Oba Adesoji Aderemi: The Legendary Governor-King

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The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, is welcomed by Winston Churchill to the grounds of Blenheim Palace, the Prime Minister’s birthplace, during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference on June 8, 1953.

He was Ooni of Ife for 50 years, and a Nigerian nationalist renowned as the first African governor in the British Empire. Forty years after he joined his ancestors, the achievements of Sir Adesoji Aderemi continue to inspire. Demola Ojo writes…

Unique with the ease in which he straddled the old, traditional order, and a modern construct with new ways of governance, Sir Adesoji Tadenikawo Aderemi, the 49th Ooni of Ife, was prominent among the personalities that fought for Nigeria’s independence and brought it to fruition.

A notable instance was in March 1953, when the Action Group moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence by 1956. The motion was defeated at the Federal House of Representatives by the Northern People’s Congress, to the delight of the British colonial government. The Action Group and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) subsequently staged a walkout from the House.

Oba Aderemi, as one of four federal ministers from the Western Region, walked out with members of the AG and NCNC. He went further by tendering his resignation from the Council of Ministers to Governor-General John McPherson in protest.

Three months later, Oba Aderemi led the Nigerian delegation to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which took place June 2, 1953. A few days later on June 8, he met for talks with British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, on the grounds of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Churchill family, during the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference.

The picture from the meeting which travelled far and wide, was symbolic. According to the Churchill Book Collective, the image signalled “a poignant moment in the Empire’s twilight.”

The conservative prime minister was in opposition to granting African countries independence, especially after Britain lost control over India during the previous labour government.

But even he couldn’t stop the process for self-governance in Nigeria, which started the following year, with the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution that granted considerable powers to Nigeria’s three regions; Northern Nigeria, Western Nigeria and Eastern Nigeria.

Each was an autonomous territory with a constitution modelled after the British parliamentary system. They were regarded as mini-countries on their own, with a Premier as head of government and a Governor representing the Queen as head of state.

In July 1960, Sir Aderemi was appointed Governor of Western Nigeria, a region consisting of the present day Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Ekiti, Edo, Delta and Lagos States (excluding the Federal Capital Territory).

It was the first time that a Black man was appointed governor in the vast empire that stretched across Africa and beyond.

It was in recognition of Oba Aderemi’s considerable influence and experience in governance, as member of the federal legislative council in the preceding years, and as delegate to different conferences that fashioned the country’s constitutions.

In the eyes of the wider world, Sir Aderemi was not just a Nigerian nationalist, but a frontline figure in Africa’s quest for self-governance. He was a delegate to the African Conference in England in 1948, and his participation was trumpeted by the Associated Press to prove just how important the event was.

Internationally, he was known as the King of Yorubaland, but this was not just because he was Ooni of Ife, but because of his personality. He brought increased respect and recognition to the throne of his forefathers.

Prior to his installation as the 49th Ooni on September 2, 1930, at the age of 40, Ife was a small town whose reputation was limited to the mythical belief of it being the cradle of mankind, according to the Yoruba people.

Ooni Aderemi was to change that in no time. An avid advocate of empowerment through education, the first literate Ooni founded the town’s first secondary school, Oduduwa College, in 1932. It was the first privately owned college in Nigeria.

Oba Aderemi also brought telephone services to Ile-Ife in 1938, and built an official residence for the Ooni, which stands to this day.

He established the Ife museum of antiquities in 1938, following excavations of bronze, stone and terracotta artefacts dating back to the 12th century AD, including the famous Ori Olokun and Obalufon Mask.

The discoveries brought global attention to Ife, with the realisation that it was a thriving civilisation in medieval times, long before any European contact had taken place with the local population: a commercial, political and spiritual centre with access to lucrative trade networks across West Africa.

In 1947, the Ooni established a newspaper – New times of Nigeria as publisher, with Chief Obafemi Awolowo as the managing editor. The newspaper was the precursor of the Nigerian Tribune that was established in 1948 with about 12 investors including Oba Aderemi and Chief Awolowo.

As Governor, the Ooni made sure that Ife was the site of the first university established by the Western Region. He subsequently donated 13,000 acres of land on behalf of the people.

By the 70’s, the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) was one of the most respected universities in Africa, and a centre for the study and propagation of African art and culture.

Destined for Greatness

Ooni Aderemi in London in the 1950s

Despite being a prince, it was not a given that Adesoji Aderemi would be king, as Ife’s system of monarchy recognises four ruling houses with numerous princes eligible for kingship. But his father, Prince Gbadebo, saw the future.

Born November 15,1889, the young Aderemi was treated as royalty from birth, after his father, who was also an Ifa priest, took him before the oracle, and got word that his son would someday be king.

Adesoji Aderemi was subsequently prepared for the task ahead, even after losing his father at eight. His mother made sure he was one of the first students to be enrolled at the St Phillips Primary School Ife, in 1900. He later became a pupil teacher in 1907, and immediately registered with an overseas correspondence school, for private tuition.

Despite his desire to travel to London and pursue a law degree, as many who would later clamour for Nigeria’s nationhood did, his mother dissuaded him, in order to fulfil the prophecy at his birth.

Rather, Prince Aderemi continued to rise through the ranks at the Nigerian Railway Corporation which he joined in 1909. He worked in various departments and was station manager across many towns including Port-Harcourt and Ibadan.

He later resigned in the early 1920s to set up his own businesses in transportation and agriculture, while also an agent for John Holt of Nigeria and UAC.

He traded in cocoa, cotton and palm kernel, and owned a fleet of lorries ferrying people and goods across the country, to places like Onitsha and Kafanchan.

Prince Aderemi became so financially successful, he was nicknamed “Atobatele” (already famed as king) by his contemporaries and the people of Ife. He bought his first car in 1920 and by 1930, he had a few others.

His wealth and exposure made him the outstanding candidate to rise to the throne of his forefathers upon the death of his predecessor, Oba Ademiluyi Ajagun. By the time Oba Aderemi ascended the throne as the 49th Ooni in 1930, he was reputed to be a millionaire in pounds.

Money, Power, Respect

Oba (Sir) Adesoji Aderemi takes the oath of office as the first indegenous Governor of Western Nigeria, July 1960.

During the colonial era, the British leaned on existing native political structures and hierarchy for governance. Oba Adesoji Aderemi thus gained a considerable amount of power, as he was regarded as the premier traditional ruler in Yorubaland.

But the Ooni was ahead of his time in realising that along with the clamour for self-governance, would come the reduction in the powers of traditional rulers. The colonial government led by McPherson tried to appeal to the Ooni’s self-interest, by pressuring him to oppose the fight for independence. But Oba Aderemi was not swayed.

According to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, during a eulogy delivered after the famed monarch’s passing on July 3, 1980, “He must have felt gratified that though the administrative power of traditional rulers in Nigeria had been much curtailed, his own children are among those who now manage the affairs of the country.”

Oba Aderemi was a core protagonist of the Yoruba renaissance who successfully juggled dual roles as a national political figure while he was a traditional ruler.

He transformed Ife into a relatively modern town at the time, and his reign was remarkably peaceful. Being an astute businessman himself, he inspired and created a pathway to wealth for a lot of indigenes, especially in agriculture.

He wore many crowns; traditionalist and modernist, the son of a warrior who was a pacifist; a royal and a diplomat; a British Knight but a Nigerian nationalist.

In the eulogy titled A Rare Breed of Monarch, Chief Awolowo said: “During all our innumerable meetings, discussions and conversations, the late Ooni did not, even on a single occasion, raise any issue of personal benefit to himself. His sole concern at all times was the welfare of his dear people in Ile-Ife, and in Nigeria as a whole.”

This is an attribute that present day Nigerian leaders would do well to emulate.

PROFILE

•Ooni of Ife – 1930-1980

•Permanent Chairman, Yoruba Council of Obas 1937-1951

•Member, Legislative Council of Nigeria 1946- 1951

•Delegate to African Conference, London – 1948

•Member of the Nigerian Federal House of Representatives 1952-1954

•Minister in the Central Government- 1952- 1954

•President, Western House of Chiefs – 1952- 1960

•Head of the Nigerian Delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – 1953

•Delegate to Nigerian Constitutional Conferences- 1953-1958

•First Black African Governor (Western Region of Nigeria) – 1960-1962

•Permanent Chairman Western/Oyo State Council of Obas- 1966-1980