The Erelu Kuti IV of Lagos, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, speaks with BAYO AKINLOYE about the controversy trailing the history of Lagos’ original settlers
Given your ancestry, what is your view of the seeming confusion of the history of Lagos as regards the original owners?
I am Abiola Dosunmu, the Erelu Kuti IV of Lagos. Erelu Kuti was the queen mother of Lagos. I am a direct descendant of Oba Dosunmu. By any standard, either through the Bini descendant or the Yoruba ancestry, I am a bona fide Lagosian. I have been Erelu Kuti for more than 40 years. I have had opportunities to sit with elders comprising fathers and grandfathers of the current traditional rulership of Lagos. I must say that I’ve been following the conversation by the various contributors. To start with, I remember a passage in my book, ‘Lagos: A Legacy of Honour’, which I wrote in 1991 when the capital of Nigeria was moved from Lagos to Abuja. The subtitle of the book is ‘Lest They Forget.’ I’ll like to read out an extract from it – the extract is the parting remarks of (a former dictator) President Ibrahim Babangida, at the airport, on the day he actually moved from Lagos to Abuja. This is what he said in his farewell speech at the Lagos airport, ‘The Federal Government shall forever remain grateful to the highly tolerant, vivacious, hospitable, and infectiously humorous omo eko. They have always treated and received us as brothers and sisters. They have also shown us the strength and value of friendship and warmth across ethnic and religious barriers. We must not view our movement from Lagos as an indictment of this most wonderful and extremely fascinating city. Lagos remains a colossus in its own right. It richly deserves our gratitude in innumerable ways. It has been at the crossroads of major developments in our national life inducing in us bitter and sweet memory of joy and anguish in nation-building.’
That statement is very important at this point in time. I’ve listened to various indigenous people of Lagos and all I could hear are discordant notes about the origin of Lagos and some of them are because of personal issues, aggrandisements or grudges. We must understand that the history of Lagos is very clear. I am hoping that my voice will be a voice of calm; a voice of unity of purpose. From inception, our fathers and forefathers had told us all about Lagos. Many of the people who are talking now know the truth. My sense is that they’re being miserly with words and information about the situation. We’ve always known the Benin Kingdom to be a foremost kingdom. It is very clear that Benin has always been very strong and exposed to the outside world. Lagos has always been an extension of Benin as a passageway to the waters to trade with the foreigners and of course, to hunt and do other things. Hence, when the Awori came from Ile-Ife – I haven’t heard anybody mention that. Although the Bini didn’t really settle (down in Lagos), they had authority (over the land). But when the Awori came to settle there the Bini made them to pay isakole. If the Bini were not there or they had no authority (over Lagos) they wouldn’t make the Awori pay isakole to the Bini king through his emissaries.
The Awori settlers reasoned that, after a long period of settlement that they were well established in the area. They therefore wondered why they should continue to pay royalty to a king who was not present in the domain. So, they rebelled and refused to pay the isakole. The news got to the Bini king because people would say why didn’t they go to other Yoruba to help them? Why did they go to the Bini king to settle the quarrel for them? That’s not the point. The point is that they refused to pay the isakole. Therefore, the Bini king sent an expedition to ensure that they continue to pay the royalty. At that point, the most sensible thing for the Bini king was to establish his presence – that was what the Oba of Benin did. He established his presence in the territory rather than leaving it to the settlers who were now rebelling – hence, the obaship started. Should we say this is a chicken and egg situation? To now jettison the right of one for another? I don’t think it’s right.
Are you saying there’s no difference between the Bini and the Awori?
There is a difference in the context of this conversation. Yes, somebody came to the land now called Lagos and settled down there. But somebody already had authority over the place before the former came to settle – there is evidence that they actually had the authority because they made the settlers pay the royalty to them to allow them to settle there. It is simple and straightforward if we’re being honest.
Same could have been said about the Europeans who colonised Lagos; they had authority over what didn’t belong to them.
No, it’s not the same. I have done extensive research beyond the shores of this country; in Europe and anywhere I can get information. I have held several workshops with erudite scholars at the National Institute of International Affairs to debate this and the conclusion is very clear for everyone to see. The colonialists came in not because they wanted to take over our land; they were not fighting for land. They were not fighting to settle here. They wanted to trade – they could see the buoyancy and opportunity of great trading going on in Lagos back then. And because there was competition among the Europeans, the British wanted to sign a treaty so that they could have an edge over other Europeans – that was what they came for.
Did you mean the king ceded the land to his chiefs?
You know when the British came and they signed the treaty, the king told them he had not ceded his land to them – as against popular belief that he ceded Lagos to the colonialists. He said he could not cede the land to them because it did not belong to him but said he could sign agreements of trade with them, telling them that the land belonged to his chiefs. He told the British that the agreement he signed did not cover his chiefs – because the land belonged to them and they didn’t sign any agreement with the colonialists. I feel that demonstrated the acumen of the king to ensure that the British did not take over our land. We must commend the sagacity of Oba Dosunmu in protecting the interest of the people. He avoided waging a senseless war that he could not win. He saved the day for his people.
It is believed that Lagos belongs to the Awori.
How? How can that be? If they came from somewhere – they should be able to tell you what ‘Awori’ means. How can anyone say the place belongs to the Awori? Even if it is said that they own the land and there was an expedition that came from Benin to chasten them because they were not paying isakole, the victor would take it all – there must have been some gains of the expedition. Some people are not being truthful. I think we should unify our views and tell the truth so that we can keep our house in order. A Yoruba has a proverb, ‘If there is no crack in the wall, a lizard won’t go in.’ What we’re doing with such vigour, destroying our home, those claiming Lagos is a no man’s land will carry the day – because if we can’t harmonise our views then everybody will come and usurp our rights.
I know that the rights of the indigenous people are safeguarded in the constitution of Nigeria – just like you have the quota system. What I want all of us to be saying is we’re one people; we’re magnanimous, accommodating and welcoming and we’re being neutralised. Lagos is becoming more and more cosmopolitan but our children are still there. What does the future hold for them? I would have loved to see us being on that side of our children and our children’s children, protecting their interest, rather than telling conflicting stories about who came and who didn’t come. The story is clear.
So, are you Bini, Awori or Yoruba?
First of alI, I’d say I’m Bini. But you know the Erelu Kuti, who was the daughter of King Ado from Benin, her mother, Erelu Olugbani, came from Ibefun and married the Bini king. So, I am a melange of the two. But it doesn’t stop the origin story – that’s why I’m saying the history of Lagos is very clear. It is not obscure. We know that Queen Olugbani was the daughter of King Osin from Ibefun who was actually an Awujale. He (Osin) abdicated the throne of Awujale and relocated to Ibefun and became Osin the first. And, then his daughter was given in marriage to the king of Lagos. The fetish for the Eyo came from her home and the Eyo was used to bury her – when Queen Olugbani (the mother of Erelu Kuti, who today by the grace of God is the creator of the second dynasty that has produced the obas for almost 400 years. That’s why she gave that right to the princes and princesses of Lagos; that’s why instead of claiming the throne of Lagos only through the male descendancy you can actually claim it through the female descendancy, because she was the one who crowned her son. She was a princess. She crowned her son, Ologun Kutere. Anybody who attempts to get to the throne today always say they descended from Ologun Kutere but they actually descended from Erelu Kuti, the daughter of King Ado and mother of Ologun Kutere) died.
So, the history of Lagos is very clear. When people are making sketchy contributions about this matter it becomes confusing. The history of Lagos is straightforward. For sure, the Bini had control over the area because they used it as a passage. They were not ready to settle there. But when other people were coming in to settle and usurp them, they (the Bini) made the settlers pay for coming to settle in the area. All of them know that the Awori were paying isakole to the Bini. There was nothing wrong in that.
Do you see the seeming distortion in the history of Lagos as a conspiracy by the Yoruba to have a stranglehold on Lagos?
I’m glad you asked that question. That’s why I’m a bit disturbed by the wrangling of my brothers or my co-indigenes. But they cannot see that there is a third party trying to destabilise us; because some people are trying to come through the back door to claim ownership. We all know – it’s not a secret – that politically the South-West has always been saying that Lagos belongs to the West. But really, Lagos was before anything that is called (South-) West. Lagos was an independent colony long before the 1914 amalgamation; I think we’re talking about the Treaty of Cession of 1861 that Oba Dosunmu signed. How can Lagos belong to that region? It still does not stop people from trying (to distort the history of Lagos) – You know anything goes. People are more interested in usurping the rights of others rather than being equitable and lift one another up to a greater height.
What do you make of the claim that some ‘foreign’ Lagosians have taken over the reins of power in Lagos State?
That again, brings me back to the house that is divided. Because it is our carelessness, petty wrangling, and lack of affection for one another that have brought us to where we are; that trend is still continuing with some of the things I read on the pages of the newspapers. If we continue to sing discordant tunes among ourselves other people will come and usurp our rights. It’s a pity; of course, I feel disturbed. Perhaps, not for myself; what about our children and children’s children who have no other villages to go to? Do they have any village other than Isale Eko or Lamgbasa, all in Lagos? What does the future hold for them? It’s tragic.
I am hoping that at some point that common sense will prevail and God almighty will save us so that at least we’ll be able to have a say. Take Monaco as example; it’s a playground of the rich and the successful. It is the capital for the capitalists of the world. But there are the indigenous people of Monaco. They are not much and their interests are being protected; certain places are special preserve of the people; the indigenous people of Monaco. They are happy and they welcome the world. That is what Lagos should be for Nigeria and for the world. Concerted efforts should be made to protect the indigenous people of Lagos. But when people are pushed to the wall and they have no recourse, we must prevent that.
Do you think the Lagos ownership crisis is a conspiracy by the so-called atohunrinwa?
I agree with you totally. That’s what I’m saying – when people are pushed to the wall then they’ll have to take action. And, I think it is as a result of that we’re having this kind of conversation. Most of the people talking now are elders – which is a bit unfortunate, because they’re supposed to show the light to those who are coming behind them. A lot of younger ones (Lagosians) are disgruntled. We must be able to point in the right direction.
Will this conversation continue or will there be a round-table discussion to resolve the contention?
Definitely, there will be a round-table discussion. I have been prevailed upon to weigh in on this issue. I think the next move will be to call a stakeholders’ meeting and really have a round-table discussion where we should harmonise our views, clarify grey areas and any confusion making people feel not confident about who they are. We must have a unified understanding of our history.