Saturday 5 December 2020

Traditional African culture of non-royal women leadership in 21st century

Iyalode of Yorubaland, Chief Alaba Lawson. Pic: NACCIMA.

FROM ancient era, the role of women in African community development has been sparsely documented. It appeared that only women who had the advantage of hereditary royal structure in leadership ascendancy have enjoyed more documentation compared to non-monarch female leaders.

The weak documentation of the strength of women in African nationhood, ahead of colonial rule, is not any different from quite a lot of undocumented or distorted historical contents of the people's heritage. However, some cultures that still retain the importance of women leadership, even in contemporary age, suggest that indeed, the people's ancestors and fore parents had strong spots for the female gender in community development. In traditional African government of some tribes and nations, there were specific offices or titles dedicated to women leaders. Perhaps the coming of colonial rule and its western democratic contents had, over the centuries, eroded the roles of women in community developments of some of these old customs. For some cultures, all is not lost as the remnants of the old traditions of women leadership are still well preserved, even institutionalised in modern and contemporary governance.

The role of women, irrespective of family or class status, has been captured in Yoruba people's governance ideology, for example. Late Prof Sophie Oluwole (May 12, 1935-December 23, 2018) summarised the Yoruba traditional democratic contents. Prof Oluwole, a scholar in Yoruba tradition told her host during a radio show that in Yorubaland, four wise persons govern the people: elderly man, elderly woman, elderly youth and elderly migrant. Elderly in this context simply connotes being possessed with wisdom. The Yoruba always make the inference that wisdom knows no age or gender, though 'elderly' is applied to define wisdom. The role of women in the Yoruba people's governance ideology clearly knocks out the stereotype that the female gender had no important role in the days of old.

Examples of such non-royal or non-monarchical roles of women have been sustained in traditional Yoruba offices such as Iyalaje (entrepreneur woman), Iyalode (lady of role model) and Iyaloja (woman market leader). In the past 300 or more years, each of these women offices have been  built into the governance of Yoruba community. 

Apart from the king's biological mother Iya Oba (Queen mother) the Yoruba tradition of old had other females who held titles such Iyalagbon (crown prince's mother), Iya Mole (Ifa priestess), Iya Yemaja (priestess of Yemaja) and Iyamode (Sango priestess), among others in the traditional religious settings. But the most widely accepted and structured into the modern and contemporary development of the people are Iyalode, Iyalaje and Iyaloja. Hardly is any Yoruba traditional rulership completed without Iyalode and Iyalaje. For the Iyaloja office, the role is more wider, beyond the traditional context.

For the simple reason that most markets across Yourubaland, indeed, Nigeria, are under the control of the state, Iyaloja's role is recognised and built into the state's governance structure. 

In Yoruba linguistic expression, 'Iya' means 'mother'.The broader and expanded context has been therefore applied in reference to leadership, across fields.

From Iyalaje to Iyaloja

Several authors who wrote about Yoruba historical contents of pre-colonial era have identified the role of women in coordinating activities of female traders. Traditionally, Yoruba women of old were traders while men dominated the farming profession. Markets in traditional Yoruba settings were governed by women whose major leadership then was known as Iyalaje. Pronounced 'Eeyah-lahjay', it's a term used then, even till date, by the Yoruba for an entrepreneur lady.

However, in some towns, the Oba (monarch) appoints the woman market leader (Iyalaje) while in other situations the same head is chosen by the traders, before ratification of the monarch. In pre-modern governance, whoever became Iyalaje earned the office based on her being a successful entrepreneur.

 It's not exactly clear at what point in history that the Iyalaje of old became Iyaloja. Pronounced 'Eeyah-lohja', it's currently, the head of market women across different parts of Yorubaland. Every market across Yorubaland has its Iyaloja and Babaloja (a male head) as complementary.

Perhaps, the history of Iyaloja in Lagos offers an idea of how Iyalaje became Iyaloja in southwest of Nigeria. During the British colonial rule, women traders in markets came together to confront constituted authority in Lagos Island. Led by a fish seller, Alimotu Pelewura (circa 1865-1951), the women revolted against the then British law of taxation for peasant traders.

Pelewura, like most Yoruba women of leadership quality before her, was also recognised by the traditional rulership of Lagos, ahead of being a market leader. In 1910, a Lagos monarch, Oba Esugbayi Eleko (reign 1901-1912) conferred a chieftaincy title on Pelewura. 

From being a woman activist to market leader.(1920s-1951), Pelewura became a politician and joined Nigerian National Democratic Party NNDP led by Herbert Macaulay (1864-1946). Pelewura's extended activism into the political terrain of pre-Independence Nigeria appeared to have laid a precedence for a synergy between traditional rulership, trade unionism and mainstream politicking. In a country like Nigeria where the low income earners, from the colonial era held the numerical strength at ballots, any leader of peasant traders was always a bride for mainstream political class.

Escalating that synergy between market leadership and politicians was Pelewura's deputy, Abibatu Mogaji (October 1917-June 2013). Mogaji took over the leadership of Lagos Market Women Association in 1952. Mogaji's office, over the decades, was actually expanded and reigned as President of Association of Nigerian Market Men and Women otherwise known as Iyaloja General of Nigeria.

Mogaji, MFN, OON, a Lagos aborigine was one of the strong members of the then ruling party Action Group (AG), under the leadership of the then Premier of Western Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

The political history of the first Republic, in Lagos specifically, cannot be completed without Mogaji's name. Sources said she mobilised votes of traders in Lagos against the then Federal Government ruling party National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). Her efforts, it was said, led to the victory of AG in Lagos.

Also, her role as a strong politician was felt when she led a rally that welcomed Awolowo to Lagos after the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon released the AG leader from Enugu Prison in 1966.

Strong influence of Iyaloja heritage in Lagos politics

Lagos of the 1950s, in the years of Mogaji as Iyaloja was the same through her reign in the 1979-84 political space of the then capital city of Nigeria. Her strong grip on the followership strength of the traders during the AG era was as unbreakable as the period of Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the second Republic against the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Also, in the 21st century politics of Lagos, Mogaji, in her lifetime was believed to have used the Iyaloja office to boost the political career of her son, Senator Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Senator Tinubu became governor for eight years and established a strong political leadership in Lagos on which he launched the main opposition All Progressives Congress APC, which, in 2015 eventually unseated the then ruling party People's Democratic Party PDP.

Until her death, Mogaji was the Chairperson of Lagos State Market Development Board, a parastatal of the government. Before the death Chief Mogaji, Tinubu's first child, Folashade Ojo was chosen as the Deputy Iyaloja, courtesy of the Lagos traditional chieftaincy structure. Folashade became the next Iyaloja after the death of Mogaji.

Interestingly, hardly was any issue raised when Folashade became Mogaji's deputy. It took the death of Mogaji and the formal enthronement of Folashade Ojo-Tinubu for controversy to render the political space of Lagos over what some critics described as 'imposition of Tinubu's daughter as Iyaloja'. In fact, Tinubu has been accused of carrying out the alleged imposition for his political advantage. Perhaps, the more liberal question to ask is: 'would Folashade have emerged as deputy of Mogaji were the young lady's father not Tinubu?' The answer is complex to give. Reason: the fact remains that the cultural value of traditional office of Iyaloja had been dragged into mainstream politics, unavoidably so, even long before Tinubu was born. From Lagos to Oyo State and across southwest, Iyaloja office has become a political appointment.  

Currently, the Oyo State Government, for example, is being dragged alongside the monarch, Olubadan of Ibadan, Oba Saliu Adetunji into the disputed leadership crisis of Babaloja. After the monarch installed Alhaji Yekini Abass as the new Babaloja, a group Coalition of Traders in Oyo State alleged a violation of the association's constitution against their preferred candidate Alhaji Sumaila Aderemi.

The elitist Iyalode title

From being the most popular and revered non-monarchical office for prominent woman in Yoruba culture, the Iyalode appears to be less visible and active compared to Iyaloja. For being more of elitist value, Iyalode's office is not as close to the people as Iyaloja.

Perhaps, Iyalode is also less controversial and devoid of political manipulations compared to Iyaloja. Every town in modern Yorubaland seems to have its own Iyalode, a titled conferred by the king of a given place. Currently, the Iyalode of Yorubaland, perhaps, the first to be so honoured, is Iyalode Alaba Lawson. A busine- sswoman from the corporate world, Chief Alaba Lawson was previously the Iyalode of Egbaland before the Alafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III installed her as the Iyalode of Yorubaland in 2008.

In addition to being the first Iyalode of Yorubaland, Chief Lawson, was also elected in 2017 as the first woman president of National Association Of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines And Agriculture (NACCIMA).

Between Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan, the robust history of Iyalode has grown from the nineteenth century till date. Ibadan recorded its first documented title with Iyalode Subola (1850-1867 and followed by the most popular among them, Efunsetan Aniwura (1867-1874). Ibadan has 13 Iyalode till date, including the current holder, Chief Mrs Theresa Oyekanmi, installed March 2019. On the contrast, Egbaland till date has recorded only four Iyalode from the first, Efunroye Tinubu (circa 1810-1887), followed by Madam Miniya Jojolola, third Madam Bisoye Tejuoso and current holder, Alaba Lawson.

After several civil wars that spanned over two centuries among the Yoruba tribes, the oldest profession, which was trading in slaves still survived.  To be a slave merchant then was not just a sign in wealth but strength in influence. It was a profession transferred from one generation to another. Most renowned and powerful woman of that era was Madam Tinubu.

Apart from being credited with the first personality to challenge British rule then, Madam Tinubu, a native of Abeokuta, til date remains the only woman whose influence in business and politics hovered over two major cities during her reign. Madam Tinubu had enormous influence on Lagos politics and business as much as she did in Abeokuta.

While Madam Tinubu, perhaps, being a non-Lagos native could not be conferred with Iyalode of Lagos, another woman, Bintu Fatima Omosele Tinubu, who is also a Lagosian by marriage currently holds the title. Mother of billionaire, Wale Tinubu, Alhaja Bintu, who was conferred the  Iyalode of Lagos, by Oba of Lagos HRH, Rilwan Akiolu in October 2013 is a native of Benin, Edo State by birth. Her husband, Kafaru Tinubu.

Bintu Tinubu succeeded Iyalode Elizabeth Abimbola Rhodes who held the title until her death in 2012. The history of Iyalode in Lagos from the inception of the title seemed not properly documented compared to that of Ibadan and Abeokuta.  

-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art and Culture Advisor.


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