporate identity is limited to the Oyo empire. He was notoriously guilty of violating the political order and stability of the empire but little is said on the pertinent mitigation that his agent provocateur role was substantially provoked by a fellow rogue political sovereign, Alaafin Aole Arogangan-who spent the better part of his crown prince occupation to prove how he was a thorough misfit for his destiny as Alaafin. He died as he lived-the embodiment of a plague to the wellbeing and corporate integrity of his people. He, of the infamy of the Aole curse. On account of being outwitted by an equally villainous field marshal in a devious machination to get rid of the latter, he took to pronouncing a curse on the whole of Yoruba heritage.
If I am going to be thwarted and vanquished in my evil ways then let the whole community be damned and burn to hell he reasoned. “My curse be on ye for your disloyalty and disobedience, so let your children disobey you. If you send them on errand, let them never return to bring you word again. To all the points I shot my arrows will ye be carried as slaves. My curse will carry you to the sea and beyond the sea, slaves will rule over you and you their master will become slaves.” What a tragic coincidence these two constituted for the history of the Oyo empire.
In the choice of military and political allies, the rebellious empire warlords were politically blind mercenaries who were amoral rather than immoral. Afonja did not seek the support of the Fulani cleric, Alimi, to help him fight the Alaafin. He had prevailed over the latter before meeting and courting his nemesis. What has been historically interpreted as treachery was an unintended consequence of a self-destructive violation of the political order. He apparently did not anticipate the short-term consequences of his action let alone the ensuing long-term ramifications. Given the nature of military alliances that were contracted by Yoruba warlords in the 19th century, they did not categorically perceive the Fulani as a corporate enemy-with the ulterior objective of subverting and incorporating the totality of the Yoruba society into the Sokoto caliphate. In their liberation struggles against Ibadan imperialism, the Ekiti parapo confederacy, for instance, often saw the Ilorin/Fulani army as allies, not enemies.
Not being proximate citizens of the Oyo empire, the Yoruba Eastern districts of Ekiti, Ijesha and Ondo were impervious and insensitive to the Fulani conquest and destruction of Oyo Ile and the assimilation of Ilorin into the Sokoto caliphate. Indicative instances of the ambivalent attitude of the Yoruba towards the Fulani were routinely on display within the remnants of the Oyo empire. This ambivalent consciousness was facilitated by the brotherhood of the Islamic religion as embodied in the theocratic order of the Sokoto caliphate. Although the Oyo empire had been sensitized to Islam (by evangelists from Mali) long before the encounter with the Fulani, it became intensified with the incursion of the latter into the Yoruba territory and fostered a sense of religious commonality of purpose between Yoruba Islam adherents and the Sokoto caliphate.
Against the backdrop of this ambiguous historical relationship, it took the Obafemi Awolowo versus Ladoke Akintola supremacist crisis to serve as the deux ex machina for the definition of the contemporary Yoruba/Fulani relationship. I would argue that the persistent tendency thereafter of Southern intellectuals to idealise the caliphate as particularly gifted in Nigerian power politics is borne of mental fixation on the Shehu Usman Dan Fodio leadership exemplar. Up to the end of the pre-colonial phase of the Sokoto caliphate and the Ahmadu Bello leadership era, I would rate the Fulani oligarchy as a worthy adversary. But thus far, no further. As a matter of fact, if we take the Muhammadu Buhari presidency as a representative, it is safe to suggest that Dan Fodio would be turning in his grave. Since 1966 what is discernable is a progressive decline in the quality of Fulani spearded Northern machinations (or lack of it) in the arena of realpolitik. Northern hegemony per se is not the problem of Nigeria, the problem is the double jeopardy of the self-destructive mismanagement of the hegemony-the nadir of what we are presently grappling with in the Buhari leadership model. If the hegemony has persisted, it has done so by the default and omission of three factors.
First are the self-inflicted injuries and blunders of their fellow competitors for power. Second is the inhibition of modernisation which had precluded the competitors from the winner takes all scorched earth proclivities of the oligarchy they contend with. This is a virtue that the Nigerian context has turned into a vice. The vice turned virtue of open rebellion against modernisation was the thesis propounded by Hakeem Baba Hamed the other day to the effect that the North can live with ‘their’ poverty but not with the accountability demands of modern civilisation. Third is the subterranean open-ended tutelage of the British and maybe the devil’s luck. Rather than seize the initiative, they have mostly reacted to developments and challenges initiated by others.
The (howsoever conceived) lapse into the balance of terror military-hooliganism-politics-which then became a decades-long political norm was initiated by a gang of pervasively Igbo military officer corps who made a spectacular hash of it. And the Northern gang reacted with crude and untrammelled bloody counter-terrorism. Befuddled by the bloody mess they created, they were set on the dissolution of Nigeria before the countervailing intervention of the guardian angel (namely the British) who piloted them through the jungle dispensation of the civil war.
For a supposedly dexterous power politics player, the choice of the otherwise noble but diffident bungler, Shehu Shagari, as President by the clique was a howler. At the other end was Obafemi Awolowo who contested the 1979 presidential election in order to lose it. No better alibi for failure could be better procured than the presidential ticket composition of Awolowo (from South-West) and Phillip Umeadi from the South East. After the military assisted the crash of the second republic, doubling down on the Fulani spec Muhammadu Buhari proved to be another dumb choice. Given to arrogance of ignorance he lasted all of twenty months in office. And then there was Ibrahim Babangida who conspicuously bungled a transition that would have rebounded to his glory and that of the oligarchy he was fronting. In the place of glory, he sentenced Nigeria to the reign of the unpretentious rogue coupist Sani Abacha and the ruinous 1993-1998 annulment crisis. Given his recurring and menacing presence in organised political violence in Nigeria, it can be assumed that he, too, fronts for the oligarchy as well. The question then arises how does an agent of Abacha’s description bespeak of sophisticated political survival instincts of this dominant political pressure? How does churning out misfits and dysfunctional leaders amount to the unique ability for power politics statecraft?
Most telling of all is the Buhari revelation. Here was one in a million gifted opportunity to seal the myth of Fulani political talent permanently.
This was a known Fulani irredentist whom Nigeria was not only prepared to tolerate but were so much eager to celebrate. If he had merely kept the low leadership standard bar he met in 2015, Nigeria would have found a way to spin it as a situation of a messiah being frustrated and overwhelmed by the extant and prevalent Nigerian context of evil. But because God was not yet done with Nigeria, he disrobed and revealed Buhari and what he represents in all its nakedness. What was it that the great Usman Dan Fodio said? “A kingdom can endure with unbelief but not with injustice”. Before he became President, Buhari was once asked what would be his most basic requirements if he found himself isolated from society. His response was typically deceptive and hypocritical “clean water and the holy Koran”. Power, according to Barack Obama (I think) does not change you but reveals who you are. To be continued, sort of.