Who Are The Yoruba People? Part 1

Femi Fani-Kayode
Femi Fani-Kayode

The yoruba people of south-western Nigeria are a nationality of approximately 50 million people, the vast majority of whom?are concentrated primarily within?Nigeria, but?who are also spread throughout the entire?world. They constitute probably?the largest percentage of Africans that live in the diaspora and they have made their own extraordinary contributions in virtually every field of human endeavour throughout the ages. Descendants of the yoruba and?indeed various ancient derivatives and?forms of the?yoruba language can be found and are spoken in places like Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, the United States of America and various other parts of the western world.?Today first, second and even third generation yorubas have settled down?and?spread all over the world?and are amongst the best and most sought after?lawyers, nuclear scientists, doctors, industralists, academics, writers, poets, playwrites,?clerics, theologians, artists, film producers, historians?and intellectuals throughout the world. Wherever they go they tend to flourish and excel.

This is nothing new and indeed has always been the case.?The first?Nigerian to be called to the Bar?was a yoruba man?by the name of Sapara Williams who was called to the English Bar and started practising as a lawyer?in 1879. Yet?Sapara?Williams was not a?flash in the pan or a one time wonder. Other yoruba men followed?in his?footsteps in quick succession and were called to the English Bar shortly after he was. For example?after him?came?Joseph Edgarton Shyngle who was called in 1888, then came Gabriel Hugh?Savage?who was called in?1891, then came?Rotimi Alade who was called in 1892, then came?Kitoye Ajasa (whose original name was Edmund Macauly)?who was called in 1893, then came Arthur Joseph Eugene Bucknor who was called?in 1894 and then came Eric Olaolu Moore who was called in 1903. Ironically Sapara Williams was not the first?Nigerian?lawyer though he was the first to be called to the English Bar. In those days you did not have to be called to the Bar to practice law and?the first Nigerian lawyer that practised without being called to the Bar?was a?yoruba man?by the name of William?Henry Savage. He was described as a ”self-taught and practising lawyer” and he?was a?registered Notary Public in England?as far back as1821.? These were indeed the greats and every single one of them was a yoruba man.
My friend and brother the?respected Mr.?Akin Ajose-Adeogun, who is a historian by calling and a?lawyer by profession,?is?a man for?whom I have tremendous respect. I have often described him?as the ”living oracle of Nigerian history” simply?because he has a photographic memory, a knack for detail, first class sources?and has read more books on Nigerian history than anyone that I have ever met before?in my life.?Akin has an extraordinary mind,?he is a living genius and I have often urged him to write a book. You can ask?him anything about anyone or any event?in any part of our country, since or before independence,?and he will give you names, dates and the sequence of events immmediately and without any recourse to notes, books or sources. After he has given you the information he will then cite his sources and tell you which books to go and read in order to confirm what he is saying. I have learnt so much from him that I must publically?acknowledge the fact that I owe him an?enormous debt of gratitude.?He?once told me something that I found very interesting and that reflected the semi god-like status that?our earliest lawyers, including some of the names that I mentioned earlier,?enjoyed amongst the people. These men were not only reverred but they were also?admired by all, including members of?the British?intelligensia, legal fraternity?and elites.?Akin told me that many years ago?in the mid-80’s Sir Adetokunboh Ademola,?who himself was?one of the legal greats, who was?called to the English?Bar in 1934, who?was the third Nigerian to be?appointed as?a?magistrate in 1938, who was?the third Nigerian to be appointed as a?High Court judge in 1948??and who?was the?first Nigerian to be appointed Chief Justice of the Federation in 1958?said the following words to him. He said,?”when you?saw the way that?the?earliest Nigerian?lawyers conducted themselves in court and argued their cases you would have been filled with pride and you would have wanted to become a lawyer yourself. Members of the public used to fill the court rooms to the brink and sometimes even the?forecourts and passages?just to watch these great men?perform and enjoy their brilliance and oratory. They spoke the Queens english and they knew the law inside out.?It is not like that today”.? This is a?resounding testimony from an illustrious?Nigerian?and it?speaks eloquently about where the yoruba, as a people, are coming from and the stock and quality of minds that they are made of.
Yet the dynamism of the yoruba and their innovations and ”firsts” did not stop there. It?went into numerous?other?spheres of human endeavour quite?apart from the?law.?Permit me to?cite just two?examples. The first lies within the field of medicine. Dr. Nathaniel King was the first?Nigerian to become a?medical practitioner.?He graduated?from Edinburgh University in 1876 and?he was a Creole of yoruba origin.?Next came Dr. Oguntola Sapara who was the second Nigerian to become a medical practitioner and who graduated from Edinburgh University in 1884.?He was followed by Dr. John Randle who graduated from Durham University in 1891,?then Dr. Orisadipe Obasa who?graduated from Edinburgh University in 1892, then Dr. Akinwande Savage who graduated from Edinburgh University?in 1900, then Dr. Curtis Adeniyi-Jones who graduated from Durham University in 1901. Others like Dr. Oyejola who graduated in?1905,?Dr. Kubolaje Faderin,?Dr. Sesi Akapo?and Dr. Magnus Macauly who all?graduated in 1912, Dr. Moyses Joao Da Rocha who graduated from Edinburgh University in 1913 and many others followed after that.
The second?example lies within?the ranks of the?clergy.?The first African Anglican?Bishop and the first man to translate the Holy Bible and Book of Common Prayer?to any African language (outside?of?Ethiopia)?was a yoruba ex-slave who gave his life to Christ,?won his freedom and?rose up to become one of the greatest and most respected?clerics and?leaders that the African continent has?ever?known?by the name of Bishop Samuel?Ajayi Crowther. Unknown to many?his original name was Rev. John Raban but he changed it in his early years.?Crowther?got his first degree?at the famous Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leonne (which at that time was part of Durham University). He was ordained as?an Anglican Bishop in 1864 and in?that same year?he was awarded a Doctrate degree?from?Oxford University.
?This?extraordinary man who was blessed by God?with an?exceptionally brilliant mind was,?as far as I am concerned, one of?the greatest?Africans that ever lived. He not only?translated the Holy Bible and the Book of Common?Prayer?to yoruba (an extreemly difficult, complicated?and painstaking?venture which he began in 1843 and which he?completed?in 1888)?but?he also codified a number of other christian?books and he translated them into the Igbo and Nupe languages.?He was?literally the?pillar and foundation?of the Anglican church in west Africa. Throughout his adult life?he courageously?stood up and fought?for the rights and the dignity of the African and he, more than anyone else, was responsible for the spread, influence?and?power of the?christian faith in Nigeria in the late 19th century. He was also the maternal?grandfather of the great nationalist?Herbert Macauly who, together with?Nnamdi Azikiwe,?founded?the political party known as the NCNC?in 1944.?Crowther was also?the father-in-law of Rev. Thomas Babington?Macauly?who founded?the?Christian Missionary Society Grammar School (CMS?Grammar School)?in 1859 in?what was then the Lagos Colony. CMS?Grammar School was the epitomy of excellence and a citadel of great learning in those days. It?was?also?the oldest secondry school in Nigeria and the main source of African clergymen and administrartors?in the Lagos Colony.?It is not surprising that it was the son-in-law of the great?Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther that founded such a school and that it was his grandson?that founded one the greatest political parties that the African continent has ever known.?This is another first for the yoruba.
Yet who are these people and where did they come from? What is their origin and what is their source of strength? What were their migratory patterns over the last 30,000 and more?years and how did they end up in Ile-Ife? What is their connection to the Middle East, to the?Arabs of?Mecca and Medina, to the?ancient?Egyptians and to?the Nubians of the Sudan??What makes them so special and so peculiar all at the same time? What makes their religious set-up so complicated and so profund and what allows each of the great monotheic faiths of christianity and islam?together with the?traditional religions to flourish and excel amongst the very?same people at the same time? Why are the yoruba so accomodating of outsiders and what is responsible for their liberal?disposition when it comes to their dealings with?people from other cultures, other faiths and other nationalities? Why is it that so?many yoruba families?have mixed?ancestral?bloodlines that go back hundreds (and in some cases?thousands) of years?with so?many different?nationalities from outside yorubaland and indeed from?outside Nigeria,?including the Bahians of Brazil, the Haitians and Cubans of Port Au Prince and Havana,?the Creoles of Freetown?(Sierra Leonne), the Ga’s of Accra (Ghana), the?tribes of Dahomey (Benin Republic), the Edo, the?Bini, the Itsekiri?and other tribes?from the?old Mid-Western region of southern Nigeria?and the Nupe, the?Hausa, the Fulani, the Shuwa Arab?and the Kanuri from the north? What is the cultural and spiritual?affinity of the yoruba?with the people of the old?Northern region?and the people of the?old Mid-Western region and why are the people?from those?two regions and?those from the?South-West?collectively referrred to as the ”Sudanese Nigerians”??Some of these questions may never be?answered but in?the sequel to this?essay we?will attempt to at least?view and analyse the yoruba from a historical?perspective and this may explain why they are what they undoubtedly?are- ”primus inter pares”, the first amongst equals.
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