FEW LARGE AFRICAN cities have retained their tribal chiefs. They were generally sidelined after many of the continent’s nations declared independence in the early 1960s. Some chiefs were done away with for having been their colonial masters’ henchmen, others for opposing dictatorship. But Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s largest city, is an exception. The Yoruba, the main ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria, and the second-largest of the country’s more than 250 ethnic groups, still follow their traditional leader, the oba— an institution to be reckoned with. “The oba is to the Yoruba what Queen Elizabeth II is to the English,” says Olu Ekun, a tire vendor and self-proclaimed freethinker on the streets of Lagos Island, the throbbing heart of the city of 13.4 million.
Oba Adeyinka Oyekan II, who died in March, served as an icon of peace and unity in Lagos, a city that has been spared the bloody ethnic and religious clashes that have cost thousands of lives in the rest of the country since Olusegan Obasanjo was elected president in 1999. (Since independence from Britain in 1961, Nigeria has mostly been ruled by military leaders, with the worst years being those of Sani Abacha from 1993 to his death in 1998.) Still, no one was supposed to mourn when the 91-year-old “King of Kings” passed away after 38 years on the royal stool. Instead, drums proclaimed Oyekan had “joined his ancestors” and “passed on to eternal glory.” The Yoruba don’t lament the departure of traditional rulers—especially not cigar-puffing bon vivants who had eight wives and 23 children. (He was also an Edinburgh-trained pharmacist, a Protestant and a former Sunday-school teacher, although no one here seems to find these discrepancies shocking.) Oyekan is now buried with his predecessors on the modest palace grounds. Every 16 days, they are remembered with offerings of gin and palm oil, cola nuts and alligator peppers.
The crown is not passed automatically from parent to first-bom. Candidates to the top job need only be members of the same extended royal family. They submit an application to
the traditional prime minister of Lagos, the most revered of the “white cap chiefs,” the elders who choose the new oba. I visited the prime minister, T.I. Junaid Eko, at his home in the midst of the selection process. He was wearing an immaculate white robe embroidered with gold. When two lowerranking elders arrived, one bowed obsequiously; the other prostrated himself, face flat on the cement floor. They were searching for, Eko explained, “a dedicated man, a man of transparency, of good character, a man of the people who is well-known by the people.” Candidates’ names are also submitted to two oracle priests who consult Ifa, a “messenger of God” akin to an angel. Their main preoccupation is to determine if a king’s reign will be prosperous or calamitous. “White men use astrologers,” Eko noted. “We use Ifa.”
From the 15 candidates who applied, the elders eventually selected Rilwan Babatunde Aremu Osuolale Akiolu, 60, a former topranking police officer and a protege of Oyekan. After his predecessor’s final rites of passage were completed, Akiolu was crowned on Aug. 9 by the Lagos state governor, who must also ratify the appointment because the oba acts as a bridge between the government and the people. But the selection wasn’t without controversy, with some relatives of the late oba claiming the elders had bowed to political pressure from the governor.
Some critics have advocated the eradication of traditional chiefs, none as strongly as international music star Femi Kuti, who is Yoruba. When in Lagos, he performs at the Afrika Shrine, a concert hall founded by his father, the world-renowned Fela, an artist, activist and political prisoner who died of AIDS in 1997. On good nights, the place is packed with people drinking big bottles of Star beer through straws and smoking chubby joints. “The oba represents nothing,” said Kuti. “Obas have been insignificant since the 19th century, and before that they benefited from the slave trade.”
Kuti has a point. Obas sold captives from rival kingdoms, who were sent off to the
Americas. British cannons presented to the royal family are still standing guard at the entrance to the royal palace. The oldest was cast in 1804, three years before Britain abolished its slave trade.
Despite Kuti’s criticism, Oyekan, in fact, may have played an important and positive role during the worst years of the military dictatorship after Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1995. Military rulers courted traditional chiefs in an attempt to obtain a veneer of respectability. Strongman Abacha was no exception. In 1997, he accused his chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Oladipo Diya, of plotting to overthrow him, and invited the oba to watch a supposedly incriminating video. After viewing the tape, the monarch refused to publicly agree with the president. Tunde Odesola, a reporter from Punch newspaper, a Nigerian daily, contends that Oyekan’s refusal to blame the officer was in itself a criticism of the regime. “This was something that demanded courage and lion-heartedness,” he says, “because Abacha was a rolling stone crushing everything in its path.”
The old oba was also seen as a figure of religious harmony—if only because he had both Christian and Muslim wives. At the Enu-Owa Street mosque in central Lagos, Imam Ibrahim Olabisi Agoro was delighted to be asked about Oyekan. “People loved him too much,” he rhapsodized. The imam described the monarch as a man of peace and a friend who contributed to the purchase of the mosque’s generator, which was roaring in the background. “He considered the life of others like his own life,” he said.
Now it’s Akiolu’s turn to make his mark. One thing is certain—the kingdom he inherits is dysfunctional. On Lagos Island, harried pedestrians inch their way between two rows of stalls, less pathway than gauntlet. The heat seems worse here, perhaps because dead rats are rotting in the middle of the road. Sewage, at times emerald green, steeps in the open-air gutter. And everyone, it seems, is struggling to make ends meet. Police have set up checkpoints where they routinely extort money. Sitting at the back of a crammed minibus, I saw how one driver slowed down and handed over a banknote carefully rolled to look like a cigarette. It’s doubtful Akiolu will overcome widespread petty crime, but as the custodian of Yoruba tradition, the new oba will bring a touch of dignity to a city in dire need of it. lifl
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