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    Saturday, August 26, 2023

    Traditional Practitioners, Others Observe Isese Day Celebrations in Ogun

    For years, traditionalists mounted pressure on the governments of Osun, Ogun, Lagos, Oyo, Ondo, and Ekiti states, asking for recognition and the declaration of August 20 as a work-free day for their festivity. They claimed government was not fair to them as there are official declarations of various holidays for Muslims and Christians, while August 20 remained ignored by the authorities. 

    Their agitations got the needed attention this year, from Osun State where Isese Day celebration got state recognition in 2013, more states in the South West comprising Lagos, Oyo and Ogun, toed the same path this year with the declaration of a work free day for civil servants every August 20. 

    While traditional worshippers are happy about the development, some Christian and Muslim faithful are strongly opposed to it. In this report, GBENGA SALAU digs into the origin of the celebration and also captures the arguments of both Isese adherents and the antagonists.

    The Isese Day celebration gained better traction this year across the South West states of Nigeria. This was reflected in four states in the region comprising Osun, Lagos, Oyo and Ogun giving recognition to the celebration through the declaration of a work free day for civil servants to mark the day.

    Traditional worshippers in Ekiti State, one of the two states in the South West where a holiday was not declared, urged their state government to toe the same line. Meanwhile, in the North Central state of Kwara, attempts by Yoruba traditional worshippers to mark the day was met with strong resistance by adherents of another faith.

    Isese in Yorùbá means tradition and Isese Day is meant to celebrate Yorùbá traditions and religion in a display of culture and spirituality with variety of activities such as festivities, parades, lectures and showcasing of different traditional apparels to attract tourists from across the world.

    The day, according to some scholars, is for traditional worshipers to celebrate their deities, though it is the culmination of a weeklong celebration of traditional religious activities and festivities.

    Findings revealed that the appropriate greeting for Isese Day among the traditionalists is “Isese l’agba” (tradition is the elder) while the response is “Isese l’agba gbogbo wa” (tradition is the elder of all).

    Before now, Isese Day celebration was given state recognition in Osun State alone. In 2013, former governor Rauf Aregbesola approved August 20 as a public holiday in the state for traditional worshipers. In 2014, the state declared its first full public holiday to mark Isese Day. As a result, banks, government offices and other establishments in Osun were closed to business on the day.

    This year, besides gaining better recognition across the South West, activities to mark the day generated some controversy in Kwara and even Osun states, as some individuals and groups kicked against it.   The dissension started in Ilorin, Kwara State, when some persons claimed that the city is for Islam and therefore they would not give room to traditional worshippers to mark Isese Day.

    A Muslim group, Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society in Ilorin, reportedly stormed the residence of a traditional religion priestess, Adesikemi Olokun, to caution her against embarking on the planned Isese festival in five local councils of the state, which constitute the Ilorin Emirate. This was shortly after Olokun, an Osun devotee, allegedly released fliers announcing a three-day event to celebrate certain Yoruba deities.

    The action of the Muslim group generated a lot of reactions within and outside the state, especially after the Emir of Ilorin, Dr. Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, cancelled the events planned by the traditionalists, citing security reasons.

    Prof. Wole Soyinka, who reacted to the development, did not only fault the Emir of Ilorin, but also cautioned him against promoting religious bigotry.

    In a statement titled ‘Isese Festival: An Open Letter to Sulu Gambari’, Soyinka, said: “Year after year, the Ramadan has been celebrated in this nation as an inclusive gathering of humanity, irrespective of divergences of belief. Not once, in my entire span of existence, have I encountered pronouncements by followers of any faith that the slaughtering of rams on the streets and marketplaces is an offence to their concept of godhead. Vegetarians hold their peace. Buddhists walk a different path. Prior to Ramadan, non-Muslims routinely join in observing the preceding season of fasting as a spiritual exercise worthy of emulation.

    “Perhaps this is another occasion for self-introduction. I currently teach courses in Abu Dhabi in the Emirates. That is the region of origin, all others are mere appendages. I was there just before Christmas. I passed through again in the countdown to Ramadan. On both occasions, the streets, businesses, hotel lobbies and other public spaces were lit up with the same festive spirit. Only the symbols within the designs were different.

    “The mood of celebration was equally pervasive and inclusive. Painfully, my mind could not help but travel back home, and some years past, recalling for instance how a procession of Corpus Christ was once attacked, some killed, by a brood of Muslim fanatics, for daring to process along the streets of that same Ilorin. Needless to say, such abominations have become routine. Community is sacrificed to bigotry.”

    Also commenting on the issue, the Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, Iba Gani Abiodun Ige Adams, cited Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution, which states that “the government of the federation or of a state shall not adopt any religion as state religion.”

    He argued that Ilorin is a Yoruba city with a large Muslim population but still has many Christians and traditionalists practising their faiths and praying to God.

    “This is the 21st century, not the 18th century. I want to tell those fanatics that there is something called rule of law in all parts of Nigeria, including Ilorin, and it is unsavoury for anybody to ignore this and opt for rule of fanaticism.

    “It is absolute lunacy for anybody to say Ilorin has been captured for Islam and no other form of worship will be allowed, tolerated or accepted. This is the trait of spiritual illiterates.

    “Religion is personal, as long as you don’t allow your belief to affect others. I am sure no traditionalist will go to any church or mosque to practice his or her faith,” he said.

    Adams maintained that religious faith is personal, wondering why anybody should stop traditionalists from worshipping Osun deity when they didn’t say they would do the festival in a church or mosque.

    “Christians, Muslims and traditionalists don’t serve a God of destruction and darkness, but a God of tolerance, invention, creativity and light.

    “Nobody has a right to kill a fellow Nigerian in the name of fighting for God. It is an act of foolishness and stupidity because the God we serve has not told anybody to fight for Him. He has the capacity to fight for Himself because there is nobody God created that He cannot handle. This is the time to checkmate fanatics hiding under religion to perpetrate evil,” Adams stated.

    However, Sulu-Gambari, in his response, particularly to Soyinka, maintained that his decision was meant to avert crisis in the area.

    “This is to prevent crisis and not wait until it erupts because the cost of managing crisis cannot be equated to the wisdom or courage required to prevent it. Such proactiveness is necessary in order to sustain peaceful coexistence in the society.

    “It is, therefore, surprising to hear that the position of Professor Soyinka is identical to someone who does not consider what might transpire if the programme was hosted.

    Another set of traditional worshippers during Isese Festival

    “It may result in issues which could also lead to reprisal attacks by sympathisers or promoters of such belief (Isese festival) in other parts of the country.

     “There are many non-indigenes in Kwara who are serving and retired, including business owners who have vowed to move their families to the state due to the peace and harmony enjoyed therein.

    “Yeye Ajesikemi also confirmed that she has been living harmoniously in Ilorin for many years, not until she decided to go beyond her boundaries,” Sulu-Gambari said.

    While the controversy in Ilorin was receding, another uproar sprouted in Iwo, Osun State, where it was alleged that the Oluwo of Iwoland, His Imperial Majesty, Oba Abdulrosheed Akanbi, also declared that the IseseDay celebration would not be tolerated within his kingdom. However, Oba Akanbi later denied ever banning the celebration of Isese Day, saying he was only against restricting people’s movement in the name of worship. 

    He said: “There was never a time I banned Isese in Iwo except imposition of curfew to restrict people’s freedom of movement. My point is, any deity restricting human movement is anti-progress. It should be done in the bush where no one lives.

    “Oro worshippers in Iwo should change their mode of engagement to exclude restriction of people’s movement. Such will not be entertained in my domain. It is banned in Iwoland and that is it.  Other Oro done in moderation and not placing restrictions on human freedom is permitted. Individuals are free to engage in their family deity as much as people’s freedom is not hindered. I didn’t ban Isese. I’m an ancient traditional ruler, custodian of Yoruba culture, customs and traditions. I’m a father to all including the traditionalists.”

    Nevertheless, some residents of the area posited that he only changed his position following the intervention of the state Governor, Ademola Adeleke, who maintained that the state is for all religions.

    Speaking on the increasing recognition for Isese Day celebration in South West, Apostle Bolaji Akinyemi said there was a need to situate the Isesephenomenon that seems to be unsettling the polity.

    Akinyemi, who is the Convener of the Apostolic Roundtable, said there were two meanings that could be drawn from the word Isese, explaining that it could be interpreted as the origin of a people or the way of life of a people (tradition).

    “Ise’se is a compound word from ‘Ise’ meaning origin, and in proper application, the source from which something came. ‘Ise’ though having the same spelling but a different meaning; the act or action, in proper application, this means the way of life of a people. In this wise, Ise’se is the original way of life of the Yoruba people before it became adulterated.

    “If state governors and their governments are interested in the restoration of the originality of the Yoruba people then they should be encouraged by all and sundry. However, I doubt their sincerity. My doubt stems from the role their brand of Ise’se conspirators played during the last election. We saw mischievous masquerades and Oro of normal Ise’se order flaunted the night before election. I hope this will not end as the development of political garrison against their opponents in future elections,” Akinyemi said.

    Asked if Isese Day celebration should be limited to traditional worship or celebration of the culture and tradition of Yoruba land, Akinyemi explained that it could not be limited to a way of worship, because worship is an infinite part of “ise”, the act, but it has nothing to do with “ise”, the origin or source.

     He added: “There are several gods in Yorubaland, many of which were not there from the “ise” that is origin or in the beginning. Ogun, Oya, Sango and many other deities worshiped today were men and women who in the past lived among us. Error in worship is part of human limitations. Some churches today have turned their founders into deities of sorts. Words of some Shiekh are binding on some Islamic faithful more than that of Allah and Prophet Muhammad.”

    He noted that the choice of what to or who to worship is part of the liberty the Creator bestowed on humanity, which is also a constitutional right of every Nigerian to make.

    He also insisted that “Ise’se” is all encompassing of language and communication, art and fashion, food and nutrition, design and building and not limited to worship.

    On the principles that should guide the celebration of Isese Day, he said it was a decision for the Yoruba institution to make, because the development of Isese festival could not be an all comers affair.

    On changes expected in the practice of traditional religion by the worshippers, for instance the position that restriction of movement during Oro violates other people’s right to free movement, Akinyemi said that such reform should not be individualistic, adding that that is the reason the Oni of Ife should bring the leadership of Yoruba nation together for the development of the modus operandi of “Ise’se” and other important issues of interest to the Yoruba nation.

    On his part, the Chief Missioner of Ansar-ud deen of Nigeria, Sheikh Abdulrahman Olanrewaju Ahmad, said that there was need to take a lot of caution on all sides.

    “Why? This is because we need not cut our noses to spite our faces. I am saying this because Yorubaness, that is being Yoruba, is vast. It is not about the religion of the Yorubas, which is of course many,” he noted.

    He stated that there are more than 200 religions in Yoruba land, saying that is not what being Yoruba is all about.

    According to him, being Yoruba is about being upright, honest, respectful, creative, resourceful not being arrogant and a whole lot of other qualities.

    Ahmad added: “It should not be lost. All of these qualities should not be lost in the name of trying to promote Yoruba religion because that would at the end of the day be counterproductive. The Yoruba of today has substantial Muslim and Christian members. People talk about what is original, yet so many things about original are changing. Of course, we no longer build houses the ways our ancestors built their houses; even our dresses, we no longer use the same materials. We no longer transport ourselves the way our forefathers transported themselves.

    “So, we need to be very careful. Those who have another agenda and hiding under Isese should be warned and they should also be very careful. The choices we make today will have consequences tomorrow.

    “If it is about tourism and the money that will come from it, which I guess is behind all of these, we should think about the fact that money is not everything. Even in Osun State where Osun Osogbo festival is held, it has become a tourist attraction, yet they have been very careful to restrict it to its commercial value.

    “Those who are sowing the seed of this must beware that there would be consequences. The rise of godlessness and atheism in the world today should be enough reason for us to be cautious and be very careful.

    “It is their politics and they are entitled to their preferences. However, there are consequences tomorrow for the choices they make today. These politicians must be wary of playing dangerous games.  What is this renewed interest in ‘Isese’ all about?

    “The Yorubas have a very rich culture and more than 200 different cults and religions. The strong and sterling ‘Omoluabi’ qualities of probity, integrity, industry, respect for elders, loyalty and hard work are much more deserving of being promoted. Yoruba language, arts, crafts and literature make better civilisation sense than idol worship.

    Whereas it is not in my place to determine how idol worshippers should go about their business, it must be noted they are limited by extant laws. Restriction of movement, harassment of innocent citizens, closing down of markets and disruption of commercial activities are clear infractions on the laws of the land. Ultimately, freedom of association and religion must be within the context of the laws of the land.”

    But the Public Relations Officer, Association of African Traditional Religion Nigeria and Overseas, Otunba Lekan Ajirotutu, disclosed that the traditionalists were happy that Isese Day celebration gained better traction this year with the approval of a work free day by some state governors in the South West, following in the footstep of Osun State.

    His words: “Before now, it is as if Nigeria is for only Muslims and Christians, but the country’s constitution says it is a secular state, where everyone is free to practice his or her religion without affecting other people negatively.

    “We appreciate our governors in Ogun, Oyo and Lagos states for declaring a public holiday this year. At the same time, it is our right as Nigerians; it is our right as religious practitioners because Christianity and Islam enjoy almost four to five days of work free day in a year in Nigeria.

    “So, why are the traditional worshippers exempted? Why are we not recognised? Why do they feel traditional religion is not a religion? Yet in our constitution, traditional religion is rightfully recognised. Marriage can be organised through traditional wedding and it is recognised under the constitution.

    “We are surprised we are not fully recognised. For instance, if there is any state function, a Muslim and Christian would be allowed to pray and traditional religion is not recognised, which I believe is not good enough because we have equal rights as Nigerians and practitioners of our religion.”

    On if Isese Day should be a celebration of traditional religion or culture and traditions, he stated that it should be about traditional worship in Nigeria.

    According to him, traditional religion could not be substituted for culture and tradition, as they are different things. He further said that though culture and tradition are part of the people’s heritage as Africans and Yorubas, traditions and culture are embodiments of many things such as religion, obaship, marriage, drums and folklore.

    Ajirotutu added: “This holiday is solely for traditional religion, though it might be difficult to separate culture and tradition from traditional religion but this holiday is for traditional religion.

    “Another holiday can be declared to celebrate culture and traditions. This is because there are some Christians who are culturists and there are some Muslims that are custodians of culture and tradition. Yet, they are not traditional worshippers.

    “I believe Isese Day should be for traditional religion. If there is a holiday to celebrate culture and tradition, it is not a religious holiday; it is for culture and tradition and that means Christians will participate because there are Christian drummers and musicians. There are Muslims too. So, there are people who still practice our culture, but not practicing traditional religion,” he said. 

    On calls that traditional worshippers should change their mode of engagement to exclude restriction of people’s movement, Ajirotutu argued that every religion has its dos and don’ts.

    “Traditional religion is our heritage; that is how we met it. However, it is not in all the towns that movement is restricted during Oro festival, while those who restrict movement usually do so between 12am to 4am.

    “Also, there are restrictions in every religion. Muslims don’t eat pig; it is restriction. If you go to Mecca for holy pilgrimage, you can’t see their girls because they have been restricted. If Saudi Arabian government can restrict their young girls and students to the extent that no school activities are allowed during that time, why can’t we restrict movement, which is not every day,” he argued.

    Ajirotutu expressed his displeasure with those that declared that traditional worshippers could not operate within their domains, noting that they were wrong, constitutionally.

    “The constitution says you are free as a Nigerian to live in any part of the country, just as you are free to practice any religion. For instance, Indians in Nigeria are practicing their religion; Chinese in Nigeria are practicing their religion. The Indians have temple around Palmgroove to practice their religion.

    “So, why do we say Nigerians cannot practice their indigenous religion in a certain part of the country? For instance, Ilorin is just a portion of Kwara State. If they say their forefathers did not practice traditional religion in Ilorin, agreed. What was practiced in Ile-Ife? They practiced traditional religion. Will you now say all the mosques in Ile-Ife should be destroyed because their forefathers did not practice Islam? Should we say all the mosques and churches in Osogbo should be destroyed because Osun Osogbo was used to establish Osogbo. So, saying we don’t want this religion here because our forefathers never practiced it doesn’t make any sense,” he noted.

    Ajirotutu, therefore, appealed to people of other faiths to be tolerant of traditional worshippers as the Quran and Bible implored.

    “I want to appeal to my colleagues too; let us maintain peace and orderliness so that they will know traditionalists are peace lovers,” he said.

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