Present-day Yoruba traditional leadership holds that men are superior to women, and as such men dominate governance at most levels while women are generally considered unfit to lead. For women to assume the position of regents, tradition demands they discard their female identities and present as men. This needs to change.
Adelé Ọba is a well-known phrase in the Yoruba monarchy. It is a title given to regents. The phrase is more popular among the kingdoms in Ekiti and Ondo states for a peculiar reason: unlike other communities in Yorubaland, the ascension of regents after the demise of a monarch or Oba is a widespread practice in these parts and women are the most preferred choice for the temporary seat because it is believed that women are unlikely to vie for the position of a more permanent monarch. Oftentimes, these women are princesses and the eldest daughters of the deceased kings.
The duration of a regent’s tenure as the traditional head of her community typically runs between the death of her father and the enthronement of his successor. During this time, the kingdom is under the hegemony of the regent who as ‘interim monarch’ ensures the kingdom is in order and that the palace is not devoid of central leadership. She also becomes the first person in the kingdom as she is the head of the monarchy.
PRINCESS-REGENTS AND LOSS OF IDENTITY
While her reign lasts, the princess-regent is required to conceal all traces of her femininity and instead identify as a man. These women have to dress in men’s traditional Yoruba attires—bùbá, ṣòkòtò, and agbádá—as opposed to ìró and bùbá that are worn by Yoruba women. Moreover, she is also required to abstain from sexual relations and, consequently, childbearing.
This practice is postured as one designed to honour these women. However, in their 2020 essay, ‘Cultural Imperatives of Women Leadership Role in Nigeria,’ Olupona Adeola Moromoke and Olalere Kunle Oluwafemi explain that the use of regency in Yorubaland does not ascribe full rights to the woman-regent, rendering the practice questionable. In Yoruba culture, traditional leadership roles are typically viewed as positions that are natural for men to take. In ‘Proverbs and Gender Equalities and Equities in African cultures: Yoruba culture as a Case Study,’ the authors note that women have been marginalized for long in (Yoruba) traditional leadership, thus, it has ‘become a tradition in every Yorubaland for male domination of traditional leadership.’ On this ground, for these women to assume the supreme position of authority temporarily, tradition demands they discard their identities as women by dressing as men.
The imposition of masculinity on these women implies that the ruling position they are assuming is only meant for men and that it is only right that they also become men. If these women who are supposed to be traditional leaders in their communities are being stripped of their identities, it begs the question of whether their persons are respected and honoured at all.
MARRIAGE AND REGENCY
While acting in the capacity of a monarch, the regents who are installed as spinsters must remain so until they leave the throne. They must not get pregnant during their reign and this extends to married regents. Taiwo Agbona, the regent of Aaye Kingdom (2018-2022) in Ondo State once spoke about this norm in an interview. ‘I cannot get married while on the throne and I cannot get pregnant, so whosoever that wants to marry me will have to wait till I leave the throne,’ Agbona said.
Although this is one of the rules they have to abide by, as explained by Tinuade Adejuyibe, the regent of Iboropa-Akoko (2015-2021), it is technically a restriction on their sexual relationships and consequently, their biological rights as women to procreate. According to Regent Adejuyigbe, ‘tradition doesn’t permit me to get pregnant on the throne, so celibacy is the deal.’ She also pointed out in another interview that only female regents are required to be celibate, while male regents are exempted from the rule.
A king, while on the throne, is free to marry as many women, have as many children, and even have extra-marital affairs as he wishes. If male regents get to enjoy this same benefit, the princess-regents who are also acting in the capacity of a monarch who by Yoruba customary belief is independent, supreme, and has full control over his people—ọba ba l’órí ohun gbogbo—the princess-regents should be given similar rights.
WOMEN AS PLACEHOLDERS
Another way this practice demeans the women who function as Adelé is the widespread acknowledgement that they are preferred because, compared to a man, they would be relatively easier to dethrone when it is time to install a new substantive monarch. The rules binding the regents are also made to this effect. In this Channels TV documentary about the marginalization of regents in Yorubaland, Moyinoluwa Falowo, the regent of Ibule-Soro town in Ondo state corroborated this marginalization. Falowo explained that the restrictions on marital, sexual, and procreation rights could make an Adelé woman, who wants to pursue her life, ‘eager to want to leave the position, so that is a form of bias that has been institutionalized with the practice.’
In securing stability on the throne, these women give up their regular lives to serve their communities but often end up not getting the required support from them. Though the practice works for the good of the community, its impact on the lives of these women is not readily considered.
In the documentary, Regent Adejuyigbe reflected on how she gave the best six years of her life to the Iboropa-Akoko community. She also shared her resolve to ensure that succeeding regents will not have to suffer or become castaways as she’d heard many past regents have become. The documentary highlights how these women risk facing marital troubles after their reigns, as women are expected to be submissive partners in Yoruba culture. Thus, their (ex) husbands become uncomfortable with the idea that their wives have become ‘men’. This was the case of Princess Adebomi Adenike, the regent of Ise-Ekiti from 1999 to 2001, whose husband abandoned her after her reign because he began to ‘fear’ her. Since then, getting married again has been difficult because other men she had met held the same belief.
HISTORY, ERASURE, AND THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN MONARCHS
The successful marginalization of regents in present-day Yoruba monarchies stems from the belief that women becoming Oba is foreign to Yoruba culture and can be traced to the subtle erasure of these queens and the (re)presentation of their reigns as tyrannical and products of rebellion. However, the pre-colonial history of Yoruba people has proven that the position of the supreme hierarchy of leadership in a Yoruba monarchy, the oba, is not only reserved for men. Ọọ̀ni (Queen) Luwo of Ile-Ife and Aláàfin (Queen) Orompoto of Oyo were women who ruled the two great towns in Yorubaland around 1100 and 1554 respectively. Ile-Ife was recorded to have had an attractive and healthy environment under Ooni Luwo and Alaafin Orompoto fought and won many wars for Oyo town. Nothing about their reigns suggested a taboo—save for constant resistance and battles from the menfolk.
In the post-colonial era, the Yoruba monarchy retained its structure but not the position of women. Even the use of the English language in Yorubaland shows that women do not naturally have a place on the throne. Female monarchs are usually referred to as ‘female kings’ as opposed to ‘queen’ in the standard British English (that Nigeria adopted as its official language and lingua franca), while the wives of kings are regarded instead as ‘queens’ instead of queen consort.
The royal leadership position reserved for women in present-day Yoruba kingdoms is the Ìyálóde chieftaincy title. Ìyálóde is regarded as the leader of all the women in the kingdom and technically, their representative at the palace. Although an important position—if a king is flanked by all his chiefs excluding Ìyálóde, the palace council is considered incomplete—it defines women’s involvement in traditional leadership as minimal as the other chiefs regardless of their numbers must be men.
Besides the Ìyálóde, the closest women have been to heading their kingdoms is by serving as regents. Unfortunately, these women are often subjected to higher standards and harsher rules. This is rarely discussed because it is viewed as the norm. It is high time this is stopped. It is unjust that a woman is preferred to head her community only to demand that she becomes a ‘man’ on the throne.
This practice of regency in Yorubaland must stop denying the women-regents their full rights to womanhood. Until then, the regency will remain a system designed to choose women because they can be disposed of conveniently rather than involving them for the sole purpose of bridging the gap between male and female participation in Yoruba traditional leadership⎈
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