This fifth annual event in honour of the distinguished Professor Joseph Adebowale Atanda will fittingly explore the variegated dimensions of the immersion, marginalisation, and impacts of Yoruba politics and nation making, from the nineteenth century to date. Professor Atanda’s scholarship covers the history and politics of the Yoruba from the precolonial to the twentieth century. The conference will cover the eras that Professor Atanda explored in his books and essays, as well as on his key themes of politics, identity, and change.
As the Nigerian political landscape becomes ever more plagued by primordial politics shaped by erroneous views of the past and present, and the Yoruba influence in the overall shaping of Nigerian partisan politics, the need for this conference has become more real. Therefore, participants are invited to this conference to delve into the historical trajectory of the Yoruba nation, personalities, politics, society, cultural regeneration, internal and external relations, transnational influence and enduring impact on global and local politics and society. Multidisciplinary and pluridisciplinary approaches are particularly invited from scholars and researchers from fields as varied as anthropology, linguistics, history, sociology, philosophy, political science, musicology, classics, literary studies, archaeology, economics, psychology, geography, peace studies, and so on.
The conference will re-open discussion around many issues and debates. Many have attempted to chart the emergence of the Yoruba as a distinct group, and as a nation. The earliest chroniclers of the Yoruba were not academic historians but elites such as John Olawumi George, E. M. Lijadu, Otunba Payne, Mojola Agbebi, and including missionaries, explorers, Sierra Leonean returnees, and colonial officers. Since Samuel Johnson’s pioneering work, A History of the Yorubas, which attempted to map the origins of the peoples now known as the Yoruba from antiquity up until British colonialism, was published in 1921 (though written in 1897), academic interest in the Yoruba as a group has been unrelenting. But indeed, some would later claim that there were no “Yoruba” as a unifying name until about the middle of the nineteenth century, the starting point for the focus of this conference. The very definition of Yoruba was initially the subject of debate, as some tend to indicate that other groups outside the Oyo were not referred to as such before the nineteenth century. The peoples covered by the Yoruba identity today are divided into Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ondo, Ekiti and Kwara State, and areas of the Republic of Benin and Togo.
By the dispersal of trade, commerce, slavery, migration and other centrifugal factors, Yoruba people can be found as further west in the west of Africa as Sierra Leone and the Gambia, and in other continents, notably, in Cuba and South America. For a long time, they established a dominant presence in West Africa. The traditional home of Yoruba has extended from Nigeria/Benin to other parts of Africa in particular For example, there are many Yoruba in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In Ivory Coast alone, the population of Yoruba is visible. Great Yoruba musicians such as Dauda Epo Akara, Haruna Ishola, and Yusuf Olatunji explored the market in Ivory Coast. The Yoruba are immigrants who have been there for years and many of their children, grand children, and great and great-great grand children do not know Nigeria even though they may understand or speak the Yoruba language. If African countries give people easy naturalization opportunities, the Yoruba would have produced a president in Ivory Coast. At a time, the population of Nigerians in the country was almost a million and the Yoruba constituted the majority ethnic group.
The various Yoruba people did not form a single political unit until the exigencies of colonialism and nationalism imposed a commonality that came to be relied upon as sui generis. Yoruba “unity” prior to decolonisation struggles has been treated by some scholars as a fabrication and an imposition upon the data by modern “nationalist” academic historians who ignored the bitter rivalries and wars amongst the various sub-groups in the nineteenth century to try to construct an image of oneness and unity for contemporary political exigencies. Some have also argued that the so-called nationalist character of the decolonisation movements in Nigeria can be called into question. Major personalities and rapidly evolving events and scenes drove the politics of the early nineteenth century, mobilising support and resources around ethno-linguistic similarities and advancing a thesis of common history, aspirations and destinies that were alien to the known history of the period preceding the time. In all these, perhaps the singular most instrumentalized variable in attempts to forge a Yoruba nation was the Oduduwa myth of origin. Powerful states adopted and popularized the myth of links to the sons of Oduduwa to secure a primacy of place and superiority in the ranks of the many sub-groups that constituted the emergent Yoruba nation. The use of the myth of common origin became important as the inclusion of a group in the list of direct descendants of Oduduwa became a matter of prestige, dictating who could wear a crown with beads, ritual practice, and other privileges. Consequently, several groups, with recent historical origins, had to invent traditions that would link them with Oduduwa in order to access certain political advantages. The continuities of these tensions in modern day Yoruba and Nigerian politics bears investigation and discussion which the conference will provide space for.
The evolution of the “standard” Yoruba language as a homogenising factor has been studied, but new directions are needed. This Yoruba was derived from the Oyo dialect and became used as the lingua franca based on translations of the Qu’ran and the Bible to Roman script by Saro missionaries, and then widely dispersed and circulated by the scriptures being read, grammar school texts and many of the first authoritative accounts of Yoruba history. As early as 1842, Samuel Ajayi Crowther published his Yoruba Vocabulary and Yoruba Grammar, based on the Oyo dialect. Today, many cultural anthropologists and linguists agree that not only are the other Yoruba dialects endangered as one generation fails to pass on the linguistic knowledge and skills to the next generation, but also that the common Yoruba language itself is witnessing drastic decline in usage. In this vein, the role of schools, the arts, music, drama, and the government in preserving Yoruba and other indigenous Nigerian languages comes under focus at this conference.
Beyond, the historical context outlined above, it is necessary to map the progress of the “Yoruba nation” within the modern struggles for democracy, development and nation building in Nigeria, especially in the period since independence. Many have challenged Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s right to be considered the father of the Yoruba in the context of the deadly politics that bedevilled the first republic in Nigeria and splintered the Yoruba elite along sub-ethnic and egotistic lines. In spite of this, the contribution of Awolowo to the socio-economic, political and intellectual advancement of the Yoruba is undeniable even by his detractors. Indeed, Yoruba politicians today still consider the appropriation of the Awolowo image and mien as necessary for their legitimization. As the Yoruba have recently returned to the limelight in national politics with the successful merging of parties that created the now-ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), it is indeed an apposite time to reconsider what it means to be Yoruba individually, collectively, philosophically, and idealistically at home and beyond the geographical boundaries of the Republic of Nigeria and Republic of Benin.