Fulani-inspired but predominantly Yoruba-populated, Ilorin Emirate, a multiethnic Muslim kingdom/city-state encompassing the Kwara State capital and environs in Nigeria’s geographical West Central had officially comprised Ilorin, Asa and Moro Local Government Areas.
Between the IBB and Abacha military misadventures of 1985-1998, Ilorin LGA would be split into West, East and South for the current five LGAs of the Emirate.
At the core of what became Emirate was Oko Erin or Elephant Range, historically Oyo hunting ground for big game. It turned settlement (Circa 1700) around the olo irin, iron grinder – the “well-positioned rock” that benefited the city’s name – and later Oyo garrison town.
The last pre-Emirate de facto ruler, Afonja, great-grandson of Laderin (the first Oyo Baálè, governor, of Ilorin), and Oyo prince through his mother succeeded his father, Alagbin, and grandfather, Fasin, to the stool during the reign of Abiodun, and became Àre Ònà Kakanfò, Generalissimo, under Aole, Alaafin Oyo.
If some elements of the freeborn Yoruba, who joined Afonja’s fight to liberate Ilorin from Oyo did not hesitate later to rank èsìn (Islamic religion) over alájobí (family or ethnicity), in turning against Afonja; those of Moro in particular, and of Asa, were more unwilling draftees into the Emirate enterprise, typical of citizens of annexed territories.
This was sequel to Danfodio’s Jihad of 1804 in Sokoto, the Islamic militancy that attended which had started to be felt in the Oyo homeland, leading to persecution of Muslims who had long been present and enjoyed religious freedom and the peace and prosperity of the Oyo country.
Alongside Baruba, Fulani, Hausa, Kanuri, Tapa and other tribesmen that had been enslaved in Oyo (whom Afonja offered freedom and Ilorin’s protection in 1817, in the most momentous action in Yoruba history, preceding Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to Black slaves in the South during the American Civil War by 45 years); and joined by other Islamists from as far west and north of Africa as Mali and the Sudan; they would constitute the jàmáà army – which later rebelled and slayed Afonja in 1824 to pave way for the Emirate.
A healthy mix of Yoruba tolerance and temperance, intermarriages, African statecraft in multiethnic pacification; and perpetual wáàsì, Islamic sermonizing, mainstreamed submission to Allah, subservience to olórí or ruler, and ìyáyookàn or contentment; and helped to encourage multiculturalism and fellowship, blur ethnic lines, obliterate paganism and streamline thought and behavior. Constant exhortations to amity, especially through indigenous wákà or folk songs, like the popular “Ìlú Ilorin kìí sè’lu fìtínà fa” (Ilorin is no city for strife) instilled calm and engendered peaceful cohabitation.
The people prided themselves on their Islam and delighted in their ethnic diversity. “There is doubt if any other city in Africa south of the Sahara claims more Islam, more traditional Africa and more African folk traditions, than Ilorin”.
For longstanding containment and management of otherwise would-be tensions in similar melting points that are often hotbeds for ethnoreligious conflict and violence, Ilorin, and ultimately, Kwara, that it serves as capital, takes the cake of peaceful coexistence; and so the epithet, ‘State of Harmony’, was adopted/granted when subnational mottos became trend.
But there is a ghost that refused to go away, despite best efforts of generations of the Emirate’s rulers, multiethnic aristocracy and theocratic enablers. Bottled resentment over and gloomy nostalgia for defunct glory and lost empire and territory, and remnants of traditions spur desire in formerly privileged locals and external meddlers for a reversal of fortunes or accommodation within the status quo.
Despite 200 years of what Jimoh dubbed the Ilorin journey and the resultant fusion of disparate ethnicities into the contemporary Ilorin identity – catalyzed in a substrate of Islamic fervor – which kept social dynamics on an even keel, there was always suppressed discontent over what some commentators have called tyranny of the majority. It simmered beneath the surface, was reinforced by taunts from Yoruba at large and sometimes threatened to erupt, but never heated enough to boil over.
Within Ilorin, the ferment beneath the surface is discernible only to keen eyes. But not in the environs, particularly Moro and Asa, where some towns and villages unabashedly retained many characteristics of Oyo communities, Emirate nomenclature regardless.
In this emotive milieu of leftover but repressed yearnings of ethnicists and traditionalists in and out of the Emirate may be situated the recent bid of an Osun devotee, one Yeye Ajesikemi Omolara Olokun, to celebrate ìsèse, a Yoruba festival of Ajé spirituality in Ilorin.
The local úlàmáhù, Islamic clerics, reacted swiftly. A Muslim group, Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society, stormed the traditional priestess’s residence to caution her against embarking on the festival. “We are here on behalf of the Emir of Ilorin to ask that you desist from any ìsèse”, an imam in the delegation was quoted by the Punch newspaper as saying.
Not surprisingly, Yeye Olokun bemoaned the development. “I have been living in Ilorin for many years and experienced nothing but peace until recently” she said; adding “One of my people shared the invite online which caught the attention of the Imams. In a matter of hours, I was tagged on numerous posts and also began to receive death threats. I also heard that meetings were being held to ensure that the Aje festival does not hold in Ilorin.”
The Kwara state Police Command denied briefing on the ban by the Islamic sect but reiterated readiness to forestall face-off between Muslims and traditionalists in the state.
The clerics neither lied nor acted alone. They just didn’t tell the full story, of how Yoruba tradition became “alien culture” in Ilorin.
It would be recalled that the Emir had, in his Sallah message shortly after the 2023 Eid-El-Kabir prayer, warned residents of Ilorin Emirate to desist from any act “alien to the culture of the people”.
The message to the Yeye and other traditionalists is, however, clear and instructive: “Ilorin does not permit idol worshipping, we are ardent Muslims”, and “traditional religious worshippers could celebrate in private but never publicly in the Emirate as the only deity that could be publicly celebrated is the one Muslims in the state serve”, the imams had cautioned.
But if only the Muslims’ deity could be publicly celebrated in Ilorin as posited by the úlàmáhù in warning the Osun Priestess, why are Christians tolerated? One may wonder. How is it that Christians are allowed to freely worship in parts of Ilorin metropolis, but not traditionalists in four of the five LGAs of the Emirate. And how has the status quo evolved and been sustained?
It is not difficult to see or far fetched to imagine. The disposition of the úlàmáhù to Christians reflects the wily talent of one who knows when to fight and to retreat. The missionaries who established Ilorin’s first churches arrived on the heels of the British who had the military capability to pacify and colonize the Emirate. Christian credentials for tolerance were therefore established and secured in British colonial protection. The Christians are adherents of Abrahamic faith, just like Muslims. They tended to be pacifist, behaved themselves and respected boundaries set by the Emirate. In addition, knowledgeable Muslims see Christians as lost but pitiable and redeemable kin, who will be set straight when Jesus Christ, that both share, returns to validate Muslims. This perhaps explains the tolerance and accommodation of churches outside the city centre.
As for traditionalists, the relationship is more nuanced. First, ‘eni a rí làá lè’dí mó’, we bully those we see and can beat. Ilorin Islamists view traditionalists more or less as reincarnations of the Oyo threat, which they had mastered in the latter’s wars to subdue and retake Ilorin, expel those it saw as atòhúnrìnwá, foreigners, and punish the collaborating Oyo Muslims of Ilorin.
Indeed, the terror of Oyo might and wrath, would afford Ilorin no rest, until the Emirate put the final nail in the coffin of the declining empire in 1835, when its forces killed the Oyo crown prince and captured Oluewu, the last of the great Alaafins, in Oyo’s massive last battle against Ilorin, and took him alive into the Islamic city, where he was executed. The capital city of Oyo-Ile, which had projected unsurpassed power and glory, did not survive the disaster, and disintegrated, with the citizens preferring to flee rather than endure subjugation to Ilorin, which immediately became Oyo’s main town and burgeoning imperial kingdom in its own right.
It would require a combined army of allied Yoruba forces led by emergent Ibadan to stop Ilorin and end its expansionist onslaught in the Osun Valley war near Oshogbo, driving it back beyond Offa (Circa 1840).
There’s also the matter of ‘see finish’. The Ilorin alfas, many of whom are of Oyo descent also muster knowledge and dexterity in the ways and means of traditionalists. Many can call on the òshòròngà mothers to eat the arm from the head and the heart from the liver of their enemies. They combined Yoruba spirituality with those of other tribes that make up the Emirate, and have blended all with powers of the Quran for over 200 years. They recorded their research and experiments, and formulas and findings in àjámí (Yoruba orthography in Arabic script) and hid them in tírà (books) for reference by an exclusive class of successive generations of Ilorin scholars and adepts. The forerunners laid this foundation at a time when Yorubas were mostly illiterate. The result is a massive edge and potent head start for the úlàmáhù.
Recognition of this potency accounts for the patronage Ilorin alfas enjoy everywhere in Yorubaland for aájò and àsírí or ‘prayers’. The Ilorin clerics know the measure of traditions but also learned to keep their practices thereto private or secret as heirs to the Emirate’s theocratic establishment.
Indeed, it was partly for the allure of virtual invincibility from combining diverse ethnicities and spiritualities as weapons of war that Afonja sought support of Muslims for his army. He had sampled the spiritual powers that Saliu Janta A.K.A Sheikh Alimi, progenitor of the Emirate’s Fulani rulers had availed. The same weaponry will eventually be used against him (Afonja) in the manner of the rider of a tiger that ends up in its belly, when the jàmáà rebelled.
In other words, the traditionalists have had no edge over the Ilorin Emirate either in distant or recent history.
In the 1970s and 80s, one could notice the mainstream ethos of Islam, reluctant endurance of Christianity, and intolerance for the lingering traditions that hardline Muslim clerics despised, derided, condemned, and constantly preached against in efforts to persuade or guilt-trip the people into eschewing.
Troupes of alágbe, derogatory term for traditional singers and eulogists, graced ceremonies, performing bàlúù or dàdàkúàdá music and oral poetry to the accompaniment of drums, notably gángan and sákárà, and shèkèrè, with kàkàkí flutists in tow. The bàtá drum had been outlawed, on the rumored ground that it was leathered with human skin. That they pester revellers with demands for attention and money, in manners akin to mendicants, did not help their cause against the onslaught of the clerics, who deemed their lyrics and indeed most secular music àlùfànsá, profanity.
Sometimes, the entertainment was more northerly, treating onlookers to sensual Hausa music and Fulani or Bororo courtship dances. Young men were mercilessly flogged, yet expected to not wince, much less cry, lest they be disqualified as suitors to the participating bevy of beautiful maidens.
Often following singers and dancers were àwon onídán, magicians, who afforded the eclectic thrill of itinerant circuses. They played games and performed tricks with hyenas and jackals, monkeys, snakes and vultures. Fabulous tales were told of how performers changed forms, man to animal and vice versa. They wrestled in bouts where the champion was the able-bodied kátò that floored all opponents. On the sidelines, a gìrìpá near-giant would fail to lift or throw an ìkérègbè dwarf, despite much exertion, innocuous as the task seemed. In the demonstration of magical prowess, someone would stand for slaughter but could not be cut with sword or knife or stabbed with dagger or pierced with needle. They amused and bewildered all at once with amazing acrobatics and spectacles.
At other times, the adrenaline rush from the scary approach of fire spewing, fire eating and flame throwing adósù Sàngó with half-shaven, half-plaited hair was the titillation.
Àwon olóògùn, medicine men and women, were never far behind. They sold amulets sown in leather – pàró or ìfúnpá, bànté and óndè; or òrùka, rings; as well as àgbo’, àgúmu, and ebu, herbs, roots and powders of burnt and ground gbogbonìse all-in-one remedy, aphrodisiacs, elixirs and other exotic odds and ends.
For those interested, metaphysics was procurable under concealment from uninitiated eyes. As noted earlier, a variant of the alfa, derided as alufá, part-time cleric and part-time aláwo, traditional priest or apprentice, and/or partner, agent or scout (the former during the day and the latter at night) also existed. He combined Arabic mathematical divination and Ifa spirituality. “Fatima was sourced from ifá”, this type reckoned and patronized lékuléja merchants for ingredients of ìpèsè or provisions for àsèje or àtinúdénú, concoctions, and to jó’ògùn or prepare charms. And some secretly carried ebo, sacrifice.
At one oríta mérin, crossroads, near Agbarere that led in four directions to Agbaji, Ode Alfa Nda, Popo Igbana and Inu Odi, stood the shed of an old alágbède, blacksmith, who had, in a discreet corner, a sìgìdì miniature statue with which he shared the palm oil that fueled his furnace when he fired it. This was in the early 1980s. He identified as Muslim but one could clue in that he mixed his Islam with ògún (Yoruba god of iron) worship.
The performances and practices as well as delight in and/or patronage of these traditions by Muslim faithfuls were frowned upon by clerics as acts capable of undermining iman, piety, and so railed against as haram, forbidden.
The alfas also combated vices. A brothel once operated in Abe Emi where Ghanaian òlémi or kárùwà, harlots, catered to native male lust in the 1980s. Alcohol was freely consumed and there was a beer parlor, literally, of one Alhaji Ajadi Olótí in Oke Imale, next door to the màkóndòró home and Quranic school of militant Islamic evangelists. Búrúkútú, was brewed in Baani towards Fomo, and ògógóró was sold in Oloje. They proceeded until the clergy rose against them.
Then followed other regulations: no alcohol sale, purchase or open consumption and no prostitution in Oke Imale and elsewhere in the city center.
The heinous spectacle of forcing alleged witches to confess, beating them to a pulp and setting them ablaze disappeared after perpetrators in such extrajudicial killing of a rumored witch at Omoda in the early 1990s were rounded up, prosecuted and jailed for long terms.
And so as more customs, traditions and vices got driven by the úlàmáhù into secrecy, to the fringes or out of town, the suburbs became goto havens for adherents and patrons for what refused to die out or be abandoned. With increasing sanctions, even the then city fringes of Oloje, Okelele, and Ita Amodu, well-known holdouts, were not spared. Fun seekers moved further out to Opo Maluu, GRA, Coca Cola Road, Garage Offa, Gerin Alimi and Adewole whilst traditionalists left town for Eiye Nkorin, Shao, Molete, Olooru, Oke Oyi, Ganmo, Ilota, Pampo, Ogele and other settlements, generally considered oko Ilorin in Asa and Moro and beyond.
Gradually, the converged interests of the Emirate and clerics to deepen Islam, expel idolatry and uproot paganism and ‘vices’ prevailed, through vigilance and persistence. Some indigenous music forms gave way to Islamic mádíu and wákà. Fashion and school uniforms altered as the scarves of maidens, berets of school girls, and gèlè (headtie) and ìborùn (light veil) of adélébó or housewives, yielded to hijab. Nikob or burka, the black head-to-toe veil with sight slits gaining popularity among girls and young women today was jàlùbábà 25-30 years ago, and exclusive to eléhá – women in purdah – usually màkóndòró wives, who were derisively likened to masquerades with the adage, “òfin tó m’éégún lo m’éléhà”, the restrictions (ostensibly to private spaces) on the masquerade also apply to eléhá.
In 1999-2003, there came serious challenge to the Emirate when the then Governor reinstated Yoruba traditional rule and elevated Afonja descendants to first class royalty of oba aládé or beaded crown king, next door in the city centre and equal in status to the Emir, who alone ever had the title of ‘Oba Ilorin’ in the city’s history (Afonja lineage titles having only spanned Ajélè, Consul, Baálè and Are Ona Kakanfo, Field Marshal of Oyo). It was resisted. This in part cost that politician reelection and his successor promptly reverted to status quo.
The people of Jebba in Moro challenged the Emir’s overlordship, contending that as descendants of freeborn Oyo Yoruba, they are not subject to Fulani Emirate propped up by Hausa and Tapa former slaves of the Yoruba as aristocracy. They disregarded the Emir’s mágàjí, headman/local chief designate, appointed their own oba, king, and sought to coronate him. The matter is in court with no end in sight.
One alfa from Ìdí Àpé, who styled himself ‘Chief Imam Yoruba Ilorin’ was ignored until he vowed to import OPC (Odua Peoples Congress) and attracted commentary, following, likes and mentions on Facebook and Twitter. The Emirate intervened and he quieted.
The Emirate, supported by clerics and members of the population has won many battles, weathered many storms and triumphed. So far, it has brooked no upsetting of the theocratic order.
Even as Yoruba language prevailed, the multicultural heritage and Islamic ethos have endured. There’s no living memory of cultic rituals or traditions such as the Yoruba’s egúngún and orò, or the Tapa’s ìgunu or other masquerading that any elderly or middle aged adult can recall in 50 or more years. They are said to have been outlawed as public events 200 years ago when the disparate peoples united under the banner of Islam, succeeded to Oyo rule, coalesced into a 90% Yoruba populated but multiethnic Islamic kingdom under Fulani leadership and forged a common culture and identity.
The modern Ilorin of the Emirate era was built on a fighting force powered by fine horsemanship and swordsmanship required for its strong cavalry modeled on the once great and powerful Oyo war machine.
This perhaps explains part of the city’s panegyrics, “Ìlú tóbi tó yíí ò l’éégún, esin l’eégún ilé won, òkò l’orò ibè” (a town this big has no masquerade, horses are its masquerades, and swords are its customs); and explains Ilorin’s ‘balancing’ of its Islam and Africanness.
In recent years, there has been notable effort under the current Emir to mainstream Durbar as an annual festival in the Emirate’s cultural calendar. Though the modern name, Durbar is Persian, the practice is said to have originated in Kano (Circa 1400) as Hawan Daushe, also Hawan Salah, the Eid mount, under Muhammed Rumfa, Sarkin Kano, and was celebrated as a cultural, religious and equestrian festival in which nobles demonstrate horsemanship skills as well as pay homage to the Hausa king after Eid prayer or preparatory to war.
Ilorin sons and daughters know their culture and oral praise poetry. They worship no deity that requires ìsèse. Yeye Olokun’s strange quest proves her non-indigeneship and lack of roots and/or stakes beyond that of an èrò, resident visitor and/or economic sojourner; or as the clerics insist, agent provocateur on a sponsored mission to destabilize Ilorin. They insist they have the will and capacity to stop her if she doesn’t desist from what they term her unholy agenda!
It’s against the forgoing backdrop that the clergy’s warming, “eni tó s’eun t’énì kan ò se rì, ojúu rè ó rí n t’énì kan ò rí rí”, (one who does something unprecedented will encounter something yet unseen) becomes ominous. The Yeye’s unprecedented quest and the úlàmáhù’s unyielding posture portend brewing crisis, which if not well managed can combust into a conflagration.
There’s something to be said, however, for Yeye Olokun and traditionalists, and for the rights activists that have taken her side – freedoms of movement, opinion and worship.
The Yeye has rights to move from her Osun home town or state of origin to Ilorin or anywhere else in Nigeria and worship any god or deity of her choice.
The 1999 constitution, as amended, guarantees her right and forbids state religion. Yet it provides for shariah, particularly in the north, of which Ilorin is geopolitically part and host to a sharia court of appeal. It also provides for subordinate laws including those on chieftaincy and customs in states. Sharia and customary laws are built on religion, cultures and traditions of the people of concerned jurisdictions. Ilorin as a city-state adopted Islam as religion and its 200 years old custom is: Idolators and traditionalists can worship privately, but No ìsèse or carnival-type traditional religious or public worship within the Ilorin Emirate.
Is Ilorin on a collision course with the constitution, given that anyone who interferes with peaceful exercise and enjoyment of the rights of another does something unconstitutional?
“We are also backed by the laws of the land”, the clerics insist. Is there a lacuna? Are there contradictions in the constitution, state and local statutes that conduce to customs versus liberties rivalry? Are constitutionally guaranteed personal rights absolute and uniformly sacrosanct in every conceivable situation, granted 100% rule of law?
If exercise of individual right/freedom would cause public outrage, disrupt the peace, break down law and order and/or degenerate into violence, loss of life and damage to property, is such right inviolable?
There is also the dictate of prudence. Awòlú má te, ó mo ìwòn ara è ni. Knowing one’s measure is key to success in strange lands. To do in Rome as the Romans do has been conventional wisdom for ages, before Yeye Olokun journeyed from Osun to Ilorin to attempt to do otherwise, as it now seems. Is she and her backers being prudent and wise or antisocial and on an excursion in willful provocation and folly?
In the premise, all parties are best advised to remain calm and law-abiding and maintain status quo.
In the interest of peace, the clerics should sheath their swords. Yeye Olokun and her supporters should approach the courts for interpretation/ruling on the extents/limits of personal liberty.
Before daring the Emirate and úlàmáhù with ìsèse festival and traditions that, for Ilorin intents and purposes, would be tantamount to reviving the ghost of the fallen Oyo Empire, which yoke they sacrificed and shed blood to rid themselves of, let traditionalists and their advocates be informed of the constitutional latitudes and/or boundaries of religious freedom.
Let good sense, reason, and harmony for which Ilorin and Kwara are well known prevail.
Tunji Suleiman, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos and may be reached at email@example.com or 08036692165 (WhatsApp only).