•‘Why people troop to my domain to pray to God’
•Speaks on the Yoruba Obas convention
By Chris Onuoha
Oba Michael Odunayo Ajayi, the Elerinmo of Erinmo Kingdom, Ijesha, Osun State, is among well-educated monarchs in the country.
Oba Ajayi, the Elerinmo of Erinmo-Ijesha
Ajayi has been on the throne for over four years and was among the judges who auditioned the 2018 Queen Moremi Ajasoro Cultural Pageant finalists in Ile-Ife. In this interview, he speaks on the Yoruba culture and the polity among other issues.
How do you combine traditional rulership and business roles?
Being a traditional ruler is my primary responsibility. Any other thing I am doing now is secondary. I wouldn’t like any other thing to compete with my traditional responsibility. At the time I wasn’t a traditional ruler, I was busy with my business. But, right now, every other thing comes second. Being a traditional ruler is a spiritual assignment for me and an assignment that has to be carried out in a modern world.
Does that mean you have slowed down your business as you sit on the throne?
If you are in search of money and you meet honour on the way, you have to return home because after getting the money, you still use it to acquire honour. This is a calling direct from heaven and it is more important than any other calling. And there is time for everything. I have a domain to govern; I have a people to direct and a good example to show as a young traditional ruler. But I didn’t collapse my businesses. Some are run in partnership with others, some were closed and some given to others for me to oversight.
You seem to have strong cultural values. How do they drive you?
The most important value I have is integrity. No matter how rich or well positioned you are in life, if you lack integrity, it is as good as having nothing. I encourage people; if you are a labourer, show integrity in what you do and somehow reward will come eventually.
It may be obvious that your integrity stands out, but people may challenge or even doubt it as corruption rents the air in the country now. How do you react to such insinuation?
It is unfortunate that we are in a society where people do not value integrity. But, still, integrity is very important. For instance, if you are paid to do a job, do it accordingly. If you are in business with somebody, do your own part. The problem we have in this part of the world is that there is unhealthy acquisition of wealth, positions and things like that. And people have, because of that, lost integrity. That’s why the society seems to be dysfunctional.
So many things are wrong and, at the same time, we are chasing shadows. The services that could have been provided at a reasonable amount are no longer available. Hospitals are decayed. Everything has become privatized. People are paying heavily for every service.
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An average Nigerian is running a local government of his own. You need to buy land, build your house and generate electricity and water for yourself. With these, it is difficult to live a life with a particular income, and you are now talking about living wage. You can increase minimum wage to N100, 000 but if inflation rate continues to go up, you are still back to square one. We are a country with vast resources but which, over the years, have been mismanaged.
How did we get it wrong and what is the solution?
I don’t want to sound like bringing up utopian ideas. But, first of all, what we need is benevolent capitalism, without sounding like we are looking for welfarism so to say. For instance, if you want to provide services in a country of about 180 million people, we are supposed to be a Federal Republic of Nigeria but are we really a federation? Is it reasonable for people to have an income and tax that are paid at the same rate all over Nigeria, or is it reasonable to lift petrol from Apapa port to Zungeru and sell at the same price as it is sold in Apapa where it was lifted?
These are some little things that need to be corrected such that, over time, we begin to benefit from our resources. The system that we have been used to is one where the minority are in control of the resources and are wealthy while the vast majority look on to the minority for their livelihood. Everybody cannot be a millionaire. But everybody should have access to basic amenities and infrastructure for survival. In other words, your children can to go school and acquire maximum education. We don’t need expensive schools the people cannot afford.
Where do you stand on the clamour for restructuring?
I believe that everything in life can be negotiated. Even the life we live can be negotiated. In other words, if you choose not to live well, it is a negotiation to die early. There is nothing wrong with discussing. After 50 plus years of independence, it makes a lot of sense to sit down and look back; what have we gotten wrong and what do we need to do better?
There is nothing wrong with that. What’s obvious to me as a Yoruba traditional ruler is that the Yoruba nation was well to do with lots of outstanding projects when we were a region. One can also look at the other regions and say that they competed within their resources, and then, there was some form of healthy competition among the regions. But we have now found ourselves operating the American presidential system of government without being a federation.
For example, I am not aware of Governors Forum in America or the US President summoning governors or a governor going to meet the President. No! All American governors compete within the resources of their states. When you reside, for instance, in Arkansas, you pay a tax of about 5%, but when you move to New York, your tax will be higher. You will also find that your pay for any job you do in New York is higher too. Some states are good in agriculture while others are good in mineral resources or even education from which they generate huge revenues.
That’s what we call a federation. That is a form of restructuring. Restructuring does not mean that everybody is going back to square one. It means that if we are a federation, let every state use the resources available to it, not using other states’ money to pay an oversized workforce. And then, power has been taken away from the people who are supposed to be the custodian: The local government. I am very sure that 70% of Nigerians live in rural areas. So how come they are the least powerful and their funding has to go through the states which short-change local governments?
This is also another form of restructuring. If we say that there are three tiers of government, this is not satisfactory to me because I believe that traditional rulers should form another tier of government. In the South-West, traditional rulers were firmly in control of the administration of their people before the colonialists came. In other words, the traditional ruler was like the President, the governor, the inspector general of police and the chief justice. Everything was under his control.
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At that time, every king aspired to be a good leader because any negative deed will affect the family lineage down the line. With that in mind, there’s no reason we can’t constitute the fourth tier of government in advisory capacity. Now we talk about crime. Why are the people overseeing the grassroots not in control of anything in government?
How did traditional rulers miss being part of government?
The erosion of traditional rulers’ authority dates back to when the colonialists came and they needed to have control over the people. Having noticed that kings existed in Yoruba land before they came, they instituted indirect rule, meaning that they watered down the influence and powers of traditional rulers over so many things.
Traditional rulership has spiritual, physical and administrative dimensions; the traditional ruler is there 24/7. The Constitution has no roles for traditional rulers. However, there was a Constitution Review Committee that was set up some time ago and there was a presentation by traditional rulers in which they insisted that there must be constitutional roles for them. That recommendation has not been adopted. The truth is that if you want things to improve, everybody must be involved.
There is so much power concentrated at the federal level whereas the federal level is a thin layer atop a pyramid with the majority down. There must be devolution of power. A traditional ruler knows the issue of security in his own domain more than the inspector general of police. A traditional ruler knows each and every home and can easily identify a criminal in his domain. Looking for solution to insecurity, traditional rulers should be part of it.
And state police is good but in a situation where you have concentration of power in a certain place, is state police not going to be manipulated and create another problem. The question is whether Nigeria is ripe for it. But once there is a fourth tier of government comprising of traditional rulers, there will be opportunity for advice and to hear from the people on ground.
You quoted former US President Obama’s statement while delivering a lecture sometime ago at the University of Ilorin that “Africa does not need strong leaders but strong institutions.” You want to elaborate?
I used to live in Ghana. I was, in fact, in Ghana when Obama visited as President. One line I picked from his statements when he visited is that Africa does not need strong leaders but strong institutions.
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The simple explanation to that is that Africa does have some long serving leaders that find it difficult to relinquish power. What we need to do is to establish strong institutions. For instance, we have the EFCC, the ICPC among others. Whether it is Ribadu, Magu or any person there, let the system be able to identify, based on fair and just criteria, who is corrupt and what needs to be done; and not that people should jostle for a particular position because it gives them authority or it is lucrative. Institutions are what we need to strengthen.
The idea of appearing to be strong leaders does not solve any problem. The system works for itself. African definition of strong leadership is a situation to acquire the kind of power a traditional ruler has. If an institution is established, it doesn’t matter who is there because the system will always correct the wrongs of the leaders. Another thing is the judiciary. Justice ordinarily is blindfolded meaning that it does not recognise favouritism, but we are not following that. People don’t get justice as it should be in this country.
You were the Director General, Ghana/Nigeria Chamber of Commerce. What could have caused the misunderstanding between the Ghanaian government and Nigerian businessmen operating in Ghana?
I was in Ghana for some time. Essentially, the ECOWAS document provides for free movement of goods and persons within the region but is unclear about persons setting up trade in a particular location in the region. The document says you can come in for 90 days and go. But some Nigerians who came as traders decide to set up business in the land without registering with the Ghana Investment Promotion Council. Setting up a company is different from trading which is where the problem is. Ghana does not want people coming in to trade as a small scale business unless it is big investments with a minimum of $300,000. It is a protectionist agenda by the Ghana government. What went wrong is that as close as Nigeria is to Ghana, there was no bilateral trade agreement.
I was one of those who prepared the draft of the bilateral trade agreement between Nigeria and Ghana because both nations overlooked it then. Ghana at that time had such agreement with over 45 countries but Nigeria was not included. If this was in existence, it would have clearly spelt out what both countries can do in each other’s country.
Then some Nigerian traders assumed that being an ECOWAS member automatically allows them to trade within the region which is not so. It may be easy for other member countries to come here and do business without notice because of our population, but it is not so in smaller countries. Nigerians will not feel threatened by any foreigner doing business here, however, Ghanaians feels threatened that Nigerians are coming to take over their businesses.
You have been on the throne for about four years now. How have you fared?
I wasn’t the only prince entitled to be on the throne and it was never in my plan to become king. It was the plan of God and also an action foretold because before I was born, it was revealed to my mother. It is a total different ball game from where I was before because now you find yourself in a cultural setting making me the head of several families in the community other than my immediate family.
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As a father of all, it is a huge task to accommodate all categories of people in the community: The crazy, the normal, good, bad, the ugly, and it is a must to manage all. I thank God for the grace to be able to do it. In every activity, I look unto God for wisdom that he granted Solomon, the grace he gave David to be able to face this duty especially in a modern day era.
What are the projects that you have embarked in your community since you became a king?
I have established so many empowerment initiatives because I noticed that we need to train and empower especially our women to be self-reliant. I instituted a vocational school that trains students in computer and IT knowledge, tailoring skills and other programmes to improve their talents and knowledge acquisition.
We have also acquired sewing machines for their use after training at no cost. Secondly, we are working on infrastructures; we have a large scale farming project. In the past, we were the largest producers of cocoa in the South-East. We also produced rice on large scale before, palm oil and other areas, which we are trying to revive now. All these are done through our own effort, and not with governmental support. I raise money through friends, associates to train my people. Next year, we will embark on rice production which remains the best in taste and quality.
With your global experience, have you attracted foreigners to the community for developmental purpose?
We are working on that. Last year April, I was invited to the New York Stock Exchange which is the financial capital of the world. I am the first traditional ruler from Africa to have been invited to make a speech there. We made a good impression and also saw lots of interest from people willing to liaise with us to improve our agricultural produce for export. We have also mapped out land for educational development. Based on my trips abroad, we have negotiated with some international organisations that will be providing books and educational materials to our schools in the community and a development of e-library for our students.
On tourism, Erinmo is strategic. How has its endowment been harnessed in terms of tourist influx to the land?
Although we may not have many sites of interest but one unique site is the ‘Ori-Oke (Mountain)’ site. Nigerians are very spiritual. People go to the mountain to pray. Erinmoland has the highest and most potent spiritual mountain in Nigeria. Everybody knows the Ori-Oke Erinmo. It is called the Jerusalem of Africa. It is a mountain with about 600 steps to the top.
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Anybody who has been to the mountain can tell you that prayers said there are answered. That’s a kind of spiritual tourism that will be harnessed in future but we need to involve government to provide access to the place, amenities and security to make the place an international hub.
You are also an author and have written some books.
I have written about four books and still planning to do more. As I sit with you here, ideas are flowing on my mind about things to write. I read a lot and jots down everything I come across, and that helps my writing skills. One of the books I wrote was when I was in Ghana. It is all about the feelings and things that happened while I was in Ghana. Over time, Ghanaians developed a complex about Nigerians and in the small hand book, I wrote about Nigerian living in Ghana called, “A – Z of living in Ghana.”
Another one is a handbook that has basic information about Nigeria – in collaboration with Nigerian High Commission in Ghana. During my first year coronation, I commissioned a book called the ‘Making of a Modern King’. It is strictly about me, my growth and ascendance to the throne. I am planning another one in the same line.
I have been lucky to have careers in multinational companies. I have travelled wide and I have worked at different cross-functional sectors and have moved to every state in Nigeria. Currently, I am the Chairman of the first convention of the Yorùbá Obas. After a long time, there will be a convention of Obas to be hosted by the Ooni of Ife.