Orisha Illustration from Leo Frobenius, Ogboni initiation, 1912
Leo Frobenius’ 1912 illustration of an Ogboni initiation. Photo: Orisha Image. Source: imgrum.org

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 forbid 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.