Ile-Ife History

Ile Ife of 1912
Ile Ife, 1912. Photo: Leo Frobenius Institute

Ile-Ife, the name which the town in the Nigerian rainforest 135 miles northeast of Lagos is called originates from the Yoruba myth of origin which designates it as the place of dispersion. Obatala in this myth descended with a task from Olodumare, or God, to create life. On his way, he was distracted by and got intoxicated with palm wine, hence the dispatch of another personae, Oduduwa who finally created land from a primordial ocean. Oduduwa would in a less otherworldly history upsurge the dynasty before him, expel or force aborigines to submission under a new era in which he is recognized as the progenitor of the Yoruba race. The Ooni, king of Ile-Ife, is by tradition descendant of Oduduwa, and is one of Nigeria’s most recognized monarchs. Ile-Ife is reckoned in Yoruba tradition as the cradle of civilization. All Yoruba subgroups have a history attached to it, an ancient kingdom with oblique past, once suggested by German Anthropologist, Leo Frobenius in 1911 to be the lost Atlantis. Little is known about Ile-Ife until the nineteenth century and there are no evidences asides its highly developed art to support any theory that supposes its spiritual significance in Yorubaland was matched by military or economic power. Evidence of houses featuring postherd pavements points that the settlement between the 12th and the 14th century may have been substantial in size. It is a known fact however that Ile-Ife was outshined by the Oyo and Benin kingdoms from the fifteenth century. J.A. Atanda in the New Oyo Empire book of 1973 explained Ile-Ife, due to its cheer status as the original home of the Yoruba people was never under the Oyo Empire. Up to the late eighteenth century, Ile-Ife had its own area of jurisdiction, sharing boundary with the Oyo Empire along the River Osun, from around Ikire-Aponmu area up to the neighborhood of Ede. Ife was not spared however, of what was the frequently occurring fate of many Yoruba towns in the nineteenth century when residents fled to take refuge in the smaller Okeigbo town. As Robert Smith posits in 1976 book, Kingdom of the Yoruba, it is not the central position of Ife in Yoruba history that eventually gave it wider fame but its incomparable bronze and terracotta sculptures, which makes the art of Ife known throughout the world.

Ife Art

The Ife Art, some of which have found a home in American, European and Nigerian museums consisted of bronze, stone, and terracotta sculptures. Heads of important persons were often created in real-life size as it is believed to represent the Ase, seat of a person’s existential purpose. Skillfulness exhibited in making these art, which Frobenius believed puts the makers at par with world’s best, was passed to the not so far kingdom of Benin, which like Oyo, would develop into an empire in latter centuries.

Ile-Ife in 1910
Ile-Ife, 1910. Source: Leo Fronbenius Institut


Sacking of 1849

With the dissolution of the Oyo empire in 1837 and the advance of jihadists from the north came an exodus of Oyo people from the empire capital and environs into Ile-Ife during the reign of Ooni Akinmoyero. Some three decades later, they had become more indispensable and had been allowed by Ooni Abelewa to form a settlement called Modakeke next to Ile-Ife. After the death of the Abelewa, relationship between the two became toxic. Power play in the military garrison of Ibadan between Oyo and Ife refugee fighters led to reprisals against the Oyo at Modakeke. When the Oyo eventually seized power at Ibadan, the equation changed, and Ile-Ife was sacked in 1849, an unthinkable departure from tradition, as Ile-Ife, being the cradle of Yoruba civilization had before then enjoyed special consideration among all Yoruba kingdoms. The Ife-Modakeke crisis continued to fester with rising and falling relationship with Oyo-people-led Ibadan military government which sought to control most of the Yoruba nation. Efforts by the Christian Missionary Society at bringing peace in 1884, and intervention of the British governor of Lagos, Capt. Moloney two years later would form the beginning of colonial rule in the Yoruba interior.

Colonial Ife

Ile-Ife was administered by the colonial government of Lagos before a District Officer took residence in town. With the construction of the city hall, Ile-Nla in 1922, the D.O’s administration became more fluid among the people who now enjoyed greater safety under the protection of imperial power. Administratively, Ile-Ife’s headquarters was transferred from Lagos to Ibadan, under whose suzerainty it fell following defeat in 1849 as a consequence of the Ife-Modakeke crisis. Ile-Ife is today part of the Osun State of Nigeria with headquarter at Osogbo that was created in 1992 from Oyo sate, whose headquarter was at Ibadan. The town, falling within two Local Government Areas Ife Central and Ife East, with a combined population estimate of 355,281 (2006 estm.) hosts one of Nigeria’s highest ranked institutions, Obafemi Awolowo University, which forms one of the main urbanization focus with Sabo-Mayfair axis, and like other Yoruba town, the city center where the Oba’s palace is located. Ile-Ife is also home to a University Teaching Hospital and a Museum of Antiquities.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer