One has to be intrigued by the long-standing feud between the Ooni of Ife and the Oba of Benin as to which city-state preceded which, and to whom did another contribute a royal genetics. At the center of this feud is the ego of ancient grandeur; it is the longstanding contention of cousins contending for legendary historical superiority. It was with an eye to resolving the mystery that I decided to undertake a literature review to try to decode the mysteries of the origin of the people of Ife and Benin.
Literature review (or in this case oral tradition review) is reputedly unreliable due to the never-ending manipulation of orally handed down traditions to suit the sentimental cravings of the “tellers”. However, a superimposition and side-by-side examination of two contending oral traditions may reveal some salient truths that can point to the background fact often omitted in the “single stories” from which they are individually derived.
The story of Ife goes as the spiritual origin of the Yoruba people. Odùduwà, phonetically written as Odùduwà, and sometimes contracted as Odudua, Oòdua, is generally held among the Yoruba to be the ancestor of the crowned Yoruba kings (he reigned as king of Ife in the 1100s). Odùduwà is generally said to be of Easterly origins (some in Oyo say Mecca, but historians generally assume Ekiti-Okun region at the confluence of the great rivers and the general area where language shift occurred between the Yorubas and their neighbors). The Ife oral traditions, on the other hand, tell that Odùduwà was the son of the supreme God, and was sent by him from heaven to create the earth.
It was established that when Odùduwà arrived ancient Ife, he and his group conquered the component communities and eventually evolved the palace structure with an effective centralized power and dynasty. Oral history tells us that Oduduwa had a son known as Okanbi. Okanbi had EIGHT children. SEVEN (Onipopo of Popo, Onisabe of Sabe, Alara of Ara, Ajero of Ijero, Orangun of Oke-Ila, Owa Obokun Ajibogun of Ijesaland and Oranmiyan) by his "legal" wife, and one (Ooni) by his slave turned wife, named ORUNTO. Ooni reportedly usurped Oranmiyan while he was away from Ife. Oranmiyan departed to found Oyo on his return.
Ooni reportedly inherited the magical powers of his father, and that accounts for the spiritual commitment of Yoruba kings to Ife, as opposed to political supremacy, which rose and ebbed with the affluence and influence of the individual kingdoms (Oyo Empire for the most part in the golden ages). Note that Alaketu of Ketu was one of the original seven kingdoms Yoruba land, but was founded by a daughter of Odùduwà. It is also true of Owu; founded by the son of Oodua’s daughter.
Special Note: An original, but now disputed, account by Samuel Johnson puts the Owa Obokun, Oragun of Oke-Ila and Alara of Ara as brothers of the same mother who was “kept under the care” of Akanbi (“Olofin”) and as such were foster children –ppg. 23-24, History of the Yorubas, Samuel Johnson). The same account puts the founders of Owu and Ketu as granddaughters of Oodua (through Okanbi) not direct daughters of Oodua. Some accounts also omit the Ajero of Ijero in favor of the Oba of Bini (“Ado”) , this is however disputable since some of these accounts also hold on to the legend of Oranyan (as brother of the Ado) and Eweka his son (as king of Bini i.e. Ado). Both stories cannot exist side by side in congruence.
This genealogy must be distinguished from the modern day Yoruba people, who lived in the lower western Niger area, at least by the 4th century BC, were not initially known as the Yoruba, oral historians confirm the existence of people in this region for several millennia. In fact, the name “Yoruba” is very much of recent; often attributed to the long-standing trade relationship between this common linguistic group and those to the North (Nupe, Hausa and Tivs). Indeed, maps of the 1200s clearly showed so called “Yoruba tribes” extending to present day Liberia, and Ife as a distinct empire, with Nri land (present day riverine Igbos) to the East of it.
The Odùduwà story is at the heart of contention between the Yoruba’s and the Binis. Indeed, the Benin regards Odùduwà as Prince Ekaladerhan, once a powerful young warrior and well loved but who was banished from his kingdom. On leaving Edo he travelled in a westerly direction to the land of the Yoruba, and assumed 'Izoduwa', (which in his native language Edo language means, "I have chosen the path of prosperity/(I have arrived (home)"). It was this Prince, who later sent a son Eweka I, of “pure Edo origin” to become the first Oba of Bini (marking the end of the previous Ogiso dynasty).
First, in examining these oral traditions few things are mutually agreeable:
- That Odùduwà was not native to Ile-Ife (in all stories, he migrated and met aboriginals and was made king due to unique leadership attributes)
- That Eweka was not born of Bini (in all stories he was repatriated to lead and derived such claim due to patrician links to the great leader- Odùduwà)
- That Odùduwà emerged somewhere from the East of Ile-Ife
- That there was discontinuity of governance between the Ogiso dynasty and Oba dynasty of Bini that indicated angst at the preceding dynasty followed by a decline
The differences in genealogical account are where the story gets complicated; was Eweka the son or great-grandson of Oodua? Evidence points to the later. Oduduwa emerged in Ife on or before 1100 CE as an adult; Eweka ruled Bini as a mere boy at about 1200 AD. Hundred years or more is too far in-between for father and son. Indeed, the grandsons of Oodua are documented in Yoruba oral tradition that predates the present day contention for genealogical supremacy between these peoples in modern Nigeria. Of course, the near stranger-king emergence in the dynamic monarchial settlements of 1100s is not by itself unusual. Kings in that era ruled on the strength of their warrior valor; and many kings were not of aboriginal descent. Hence, it made sense that Oduduwa was not of Ife origin. It makes sense that Eweka who began a new dynasty in Bini didn’t need to be from Bini to achieve that feat.
Today, many Yoruba towns are ruled by aboriginals whose claim to fame solely possessed a beaded crown from Ile-Ife and being regarded as the bearer of the spiritual strength inherent in Ife and its Odùduwà heritage Princes. Indeed, Ikere-Ekiti today has a dual monarch, Ogoga of Ikere is of Bini origin (as a reward for prowess in war and saving Ikere) and the Olukere of Ikere who is second in command but of local origin. In Egbeoba of Ikole, the Elekole family is acknowledged as migrants to the region, yet rules as paramount rulers as possessors of the Ife beaded crown. Indeed, even as an offshoot of the Bini monarchy, the predominantly Yoruboid origin Itsekiris around the fifteenth century adopted a prince (Ginuwa) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule.
At this juncture, one must also note that while it is true at least one oral tradition of Ife did reference an attempted return of Oranyan to “the east or Mecca” to avenge the expulsion of his great-grand father (i.e. father of Odùduwà). The complete iteration of that story reveals that he never succeeded in that mission to reach the “east” placed as north east of today’s Ife; having being stopped by the Tapas (i.e. Nupe) from crossing the “okun” i.e. River Niger and settled at Oyo Ajaka from where the Oyo empire was spurned (note: beyond contemporary Oyo town). This story rather proving the emergence of Odùduwà from Bini city (definitely never situated beyond the Niger), in fact places his origin beyond the northeastern territories and from the earlier Nok or Benue Valley civilizations.
It is on record that Oranyan was a warrior, and who variously fought and conquered territories beyond Ife during his time…varying stories in fact link this pattern to either his brief ascension to the Ife throne, and later abdication, usurpation or abandonment (depending on the story you believe). Oranyan (Oranmiyan) at his death the first Alaafin of Oyo, was buried in Ife.
Now a few posers to the unbelievers:
- Given Oranyan’s renowned war prowess, would it be out of place for Bini to seek to draw from his monarchial line?
- If indeed the Bini sought Izodua up to Ife and met Oranyan, will be out of place for this territory hungry king to adopt that identity and as such use his boy son to extend his genetic rule?
- Should the hundred year’s gap between Oodua and Eweka give any historian some pause, and/or the absence of Okanbi and Oranyan in Edo oral tradition?
The only rational extrapolation from the confluence of this story is that:
- The need for the Ife oral tradition to explain the away the non-local origin of its king (by assigning magical emergence) is clearly sentimental
- The need for Bini oral tradition to link an extinct Ogisu dynasty with a new Oba dynasty (and explain away Eweka’s foreign origin) is also clearly sentimental
- An interesting intuitive need for names of disputed characters to be linked linguistically to the language of the party laying claims seems to be predictable pattern. .e.g. Odùduwà (as ‘Izoduwa’), Eweka (as Owo mi ka i.e. “I can handle it” in Yoruba or “I have succeeded” in Edo), the title “Oba” of Bini as translation of “red clay” in Edo as opposed to an Ife-Yoruboid adaptation. Note that the Ife did not linguistically feel a need to explain Odùduwà; did neither Oranmiyan (nor his father Okanbi) figure out in the Edo adaptation of the oral tradition of Eweka the boy king.
- The linguistic and ethnological distinctness of Edo and Yoruba peoples is not disputable. Indeed, the association between these two peoples may have been limited to a shared royal dynasty springing from one man: Odùduwà
What appears to be recurrent is the near absolute might, and perhaps influences of this one man- Odùduwà, in the debate. Is it possible that a man that might have emerged to the North East of present day Yoruba land (beyond the Ekiti-Okun region) is a direct progenitor of royalties of aboriginal lands that stretch from modern day Togo to the western banks of River Niger? Without contention, it appears the ego-massaging contest between Ife and Bini is unnecessary, since it appears Odùduwà after all was neither Bini nor Ife.
However, he was definitely powerful, and awe inspiring enough for failing kingdoms around him to unite around his lineage to appoint leaders. The more interesting fact is the near autonomy of the kingdoms that Oodua descendants led; be it in modern day Dahomey, Yoruba land, Itsekiri or Benin from the center of Oodua’s power i.e. Ife. Who says leaders are not born? And yet, it is just a theory.