The Great Ifẹ̀ Empire and Its Legacy: A Blueprint for Mending Our Broken World- Akin Ogundiran

Excerpts of the Keynote Address Presented at the Opening of the International Conference, “Ile-Ife and Yoruba Civilisation: The Nexus between Tradition and Modernity,” at Ojaja Arena, Ile-Ife, October 10, 2023

I pay homage to His Imperial Majesty, Ọ̀ọ̀ni Adéyẹyè Ẹniìtàn Babatúndé Ògúnwùsì, Ọ̀jájá II. I salute government representatives, all the Ọba, Olori, Chieftains, Princes and Princesses, Vice Chancellors, University Administrators, Fellow Scholars, and Conferees—distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen. I am honored to join you this morning. I commend the Imperial Majesty for his vision and generous support for this conference on Yorùbá history. My commendation also goes to the conference conveners led by eminent historian Professor Siyan.

In the next three days, the conferees will explore different aspects of Ife history, ancient, recent, and contemporary. They will do so from several disciplinary angles. A multigenerational cast of speakers will showcase their recent discoveries from archaeology to archives, oral tradition to rituals. My contribution this morning focuses on answering the following questions: How can we use the past to guide our present? How can the true knowledge of our history, unmitigated by politics and ideology, set us free from the bondage of ignorance that has broken our world?

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I chose “The Great Ifẹ̀ Empire and Its Legacy: A Blueprint for Mending Our Broken World” as the title of my keynote address because of my sincere belief that history has a purpose. In our clime, the ultimate purpose of historical study is to uplift our spirit, explain how we got here, and use historical knowledge to restore and repair our broken selves. Like many of you at this conference, I am committed to studying history so I can use the knowledge of the past to create a new mirror that we can use to look at ourselves. Those who use other people’s mirrors to look at themselves are bound to see distorted images of themselves. The mirrors we create must give us a balanced view of who we are as a people and account for the brilliance and shortcomings that make us human.

The Yorùbá believe that Ilé-Ifè is the origin of their civilization. A century of historical and archaeological research has confirmed this. It also shows that the origin of the civilization is different from the origin of the deep-time Yorùbá-speaking people. Those ultimate Yorùbá ancestors (proto-Yoruboid) originated from the western part of the Niger-Benue Confluence in the present-day Okun-Yorùbá area as early as 2,500 BC. This research has also given us insights into how Ilé-Ifè spearheaded a revolution about 1000 AD that gave birth to the present-day Yorùbá cultural identity. The name, Ilé-Ifè, hints at how special this city was over the past 1,000 years.

Contrary to the oft-repeated folk etymology, Ilé-Ifè does not mean “House of Love.” Rather, it means “House of Abundance” and “House of Expansion.” The ancient city also has several aliases, such as “City of Daybreak,” City of Sunrise,” and “The Source.” These names and monikers illustrate the Yorùbá belief that Ilé-Ifè is the ground zero of humanity. It is the place where the earth and humanity were created. The Yorùbá ancestors knew that what makes us human is not biology. It is culture and consciousness. So, these labels refer to Ilé-Ifè as the birthplace of classical Yorùbá civilization as we know it.

Historical records show that Ilé-Ifè occupies a special place in African history. When Ibn Battuta, the Berber-Moroccan traveler, visited the Mali Empire in 1352-53, he was told about Ilé-Ifè as one of the biggest kingdoms in Africa and its king (the Ọ̀ọ̀ni) as one of the greatest kings in the Land of the Black People (Sudan). Duarte Pereira Pacheco, the Portuguese explorer and soldier, was informed in the court of the King of Benin in 1475 that the King of Ilé-Ifè was the mighty lord of the region, and the explorer likened the status of the Ọ̀ọ̀ni (Oghoni/Owoni) among the Blacks as similar to that of the Pope among the Europeans. The people of Òyó (Old Òyó) told Richard Landers in 1830 that it was in Ilé-Ifè where their first parents were created and from where all Africa was peopled. The Yorùbá people that Leo Frobenius (German scholar) met in Timbuktu (Mali) in 1909 told him that their forebears originated from Ilé-Ifè and turned into stones which are to be found in Ilé-Ifè.

The accomplishments of Ilé-Ifè in arts, science, technology, commerce, statecraft, religion, and philosophy are the reasons for this fame. Based on archaeological research that several scholars and I have done in Ilé-Ifè and other parts of Yorùbáland, we now know that Ilé-Ifè is the oldest continuously occupied city in West Africa. Its leaders developed one of the oldest urban planning systems in West African history.

Ilé-Ifè was one of Africa’s most powerful economic engines during its heyday, 700 to 1000 years ago. The city was famous for glass, iron, and steel production, and its products were sold as far as Ghana and Mali Empires during the eleventh through fourteenth centuries. The material scientists of Ilé-Ifè invented a unique glass technology, and the city’s political leaders and merchants used this technology to create a glass-bead currency system that integrated the economy of many parts of West Africa, from Igbo-Ukwu in present-day Nigeria to Walata in Mauretania. This is a feat that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has yet to accomplish. Through its glass industry, Ilé-Ifè was a pacesetter in African history on the principle of technological independence. By 1200 AD, the political entrepreneurs of Ilé-Ifè had converted their vast networks of colonies, trading stations, and client states into the first empire in Yorubaland. It is also the first empire in all parts of Africa that lie south of the River Niger, from Lokoja (Nigeria) to Cape Town (South Africa).

Ancient Ilé-Ifè was also a centre of learning in all branches of science and arts, including philosophy, material chemistry, Ifa divination, and astronomy. This Yorùbá city was a contemporary of other intellectual cities in the world, such as Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Timbuktu in present-day Mali. As a centre of education, research, knowledge, pilgrimage, and high art, Ilé-Ifè was a tourist center, attracting visitors across West Africa.

Unfortunately, the above stories are not taught in Nigerian schools, from nursery to the university. There is hardly a home in Nigeria that is aware of these accomplishments. Even some of our elders and traditional rulers who should know better often mislead us with wrong stories that cater to their ego rather than scientific, historical information. This lack of knowledge about our past is a symptom of our broken world. It is a world beset with little regard for knowledge and innovation and the discipline that goes with it. No respect for human dignity and life. I’m talking of a world where the gaps between political leadership and common people widen daily. In this broken world, there is a lack of confidence and appreciation for African indigenous culture and history, and the priority of the general population is the consumption of imported goods over locally produced goods.

We can’t blame the poorly educated and ill-informed citizens for thinking their ancestors accomplished nothing and that their salvation lies outside the shores of their country, in the hands of those who look different from them. This conference must energize us to re-educate the youth and the old so they can become conscious of the depth and richness of African history. With that consciousness, we will understand that Ile-Ife anticipated and accomplished many aspects of modernity that we often erroneously attribute to the Europeans. In ancient Ilé-Ifè, respect for human dignity, including people with disabilities, was promoted as the foundational ethos of civilization. In Ilé-Ifè, it was required that citizens must be educated and become knowledgeable in history, philosophy, arts, and crafts. The Ifè ancestors also developed indirect democracy, a system that curtailed and, for the most part, prevented autocracy. They reminded us that you cannot have a true democracy where there is scarcity, hunger, and insecurity. To this end, the philosophers and economic planners of classical Ilé-Ifè developed an economic theory that was based on the principle of abundance. This is opposed to the principle of scarcity that drives Western economic theories today.

To begin to mend our broken world, our political leaders, educators, teachers, and university administrators must be deliberate and strategic in integrating the accomplishments of the Ife Empire into the history curriculum, noting that these accomplishments are the pride of all Africans, not the Yorùbá people alone.

This conference is the beginning of a long conversation and action plan that must be put in place. It cannot achieve everything our royal father and conveners have outlined as the rationale for this three-day gathering. There is so much we still do not know about the history of Ilé-Ifè and the Yorùbá. Therefore, we must continue searching and studying. To convert our talk into action that will yield long-lasting desired results, I urge Ọ̀ọ̀ni Ogunwusi to use his vast social networks and influence to coordinate the setting up of a 100 Billion Naira Global Endowment Fund for Yorùbá Historical and Cultural Research. The priority is to use the fund to create a Center for the Advancement of Yorùbá Studies that will coordinate such research endeavors, build a top-notch ultra-modern Museum and Library of Yorùbá Civilization in Ilé-Ifè, and provide year-to-year research grants and fellowships for the study of Yorùbá archaeology and history.

Every Ọba in Yorùbáland must also take up the challenge to work towards establishing a Museum of History and Culture in their respective towns and cities. They should rally their sons and daughters at home and abroad to fund and establish these museums. This proposition is not an assignment for the federal, state, or local government. It must be solely a community effort. When you visit any European town or village, they will take you first to their museums. Sometimes, a European town of 5,000 people will have ten museums that tell different aspects of the town’s history. Yorùbá towns and cities have as deep a history as those European towns if we can learn to tell our stories with imagination and historical evidence. This is a task we must pursue. We owe it as a duty to our ancestors and the unborn generations. Thank you.

Akin Ògúndiran is a Professor of History and Cardiss Collins Professor of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University (Evanston, USA), President-Elect of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, and a Member of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. He is the author of The Yorùbá: A New History (2020).