The historical Yoruba nation

by | February 14, 2018 8:53 am

Reverend Samuel Johnson completed the writing of his pioneering book on Yoruba history in 1897, even though due to some vicissitudes regarding the original manuscripts, he did not live to see the work in print having passed into eternal glory in 1901, while the book was eventually published twenty years after his death in 1921! The book’s editor who eventually saw to its publication, Dr. O. Johnson records that Samuel Johnson spent over twenty years writing the book, so we can presume he begun the effort somewhere around 1877. I give this as background before I refer to the first three words of the text of Reverend Johnson’s book, “The Yoruba country…”!

Around 1877 when Reverend Johnson might have written those words, Nigeria did not exist, and only acquired a political existence in 1914, more than three decades later! Reverend Johnson started this seminal work by describing the country of which he wrote-“The Yoruba country lies to the immediate West of the River Niger (below the confluence) and South of the Quorra (i.e. the Western branch of the same River above the confluence), having Dahomey on the West, and the Bight of Benin to the South. It is roughly speaking between latitude 6…”. The area Johnson wrote about by-and-large became the Western region of Nigeria even though parts of it were in-planted in the areas referred to as Kwara, Kogi and Edo/Delta States in contemporary Nigeria and some in neighbouring countries to Nigeria’s West.

Throughout the book Samuel Johnson refers to the “country”…on the very first page, there are eight other references to the Yoruba as a country-it is useful to state these references for the benefit of the unknowing, and the willfully ignorant-“…the country was probably first known to Europe from the North, through the explorers of Northern and Central Africa…the country and its capital…Yoruba and for Oyo…the entire South of the country is a network of lagoons connecting the deltas of the great River Niger with that of the Volta…the country is for the most part a tableland…This part of the country of which Lagos in the Bight of Benin is the seaport, is generally known as the Yoruba country, extending from the Bight to within two or three days journey to the banks of the Niger…This country comprises many tribes governed by their own chiefs and having their own laws. At one time they were all tributaries to one Sovereign, the King of Yoruba, including Benin on the East, and Dahomey on the West…”

As history makes clear, the Yoruba were a “country” or in today’s language, a “nationality” or “nation” with a shared heritage; occupying a defined geographical location as we have just seen; with a common language, culture, ancestry and history-we all are descendants of Oduduwa, with a common value system as Omoluabi and a historical religion encompassed in the Ifa traditional religious system. Today we are Christians, Muslims, adherents of Yoruba indigenous worship etc. but whichever our faith, our culture and value systems are common and valued. We have also had a shared political heritage-owing loyalty to our source: Ile-Ife; respectful of the great Oyo Empire and the majesty and power of the Alaafin; and in modern Nigeria as supporters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group (AG) or Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN); as Afenifere whether manifested in AG, UPN, Committee of Friends, EgbeIlosiwaju, Peoples Solidarity Party (PSP), Social Democratic Party (SDP) or Alliance for Democracy (AD)-by and large the vast majority of Yoruba people claimed a political allegiance to the same mainstream political philosophy and organisation.

Yoruba towns in history and even in contemporary times had a unique and sophisticated political system with our Oyomesi, Ogboni/Osugbo and other constitutional structures that institutionalized separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, judicial and arbitral systems, the rule of law, processes for impeachment of unpopular Kings and other systems which modern European and American nations arrived at many years later. Anyone who denies the reality of historical Yoruba nationhood is either uninformed, misinformed, mis-educated, willfully ignorant or deliberately mischievous! Yes, the Yoruba nation experienced civil wars, but so did European nations, the United States, China, Korea and other great nations of the world. Indeed the reason, our wars were “civil” was because we were one “country”!

Reverend Johnson is not the only historian who painted a vivid picture of our shared Yoruba history and ancestry. Professor Senator Adebanji Akintoye in his more recent “A History of the Yoruba People” wrote in the preface, “With a population variously estimated at between thirty and forty million (in 2010) the Yorubas are perhaps the largest single ethnic group, or nationality, in Black Africa. Moreover, their history is one of the most researched and analyzed of any people in Africa. …the Yoruba were the most urbanized people in the history of the tropical African forestlands, having largely lived in walled cities and towns since as early as the eleventh or twelfth century. In those towns and cities, they evolved a sophisticated monarchical system of government, whose governing elites established detailed institutions and processes for preserving society’s history and passing it on…since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Yoruba have invested more in education than any other African people and, by the end of the twentieth century, were widely regarded as the most literate people in Africa…”

Professor Akintoye reminds us that Yoruba reside beyond Nigeria, “…The Yoruba people and country are split by two international boundaries, and while the largest portion is to be found in Nigeria, some substantial parts are to be found in Benin and Togo…people of Yoruba descent, and the heritage of Yoruba civilization, constitute a very significant component of African-American cultures in most parts of the Americas…” As an aside, one of the aspects of Professor Akintoye’s book, which I am most happy about is his prominent acknowledgment of those he calls the “pathfinders”-Samuel Johnson whom I have referred to, Saburi O Biobaku, Jacob F Ade Ajayi and Isaac Adeagbo Akinjogbin, all eminent and indeed pathfinding Yoruba historians who in the case of the latter three attained the rank of Professors Emeritus!

A third major Yoruba historian, Professor E. A Ayandele who wrote “The Ijebu of Yorubaland: 1850-1950 Politics, Economy and Society”-I am a proud Ijebu from Sagamu, Remo, Ogun State of Nigeria, in an article titled “Yorubaland up to 1800” jointly written with Professor I. A Akinjogbin and contained in “Groundwork of Nigerian History” edited by Professor Obaro Ikime under the auspices of Historical Society of Nigeria, describe the Yoruba, consistent with all we’ve previously read as “one of the largest homogenous groups among Africans. Those of them living in Nigeria are currently numbered around fifteen million. (in 1980) When those in Dahomey and Togo are added, they are many more. They inhabit a continuous territory and speak the same language. They are a town dwelling people who…built kingdoms and empires long before they came into contact with any Europeans. Their level of political sophistication and technological advancement is high.”


*This article is the first in a three-part series on the Yoruba nation and the Quest to re-establish federalism in Nigeria.


Opeyemi Agbaje