Ilorin, Isese, and the tyranny of the majority

Ilorin, Isese, and the tyranny of the majority

Ilorin is increasingly becoming the scene of an epic clash between two religious traditions: Islam and African traditional religion. Three recent incidents are markers of this culture war and a frightening dimension of the continuous fragmentation of Nigerian society.


The first incident involves the Isese priestess, Yeye Ajesikemi Olokun Omolara Olatunji, who was forcefully prevented from hosting a planned festival for adherents of her African traditional faith in Ilorin.

As a lead-up to the event, she created a digital poster that was widely circulated on social media. This caught the attention of the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Sulu Gambari, who then sent emissaries to the priestess, warning her to halt further actions on the crusade with a firm directive that the event would not be tolerated in Ilorin, which, it was stressed, is an Islamic city.


The other incident involves some Isese adherents being attacked in Ilorin while performing rituals of their faith by a riverside. According to the Punch Newspaper report: “A new video showing Muslim clerics threatening another set of Isese worshippers in the Oko Owo area of Ilorin, Kwara state, has emerged online. The worshippers are seen performing some traditional rites at the bank of a river. In the video, the rites are, however, disrupted by the clerics who ordered them to leave the river… The cleric could be heard threatening not only to ruin the traditional procession and rites but also to physically attack the priestess and two other girls in her company”.


And finally, not letting up, the International Council for Ifá Religion, which is to Isese worshippers what the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs is to Muslims in Nigeria, announced that it would host the first edition of its Isese Youth Festival in August in Ilorin. It is not clear whether the body is serious about the announced event or is merely drawing attention to itself and the local attitude towards African traditional worship. What is clear is that if it goes ahead with it, there would be a serious conflict between the practitioners of the two faiths, leading to the breakdown of law and order, and perhaps not a few broken heads.


Sadly, Ilorin has become a signpost for religious intolerance and discrimination. This is particularly ironic considering that, even though it is a medley of various ethnicities, its dominant culture and people are Yoruba; renowned for religious tolerance. The reason Ilorin is perhaps different from the Yoruba of the southwest is that, unlike other Yoruba, it draws its identity mainly from religion – Islam- which is the commonality shared by the various nativist peoples that form the city.

However, this does not provide any reasonable rationale for the attitude toward African traditional worship. The Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of worship and association, and the practice of Isese, or any other religion within the law, in Ilorin does not take away or diminish the rights of Muslims to practice their own faith.


It is somewhat sad and ironic that adherents of Islam, which first made their way to Ilorin around the 17th century, are the ones persecuting worshippers of the African traditional religion that preceded it and has been around since the beginning of time. It is even sadder that the Ilorin Muslims would possibly not extend this degree of fundamentalist behaviour towards the other (foreign) Abrahamic faiths but are quick to despise our asa ibile, an attitude which is common too among Nigerian Christians.


As worrisome as the rising fundamentalism in Ilorin is, what has irked me more is the attitude of the Ilorin intelligentsia. In the wake of the first incident involving Yeye Olatunji, the Isese priestess, Professor Wole Soyinka wrote a strongly worded open letter to the Emir of Ilorin, condemning the official seal given to the truncation of the traditional event, warning that such actions may be a prelude to something more sinister. All hell broke loose with this letter. Members of the Ilorin intellectual community, one after the other, attacked Soyinka. The most prominent of these is LAK Jimoh, a community leader and historian, who described the Nobel laureate as the “self-anointed Mr. know-it-all” who had no right to dabble in the subject, among many other demeaning things about the revered professor.


Of all the responses I read, not one person stood up for minority rights. Not one. Not even among the young Ilorin professional class with whom I have associated for more than a decade. You see, I am somewhat familiar with the Ilorin professional and political scene due to my former boss, who is from the city. I used to visit Ilorin every other week and had long discussions over food and drinks with many of its professionals and intellectuals.

But none of my Ilorin friends, many of whom I considered to be as progressive and liberal as myself, has defended the rights of the minority to practice their religion in peace without harassment. In fact, on the Facebook wall of one particular ‘progressive friend,’ it was an insult galore for Prof Soyinka, with the conclusion being that Isese practice is anathema in Ilorin, and no one should mess with the Islamic status of the city.

Yet, these are the same people with whom I have railed against the abominable practice of the Israeli state. I recall now how many such discussions we had, condemning Israel and its apartheid tactics to subjugate the Palestinians. Now it is becoming clear to me that my Ilorin friends were not standing with the Palestinian people because of their shared humanity and concern for a people under bondage. They support Palestinians because they are fellow Muslims like themselves and would probably have sided with the repressive Israelis were they the Muslims and the subjugated Palestinians, Jews.


This attitude is emblematic of how Nigerians behave. Our values system tends to shift and waver in relation to our strength and status at a particular time. It would not be surprising to see an Ilorin man in Bayelsa, where Islam is by far a minority faith, pleading for constitutional rights and freedom to practice his religion in peace without hindrance. Yet, this same man would lead the mob to crucify Isese worshippers in Ilorin. As it is in religion, so it is with our politics.


For a truly inclusive and broad-based society to emerge from our complex reality, it must be built on enduring universal values, including religious tolerance, equality, justice, and human rights. And the task to produce such a society must be led by our leading lights, progressives in words and deeds, who understand that being broad-minded does not mean abandoning religious and ethnic identity, only that it places a burden on us to respect others’ identities, allowing them to enjoy the same freedoms we have, or seek.


Julius Ogunro

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