Ilorin Emirate and the Ghost of a Fallen Empire

  • AUTHOR: Tunji Suleiman

Fulani-inspired but predominantly Yoruba-populated, Ilorin Emirate, a multiethnic Muslim city-state encompassing the Kwara State capital and environs in Nigeria’s geographical West Central had officially comprised Ilorin, Asa and Moro Local Government Areas.

Between the IBB and Abacha military misadventures of 1985-1998, Ilorin LGA would be split into West, East and South for the current five LGAs of the Emirate.

At the core of what became Emirate was Oko Erin or Elephant Range, historically Oyo hunting ground for big game. It turned settlement (Circa 1700) around the olo irin, iron grinder – the “well-positioned rock” that benefited the city’s name – and later Oyo garrison town.

The last pre-Emirate de facto ruler, Afonja, great-grandson of Laderin (the first Oyo Baálè, governor, of Ilorin), and Oyo prince through his mother, succeeded his father, Alagbin, and grandfather, Fasin, to the stool during the reign of Abiodun. He became Àre Ònà Kakanfò, Generalissimo, under Aole, Alaafin Oyo.

If some elements of the freeborn Yoruba, who joined Afonja’s fight to liberate Ilorin from Oyo did not hesitate later to rank èsìn(Islamic religion) over alájobí (family or ethnicity), in turning against Afonja; those of Moro in particular, and of Asa, were more unwilling draftees into the Emirate enterprise.

This was sequel to Usman Danfodio’s Jihad of 1804 in Sokoto, the Islamic militancy that attended which had started to be felt in the Oyo homeland, leading to persecution of Muslims who had long been present and enjoyed religious freedom and the peace and prosperity of the Oyo country.

Alongside Baruba, Fulani, Hausa, Kanuri, Tapa and other tribesmen that had been enslaved in Oyo (whom Afonja offered freedom and Ilorin’s protection in 1817, in the most momentous action in Yoruba history (3), preceding Abraham Lincoln’s similar Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to Black slaves in the South during the American Civil War by 45 years); and joined by other Islamists from as far west and north of Africa as Mali and the Sudan; they would constitute the jàmáà (Muslim congregation) army – which later rebelled and slayed Afonja in 1824 to pave way for the Emirate.

A healthy mix of Yoruba tolerance and temperance, intermarriages, African statecraft in multiethnic pacification and perpetual wáàsì, Islamic sermonizing, mainstreamed submission to Allah, subservience to olórí or ruler, and ìyáyookàn or contentment. It encouraged multiculturalism and fellowship, blurred ethnic lines, obliterated paganism and streamlined thought and behavior. Constant exhortations to amity, especially through indigenous wákà or folk songs, like the popular “Ìlú Ilorin kìí sè’lu fìtínà fa” (Ilorin is no city for strife) instilled calm and engendered peaceful cohabitation.

The people prided themselves on their Islam and delighted in their ethnic diversity. “There is doubt if any other city in Africa south of the Sahara claims more Islam, more traditional Africa and more African folk traditions, than Ilorin”

For longstanding containment and management of otherwise would-be tensions in similar cosmopolitan melting points that are often hotbeds for ethnoreligious conflict and violence, Ilorin, and ultimately, Kwara, that it serves as capital, takes the cake of peaceful coexistence; and so the epithet, ‘State of Harmony’, was adopted/granted when subnational mottos became trend.

But there is a ghost that refused to go away, despite best efforts of generations of the Emirate’s rulers, multiethnic aristocracy and theocratic enablers. Bottled resentment and gloomy nostalgia for defunct glory and lost empire and territory, and remnants of traditions spur desire in formerly privileged locals and external meddlers for a reversal of fortunes or accommodation within the status quo.

Despite 200 years of what Jimoh dubbed the Ilorin journey and the resultant fusion of disparate ethnicities into the contemporary Ilorin identity – catalyzed in a substrate of Islamic fervor – which kept social dynamics on an even keel, there was always suppressed discontent over what some commentators have called tyranny of the majority. It simmered beneath the surface, was reinforced by taunts from Yoruba at large and sometimes threatened to erupt, but never heated enough to boil over.

Within Ilorin, the ferment is discernible only to keen eyes. But not in the environs, particularly Moro and Asa, where some towns and villages unabashedly retained many characteristics of Oyo communities, Emirate nomenclature regardless.

In this emotive milieu of repressed yearnings of ethnicists and traditionalists in and out of the Emirate may be situated the recent bid of an Osun devotee, one Yeye Ajesikemi Omolara Olokun, to celebrate ìsèse, a Yoruba festival of Ajé spirituality in Ilorin.

The local úlàmáhù, Islamic clerics, reacted swiftly. A Muslim group, Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society, stormed the traditional priestess’s residence to caution her against embarking on the festival. “We are here on behalf of the Emir of Ilorin to ask that you desist from any ìsèse”, an imam in the delegation was quoted by the Punch newspaper as saying.

Not surprisingly, Yeye Olokun bemoaned the development. “I have been living in Ilorin for many years and experienced nothing but peace until recently” she said; adding “One of my people shared the invite online which caught the attention of the Imams. In a matter of hours, I was tagged on numerous posts and also began to receive death threats. I also heard that meetings were being held to ensure that the Aje festival does not hold in Ilorin.”

The Kwara State Police Command denied briefing on the ban by the Islamic sect but reiterated readiness to forestall face-off between Muslims and traditionalists in the state.

The clerics neither lied nor acted alone. They just didn’t tell the full story, of how Yoruba tradition became “alien culture” in Ilorin. It would be recalled that the Emir had, in his Sallah message shortly after the 2023 Eid-El-Kabir prayer, warned residents of Ilorin Emirate to desist from any act “alien to the culture of the people”.

The message to the Yeye and other traditionalists is clear and instructive: “Ilorin does not permit idol worshipping, we are ardent Muslims”, and “traditional religious worshippers could celebrate in private but never publicly in the Emirate as the only deity that could be publicly celebrated is the one Muslims in the state serve”, the imams had cautioned.

But if only the Muslims’ deity could be publicly celebrated, why are Christians tolerated? How is it that Christians are allowed to freely worship in parts of Ilorin metropolis, outside the old city centre, but not traditionalists in four of five LGAs of the Emirate? And how has the status quo evolved and been sustained?

It is not far fetched. The disposition of the úlàmáhù to Christians reflects the wily talent of one who knows when to fight and to retreat. The missionaries who established Ilorin’s first churches arrived on the heels of the British. Christian credentials for tolerance were therefore established and secured in British colonial protection. Christians are adherents of Abrahamic faith, just like Muslims. They tended to be pacifist, and respected boundaries set by the Emirate. In addition, knowledgeable Muslims see Christians as lost but pitiable and redeemable kin, who will be set straight when Jesus Christ, that both share, returns to validate Muslims.
To be continued tomorrow

Culled from The Guardian

AUTHOR: Tunji Suleiman

IMAGE: Kwara Connect

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