The Chronicle Gambia

The Toyin Falola Interviews – A Conversation With Segun Odegbami

Tunde Kelani and Segun Odegbami

Mathematical 7 Goes on Stage: Segun Odegbami, Abeokuta, and the Making of “Ayinla” by Tunde Kelani


By Toyin Falola

Photo: City of Abeokuta

Without Abeokuta, Kelani’s movie on Ayinla Omowura would not have been possible. Segun Odegbami describes the connections thus:

Abeokuta provided all the ingredients that created Ayinla Omowura and gave him all the ‘materials’ for songs that are evergreen for those that understand the Yoruba language and appreciate his genre of music – Apala. So, the movie captures the odyssey and adventures of a local musical hero and relives them in Abeokuta, this quiet town in the heart of Yorubaland, saturated with nature’s ‘accidents’ in its resultant ‘catastrophic’ topography of meandering brooks, rocky boulders, dangerous rapids, rolling hills and valleys, deep gorges, and so on. Abeokuta also birthed some of the most accomplished and educated people in Nigeria’s history in virtually all sectors. This was where Ayinla lived, loved, worked, and tragically died on the eve of his greatest triumph. TK has been preparing to let people see and appreciate Abeokuta in all its spectacular beauty and glory. …I can almost read TK’s mind about his ultimate but unwritten mission – to market Abeokuta to the world through this film. His greatest challenge, therefore, would be how to do justice to the sites, sounds, culture, architecture, people, and the fear of the still lingering Coronavirus pandemic still hovering over the land in order to achieve that goal.

To appreciate the city and its connections to Ayinla, I provide a larger picture of this important city. In a familiar attitude of supremacy, its fame has been attributed to the European encounter. A closer examination of this sentiment reveals two different, yet extreme, assertive opinions on African development. The first being that the colonial period was an undeniable timeline in which civilizations, either as economically progressive or technologically moving, was planted in Africa. The second is also of similar identity damage because it creates the impression that European technology is seen as the universal benchmark for measuring people’s development. No one who has reliable knowledge of history or familiarizes themselves with the expanding works already done by various historians would continue to incubate such grandiose misrepresentation. It is not only a historical to claim such, but also anti-intellectual.

According to many historians and anthropologists, there were many polities in pre-colonial Africa whose apparent political and technological development can be compared to others in the European world but whose magnitude was comparatively lower, perhaps because of the economic conditions that mandated it. Abeokuta is one of the African polities that maintained a respectable and credible height of civilization, unless if by civilization, we only consider technological progress. Abeokuta was an independent Yoruba city-state in West Africa before the European incursion. The city was founded between the 1820s and 1830s. The credit of harmonization and formation was given to a legendary hero, Sodeke, a brave and mighty warrior who led his people from the ravaging challenge of internecine rivalries.

Photo: Abeokuta

From the name of the polity, “Abeokuta,” which means “under the rock,” one can imagine the social conditions that necessitated the relocation of a people from where they enjoyed patrilineal benefits, save for the emergence of strives, to settling in such a climatically complex environment. When one goes from imagination to questioning, it is not impossible to conclude that locational choice of the current Abeokuta space was dictated by their consideration of different traumatic and offensive situations that it would naturally prevent. The occupants of the polity, predominantly the Egba, had to create the means to protect themselves. With a short timeframe to build an army against their detractors, it was politically wise to settle in an environment where they could be sure of immediate safety. In essence, Abeokuta became a symbol of protection from complex challenges.

Although the Oyo Empire was facing an imminent breakdown, both politically and economically, they had the strength to challenge any group of people who contended their supremacy. The Egba had to seek their freedom from the hegemonic hold of Oyo. Therefore, when Oyo was overwhelmed by the combination of struggles and travails of the early nineteenth century inspired by the Fulani pastoralists and religious expansionists, the Egba took the opportunity to relocate to Abeokuta, even though they were initially ill-prepared. Their poor preparation for such an emergency opportunity was aggravated by factors that were beyond their control. For example, they lacked the population strength to address the situation and stepped in to respond to the overindulging ambition of their neighbors. More regrettably, their population was scattered across the surrounding forest, making the prospect of coordination principally impractical, if not chiefly impossible. It was inevitably a precarious experience for the Egba people because a helplessly callous situation characterized this period. This later coincided with the European invasion of West African countries, which suddenly increased the demands for slaves to feed the trans-Atlantic exportation. It was enough to submerge the people and throw them into the dustbin of history, save for the exceptional and noticeable efforts of the politically and militarily inclined leaders, notably the legendary Sodeke. The Egba people were steadfast and uncompromising in their quest for the actualization of their dream. They wanted to be free in every sense.

Consequently, the Egba, alongside others of common interests, settled in Abeokuta and laid out well-structured ideas and top-notch philosophy with which Abeokuta, their new environment, would be developed. During the period, economic development went in line with one’s technological and military competence. These were not only instruments of suppressing contending civilizations but were employed as materials necessary for sustaining them. Once competitors found it impractical or difficult to engage in warring expeditions, it was natural to command an adequate level of economic prosperity. However, to enhance this means they needed to design a better military infrastructure. This eventually prompted the erection of a twenty-mile wall that they used to complement the security already provided by the sturdy rocks. Of course, the project was clairvoyant, for after a relative period of their settlement, they were ravaged by other unforeseeable external aggressions. This time not from their old enemy, Oyo, but from those who felt economically threatened by their emergence.

Photo: Toyin Falola on an Abeokuta road

Abeokuta was an important location that aided free trade between the people and their European economic allies. They had sufficient deposits of palm products, one of the dominant objects of trade, and they potentially became an existential impediment for the Dahomey economic empire. The latter would not go without throwing a fight. As such, the making of security architecture became one of the early reasons to understand the collective commitment of the people towards their development. By the time they became philosophically more explicit about what they wanted, instant synergy was created between the political class and the energetic modernizing agents who volunteered to promote their place. For the people to be aware of the immeasurable advantage of quality leadership, their major improvement was the establishment and organization of a stronger leadership system that would see to their governance and management and intervene in emergency situations.

The leaders demonstrated a good sense of control and helped catapult the city-state into something desirable. However, once this foundation was established, it was ready for all-round development, as long as the people considered them necessary. Judicial affairs were judiciously managed; economic matters were fairly attended to; security issues did not become overwhelming; and social and spiritual problems were rationally handled. As such, the city of Abeokuta became a model political entity where economic resources and social affairs were handled with utmost competence.

With the emergence of the missionaries in the 1840s came the introduction of Western education, and it ultimately reconfigured the political and economic trajectory of the Abeokuta people. Under the impression that they came to introduce a superior religious system, the missionaries laid the foundation for enhancing the Western models of knowledge acquisition. The Egba people, who showed a high level of intellectual capacity, considered incorporating the new system resident in European thought. As missionaries gained more ground, citizens accommodated their religious identity and simultaneously took their educational systems. In the contemporary evaluation of the situation, the widespread success of Abeokuta indigenes can be linked to their embracement of Western education, which gave them the edge above many other places in the post-colonial environment. Without dwelling on the great maturity in the consolidation of their indigenous structures with Western education, the Egba founding fathers’ foundation has continued to break boundaries for the people and make them successful in their engagements. In modern Nigerian history, the Egba occupy an essential position to make outstanding strides in different fields and attain groundbreaking milestones in all their endeavors. Unarguably, the city is a powerful muse that motivates people to do something historic.

Similarly, Abeokuta has been a very great Yoruba state with a rich democratic culture. It has created an integrative and intensive political system that represents the plebiscite and assists in power regulations. Power relations in the city-state enhanced all the technological and economic development that transformed their world. It was their unique political and intellectual capacity that mandated the colonial government to agree to political independence until it was foiled in 1914. Abeokuta could remain one of the African pre-colonial polities where labor organizations challenged the government. The citizens could protest and be free to do so whenever they considered their rights trampled upon. In 1918, they planted the foundation for protest when there was an insurrection triggered by introducing tax through which the Lord Lugard-led administration exploited the people. Called the Ige Adubi War, a reactionary result came from a people who evaluated and appreciated their rights to self-determination. Being the most hit by these policy initiatives, women showed their displeasure and registered their discomfort. They displayed their collective power to challenge a colonial system, which shows they were politically coordinated.

From the historical foundations of success came the inspiration of contemporary Abeokuta indigenes to promote or expand their coverage. It is difficult to identify any post-colonial politics in the country where a member of the Abeokuta society has not been a notable contributor. From being a template of political development of the Yoruba people in the period that coincided with the emergence of Europeans in West Africa to being a city of radical urban development in the contemporary time, Abeokuta cannot be superficially undermined as a crucial force in the promotion of Nigerian and African interest. To start with the intellectual and political contributions of the late Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the story of Abeokuta has always revealed the demonstration of internal strength and a capacity to occupy the forefront of groundbreaking inventions. Ajayi, an enslaved Yoruba man, was a cornerstone in the people’s general transformation. After coming to Abeokuta, he became instrumental in the spread of Christianity, and more importantly, he was the one who compiled a dictionary of Yoruba and Igbo languages, banking on his acquired Western education. His religious instrumentality provided him the opportunity to expand the territory of missionary work, and, in the process, he tried to advance the agenda of an African Christian identity. He was determined, and he used his intellectual property to advance the interest of a new elite.

Photo: Oluwafunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Nigerian Educator

Olufunmilayo Ransome- Kuti was another versatile product of the city, precocious and prescient. As a result of the present gender rights awareness, she is featured in Nigeria’s political history as she has become the voice of repressed African women in the early 20th century. In the 1940s, when the colonial administration introduced a death-defying tax, Ransome-Kuti’s fighting spirit came to the fore. She single-handedly organized a series of symposia to mobilize women to fight for their fundamental human rights that had been trampled upon. One of her most important was her ability to manage diverse opinions. She became well-coordinated because she was determined to be victorious against the British that remained unconcerned to the challenges that the taxation policy had generated. At different times, she was considered the female reincarnation of Lisabi, an important historical figure in the city, considering her lioness attempts and attitudes against repressive leadership. She once led a protest of thousands of women to vigorously challenge an Alake (the king) because of the latter’s political indiscretion. Her social and political views were consolidated in Nigeria’s struggle for independence. She joined the movement and delegation that represented Nigerian interest at international deliberations in the United Kingdom.

Professor Wole Soyinka, whose impact in African literature is an enduring legacy in scholarship, is also from Abeokuta. This African intellectual of international repute has always attributed his artistry and talent to the collaborative impact of his immediate Abeokuta environment, his indigenous Yoruba identity, and the inherent ability of their collective epistemology. The professor’s commendations are products of the proper navigation of his existence using the Yoruba people’s cultural framework and Abeokuta’s historical trajectory. Apart from his intimidating intellectual presence in the literary world, he has been an important voice in contemporary Nigerian and African politics, lending his voice to crucial government policies and giving commendable actions when the occasion demands it. Abeokuta contributed exceptionally to his intellectual brilliance because it was the environment where the heterogeneity of identity influenced his perception of life and personal philosophy. In whatever involvement that one finds Soyinka, it usually depicts an intention to consolidate voices for humanity. He has produced works, most of which are centered on Yoruba worldview and those that expressed the fecundity of Abeokuta. Many more indigenes of this historic city-state have made notable landmarks in their various fields. General Olusegun Obasanjo, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Madam Tinubu, among others, fit into this description.

In music, the city has produced pioneers who have made useful contributions in their indigenous and contemporary music industry. Various activities give the impression that the city functions as a stage where different events are performed simultaneously. People who come from Abeokuta are familiar with the competition, and it ensures that they are exposed to different aspects of human society. This influenced their fighting spirit in any aspect of life they found themselves. For example, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was known for his resistant struggles, and it is apparent that it did not start with him. Abeokuta’s history is replete with different stories of surprise that hold anyone spellbound when introduced to them.

Chief Ebenezer Obey, Nigerian Musician

Abeokuta epitomizes greatness as it has continued to establish its enduring capacity to groom people to become exceptional. Apart from being an economic hub for all manners of entrepreneurial engagements, educating people has been one of the city’s important characteristics. Not entirely separated from its historical foundation that dated back to the beginning of missionary activities, current happenings reveal that Abeokuta has imposing educational structures, disclosing interest in developing people and their society concurrently. The significant investment in the education system is compensated for by the success of people from the environment. Abeokuta remains clinically strategic in development, both materially and content-wise. Having been challenged at different times of their history, they have continued to create an environment where their fundamental progress cannot be subsumed under other events. In order words, their advancement takes a nearly important position before every other thing. This is partly underscored by all forms of efforts to institutionalize better academic foundations by creating elementary and tertiary education centers, probably beyond many others in their category. Reminiscent of their cultural and political edges, they have continued to dominate every area where they are found.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, King of Afrobeats

Although strengthened by the introduction of Western-induced policies in the 19th and 20th centuries, the development of Abeokuta has been given a solid foundation by the founders of the place. Achieving such success in a place domiciled by heterogeneously complex individuals stresses the place of mature thinkers who could face their development squarely, giving no room to the destabilization of their peace. Even though they collectively agreed to a Sodeke-led leadership, it was apparent that they had sub-heads who represented them in their political engagements.

In their history and contemporary engagements, the people of Abeokuta continue to demonstrate that they have the required resources to develop into a formidable group, at the start from the nineteenth century to date. As if the city is a muse of some sort, the number of people from Abeokuta who have become successful by breaking records in their various fields remains a source of bewilderment. Politically, it is incontestable that they have advanced impressively; economically, there is no contention about their unique difference. It is purely impossible to write the history of development among the Yoruba in Nigeria, or Africa, generally, and undermine how significant the contributions of the Abeokutans have been. It is, therefore, not possible to belittle the blessed city―Abeokuta.

Map of Ogun State, Abeokuta

The film, “Ayinla,” is an additional blessing!




Toyin Omoyeni Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.

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