Oba Gbenga Sonuga retired as Director of Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture and now sits on the throne of his forebears as the current traditional ruler of Simawa, Fadesewa in Ogun State. In this interview with FLORA ONWUDIWE, he dwells on how his sojourn in the public sector prepared him for the throne and why some traditional rulers are comfortable with the stipends they get from local governments
How has been a cultural administrator helped you in your current position as a monarch?
It has been exceedingly helpful. It seems as if all my life and what God was doing was all about preparing me for this calling. That was to arm me with all sources of knowledge, not money, but knowledge with what and what to do.
Looking back now, it seems to be the most excellent preparation for being an Oba, with the traditional stool being so well respected. Being an Oba at whatever level is supposed to be the apex of a man’s success and everything that I had done in my life up to the point where I became an Oba had been part of the preparation which I am now drawing from every time that something comes up or I have to pass a comment or I have to advise.
My past life has been an excellent preparation for where I am now. You would have been used to wearing suits as an administrator. That trend cannot continue of course as a traditional ruler but how has it been? Interestingly, when I was a civil servant, I did not wear suits.
I was always wearing Agbada or I would dress casually. If we are rehearsing or doing anything as such, I never wore a suit. But you were the director of the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture? Yes, that was the only job I was interviewed for.
As director for Arts and Culture and that was 10 years after my graduation from the University of Ibadan in 1971. It took me 10 years before I could use my certificate to look for job.
After graduating, I taught for one and half years in my alma mater, Igbobi College, Yaba. After that I went to Ibadan to the new culture studios where I studied with Demas Nwoko for 10 years.
And when I came out of there, I became the director of Arts and Culture. Essentially because I had a prerequisite qualification and I had the world of experience.
Therefore, there is no way anybody can now say, ‘Oh that is what the director of Art and Culture should always be.’ Where would they be trained, who would train them, who would have the patient to be an apprentice for 10 years after graduation? Which was more or less what I was, I got exposed intellectually, artistically, culturally.
I undertook the personnel management of the entire institution and I also edited all its magazines. People graduate today, want to get a job tomorrow and they don’t get for five years and they become absolutely useless. There is no other thing to do for them except to keep looking for that job.
What has your experience as a traditional ruler been like?
Well, my experience in a nutshell has been that, the traditional ruler in Yoruba land, which is the one I am familiar with, is an endangered species but which will never die.
If the colonial masters had been able to get rid of the traditional rulers, they would have done so. If the military in their many years of occupation had been able to get rid of them, they would have done so. So something exists, which is the real depth of culture, which says you must respect an Oba in my own part of the world.
Kabiyesi, eyin alaye luwa. Whether they know you are capable of being a leader or not, that’s given to you. Then, it is now left for you whether you are indeed a leader or a good person or not.
Of course there are good and bad Obas but the cultural tradition is that you enjoy a regime, either good or bad. You will not always enjoy every regime.
What I have discovered is that if the selection process of politicians would go through the same kind of rigours that selecting of an Oba does, then we would have better quality leadership than we do now.
Being an Oba has not disappeared from the surface of the earth but I’m talking on behalf of other traditional rulers; there is no rule in the constitution which spells out exactly what an Oba is.
They have the chiefs’ law to guide what they met on the ground but nobody has ever sat and said, ‘maybe this is what we should have as an Oba in a contemporary world.
If they are ceremonial, what ceremony and if they are about rituals, then what rituals and that can be elaborated and culturally developed so that people will relate and be satisfied that they have achieved what they want once they fulfill those criteria.
While it is known you are not in charge of governance really, what moves are you making to attract development to your community?
There is no way I can attract development in my community as a traditional ruler, because there is no forum for it, particularly with our current governor. Well, he invites some Obas to some events, he takes care of them and they go. We agitate for the small allowances that are being paid. They are paying better in Lagos; Lagos has more money.
But what I’m saying is there is no real definition of what an Oba is except urging them to help talk to people when there is a problem. “Help me tell your people to do this,” they always say but there has been no forum where there is an intellectual exchange or in which cultural development strategies are employed; they are busy using the position before they leave and so there is no room for what will happen in the future.
The present one is so tight, that all they are doing that they have forgotten what happened yesterday so quickly and people are very myopic. If we get it right, the country can stabilise a bit and you can begin to say, “Look, you Obas, as they say, either custodians of culture and traditional fathers” but the visionaries are not connecting with the missioners.
The visionaries see how they are going to be from the experience of their fore-fathers and watching what is happening now and projecting to the future while the missioners campaign and get elected when they do it, well we all benefit and when they don’t do it well, we all suffer.
So, what I have advocated in my book, An Introduction of Cultural Activism in Nigeria, is that there must be a bridging of the gap for the missioner and the visioner to have a common purpose.
And that means the common purpose is to develop Nigeria so when we come together we are heading towards the same direction, no matter who is in the bus, we are all moving to the same direction but that is not the case in Nigeria now.
But people still believe that traditional rulers have money because of the gifts and money they get from people?
There is Yoruba saying that, “Somi kale la ngbo ni ile Oba, a kin gbo gberumi” which is: “Please let me put this load down” is what you hear in the house of the king, you never hear “help lift this load on my head” but it’s not so anymore.
It is a great misconception to think that the Obas necessarily have money. Where are they going to get it from, is it from the pittance that the government allows through the local governments? So all the Obas in any local government are entitled to only five percent of what comes to the local government. So if there are ten, 20 or 40 of you in that local government, that’s what you will share.
Lagos State is different because there is money in Lagos State. If the individuals are wealthy and it is in the record generally that Nigeria is wealthy but they are not.
Many of them are poor, there are some that are stupendously rich but the gap seems to be widening every day and even Obas are included. If I didn’t have any sources of support, family, what I have done before all that, I will be living in penury.
This house was built by our family; it wasn’t built by the state government or local government. The local government has never paid any attention to this place. It is now that we have a new one, the former one, Sagamu Local Government has been split into three Local Council Developments Area (LCDAs) so it is only now that the local government can look in any way at this place.
With all the beautiful buildings and companies around, how expensive is it to buy a piece of land here?
But there are other 20 odd developers around us, they came to buy land, they award all the land and are now reselling. They are business people; they are not going to give the Oba money for free.
Since Land Use Decree says all land belongs to government so it is only the land in one’s family possession and you can even say “our governor has told us every place is free since the law says that land belongs to government so what am I going to sell at what level to be rich? Then nobody comes here to give you anything, except of their own free will. So it is a myth.
The Obas were the richest people because the land belonged to them in the past.They were the owners of the land but in 1978, Obasanjo took that away and gave it to the politicians including himself.
Obas cannot sell land that is not their own now and whatever land you think you have, it cannot be yours alone, it is for your family. People don’t just own acres of land for nothing; you must have worked on it before it is yours so Obas are not rich across board and it is a misconception that Obas are rich.
You had the opportunity of inviting then military head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari to the command performance of a play you directed titled Ori years ago. How did you pull that off with full-blown military rule in place back then?
I did not invite anybody, the military governor of Lagos State, who was my classmate; Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudasiru, was preparing to receive his Head of State in Lagos State.
Although, General Buhari lives in Lagos State but you can’t be living in barracks and you said you are living in Lagos State. So I was fortunate because I happened to be member of the committee on what to do to welcome the Nigerian Head of State. I suggested that there must be activities to show the Head of State.
To show him what was happening in his state, he was to commission roads, buildings and how would he not know who the people are and he would go back to the barracks? So, I suggested that there must be some activities to show this Head of State to make him sit back and watch people at their high level of performance.
We have been registering 250 cultural groups in Lagos State, who paid stipend and they are supposed to be involved in the development of the culture in the state but we had no ability to mobilise them for anything.
So if there was going to be Head of State visit, I suggested a cultural parade at Onikan Stadium instead of a football match, match pass for him to have an idea of the mixture of cultures that existed in Lagos. Of course, we had a play which we had been thinking of, that is an elaborate parable about Nigeria.
That Nigeria has a good head but great care must be taken about the leadership. Because in the Yoruba language, ori means head and it also means destiny or luck but if you don’t take care of that good head, it will become ori buruku (cursed head) and that is a very bad word in Yoruba language and that was the basis of that play.
But it was because we had been debating which was the best way to get across to leaders of the country if we had the opportunity and the opportunity came and we took it to show the play.
We satisfied the governor who was hosting and we satisfied the Head of State who enjoyed it. But there was an issue; a great part of Ori was in Yoruba. The Head of State did not speak Yoruba and there was a particular line: “Lagbaja , iwo lodaba yi sa, Oloun majeko pa aba sha” and Abacha was a member of the Military Ruling Council then and he was in attendance with Buhari.
The governor said that since they would not understand what was being said that it might be simply be misconstrued, we had to remove that line. All what the woman was saying is the line is: “You are misbehaving. may God not lead you into the pit.”
The essence of the play was to tell a story in the most interesting way but with a strong message behind it. “Abasha” obviously will not take care of the head and “Orirere” becomes “Ori buruku”.
Thank God we got out of it but don’t let us get into another one. I am sure even 35 years later; the Head of State will now even relate more with the play than he did at that time.
But this was an opportunity for the artistes to talk to visioners, also talk to missioners. Maybe, if it has lasted long enough for us to keep pumping that idea because it was a period of war Against Indiscipline (WAI).
It was the first attempt at enforcing discipline. We must fight corruption whether Buhari is there or not, either we like it or not. Like they have said, it will destroy us which it almost did.
The governor of Lagos state merged Tourism, Art and Culture. As a culture advocate, which would you say come first?
My statement was that you don’t put the cart before the horse, meaning if the horse is what is pulling the cart and going at speed also being controlled by somebody on the range, you do not put in front of the cart.
So, tourism does not develop automatically from nowhere, it develops based on your culture. If anything is worth seeing in your country, it’s your culture. Your cultural asset, that is what you want to sell.
Therefore, what comes first is to develop those assets so in most ministries even at the federal, I discovered that they used to write Ministry of Tourism and Culture. I always say no, they should put culture first. Put tourism, National Orientation, Information, you can subsume them and put them under Ministry of Culture.
How did you meet your wife?
Obviously, we met because we are both artistes, and we started by working together. Shortly after that, we had gone to America and came back with Ori and I was looking for someone who is an expert costumier and make-up person, a professional one for subsequent productions.
A friend of hers introduced her to me. And I remembered when we were in secondary school and I remembered her being an athlete in the school and we grew up in the same area without knowing each other.
We worked for two years together and I found her absolutely reliable. She could work as long as any man can work. It was because my first marriage broke and we then came together. And ever since, I found her great support in spirit.
People believe that traditional rulers keep a harem of women, why is your own different?
My own is not different, if I am keeping a harem of women, how would you know? Being an Oba has nothing to do with relationship. I have many friends, both male and female. If it is the sexual part of it, that, of course, as you grow up becomes less important to you. Yes, an Oba has the privileged of having many wives, then whether you do it or not it depends on the temperament of individual.
As a Christian, how do you combine your faith with rituals?
My concept of religion is that I should get weaker physically, automatically people tend to be more spiritually alert because that is what is going to help you. As you get older, your flesh becomes weak and you need to strengthen yourself spiritually, that is the essence of religious belief. I was brought up a Christian so I won’t tell you I am not a Christian.
I don’t go to church as such. My wife is a Muslim and she goes to mosque regularly and prays five times a day. At the same time when my group comes around and say we are doing something to celebrate Ogun, I will not close my door and run away, I must be part of it. Give them whatever it is that they expect from the Oba and grease them and bless them.
You cannot be a rigid and dogmatic Christian or Muslim; otherwise you shouldn’t have taken up of being an Oba. Because that is what the tradition has always been, the Oba must be open. So if I have not been too much of a Christian and too much of a pagan.