‘I warned Aworis against outright sale of lands’

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On January 1st, Oba Fatai Aremu Oyeyinka Aromire, the Ojora of Ijora Kingdom and environs, marked his 66th birthday, by reaching out to the less-privileged, physically-challenged and artisans in a three-day empowerment and charity spree. Gboyega Alaka, who followed his convoy on his visits to the Red Cross Motherless Babies Home and Lagos State Old People’s Home both in Yaba, caught up with the monarch, who shared the story of his journey so far, why he loves to give and why all Awori children must protect their heritage.

Today we witnessed something not so common among monarchs, even the wealthy ones: an Oba marking his birthday at motherless babies’ homes, old people’s homes. What inspires this?

It may be novel to you, but it is something I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. It is in the Bible, it is in the Qur’an, and even the traditionalists profess it, that it is your duty, once you’re so blessed, to give out to the needy and less-privileged. That is what leadership is all about. God has not said whatever is given onto you is only for you, your wife and children. What you have seen today is marginal, compared to what I did three days ago, when I empowered about 600 people, including the physically challenged, the less-privileged, artisans and widows, with cash, sewing machines, grinding machines, freezers, coolers clothes and food stuff. One major reason I do this is because my parents never enjoyed me. Not that I was a bad child, but they both departed the world before I came of age and became affluent. My mother was a widow, having lost my father while I was young, and I saw how she suffered to raise me with no help from anywhere. Like the Yoruba would say, my white pap is a product of a black pot.

Your birthday, 1st of January, coincides with a very unique day in the Gregorian Calendar and an opportunity to celebrate with aplomb…

For me, what matters most are the things you have seen me do today: giving to the people, which commenced three days ago.  As it is, I have pleased myself. What you will be seeing tomorrow (January 1), is combined effort of my children, who feel they must celebrate me.

At 66, you’re no longer a young man.

Do you feel like age is slowing you down?

I’d say it’s 50-50. I still sleep at the normal time and wake up at the normal time. I usually go to bed after listening to the 10 O’clock news on Channels Television and Journalists’ Hangout on TVC at 11pm. In the morning, I’m up as early as 6am; and as a Muslim, I observe my Subui prayer. Thereafter, I do my exercise, take my bath and I’m ready for my daily routine.

Are you saying you don’t in any way feel the change that age brings to the body?

Not exactly; you can ask those around me. If I have an assignment or function, I even get here ahead of my staff. I was once a military officer. I was a prison officer, so I am accustomed to that regimented lifestyle.

In the olden days, monarchs used to be tremendously wealthy, but not so anymore; why then is there still so much tussle for the throne. How do Obas generate their wealth?

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What you need to understand is that once you are rightfully selected for the throne and you mount it, the spirits of our fore-fathers will work together to make you prosper. Once you have that royal blue blood, they will definitely combine to make you prosper. As you see me, I don’t collect contracts from the government. You can quote me on that. Aside going to (Lagos State Secretariat) Alausa for the monthly Oba’s meeting, I am not one of those obas who go from office to office lobbying for contracts.

What are the communities that make up Ojora Kingdom?

My kingdom extends to about seven local government areas. Ojora’s domain begins from NEPA power station in Ijora to Federal Ministry of Works, just before you enter Otto. We own the place where National Theatre is situated in Iganmu. Ojora and Oluwa own Ajegunle, Ojora own Apapa, we have a boundary in Amuwo. The footbridge at Amuwo is the boundary between Ojora and Alamuwo. Ayoni Church along Apapa-Oshodi Expressway is the boundary between Ojora and Onitire domain. So Ojora, Oloto and Onitire jointly own Surulere.

Is it safe to say that these communities put together are your sources of wealth?

Like you said, there is no more land to sell; there is also no more farms; don’t forget there was no C of O and Land Use Charge in those days, so the land owners had a way of exercising control over their inheritance. Now the government is fast taking over our powers through these land use charge stuffs. However, one good thing with the Ojora family is that we don’t sell our lands. I said it 25 years ago that all Awori children and communities should not engage in outright sale of their lands. I warned of the consequences, especially regarding election purposes. I said, if you sell all your land to non-indigenes, a time will come when your children will contest elections and they will not be able to garner a simple majority, even in their domain. And it is happening already. It happened in Amuwo, it happened in Surulere, even in Isolo! Besides, if you sell, your children will have nothing to inherit.

Talking about election chances, how much influence can traditional rulers wield today?

Right now, we can only do as much as we can. The whole thing has been skewed back in time. However, I know my people, and I know that if I stand out there and tell them, ‘This is where I want us to go’, be rest assured that’s where they would go.  They know that I will not collect bribe from any politician, because I will not want to mortgage their future.

You are the first crowned Ojora, your predecessors being Idejo white cap chiefs. Tell us about the tussle for the throne.

By June, I would have been 25 years on the throne. Quite frankly, I never showed any interest for the position. I was personal assistant to the late Ojora, Chief Taoreed Lawal Akapo. I was Head of Operations in the family estate, knew the in and out of the whole area and knew from experience that it was not an easy position to occupy. I left service in 1979, started working with my family in 1980 until I became Ojora in 1994. I must say, though, that the experience eventually paid off for me when I became Ojora.

About the tussle, the chief that passed on was of Adejiya Ruling House. He was the second of his house to occupy the position. My ruling house of Oyegbe had only been chief once, whereas the Olumokun Ruling House had been chief successively 14 times. So this time, we insisted on staking for our right. However, nobody could remember which of the five Oyegbe family branches produced its only Ojora, so the late Onitire, a very honest man, who was head of the family, called for application from all Oyegbe sons. Because of my lack of interest, I was the last person to put in my application. Of note was the fact that one of my uncles, who had once paid my school fees, was also contesting, and I was not ready to contest against him. But my immediate half elder brother came out. They were a huge number and a fierce battle followed, because nobody was willing to step down. The mistake that my uncle made however was that he didn’t reckon with my advice to go see the father of Otunba Kunle Ojora, who was the gazetted overall head of the Ojora family. He insisted it was the Aro, whose house was opposite the palace. I told him, ‘You are based in Ibadan, I live in Lagos and also know the in and out of the family set-up.’ Even when he agreed to go see the old man, I’d wait for him at Ijora 7up Bus-Stop upon agreement, and he would stand me up. So it occurred to me that if we handled this opportunity, which we hadn’t had for over 200 years, with levity, our branch may again lose it, so I took the initiative and put in my application.

But that was an indication of interest

My whole intention then was to relocate to Europe or America. I did that to increase our chances. My calculation was that if they did not pick my brothers, they could pick me. Then it was time to consult the oracle. It was in the heat of the whole June 12 crisis. As secretary on that occasion, and in a bid to give my uncle an advantage, I put his name top on the list, followed by my other brothers. The Ifa priest started with him, threw the oracle, and immediately got up. I thought he was going to announce; and then he asked for water. He collected the water and went to throw it outside, and when he came back, he said, ‘Kabiesi, don’t take this man o. He is a thief, his oracle is Ogundagbeji, if you choose him, he would plunder and mess up things.’ We were all stunned and embarrassed. So we were left with two people from our Ajaosi branch. I consoled myself that they would pick one. Ajaosi is a branch of the five branches of Oyegbe household. Oyegbe had five children. Then it was the turn of another elderly man, Alhaji Mukaila Onisemo. The Ifa priest threw the opele and looked up. He told him, ‘If you become king, you will not live more than three to five years. But if not, you will live long and enjoy your life.’ The old man is 90 today and is head of the Ojora family. We all looked at ourselves and pondered. Five years after over 200 years? When will it become our turn again? So he agreed to step down and we unanimously agreed. Then it was the turn of one of our elder brothers, Oyadina. The oracle picked him but he immediately stood up and declined. He was a devout Christian and a church organist and was not ready to trade all that for what he considered a fetish throne, where he would be compelled to worship idols. It got to the turn of another man and the priest told him that there was no need for him to contest because his days were numbered. He openly declared that he would die in a certain year, certain month and certain week and day. And would you believe that it came to pass? He wasn’t even an old man. He was my immediate senior.

Eventually the list was exhausted and the Ifa priest asked the Onitire, ‘This secretary, isn’t he a member of the family?’ The Oba told him, ‘He is a bonafide son, I’m sure he is trying to dodge.’ So they gave me the opele to speak to, and it will interest you to know that I only twisted my lips but said nothing. The priest collected it and again stood up and went outside. I was scared. Was he going to openly declare me a thief too? But when he came back, he just turned to the Onitire and said, ‘Kabiesi, this is Ejiogbe. He is the one the oracle has chosen.’ I was perplexed.

Even then, I was still looking for a way to evade it; so I called a quick meeting outside, where I implored them to let us go back to our base in Ijora, and told them I was willing to cede it to my brother, whom I thought was more suitable for the post. But as we came back from that meeting, the women, who had heard that I was the chosen one, descended on me and beat me mercilessly. They also stripped me naked and it took the intervention of Alhaji Buhari Oloto for me to escape to the nearby Police Station. The police had to take pity on me and clothe me in one of the uniforms in their changing room.

Is that the culture for a newly selected Oba?

No! They were angry that I dared emerge as the oracle’s choice. Still, I was not interested, and I saw the beating as a sacrifice for that brother of mine. The police put me in their pick-up and drove me to Ijora. But as we ascended the Ojuelegba bridge, a police officer, probably of Ogbomoso descent, because of his marks, stopped our vehicle and asked why I was so beaten. I told him, and there and then, he said I must not give up the throne. He said for me to have been picked and for me to have been so beaten, I had paid the sacrifice and I had no choice. It was as if the gods spoke through him. My mind suddenly became made up.

Even though there were no GSM phones then, words had somehow gone round, and as the youth leader then, I was immediately carried shoulder high and triumphantly ferried into the town by well-wishers the moment we entered Ijora. Even then, it was not automatic. My choice was contested from High Court to Appeal Court up to the Supreme Court.

25 years on the throne; what would you say has been your greatest challenge administering this kingdom?

When I became king, Ijora was not as united as we are now. There was no love lost amongst the families and you couldn’t leave your water or food and come back to consume it. That was the extent of disunity and distrust, and it caused us serious setback, such that our children couldn’t get education, because those who were privileged refused to help the less-privileged. So, my first assignment was to bring all warring factions together. I made them understand the advantage in unity. With God’s support, they acceded to my plea, and we now have a united, peaceful and more prosperous Ijora.

Ijora Kingdom is also renowned for some of the largest slums in Lagos, talking about Ijora itself, Badia, Orile, up to some parts of Ajegunle. What efforts are you making to bring a bit of modernisation to the area?

If you go to Badia, you will see that we have demolished some parts. We took developers there, and the plan is to re-plan the place and build something more decent there, so the people can retake it and live a more decent life. As for those who are contesting it, it is our land and we can decide to do whatever we wish on it. The case is in court and I know I will win. It is my new message and the people are beginning to accept it.

You said Ojora lands are on lease, does that mean that after a certain number of years, the property owners would begin to pay certain amount to the family?

No, they pay every year. Our lease is such that once you take possession of our land, you begin to pay a certain amount of money every year, like in tenancy. You must pay your lease and it is stipulated on our receipt. We have up to eight offices run by Omo oniles.

Tankers and trucks invasion has become a major problem across the Ojora domains, what solution are you proffering?

We gave the state government under former Governor Babatunde Fashola a large expanse of land at Orile, free of charge, to serve as parks for the trucks. We had to make that sacrifice because of the inconvenience they’re causing and because the bridges they park on were built on reclaimed swamp areas. We have even given them more land. Unfortunately our governments have no maintenance culture, and no foresight. They would invest huge money on a facility and watch it deteriorate. If the government had good maintenance, Apapa would not become like it has become. A normal port should have a satellite park in a place as distant as Badagry, where these vehicles would be parking. And if I may ask, why do we have so many tank farms in Apapa? How come fuel importation and storage licenses were so indiscriminately issued that it now became such a huge problem?

How is Kabiesi dealing with the prevalent problem of area boys, hooliganism and gangsterism?

Area boys know that I don’t take nonsense. I am not the kind of oba that collects park or bus stop rates. I don’t own danfo buses, I don’t have Marwa tricycles, korope or even okada motorcycles; so what business do I have collecting money from them? The same applies to the market heads (Iya Oja and Baba Oja). I never initiated any market, so I have no reason collecting money from them, other than for them to greet me and I greet them and they maintain the peace. If they cause any trouble, they know I will not hesitate to call in the police to lock them up.

Tell us the relationship between the Oba of Lagos throne and the various Idejo thrones.

Everybody knows that the palace of Oba of Lagos originally used to be the pepper farm of Chief Aromire. Iganran in Edo language means pepper. So Idejo chiefs are Awori and they own Lagos. If you have anybody who is claiming that Lagos belongs to them, the question you should ask them is, ‘Do you own any land in Lagos? If you say you own a land, can you sell it? Can you lease it? Do you have right over it? Before the government built the National Theatre in Iganmu, they consulted my family and paid us royalty.

Do not get me wrong, there is no conflict between my throne and the Oba of Lagos. The present Oba of Lagos is partly Awori. He is my elder brother. That’s his picture (pointing to a large photo frame) alongside the Late Oba Oyekan when I was being crowned. Everybody knows that Aromire owns Lagos, and he was Awori, one of the children of Olofin.

Tell us a bit of your background

I was born in Ijora on the 1st of January 1953. I attended St. Theresa Catholic School at nearby Marine Beach, and then went to Lagos Secondary Commercial Academy, LASCA, Obanikoro. Thereafter went to YabaTech, where I studied HND in Electronics before joining the Prisons Service.

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