A renowned historian, Prof. Banji Akintoye, tells Newsmen that the Awori were the first settlers and owners of Lagos..
What is your take on the ownership of Lagos?
When people say ownership, I find that difficult to understand because ownership belongs to the people who first settled in it. And the people who first settled in Lagos — I don’t think anybody is disputing that they are the Awori subgroup of the Yoruba nation. The Awori are a subgroup of the Yoruba, just as the Ijebu, Ikale, and Ekiti are subgroups. Those are the people who first settled in Lagos with the Ijebu close to them towards the North and East and the Egbado close to them towards the North and West. So, I don’t think there is anybody disputing that. In fairness to the Oba of Lagos, I don’t think he’s saying any other group but the Awori are the owners of Lagos because there is no basis for saying that. What he has been saying is that at some point in the history of Lagos — not when Lagos was founded as a human settlement, but many centuries later after Lagos had become a kingdom — people who first settled in these places were not kingdoms; we know that from Yoruba history. We know it from the Edo history too. The first Edo people who settled east of Yorubaland were not a kingdom; they were just a scattered people in the forest. The Yoruba were scattered people in the forest too. It was not until more than 3,000 years that kingdoms began to emerge in these forests among the Yoruba first, then among the Edo, and so on. And it wasn’t until the kingdoms had existed for hundreds of years that the Edo had contact with the kingdom of Lagos and became involved in the royal family of Lagos.
Does that mean there was a kingdom in Lagos before Oba Ado and the Bini came to Lagos?
Of course, there was an Awori kingdom in Lagos before any contact with the Bini. Let me put the story a little clearly. The Yoruba, Edo, Igbo, Urhobo, Nupe, Tiv, Igala, Idoma, and so on, from our archeological research and linguistic research, we believe that though all those peoples evolved along the banks of the Middle Niger up to the confluence with the Benue and that at some point in 3000-2000 BC they began to spread out from there and gradually, the Yoruba, Edo, Nupe, Igbo, Igala, Idoma, Igbere evolved, and so on. People then went out roughly from 3000 to 1000 BC, spread out and gradually occupied the country that became the Aro. The Yoruba, which happened to be the largest of these groups, spread out roughly southwards and westwards and occupied what is now Yorubaland, from the Yoruba in Kogi, west of the Niger, that is, Lokoja — southwards, all the way to the coast, what is now the islands of Lagos and westwards into what is now Benin Republic, Togo Republic and even a little bit of Ghana. That’s the Yoruba homeland. Every group had its own homeland. The Edo had its own homeland, a little smaller than that of the Yoruba, to the east of the Yoruba. And there were no kingdoms; these were just people that were coming as agricultural communities, evolving and getting better. About 900 AD, the Yoruba started to evolve kingdoms; they ruled themselves by kingdoms and the first kingdom to be created was Ife. From Ife, people went out and created other kingdoms in the Yoruba forest. The kings were not the creators of the people. The people were (already) there. So, it is not that the king is the owner of the people; the people were there. A prince would come from Ife, establish a kingdom among the people and become the king of the people.
When you say, for instance, ‘the Owa of Ilesa,’ the Owa of Ilesa did not create Ijesa people. The Ijesa people were there. The Owa of Ilesa came from Ife. Or you say ‘the Ewi of Ado Ekiti.’ The Ewi is not the creator of the people of Ado. The people were there. A prince came from Ife and became the ruler over the people. That’s how the kingdoms were created in Yorubaland. The same thing (in) Benin; the Edo people were there in their own share of the forest and then, according to Edo and Yoruba traditions, a prince came from Ife and helped the Edo to establish the type of kingdom that the Yoruba were establishing at about the same time.
What do you make of the argument that when the Awori came to Lagos, the Benin royalty had established some form of influence?
There was no influence at all. When the Yoruba people came, there were no people in the forest. They took it over. When the Edo came to their own part of the country, there were no people there. They took over that country. When the Igbo came to their part of the forest, they took over the forest. There was nobody living there before them at all. So, there was no Edo living anywhere beyond the Edo forest. It was later, when they founded a kingdom and the kingdom became strong — especially because, then, about 1450, the white man began to come along the coast of West Africa, establishing trade and so on — that the Edo kingdom became rich as a result of the trade because they had a little slice of the coast and a port from which the Europeans used to bring goods and so on. So, the Edo became a major trading people and that’s why they became strong. It was at that time that they began to have contact with other people; it was not before.
Are you saying the Awori kingdom preceded the Bini kingdom?
Of course! There was a kingdom in Aworiland just as there was a kingdom in other parts of Yorubaland. In fact, there were two kingdoms: there was the kingdom of Ota, which was older than the Lagos kingdom.
The Newsmen has spoken to a number of Awori descendants, some of whom say the Awori people did not exist as a kingdom until they accepted the Bini royalty who created a form of government for the Awori. Is this accurate?
No, the Awori (already) had a kingdom. We don’t know exactly how it came that the Edo had a part in the government of the Awori kingdom. Apparently, we historians are different from people who tell stories of their parents, their families and so on. I have stories of my own family too. I come from the royal family in Ado Ekiti and I can tell stories and so on, but a historian looks at those stories, interprets them, relates them to stories from other places, looks for any documentary evidence that can be found — archeological evidence or evidence from historical linguistics — and you can put it together and create a story that is nearer the truth than any traditional stories that my parents might have told me. So, what you hear from a lot of people who are telling stories of Lagos are stories they heard from their parents. As a historian, I don’t say there is anything wrong with those stories, but I say they are incomplete as a means of interpreting the history of Lagos State because you have to bring other information that you know.
The information that we know, for instance, broadly, is what I have repeated; the various peoples of the West African coasts, especially the eastern parts of the West African coasts, starting from the Igbo in the east, to the Ijaw, the Yoruba, the Ebira, the Nupe, the Igala, the Idoma, and so on, all took possession of their part of what is now Nigeria at roughly the same period of history. Sometime before the fourth millennium — that is about 4000 BC—they started to take over those territories and the Yoruba went all the way to the coast. They came to the coast not only in Lagos; they came to the coast in what is now the Ilaje country, the southern part of Ondo. They came to the coast in a part of Ikale and in Itsekiri. The Itsekiri are Yoruba. So, the Yoruba were in all those places. Later, about the 9th Century AD, the Yoruba began to evolve kingdoms. That was a new development in their political history. So, kingdoms arose all over Yorubaland — and towns. The kingdom of Lagos was one of those Yoruba kingdoms that evolved from about the 9th Century AD to about 1600 AD. So, there was a Yoruba kingdom, that is, an Awori kingdom, in Lagos. There was an Awori kingdom in Isheri. There was an Awori kingdom in Ota which is believed to be the oldest.
Lagos was an Awori kingdom, but many centuries later, the trade with Europeans on the coast made the Edo kingdom of Benin strong. They became interested in the trade along the coast, so as to be able to take more part along the coast. It was at that time that they first came to Lagos. And they were not the first people to come to Lagos to take advantage of the trade. The Ijebu, the Ilaje, the Ijaw and others came. So, there was nothing different about them (Edo).
First of all, there was an Awori people who occupied the coast — I want you to be clear — from about the fourth millenium BC until about the 9th Century AD. Among the Awori people on the coast on the island of Lagos, there evolved a kingdom, one of the Yoruba kingdoms evolving all over Yorubaland. About the same time, the Benin kingdom also evolved in its own part of the forest. It was not until many centuries later that the Benin kingdom had contact with the Lagos kingdom. To make it a little clearer, if the Lagos kingdom evolved, say, in the 12th Century AD, which was about the same period the Benin kingdom was evolving in its own place, how do you then say that it was the Bini who then came to create Lagos kingdom. They didn’t create Lagos kingdom. The Awori people created their own kingdom. That’s the truth of the matter and we know the names that they had in their traditions as the founder of their kingdom and so on. But in about 1600, now with Benin a strong and rich state from the trade, they came into contact with Lagos and we don’t know exactly what happened. There are all sorts of stories. Some people say, ‘The king of Benin came and conquered the Lagos kingdom!’ There is no truth in that. There was a large Benin trading community in Lagos, just as there were large Ijebu and Ijaw trading communities in Lagos, because Lagos was becoming attractive as a place of trade. So, according to the stories that we historians hold to be nearer the truth, there developed a succession dispute between two Awori princes for the throne, and somehow — it’s not clear — the Edo community assisted one of the princes and it was in the year 1600 AD.
How can you say categorically that 1600 AD was the year this happened?
We have something that a German, who was a trader in Lagos in 1603, wrote about war in Lagos. He didn’t say that anybody came to invade Lagos. He said there was war in Lagos, and so, we historians say that is the succession dispute that became a war and the Edo community helped one prince against the other. And the Edo community became, in some way, part of the governance of the Lagos kingdom.
Do you think that willingness to help one of the princes was because of the economic gains by the Edo?
No, apparently it was some general sort of thing with people helping whatever side they wanted to.
So, it wasn’t about political or economic dominance?
No, not so much. So, about that time, the Edo became involved in the royal family of Lagos and a lot of Edo traditions and cultural accretions then came. For us to be able to study the history of our people, we historians have to be able to read the archives of other people. So, I had to study Portuguese, a little bit of Spanish and Italian because we need to be able to read (their languages). These people came to our land so we can go after the little bits of information they had on our land in their archives, in their countries. For instance, a Portuguese trader in Lagos in 1533 mentioned Ijebu Ode. So, I had to go and read it there. He said, ‘From this point, about 10 leagues to the interior, there is a large town called Geebou’ — that is Ijebu — ‘and it is surrounded by a great wall.’ Ijebu Ode has one of the largest city walls on earth. It already had those walls by the time this man, Pacheco Pereira, came to Lagos in 1533. So, the duty of the historian is to try and tell the people our history and what we know about Lagos history is that it became a great trading centre; people from all sorts of places, even people from outside what is now Nigeria — Ajah people from places like Epe, Ouidah, Allada and others came to Lagos to trade too. It was as a result of that that the kingdom of Badagry emerged in about 1730.
Having said that, there are certain things that I must say: first, all this talk about Edo and Yoruba as if they were different and hostile is not true. The Edo and the Yoruba were very culturally close. In fact, until the 20th Century, the information at our disposal as historians is that the Edo and the Yoruba didn’t really see each other as different people; they were just one people: Edo people all (were) over Yorubaland and Yoruba traders everywhere in Edo. According to one of our historians who has studied the matter, even the palace of Benin was bilingual for most of its history.
What languages were they speaking?
They spoke the Edo and Yoruba languages. And according to the Edo and Yoruba traditions, the royal family of Benin is part Yoruba, part Edo. A Yoruba prince went from Ife and helped to create a kingdom. We Yoruba don’t say, ‘He went and conquered Edo.’ The idea of conquest is attractive to young people. But the historian knows that things don’t always happen by conquest. No doubt, he (the Yoruba prince turned Edo king) was a great warrior because later, he went and created another kingdom in Yorubaland; he was the same prince who went and created the kingdom of Oyo Ile in the north of Yorubaland, which became the centre of a great Yoruba empire: this (the prince) was Oranmiyan. And when he had settled down, he said he was going home and he had a son who was old enough to be king — some young man, maybe a teenager — he asked them, ‘Make this one your king because I’m going to my own people.’ That is the tradition we have from both Yoruba people and Edo people. The oldest writing on it was by Egharevba, an Edo historian, in the 1920s. He wrote that the man came, helped to establish a kingdom for the Edo people because they were fighting one another when he came. He made some people friends, subdued those who were troublesome, created a kingdom and later left, leaving his son who was of a Benin woman to be their king.
So, it’s all mixed up and this story of Lagos — the Yoruba and the Edo do not see each other as different at all. They think they are just one people and there is a lot of intermixture between the Yoruba and the Edo. The Yoruba monarchical system is actually what they adapted. Yoruba and Edo culture and arts are all mixed together. The similarities are very profound. I think what we should be talking about really are the similarities and closeness, rather than trying to create a picture of divergence, difference and conflict. Between the Edo and the Yoruba, there was no such thing.
There were large numbers of Edo people in many Yoruba towns. I can sit here and tell you the Yoruba towns where there were large Edo trading communities. In Akure, Ado Ekiti, Owo, many of the towns in Akoko, there were large Edo trading communities. And then, in Benin, there were large Yoruba trading communities there. The two peoples intermixed, so if an Edo became king in a place, it didn’t look odd to the people. The king of Ikere Ekiti can claim to come from Benin but he doesn’t talk about it. He’s the king of Ikere and he doesn’t make the type of noise that we hear in Lagos. Or do we hear the Oba of Benin saying, ‘I was originally from Ife.’ He’s too busy exuding the pride that ‘I’m the king of Benin’ and I think that’s what the king of Lagos should learn to do — behave like the other kings from the Yoruba or Edo worlds who happen to be ruling among people who might not be originally ethnically their people but who are ruling among them and are therefore one of them.
If you’re ruling over the kingdom of Lagos, you’re a Lagos man and that’s the most important thing. The fact that you came from Benin is not important really. If you’re the king of Ikere, you’re the leader of the Ikere people and you don’t start to behave as if there is a dichotomy between you and the people you rule. Listen, the kings of Britain are from Germany. They don’t talk about their being German. That is the way the world is. I think that it’s a pity that in Lagos, people are talking about these things. It is of no importance. What is important to the world is that you are the king of this great city of Lagos.
What are your thoughts on the argument that Lagos is no man’s land?
It started during the colonial era because the British said Lagos was the capital of Nigeria and therefore when they were trying to create regions, they would not let it go to be part of any one region. So, it is everybody’s homeland; it would be everybody’s home. So, that was how the idea of ‘Lagos is no man’s land’ came to be. And some immature young people turned it around later, and so on. It’s nonsense, of course. Lagos belongs to the Awori section of the Yoruba nation. The Awori people created their own kingdom in Lagos. At some point in the history of that kingdom, Edo influence came into the royal family. That’s what we know and Lagos is not peculiar in that. There are many other places where Edo influence exists in the royal family and in the Edo royal family, also Benin — because they have only one major city; it’s the Yoruba who have towns everywhere. The Yoruba are the most urbanised people in the whole of black Africa. They have big towns everywhere. When the first visitors to the interior of Yorubaland did so in 1825, they were surprised to find that Yorubaland had more towns than European countries. Yoruba are the most urbanised people in the world. The circumstances that have created that, we don’t know. But we know that the Yoruba are among the most urbanised people on earth and they have been so for a long time. There is no town in Yorubaland that was created by the British. Just as there are towns all over Nigeria that were created by the British, there are no such towns in Yorubaland. All Yoruba towns are old towns. Some of them are a thousand years old. By the time the Europeans came to the coast of Yorubaland in the 1530s, Ijebu Ode was already more than 500 years old.
In the history of these kingdoms, there are all sorts of influence. People come from different places and become chiefs and so on. Some in a few places, they become rulers and so on. But the important thing is that whoever is ruler of a town is ruler of that town, pre-eminently. That is your most important credential. The fact that your ancestors might have come from somewhere is not important. The British queen knows that she is German but she doesn’t make a noise about it. She is the queen of England and that is the important thing. The Lagos king is the king of Lagos and that is the important thing. The earlier people learn to live with that, the better. One final thing I want to say is, there is a danger from this way of thinking and talking that Lagos could become polarised and some sort of political trouble could arise thereby in the future. I think the people who are promoting this must be very careful. It is in the interest of our future.