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The Great Monarch: A Tribute to the Ooni of Ife

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Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, popularly known as Ooni of Ife, died in a London hospital some days back, having set the record as the second-longest reigning Ooni of Ife in recorded history.

The late Oba Sijuwade was a patriotic and highly respected traditional ruler who had immeasurable love for his people and great faith in a united Nigeria. He, accordingly, stood out as a voice of honesty and forthrightness in national affairs. He was at the same time a fervent promoter of mutual tolerance and understanding not only among the diverse people who lived in his domain but also across the country. The toga of acrimony, thuggery and violence which stigmatised the politics and the people of Ife and Modakeke for many years was permanently brought to an end by him with the support of his royal colleagues. Today, there can be no gainsaying that his nearly four-decade reign was marked by unprecedented peace-making and lasting peace and prosperity in Ife and Modadeke.

The late Oba followed the tradition of his great predecessors. He was a great traditional leader, urbane and respected by his subjects. His influence transcended the Kingdom of Ife and, indeed, Osun State. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional rulers across Nigeria and beyond the shore of Nigeria and was very well respected among his counterparts from the South, North and East. He was a unifying force not just in Ife but in the whole of the South Western zone and beyond.

Early Life:
Born on New Year’s day in 1930, he succeeded Oba Adesoji Aderemi who had reigned for 50 years before his death. Sijuwade reigned for nearly 35 years, the second longest, having been enthroned on December 6, 1980. His grandfather, Ooni Sijuwade Adelekan, Olubuse I, reigned from 1894-1910. Olubuse II studied at Abeokuta Grammar School and Oduduwa College, both in Ile-Ife, and Northampton College in the United Kingdom (business management).

He had a flourishing career in business, becoming a manager at Leventis when he was barely 30 and was sales director at National Motor in Lagos at 33. He later set up a company to distribute Soviet-built vehicles and equipment in Nigeria. His business boomed and expanded. He was into real estate and construction and enjoyed unlimited favours from virtually every successive government in Nigeria.

Politics:
His attainments, over the years, surely culminated in his unanimous nomination and coronation as the Ooni Olubuse II of Ile-Ife since November 1980. In this capacity, he functioned as Chancellor of the University of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State in 1988. It is a measure of his selfless and qualitative service to our dear country that he was honoured with the revered national award of the Commander of the Federal Republic, CFR, by former President Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1983.

The last few years of Sijuwade were defined largely by his politics and he never really overcame many of his controversies. In 1984, when Major General Muhammadu Buhari was military head of state, the Ooni travelled to Israel — then a pariah to Nigeria — with his bosom friend, Ado Bayero, the emir of Kano who died in 2014. Buhari slammed a travel ban on the duo for their politically insensitive trip, and this was considered a humiliation of the highest order.

Some 30 years later, Buhari sought to come back to power, this time as an elected president. It was not difficult for Sijuwade to pitch his tent with Buhari’s opponent, former President Goodluck Jonathan, in the 2015 presidential race. What would he be doing with a man who “humiliated” him three decades ago? He openly romanced and endorsed Jonathan and was not afraid to be seen as a pro-PDP monarch. His chiefs prayed in front of the cameras for Jonathan, who knelt down in their midst. But the prayers hardly worked as Buhari defeated Jonathan, who fondly called Ooni his “father”, in the March 28 poll.

However, Oba Sijuwade was never afraid to go against the grain, in any case. That the majority of Yoruba people wanted Buhari did not mean he was going to go with the popular choice. In 1993, when MKO Abiola, a Yoruba son, apparently won the presidential election, crisis ensued when it was annulled by the government of General Ibrahim Babangida. The Yoruba chose to fight to the standstill. Sijuwade, against the wave of south-west sentiments, led some Yoruba monarchs to a meeting with Babangida and came out saying “Babangida is talking sense”.

Many would say he was playing the role of a father, a royal one at that, to defuse the tension in the land following the controversial annulment, but the heat of the moment meant he was classified as Public Enemy in Yorubaland and was effectively ostracised. Undaunted, he went ahead to encourage participation in the transition programme of General Sani Abacha, who had taken over government and slammed Abiola into detention for “treason” for proclaiming himself president on the basis of the June 12, 1993 election.

At the time, the south-west was patently against Abacha and wanted all of Yorubaland to treat him as a leper. Abacha sought to set up a constitutional conference to write a new constitution to start a new political process altogether, but mainstream Yoruba leaders declared a boycott. Sijuwade intervened yet again, encouraging his people to go out and vote delegates into the conference. His famous statement, “Ejade ke lo try best yin” (“go out and try your best”) — a feeble way of saying “go and vote” without using those exact words — drew him more enemies than friends.

More so, there were other controversies. His “Obafunminiyi of the Source” chieftaincy title conferred on Peter Odili, then governor of Rivers state, in 2005, was derided as mercantile, like most of the chieftaincy titles dished out in Nigeria. His constant tiff with the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, over the supreme Yoruba ruler was never resolved. Indeed, there was an Oyo empire presided over by the Alaafin, and Ile-Ife, the cradle of the Yoruba, never had a political empire, but the Ooni was nonetheless the spiritual head of the empire. All efforts to resolve the face-off failed, but Babangida created Osun state in 1991 and separated the two, with the Alaafin presiding over Oyo state obas and Ooni over Osun state obas.

Sijuwade, as the spiritual leader of the Yoruba, was supposed to be a custodian of Yoruba traditional religion. But modern monarchy is not as traditional as it used to be, and the Ooni would later openly declare himself a Christian and a member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Those who complained only murmured. Most Yoruba obas these days are Muslims or Christians. He had not done anything extraordinary, although the traditional institutions would have preferred he kept to the religion of his ancestors. His interests in business and politics were well advertised, so was his battle with the Alaafin of Oyo over who is the supreme king in Yorubaland.

He was a monarch who attracted likes and dislikes in equal measure.