‘Yoruba Ronu’, the title Hubert Ogunde’s famous 1964 play, has recently become the anchor on which Yoruba politicians have championed calls for fanatic support. The original core message of the phrase, however, is unity rather than ethnic disrespect and Yoruba supremacy.
In a now-deleted tweet on 27 February 2023, Dayo Israel, the national youth leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) posted two words: ‘Yoruba Ronu’, which translates simply to ‘Yoruba, Think’ It was two days after the highly contested 2023 presidential election. Although the presidential election final result would not be declared until five days after, it was clear former Anambra governor, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), had defeated former Lagos governor, Bola Tinubu of APC in his home state. Although Tinubu would go on to be declared president in the highly controversial election, his loss in Lagos sent shockwaves through the political space especially within APC. Not only was the victory an unpredicted surprise, it also raised concerns about APC’s chances of victory in the governorship election scheduled to take place two weeks after. Apart from Tinubu, all three major presidential candidates won in the home states with Obi winning in Anamabra, Atiku Abubakar winning in Adamawa and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso sweeping Kano State.
Israel’s tweet became an ethnic catchphrase closer to the gubernatorial election in Lagos. What had seemed like an easy ride to a second-term victory for Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu now looked challenged by the rising stock of Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, the governorship candidate of LP. By running ‘Yoruba Ronu’ calls while placing adverts in the media that specifically warned against supporting ‘an Igbo candidate’ in Lagos, ‘Yoruba Ronu’ became a fascist-like war cry championed by APC in Lagos to ignite ethnic tension. APC supporters launched campaigns warning that a Rhodes-Vivour victory would hand over Lagos to Igbos. It did not matter that Rhodes-Vivour was Yoruba and could trace his Lagosian ancestry to the last 400 years. His mother and wife being Igbo were used by his detractors to discredit his supposed ethnic authenticity.
While APC ethnic champions were using ‘Yoruba Ronu’ as an ethnic warning on social media that they would not relinquish the control of Lagos to a non-Yoruba person, offline, the campaign was being championed by Musiliu Akinsanya, popularly known as MC Oluomo, the leader of the National Union of Road Transport Workers in Lagos. MC Oluomo was caught on video warning voters at a polling unit before the presidential election to either vote APC or vacate. Despite the police’s promise to investigate the matter, nothing came out of it.
The ethnic supremacy campaign became the overarching plot during the gubernatorial election in Lagos where there were reports of attacks against Igbos at polling units. This targeted disenfranchisement was condemned by the European Union but there was doubt that APC’s ethnic colouration of the campaign worked in ensuring the loss of Rhodes-Vivour in the election.
The election reignited ethnic tension, Igbophobia and an unending battle of ethnic superiority built on the foundation of the deliberate reinvention of ‘Yoruba Ronu’. The actual origins of the phrase, is a play Hubert Ogunde (often referred to as the ‘father of modern Nigerian theatre’) staged in 1964. The theme and motif of the play, however, are a far cry from how Yoruba nationalists have deployed it. For one, Ogunde never intended for ‘Yoruba Ronu’ to become an ethno-fascist anthem. Rather, his play criticized the political leadership of the South West, which was at the time threatening the unity of Yoruba people. In 2023, however, ‘Yoruba Ronu’ has become bastardized and is now synonymous with ethnic intolerance.
HUBERT OGUNDE: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Ogunde was born on 10 July 1916 to Jeremiah Dehinbo Ogunde and. Eunice Owotunsan Ogunde, who was a pastor and a trader respectively, at Ososa in Ogun State. The duo raised and taught their children about African culture, an upbringing that would go on to shape young Ogunde’s artistic life.
Before his illustrious theatre career, Ogunde worked as a teacher, church organist and police officer. It was however in the church that he developed a keen interest in musical plays, operas and story-telling. In 1944, he was sponsored by the Church of the Lord, Ebute-Meta, to produce his first opera, ‘The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God’ at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. The success of the play urged him to turn professional and in 1946, he founded the African Music Research Party, which was the first theatre group in the country.
Ogunde’s artistry gradually shifted from Church stories to socio-political themes, with his plays focusing on events that happened around him. A nationalist, Ogunde was involved in the pro-independence movement and contributed to the discourse through his theatre. His 1945 play, ‘Worse than Crime’, which showed the evil of colonialism had future Nigerian president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, in its audience.
After Nigeria gained independence from Britain, Ogunde focused on issues that affected the new country in his plays. He addressed the problems of corruption, leadership tussles and intra-ethnic strife. Following the Biafran War which began in 1967, in 1968 he wrote ‘Keep Nigeria One’ to promote unity in Nigeria. He founded and became the first president of the Union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights which later became the Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners. He then went on to establish a film village in Ososa, Ogun State, to serve as a shooting studio for his films in 1982. At the time of his demise in April 1990, Ogunde had written over 60 stage plays/operas, produced four films and 99 songs.
YORUBA RONU: THE BASTARDIZATION OF OGUNDE’S PHILOSOPHY
Many of Ogunde’s plays and songs were produced in the Yoruba language although he also included pidgin and English. In the early 1960s when Nigeria practised a strong regional government, Ogunde noted the intra-ethnic divide that was spreading among the Yoruba people as a result of the friction between Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola in the battle for the leadership control of the region. This informed Ogunde’s play, ‘Yoruba Ronu’, which he staged at the Obisesan Hall, Ibadan. Akintola was in the audience it was reported that, mid-play, he walked out of the hall with some of his ministers.
The following day, Ogunde was banned from performing in the Western Region and his songs and plays were banned from being played on the government-owned Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services. The ban continued until after the death of Akintola, who was killed during the first military coup in Nigeria on 15 January, 1966.
‘Yoruba Ronu’ became one of Ogunde’s most popular plays and was adapted into a song performance by filmmaker, Tunde Kelani, in 2013. The play echoed the essence of Yoruba togetherness and warned that without unity, the Yoruba ethnic group would not achieve progress in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria. The 2023 general election, however, brought a new interpretation to Ogunde’s message; politicians and their supporters deliberately turned the phrase into a fear-mongering campaign, claiming that Yoruba people were at risk of being overrun and of missing out politically if they did not support their ‘own’. Ogunde’s message was revised towards ethnic nationalism (akin to Oduduwa Republic) when in reality Ogunde was a champion of Nigreria’s unity.
In a 2022 interview with Punch, Oluwemimo Ogunde, a former attorney general of Ogun State, and one of Ogunde’s children insisted that his father’s message was not of Yoruba supremacy but about Yoruba unity. According to Attorney General Ogunde:
Yoruba Ronu was actually to castigate Yoruba and those who are not Yoruba. It was to let all Yoruba to understand that the destruction of the Yoruba nationalism would be from the inside not from the outside. The play was to highlight and to show that it appears that we are divided and as long as we are divided, other ethnic groups will be taking advantage of that division, so, we won’t have them to blame but we will have our own internal wrangling to blame.
The play now has been misused to actually show that my father wrote against other national ethnic group, that’s not correct. The play had nothing to do with other ethnic nationality. It was to ensure the Yoruba unity. I can’t deny the fact that it was to promote Chief (Obafemi) Awolowo because my dad was a fanatical ‘Awoist’…The play was to promote Awolowo but much more than that, there was disunity in Yoruba land and it wasn’t going to help us.
Nigeria and, more specifically Lagos, have not healed from the effects of the ethnic divisiveness that pervaded the 2023 general elections. Almost every event that has happened since the election has taken on an ethnic or ethnicity-related meaning. From Bola Tinubu’s seeming lopsided political appointments to the planned demolition of 17 defective buildings in the highly Igbo-populated Alaba area of Lagos; to the new property and business ownership laws to be passed in Lagos. Ogunde was a proud Yoruba man whose art was inspired by Yoruba thought and culture, but he did not denigrate other ethnic groups. His philosophy was aligned with national unity and bears no semblance to the way it has been misrepresented and weaponized today⎈
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