A Conversation with Professor I. A. Akinjogbin On Yoruba History & Culture

The History of the Yorubas

Professor I. A Akinjogbin, BA, PhD, Emeritus Professor of History, was the first Professor and Head of Department of History at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He died early Sunday July 27 2008 at age 78. About a year before he died, we were honored and privileged to be granted an interview with Professor Akinjogbin on his new book, Milestones and Social Systems in Yoruba History and Culture. It was a very inspiring and educative conversation and we present it here for the first time on Nigeria 2.0. 

Milestones and Social Systems in Yoruba History and Culture is broken into two parts; the first part traces the history and development of the Yoruba people in various stages through continuity and change. There have been two schools of thoughts on the history of the Yorubas and their identity. The first claims that the Yoruba people are one originating from the same source, Oduduwa, in Ile-Ife. The second school claims that the Yoruba are a group of unrelated groups of people with nothing in common. The second school may have come about as communities rejected the idea of paying tribute to the Alaafin of Oyo, the political head of the Yoruba. In his book, Professor Akinjogbin promotes the idea of a unified Yorubaland based on extensive research initiated as far back as 1957 by Obafemi Awolowo, a renowned Nigerian leader.

The main source of research is oral traditions from over a thousand years. What the Yorubas lacked in written history they more than made up for in oral history and traditions held together by families that were designated story tellers for the royal family and the people. This is not unlike Homer’s Odyssey in Greek mythology. Verification was done checking one story against the other. Another primary source was festivals and ceremonies, at which the history of the town, the community and its people, were told and retold for all to know. Other sources included installation and crowning ceremonies of Obas, Kings in Yoruba land, which traced the history of the monarchy and of the town, and place names could be used to tell their history as well.

In recent times, archaeology has been used to trace the history of the Yorubas and the Yoruba language has been scientifically proven to have been in existence for at least 2, 000 years. In Milestones and Social Systems in Yoruba History and Culture, the period covered is over 1, 000 years from pre-Oduduwa to the 20th century and highlights which kingdoms were in ascendancy and when. It also includes the 19th century when the age-long unity of the Yorubas disintegrated through a century of interneciary war. Milestones makes reference to another seminal book, The History of the Yorubas written by Rev. Samuel Johnson published in 1927, which also traces the history of the Yorubas as one people originating from one source.

The second part of the book deals with the pillars of Yoruba civil society and civilization; Ebi (Family), Agba (Elder), Marriage, Power, and Life. Professor Akinjogbin uses this section to explain what Yorubas believe so their actions can be better understood by Yorubas and non-Yorubas alike. It serves to show what family means to the Yorubas. It explains the concept of age within the family system. It talks about the marriage institution, the role of women, the notion of power, and the unity between the seen and unseen world within the Yoruba life cycle. The second part of the book serves to provide a context for the historical actions of the Yorubas as outlined in the first part. Based on this, we think this section should have come first but Professor Akinjogbin is a historian first and foremost and not an anthropologist.

We believe that Milestones and Social Systems in Yoruba History and Culture is relevant today. It educates Yorubas and non-Yorubas alike on the history of the Yorubas. First, you should know your history to know who you are. Second, knowing other peoples’ histories is a good point of discussion for comparing cultures. Milestones has very salient points that can be applied to our family structures, social systems, and marriages today. Given the current divorce rates in Western society and that it seems are being emulated in African societies, it is clear something is not working in the Western model. In contrast, if one looks intelligently and non-superficially at how other cultures have handled the same situations successfully and one comes to understand how and why it worked, it is not inconceivable that the same can be applied to similar situations today and across cultures.

On two claims we do not agree with the author entirely; one that the Yoruba are the single largest language group in Nigeria. Without providing any scientific basis for this assertion we neither agree nor disagree. The other is that the knowledge of the history of the Yoruba will make for a strong, just, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria. Based on our limited observations, we think that due to the fact that there are other cultural groups with different histories and cultures in Nigeria, there are other factors to be considered, factors that also affect the unity of Nigeria. The unity of the Yoruba, yes. The unity of Nigeria, well it may help depending on the size of the impact. This second assertion is obviously based on the first.

It is our opinion that this book is a topical book and we highly recommend it. Whether you agree with it or not, it will at least enhance your thinking as it relates to how you can live your life within your family, and more importantly in society. Although, this is one culture’s way of doing things, it is still valuable today for that and other cultures as it relates to how people and societies can have family structures and social organizations that work. As the author himself stated, “the alternative to this is to pick any foreign mode that appears convenient and base one’s interpretation on that.”

Due to the length of the interview, we have broken it into 4 parts:

Part 1 of 4 – How History is Written (15 mins)

Part 2 of 4 – History & Culture Defined (18 mins)

Part 3 of 4 – Social Systems (14 mins)

Part 4 of 4 – Social Systems Continued: From Family to Marriage to Divorce (16 mins)


Professor I. A Akinjogbin had been Acting Director of the world-renowned Ife Institute of African Studies, the first indigenous Dean, Faculty of Arts, and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Professor Akinjogbin devoted his entire academic career to teaching and research in history and was the author of several publications including Dahomey and Its Neighbors, Topics on Nigerian Economic and Social History, Ife: The Cradle of a Race, and War and Peace in Yorubaland.


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