Gambari and The Delicate Dance of Ilorin


By Dare Babarinsa

We need to thank His Highness, Alhaji Sulu Gambari, Emir of Ilorin, for his fatherly intervention in the recent controversy about a devotee of Osun deity in his domain. Some Islamic leaders had visited the priestess in her home to warn her that an open display of her faith may lead to regrettable consequences. Ilorin is a big city with a roaming army of unemployed youths who are ready for action and some gory excitement if the opportunity arises. It is to the credit of the Emir that he used his influence to calm the situation and stopped this storm in a teacup from becoming a real storm. Since November 11, 1995, Gambari has taken on the job of emir. He is also a man versed in Western jurisprudence. For many years, Gambari was a city lawyer and he made good money before he was elevated into the bench.


Many years ago, Nosa Igiebor, the Editor-in-Chief of Tell magazine and I had appeared before His Lordship, Justice Kolapo Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari and two other judges of the Appeal Court in Lagos. Gambari treated us with temperance and civility. He has been displaying the same temperance and sagacity as the lord of Ilorin.

Professor Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, had taken time to remind the Emir and some of his heavily turbaned subjects that Nigeria is now in the 2st Century where the Rule of Law prevails. Therefore, it is simply odious that some citizens would claim superiority over another citizen’s faith or mode of worship. In a secular state like Nigeria, even an atheist like the late Dr. Tai Solarin, had the right to his lack of belief in the Supreme Deity.

If he so believes and does not carry the belief to a church, a mosque or the shrine of Osun, that would not be expected to provoke any negative reaction. Some of the citizens of Ilorin are saying that they have already captured the territory for Islam and no other form of worship, especially Yoruba traditional religion, would be tolerated. We should pity them. We should also know that this is what the highly educated emir, a lawyer and accomplihed jurist, has to manage.

Ilorin is one of the four major towns that had faced major demographic shifts as a result of the almost 100 years of wars and conflict that dominated the 19th Century Yoruba country. The first was Ibadan, hitherto a minor settlement in the Egba forest which was taken over by stragglers and adventurers under the leadership of Lagelu, an Ife general, in the wake of the Owu War. Within a few decades, Ibadan had been transformed into the greatest military power in Yorubaland and it drew into its fertile soil ambitious men and women.

The largest groups there were the Oyos. The second town is Osogbo, an old Ijesha town, which became totally transformed with the influx of refugees from Oyo and other towns. When the Olofa fled in the wake of betrayals by his own people, the Osogbo people provided land for him and his people to settle. The town the fleeing Olofa founded is called Ofatedo till this day. The third is Lagos, the coastal city that had the largest slave market, Oja Odaju, (Market of the Heartless), in the country which attracted people across the land and even across the sea. The fourth one is Ilorin, now the capital of Kwara State.

Ilorin was one of the provincial towns of the old Oyo Empire. It was strategically located about 45 kilometers Southwest of old Oyo City, the capital where the Alaafin resided. The old capital, Oyo Katunga, was close to the River Niger. In the early 19th Century, the Alaafin installed Afonja, an ambitious general, as the Aare Ona Kakanfo, the head of the imperial army.

But Afonja was a treacherous fellow and he soon found an excuse to rebel against his overlord and proclaimed the independence of Ilorin. He, however, soon received his comeuppance.

To secure his base, Afonja had procured the friendship and support of a growing band of Muslims, known as Jamaa or Ogo Were, under the leadership of a Fulani itinerant medicine man, Alimi Dan Janta. The unruly band soon became part of the new Afonja structure of power.When Afonja tried to curb their excesses, they staged a coup and assassinated him in 1817.

Alimi became the new ruler of Ilorin with the title, Shehu. The new ruling class tried to accommodate all the power centres within the town; thus, we have leaders of the Fulani, Yoruba, Hausa (Gambari) and other groups.

Even the defeated house of Afonja was accommodated in the new structure and his descendant still occupies a prominent position in Ilorin till today. Alimi’s eldest son by a Yoruba woman, Abudul-Salami, was proclaimed the first Emir of Ilorin in 1829.

There had been two old myths about Ilorin.One was that the Fulani conquered Ilorin. Not true. Afonja was a victim of a palace coup engineered by hitherto trusted friends and allies. It was not that the Fulani army defeated a Yoruba army in the battle for Ilorin. Indeed, most of those who followed Alimi were Yoruba and Hausa former slaves.

There were very few Fulani among them. The second myth was that Alimi brought Islam to Ilorin. Not true also. There were hundreds of Muslims in Ilorin before Alimi came. Their leader was Solagberu of Oke-Suna who was eventually murdered by agents of political Islam after Abdul-Salami came to power.

More than 200 years before Alimi trekked to Ilorin, peddling his peculiar epistemology, Islam had been introduced to Yorubaland by Turkish seafarers who sailed to Lagos. Musulumi, as they were called, were already in many parts of Yorubaland, including Ibadan, Iwo and Abeokuta. After the seizure of power in Ilorin, the new theocracy made it an offence not to be a Muslim!

This new political Islam Yoruba people called Imole (faith by force), which sought to seize power across Yorubaland until the Ibadan army defeated the Ilorin forces at the battle of Osogbo in 1840. The Yoruba wars did not end until the British came at the closing years of the 19th Century.

After the conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate, the British signed a pact with the emirs guaranteeing their continuing stay on their stools and the preservation of the Islamic faith. The British tried to draw up the maps of their new country and therefore Colonel Frederick Lugard put all emirates into Northern Nigeria despite protestations from other British officials that River Niger and Benue should be the natural demarcation.

In Ilorin, the Emir laid claimed to all the lands of Ekiti, Igbomina and Ibolo. It was only the Orangun of Ila who saw through the Fulani shenanigans when he was invited by the British to come and attend a meeting in Ilorin in the palace of the Emir in 1904.

“The Emir is not an oba,” the Orangun told the British emissary. “He is a commoner! I can only seat with my fellow princes who are descendants of our father, Oduduwa!” The Orangun refused to go to Ilorin.

The anomaly of a Fulani descendant claiming to be an oba in Ilorin, a Yoruba town, rankles till this day. Many Fulani apologistsin Yoruba Ilorin, especially since the 1950s, have been encouraging Ilorin people not to bear Yoruba names.

Many of them now bear Arabic names. Some even do enough research to acquire Fulani names! All these have not stopped the reality on ground that Ilorin remains a typical Yoruba town with a large Muslim population.

In February 1958, the Ilorin Native Authority Council and 20 other district councils out of 31 in the old Ilorin Province of the former Northern Region passed a resolution that they want the province merged with the old Western Region. In retaliation, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region, dissolved the Ilorin Council. Today, the Yoruba of the North are split between Kwara and Kogi states. If a referendum were held now, most likely, the majority would prefer to merge with the South West. That was the verdict of 1958.

There is no need today to wake again the specter of political Islam. Most Yoruba Muslims would prefer to be Musulumi than Imole. They also know that the position of Emir is a product of political Islam and not that of Islamic religion, hence, many countries with majority Muslims, have no emirs.

However, despite his controversial provenance, most citizens of Ilorin have accepted the position of the Emir as the paramount ruler of Ilorin. He is the father of all including those women at Oja Oba selling wares like atareand ori ologbo (dry cat heads) that are often prescribed by those alfas and babalawos. All those rabbles invoking the Emir’s name to confront practitioners of other religions in the city are not helping His Highness cause.

Those who think they can ignite a religious war in any part of Yorubaland are deceiving themselves. No reasonable Yoruba person would claim he or she is fighting for or defending Olodumare. That would be the ultimate infamy. God is capable of fighting for Himself if need be. He is the ultimate dispenser of justice even in Ilorin. The Emir should be wary of those holier-than-thou fire-spitting puritans.

To those people, Ilorin is a holy city. For the rest of the people, Ilorin is also large enough to tolerate the patrons of all those hotels, guest houses and evening spots that make the city such a pleasurable place to visit. Ilorin people have the right to be occupied with other matters before they go to paradise.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *