Okun people are Yorubas occupying the North easternmost part of Yoruba land. Just as their parent ‘Yoruba identity’ was constructed from the description given to Oyo people by traders and popularized by scholars as they were looking for ways to describe them as a group after the fall of Oyo empire.
The Okuns were a group of loose confederates each one having a memorable migration history either linked to Oyo or Ife. When the need to describe them collectively as a similar group arose in 1900 after Britain intervened to bring Nupe suzerainty to an end in 1897 leading to the creation of Kabba Province by Lord Lugard the Okuns became Kabba people based on the prominence of Kabba town known as Owe people.
In 1914 with the amalgamation of what the colonialists categorized as Northern and Southern protectorates they became Northerners, both politically and geographically, widely referred to as Yorubas of Kabba province alongside the Akokos because the province had Ebiras and Igalas too referred to as the Ebiras and Igalas of Kabba Proviince . In 1960 at independence from Britain they became Nigerians and are still referred to as Kabba Yoruba.
However, shortly after independence the deconstruction of the Kabba identity took a swift turn from the research work of a foreign sccholar Eva Kraft Askari in 1965 when he recommended based on the common greeting mode amongst the people that the name Okun was more suitable. This position was kicked against by certain people that believed the status quo should be maintained. Prominent among this school of thought is the well respected Cardinal John Onaiyekan who at that time was writing his Doctoral Thesis, but the Okun name was popularized by local scholars such as Profs. Obayemi and Ijagbemi and since then the people took on the Okun identity and it has stuck beautifully.
In between our journeys up to1967 when provinces were dismantled and replaced with States by the military, and Okun people moved to Kwara State and from there to the present Kogi State in 1991 there has been several decades of traumatic experiences as an uncoordinated, loosed group of minority. The socio-political, historical and cultural heritage of Okun land in North-East Yoruba land was altered and battered as the people suffered so much from slave raiding, forced labour, heavy taxation, conscription into warfare, separation from kith and kinsmen, gradual loss of identity and rejection either by omission or commission. As a result of their location in the extreme end of their core culture and the commencement of those of others particularly the Nupes who being closer, more closely knitted, better organized in terms of leadership and military, took advantage of them so much that a diffusion of their way of life took root in Okun societies.
As a result of the enshrinement of certain extrinsic values within Okun land, names from other places particularly Nupe such as Bagudu, Igunu and others came in; so also titles such as Shaaba, Seriki and even in dressing such as the usage of red caps by Chiefs. These sorts of mix up confused a lot of early researchers into this area some who had earlier encountered the Nupes as they wondered at such influence. The saving grace must have been the language. Attempts have been made in the past by scholars of Okun descent to attend to the questions that arose from such batterings as explained above particularly those of our identity in Okun land as Yorubas in the North.
The Bickering Began
On January 1, 1951 the Macpherson Constitution came into effect and made provision for election into the three Regional Houses of Assembly – North, East and West. As the Constitution took effect, an announcement was made for elections in September of the same year and the Electoral College was to elect three members to represent the Province in the House of Assembly.
Population of the Divisions was a crucial consideration in respect to the number of delegates from each Division. Out of a total of 35 delegates at the Provincial College, Lokoja, the Igbirra Native Electoral College had 10 members; Igala had 12, Lokoja 1, and Kupa 3. Kabba Native Authority had 2, Bunu 1, Ijumu 2, Oworo 1, Yagba had 3. Altogether there were 9 delegates from Kabba Division.
Since electoral success depended on number which directly or indirectly has been based on tribal majority, considering the population of Kabba Division vis-a vis the other divisions in the province, the odds were against Kabba. But worst than our population was our lack of capacity to woo others as mutual distrust was the order. If Kogi West as presently constituted pulled together, they would have 13 votes in their pocket and a candidate from them would have won; but we went separate ways.
Hence at the Provincial College Lokoja, it became a contest between the Igbirra and Igala Native Authorities’ delegates, the two most populated divisions or ethnic groups in Kabba Province.
The delegates from Yagba, Ijumu, Bunu, Kabba, Oworo and Lokoja, were lobbied and eventually made to team up with Igbirra and Igala. The Bunu delegate pitched camp with those of Kabba and Yagba succumbed to pressures and overtures from Igbirra delegates. On the other side, Lokoja, Oworo, Bassange as well as Ijumu delegates pitched tent with Igala delegates. Kabba Divisional delegates lost, not being able to secure a representative or a seat at the Regional House of Assembly.
At the end of the day, Abdulmaliki the Attah’s son and G. U. Ohikere both of the Igbirra Tribal Union (ITU) were elected alongside Peter Achimugu from Igala. That is, two went to Igbirra one to Igala and none to Okun.
An Agenda for Restoration
When the foundation for the current democracy was being laid, Chief Sunday Awoniyi ably supported by people like Gen. David Jembewon, Chief Olusola Akanmode, Arch Stephen Olorunfemi met and decided to make strong demand for Okun’s right politically possibly to address the foundational bickering. So, on 8th May 1998 Awoniyi wrote a letter to all aspirants from Okun extraction vying for the State’s Governorship position. The letter is as below.
To All Okun Aspirants to Kogi Government House
“The purpose of this letter is to appeal to all you Okun Aspirants of whatever political party to get together and have realistic and Okun focused discussions on how best to prosecute- Okun/Agenda successfully to the satisfaction of all of you.
The self respect of the entire Okun people demands that we must not fail in this aspiration which more than any issue has brought the vast majority of our people together. I have not met any Okun man who can recollect any occasion or any issue on which our people have been so united.
It is absolutely vital for the fulfillment of our people’s aspirations for all of you craving to serve them to work together realistically to produce one single candidate. The candidate who emerges from your deliberations becomes not his party’s candidate but the candidate of Okun for the fulfillment of the OKUN AGENDA.
To capitalize positively on this mature political concession of Okun, and for the rest of the State to take us seriously and concede to us the moral justification of our claim, and the enhancement of harmony through fair play, Okun must put its act together and produce only one candidate for Governor. A plethora of Okun contenders will not do! Okun must endeavour to make assurance double sure by producing only one candidate for Governor. Difficult? Of course it is difficult. That is why it is worth our while!
It is a test for us as a people at this critical period of the nation’s life. We must not blow it.”
After the letter above, Chief Awoniyi went to work to ensure the success of the goal he has set for Okun people as captured therein. He ensured that an Okun man Arch. Olorunfemi got the gubernatorial ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party which was the ruling party, but unfortunately PDP lost the election and what transpired will be left out of this piece for lack of space. However in between 1999 and 2007 four Ministers came out from Okun land, namely; Gen. David Medaiyese Jemibewon for Police Affairs, Chief Kola Jamodu for Industry, Prof Eyitayo Lambo for Health and Chief Bayo Ojo for Justice. What they did with their tenure is story for another time too.
Recently between 2nd and 3rd May 2017, due to ignorance of some people on the roles and sacrifices that Awoniyi and his team made for Okun land, a discourse on an Okun online platform known as ‘Okun Patriots’ resulted in downplaying the roles they played towards the cohesion of Okun land as some people claimed complete ignorance of an ‘Okun Agenda’ ever.
Engr Afolabi Oludoyi (MON), a retired Director of State Security Service while making contributions on how to arrive at consensus concerning candidates in the forth coming elections said, ‘I move that this time around, we have a reservoir of competent and eminently qualified Okun sons and daughters where we can choose from. Allow prospective candidates to address us at Town Hall Meetings in each of our composite LGAs to tell us their past achievements, what plans they have for the future within the framework of the Okun agenda, and their implementation strategies. We shortlist from there and move on to the next level.’
In a very short response, the much respected media strategist, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan who then was the Peoples Democratic Party National Publicity Secretary said, If I may ask, Egbon, what is Okun Agenda?
On his own part, Mr. Olu Majek, then an aide to Kogi Governor of Kogi State sounded very pessimistic about the possibility or workability of an Okun Agenda, he said, ‘it’s so bad that a community as small as Kakun does not even have a unified Kakun Agenda- in between we have Odo Bata Agenda, Apanga agenda and these agendas are never the same. How much more the wider frame- Okun Agenda!!!
May God help us o! (The last man who toyed with an Okun Agenda had 56 votes at APC primary election and came a distant number 5. He was the highest scorer among about 6 candidates from Okun!) Such is the nature of the agenda!!!!’
Prof Mike Ikupolati trying to affirm the existence of Okun Agenda said, ‘I am aware that an Okun Agenda exist. This was done and Okun land race now has Agenda we can all be proud of and refer to any time. Kola, you may wish to have a copy of the Agenda for your reference. I guess it has not been put forward for publicity. New Executive of ODA and other groups in Okun land may be involved in popularizing the Agenda in the near future’-
Otunba Funsho G Ibrahim, FCA, a seasoned technocrat and administrator reacted to the debate thus, ‘Okun Agenda exist. The faithful pursuit of the agenda culminated, amongst other things, in late Dr Olorunfemi winning the PDP gubernatorial ticket in the run up to the 1999 general elections. What later happened in the governorship election are lessons we are yet to learn from. Okun’s impressive show, in terms of key appointments, under Obasanjo’s administration did not happen by accident. They were products of carefully mapped out plans, strategies and tenacity of purpose, coordinated by late Baba Awoniyi’.
Otunba continued, ‘you may wish to contact Prince Olusola Akanmode, who was one of think tank members and a repository of information and records of Okun agenda. I believe it is high time we started critical self assessment as to why and how we declined so much politically and economically. The time to commence a recovery plan of action is now because we are staying too long in the intensive care unit’.
In another response Kola Ologbondiyan cleared the air on the existence of Okun Agenda, showing that as a journalist his questions were for probing sake. He said: ‘Good morning sir! When I said I’m not aware that there is an Okun Agenda, I was coming from somewhere that must be strange even to you. As you may wish to recall, the meeting that led to the pursuit of the agenda which you have beautifully espoused above started at the sitting room of General David Medaiyese Jemibewon in Ogudu, Lagos, about 1998.I served as the Secretary of that group and we had series of meetings in Lagos and Iyah-Gbedde residence of General.
When General Sani Abacha transition program collapsed and new parties came up, the irreplaceable leader of men and materials, Chief SB Awoniyi, took the mantle of leadership and in unity Okun birthed a governorship candidate. Several appointments followed at the Centre. We coursed through political situations with the majority in a straight line gerontocratically looking ahead. What has been Okun Agenda since 2007 till date Sir? Therein, Sir lies my question. Have a great day sir’.
Ologbondiyan’s question is a very valid one and one that calls for deep reflection today because his time frame coincides with the death of Awoniyi who propagated the ‘Okun Agenda’ and ensured our people were not completely muscled out of relevance. Of a truth, politically we are staying too long in the ‘intensive care unit’ just like Hon. FG Ibrahim posited.
The demise of Chief SB Awoniyi has revealed the worst in Okun land when it has to do with maintaining the legacies of sacrifice and unity. If as far back as 1999, he fought tooth and nail to get the gubernatorial ticket of PDP the most popular party for Architect Olorunfemi and galvanized the majority of Okun land to follow his candidacy, what is wrong with us today?
In conclusion, the same factor that was responsible for the suffering of Okun people long before independence, which is the general lack of cohesion, is still ravaging us today. That was what made the Nupes and Ibadans to stroll in and pick a sizeable chunk of our population and then succeeded in empowering some people to lord over their own brothers in brutal manner and it is yet to be addressed. That same factor made us to lose to Igbira and Igala during the Provincial days and hitherto still losing to them.
So, as they shared us in the beginning with slavery, so they have been sharing us with politics, so they are about to share us again and so they will continue to share us until we realize the strategy to engage with even with the little we have.
The moment we are able to curb unnecessary bickering, deep seated clannish and communal divisions, among Okun communities which have in diverse ways imparted our leaders by narrowing their developmental dragnets within these divisions, that is the moment we can begin to achieve our goals for genuine development of our land and people. We must go back to an Okun Agenda that will include how we can win power, utilize it to the fullest and also how all our mineral resources in Okun land can be harnessed and used for the development of our people.
This is herculean but achievable if our leaders are sincere and patriotic enough to see that we are one unique, beautiful, industrious people.
That I believe is one of the goals of this association ‘OKUN UNITE’ as the name implies and that is why I accepted to speak here and took my time to be with you. May the Lord bless you all.
Being a speech delivered at the celebration of ‘Okun Unite’ Group’s Day on 18th December, 2021 at Kewon Hotel, Lokoja.
Elere Samuel bagged his first degree from Bayero University Kano and his Masters degree from The Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Ibadan. He obtained Professional Certificate in Effective Communication and writing from Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NUJ) Ikeja and another certificate from United States Institute for Peace (USIP). He is an Alumni of ECWA Secondary School, and Baptist primary school Mopa.
Elere is a public affairs analyst with ten (10) years experience cutting across Journalism, Research, General Administration, Human Capital Development, Public Relations, Conflict Analysis, Conflict Management and Conflict Prevention. He is a writer and Poet with two books to his credit.