A former President of the Association of Lagos State Indigenes, Chief Layi Ajayi-Bembe, in this interview with BAYO AKINLOYE says the real owners of Lagos are the Bini, not the Yoruba
What is your lineage as a Lagosian?
My grandfather was Ajayi Bembe; the eighth Obanikoro of Lagos – my father was the last of his children. My mother was the first child of Gbajabiamila (of Olowogbowo fame) – of course, of Lagos. When it comes to the ownership of Lagos, it is sad when people talk about Lagos being no man’s land or Lagos being part of Yoruba land – I consider that position to be an abomination. Yes, because of the affinity or geographical location of Lagos, we’re nearer to the South-West (the Yoruba) than to other regions. It should be stated that Lagos has always been independent of the West. When I returned from England, (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo was in prison; before I came back to Nigeria, there had been agitations that Lagos wasn’t part of the West. No doubt that a lot of us speak Yoruba – in my family, we’re Bini. Oba of Lagos (Rilwan Akiolu) was completely right that the early settlers in Lagos were the Awori and the Bini. We’re talking about the Island of Lagos.
Extending it to the east of Lagos, you have Oshodi, the Tapa (from Niger State) were there. And, of course, we knew one another. I don’t understand why some of our brothers in the West think that we can be enslaved by them. In all my years, I have not seen what Afenifere has done for Lagos to inspire me because during the last constitutional conference, they were not talking about Lagos; they were talking about themselves. Don’t forget that the so-called Edo State was part of the West before. But to say Lagos is part of Yoruba land is not fair; it is not charitable. And when kabiyesi now said, Lagos is Bini, not only because we came from Benin, there are signs and relics of Benin all over Isale Eko. And obas (in Lagos) – we don’t call them ‘obas’, we call them ‘eleko’. My grandfather said in 1903 that when there was a dispute of which traditional rulers should wear crowns – my grandfather was at that meeting. Ooni of Ife had to come all the way from Ife to Lagos upon the invitation of Governor (John Hawley) Glover. And the question they asked him (Ooni) was, ‘Who are the obas that should wear crowns?’ He mentioned them – Lagos was not part of the list. We don’t wear crowns in Lagos. I remember, Pa Edegbele – that’s Prof. Edegbele’s father – when he said ‘oba’ is alien to Yoruba land that only the Bini use that title, there was a furore over that. But Edegbele was right. Note that politicians have done a lot of havoc in Yoruba land more than in other regions of the country. Nobody is going to doubt the hegemony of the Sultan of Sokoto in the North. But the Yoruba are fond of creating problems among themselves in Yoruba land. Permit me to digress: look at the recent installation of some kings in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. A governor created 21 kings, for what? Is that what the people need at a time when the masses are hungry, civil servants are owed salaries and basic amenities are not available? It now appears there are more rulers than the ruled.
Are you saying Lagos belongs to the Bini people?
Lagos belongs to us – the Bini. When you get to Enuowa, they (the inhabitants) pay homage to Oba of Benin there. Enuowa is in Lagos; Idumota is like a Bini name; Iduntafa is Bini name; Idunmagbo is Bini name; Iduganran is Bini name; tell me, what further proof do you want (that the Bini own Lagos)? Why have some people tried hard to erode our identity and the labour of our ancestors? Today, if you go to the Lagos State Secretariat, you’ll hardly see the original indigenes of the state hold a prominent position. So, why are people crying about the quota system? You don’t ‘quotarise’ knowledge. Whatever is the case, I believe that the indigenes of Lagos – by the way, I was president of Association of Lagos Indigenes for almost 15 years – we know how our resources were plundered and carted away. Look at the fiasco called ‘Lagos @50’. The state government doesn’t recognise the true indigenes of Lagos State. Some of the indigenes work with them for the purpose of getting whatever they can get from the government. Some people are trying so hard to maintain the stupidity that Lagos doesn’t belong to anybody – that’s annoying.
What about Alhaji Femi Okunnu’s view of the Awori being the original owners of Lagos?
I am not a lawyer but Femi Okunnu is a lawyer – a Senior Advocate of Nigeria for that matter. On the issue of the original owners of Lagos, my attention was drawn to an article focused on the Idunganran celebration. Mr. Femi Okunnu happened to be my mentor; he was an inspiration to me particularly when I returned from England. He was not only elder ‘brother’ to me because we lived close together. They were living at No. 1 Ido Olowu Street and I was living at No. 7 Ido Olowu Street. I have known him for a long time. I remember when he came back from England as a young and vibrant lawyer. When Femi Okunnu himself was the Federal Commissioner for Works during the military regime, he was the one who actually acquired the area where you have the National Theatre, Iganmu. From whom did he acquire it? He got it from the indigenes; my grandfather had a place there. We must have a good perspective of history. People should learn not to mutilate history. The owners of Lagos are not the Yoruba; they are the Bini. We are Bini; there’s no ambiguity about that. To prove it further, the obas or the elekos, when they died, their bodies were taken to Benin for burial for a time. Tell me, who owns the land then?
Who are the Awori? The Awori and the Bini are the same. If an Awori spoke to me when I was young, I understood him. My parents spoke Awori. The Awori are partly from Dahomey and partly from Benin. My forebears came from the riverine area through the Bight of Benin and settled in Badagry for a long time before moving down to Lagos. And when they moved down to Lagos where did they go? They went to Idunsagbe – a place famed for Bini culture and tradition. I am an Awori. Tell me, which state did they create for the Awori now? If you say the indigenous people of Lagos State are the Awori, then the Awori are the Bini. We must put history in its right perspective. The right perspective is that Lagos does not belong to the Yoruba; it belongs to the Bini. According to the Lyttleton Constitution, the West was created; the North was created and Lagos was made a colony and it later regained its independence.
Some may argue that the original Lagosians didn’t protect their legacy, allowing every Tom, Dick and Harry to hold sway politically and economically.
It is true that Lagos is open to everybody that could bring ideas. But when it comes to certain elements within the political spectrum in Nigeria… Look at it this way, will it surprise you that a representative of Lagos who calls himself a Lagosian representing the state in the National Assembly went to Kogi State to vie for the governorship? Isn’t that insulting? Some are even saying once (Osun State Governor, Rauf) Aregbesola has completed his tenure in Osun, he will come back to Lagos to contest a senatorial seat. We called Bola Tinubu, sat him down and told him how we accepted him and he let us down. I know the role I played when Bola Tinubu was coming in; when I gave him my second cousin, (Musiliu) Obanikoro to go along with him (I don’t talk to that one (Obanikoro) again after he had his hand in something embarrassing; because you don’t disgrace your family). I am not looking for anything from them. It is very wrong that people should trivialise the affairs of Lagos. For example, we kicked against (Prof. Wole) Soyinka being made the chairman of the Lagos @50 celebration. But nobody listened to us. Look at the fiasco; was it a success? Who bothered about it? People who will not celebrate the living are celebrating the dead – it doesn’t go beyond that. You acquire land from me for a public purpose and the next thing you did was to share it with your siblings, friends and other loved ones. It is really sad for people to proclaim Lagos as no man’s land. Lagos is so accommodating; it is only here you see an Igbo man being made a commissioner. Even the Yoruba that are shouting, how many Lagosians are in their cabinets? They all live in Lagos; we know them. Some of them benefitted from the liberty Lagos offers. But ask them: what have they done for their host communities? Can you imagine Orji Kalu, who bought land here, saying Lagos belongs to nobody? They just talk.
Don’t you think Prof. Wole Soyinka deserved to have been the chairman of the Lagos @50 celebration?
I am not used to Soyinka and I don’t want to be acquainted with him. It is unfortunate that because he was made the chairman of Lagos @50, he began to insult people, claiming that his father had a land in Lagos. We traced the land – one plot of land – and discovered that the land was bought from my grandfather. People like him go around insulting others. Has he not insulted Femi Okunnu before? Tell me who Wole Soyinka has never insulted? He is part of the Tinubu group. Is he not an Ogun man? I don’t think he has a right to say that Lagos is no man’s land. Who is he to say that? I think Okunnu knew better; I don’t think he meant what he said the way the press reported him. What he said is that Lagos is ‘part’ of Yoruba land; he didn’t say it was owned by the Yoruba. We need to be discreet in our definition. Geographically, we’re in the West and culturally, we speak Yoruba. If an Igbo man speaks Yoruba fluently, does that make him a Yoruba? Go to Lagos State House of Assembly and count how many of them are truly Lagos indigenes. Again, Okunnu was an active participant in the creation of Lagos State together with (Philip) Asiodu and Alison Ayida. They facilitated the creation of the state; there was a western state then. If Okunnu had advocated the merger of Lagos with the western region then, one would have thought otherwise. Wole Soyinka didn’t want Lagos to be created at that time. Soyinka used to be very radical but having got into the group of Bola Tinubu’s scientific imposition, he has been mellowing down. Soyinka would be the one that would stand for the truth when people were accused of certificate forgery and other ills. He was always at the forefront; he has become a turncoat. What happened to him? I respected him; he may not know me and he doesn’t need to know me.
So, you think Okunnu is on the same page with you when he talked about the early settlers of Lagos?
I believe Okunnu was actually agitating for the indigenes. He was president of Lagos State indigenes before me – we have Isale Eko Descendants Union, which we all belong to. All I am saying is this: Lagos is not part of Yoruba. The settlers are Bini. Wasn’t Benin part of the West before until the Mid-West was created? The Bini agitated for that, insisting that we’re not part of the Yoruba. Why can’t the Yoruba leave us alone for God’s sake? My grandfather went to court in 1889 to claim all the lands that belonged to him. He got a judgment. Then some people said, these lands were too much for one family – the place now called Ikorodu Road, they acquired it – for how much? For £27,000! My grandfather wasn’t around; he’s dead. But they forgot that this man gave them a land to build the first police barracks in Lagos. How could Bola Tinubu come all the way from wherever he came from (Kafaru brought him to me, turn Lagos into a place for Osun people in the secretariat). They’re radicalising the owners of Lagos with the way they’re acting. By the time they stand up you’ll be shocked. What are the people asking for? Give them what they deserve. Show them some respect. Okunnu did a lot for Lagos State; most parts of Victoria Island were sand-filled by the Federal Government. He and his colleagues at King’s College were able to excise Victoria Island and gave it to Lagos. In fact, Okunnu has done more for Lagos than any governor. Okunnu had his roots in Isale Eko.