Terra Cota head of the Ooni of Ife
Terracotta head representing oni or King of Ife, 12th to 16th century. Photo: wikiwand

Ooni is the title of the occupier of the Oba of Ile-Ife town; mother town of the Yoruba people. The Ooni is taken as the direct descendant of Oduduwa, who was the first suzerain of the people. In Samuel Johnson’s varied account, the title was originated from Adimu, who was a servant of Oduduwa. In any case, the historicity of the Ooni’s position makes his stool important in the line of Yoruba monarchy, and Adelekan, as Ooni had had to be called by the British Governor, Mac Gregor to intervene in the controversy involving the Epe monarch and the Akarigbo. When he set out to honour the governor’s invitation in 1903, he became the first Ooni to venture out of Ile Ife. Title holders in the past removed themselves from “unimportant worldly affairs.” The otherworldliness which Ife kings traditionally kept was on August 8th, 1960 differed when Sir Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife was sworn in as Governor of Western Region.

The Ooni of Ife’s status as the spiritual head of the Yoruba was atrophied in 1967 with the proclamation that Obafemi Awolowo as leader of the people. However, a crisis of supremacy persisted between the Alaafin and the Ooni which partly necessitated the carving of Osun from the Old Oyo State to which the two monarchs belonged.

The semantics of the Ooni title has raised divergent suppositions; from Onini-Ife, which express ownership of the town, to Oluwoni or Owoni, both descriptive cognomen that tells different stories. By far the more interesting is the linkage of the title to the place where the first Ooni, Oduduwa, may have originated from. When Egypt was invaded by Arabs, the whole county was torn into pieces, and many peaceful inhabitants rather than await destruction in the hands of the conquering Arabs, escaped to Ile-Ife, their King continued under the same name and title, Oni, Onini, Onilaiye, meaning, the owner or king of ON, the principal city of Goschen, later called Helipolis, where they originated from. In this account of the origin of the Yorubas, published in the Yoruba News of 31 March 1925, the term “Owoni” as applied to Oni the father of the Yoruba kings is considered to be totally wrong for having no foundation in facts as known to the Arokins or Court Historians of the other Yoruba kings.

Ooni of Ife is chosen from among four royal lineage segments and governs with the advice of of a Council of Chiefs, some of who hold hereditary titles. Although there is no to adjudge Ooni’s influence inpre-colonial times, it does seem like they weilded very limited power both abroad and at home. The coming of the British however changed that, and the Ooni title was adorned with what is understood as its right by tradition.