Your great grandfather was an Oba…
Yes, but his kingdom was not in Abeokuta. He was the second to the last Oba in our last homestead. He died in 1817. The war started around 1819 and went on till about 1825/26. We left our homestead and dispersed to the east, west, north and south. Most of us settled at Ijebu. The main stock, with all the paraphernalia and culture, came to Abeokuta. Where we were before the war was at Ibadan. Fifty per cent of Ibadan belong to Owu. We have so many families there. Even the area they call ‘Gate’ in Ibadan, when you look at that place, you will not see any gate there now. The gate they talk about is actually the one Owu built many years ago.
The Owu in Osun State, are they your descent as well?
My own great, great grandfather was Olowu and we all ended up in Abeokuta. We were persuaded to stay in Abeokuta with the Egbas.
Did you ever envisage that you would one day become the traditional ruler?
If I say it didn’t occur to me, I would be lying. Every son of a king dreams that he would become king one day.
There are so many eminent personalities in Owu including the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, do they pay homage to you and respect you as the traditional ruler or do they see you as their mate?
This is a very interesting question. The thing that first shocked me when I was crowned was that my friends would come to the palace and they would be behaving as if they were crazy. I thought they would come and greet me in the usual manner of backslapping and exchanging banter like we used to do. They would just sit quietly. Ah! I would ask them why they were behaving that way. I would tell them I was still Sanya and they would say I am not just Sanya, I am Olowu as well. I would ask them why they were idolizing me. They would tell me that it I was real and it was not an act, they would remind me that I was real Oba. I would appeal to them that when we are on our own, we should continue with the way we used to behave and stop all the formalities. But 11 years on the throne, if they had yielded to my own fancy, I would have blamed myself. This culture is important. You should give respect to those whom respect is due.
Talking about culture, are there traditions and taboos you used your powers as the king to abrogate?
There are. But then, I think as a growing race, we must accept and allow some new ideas to come in. One thing we must not let go is the cultural discipline that we have. Education is another subject that can be harnessed by culture. The culture of learning must not be allowed to go haywire. That you have this and that exposure doesn’t mean that you should not give honour to whom honour is due. If you fail to relate with our surroundings, we will not be able to develop that background and culture that we have. We cannot understand them anymore, not even to the point of developing them. It is what we have that we would use to make progress. I am not saying we should keep to the old style of living, I am not saying the old style is useless either. You can only sit down as an enlightened person and try and reinvent things. We must not jettison our culture but we must know it so thoroughly that we can do anything we like with it to the point of making it to progress.
It is widely believed that an Oba must have passed through so many rituals and initiations before and after being crowned, did you pass through any?
I refused to go through any ritual because that would have been anti-progressive.
So how did you decide that?
I was born and raised and brought up in the periphery of the palace. My father was not an Oba but he acted as an Oba in the absence of an uncle who passed on. My father was called to become an Olowu and he said never!
But what was his real excuse for not wanting to be an Oba?
He said he was a Christian. I looked at my father and I saw him as a progressive man in those days. It was around 1946/49. He was the regent.
And why did you decide to become an Oba since you are not only a Christian but also a pastor?
Enlightenment and exposure has shown me that even if you become a king, even the crown you would wear would have to be sanctified. But what is the meaning of sanctification, is it not to make pure? I wouldn’t want to use another meaning like ‘to make holy’. For me, whilst I wasn’t against anybody’s sanctification, I wanted the proper sanctification that would make my cap wearable. I am not condemning the method they are using. If my cap is not as wide as it is now, how would I have been able to put it on my head? What was plausible for me was to buy a cap that was my size and put it on. That is a completely different form of thinking than the one my father had. A crown that was the exact size of his head was made for him, so what stopped him from wearing it? Apparently, he didn’t want to have headache.
So what you are saying is that the rituals weren’t for you and none was performed on you…
I have seen it all. My uncle was an Olowu after my father died. My elder brother was an Olowu after my father died. My cousins at one point had become Olowu. The closer they got, the more understanding I had about the responsibilities and duties of being the head of a community. I have become educated and enlightened. My exposure had been in the performing arts. I didn’t read Economics or Accountancy. I read something that could link me up with our culture; the traditional practices of my people. I have been born into this royal family. I have seen some of these practices you are talking about and I have had the opportunity of examining them critically as an enlightened person to see that this concoction which they put inside the crown may be a hindrance to my proper thinking. I just made a decision that I would not have such inside the cap I would wear. I asked them (kingmakers) what the concoction in the cap was supposed to do for me. Shouldn’t I have asked them? Fortunately for me, I was older than the people in the traditional setup that were supposed to be performing this traditional whatever on me. I spent a whole night, nearly 10 hours, talking with them. I told them I wanted to do what they asked me to do but they would need to explain to my why I should do it. After the discussion, we came to agreement that I could do it another way and it would work. There was a time I had a little wound on my leg and a medical doctor came to treat me. Three days after, he said I should take the bandage off my leg. I agreed. He gave me a small powder and said I should be putting it on the wound. I asked him what the powder was for. He said it would protect the wound from being contaminated. So I took the powder and I was putting it on the wound. That was a ritual. A ritual is a practice you do from time to time so that something bad will not happen to you. Of course, if my chiefs gathered and I started insulting them and told them to get out, I would have deprived myself of getting their advice. But if my chiefs tell me that it was because I didn’t perform a ritual that made me to have cough, why would I take them seriously?
But did they pressurise you to perform any ritual?
When the government had approved my candidacy, Chief Gbenga Daniel who was the governor then asked me if I would go to the palace to perform the ritual of staying in the palace for 90 days in seclusion. I said I would. He said he thought I was a pastor. I asked him what that had got to do with my being in the palace under seclusion for 90 days. He said it was because of the rituals they would need to perform. I asked him what rituals meant. Ritual is something you do regularly so that something does not happen to you. It is ritualistic to go to bed in the night and wake up the next morning. Look at your dictionary and check the meaning of ritual. He said that wasn’t the kind of rituals he meant. He said he was talking about the one they would need to put marks on my head and do this and that. I said it wasn’t a problem but I would still need to ask them why they would need to perform such on me. If you are going to dress me up, I would need to look at what you are wearing. If you are wearing rags, I wouldn’t allow you to dress me up. If somebody wanted me to do a ritual, I would need to ask questions and ask why they would want me to do it that particular way they are talking about. So I told him I would go to the palace and I wasn’t going to throw anybody away. I had a few things going for me. I didn’t do the rituals and not because I was a Christian, no. Christianity has its own rituals. In my house, between the hours of 1am and 3am, I and my wife would get up and pray. Is it not ritual?
The kingmakers came to my house around 1am one night. They knocked and they said they were the ritual kingmakers. I invited them in. I didn’t have to condemn them, that was what they knew. What I know is different from theirs; my exposure is different. I believed they could benefit from my exposure and that was why I went and said I would be in the seclusion of the palace for three months, alone from 8pm to 8am the next day. Nobody was supposed to come there. I even saw it as a good time for me to pray. I had been praying from 1am to 3am long before I became an Oba. Then I would read my bible. There should really be a time you detach yourself and stay on your own.
So the seclusion didn’t bother you?
Of course it didn’t bother me. So when the kingmakers came that night, they thought I wasn’t going to allow them inside the house. But the palace is not my house. If somebody knocks on my door at such a time in my personal home, I would tell the person to go back. But the palace is the house of the public and I have chosen to live there. Anyway, the men came in and I greeted them. They sat down. I wouldn’t need to tell you what we discussed because that is irrelevant. But we exchanged ideas. I started asking them about their culture and the thing they wanted to do. They told me. I told them about my own belief. They said that was my own belief but they were there to perform certain things on me. I said who? Me? I told them it wasn’t going to happen. I told them I would need to explain to them why it shouldn’t happen. I told them and somehow, I think they were persuaded. They said if I wasn’t going to do it their way, I should buy it with money. I refused. I told them they wouldn’t perform anything on me and that was that. Around 5am, I told them they would need to leave if they didn’t want people to see them. But I also told them they could still have breakfast with me if they didn’t mind. They said they weren’t hungry but I would have to give them money. So I told them that all their powers could be bought with money but the one I was telling them which is the power from God, could never be bought with money.
Are there challenges that come with being an Oba?
There are so many challenges. I have endless challenges. People are hungry. There is no day I don’t spend between an average of N1, 000 to N100, 000 every day. When people are sick, before they go to the hospital, they come to Oba’s palace. But God will always keep His promise to anybody who follows Him. I am a pastor and I try to follow His ways.
Even as a pastor, some people believe that as a king, you should have more than one wife…
Already, four women had children for me under circumstances that are not polygamous. I married my first wife when she was 23. Before she died, she had given me seven children. My kids were very young then. I didn’t even have time for the kids then. All the time she was alive, I didn’t know any of my children fell sick. She was a nurse at the Railway Hospital.
Anyway, I met another lady in Abeokuta here, the daughter of a judge and we spoke and I told her about marriage. How can you marry a woman and tell her that you don’t want children? So I didn’t succeed with her. She had two children for me, but she was brought up in England. What I thought I would get was not possible. I thought I would get a baby care nurse. That was my idea of marriage the second time, and she asked me if I thought she came to be a nurse. The next thing I saw was that she packed her things and went back to England.
So, I met another woman, and before I could say Jack Robinson, she had a set of twins. I told her we should get married but she said no. She said she didn’t like marriage. I had never heard a woman speak like that all my life. So she couldn’t marry me.
I eventually met my current wife. She had lost her husband and I had lost my wife. We met at a crusade. She’s almost like a pastor. I asked if she could marry me, and she said yes but she had two children. Just two? while I had nine. I asked why she didn’t remarry and she said since she already had two children, she didn’t plan to have more. I asked if she could marry me, and she said we should pray about it. So, we started praying.
So, I’ve been married four times, but never a polygamist. It was either they died or they left me, until this fourth one who has stayed with me for 35 years, and she has taken care of all the children like hers. There is no difference. I’ve adopted her two children and she has adopted mine.
How was growing up
My family house was the house of the mother of my grandfather. She was from an outstanding family. I didn’t meet my grandfather; he died about eight years before I was born. But I met the paraphernalia of Oba. We had a room where all the stuff he used were kept. Each time my parents weren’t around, we would go into the room and acted plays in that room and we would act as Oba and we would wear one of the crowns on our head. So if you would ask if I had dreamt of becoming an Oba, I would say yes because I acted as an Oba during those days we were very young.
So your love for acting didn’t start today?
No. I was young then. But it is a natural thing for children to act plays. But when we got to secondary school, we stopped thinking of becoming Oba. We saw our brothers who were accountants, administrators and other professionals. We just dreamt of becoming something else.
And what was your dream?
My dream was the stage. I didn’t have any help to go to the university. University education wasn’t free. But then, everybody my age in those days dreamt of going abroad for the Golden Fleece. Anyway, I gave up the idea of going abroad too soon because I realised that I would still need money to travel.
And what did you do then?
I started taking correspondence courses. I got advance level of GCE. But then, some of my mates had graduated from the university. In those days, we struggled to be educated because if you weren’t educated, you wouldn’t go anywhere. Even as I didn’t go to the university, I struggled to take the correspondence courses. I eventually got a job in a broadcasting house.
Did you like the job?
That was my dream! I wanted to be a broadcaster, a reporter. I once worked in Daily Times before I worked in a broadcasting house. One day, the director general called me and told me about an opening. He said BBC wanted to recruit Africans and train them abroad. I jumped at it. That was how I got the opportunity of being sent abroad to study. I worked for the BBC that recruited us. But then, when I told my aunt that I was going to England to study, she was ecstatic! She asked me what I was going to study, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to say ‘Drama’. How would I explain ‘drama’ to her in Yoruba? Well, I had to tell her ‘Ere’. She screamed! She said that so I actually wanted to go to England to learn how to ‘play’. She asked me if I needed to learn how to play. She asked why I couldn’t study what my elder brothers studied. She said, ‘ your brothers studied ‘ accountant’ , ‘ doctor’, ‘ lawyer’, and you want to go and study how to play.’ She was my mother’s best friend. My mother was late then. Tears were streaming down her eyes. At a point, she felt I was lying because she didn’t think I could go to England to study ‘Ere’. I was so sad. The next day, she marched me to my cousin’s house. He was an accountant. She told him to talk to me so I would get back to my senses. But my cousin knew what I was going to do and he explained to her. She understood but said she would still have preferred me to study a ‘reasonable’ course.
When did you come back?
I came back in 1967 and the same man, Christopher Kolade, who helped me go abroad, also employed me. I was so mad with the so-called Nigerian Television Service. I wasn’t happy with the percentages of the programmes on TV. Eighty five per cent were foreign programmes like Hawaii 05. Fifteen per cent was for news. We had two or three per cent of local content. Kolade said I was free to do whatever I could. I asked for all the files that had to do with programmes. So I started working on local ideas for programmes. I met great producers including the late Art Alade and others. Within a year, we changed things around. Gradually, we went from 60 per cent Nigerian programmes against 40 per cent.
When did the idea of Village Headmaster come on board?
As I was going through the files and studying them, I came across this goldmine. I read it and my eyes popped out. I went to late Segun Olusola who was the first Nigerian producer of television programmes. He was the controller of programmes then. I told him we would have a long lasting drama series on TV. He cautioned me. He said he knew I could be mad and he wouldn’t stop me from being mad. But he said I shouldn’t be crazy. I wondered what the difference between madness and craze was. He told me there was no money to do this ‘great’ idea. I had to go and tell the director what happened between me and Segun. He actually said Segun was saying the truth. But he agreed we could give it a go-ahead. He said I shouldn’t worry about the money. He said when we got to the bridge, we would cross it. That was how Village Headmaster came to be.
Was it planned that some of the cast of Village Headmaster ended up becoming Obas?
You are very right. It is really amazing! We never talked about who we were or where we came from. I would have told them I was the grandson of Olowu. About six of us were princes but we didn’t talk about it. The only one who has yet to become Oba is Dejumo Lewis. He is a bundle of talent.