Heart Of Arts

On The Origin of Ondo: The Ancestral Voice of His Imperial Majesty, Oba Dr. Victor Kiladejo

Toyin Falola

Although questions around Yoruba ancestry usually come up in historical discourses, they have always been raised with various intentions, one of which is to affirm or refute the assumption that Yoruba genuinely have a common beginning. For the records, Yoruba people are domiciled in the Western region of Nigeria. They are, however, spread across different countries as their civilization expanded in values and descents. The history that Ile-Ife is the source of most of the created dynasties, of which Ondo is one, has permanently been coloured by sentiment, revisionist agenda, and political insinuations.

During the recent Toyin Falola Interviews, His Imperial Majesty, Oba Dr. Victor Adesimbo Kiladejo, the ruling king of the Ondo kingdom, honoured us with his presence as the special guest on the program.  As the interview session commenced, Professor Tayo Oloruntoba-Oju asked His Royal Highness about the place of the Ondo dynasty in the history of Ile-Ife, that is if the Ondo people regard Ile-Ife as their ancestral source. The question’s intent was not to fact-find their origin but to know the fundamental truth that lies in the webs of connection that join the people together. Interestingly, the king responded that Ile-Ife, then headed by Oduduwa, the historical Ile-Ife king who introduced a modernized political system to the civilization, was the only proper foundation of the Ondo people. And there is more.

Legends fascinate. Let us follow the narratives by the eminent king. All through the period in question, several practices were culturally accepted but socially questionable, one of which was the people’s adverse reaction to the birth of twins. In other words, raising twins was considered abominable and could, in some cases, attract sanctioning. But nature has a way of triggering evolutionary processes in human engagement, and one way it did so in the Ondo kingdom was when Oduduwa’s wife gave birth to twins. This generated many controversies because the king was certain that the innocent children would likely be killed. To avert such imminent predicament, Oduduwa, the king, having pronounced his disappointment and shock on seeing that his wife delivered a set of twins, prepared the extradition of his wife and her twins to protect them. However, saying “e se omo re,” loosely translated as “these are abominable children,” will become another threshold of history on which the future Ondo kingdom would build. In the “Osemawe” title identified with the Ondo people today, we would see the linguistic contraction of the historical statement credited to the Yoruba progenitor, Oduduwa, which he pronounced out of a disturbed mind.

Since there were no particular means of identification at the time, the expedition of the king’s wife’s extradition was laden with something historical that would serve as the means of identifying them potentially in the future. Oduduwa gave his wife and children a beaded crown to symbolize their royalty and keen connection with royal ancestry. In addition to this, he gave each of the children a pair of facial marks on both cheeks to have a visible sign of their royal connection in the future. The legacy continues until modern times among the Ondo people as they have developed a culture out of the historical experience.

The fact that the king wielded extraordinary power and was recognized dutifully by the people helped enhance a hitch-free migration process for the outlaws. Oduduwa used his same power to influence a smooth journey for his wife and the twins so that they would not fall prey to the dangerous and predatory environment. To ensure this, Oduduwa appointed six slaves to follow them on the journey, with some indigenous diviners and medical professionals responsible for their medical wellness in the process. Aside from the slaves and adornments given to these potential sojourners, chiefs were also assigned to them on the journey.

This foregrounds the place of the Ondo dynasty in the history of Ile-Ife as we would find out that the expedition of the extradition was not mainly meant to send the outlaws away from their ancestry but to establish an outpost that would potentially serve as the branch of the Ile-Ife progeny. The reason for this conclusion is that given the various chiefs, slaves, and entourage accorded to the outlaws, one cannot but see through Oduduwa’s intention to establish a new beginning that would be his own too. However, at least geographically, expansion demanded some levels of experience to make the process a memorable one. From the Arabs to the Europeans who sought the expansion of their political coast about five centuries ago, different experiences dotted the process of their expedition, which was the same thing that happened when Oduduwa’s family was deported from Ile-Ife.

In the course of their migration, they settled in a place called Ijama, spent a couple of years there, and eventually continued on their journey because the place was unsafe for them. They settled next in Epe, where they also spent several years before moving on when they realized that something was amiss. Afterwards, they consulted Ifa about where they could settle, and the Ifa diviner gave them a mystical yamstchik, which became the symbol of authority that would decide where their final destination would be. Culturally called “Edo,” the yamstchik was mystical and magical. The instruction was that they would settle down where the yamstchik refused to pierce the surface of the earth. When they got to the present Ondo Kingdom, the Edo did not penetrate the earth’s surface, and this generated the saying Edo du do. This expression became the derivative of “Ode Ondo,” which now exists as a geographical identity in contemporary times.

Kabiyesi continues the narration: However, the beauty of migration lies in the fact that almost everywhere there is a settlement, it has been occupied by people who could lay claim to the ownership of that environment. The entourage of the extradition team and outlaws realized that some people were already in that sociopolitical space doing their businesses differently and organizing their political activities as it pleased them. Essentially, because the act of becoming the legal occupants of a settlement was validated by military strength and competence, the migrants brought the early arrivals under their control and became dominant in the kingdom. From the set of twins, the female one was made the first monarch of the Ondo dynasty. But because she was distracted from political engagements, she was replaced by her son.

Again, this is where the beauty of Yoruba cultural identity is spotted. Contrary to what was suggested, the woman who was abdicated from the throne was not treated with disdain. She became the economic minister of the state by taking the position of L’Obun (“the market lord”), and she controlled the affairs of the economy. Beyond this, she was traditionally assigned the role of kingmaker in the Ondo kingdom. It became a tradition that no king would ascend the king’s throne in Ondo without being subjected to the process of power transfer by the L’Obun of the community because that would revalidate the ceding of the political seat of power to the king. Systematically, it has been crowned by the system that the power structure should be gender-inclusive, which reiterates the conclusion that the Yoruba power economy is not exclusively synonymous with patriarchy. Distribution of power, which was the epistemic foundation of the Ile-Ife politics, extends to the environs where their political tentacles spread. For that reason, the sustenance of a good social structure and political system has been the corresponding result of such a foundation.

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If there is any controversy about the intricate connection between Ile-Ife and the Ondo kingdom, the Kabiyesi carefully unknotted the issue during the Toyin Falola Interviews. The debate about the oneness of identity among the Ondo concerning their ancestral source was particularly strengthened by the symbolic representation of power transfer from the L’Obun to the ascendant of the throne. Although the L’Obun handed over the political power to the king, she did not lose her political honour. The retention of her power is symbolized by the linguistic expression that is an ascription of her political relevance to the throne, which identified the king as “Abaiye” (“father and mother”) when addressing the king. This means that despite the transfer of power to him, he now represented a dual identity of the two sexes—the male and the female.

In political and social engagements, the philosophical importance of women cannot be undermined. That the king took power from the palace did not override the symbolic importance of the woman who lived on the outskirts of the palace. The roles foregrounded the woman’s importance in the administration of political authority to the king and in determining the economic system of the Ondo people. Meanwhile, the administrative system of a people would not experience any consistent boost without the good conditions of their economy, which invariably means that despite the importance of the king’s position, that of the L’Obun was no less holy.

Beyond Ile-Ife’s role in creating the present Ondo, the Ondo kingdom is embedded in yet a narrative that arose from the debates about the close similarities between the Ondo political and administrative systems and Benin’s. The controversy has always been that Ondo is a prototypical replica of Benin, mainly because there are similarities in their systems of political administration. This line of historical rendition supports the claim that Oduduwa was originally from Benin and was on an expedition to Ile-Ife before his perceived valour was courted and engaged. Such historical background finds solidarity in the assumption that Benin’s rise to political stardom and military strength would not have evolved from Ile-Ife, which, in recent history, is comparatively weaker in matters of expansion and proxy government.

But history is history, not because it could, in itself, resist attempts at revisionist historians but because even when it is manipulated, it has a body of archaeological evidence that would rescue it. The narrative is developed by individuals who perhaps intend to achieve some intentions. Without a corresponding and solid counter-evidence, it would be challenging to disclaim the assumption of this line of history that has almost become the contemporary song among many indigenous people of Benin. The mighty Osemawe of the Ondo kingdom would shed light on this.

The Osemawe opened his large box of data: When Prince Airo came of age, he considered the acquisition of political knowledge very important and unavoidably necessary. Allegations around his mother’s political weakness continuously gave him ruptured thoughts. He needed to coordinate the Ondo affairs so that their sovereignty would not be brought under premeditated woes. He needed to step up to the shoes by providing state-of-the-art leadership characteristics. Meanwhile, he had limited options. First, going back to Ile-Ife was diplomatically inadvisable, perhaps because of the underlying feud around their migration. Second, the fact that he and Oduduwa had spent years apart severed their ties and would always restrain them from properly bonding together, even though their paternalistic bond was acknowledged. In essence, the seeming available option and a more diplomatic one was to go to Benin to study their politics and administrative systems. Therefore, it was decided that Prince Airo should consider expanding his knowledge of politics in Benin. This became another foundation of a different narrative that would undeservedly undermine the Ile-Ife ancestral sources of Ondo, which was substituted by a revisionist one that favoured Benin.

Although the king, Kabiyesi Airo, visited diverse places and communities to get additional information about the palace administration, the historical significance of Benin was underscored by the outstanding leadership quality of the culture that he returned with. He adopted several systematic methods and brought with him a particular chief of noble birth with whom he shared mutual affection and communal objectives. So, when we notice that there are intercultural similarities between the Ondo and Benin people, it was not born out of the history that Oduduwa came from Benin, as the revisionist history has struggled to establish but because there were exchanges of ideas and philosophies that happened as a result of King Airo’s expedition to learn administrative systems. The diasporization of knowledge and the migration of politics happens so significantly that the appropriated similarities would be mistaken for a direct descendant of the other, whereas that would be an insincere representation of what actually happened. Besides this, the cultural osmosis between them could be ascribed to proximity, as people take ideas from those who are geographically close to them.

As a result of the mutual understanding and tranquillity between them, one of Benin’s high chiefs, Ojomu, followed King Airo to Ondo as a sign of solid camaraderie and respect. To traditionally mark this historical experience, a hereditary chieftaincy title was conferred on the people from that lineage. It is one of the very few political positions that are not contested, as every “Jomu” from that historical period is said to be genetically traceable to the primordial one. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the transmission of revisionist history by individuals with self-serving agendas. The fact that this happened should not be conflated with the arrangement that Ondo people are descents of Benin. That would be too simplistic and misleading for the unassuming people. Irrespective of the controversial issues raised by the belligerent revisionists, the reality remains untainted that the people of Ondo are a direct descendant of the Oduduwa dynasty from Ile-Ife. Although attempts will be made to reposition a historical experience, facts, however, would always counteract the falsified narrative to bring out genuine information and experiences in the course of human evolution. Dr. Kiladejo is clear on this.

Meanwhile, linguistic and philosophical proximity found among many Yoruba people or subgroups would always generate nuanced presuppositions and generalizations that would demand logical unpacking. Although the response of the Osemawe of the Ondo kingdom emphasized the fact that the female of the twin extradited from Ile-Ife was the surviving one who birthed the said kingdom, some other historical accounts say that the male twin was the one who formed a settlement in Ago Iwoye, where the title of the king is “Ebumawe.” For whatever reason, there could be some unnoticed relationship between the two kingdoms that would require the intelligence and historical knowledge of the concerned parties to shed more light on this. In the occasion that this is accurate historical data, that would decisively mean that there is a deep connection between the Ondo and Ijebu. The Osemawe is diplomatic when attending to questions like this because it can steer inter-group rivalries and create avoidable hostilities. The Osemawe of Ondo ceded the responsibility of establishing this connection to the indigenous people of Ebumawe, who were tasked with tracing their origin.

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Ondo has a long history that spans oral traditions and written records. The fact that oral traditions predominantly offer the aspect of migration usually eclipses the literature of governance structures and systems that the Yoruba state has recorded over the last 500 years. To get to the root of this history-provoking question, one needs to understand that although the recordable history of the people falls around the past five centuries as indicated already, Ondo has, in these periods, witnessed two centuries of slave raids and trade, half a century of colonialism, several decades of military interventions in postcolonial time, series of democratic culture too, dotted with different unforgettable experiences.

His Royal Highness, Oba Adesimbo Kiladejo, reiterated that irrespective of these transformations and experiences, the Ondo kingdom has been sustained and united by the form of governance structures that have been in place for a long time. The structure is such that the Osemawe occupied the apex of the administrative stool of power, where he maintained an autonomous power to decide on political affairs. The institution of governance which was right under this structure has maintained unalloyed peace and stability courtesy of the said king. There is a saying that the people of the Ondo kingdom would never be victims of war expeditions. The foundation of this saying is to understand that the people of Ondo had a supreme military organization and well-organized political structures, which helped them secure peace, tranquility, and progress even when others are experiencing massive hostilities.

However, it should be emphasized that despite the Osemawe’s supremacy, he maintains that the council of chiefs are active in deciding the fate of the state and are actively involved in the political system of the people. The council of chiefs of the Ondo kingdom, including the king as the head, comprises the Odunwo, Lisa, Sasere, Adaja, Odofin, and the Ijomu, in no hierarchical order. All these chiefs have helped to sustain the system and activities of the people and made impressive contributions to the advancement of the Ondo kingdom from the start till the present moment.

(This is the first report on the interview with His Imperial Majesty, Kabiyesi Alayeluwa of the Ondo Kingdom, Dr. Victor Adesimbo Kiladejo, on July 25, 2021. With the number of views over 100,000 on eight platforms, there is a clear demonstration of city loyalty.)