The Oba of Lagos, His Royal Majesty, Oba Rilwan Akiolu, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA speaks on traditional practices in a metropolitan city like Lagos and his experience so far.
Would you say it has been easy being the Oba of a cosmopolitan city like Lagos?
I don’t have reservoir of knowledge and that is why the position of an Oba or a leader demands that you should be close to God. It is not that I know how to do it, but the blessing of the Almighty God and the support of well-meaning people of Lagos; both Lagosians and non-Lagosians. The closest person to you can disappoint you, but God cannot. That is why if you are close to God, you are good to the people and you tell people the truth, they will always like you. I have spent 13 years plus on this throne. Any right thinking and God-fearing monarch ought to have the feeling of his people in mind and I try within my knowledge and wisdom from God to be frank to a fault in my dealings with people. Nothing is permanent in this world and I have made it abundantly clear to my friends, family and children that whether I like it or not, no matter the number of years I spend on this throne, I would have to leave this place one day. May God spare my life. I succeeded somebody, and it is an axiom that I would be succeeded by somebody, so I don’t deceive myself at all. The day I attained 60, October 29, 2003, was the same day Island Club clocked 60 years, and openly, at the Premier Island Club, former President Olusegun Obasanjo said you either like Lagos or you leave Lagos. And that is the truth, and Lagos has just started. Lagos welcomes everybody. Like the late Yusuf Olatunji said, the town or community that does not welcome visitors would always be scanty. We are not going to drive anybody from Lagos, but they have to operate and submit to the indigenous traditional wishes of the owner of Lagos. By the grace of Almighty Allah, the benefits of all that is to happen in Lagos would be reaped in greater proportion by Lagosians. That is my prayer. When Lagos was to be named Lagos, it was named Eko Akete, the home of wisdom, a town that makes visitors prosper, but visitors should not belittle the indigenes. Tell me any well-to-do person in Nigeria today who has not had one or two things to do with Lagos. The blessing in Lagos is so much and we have not reached anywhere, what Lagos will attain, during and after my reign.
Before Lagos became an enviable city that it is today, could you take us through some practices in the past that have now been abolished?
In the olden days, right from what they call State House in Marina up to Elegbata area, up to Oke Ipa, where they are sand-filling now that would by God’s grace become Diamond Estate, belongs to this palace, and that is why when people say the Oba of Lagos is extensively rich, it is what we have inherited from our fathers. Also, like in the time of Oba Oluwole, it is believed that everything in the town is under the care and custody of the king. All the markets in what is called Lagos in those days belonged to this palace, and every five days all the markets would have to contribute something and bring it to the palace. The king’s household was not buying anything. When the Oloris were going to the market, the palace staff would follow them and any place they got to, the seller there would bend down and the palace staff would take whatever the Oloris wanted, without paying anything. That no longer happens. I always tell my children that any monarch who goes ahead with the ancient custom and removes somebody’s head, according to an old adage, the government would cut the person’s head. There are now social changes in the world. Then, whenever the Oba got up in the morning, before he did anything, they had to consult the Ifa oracle to know what he should do. Let me tell you, even though I’m a Muslim to the core, I believe in the Quran; I have been to Mecca, but the Ifa divination does not tell a lie.
Did you have the opportunity to be close to any of the past kings?
I had a very good relationship with the late Oba (Adeyinka) Oyekan. I was very close to him. He didn’t hide anything from me and I didn’t hide anything from him. There are few places in this world that we didn’t go together. In fact, there was a time he requested that I should come and sleep by his side, I had to spread a blanket and slept. I was under 21 when Oba (Adeniji) Adele died, that was on July 12, 1964. When you talk of diplomacy, intelligence, administration and historical knowledge of Nigeria, and Isale Eko in particular, Oba Adele was the first to be reckoned with, and he maintained the integrity of this house. There was a particular occasion he had some disagreements with his childhood friend, the late Ayeni. Some elders in the town were trying to settle it but Ayeni said they should leave the king alone and that he would not go to the palace again. Oba Adele cautioned him that nobody talks like that to the owner of Lagos (Olowo Eko), and that if he said he would not come to Iga Idunganran (palace of the Oba of Lagos), it would be so for him. When the man left, it wasn’t up to one week when he fell sick. Elders had to come around and appeal to the king to forgive him. If you do something that is unjust and ungodly to a monarch, I mean a real monarch, not politician-made monarchs, and that monarch reports to his ancestors, I won’t say more than that.
All those times you were close to the late Oba Oyekan and Oba Adele, did you know you would one day become the Oba of Lagos?
It is only a bastard prince that would not wish to succeed the throne of his father. And that was what I made abundantly clear to some of my top princes who are emirs in the North today, when they were trying to accuse someone that he said he wanted to become the Emir of Kano. I asked what was wrong with that. With due respect to the late Emir of Kano (Alhaji Ado Bayero), May God spare him and grant him Al jannah Firdaus, the day he was attacked by the dreaded Boko Haram and he was to be taken for treatment, he spoke to me on the telephone and requested that I should thank my son and take good care of him, he was talking about Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. He said the plane that was taking him for treatment was arranged by him (Sanusi) and that he did what a son should do for his father. But people were talking all sorts of things in the media that he wanted to kill the Emir so he could become king. There is no prince who does not want to become king. I believe my own was destined by God because I had brothers.
Were there signs that gave an inkling that you would be a king someday, since you said yours was destined by God?
The oldest man in the Akiolu family now, Alhaji Rasheed Animashaun, known as Baba Ibadan, who took care of me when I was young, told me that there was a time I was sick when I was young and they took me somewhere in Ibadan. He said the person they went to meet asked if I was from a royal family. He said the person told them to take good care of me because when he saw me, he could see a royal tree springing up again. He also said when I was young, I used to assemble children around me, and I would sit in the centre and whatever I was given at home, I would give to them. Beyond these, he said it was raining one day when the wall of the house we were living in fell and that my father screamed because I was seated around that place before the incident, and that before they got there to check if I was there, I had left the place. So, there were signs.
Since you had brothers who were also entitled to the throne, were they not interested in becoming the king?
Many are called but few are chosen. Let me tell you, at the time Oba Afaolu became the king, out of all the children of the late King Dosunmu, he wasn’t used to talking much. He wasn’t a wretched person but he hadn’t got much. So, God gives leadership to whoever he wants. There were many contestants during my time as well. Even my own younger brother went and assembled people in the family secretly, and they were with him. He said they should propose him because he said I’m a very difficult person. But the chiefs and God almighty Allah know what is good for Lagos. There is no place where there is no struggle when an Oba is to be selected. I always make sure the palace open to all of them. After the selection, it is administration, good relationship and governance that should follow; no more competition. And that was what I told (Governor Akinwumi) Ambode that if people who opposed him during election asked him for a favour, he should do it to show that he is the father of all. We have to forgive.
How tough was the competition, knowing that the seat of the Oba of Lagos is an influential and enviable one?
When the race was on, I must be honest with you, it was Prince Rilwan Babatunde Osuolale Aremu Akiolu versus others. The person who felt he could influence it did everything possible. With the influence of the late Ooni of Ife, he did not have a single vote. I hate pretence. I was the closest to this person I’m talking about. Even his late father on several occasions advised me on certain things, which is not good for me to disclose. The man told me that the person was like a lantern that lightens up the space for people to see but its own base is covered in darkness. When somebody over 100 years old tells you something like that, you should pay attention to it. It is not that I know how to do it but I’m a product of what God has destined. I can proudly tell you that, to all intents and purposes, I’m the first to be a descendant of about nine chieftaincy houses and the Oba of Lagos. Up till now, there are people still going to court. And some of them are not genuine – some of them are from Igbomina and Togo. But I’m a lawyer, so I don’t want to make any comment on it. Until I get to court, they will know the type of person Oba Akiolu is. What they don’t know that I know, I will tell them. I don’t want to say anything here. After the judgement of the court, you will still come back to hear what I want to say.
The installation of a king is usually characterised by rituals and sacrifices. Do we also have such traditional practices even in Lagos, being such a metropolitan city?
An adage says what an elderly person uses to eat pap is hidden under the leaves of the pap (which implies that there are details that are not meant for public consumption). That is it, but you see this Iledi Osugbo, I have told the elders there that every January 1, let us make this thing open so people would know that there is no more human sacrifices to become the king. Some people would also say a new king is expected to eat the heart of the previous king, but it is a lie. But, there are certain things that we do here, including alms giving. Alms giving drives evil away from the giver. There are social changes in the world and we have to keep it that way. God has designed the position of the Oba to be the way it is. The politics had been there even before the British came. They were the ones who named Eko to be Lagos, meaning ‘Lagoon de Curamo’ that is ‘land near the water.’ And we still have the throne room in the old palace and some artistic works which are over 500 years old. Let us leave it that way.
Is it true that the seat of the Oba of Lagos took its root from Benin Empire?
The tradition of this house is partly Benin and partly Yoruba, because the first Oba of Lagos is a descendant of the Oba of Benin, and that is why when a new Oba is installed in Benin, there is a way we greet ourselves.
With Lagos being a metropolitan city, do we also have taboos here in spite of its elitist colouration?
There is nowhere there are no taboos, in Benin, Yoruba cultures. For instance, in this house (palace), if a child is born to me today, I will not see him or her and he or she will not enter this house (palace) until 90 days. And there are some drinks and food anybody with royal blood in this palace must not put in his mouth. That is why the Yoruba adage says the practice in one household is an abomination in another household.
Why can’t you see your child and what are the food and drinks that such persons from the royal lineage must not taste?
Just like I said, an adage says what an elderly person uses to eat pap is hidden under the leaves of the pap (which implies that there are certain details that cannot be made public).
Beyond the ones in the palace, what are the taboos that millions of Lagos residents should know?
When it comes to taboos, Yoruba would say whoever does what no one has ever tried would see what no one has ever seen. The normal taboos in Yoruba customs are many. Like it is in the Quran, all sins can be forgiven, except two. One is that anybody who deliberately kills another person cannot be forgiven and anybody who deliberately takes his mother to the holy mosque in Mecca, during the Ramadan fast, to go and have affair with her there, will not be forgiven. But, people should know their limits. Like the popular adage, a farmland cannot belong to father and son without having a boundary; they would know their boundaries. And that is why nobody can ill-treat anybody around me here. Anybody who feels he can come and do anything unjust in Lagos here should know that it will not work.
The title ‘Oba of Lagos’ sounds like the traditional ruler of the whole Lagos, but we have Obas in other parts of Lagos. What is the jurisdiction in this context?
That is why the Oba of Lagos is the permanent chairman of Council of Obas in Lagos State. The city is expanding with urbanisation and development and you need people who would look after each area. That is why we have Council of Obas and Chiefs, for which I’m the permanent chairman. Politicians have attempted to put somebody there, because of politics, and they knew the result of that. There is nothing politicians cannot do, but we thank God. So far so good, all these Obas cooperate fully with me on any programme. We throw issues open among ourselves before taking the final decision and government has been very cooperative. Eight of our traditional rulers just came back from England. A prominent airline, owned by a prominent Lagosian, was doing anniversary; I was there for the first anniversary but I couldn’t make it this time around. At his own cost, they went there, they arranged accommodation for them and they spent some time there before coming back. Even the state government encourages me to expose all the other traditional rulers to seminar conferences within and outside the country. Like I always tell the other Obas, instead of selling their land, they should encourage those buying the land to set up factories and make life better for the benefit of everybody in that area. Anybody who thinks of himself alone is not a good leader.
In some cultural settings, we also have the tradition of new kings inheriting wives of former kings. Does it also happen in Lagos and how many did you inherit?
The custom in this house is that all the Oloris left behind by any deceased Oba would have to be inherited by the new king, and that is the tradition, even up till now. I won’t say more than that. There was one Olori who had children for three Obas. It was the quarrel of Dosunmu and Akintoye which escalated to something else that disrupted that arrangement. When I became the Oba, I had the intention to encourage all the previous Oloris to remain here. But one of the royal fatherly instructions late Oba Oyekan gave to me (as if it was his wish that I should succeed him) was that I had to look after them. He told me the ones that I should allow to go; he told me the stuff they were made of. Some of them are still living while the elderly ones have died. During this week, the daughter of one of them still came to see me in the palace. Whether I like it or not, I’m going to give up the ghost one day, and someone must succeed me, but definitely not my own son.
Why is that?
Because it is not father to son, like in the past. Not anymore. My children can aspire to be Oba somewhere else in this Lagos, but I will not say more than that.
Your comment towards the 2015 election sparked outrage…
(Cuts in)…Those who knew me well know that one of my intimate and best friends in this world today is Alhaji Abdulaziz Ude, he’s an Igbo man. The same thing with Obiora, Prof. Pat Utomi and the Obi of Onitsha. If something is against me, I will talk, and there is nobody I cannot tell the truth. Nobody. By the grace of almighty Allah and my ancestors in this house (palace), nobody can get to the position of authority in Lagos without the approval and consent of the almighty Allah, the ancestors and the Oba of Lagos and I mean it; either now or in the future. Let anybody plan anything. And they have seen the examples and they are still going to see more. Anybody who is close to people in authority should not tell them what they want to hear, but the truth that is in the best interest of others. Which of the favours of the almighty Allah can we deny? None. You cannot predict any human being until he has money and is in position. But, so far so good, God and the ancestors are still with the governor (Ambode) with what he’s doing and I pray he will continue like that.
Being a retired Assistant Inspector-General of Police, are there things you like to do before that you can no longer do?
I still go to parties to enjoy myself and dance. And I don’t pretend as if I don’t like good things. I only reduce the degree of my troublemaking because I’m getting older. But, honesty, closeness to God, frankness and saying the truth are things I can’t leave until I die. I will never condone injustice or take advantage of people. Anybody who wants to do something illegal for Lagos would at that time know who Oba Akiolu is. They say Lagos people used to quarrel over land, that can never stop, but I will never encourage anybody to do thuggery. Even last week, I was still warning some of my close relations that nobody should take the law into their hands; if anybody encroaches on their land, they should go to court. I was still warning one of my cousins, the Chief Olumegbon of Lagos, that nemesis will catch up with those doing thuggery someday.
You once said you like beautiful women. Has that changed now that you are older?
By the grace of almighty Allah, till I die, I will still like beautiful women.
Does it mean you could still take more wives?
Future belongs to God. I even tell my wives that the door is not closed yet. I don’t deceive myself, and they know the kind of person I am. As a Muslim and as an Oba, it is not wrong, and I could invite you if it happens.
What was one of the memorable things you did when you ascended the throne?
When I assumed this position, I told the people their health and welfare would be my concern, so I began to appeal to some of my friends on the need to make life better for people. As its corporate social responsibility, Zenith Bank, under Jim Ovia, Peter, Ebenezer and the present governor of Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele, who supervised the project, built a N400m health centre over for the people of Lagos. The first person to approve some money for us to start was Lamido Sanusi, the present Emir of Kano. He was in First Bank at that time, and they were the first to give us N50m, before Jim came to do the whole thing. And he detailed the present CBN governor, Emefiele, who was in Zenith Bank then, to be in charge. In the whole of Lagos State, there is no health centre that can match that facility. Baba Ijebu (Chief Kessington) Adebutu, has also agreed to build the second one for us, I’m just waiting for the government to evacuate the plank sellers. And that is the way to go; everybody must contribute because government cannot do it alone. If there are vacancies, I could use my God-given position to assist them. There are many things we are still planning. Any leader who thinks of himself alone is not a good leader. Anybody who works and labours for something should be adequately rewarded. Leadership should be supported, and leadership has to acknowledge the contribution of those who made it possible. I won’t say more than that. God should not make us ingrates.