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The dying Yoruba-Nupe cultural affinity

From YouTube, the American video-sharing social medium, wafts the sonorous music of Latifu Atanda Seriki and his Igunnuko Group. The number, titled, Igunnuko N’Ise Mi (Igunnuko is my job), waxed in 1976, was a hit in that era among not only the Yoruba people across the South-west, but also among the Nupe people of Niger State, many of who populated the South-west region then.

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Why also the Nupe? Seriki’s lyrics wax proudly of his Ago-Oko (Abeokuta, Ogun State) lineage. But interestingly, the songs are also heavily laced with interjections in the language of the Nupe people.

The smooth blend of both Yoruba and Nupe languages in Igunnuko N’Ise Mi is not only a mellifluous delivery by Seriki and his back-up singers, it, more importantly, strongly indicates the cultural bond between the Yoruba and the Nupe.

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In Lagos, 150 years after his demise, the personality of Balogun Oshodi-Tapa, the man acknowledged as the most famous of ethnic Nupe who migrated to the city of Lagos in the 18th century, still looms large.

Right in the heart of Lagos Island is the Epetedo quarters wherein descendants of Oshodi-Tapa spread across streets such as Tapa, Igunnu, Oshodi and Okepopo. Among these streets, Oshodi stands out as it plays host to many of the historical vestiges that encapsulated the life and times of the man, Balogun Oshodi-Tapa.

At the edge of the flower-decorated median constructed by the Lagos Island East Local Council Development (LCDA) in the middle of Oshodi Street is the sculptural piece of Igunnuko, the celebrated masquerade whose origin is known to have emanated from the Tapa/Nupe people.

To many, the Igunnuko masquerade is unarguably the symbol that can hardly be divorced from the Tapa/Nupe ethnic extraction. Though its doctrine, worship and artistic performances have spread to many towns and villages in the south-western part of Nigeria, its recognized headquarters, otherwise known as Igbo Igunnuko (Igunnuko shrine), enjoys a prime place on Oshodi Street.

“Either from the east or west of Lagos central, south or north, the Igbo Igunnu here on Oshodi Street is the overall base,” Gboyega Oshodi, a descendant of Oshodi-Tapa and Financial Secretary, Oshodi-Tapa Chieftancy Family, with office on the Lagos Island, said.

  However, from Gboyega’s words, there seems to be a point of departure on how the Yoruba and the Nupe regard the Igunnuko masquerade. Whereas he asserted that to many Nupe, widely called the Tapa in Lagos, the Igunnuko was more of an entertaining masquerade than being a deity, to the Yoruba who sort of inherited the Igunnuko from the Tapa people, the masquerade is not just a figure of entertainment, it is, indeed, a deity worshipped in a blaze of sacrifices, songs, dances, and all day and night feasting and drinking.

Though the head of the Igunnuko adherents, popularly called Igaso, was not available for comment when our correspondent visited the Oshodi-Tapa area, in Lagos Island, a number of residents of the area who spoke with Daily Trust on Sunday did confirm Gboyega’s assertion. They described the large turnout of participants attending the Igunnuko annual festival on Oshodi Street, as one that could be likened to a turnout of faithful on a religious pilgrimage.

“This year’s festival just ended,” Kenneth Godspower, who hails from Eket in Akwa Ibom State but resides on Oshodi Street, Lagos Island, said. “But I can tell you that as a resident of this area, I found most of what the Igunnuko’s adherents were doing quite funny and interesting. I moved to this area about five months ago and I can remember many of my friends and relatives in Lagos saying this street might not be conducive for me, because the people here engaged in lots of fetish acts.

“But so far, I can say that has not really been the case. The masquerades’ dancing skills were great. And though I didn’t understand what their songs and drumbeats meant, I flowed with them and did wish their spectacular performances wouldn’t end.”

According to Gboyega, the advent of Igunnuko in Lagos could be traced to Oshodi-Tapa and his younger brother known as Mabinuorida Ojo. He narrated how the duo elevated the Igunnuko practice to a cult followership. He recalled that at the time, the headquarters of Igunnuko was at the Olowogbowo section of the Lagos Island.

“Oshodi-Tapa, the chief convener himself, had a quarter at Olowogbowo before he moved down here. The Olowogbowo space at the time covered where the headquarters of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) and UTC are today. All of those areas used to be part of Oshodi-Tapa’s compound and that was where the Igunnuko shrine used to be. But after Oshodi-Tapa went on exile in Epe with the deposed Oba Kosoko, the place was given out. And it was when he eventually returned that this place, now known as Epetedo, was given to him, which also relocated the headquarters of Igunnuko here,” Gboyega said.

Interestingly, the Igunnuko identity of Oshodi-Tapa descendants is not lost on the state government. Daily Trust observed a big signpost from the Lagos State’s Council for Arts and Culture erected at the Igunnuko shrine on Oshodi Street as a mark of recognition of what can rightly be described as the masquerade’s headquarters in the state.

Still on Oshodi Street, the family quarters of Oshodi-Tapa occupying an expansive space with a number of houses, still bubbles with life.

With a bold inscription, ‘Oshodi-Tapa Palace’, there are many residents who have chosen the ‘palace’ as their abode, while a number of others ply their businesses in the shops at its frontage.

“There are between 100 and 200 Epetedos (descendants of followers of Oshodi-Tapa believed to have returned to Lagos with him from Epe) who still live around this community. Every Friday, you will see descendants of Oshodi-Tapa’s followers, who belong to different associations holding meetings inside the palace quarters. Every Friday, you will see them sitting down on mats spread across having their meetings because they still regard Oshodi-Tapa as their king in Lagos,” Gboyega said.

And right at the centre of Oshodi Street, which is a few metres away from the palace, a cenotaph in memory of Chief Balogun Oshodi-Tapa (of Lagos) is erected. The cenotaph was built on December 25, 1968 by members of the Oshodi-Tapa Descendant Union to commemorate the centenary celebration of the death of the man they described as a prince and warrior. To many residents of the area, the cenotaph embodies the spirit of their progenitor.

“Somebody like me has been living in this community in the last 40 years. And we know how people hold the cenotaph in high regard. As a matter of fact, virtually all residents on this street hold the cenotaph in high esteem because of the historic values it portrays,” a resident, Alhaji Balogun said.

A version of the Oshodi-Tapa history has it that he, a prince of the Bida Emirate in the present day Niger State, migrated to Lagos at a very young age when his father warned him to leave their original palace because of a prophesy that he would grow to become a powerful child, with a popularity that would transcend borders. He was said to have been warned that if he was to survive the evil that may befall him, he would have to leave his homestead in Bida.

Oshodi-Tapa’s migration to Lagos was said to have happened during the reign of King Esilokun, the then Oba of Lagos. The narrative was that he arrived Lagos into the warm embrace of one Chief Shagbemi, who would later introduce him to the then King.

Esilokun, after knowing that Oshodi-Tapa was a prince from the Bida Emirate, was said to have instructed Shagbemi to keep nurturing him in the palace. Oshodi-Tapa later travelled from his new home to Portugal, the United States, Brazil, Germany and other parts of the world before returning to Lagos.

Regarded as an outstanding warrior and business tycoon, Oshodi-Tapa was also said to have participated in the slave trade. Then, the trade, despite being degrading, was said to have thrived as a mark of honour for many of the powerful and the wealthy at the time.

Perhaps, nothing defined the life and times of Oshodi-Tapa than the partisan role he was credited to have played during the reign of Oba Kosoko, who ruled Lagos between 1845 and 1851. Oshodi-Tapa, who was credited with great military and technical intelligence, was said to have assisted Kosoko to chase his cousin, the then Oba Akintoye, away from the throne to pave way for his (Kosoko’s) emergence as king. But after six years of Kosoko on the throne, Akintoye, history has it, sought and secured the support of the British who led a counter-assault on Lagos against Kosoko.

The defeat of the Kosoko and Oshodi-Tapa forces led to their relocation to Epe. Their arrival in that ancient town, with their followers, led to the emergence of what is today known as Eko-Epe quarters in Epe town. Yet, Kosoko and Oshodi-Tapa followers refused to give up the throne in Lagos. From time to time, they launched constant assaults on Lagos. When it became apparent that the situation would never be resolved except through an amicable resolution, the British were said to have instituted a peace initiative that saw the warring parties come to an agreement on peaceful co-existence.

As part of the deal reached at the time, the dethroned King Kosoko was allowed to return to his former  place of abode in Ereko Idumota on Lagos Island. However, the former place of abode for Oshodi-Tapa in

Olowogbowo had been taken over by other people and he was thus asked to settle at a new place called Epetedo, meaning those who returned from Epe. Upon his return to Lagos, Oshodi-Tapa was said to have created new quarters for his followers, who were known as Arota. A total of 21 quarters were said to have been created. The established quarters were Oshodi, Ope, Akinyemi, Oguntusi, Ajia Ijesha (the only woman among them), Dosunmu Ajiwe, Inasa, Ogunoloko, Oluwo Jakande, Alagbede, Ewumi, Mogaji, Oloko, Alayaki, Abu, Osho Anifowoshe, Ajagun, Sumonu Baale, Yeshilo, Adio Olodo, Abari and Alfa Iwo courts.

Perhaps, what many may find most intriguing in the story of Oshodi-Tapa is how a village he just temporarily relocated to in help of a friend ,has over-shadowed in fame his actual places of abode at Olowogbowo and Epetedo on Lagos Island. In the mention of the name Oshodi to a modern Lagos resident, what readily comes to mind is the famous Oshodi market and transportation hub at the Oshodi/Isolo Local Government Area. The location of the old Oshodi village was in the then Western Region, but is presently in Lagos State.

Yet, this new, always busy Oshodi also has its history. Historians with its knowledge will recall how a king, the Onigbesa of Igbesa in the then Western Region but  now in Ado Odo-Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State, had at that time fled to where is now known as Oshodi when he got wind of an impending invasion of Igbesa and environs by the Dahomey army. The Dahomeans were in the present-day Republic of Benin.

At the time, Oshodi was said to be a big forest that came under the territory of the Onigbesa after he arrived there. He was then said to have been introduced to Oshodi-Tapa, who was then residing at the Olowogbowo area of the Lagos Island. Banking on his numerous exploits as a warrior of great repute, Oshodi-Tapa was said to have gone to Igbesa with his followers to assist the Onigbesa keep vigilance on the town to repel whatever assault Dahomey might eventually launch. Upon hearing of Oshodi-Tapa’s presence in Igbesa, the Dahomey forces were said to have abandoned the idea of attacking Igbesa.

It was said that after 14 years that the Onigbesa had been on self-exile, he decided to return to his abode in Igbesa. However, the royal father had no money to give Oshodi-Tapa to express his appreciation, so he ceded to him the forest of Oshodi where he had sought refuge.

Thus, Daily Trust on Sunday gathered, the people started calling the place Oshodi-Oko (Oshodi forest) because it was a forest cum village at the time and its ownership had been ceded to Oshodi-Tapa. Ironically, the settlement once referred to as a forest has now developed so much so its fame has overshadowed the main settlement of Oshodi-Tapa on the Lagos Island.

Asked what the current relationship between the Yoruba offshoot of the Tapa/Nupe people in Lagos and their kith and kin in Niger State is, Gboyega said it has remained cordial. He recalled the reception accorded him and some other family members who once joined some Nupe people who gathered at a book launch in Abuja three years ago.

“We were well received. There was no form of discrimination against us and they encouraged us to ensure a strong bond among one another,” he said.

On maintaining in Lagos the originality of the culture and tradition of the Tapa/Nupe people as it is in Bida Emirate where their progenitor hailed from, Gboyega admitted that there had been pollutions of and interferences in cultures, to the extent that the real cultural and traditional practices of the Tapa/Nupe  as it is in Niger State ,are no longer obtainable among the people in Lagos.

“I really cannot say much about the old cultures and traditions because our fathers have been in Lagos for over 200 years. My great grandfather, a descendant of Chief Oshodi-Tapa, was born and brought up in Lagos, likewise my grandfather, my father and I. So I cannot say much about some things that were peculiar to the Tapa people that lived then.”

It will be interesting to note how one author on the Nupe, on the other hand, narrates the incursion of the Nupe people into Yorubaland. Mohammed Kuta Yahaya, in his book, The Nupe People of Nigeria, writes that it has been historically established that Oranmiyan, a descendant of Oduduwa, the founder of the Yoruba race, married Elempe, the daughter of a Nupe king.

Their son, Yahaya states, was the powerful Sango, who became worshipped as the Yoruba god of thunder, thus the son was half-Nupe, half-Yoruba. Sango later became the Alaafin (king) of Oyo Empire. The author says, “After Sango’s brother invaded the Nupe people during his reign as the king of Oyo, the Etsu-Nupe, known then to the Yoruba as Lajomo, fought back strongly and the evidence of that historical event could be traced to Ede and Ilesha ,and the conquest of the Oyo Empire.

“However, events of the following years showed that the relationship between the Nupe people and the Yoruba became cordial. This explains the introduction of Egugu (masquerade) into Yorubaland by the Nupe. Subsequently, with the introduction of Islam into Nupeland, it equally spread fast to neighbouring Yoruba towns like Offa and Ibolo communities.

“Nupe servants leading Yoruba chiefs were treated with cordiality. A prominent example was the Tapa Oshodi, the servant of Kosoko, the King of Lagos, who recognised or treated slaves as free natives. Hence, the

Nupe in Yorubaland made themselves at home throughout the 19th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Tapa Oshodi name has become a popular or household name in Lagos and beyond.”

That the Nupe people co-mingled with the Yoruba in the 19th and 20th centuries is incontestable. But the vast Nupe presence has been fast disappearing since the turn of the century. Even the popular Igunnuko songs that the likes of Latifu Atanda Seriki, Jimoh Babatoto and other musicians, from Lagos and Ogun states to Oyo, Osun and Kwara states, titillated Yoruba and Nupe lovers of that music genre with in the 1970s and 1980s ,can hardly be heard today as such musicians have mostly faded away in the face of the onslaught of the two major religions of Christianity and Islam. Most of such musicians and/or their descendants have embraced either of those two religions, which propagates the Igunnuko culture, songs and dances as unGodly. However, many Igunnuko songs and dances can still be readily accessed on YouTube.

Remnants of the Igunnuko can still be seen, though, in some areas in Lagos State and many villages across the South-West, especially Ogun State, where adherents of the culture still celebrate the masquerade with feasts and the peculiar Igunnuko songs and dances.

In Somolu-Bariga, Lagos State, at the famous junction called Igbo-Igunnu (Igunnuko’s forest) has existed for over a century, the Igunnuko worship shrine. In front of the shrine is erected a tall Igunnuko statue that quickly symbolises the historic and cultural significance of the area.

  Also disappearing in Yorubaland are the then ubiquitous Nupe traders. In the 20th century, when Lagos, for instance, boasted a large population of the Nupe, there was a hardly a street that a Nupe trader didn’t exist, where the female would be doing their favourite commerce of hawking fried groundnuts in trays, and the male would be collecting used clothes from those who wanted to exchange them with him for household items like portmanteaux, washing bowls and soup plates.

Then, it was the competition among Yoruba women to decorate their matrimonial homes with fanciful bowls and plates, so the paaro (exchange) trader that the Nupe man was, was just the handy business partner that many Yoruba women courted. To him they gave used clothes in exchange for bowls, pots and other home utensils.

Daily Trust on Sunday also observed that the Alfa Tapa (spiritual cleric) phenomenon in Yorubaland is also receding into extinction. There was a time in the region when Islamic religious leaders of  Nupe extraction were prominent as seers and Quranic teachers. These days, however, their numbers are few  and far  between, as death had dealt with their older generation who well romanced the South-west for culture, trade and Islam.

Again, with the cultural affinity between the Yoruba and Nupe fading away, most members of the younger Nupe generation have been relocating to Niger State, their real home, perhaps for education, or business, or Islamic pursuits. The Nupe population in the South-west has really diminished.

Time, they say, heals all wounds. Time, as can be seen in the Yoruba-Nupe cultural bond, can also destroy historic affinities.

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