The Ijebu people of the Yoruba tribe are precisely located in the south-western part of Nigeria, and flanked on the East by the Ilajes, bordered on the North by both Ibadan and Ondo; while the Egbas (another Yoruba group) constitute the western boundary. There are dissimilar versions that addresses the origin of the Ijebus; an issue probably fuelled by different storytellers’ motives and bias. The most widely accepted and seemingly credible version finds a strong migration link between the Ijebu people, Ethiopia and Sudan. Some say the name Ijebu was coined from Ijè-Ibù, translated “food of the deep”, others say it is a combination of two prominent ancestors’ names, Ajebu and Olode.
The migration story tells us that Ijebu people originated from a town called Owodaiye (later referred to as Waddai) in Ethiopia. This claim is supported by similar cultural and behavioural characteristics identified between the Ijebus and the people of Owodaiye and its surrounding communities such as the North of Nubia, the land of Punt, and Egypt. Some common characteristics identified include tribal facial markings, language and intonation resemblances, common religious beliefs such as the Agemo group, and similar customs of burying the dead. It is believed that the Agemo deity derived its name from “Akemo” which is a word used to describe somebody who takes care of a child in ancient Egypt.
Archaeological evidence supports the claim that the evolution of Ijebu–Ode, the former capital of the Ijebu Kingdom, dates back to 900 AD. This assertion serves as proof that the city was greatly advanced as early as the 15th century.
One different view on the origin of the Ijebu people identifies a link to the era of Noah, connoting the Ijebu’s are an off-shoot of the biblical Jebusites, a theory often found laughable. Another view is that the Ijebu people migrated from Mecca, speculating that the renowned ancestor of the Yoruba’ race, Oduduwa the son of King Lamurudu, journeyed from Mecca to western Nigeria due to unacceptable differences in his religious beliefs.
The Ijebu people are said to be the most populated ethnic group in Yorubaland and allegedly were the first to come in contact with Europeans who gave them early access to education and promoted civilization in the 14th century. The Ijebus are also mentioned to have pioneered the production of war apparel, conceived the use of cowries and silver metals locally referred to as “Owo Ijebu” (Ijebu Money) which was used for international trade, and spearheaded trade and commerce development in Nigeria. The Ijebu Dynasty, although split into major divisions – Ijebu-Ife, Ijebu-Igbo, Ijebu-Ode, Ijebu-Ososa and Ijebu-Remo – has managed to remain united as one, unanimously subjected to the leadership and authority of the Awujale who seats in Ijebu-Ode. Awujale is the royal title of the King of Ijebu Kingdom.
Ijebu-Ode is also home to Sungbo Eredo, a network of defensive walls and ditches dating back to 800-1000 BC. According to the late Dr. Patrick Darling, “in terms of sheer size, it’s (Sungbo Eredo) the largest single monument in Africa – larger than any of the Egyptian pyramids.” Built nearly 1,000 years ago, the structure is 100 miles (160 km) long, and in certain places 70 feet (20 metres) deep and it encircles the primordial kingdom of Ijebu-Ode, winding through swamps and the rainforest. The structure was built as a homage to a prominent Ijebu female aristocrat, Oloye (Chief) Bilikisu Sungbo. Some people are convinced that Bilikisu Sungbo is none other than the Bible’s Queen of Sheba. However, many historians have explained that the claim is a little far-fetched considering that the Queen of Sheba lived about a full 2,000 years before the Sungbo Eredo was built.
The indigenes of Ijebuland are perceived to have an underlying belief of seniority in comparison to other kingdoms of the Yoruba tribe, owing to claims of being the first Yoruba settlers in Nigeria and consequently considering it somewhat belittling to be subject to the rulership of later settlers and their kings, the likes of the Ooni of Ife (King of Ife), Alaafin of Oyo (King of Oyo) and the Alake of Egbaland (King of the Egbas)
The Ijebu people have a rich heritage of festivities and celebrations and are renowned for lavish partying and heavy spending especially when it comes to entertaining guests. One of the prominent Ijebu festivities is the annual Ojude-Oba festival of ancestral origin. The Ojude-Oba is a rich display of the Ijebu culture in honour of their king and the event often features over 50,000 descendants, well-wishers and tourists in attendance. Ojude-Oba’s endless list of merriment activities include group dances, horse-ride and colourful apparel displays, gunshot salutations and gift presentations in honour of the paramount ruler of Ijebuland, currently Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona Ogbagba 11th. The event is marked annually on the 3rd day after Eid-al-Kabir; the 2nd of two Muslim holidays celebrated worldwide each year. The history of the event goes back to almost a century ago when the first Muslim converts felt it was befitting to visit the Awujale and expressed their gratitude to him for permitting them to practice their religion. The exuberant event, which also pays tribute to veterans and descendants of war heroes, is held in an arcade center mapped out in sections for eminent personalities, traditional rulers, government representatives and indigenes of diverse age groups adorned with a vast array of colorful traditional outfits.
The Ijebu people deeply identify with religious worship and divinity passed down from generations. One of the prominent Ijebu deities is Agemo, celebrated mid-yearly and the celebration event is used as an opportunity to unite and resolve disputes between Ijebu communities by gathering representatives called the Alagemos from the affected factions to discuss and resolve their dispute. The Oro is another notable deity of the Ijebus who is believed to purge the society of evil. The Oro festival often takes place before the Agemo festival in order to ensure that the communities are free of evil spirits leading up to the meeting of the Alagemos. The Oro moves at nightfall and often makes a characteristic whirling sound. Women are forbidden to witness the Oro and are required to stay in-doors at night during the 7 day Oro worship. Another deity is Leguru. The month of August in Ijebuland has in the past been devoted to the Leguru deity who was believed to have saved the town from being taken over by a lagoon; however this devotion has rarely been practiced in recent times.
The Ijebu people speak the Ijebu language, a unique dialect yet similarly sharing the same vocabulary with generic Yoruba language. Its uniqueness however lies in its syllables, pronunciation, intonation, varied vocabulary and pace of speech; making it increasingly difficult to comprehend by non-Ijebu speaking Yoruba’s.
THE BRITISH – IJEBU WAR
It is difficult to speak of the Ijebu’s without referring to their altercation with British Authorities in 1892. The Ijebu’s are reported to have been highly industrious, self-reliant and full of pride. The battle was fuelled by the refusal of the Ijebu people to permit foreigners from freely crossing their tribal territories, such that the Ijebu people jealously guarded their trade routes and turned them into profitable ventures by charging tariffs. In 1890, following the instruction of the paramount leader (the Awujale) of the Ijebu’s to guard and protect the tribal terrain, the people of Lagos were denied access to goods and commodities usually received from the Egirin Market of the Lagos lagoon. The British Acting Governor from Lagos at the time, Captain C.M. Denton C.M.G, made several attempts to persuade the Ijebu’s by visiting and appeasing them with gifts which were initially refused. The continuous efforts of the British Authorities eventually paid off resulting in the removal of barriers to entry after terms and conditions were finalized and agreed on, including an annual compensational income remittance of £500 by the British Authorities.
Ijebu leaders at the time had reservations on the free entry and exit of foreigners on their soil and felt the need to protect the Ijebu people and their heritage. On a particular occasion, they displayed their intent by forbidding a British missionary to pass through Ijebu territory even after the agreed resolution. The missionary was treated with disdain and asked to leave and this unexpected act by the Ijebus provoked the British Authorities who then deployed a team of military staff from England to exercise the use of force against the Ijebu’s. Alongside their troops, the British marshalled troops from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and from some of the Hausa people of northern Nigeria to carry out an attack. The war fully began after the troops successfully crossed the Yemoji River; a river that was rumoured to have been consecrated to a deity for protection, thus posing as a potential threat to enemies. In the end, the Ijebu’s lost roughly a thousand men to the British who lost a lot less due to their sophisticated weapons and battle vessels. The British however admittedly underestimated the combat strength of the Ijebus. The Ijebu’s ultimately raised the white flag to preserve the remaining villages and warriors after the Awujale sent his men to intercept the British Authorities to seek a resolution. The British Union Flag was hoisted at the Awujale’s palace which was also converted to an officers’ mess. Afterwards, the South-Western route was subsequently declared open.
Ijebu descendants are known to be highly resourceful and are celebrated for their achievements in merchandising, trade and production. Some famous Nigerians of Ijebu descent include Folorunsho Alakija, the wealthiest woman in Nigeria, and Micheal Adenuga, Founder of Globacom, late Chief Adeola Odutola, one of the pioneers of modern Nigerian indigenous entrepreneurship and the first president of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Dr. Harold Olusegun Demuren, former Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and the late Reverend Seth Irunsewe Kale, the former Bishop of Lagos.
The Ijebus are believed to have kept trade secrets and practices within the tribe to foster unity and clan development. Ijebuland is also surrounded by water ways which was an added advantage for cross-regional trade and they were known for the trade of timber, ivory, brass, copper and textile.
The Ijebu people are appreciated for their speciality in producing Garri (cassava flakes). Ijebu Garri is the most preferred in relation to its taste, texture and production process. Cassava was introduced by the South Americans and industrialised by the locals due to its ease of cultivation notwithstanding soil conditions. Ijebu indigenes today are also greatly respected by the Yoruba community, close-knitted, highly industrious and don’t shy from saying a resounding yes to a good time.
- The Ijebus of the Yorubaland; 1850-1950. Politics, Economy & society, Prof. F.A Ayandele, 1992