Stoppage of Isese Festival in Ilorin—Festus Adedayo
A little over a week ago, Professor Wole Soyinka turned the attention of Nigerians from their current harrowing economic existence to one of the tyrannies that religion inflicts on them. Prof was apparently in his elements. For decades, he had fought battles of willful violations of human existence in various guises. Young Yakubu Gowon was one of the experiments Soyinka conducted on his intolerance for governmental tyranny.
Gowon’s government had detained the comparative literature professor for two years in the wake of the civil war on allegation of hobnobbing with bearded Odumegwu Ojukwu who had just declared a civil war. From Gowon to Olusegun Obasanjo and down to Sani Abacha, Soyinka had always demonstrated his resistance to tyrannies. In this particular instance, however, the Emir of Ilorin, Sulu Gambari, was the object of his singeing pen. The Emir, through some Islamic zealots called Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society, had stormed the residence of an Olokun – water goddess – worshipper, Adesikemi Olokun, to warn her to desist from holding a festival of culture tagged Isese in Ilorin, capital of Kwara State. The Islamic group reportedly claimed they were emissaries of the emir.
“Year after year, Ramadan has been celebrated in this nation as an inclusive gathering of humanity, irrespective of divergences of belief. Not once, in my entire span of existence, have I encountered pronouncements by followers of any faith that the slaughtering of rams on the streets and marketplaces is an offence to their concept of godhead. Vegetarians hold their peace. Buddhists walk a different path,” Soyinka wrote in an open letter to the Emir.
The audacity of the Ilorin zealots and the Emir of Ilorin are tiny specks of the intolerant religious space that Nigerians live in. The two foreign religions of Christianity and Islam have chosen to deliberately forget that they are tenants in this space and have magisterially been muzzling their landlord, the traditional religion. The three cardinal religions in Nigeria – Christianity, Islam and Traditional African worship, have been engaged in a battle to neutralize one another. The competition for pre-eminence and supremacy is such that endangers the peaceful coexistence of the people. Indeed, the rising tide of fundamentalism is such that checkmating the monster of religious intolerance and insensitivity of these religions who believe in the supremacy of their own faiths, is necessary if the country desires peaceful coexistence and sustainable national development.
While Islam penetrated Nigeria from the Northern flank about five or six hundred years before Christianity, sometime between 1000A.D and 1100 A.D, Uthman Dan Fodio’s Jihad took the religion to the nooks and crannies of Northern Nigeria. On its own, Christianity’s incursion into the place now known as Nigeria was through the Portuguese Roman Catholic Mission that came to Benin in 1485, having been invited by Oba Uzolua and later in 1514 by Oba Esigie, Kings of Benin. This history does not obviate the fact that the two foreign religions met the African fully involved with Isese and its cultures.
Sulu Gambari’s involvement in this roulette of intolerance and the fact that this was happening in Ilorin seem to be the kernel of the issues of concern. Soyinka alluded to them peremptorily. History told us that Ilorin was under the suzerainty of the Yoruba, having been founded by Laderin, the great grandfather of Afonja, who later became the Are Ona Kakanfo, the generalissimo, or chief military leader, of the old Oyo Empire. Alimi, the progenitor of Sulu Gambari, actually came into town as On’tira (phial maker) of Afonja. He got killed when a brawl broke out between him and Yoruba forces on one hand whose masquerade came out in Ilorin and his boys who had constituted themselves into the Jam’aa who opposed the Egungun masquerade. The Jam’aa, in cahoots with forces loyal to them, then gathered to eliminate him. Afonja was not only killed, but his body was also burnt to ashes and the son of Alimi, a Fulani priest, then took over the leadership of Ilorin. Since then, the Yoruba traditional religion and Egungun festival were banned in Ilorin due to this clash. It was how and why Ilorin became the suzerainty of Fulanis whose treachery in the killing of Afonja has become a folk narrative in coup plotting.
The issue at hand is not even who rules over a people who have been cunningly displaced of their land, but how the people have fared ever since in ethno-religious relations. Progenies of Alimi have made Ilorin an Islamic and emirate town, which is indisputable and commensurate with the nature of conquests. However, the wave of modernity and civilization that is sweeping through the whole world has made it an anathema for one religion to assume superiority over another. Skit makers, after Gambari and his zealots’ rude stomp on the home of Adesikemi Olokun, went to town to reveal that Ilorin, not totally disconnecting from the roots of its Afonja forebears, is replete with Isese. The skit makers demonstrated this through the many videos on the social media they posted. In them, we see that in the hordes of spots in Ilorin where roots, herbs, native talismans and amulets (called l’eku l’eja in Yorubaland) are sold and a thriving market administered by Alhajas and Alhajis and probably Christians, is the realization that Ilorin has not forgotten its Isese past.
The hypocrisy of Gambari and the Islamic zealots of Ilorin is manifest in that, throughout Yorubaland today, there is gravitation towards the medicine and practices of our forefathers. Though it took centuries of brainwashing to accomplish this brain reset, during which period the people threw away their religious and medical identities, there is an attempt to reconnect with them.
Of particular bother is why Ilorin would preference religious ahead of moral chastity. While the Emir and his zealots hypocritically advertise their disdain for sacrifices to gods in traditional religion, they are not averse to the widespread belief that Ilorin is the capital of adultery, where there is no societal condemnation of flesh sacrifices on the altar of sexual illicitness. This is done through the On’tiju Mi syndrome. In Ilorin, adulterous liaisons between a man and a woman, reified in the On’tiju Mi, no matter whether the parties are married or not, are alleged to be accepted canon of inter-personal relations. They are not frowned at as it is done in many other cultures and Ilorin women flaunt the beauty of the On’tiju Mi without an iota of shame.
Why the Emir and his zealots opposed to Isese cannot be allowed, on the altar of religion, to pollute the long chain of cultural affinity between this historical city and the culture of other parts of Yorubaland is that, Ilorin is home to the best of Yoruba-speaking musical talents. These are talents, living or dead, who evoke the rawest and best of Yoruba cultural music. When Ilorin-born musicians like Odolaye Aremu, Iya Aladuke, Jaigbade Alao and down to Kollington Ayinla, sing, they strike a chord in ancient Yoruba culture. Ilorin is home to genres of Yoruba music like Wákà, Bàálù, Senwele, Pankèkè and Dadakúwàdá. It also boasts of its own brand of Àpàlà, different from that of Egba and Ijebu, like that of Alhaji Àjàdí Ilorin and Salahu Woro Idofihan. Incantations and panegyrics of Yorubaland, including even salutations to spirits of ancestors, reign supreme in those songs.
Samuel Johnson, the foremost Yoruba historian, even claimed that Egungun originated from among the Nupe people, who can be said to be somehow contiguous to the Ilorin. Dadakuwada, an African traditional ritual performance, kindled by llorin oral art, also took its origin from the Egungun poetry, the Iwi. This counterpoises the pretext of the ancient city of Ilorin which, in overwhelming abidance with the Islamic religion, frowns at intoxicants and where Egungun is banned from being displayed due to the spat in history that spilled the blood of Afonja, a spat sparked by the celebration of Egungun festival.
Sulu Gambari, by banning Isese in Ilorin, is merely re-enacting the attack on Afonja and his killing for bringing out masquerades in Ilorin. There must be something about Isese that threatens the received religion of Alimi’s progenies. However, no matter how much they try, thousands of Gambari, his Islamic religious zealots and their allies in the Christian faith cannot stop the realization that Ilorin and its Afonja ancestry cannot be divorced from Isese.