ANANGO! Life And Culture Of The Yoruba In Diaspora

March 3, 1999

Lagos - They are separated by a political boundary. The Yorubas of Benin Republic insist that they share more than historical antecedents with their cousins in Nigeria. SEIDI MULERO who was recently in Porto Novo and Cotonou discovered a people in cultural longing for their roots.

Haaa. . . o fe mo iye omo ti oba bi? Haaa ! (Ha!. . . you want to know how many children the King has! Don't you know it is a taboo to want to know it!) said the traditional ruler in Anango, a variance of the Yoruba language.

The ruler is the Alaketu of Ketou in Benin Republic. He was responding to TEMPOLife's question on 20 February 1999.

The reporter had wanted to know how many children the traditional ruler had. His response, of course, reflected the belief in Yorubaland of Nigeria that Won kii ka omo f'olomo (it is a taboo to count how many children a person has).

In other words, the children are supposed to be uncountable. In fact, all the subjects in the Kingdom are supposed to be the King's children.

It was the same response from the Onidigny of Idigny, another Yoruba settlement in Benin as well as from the Onisakete of Sakete. With each Yorubaman expected to have an unlimited number of children, no wonder Yorubaland had, over the centuries, been able to extend to a vast area of West Africa, holding tenaciously to the inherited culture.

And when the European powers met in Berlin from 1884 to 1885 to partition Africa, Yorubaland was partitioned into three. One in Nigeria, the second in Benin and the third in Togo.

Although the Yoruba, today, are estimated at about 30 million in Nigeria, they are, according to the last population census, just about one million (15 per cent of the population) in Benin. The French encyclopaedic Dictionary Larousse (1988), put the figure for Togo also at one million, a figure which people say, is rather exaggerated.

Benin Republic is now made up of 12 provinces. Porto-Novo is the political capital of the country and it is there you have the parliament, even though, for reason of convenience and political calculations, the various heads of state have, since independence, preferred to stay in Cotonou.

Porto-Novo is called "Ajase" (or Ajache) by the Yoruba. The Gouns call it Hogbonu (or Hogbonou).

The town, right from inception, has two tribes. The Goun and the Yoruba.

In Benin, only the descendants of Oduduwa of Porto-Novo and of Ajara (a small settlement north of Port-Novo) call themselves "Yoruba." The other descendants of Oduduwa call themselves either Ohori or Anango. The Anango are found in two provinces, those of the newly-created Plateau and "Collines" (i.e. Hills). The Plateau province is antiguous with the Yewa local government areas of Ogun State where the Anago are found.

That of the 'Collins' shares bordes with Oyo State of Nigeria In the Plateau province, the Anangos are to be found in such districts as Adja-were, Ifonyin, Ipobe, Sakete etc. Those of the "Collines" province live in the districts of Dassa and Save.

Alaketu of Ketou who is considered the highest traditional authority for the Oduduwa descent in Benin, said all the Yoruba of Benin came from Ife but at different periods in history. For instance, he said, it was a grandson of Oduduwa who founded the town Ketou many centuries ago.

The "Oba" who is now the 49th ruler said a son of Oduduwa called "Sopasan" (pronounced as Shopashan) left Ife in search of a promised land. He settled in six different places but each time he consulted the oracle, he was told he had not got to his destination.

He eventually died before reaching the promised land which is now Ketou. It was a son of Sopasan called Ede who finally got to Ketou and founded it.

Another son of Oduduwa settled in Save in the Collines province while a third one went to Popo, a coastal settlement now inhabited by Gouns. The Alaketu, Oba Pascal Adeoti Adetutu said there is absolutely no difference between the culture of the Yoruba of Benin and that of their counterparts living in Nigeria.

The festivals, the religion, the rulership are the same. The Onisakete of Sakete, Oba Raufu Agbenu-Eje-Joye (Adebotemole) explained that such practices as worshiping idols like Ogun, Oro, Obatala, Sango etc are present in the cultures of Sakete and other Yoruba/Anango places in Benin.

In fact, the interview with TEMPOLife was interrupted several times as people came in to say "Kabiyesi ooo" to the king. And the king himself had to rise from time to time to greet the female dancing groups which came in one after the other to pay homage to the ruler.

When each group end its session of singing, dancing and praises to the ruler, its member would go on their knees, shouting E-e-e-eru Alaafin ooo! (We pledge loyalty to the king, in the Anango dialect). Same was the case at Idigny (pronounced Onidiyin), another Yoruba settlement near the Nigerian border.

There, the traditional ruler, known as Onidigny said not only the cultures are the same, the people also are the same. His own mother, he said, was a Nigerian from Ilara, a border village between Benin and Nigeria.

So, the Onidigny had more reason to say that the border between Nigeria and Benin was a figment of the imagination of the colonialists of the past and of those in administrative positions in Nigeria and Benin today. The Onidigny is perhaps, the symbol of unity among the Yoruba of Benin and Nigeria.

And no Beninois Yoruba, it seems, has reached the peak of educational aspirations without sojourning to Nigeria. The Onidigny said he had his tertiary education in Lagos where he worked from 1975 to 1983 and to Ilara (his mother's village) where he settled before the Ifa oracle sent people after him to make him Oba in Idigny in 1994.

The traditional ruler says he is just trying to learn the ways of life in Benin, because he spent most of his life in Nigeria. Oba Raufu Agbenu-Eje-Joye too spent his childhood in Nigeria before going to learn a trade in Togo.

He too is more at home mixing Yoruba with English (as done in Lagos) than speaking French. The Alaketu did not live in Nigeria.

But almost on a daily basis, when he woke up in Porto-Novo where he was staying before being made Oba in 1963/64, he would travel to Lagos to trade, and go back home in the evening. Like the young Alaketu, people living in Porto-Novo, especially the Yoruba are traders.

They carry their products from Togo to Benin and Nigeria and vice- versa. In the country's ethnocentric division of labour, the Yoruba trade, the Anangos farm, the Baribas, Sombas and Dendis of northern Benin protect the nation by enlisting in the armed forces while the Adjatados (i.e. the Gouns and the Fons) work in the administration. The result of that division of labour has not been very favourable for the Oduduwa people.

Their land remains a land of poverty. For instance, in the course of these interviews with the Yoruba Obas of Benin, an Anango lady rendered a free service to this reporter and the latter gave her N40.

On seeing the money, a son of the lady uncontrollably shouted: Eniyan lo nnanwo bi omi bayi! (How can a human being be spending money like sea water this way!) The Anango land radiates poverty. The only industrial unit there is the Onigbolo Cement Factory which, incidentally, is jointly-owned by Benin and Nigeria.

But it had been so mismanaged in the past that it has closed down for about a year now. It was recently privatised and the new managers were expected to take it over by February ending.

According to the Alaketu, the apparent backwardness of the sons and daughters of Oduduwa in Benin is due to low level of education. He attributed the advance of the Gouns/Fons to the fact that when the European colonizers first came, the only kingdom which really opposed them was the Dahomey Kingdom of Abomey.

After the defeat of the Abomey army, many of the Fons/Gouns were made slaves and taken away by the Europeans. Eventually, those war prisoners became literate and became the pioneers of the colonial administration.

And while the Yoruba, Anango and Ohori were still feared the whiteman and all that he stood for, the other people were already far gone ahead. The Onidigny revealed that there are no Anango senior army officers in the Beninois Armed Forces today, because the Yoruba, traditionally, don't like the army.

"In a country which the military ruled for up to two decades, how can one progress when you don't have anybody among the rulers?" he wondered. Since Benin became independent as Dahomey on 1 August 1960, no descendants of Oduduwa has near the presidency.

Only in 1968, there was a Yoruba presidential candidate in the person of Alhaji Karim Da Silva, a Porto-Novien. That election was not conclusive as trouble erupted and the whole exercise was annulled under threats of war.

Another Porto-Novien Yoruba vied in 1991; for a longtime he was celebrating the fact that he got five per cent of total votes cast. Nevertheless, there are currently three prominent Yoruba ministers: Pierre Osho is in the ministry of defence.

He has been a trusted political associate of President Matthieu Kerekou since the military era. John Ige, is minister of the industries and Antoine Kolawole Idji is in the external affairs department.

In 1997, a prominent Anango businessman, Sefou Fagbohun (or Fagbohoun) set up his own party called "MADEP" (an acronym for African Movement For Democracy and Progress). According to him, the party is meant to defend the interests of the Anangos.

Though the party has been able to draw a large followership among the Anangos, many still refuse to join, claiming the man is only using the party for commercial purposes. In other words, they say, Mr. Fagbohun only wants to weaken Adrien Houngbedji to benefit Kerekou who is his business friend.

Among Fagbohun's critics is Prince Abeo Desodji, another Yoruba who now says he is poised to form his own party. Observers, however, say neither Fagbohoun nor Abeo Desodji can make any impact at the national level.

This position is apparently informed by the impression that the political terrain in Benin is too fragmented, with at least 111 political parties. Honourable Rigobert Oladiran Ladipo is a member of the outgoing National Assembly in Port-Novo.

In an interview with TEMPOLife, he says an Oduduwa son or daughter can win the presidency only under exceptional circumstances which currently appear not feasible. Among the obstacles he enumerated were the numerical strength of the Yoruba.

They constitute the second ethnic group in the South with 30 per cent of the population of the South and 15 per cent of the population of the whole country. "In a country where you have votes along ethnic lines, you can win only if your people form the majority," he said.

The second obstacle, he mentioned, was the observed trend in which the Yoruba do not vote en bloc. The parliamentarian, who read Sociology, explained this on the low level of political awareness.

Compounding this is an unusual physical barrier. The Okpara river, he explained, divides the Yorubaland into two and there is no bridge on the big river.

The result is that the Anango of the Collines province-Save and Dassa-cannot communicate with their brothers of the Olateju Plateau. And life does not allow for a vacuum: if you cannot communicate with your brother, you live with whoever is your next-door neighbour.

So, he said, that is why the Anangos of Save and Dassa vote along same line with the Fons of Abomey with whom they communicate easily. Also, the Anangos of the Olateju Plateau vote the same way as their Goun neighbours of Porto-Novo and environs.

So, while Soglo's RB gets the votes of the Yoruba of the Middle Belt of Benin, Houngbedji's PRD gets those of the Plateau. If the physical barrier is not broken through a bridge over the Okpara, there will never be a Yoruba vote, he posited.

Although Oduduwa descendants of Benin are away from the power house, they remain perpetual kingmakers. In other words, after the northern electorate has voted for the northern candidate and the Gouns and Fons have joined hands to vote for a son of theirs, the Yoruba votes become the ultimate decider.

Soglo won in 1991 because he was able to sway the Yoruba to his side. He lost in 1996 because he failed to.

Even, the Anango of the plateau find it easier interacting with their Yoruba brothers and sisters of Nigeria than with those of Save and Dassa. For instance, the Onidigny, like most of his subjects, has his friends in Nigeria.

Nothing happens in his domain which he does not tell the Obas of Iyewa in Ogun State (of Nigeria). The Onisakete and the Alaketu similarly relate with their cousins in Nigeria.

When the Alaketu celebrated the 35th anniversary of his coronation on 23 January, he invited all the Yoruba Obas of Benin and Nigeria. The Ooni of Ile-Ife could not attend.

According to the Alaketu, the Ooni, two weeks ago, sent him an apology. Fifteen years earlier, when the Alaketu celebrated the 20th anniversary of his coronation, the Ooni spent four days in Ketou.

Events in Nigeria, both at the social and political levels, affect the Beninois. The Onidigny says that when there is trouble in Nigeria, Nigerians cross the border and rush into his domain. That is why he currently enjoins those calling for an Oduduwa Republic to exercise patience.

Publication Date: March 11, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Tempo.