Ògbóni in ancient Yorubaland was the exclusive formal conclave of elders whose duty was to administer the community. The Ògbónis were statesmen whose chief business was to enact laws and judge cases. They also elect, discuss with, and advise the king in all matters of governance. The cult worship mother earth and had its own rituals and sets of rules. The ancient Ogboni institution found in Yoruba kingdoms is most powerful and prominent among the Egba and Ijebu. The colonial government, believing it to portend danger to the pacification efforts of belligerent Yoruba land held back its support or patronage. Following the fall of Ijebu to British power in 1892, Governor Carter of Lagos supervised the destruction of the Ogboni House in the town. In Abeokuta, the institution failed to be retained as an instrument of government when Egba United Government was formed in 1898.
In an attempt to revive old practices under Christian context, Rev. T.A.J. Ogunbiyi founded the Reformed Ogboni Society in 1914 but many churches forbade its members from joining. Etymology of the group’s name, according to Ogunbiyi who claimed to have been informed by credible authority is in the second earliest events of the Christian bible. This makes the cult similar to the Freemansons whose origin is traced to Adam. “Ogbo” was the club with which Cain beat Abel to death. This, in Ogunbiyi’s interpretation, should be the lot of people who failed to work in God’s tenets, as found in Nehemiah 10:29. Ogunbiyi claimed therefore, to have brought the discipline that was absent in conventional Christianity with the ancient indigenous cult that had been suppressed decades before.
From 3 conclaves in 1916, the cult had risen to 123 in 1936, following a period of inactivity caused by resistance from Bishops Tugwell and Oluwole who considered it inconsistent with the worship of Christ. Though originally limited to Christians, Muslims were soon admitted into the group and the Christian prefix to its name was dropped to reflect this new status. The Muslim equivalent of Ogunbiyi’s creation, the Tawakalitu Reformed Ogboni Society that was formed in 1938 soon died a natural death. Rites associated with Ògbóni membership, being idolatrous by Christian and Muslim standards, contributed to the large abandonment of this system which was a feature of traditional authorities in southwest towns and villages.
Members are also expected to be humble, must not be involved in any action that can be injurious to fellow human beings. They must also assist one another without detriment to themselves or their connections and the interest of those who are not members. Members are expected to conduct themselves in a honourable manner at all times and they must not engage in physical fight no matter the situation.
A ROF handbook, quotes Romans 12 vs 9 &10 states: “Let love be without dissimilation, about that which is evil; cleave to that, which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love: in honour preferring one another.” In their songs of praise book, Psalm 133 is very conspicuous. The first verse states: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” The motto of the society is taken from the book of Ezekiel 23:23 which states: “The Babylonians and all the Chaldeans, all the Assyrians with them; all of desirable young men; captains and rulers, great Lords and renowned, all of them riding upon horses.
As Christians and Muslims have the church and the mosque , members of the Ogboni have places of worship called Iledi (conclaves), where cleanliness is paramount. And like members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, they worship on Saturdays. And like some Pentecostal churches, in some places they have bilingual services, in English and Yoruba. For instance, in Ado Ekiti, the capital of Ekiti State, there is Ewi House and Aladesanmi House, one English, the other Yoruba.
Ogboni fraternity has its private languages and signals to identify members. Members have ranks and modes of dressing, especially when going for worship. They are also ranked according to their duties and responsibilities. The ranks include: Olori Oluwo (Head of the society), and the Spiritual head. Each Iledi has officers like Oluwo (OL), Apena (priest), Asaht (treasurer), Lisa, Odofin, Aro and lya Abiye. Other positions are Egan Oke and Egan Isale, Egan Oke is the position of elder. Iwarefa (I.W), is also which means an elder of the Iledi. When an Ogboni dresses for worship, he puts ltagbe, a piece of cloth across his shoulder. One interesting thing about the ROF is that it has a way of identifying its members anywhere. Wherever a member sees another, they relate like blood brothers. They also have special ways of burying their dead. But if members of the deceased’s family refuse to co-operate, they will simply pay for the casket and other necessary materials. Also, an ROF member must not talk carelessly in public.
A prospective member would get a letter of recommendation from a prominent member of the society. After that, he will obtain the membership form in which he will supply detailed information about himself and two passport photographs. With this information, the officers will now investigate the applicant’s past and present. They will find out whether the person has criminal record by going to the prisons” headquarters with the passport photographs. If the prospective member scales through the screening, he will be initiated to the position of Egan Isale. At this stage, he has to meet the Olori Apena, who will interview him before he becomes a full member. This can take between two weeks and three months, depending on the calibre of the person or accessibility to the Olori Apena.
An overwhelming majority of the church maintains that the Ogboni Fratrnity remains a secret society no matter how benevolent ROF it claims to be. All Christian denominations are opposed to the society. At every important service in MCN, the faithful are encouraged to renounce their membership. They are made to read this oath at the services:
“I stand now before the Lord and “his people, and I now sincerely declare that my allegiance is for Jesus Christ alone and I hereby denounce publicly the secret cult(s) by the power and grace of God, I pledge that I will not go back to it (them)”.
Other churches simply ex-communicate members and if they die, they refuse to participate in their funeral.
Founded in 1914 by Archdeacon J.AT Ogunbiyi, a priest of the then Church Missionary Society, CMS, now Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), ROF was known then as Christian Ogboni Fraternity. At that time, Muslims and idol worshippers were not allowed to be members. It was exclusively for Christians. But in 1942, others were allowed to join. And the name was changed to Reformed Ogboni Fraternity in 1943 with registration No. 153. The first Uedi was built in Lagos 1914. Others sprang up in Ijero Ekiti (1915). Ado Ekiti (1916). Benin City (1932) and England 7 October 1948. In contemporary times, there are more than 20,000 Iledis worldwide with membership of over five million across races and cultures. There are Iledis in U.S.A, Scotland Ire-land, Poland, England and in all the continents.
In Nigeria, prominent people in all professions are members of the ROF. There are military officers, judges, politicians and across all the religious groups and tribes who are members. The first head was Archdeacon Ogunbiyi, who was knighted by the Queen of England as C.B.E. The first Apena was Adeyemo Alakija. and the second was late Justice Ademola, the former Chief Justice of Nigeria. The Ogboni had existed for centuries before Venerable Ogunbiyi decided to reform it. It was called Ogboni Aborigine, which was then associated with fetish practices. Although the Aborigine Ogboni continues to exist, Ogunbiyi’s reformed version was anchored on Christian values. It was initially called the Christian Ogboni Society, with the same ranking order as in the original Aborigine Ogboni. But the modus operandi remains different. Whenever ROF members worship at Uedi, the Oluwo sits down while Apena (priest) preaches according to the society’s doctrines. The headquarters of ROF is at Ebute Mettat Lagos.
Tales had it that the original Ogboni came into existence centuries ago in Yorubaland. Two brothers were said to have left their parents for farm. When they got to the farm, something went wrong. The elder brother was said to have killed his younger sibling with “Ogbo” (big stick). Realising the depth of the offence, he decided to commit suicide by hanging. In the evening, when they did not return home, a search party constituted by the hunters of the town was organised. The hunters on getting to the farm, discovered the body of the elder brother dangling on a tree. Within the vicinity, they also found the corpse of the younger brother covered with leaves. They also found the “Ogbo” which the elder brother had used to kill his younger brother.
When the hunters got to the town, there was pandemonium when the people saw the corpses of the brothers. The father asked the hunters how the incident happened, they answered in Yoruba “Ogbo ni o fi kan” (He used the stick to hit him). The name “Ogboni” had its origin here. The father who was a leper was driven to the outskirts of the town. That is why till today, the Iledis are always located on the outskirts of the towns and Ogboni members always use sticks, like their progenitor. It is also a taboo to admit hunters as members, because the hunters are aware of their secrets. And whenever they enter the Uedi, they enter with their back[i].
[i] TheNews April 28, 2003