The Yoruba are the second largest ethnic group in Nigeria, with a population of about 30 million, and occupy most of what we refer to today as South Western Nigeria. Indigenous Yoruba populations can also be found in the Republic of Benin and Togo (1). They boast a rich culture which has influenced many other ethnic nationalities in the country and beyond.
The subject matter of the origin of the Yoruba has proved to be a red button topic. The long-running dispute between the Yoruba and the Bini about certain aspects of the myth purportedly accounting for the existence of the Yoruba is well known. The story in question revolves around Oduduwa, who is said by the Yoruba to be the founder of the monarchy at Ile-Ife, the town which is widely regarded as the cradle of their civilization. According to the Yoruba account, Oduduwa migrated to Ile-Ife from the Middle East (or a region located to the North-East of the Atlantic coast) and sent his descendants out to conquer other parts of Yorubaland (2). The Bini, however, reject the assertion by their neighbours in the West that Oduduwa’s offspring also took over the reins of power in Benin after the collapse of the Ogiso dynasty. They claim that Oduduwa was, in fact, a Bini refugee who left for Ile-Ife after a dispute erupted in the ruling house of the Ogiso in Benin. They assert that Eweka I, who founded a new dynasty in Benin after the end of the Ogiso era was himself a descendant of this Bini refugee, and was not Yoruba, as the Yorubas say (3).
It is obvious that the story of Oduduwa’s founding of dynastic rule in Ile-Ife does not really tell us about the origins of the Yoruba per se. What it does is to explain the emergence of a ruling house in Ile-Ife, which later sent out conquering hordes or settlers (depending on how the original story is interpreted) to other communities of Yoruba speaking people. One analyst has also criticized the account for being “an innovation” that was in effect an attempt to “write the history of political leaders or the elite in Yorubaland, to the detriment of the masses” (4). Nevertheless, most academics still believe that there is some value in it, and tend to use the details it contains as a guide to reconstructing an account of the early days of Yoruba history.
Some historians have connected the story of Oduduwa’s journey to Ile-Ife to a possible migration into what is now South Western Nigeria by people from the Nile valley area, perhaps Egypt or Nubia. This theory is based on numerous observed similarities between several aspects of Yoruba and ancient Egyptian/Nubian cultures, especially in scarification and royal adornments (5). Others have linked the rapid growth and urbanization of major Yoruba communities such as Ile-Ife, Ekiti and Ijebu which occurred between 700-1000AD to the influx of Berber immigrants who left the Sahara for the Chad basin area and probably settled as far south as Oyo (6). What is clear is that like many other ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Yoruba people are the descended from multiple streams of migrants who settled in Ile-Ife and other areas of the South West at different times.
Despite the confused picture of early Yoruba history currently being grappled with by historians, there is a hope that linguistic, archaeological and genetic research could help provide more clues about the emergence of one of Africa’s most influential ethnic groups.
(4) Adesoji A.O. The Oduduwa Myth and the Farce of Yoruba Unity.
(6)Adijolola, T.M. Historical Notes on Yoruba Speaking People of South Western Nigeria.