Like many worshippers of non-Abrahamic religions in Nigeria, adherents of Isese have routinely faced discrimination, hostility and human rights abuses. Can Isese followers achieve the improved political and social recognition they seek?
Taiwo Ifaniyi, an electronic engineer, likes spending his free time on social media. He enjoys the banter and intellectual discourse on Twitter; the frolics on Tik Tok and the flamboyant show of opulence and style on Instagram. On rare occasions, he reads motivational posts on Facebook. One Sunday afternoon, precisely on 2 July 2023, as he swiped from one social network to another on his phone, a Facebook post caught his attention. The post read: ‘Muslim group storms Osun priestess’ house: If you love yourself don’t hold Isese festival in Ilorin.’
Although a resident in Ibadan, Oyo State, as an adherent of the Isese religious belief indigenous to the Yoruba people, the post sent shivers down his spine, prompting him to surf the internet for more information on the matter. Soon after, he found a video in which some men stormed the house of an Osun Priestess (later identified as Yeye Ajisekemi Omolara) but she was not at home. The men, who were reported to be members of the Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society in Ilorin, delivered a message, spiced with threats, to her younger sister who identified herself as Alaba. They told Alaba that her sister must not hold any festival in any part of Ilorin: ‘Listen to me, woman,’ they said, ‘tell your sister that Ilorin does not allow such (indigenous religious festivals). What they want to do, Ilorin does not allow it. We are Muslims here (in Ilorin). You cannot carry out any festival for Sango or Ogun or Osun (Deities in the Yoruba Pantheon) in the Emirate of Ilorin.’ Another man who seemed to have led the mob, gave this concluding remark before they all left:
We are here in the name of all that makes Ilorin; we are here in the name of our Royal Majesty. If she is worshipping her gods in the secrecy of her rooms, no one would challenge her, but taking it outside is unacceptable. Deliver our message to her when she returns.
Many other Islamic clerics in Kwara State also came out to reinforce the threat, with one declaring that the city of Ilorin is a special one to the Islamic Prophet. ‘This is the city far from Jahannam (hell) and close to Jannah (paradise). If you must worship your deities, go to Osun or Ogun,’ another group sang in another video.
Overwhelmed by threats, stunned by the deafening silence of the state government and without any assurance of safety from the Police, Yeye Omolara resolved that it was wise to cancel the festival. ‘I have received multiple death threats from unknown people,’ she said while announcing the cancellation of the festivals.
The Kwara State police command, rather than protect the oppressed party, asked traditional worshippers in the state to take their celebrations and festivals elsewhere. This was done under the guise that the security situation in the state is not favourable for such a celebration. This development has also forced the International Council of Ifa Religion to suspend a festival planned to mark Isese Day in Ilorin, on 20 August. The council which made the announcement in a statement on 15 August, noted that it was to avoid confrontations especially as ‘the police authorities were already prejudiced against our faith.’
Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, condemned the action of the Muslim group describing it as an affront not just to the Yoruba indigenous culture but to the diversity of humanity. ‘The truncation of a people’s traditional festival is a crime against the cultural heritage of all humanity,’ he said in an open letter to the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Sulu Gambari. But the latter in his reply dismissed Soyinka’s argument, saying that the Nobel Laureate was being ‘economical with facts’.
Apart from Soyinka, other Nigerians like social critics, Festus Adebayo, Femi Macaulay, Julius Ogunro and renowned Ifa priest, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, have expressed surprise at what they argued was a brazing show of intolerance and violation of a people’s right to religious practice; but Ifaniyi is not surprised. In fact, he told me that he has endured worse treatment since his childhood. He recalled how a new principal in his secondary school publicly humiliated him for wearing some white beads on his wrist and ankle which his father, an Ifa priest, had given him. ‘She said I worshipped false gods and forcefully cut the beads off my wrists,’ he told me. ‘My parents had to meet her the next day to challenge her and make her realise the significance of the beads to my faith.’ Taiwo is also used to constant harassment by policemen who profile him as a ritualist or a fraudster. He always wonders why it is a crime for him to express his religious belief, while Christians and Muslims can do the same freely.
Adebayo Ifawale, who resides in Lagos, is also an adherent of the Isese religious belief. He shared similar experiences with Ifaniyi, even in Nigeria’s centre of excellence. ‘Sometimes, I hide my religious accessories when going out, to avoid harassment from police and scornful stares from ordinary people.’
CHAUVINISM AND INTOLERANCE: THE TRIGGERS OF RELIGIOUS CRISES IN NIGERIA
The rancour in Ilorin over the Isese festival is a precursor to religious crises, which are not alien to Ilorin. It raises concerns about citizens’ fundamental right to religious freedom, while also exposing the mockery of secularism by the Nigerian state.
From the North to the South, among Christians and Muslims, members of these dominant religious groups often express chauvinism and trample on the rights of each other as well as members of minority religious groups. Muslim fanatics in the North attack Christian preachers and alleged slanderers of the Islamic prophet; Muslims in the South East endure constant attacks by Christian fanatics; while traditional religious worshippers suffer attacks from both Christians and Muslims. To mention but a few: the brutal killing of Eunice Elisha, a Christian preacher in Abuja on 9 July 2016; the heartless killing of Deborah, a female student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto State, on 12 May 2022; the hijab controversy in Ilorin characterized by attacks and counter-attacks between Christians and Muslims, in May 2021; the disruption of Oro procession by Christians in Lagos, in August 2022; an attack on disciples of an indigenous Egungun (masquerade) by Muslims in the Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State in May 2017; and a bloody clash, triggered by mutual suspicion between Muslims and Obatala worshippers in Osun in March 2023; among others. Evidently, section 38 of the 1999 constitution, which guarantees every citizen’s freedom ‘(either alone or in community with others and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance,’ is of little significance to many Nigerians.
The Nigerian political system also emboldens these chauvinists through their mockery of Nigeria’s secularity. Having trumped indigenous religions with numbers, Christianity and Islam are now the religions for political participation, while indigenous religions are marginalized. And yet, section 10 of the 1999 constitution states that Nigeria ‘shall be a secular state’, that is, neither the federal government nor any government of the component states shall adopt, patronise, or favour/disfavour any religion. In clear terms, our governments should be neutral towards religion. But the stark opposite is the reality. Twice (in June 2019, and in January 2020) former governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, declared Rivers, ‘a Christian State’; his successor, Siminalayi Fubara, made the same declaration days after he was sworn in as governor in May 2023. Former Kaduna governor, Nasir El-Rufai, recently declared that ‘it is not likely that a Christian will ever be elected governor or deputy in Kaduna State.’ He said that he preferred the Muslim-Muslim ticket, and the ticket would be replicated in the next three elections because they (his party, the All Progressives Congress) could win governorship polls without Christian votes. He made this remark while addressing a group of Islamic clerics on the outcome of the governorship election in the state.
Even those who do not recklessly proclaim the superiority of a particular religion in their state sometimes marginalize other religions through their actions. For instance, an APC chieftain, Adamu Garba, mocked Christianity on his Twitter account; when Deborah was lynched for alleged blasphemy in Sokoto. The Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate and former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, deleted a tweet in which he had condemned the act. Such patronage, preference, show of disdain or proclamation of superiority towards religions, are what embolden citizens to express religious chauvinism and violate other people’s fundamental right to religious freedom.
NO LONGER AT EASE: ISESE BELIEVERS WANT STATE RECOGNITION
Like most minority groups in Nigeria, adherents of Isese are subjected to profiling, discrimination, harassment, and human rights abuses even in the Yoruba-speaking South West and in North-Central states like Kwara and Kogi.
Isese is a monotheistic religious belief that encompasses various rituals and reverence to different orishas (deities), believed to be representatives of the Supreme Being, Olodumare. The scripture or guide of the Isese religion is known as Ifa, which is also called the encyclopaedia of Yoruba religious and cultural knowledge. Adherents believe that Ifa contains esoteric words of Olodumare, from which believers seek divine guidance and knowledge.
The Isese religion has been exported to Brazil, Cuba, and many other South American countries, as well as Europe, where it is practised openly and without discrimination. However, its adherents in their indigenous states in Nigeria cannot afford the same freedom as seen recently in Ilorin.
The secularity of the Nigerian state is merely a word on paper as Christianity and Islam, the two major religions, enjoy government patronage. However, adherents of Isese have been seeking state recognition for years, particularly in the South West but governments of the six states in the region continue to ignore them. Their major request is that one out of 365 days, specifically 20th August should be declared a public holiday to mark Isese Day, just as Christians and Muslims are given countless days as holidays on notable dates for religious events. Osun state yielded this demand in 2014 and has since been declaring public holidays on Isese day, while the other states ignored Isese believers on their special day. However, probably due to the uproar that followed the hostility against traditional worshippers in Ilorin, three other Southwest states, Lagos, Oyo and Ogun, have joined Osun in declaring Monday, 21 August, a public holiday in commemoration of the Isese Day. Only Ondo and Ekiti were yet to declare a public holiday for the Isese Day. This can be said to be a Pyrrhic victory as Representatives of the Isese religion in all the South West states have written countless correspondences to successive governors of each state, in futile pleas for recognition and inclusion.
Mr Ifayemi Ifakayode, an Ifa Priest with a Doctorate in Religious Studies, who has had his share of discrimination and religious intolerance in Oyo State where he grew up and currently lives, is the General Secretary of the Traditional Religion Worshippers Association, Oyo State Chapter. He believes that the agitation for recognition and an end to discrimination may turn into an agitation for justice, ‘if the government refuse to listen to us.’
Another leader of the faith in Ogun State, Chief Ifasina Atanda Alasela, noted that his chapter of the Traditional Religion Worshippers Association had been writing ‘for over 40 years’ to the Ogun State government, particularly for the declaration of a public holiday on 20 August, ‘but they have not answered us.’ After the Ogun State Governor, Dapo Abiodun announced on Saturday, that there would be a public holiday on Monday for the commemoration of Isese Day, I called him again to ask how he felt. He was full of excitement and appreciation and said:
We have been clamouring for this for many years, I’m grateful to the governor for finally granting this request; I am grateful to you Journalists too for joining us in the struggle, but our agitation is not over. We want to be treated equally as Christians and Muslims. The government has pilgrim boards for them, we want the government to extend support to us too during our festivals. We want to be regarded too.
While Isese believers in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Osun are celebrating over this tinge of recognition extended to them by their governments, their counterparts in Ilorin would be marking the day quietly in their homes as the Police have illegally banned Isese festival in Kwara State. While announcing the cancellation of the Isese festival in the state, the International Council of Ifa Religion urged all Isese believers in the state to ‘take the cancellation with equanimity’ and show that Isese is a ‘true religion of peace.’
Nigeria is a hotbed of religious violence, and one may be looming in the city of Ilorin. Some of the factors responsible include utter disregard for the religious freedom of minority groups and the mockery of Nigeria’s constitutional secularity by the political system. For folks like Ifaniyi, Ifakayode and Yeye Omolara, who preferred their indigenous religion to Abrahamic religions, their right to freedom of religion remains a mirage⎈
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