It is 13 days to Christmas and the harmattan haze is hovering over the Ekiti hills with its feathery dust and stinging coldness. This is when mothers would be chasing their children to have their bath or at best wash their faces and arms before going to school. It is the season when adventurous hunters looking for games intentionally set fire to the dry forest, forcing the animals to flee in panic. They also work in tandem with the herdsmen who also set their own fire for in the aftermath, new sooths would emerge which the cattle regard as delicious. Not everyone love the harmattan for it is a period when the barn of harvest and even the entire farm can be destroyed by the whimsical decision of the unknown arsonist.
The harmattan announces the closing days of the old year and the beginning of a new one. In Okemesi, Christmas is the small festival while the New Year is the big one. That is when all the men and women would come home with their children to celebrate and show-off. I guess, Christmas was said to be the small festival because it is meant for Christians alone whereas the New Year is for everyone. It is also during this period of the harmattan haze that Kabiyesi and his leading chiefs would celebrate Ogun festival when the oba would dance through certain traditional stations in the town indicating the history of our forebears. In the past, it was the Ogun festival that announces the beginning of the New Year.
The harmattan has been making its yearly visit across the Ekiti Hills long before Okemesi was founded. In the past, the location of the town in the valley surrounded by smoking hills was a perfect redoubt against surprise attack by enemy forces. In the 19th Century however, Okemesi leaders, wary of the fearsome reputation of the wild Ilorin soldiery fighting for resurgent Islam, sought protection through an alliance with the new power, Ibadan, which had established a novel form of government totally alien to the unwritten Constitution and mores of the Yoruba people. They were republicans and paid scant regard to the monarchical doctrine inherited from the House of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife, the Yoruba Garden of Eden.
It was not long before the romance got sour. The Ibadan had formed similar alliances with most of the Ekiti, Igbomina and Ijesha states and they sent ambassadors, known as ajele, to those states, who virtually usurped the powers of their host states. The people groaned under the yoke of the ajele and cried out against their excesses. Many of the states were now saying may be it would be better to welcome the Ilorin hordes and throw away the Ibadan shackles. A revolt was ignited in Okemesi, led by a young soldier, Ishola Fabunmi. Soon, soldiers across the 16 independent kingdoms of Ekiti moved to Okemesi under Fabunmi's standard. They were ready to confront the Ibadan republicans who had built the most formidable military machine ever known in Yoruba history. Thus the Ekitiparapo was launched for the liberation of the Ekiti people from Ibadan thraldom.
The Ekitiparapo War lasted for 16 gory years and it was brought to an end by the superior force of British imperialism and the negotiating skills of African Christian missionaries led by Reverend Charles Phillips and Samuel Johnson. More than 200,000 troops participated in the conflict under the banner of the Ekitiparapo Grand Alliance with the Ijesha, the Igbomina and Ife joining the alliance against Ibadan. The Commander-in-Chief of the coalition forces was the great Ogedengbe and Fabunmi was his deputy. Most of the battles were fought in the ravine around Imesi-Ile and Igbajo. Aare Latoosa, the Commander-in-Chief of Ibadan forces who was also the Are Ona-Kakanfo of Oyo, led his troops in person to the Igbajo camp. He died in that camp.
The war made Okemesi famous and prosperous. Its guild of skill blacksmiths produced weapons for the soldiers. Its women were busy making uniforms for them. The soldiers wore a special cotton material called kijipa, dyed in indigo blue. The officers wore the lenku made in purple colour. It was only in Yorubaland that war commanders went into battle with their drummers in toe. A special Rifle Regiment, commanded by Gureje, an Ijesha returnee from Sierra Leone, was a terror to the Ibadan forces. It was the Ekiti who first introduced the Sneider rifles to the battle field. Its rolling boom, ki-ri-ji, gave the war another cognomen, the Kiriji War.
The Kiriji War is still a living memory in Ekitiland but its lessons are lost. After the war, the young men returned home. Sixteen years of conflict had changed the land forever. The Ekiti Parapo War was the longest and most protracted of all the wars that ravaged Yorubaland in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oyo Empire. The late Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi called the almost 100 years of war and conflicts, the Revolutionary Years, when Yoruba leaders experimented with different kind of state formation. That was when they built new states like the Egba state of Abeokuta, Ibadan and the Oyos succeeded in building a new capital away from the ruins of the old one.
The wars were fought, the cities were built and new states were founded without any external borrowing. Arms were imported from Brazil and Europe by the Ekiti Parapo Society of Lagos under the leadership of Doherty and Hastrup and the materiel were fully paid for. When the war ended, there were no unsettled debts and no peonage for future generations.
The old soldiers quickly settled to civil life. Fabunmi's brigade, known as the Ipaye, was disbanded. Members of the brigade occasionally made public showing whenever there was a death among comrades or some other important occasions. The Ipaye became mainly a ceremonial guild. The armistice produced new opportunities for Ekiti youths and they travelled far and wide in search of fortune.
Ekiti citizens are still searching far and wide in search of fortunes. The descendants of Fabunmi are facing a different kind of threat and the war is more vicious, more sophisticated and more unforgiving. Fighting that war is the theme of Aare Afe Babalola's 90th birthday celebrations this week. Babalola, iconic lawyer, farmer, author and the founder of pacesetting Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti was in Okemesi Ekiti on Tuesday December 12, to pay homage to the memories of Fabunmi and his freedom fighters. He was honoured in Okemesi, as part of his birthday celebrations, in the same spot where the troops gathered from all over Ekiti before they marched to the battle-field.
By the time Babalola was being celebrated in Okemesi, the cottage textile industries producing the military uniforms and the foundries where the weapons were manufactured, have become history. Babalola said a lot needs to be done to bring back the old Ekiti where the people were hardworking, proud, obstinate, honest and fearless. He agreed with the Owa Ooye of Okemesi, Oba Michael Gbadebo Adedeji that Ekiti people should learn again to help themselves by returning to the values of old, especially honest industry, which made freedom priceless. Babalola said a people deprived of any sense of self-worth and who have no means of economic sustenance cannot claim to be independent.
Babalola urged Nigerian leaders to shift emphasis from politics to governance. He said the most important thing in ensuring the economic prosperity of Nigerians, including Ekiti people, is to revisit the political structure of the country. Said he: "I say with emphasis that the only change that can change the country for the better and pave the way for the evolution of one nation is the change that changes the structure of Nigeria."
In the run-up to next year general elections, few politicians are talking about that. Afe Babalola is looking back to our history to chart a way for us into the future. He knows that Freedom from wants is the ultimate freedom. Babalola is ready, even at 90, to lead the new charge for economic freedom. That is one war Fabunmi too would have been proud to lead. It is one more war for an old man whose life story is a parable of perseverance and a testament of triumphs against impossible odds.