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Oyo: Kings and Imams in Yorubaland

By Lasisi Olagunju

Beyond its outer casing of spirituality, the post of Imam in Yorubaland potentially guarantees prestige, power and prosperity. That is why people fight to be Imam as grisly as princes fight to be king.

But when siblings fight to the death, they lose their chest to outsiders. The Yoruba Muslim community is almost always at war with itself. The League of Imams and Alfas of Yorubaland, Edo and Delta in April this year scrambled to douse a fire over who should be their mufti. The mufti is the jurisconsult in Islamic jurisprudence. Two persons were named by two contending power blocs. The league, in a signed public statement in April this year, asked both to stay off the post. There has been some quiet since then. In Ogbomoso, there is a very bad division over the leadership of the Muslim community in the town: the Chief Imam on one side, a section of the Muslim community led by the Aare Musulumi on the other side.

Some Yoruba Muslims are angry that the Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Afolabi Olaoye, a Christian, issued a query to the Chief Imam of Ogbomoso. I read comments from some of them and chucked to myself. When you make someone to hire you, you should expect the day he will fire you. But, everyone conversant with the case knows that the real problem of the Imam is not with the oba. It is a family sore that has festered into a full-blown Muslim-Muslim civil war. The palace originally came in as an arbitrator but because it went about it as Tortoise did while separating a street fight between Shrew and Squirrel, it now nurses a bleeding nose.

Shouldn’t history have been a guide? In all Yoruba towns where cracks among Muslims have occurred, lizards stay put there. Some of those divisions and difficulties date back almost 200 years; some of them still subsist. The secretary of the defunct Muslim Congress of Nigeria, in a July 6, 1950 letter to the colonial secretary, pointed at such unfortunate Muslim-Muslim disputes over imamship in Ijebu Ode, Abeokuta, Ife, Iseyin, Ondo and Ijebu Igbo. G.O. Gbadamosi’s ‘The Imamate Question Among the Yoruba Muslims’ (December, 1972), speaks to that matter and several cases of fights and wars over leadership among Yoruba Muslims. T.O. Avoseh’s ‘Islam in Badagry’ and his ‘A Short History of Epe’ also detail some of those crises and their fractious implications on the early years of Islam in Yorubaland. There is also Toyin Falola’s ‘Islam and Protest in Colonial South Western Nigeria’ (1991).

You may find this piece of history from Gbadamosi (1972: 236-237) to be of interest: “In Iseyin in 1941, the office of the Chief Imam became vacant, and a dispute arose as to the succession. A very vocal section of reformers were unwilling to allow the Naib, Afa Busari, to succeed. Afa Saminu of Oke-Ola quarter was preferred by and large for his learning and other qualities. Controversy raged. In the attempt to resolve this issue, the local ruler, Aseyin (of Iseyin) acted and proclaimed another person (Afa Mustafa) as Imam. He had him turbaned, and claimed a rightful appointment. The other side challenged this and reported the matter to the Alaafin and Council.” They also petitioned the Senior Resident asserting that “the question of the selection of a Chief Imam ought not to have political influence…” The Resident “found that Afa Saminu was more popular with the people than Busari (36 v 16) but the Aseyin still insisted on his third candidate. As a compromise, the office of Deputy Noibi was offered Saminu” but his supporters argued that it was not customary among Muslims “that after the Chief Imam, there should be a deputy besides the Ratibis of each individual quarter who are deputies over whom the Chief Imam is alone superior…” The historian reports that “so, both sides had their own Imams and the two original factions prayed separately” amidst “abusive songs and parades.” The above shows how long the journey of rifts has been for the Yoruba Muslim.

Back to Ogbomoso. You would think that it would always be true that what founds a town rules the town (ìdá’lùú ni ìsèlú). In November 2021 when he was appointed as the Chief Imam of Ogbomoso, Dr Taliat Oluwashina Yunus Ayilara went online and announced the process that made him the number one Muslim in Ogbomoso: “About a month ago after the demise of the late Imam of Ogbomoso, I was beckoned by my family to fill the position. After a long process of screening, I was appointed today, 11th November, 2021 by the Soun of Ogbomosoland as the 13th Chief Imam of Ogbomosoland.” There is a video online that shows him being installed as Chief Imam, not in the central mosque, but inside the palace – which makes him a chief of the Soun. There is a video showing where the Imam describes his office as an extension of the palace and mis-defines himself a staff member of the oba. Ancient Romans were very deep thinkers. They had a maxim for a situation like this: “volenti non fit injuria” – meaning, “to a willing person, it is not a wrong.” You cannot knowingly and voluntarily submit to a relationship and cry blue murder as a result of the result.

For the king, the Ancient Romans again. They said “Injuria non excusat injuriam” – a wrong does not excuse a wrong. I strongly think the Soun should not have allowed himself to be led into the dark hole of querying the Imam. He should have continued to watch the show but monitor the temperature to avoid a ruptured vessel. The oba’s status as a pentecostal pastor politically disqualified him from directly moving against the Imam. Even if he was encouraged to take that step by opposition Muslim leaders in the town, Kabiyesi should have known that in Yorubaland no one helps another to discipline their child and gets praised for it (bá mi na omo mi kò dé inú olómo). In religion (whether Islam, Christianity or Ìsèse), it is very resentful seeing an outsider, a competitor, holding the whip against ‘our own’. We say you don’t chase a problem-child into the mouth of a tiger. Issuing that query was ill-advised and I believe the king must have realized the error.

If you’ve ever studied how leaf becomes soap, you would understand why Islam and the Yoruba traditional leadership are the proverbial soap and its cover-leaf. Islam is historically more than a religion in Yorubaland. Because the religion came in there hundreds of years before Christianity, the relationship between the leadership of Muslims and the oba in every community has always been deeper than outsiders can imagine. Dada Adelowo, in his ‘Imperial Crises and their Effect on the Status of Islam in Yorubaland in the 19th Century’ (1982), says so much on this.

The Imam in every Yoruba town, is, essentially, both a religious leader and a high chief. He participates in the administration of the town under the leadership of the oba who may or may not be a Muslim. But, this relationship notwithstanding, should an oba be involved in the choice and installation of a religious leader – especially an Imam? The person who would settle a quarrel, should he be located in the structure of the rift? (Eni tí yóò pa’rí ìjà, won kìí ròó mó ejó). Successive Soun (of all faiths) have been appointing successive Chief Imams for Ogbomoso since the very beginning which has been put as the year 1818. The history of that arrangement is an interesting read in communal unity, amity, appreciation and mutual respect. But times have changed. Even if there is a law that empowers obas to make religious appointments, should such not be amended to avoid the kind of incongruity and tension and insults we see in Ogbomoso?

The making of the Ogbomoso convention, with the tradition that enables it, obviously did not envisage a future that is today. Critical sections of the society are seeing not an oba querying his chief; what they see is a pastor seeking to sanction an Imam. It is awkward, cannot be explained. Muslim leaders need to quickly work with the traditional leadership in all communities where such arrangements subsist for amendments. The obas, themselves, should initiate and encourage that change. It will insulate them (the kings) from avoidable insults and insubordination.

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