how-oro-tradition-fuels-violence,-deaths,-flourish-amid-authorities’-silence

ALFRED OLUFEMI reports how ‘Oro’ – an age-long festival celebrated by traditionalists in the South-West, AT NIGHT and IN DAYTIME, has continued to impede human rights, instigate violence, disrupt lives and businesses.

To unravel the mystery of the tradition, our correspondent got embedded among Oro devotees during its annual festival in Sagamu, Ogun State

It is Oro festival and the weird, vibrating voice of the deity as it moved around the community in deep darkness, pierced the stillness of the night, sending shivers down the spine of women confined to their homes.

Shuffling feet, said to be that of its adherents in tow, created its own unique, terrifying sensation in curious souls still awake.

This phenomenon is familiar to several Yoruba communities across states in the South-West.

Oddly, in the 21st century, presently choking under the grip of the tradition in a state like Lagos, considered to be metropolitan, are communities such as Ikorodu, Isolo, Ajah, Ibeju Lekki, Okobaba, Ojo, Ejigbo and Isheri, among others.

Oro is an age-long tradition that seemed to have defied civilisation and attempts to have what many referred to as its ‘anti-human’ activities curtailed.

The annual festival meant to celebrate the deity is usually held anytime from July and may last for seven days or weeks, depending on the practice adopted in communities where it is celebrated.

Its major highlight is a procession, where the Oro, accompanied by its devotees, move around the community, mostly at midnight, performing rituals.

However, with time and despite disapproval and wide outcries, Oro devotees shifted the midnight rites to daytime, thus impacting lives and economic activities negatively.

Festival of death and restriction

The Oro festival, which is gender-specific and patriarchal in nature, is one steeped in mysteries. It mostly has male descendants that are paternal natives, participating in secretive rites.

Widely known is the fact that a curfew is declared when Oro is meant to parade a community and females are confined indoors. It is taboo for females to set eyes on the deity. The restriction also extends to males that are non-initiates and non-natives.

Based on oral history, death, which is a fatal consequence, awaits any woman who sees the instrument that produces the voice of the Oro or observes the priest performing the rituals.

Though the life of a man could be spared if caught outside, he has to appear to hide as the deity and its worshippers pass through.

Horrid tales abound of the vicious, ‘blood-thirsty’ judgment of the Oro, alleged to be in the form of human sacrifice, visited on those that violated the curfew.

These widespread scary narratives have instilled fear in people, scared of the fate that befell victims.

According to a Non-profit Organisation, Ondo Connect New Era, in an article titled, ‘Understanding the Antiquated Yoruba Oro Festival,’ the word Oro means fierceness, tempest, or provocation, and the deity appears to have personified executive power.

“Oro is supposed to haunt the forest in the neighbourhood of towns, and he makes his approach known by a strange, whirring, roaring noise. As soon as this is heard, all women must shut themselves up in their houses, and refrain from looking out on pain of death,” it stated.

A practice at variance with the law

With Nigeria being a liberal society and one in which its 1999 constitution, specifically Section 38, guarantees freedom of movement, worship and association, the restriction of movement during the festival bothered those of other faiths and beliefs.

What the restriction translates to is that females working in the private and public sectors, as well as business women, must stay indoors, while markets, schools, mosques and churches must remain shut for fear of the unknown. Expectedly, some residents either relocate temporarily or stay in hotels outside such communities until the festival is over.

Oro-induced restiveness

This restrictive aspect, based on reports, had in the past led to restiveness and wanton loss of lives and property.

One place that witnessed such unrest not long ago was Idi-Iroko, a border town in the Ipokia Local Government Area of Ogun State.

In July 2019, the community, which is usually a beehive of economic activities due to the movement of traders between the Nigeria and Benin Republic border, was reportedly attacked by traditionalists during an Oro festival.

An Islamic cleric, Abdulazeez Abdulwaliyu, was one of those that witnessed the incident. He could not contain the anger and resentment that welled in his heart as he recounted what happened on that day, especially the attack on the Idi-Iroko Central Mosque, which he presided over as a chief Imam. He claimed the attack could have led to casualties, safe for providence.

The Islamic cleric told PUNCH Investigations that prior to the attack, Oro adherents declared a 24-hour curfew to observe their festival and issued strict warnings for women and non-initiates to stay indoors.

It was gathered that a day before the curfew, Abdulwaliyu, during a Juma’at (Friday) prayer, delivered a sermon on religious freedom and described the curfew as a violation of the people’s rights to free movement.

“I told my Muslim brothers and sisters that the law of the land doesn’t permit anyone to infringe on other people’s freedom of movement,’’ he added.

The cleric said he specifically instructed the Muslims to defy the curfew to observe the five Muslim daily prayers – Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha, which have specific windows of time within which they must be completed. He claimed his position was hinged on a 2018 judgment delivered by Justice Owodunni Sikiru of the Ogun State High Court, sitting in the Ipokia LGA.

Details of the court judgment

On February 22, 2018, PUNCH reported that the High Court declared the imposition of curfew in the daytime on residents of Ipokia by the Oro cult as illegal.

In a suit filed by the Christian Association of Nigeria and Muslim Community in Ipokia against the Oro devotees, it was noted that they usually performed the festival in the bush and in the middle of the night, and those that do not belong to the cult were not permitted to see the deity.

It was, however, noted that with time, the devotees spread their tentacles into the heart of the community, and went to the extent of imposing a daytime curfew.

Justice Owodunni, while giving perpetual injunction, restrained the Oro adherents, “their privies, agents and cohorts from declaring or imposing a daytime curfew, or carrying out activities in any manner that interferes with the fundamental rights of the people to freedom of movement.”

He also mandated them to write an undertaking to maintain peace during the festival. “It is hereby, declared that Oro festival or ritual can only be celebrated in Ipokia, Idi-Iroko, Ihunbo, Ifonyintedo, Ogosa, Koko, Ilashe, Ibatefin, Agosasa, Oniru, Mede and Ajegunle and other villages between the hours of midnight and 4 am, subject to government approval and undertaking to maintain peace,” he ruled.

Awry development

Later developments showed that the traditionalists were unhappy with the judgment and referencing the court ruling by the Islamic cleric during the Juma’at sermon, stirred the hornet nest.

Abdulwaliyu said as Muslims converged to observe prayers on a Saturday, on the day of the curfew, masked Oro adherents stormed the mosque and pelted the glass windows with stones.

The cleric said he travelled out of town earlier in the day, but quickly returned when he heard about the attack.

He said, “My Muslim brothers and sisters escaped death by a whiskers but property were destroyed. The traditionalists did not spare the windows and doors of a church in the community, but the leaders were not interested in pursuing any case.”

He revealed that some suspects were arrested by the police in connection with the attack, but were later released on bail.

Court judgment, peace pact defied

Following the incident, religious leaders in Idi-Iroko met and signed a peace pact to forestall future occurrences but the traditionalists, PUNCH Investigations gathered, were unwilling to respect the agreement.

He said despite the court judgment, the Oro devotees continue to carry out their activities during the day. Abdulwaliyu revealed that it was held in 2020 and 2021, adding that they vowed to declare the 2022 edition soon. “We are still waiting. This is about the time of the year that the Oro festival takes place. If you enter your house on Friday evening, you won’t go out until Sunday morning. Even men that are not strong enough may not be able to come out,” he lamented.

Oro-induced violent clashes

One might think that the ban on women’s participation in the Oro festival and the death knell it sounds are merely empty threats, but they are not.

There have been reports bordering on alleged killing of women that contravened curfews imposed by Oro adherents, rather than allow the deity to kill them through its famed ‘supernatural’ means.

It is believed that seeing the Oro is a discretion that must be punitively handled through silencing to prevent ‘secrets’ from being divulged.

According to reports, the saying, o ba oro lo (she has vanished with the oro) or that Oro gbe’mi (swallowed by the Oro) was coined to justify the possible disappearance of a violator.

In Ikorodu and other areas in Lagos where the tradition still flourishes, PUNCH Investigations learnt that people who run into the procession at night don’t live to tell the story.

It was reliably gathered that most victims, who are usually unaware of the restriction are mostly night crawlers, strangers passing through, or those arriving late due to unforeseen circumstances.

The death aspect had always been a contentious issue that unsettled nerves and made tempers flare.

Not lost to memory was the 1999 killing of a Hausa woman by Oro worshippers in Sagamu.

The incident led to a Yoruba-Hausa ethnic clash that claimed the lives of about 68 persons. According to a February 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, an independent international rights group that reported the incident, both sides were armed.

“At least 68 Hausas were killed, including three boys between the ages of 10 and 15. Some were killed with guns, but the majority were killed with cutlasses. A number of Yoruba were also killed, including one of the Oro leaders. Some people were burnt inside their houses,” the report stated.

An ex-banker and native of Sagamu, Sogade Mayowa, who witnessed the clash, told PUNCH Investigations that a town crier had earlier gone round to announce that there would be a curfew.

He, however, alleged that the Hausas had the intention to defy it.

“After the date was announced by the town crier, the Hausa people responded by saying mene ne Oro (What is Oro). They thought Oro had nothing to do with them because they were non-natives. “This was what triggered the clash. It was really bloody and claimed lives on both sides. But we thank God that the then Ogun State Governor, Chief Olusegun Osoba, quickly intervened and deployed security operatives to Sagamu,” Mayowa said.

My house, dad’s palace burnt— Hausa leader

Twenty-three years down the line, memories of the clash are like gaping wounds in the mind of Sarkin Hausa of Sagamu, Alhaji Inuwa Garba, the leader of the affected Hausa community.

Alhaji Inuwa Garba

Though the incident took place during his late father’s leadership, the community leader vividly recounted his experience to our correspondent in his residence located in the heart of Sabo, a densely populated Hausa neighbourhood.

Adjusting the helm of his Babariga (Hausa traditional attire), the 57-year-old, said the clash started on the night of Saturday, July 17, 1999, when a curfew was imposed.

He said, “Unfortunately, in an area known as Starlight, the young Hausa lady that became a victim was stranded after she was sent out at midnight by her abusive boyfriend. It was while looking for a place to stay that she ran into the Oro people. She was flogged to death. The protest started when her corpse was discovered in the morning. Angry Hausas came to my father’s palace and he promised to thoroughly investigate the matter.”

However, the promises of Garba’s father did little to pacify the protesters, as they insisted that the Oro adherents will not be allowed to continue with the festival.

“The Hausas challenged the Oro worshippers that night during their procession and this led to the clash,” he added.

Garba revealed that aside from fatalities recorded, his father’s palace and house were among the buildings torched. He said following the intervention of security agencies, a communiqué was issued by community leaders to allow for peaceful coexistence.

Garba revealed that the festival was put on hold for about three years before it was revived. He, however, told PUNCH Investigations that he was saddened that former President Olusegun Obasanjo reneged on the promise to rebuild his father’s house.

In a voice akin to one that had resigned to fate, the community leader said they have accepted the Oro tradition as a norm despite its negative impacts on them.

Joining Oro adherents

In the course of working on this report and in trying to get answers to why Oro adherents still restrict movement in civilised, heterogeneous environments, and to confirm if the procession still holds, our correspondent contacted Chief Owodunni Ajayi, a renowned member of the Oro cult in Epe, a suburb of Sagamu and sought permission to be embedded. It is worthy to note that the community at the time was celebrating its Oro festival.

Chief Owodunni

Ajayi was initially reluctant to allow a ‘non-initiate’ to observe the rituals and partake in the procession but later agreed with some conditions.

He, however, refused to delve into issues relating to the deity or hint at what he referred to as sacred information meant for only initiates.

While speaking with our correspondent on the phone, Ajayi, who is the Olootu Ile (head of the house), a vantage position that puts him at the forefront of the Oro festival, explained that the deity remained an integral part of Yoruba culture.

Fluently speaking the Ijebu dialect, the septuagenarian, explained that the deity cleanses the community of evil.

He noted that aside from the annual festival during which the Oro compulsorily makes appearances, it could come out to herald festivals held for the Egungun, Agemo, among others.

 “Maybe, if young boys are misbehaving or stealing, and if there is a need to perform sacrifices for cleansing, the Oro’s presence becomes important,” Ajayi revealed.

Encounter with Oro deity

The Epe Oro festival was scheduled to hold for seven days, starting from June 26, which was a Sunday. Ajayi promised to communicate the night earmarked for the Oro procession, once it had been announced by the town crier.

Following an early morning call from Ajayi on Tuesday, June 28, our correspondent set out for Epe and was given the rare privilege to witness the preparatory rituals.

However, preparation for the night parade did not start until 4 pm.

The Oro chief priest, known as Olumale, all the while, was inside the sacred grove tucked somewhere inside Ajayi’s compound, making propitiation with young male devotees.

When he stepped out briefly, he engaged our correspondent in a brief chat and explained that the sacrifice being performed was necessary before the Oro can parade. He claimed to have held the position of the Olumale since 1996, adding, “You can’t separate the propitiation from Oro. It must be done.”

Around 4:25 pm, the Olumale and some middle-aged men entered the room where the Oro was housed and began to sing and beat drums.

With time, the rhythm and tempo of the drums increased, while bells were rung at intervals.

As this was going on, two big pigs were brought out and slaughtered, and their blood was collected in a white container for appeasement.

The heads of the pigs were decapitated, while their bodies were roasted and shared among the initiates. Our correspondent also got his own fresh portion.  After the chief priest was done with the propitiations, some priests, whom our correspondent learnt came from other parts of Ogun and Lagos states to witness the festival, were allowed to access the sacred grove to pay homage to the Oro deity.

Odd hour procession with Oro

Around 11:30 pm, when darkness had enveloped Sagamu, Ajayi signalled our correspondent to follow him outside the house.

Immediately they stepped out, he noticed that shops, stores and two filling stations lining the stretch of Ewusi Street, a major road where Ajayi’s house was situated, had switched off their lights. No major street light was on.

Oro devotees slaughtering one of the pigs

Our correspondent also observed that other adjoining busy streets were quiet and the sound of a pin drop could literally be heard.

Our correspondent and Ajayi were later joined outside by the chief priest and other traditionalists that were apparently in high spirits.

At exactly 11:35 pm, a strange figure sauntered out of the house, making a weird, inaudible sound that made our correspondent develop goosebumps. At the entrance, it lowered its body to prevent a collision with the door frame.

The staggering figure in a multi-coloured flowing robe, which turned out to be the Oro, had as its head a giant wooden mask painted in bright colours.

Its eyes were blazing red, while its white mouth glowed.

The image was scary enough to make a person seeing it for the first time become transfixed with fear.

The shouts of “Oro, Baba o”filled the air as elated worshippers hailed the grotesque figure as it staggered back and forth.

In response to their chants, the Oro made a whirring sound.

PUNCH Investigations gathered that this particular sound travels several kilometres and serves as a warning signal for everyone, especially women to retire indoors.

About 15 young men, including our correspondent, accompanied the Oro as it moved from street to street, grunting.

Though the strange figure made its own unique sound, the actual sound recognised as that of the Oro, it was learnt, was the whirling sound produced by a thin strip of wood fastened to a long stick with a tiny rope. After the parade, the deity moved to the King’s palace where eager male spectators awaited his arrival.

As if on cue, as soon as the strange figure sighted the men, it went into a frenzied dance, entertaining the jubilant audience.

At exactly 3:30 am, the show was over and the Oro made its way back to Ajayi’s residence, where it retired into its sacred grove and went silent.

We’re uncomfortable with Oro tradition — cleric

Before leaving Epe, our correspondent spoke with some residents and they lamented that they had been at the receiving end of the Oro festival.

Awolesi Oluwatobiloba is the founder of ‘God of Possibility Word and Prayer Ministry,’ located in the heart of the community.

The cleric said he was forced to postpone an interdenominational prayer service because of the festival.

 Despite voicing his discontent with the tradition, the 32-year-old, who revealed that he was born in the community, noted that it was part of the traditionalists’ way of bringing peace to the land.

“We are not comfortable with the Oro procession. Christians usually have a prayer walk without disturbing others. I hope the relevant authorities will review the practice because it disrupts lives,” he retorted.

 Oro disrupts lives, businesses in Lagos

The disruption of lives as alluded to by the cleric seemed to be the lot of those living in Isolo, a densely populated area of Lagos in the Oshodi Isolo Local Government Area. PUNCH Investigations discovered that residents have been under the chokehold of the Oro tradition and are trapped between modernity and antiquity.

When our correspondent visited the community in May, he learnt that there was an ongoing Egungun festival that would last for three months. However, it was heralded by an Oro procession that kept people indoors. Though it was strictly a midnight affair, residents within and outside were gripped by fear. It is worthy to note that Isolo is strategic and central, as it is one of the main roads leading to other densely populated suburbs in the area. When our correspondent visited the area around 8pm on the day of the Oro procession, streets were deserted and business places shut down.

A visit to the area the next day saw many lamenting about the age-long tradition and the losses usually recorded during Oro parade days.

Speaking with PUNCH Investigations, a mobile phone accessory seller, Chukwudi Amadi, said that though men were permitted to be outside during the procession, he cannot risk his life.

“They said the Oro can kill. I don’t want to endanger my life because I am an easterner. Whatever I sell till 6pm is enough for me,” he said with a grin.

While the effect of Oro might be minimal on residents of Isolo, it is worse for residents of Ikorodu, another part of Lagos, where the procession is carried out during the day. The annual Oro festival was held in Ikorodu on Thursday, May 19, and it paralysed socio-economic activities.

PUNCH Investigations gathered that though areas such as Oju Bode, Ladega, Ita Elewa, Ota Ona, Ikorodu Grammar school, Itun Pate and Ajina, were regarded as hotbeds of the tradition, people across the town were marooned in their homes.

A female bank worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she had to call her office in Maryland to inform them of the development. “I was about to leave for work when a neighbour told me that Oro festival was being held that day. I could have been their victim if I had stepped out. I just called my boss to explain to him,’’ she said. She prevailed on the relevant authorities to ensure the restriction of the procession to midnight so that people could go about their daily activities.

Traditionalists can face prosecution — Lawyer

A former vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association, Monday Ubani, said constitutional power to impose a curfew is only vested in the government and not traditional authorities.

Ubani said that sections 305 and 308 of the 1999 Constitution only recognised the powers of the president to declare a curfew in some parts, or the whole nation, when there are threats to life, security or during health emergencies.

He added, “I have never seen where traditional rulers are given power under the native law or custom, or even our political laws to declare a curfew.’’

Another lawyer, Festus Ogun, noted that while the constitution permits people to practise their religion freely, it forbids trampling on the rights of others.

He said, “The rights to freedom of thoughts, conscience and religion are guaranteed and protected under section 38 of the 1999 Constitution. It empowers people to manifest their religious beliefs privately and publicly without interference. Where a person’s right ends, that of another begins. Rights should be exercised in ways and manners that won’t infringe on the rights of others. When they restrict people’s movement and liberty, human dignity is violated.”

Ogun noted that traditionalists could be prosecuted if they make good their threat to abort human lives. He said, “When you threaten other people’s lives because you are manifesting your belief, it is a threat to the rights to life guaranteed under the constitution. Juju (magical power) is recognised under the criminal code. If it can be established that it was juju that caused the death of another person, the traditionalist involved can be liable under the criminal code. But a lot of people don’t know this.”

A woman that sees Oro must die – Traditionalist

An Osun-based traditionalist, Ajibola Adigun, stated that the Oro tradition cannot be abolished, warning that under no circumstances should a woman see the deity.

He explained that Oro creates orderliness in the community through its cleansing and purification rituals.

Adigun said, “When someone in authority is misusing his power or an individual becomes highhanded, the Oro deals with the person. That person might disappear without a trace. A woman can see Egungun (masquerade) and watch its performance, but if it is the Oro, she will die. It is an abomination for a woman to see it.’’

Defy Oro, bear the consequences

Reacting to the legal implication of carrying out punitive measures against violators of an Oro-imposed curfew, the Osun-based traditionalist said the deity is not against the law.

He reiterated that anyone that chooses to defy the Oro should be ready to bear the consequence.

“The law allows tradition to exist. If people are aware that Oro is ongoing in a place and choose to disobey, whatever consequences that come with it, the fellow should bear it,” he warned.

Ikorodu Palace reacts

The Ayangburen of Ikorodu, Oba Kabir Shotobi, defended the Oro tradition, insisting that it was for the good of the people.

Oba Kabir Shotobi

In a statement signed on his behalf by the Agba Akin of the kingdom, Otunba Ayodele Elesho, it noted that the festival was not targeted at anyone.

He stated that traditional festivals observed in Ikorodu were established by their forefathers as standpoints to pray for peace, tranquillity, prosperity and economic advancement.

He said, “It is not part of our culture or tradition to extort or harass people or extort anyone during any of our festivals. The law enforcement agencies were never stopped from performing their legitimate duties.”

He maintained that the palace was unaware of the court judgment banning Oro festivals in the daytime. “We are law-abiding citizens, if there is any such court judgment, the palace, lawyers, community and Oro cult leaders will study the judgment and come out with a position,” he said.

We have arrested many Oro adherents —Ogun police

The spokesperson for the Ogun State Police Command, Abimbola Oyeyemi, decried the continuous procession of the Oro in the daytime, especially in the Sagamu and Idi-Iroko areas.

He said, “We have been having issues with the organisers of Oro festival, especially as it concerns daytime procession, where people are told to stay at home. This is common in Yewa and Idi-Iroko communities.”

Oyeyemi claimed that the command was able to curb the traditionalists’ excesses because of the 2018 court judgment.

He affirmed that no one was permitted by law to impose curfews unnecessarily either during the day or at night.

He said, “Their activities should not affect other people. There was a time the festival fell within the time students were taking the WASSCE examination and they were told not to go out. This caused trouble at the time. Since the judgment was passed, we warned the traditionalists that under no condition should they parade the Oro during the day.’’

Asked about steps the police had taken in areas where the court judgment was still being defied, he said, “We have arrested many people that violated the directive and some have been charged to court, especially in Idi-Iroko and Ipokia.”

When our correspondent told the police spokesperson about the Epe Oro procession and gave vivid details of his (correspondent) participation, Oyeyemi denied knowledge of it.

He added, “We were not informed. It doesn’t mean that those faced with emergencies should not go out within the time given for the Oro procession. Nobody has the right to block anybody.’’

No one is complaining, says Lagos police

Despite the Ikorodu palace admitting to carrying out Oro procession during the day, the spokesperson for the Lagos State Police Command, Benjamin Hundeyin, said the police did not get complaints from residents.

He said, “In a state, the person that has the power to declare curfew is the governor. No traditional ruler, to the best of my knowledge, declared a curfew. People were given travel advisory. That does not translate to a curfew. We have yet to get any response from Lagos residents on violation of fundamental rights. Tradition exists and people abide by tradition,”

Meanwhile, the Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Gbenga Omotosho, did not respond to calls made to his mobile. He had yet to respond to a text message sent to his mobile as of the time of filing this report.

Ogun, Lagos governments keep mum

Contacted, the Ogun State Commissioner for Information, Abdulwaheed Odusile, referred PUNCH Investigations to the Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Toyin Taiwo.

However, Taiwo on her part promised to reach out to our correspondent.

She never responded to subsequent calls and had yet to get back to our correspondent after follow-up text messages were sent to her mobile. The messages sought to know the steps taken so far by the ministry to address or possibly restrict the activities of Oro devotees.

This reporting was supported with a grant from ICFJ in conjunction with Code for Africa.

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