Prof. Wande Abimbola, a former Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo, Ile-Ife took KAYODE FALADE through his journey as an Ifa priest, academic, Majority Leader of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo
When and where were you born?
I was born in Oyo town but not exactly in the town. It was in a village called Aba Onisa. It is about seven miles and I was born on December 24, 1932.
How did you know that was the day you were born?
Initially I did not know the exact date. And that was for decades. It was when I was a student at the Baptist Boys High School, now Olivet High School, Oyo, that our class teacher asked for the date of birth of everyone in the class. Because I did not know mine I had to travel seven miles to our village to ask my parents. They said they did not remember the date. When I asked why, they explained that four other boys who did not survive beyond few months had been born before me, hence they did not bother to commit when I was born to memory or record it because they believed that I might also die soon as an abiku. The Yoruba refer to children who did young as abiku.
However, several years later when I had become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, I came home to see my mother and my elder sister. It was my sister who told me that I was born on a Saturday which was a Christmas Eve because on that day, some Christians in the next village were dancing. I thought that could be a clue to my date of birth. When I got back to the university, I asked the librarian to find a Saturday in the 1930s that fell on a Christmas Eve. He said there was one in 1932 and another one in 1938. I knew it could not have been 1938 because I started school in 1945. I could not have gone to school at the age of six at the time. You had to be at least eight years old. I came to the conclusion that I was born on December 24, 1932.
Which date of birth were you using before you knew your actual date of birth?
I just told him that I was born on June 26, 1936 when I could not get the date. I used that date until after I became the Vice Chancellor at OAU.
Which other schools did you attend after secondary school?
I was admitted to the University College, Ibadan, now the University of Ibadan, in 1959. I was a state scholar. At that time, the best students in each faculty enjoyed full scholarship. They would also pay stipend to your parents and three children. That was in the colonial times. I studied History. One of my classmates was Prof Oloruntimeyin. Before my final examinations, there was an advertisement for the employment of a junior research fellow in Yoruba Study at the university. Yoruba as a course was not available at the time. When Oloruntimeyin saw the advert, he advised me to go for it and I was selected. One of the criteria for the appointment was a Master’s degree certificate in either divinity, anthropology, English or Literature. I was not qualified in any way. A week before the interview, the director of the Institute of African Studies, the late Prof R.G Armstrong, dropped a note in my pigeon hole at Melamby Hall. He wanted to see me. When I got there, he said that he saw my application and asked why I applied when I did not even have a first degree.
After more than one hour of discussion, he was impressed with me and said he would short-list me. There were 11 people who had Master’s degree that were invited. I was called in first. When I discovered that the interviewers did not know anything about the subject, the session became a lecture and I lectured them. Four days later, I got a letter of appointment and a note for me to choose an accommodation among the houses available on the campus. That was how I became a junior research fellow in Yoruba Studies even before I wrote my final examination as an undergraduate.
I travelled to the US to do my Master’s degree in Linguistics. My plan was to return to Ibadan to start the Yoruba programme but on my return, I went to the University of Lagos. I met Dr Adeboye Babalola and another person there and we started a degree programme in Yoruba. I later did my doctorate degree on Ifa. There were just three of us that bagged the certificate in 1970 at UNILAG and it was the first time the school would offer doctorate degree. The three of us did different programmes.
What do African traditional religions mean?
The name African traditional religion comes from Christian mindset. What that means is that it is not really a religion but tradition. Why don’t they say Christian or Islamic traditional religion? I call it Indigenous African religion because every religion has its own tradition.
What is Ifa in real sense?
Ifa is one of the orisa (divinity) of Yoruba people. It started in Ile-Ife since the beginning of the Yoruba race. We know of Obatala, Ogun, Oya, Osun and so on. Ifa is one of them but it is different because it has more extensive literature than any other divinity. All the chants of Ogun can be rendered in two volumes; like the size of a Bible. But that of Ifa is versed. There are 256 odus (books) of Ifa. Each odu contains 800 stories. The first book is Ejiogbe and it has 800 stories. In all, we have a total of 204,800 stories. That will fill the size of a large library. There is no other literature in the world that has such volume. Ifa is the greatest heritage of Africa. It talks about everything. It is our own encyclopaedia which is held orally. It is a testimony to the fact that human brain can retain a lot of information without having to write anything. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been forgotten but a good deal of it is still alive.
What influence did your parents have over your choice of religion?
The influence of my parents looms large in my life. I was born into a traditional family. My late father was the Asipade of Oyo land. He was the leader of the Ogun community. He was a veteran of the First World War, fighting alongside the allied army that captured Cameroon from Germany. My grandfather was also a soldier that fought in the Ijaye War of 1858 to 1862. He was the leader of the Alaafin of Oyo army. He fought alongside Basorun Ogunmola and Balogun Ibikunle, who was Ogunmola’s superior.
My mother was a Sango worshipper and she taught me how to chant Ijala and Ogun songs. She could render the chants of 15 Orisas (deities). In those days, people were educated in traditional matters through interaction with parents. My mother could remember details of what happened 90 years ago.
Before I went to school, my father enlisted me as an apprentice with the famous Oluwo of Akiitan called Fadairo. I studied Ifa there for eight years before I went to school.
How did you relate with pupils who were either Christians or Muslims in school?
In the whole of Oyo town at the time, there were just five churches and the faithful were not fanatics. So we related well. The Muslims were even far lesser. Indigenous religion was widely practised. The free primary education that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo started in the 1950s propagated foreign religion in Yoruba land. Our minds were changed to look down on our own culture as evil and invalid. They called traditional worshippers candidates of hell. It was propaganda that killed our indigenous religions. They found a way to convert the children who also went back home to convince their parents.
How would you rate the socio-political situation now in the country?
I think progress is being made. We have a democracy even though it has not been working before for several factors. One of which is the fact that we have not been able to conduct a free and fair election. And you would remember that most of the European countries made the same point that they are happy that Nigeria is beginning to emerge as a democracy. That is one thing to note and it is very important. Democracy should be the voice of the people. Anybody that the people want should be the one that is directing their affairs. But as I said, there are many factors preventing us from having a true and democratic set up in the country. Perhaps the most important factor is illiteracy.
As a father and former Vice Chancellor who had nurtured many undergraduates to graduation and onward to the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme, do you still see it relevant to the country?
I believe that the NYSC has failed. And we should be man enough to admit it. If something is not working, let’s say it’s not working and then sit down and take another look at it. If a young man or woman is posted to any part of our country to serve there so that he can make friends and see the culture of another part of our own country and then he is killed because he comes from somewhere else; that is very bad. How would they want my own child to be posted to another part of the country where I think he is not secured or save to him or her?
Peace and tranquillity should be the hallmark of an ivory tower. These unfortunately have disappeared from the nation’s tertiary institutions, unlike in your days as Vice Chancellor.
Where did we get it wrong?
I think the greater part of the problem is that first; many people are holding positions, not only in the universities but all over the country, without knowing exactly what those positions are. Many people want to be in a position so that they can say oh, that is a Vice Chancellor, that is a minister, oh that is an adviser to the governor or President; that is all. They have not internalised this to see the full ramifications of the importance of the position which they are occupying. If they do, many of them are not going to take to 10 percent kick-back, they wouldn’t subscribe to bribery and corruption.
I was a Vice Chancellor for seven years and I enjoyed my term. Not only the students because they told me that they did but I enjoyed it more I believe. I went there fully prepared to do my work and not to steal anybody’s money. Nobody came to give me kick-back. If they did I would return it to them and tell them I am not here for that. When you hold a position and you perform your duties honestly, fairly and sincerely, you will be braver than a lion. If you live your life like that, you will be brave, fell happy and contended in whatever you do. You are looking and speaking to a very happy and contented man. I am not interested in bribery and corruption.
Is it true that this residence of yours is a replica of the VC’s lodge at Ile-Ife?
No, the VC’s lodge is not like this. It does not look like this at all.
What do we do about the standard of education in the country which everybody says has fallen?
The big problem that we have is the fact that we have neglected our indigenous languages. Throughout the whole world people go to school and study through the medium of their mother tongue. In Europe, the Europeans speak in excess of 70 languages. If you count all the languages of Europe they will be close to 70. Everybody goes to school learning through the medium of his or her own language but then they keep another major language like English, German or French as a second language. Nobody is saying anybody should scrap the English language. That would be a great mistake. And it has been demonstrated by the late Professor Babs Fafunwa that if you go to school and study in Yoruba in the primary and secondary schools and even the university, you would be much better in any subject than those Nigerians who didn’t learn of their mother tongue. We need to do something. I have been talking about this for a long time but nobody is paying any attention. The government need to pass laws or anything they have to do. The harm that is done starts from nursery school where they do not teach the pupils anything in their mother tongue. All the nursery rhymes are in the English language and parents take pride in it. We need to make law that if you want to set up a nursery school, everything should be taught in the mother tongue or indigenous language.
But there are more than 250 languages in Nigeria …(cuts in)
That is no problem. People say that because they are ignorant. That is not a problem at all. Number one: linguistic minorities are always multilingual or bilingual. The case of the Yoruba language is slightly different. We do have linguistic minorities but I think many of them had been acculturated. The only viable one that we have now is Gun in Badagry area which we call Egun but they call themselves Gun. But we know that is spoken in radio stations in Lagos and Ogun states. The other minority in our midst in Yoruba land is Akoko. They have many languages that have not been developed. Anybody who can develop his language can teach in it. First they need to develop an alphabet for it; literature and they can be used. It does not matter even if they are only 1,000. China has 56 languages. Some of the languages are spoken by less than half of a million people in a nation of 1.4 billion. And they still allow those people to use their own languages. And in any case as I said linguistic minorities are always bilingual or multilingual. Somebody who comes from Akoko, needs not be told before he learns Yoruba. If it is Akoko-Edo, he will also learn one of the Edo languages. And people from Rivers speak Igbo or Yoruba in addition to their own languages. Most people who come from the North speak Hausa and some of them speak Yoruba or Fufude. And in any case, develop your own language, if there are people who speak the language and you want a school, they can set up something for you.
How can traditional religion be brought in to better the lot of the country?
I am a practitioner of the Yoruba religion. I am a babalawo. My full name is Ogunwande. My home here is the number one Ogun home in the whole of Oyo land. My elder brother is the Asipade, that is, the generalissimo of Ogun in Oyo land. Our indigenous ideas, values and religions are beautiful. And they work. I was saying earlier that I don’t take bribes and so on. And it goes from all those come from our indigenous religion. An Ogun person would not tell a lie if he knows that it is a lie. You cannot find an Ogun priest going to pluck the okro of his neighbour or a babalawo. And I was telling you that one should be contented with whatever one has, and not look for material wealth are values from our indigenous religion. Up till now, there are many people in the religion. There are many Sango worshippers here in Oyo. There are also many babalawos, Oya worshippers and so on. Thousands of people still follow that religion. You are not going to find one; I repeat one of them who has ever been arrested for stealing or for doing something wrong because that is what we believe. It is beautiful but alas, there comes a time when our children do not know that our things are beautiful anymore. But another time is coming and the revolution has already started in America, South America, all over the world. Many people are returning to the traditional ways. Even there is an indigenous European religion before Christianity which many Europeans are now returning to. It is called wiker. It is more alive in places like Ireland and even in Italy where we have the Pope. It is part of me and we do not have anything against other people who practise other religions. Religion should be your own thought. Everybody should be free to imbibe any way of life or any religion that he or she wants. Nobody should be compelled or cajoled out of his own way of life. It should be a crime to do that. But do you think there are many Christians and Muslims who have completely left our tradition? You cannot count 10 per cent of them who have done so. You cannot do it. Our traditions are so strong that they are still there. Traditions die hard. They never go away. If they are profound they will be there. Somebody may try to cover them up but when you dig they would be there.
How do you relax?
For me life is a relaxation. But what I usually do is that daily around 5pm I go to the country side where I have a small farm and I walk round it for between 30 minutes to one hour and look at the progress far made. I have some crops there: yam, maize and others. That is what I do. Walking is a good exercise and it is rewarding in many ways. When you walk you begin to internalize many things. It is one thing I missed since I left Ife because that campus has a lot of walk ways all over. You can walk anywhere. For the 20 years I spent there I would walk every night when I was on the campus from about 12 midnight to 2am and then go to sleep.
It was said then that whenever the students wanted to embark on any demonstration you would address then and make some gesticulations; and they would be pacified. That you would then give akara….
(Laughs long and loud). It is true that whenever they were to embark on any protest and I addressed them, they would listen. They had songs for me. And they would sing and dance after. But it is not true that I was using charms to do that. No, I was not. If you even do that and you are bad or your behaviour is bad, they would not even listen to the person. The students were listening to me because they knew me. They knew I was only for their good and success and as a father. Hence, they listened when I talked to them. But we were offering sacrifices. We were doing that then. We were doing that to appease the gods so that there would be peace and progress in the campus and for a lot of good things too. I would send for babalawos who would come and join me in making the divinations.
How did you inculcate that into the university budget?
I was using my own money. Have you always been an Ifa worshipper all your life?
Yes, I have always been except some time when I was in the secondary school. I attended an American Baptist secondary school which is called Baptist Boys Secondary School, Oyo. Everybody there goes to church on Sunday. In fact there was a society then called Evangelical Students Society. If you belong to that society you have to go and preach at a station where they would give you. That was how I went to preach at Jagun Village, Ijaye Orile and other places. I was a student pastor. But that does not mean that I abandoned my Yoruba religion. Oh! In fact when returning in the evening from the evangelical trip, I would be chanting ijala and the Ifa corpus and my fellow students would surround me. But since I left the secondary school, it has stopped since nobody forced me in the first instance. I don’t go to church any more. But if anyone invites me, I do go. There is a cousin of mine we are childhood friends. If he is doing anything in church I would be the first person to get there. That is one of the traits of our belief. You do not see any practitioner of the traditional religion who would say one faith or religion is not good.
Like I said earlier on, our things are equally good. And even now those who confused us in the earlier on are retracing their steps.
What would you say your contributions were as a Special Adviser to the President?
I was a Special Adviser for two years. To be a Special Adviser is to advise Mr President. One of my contributions was that we were able to put Ifa on the world map. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2000 had invited all member nations to submit papers to describe any culture they want to put on the world map and which should be recognised as an important thing. That was in 2000 but up till 2003 when I became the Special Adviser; they did not do anything about it. Nigeria did not submit anything. But the window was five years. In 2004, I presented Ifa through the Federal Government. In 2005 when it was the close of the window UNESCO put together all the entries submitted. There were 1,015 cultures and traditions submitted. The panel of judges comprising 17 people most of who spoke between seven and eight languages so that they did not need interpreters to do their work and elongate the time. They came out with 86 out of the 1,015 and Ifa was one of them. Ifa was declared a master piece for oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Some presidents attended the declaration. More than 12 Presidents were there. I framed our own and gave it to President Olusegun Obasanjo. Soon after the UNESCO decreed that we should start a school around it so that we can train young men and women so that it would not die. They said they were going to support us with $80,000 and the Federal Government should give us support of N17 million naira to set up the school for two years. Unfortunately, the Federal Government has not paid a dime till today.
What is your advice for Nigerians?
We are heirs of a very great culture. In spite of the fact that people tend to tell us that we are not developed and that Nigerians are 419, people in intelligent circles around the world know that Nigeria is a very important place. It is only this country on the African continent that you still have the hard core of people who are neither Christians nor Muslims and are devoted to their traditional way of life and you also have people who are Christians and Muslims but who still have one leg in the tradition. Nigerians are high achievers. Go to small village in the US, open the telephone book, you will be surprised that there are two or three hospitals owned and operated by Nigerians.
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