Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sojourn in Igbala Aiye

Olusola installed African Renaissance Ambassador in Benin Republic, urges prayers for Ivory Coast

Chief Segun Olusola, Chairman of the African Refugees Foundation (AREF), is now also African Renaissance Ambassador. Chief Olusola was installed African Renaissance Ambassador in a remote settlement called Igbala Aiye in Benin Republic on Saturday, 15 January, 2011.

However, Ambassador Olusola’s decoration ceremony invoked both sadness and joy from the recipient; who said the regalia foisted on him would be ill-fitting, if he did not give voice to the fears that rankled in his mind.

Chief Olusola, who was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Ethiopia; in those dark days, when famine ravaged that Horn of Africa country; pointed out that by some coincidence, the date 15 January, Nigeria’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day, on which the honour of African Renaissance Ambassador was being conferred on him was an important one in Nigeria’s history; went on to express deep worries on the situation in Ivory Coast.

Ambassador Olusola observed that all the countries in West Africa faced grave burdens, if the crisis in the Ivory Coast took on a more explosive turn. The AREF chief, who expressed doubts about any West African nation’s capability or preparedness to cope with the consequences of war in Cote d’Ivoire called for fervent prayers to avert possible impending calamity starring the sub-region in the face.

According to this revered senior citizen, the best option in the circumstance was to pre-empt degeneration of the Ivoirian crisis into an all-out war because the consequences of such fratricide were potentially too grave. Reiterating his call for prayers for Ivory Coast, Ambassador Olusola said that having made public his thoughts and plea for prayers for the embattled West African country; he could then thank his hosts for the honour done him.

Chief Olusola, who is proprietor of Ajibulu Moniya Cultural Centre, had actually visited the site, where his installation took place at least twice in the past. Aside Ambassador Olusola, one other person, Hon. Francis X. Mihami, was also honoured on that day.

In a brief remark, after his decoration, Chief Mihami, a former Mayor of Cotonou’s 5th Department, lauded Ambassador Olusola’s call for prayers for Ivory Coast.

Recalling that the troubling crisis in Cote d’Ivoire, was fallout of an election; Mr. Mihami, an agricultural engineer, went on to pray to God to spare Benin Republic, where general elections are due in March this year; from post-election conflicts.

Although the scene of the decoration, called Igbala Aiye (World Redemption) City, is currently little-known; the place could in the next few years morph into a most popular tourist attraction, if things go according to plan. As things stand, Igbala Aiye’s future as a prospective resort of choice is already primed by a few prospective heritage sites around which romantic myths have been spun.

The honour conferred on Chief Olusola and Hon. Mihami were part of a weeklong annual event organised by African Renaissance. Africa Renaissance is led by Vizir Olofindji Akande, who holds the title of Olofin II and Majeobaje of Yoruba Land in Benin Republic.

The event, which was flagged off with departure observances at the Palais des Congres in Cotonou on 15 January, climaxed with a grand closing ceremony on 22 January. The opening date was decidedly chosen as it marks the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, described by the organisers as The man of peace.

The first day of the annual fiesta featured a Humanism Feast in Akpotokou, where site of an underground village is located. Olofindji said the underground dwelling is as old as 450,000 years and is where “First inhabitants of our planet” or the builders of ancient Egypt emanated.

According to Olofindji, humans lived in the bowels of the earth in those ancient days. For safety concerns, humans rarely prowled the earth as we do nowadays; that, put simply, is how subterranean villages came to be, said Olofindji; who added that the University of Benin at Abomey-Calavi was aware of the site’s existence and had even sent scholars, including a professor of history, to investigate the claims.

However, it is doubtful that the 450,000 years age, ascribed to the yet unexplored underground village, has been scientifically authenticated. Nonetheless, Olofindji assured that scholars were at work on this project. He even mentioned the name of Dr. Catherine Acholonu, Presidential Adviser on Culture during the Chief Obasanjo Presidency, as one of the researchers that had visited the site.

Benin Republic boasts a famous archaeologist in the person of Professor Obare Bagodo. Prof. Bagodo, lecturer at University of Benin in Abomey-Calavi, is an executive member of the West African Archaeologists Association (WAAA); and, if such a wonder as a 450,000-year underground village existed in Benin Republic, he had to be aware of it.

Olofindji said Prof Bagodo was aware; but, when it came to the issue of whether a telescopic probe was ever distended into the earth for insights into what lay beneath; he explained that in due course all of these and more would come to pass.

The other Akpotokou wonder is The memorial of the repatriation of the souls of deported and enslaved African ancestors. In a nutshell, this site boasts a sepulchre of some sort; a white-painted cylindrical protrusion from the soil represents a mega-grave for the returned souls of peoples taken out as slave. Although their remains had earlier been buried elsewhere, African Renaissance had sent out functionaries to collect sand from 228 countries; and, these sands, which symbolize the remains of those departed ones, were reinterred at Akpotokou.

Vizir Olofindji, who said the tomb could not be opened for one to see its contents; added that the sands were not ordinary at all, and that those with effective eyes could see the spirits inherent in them before the reburial. Nigeria is listed as number 71 among the 228 lands and territories from which slave trading took place.

The organisers variously described Igbala Aiye as The African Promised Land, Headquarters of humanism, Centre of universal friendship and Origin of humanity et cetera. Ambassador Olusola had also submitted that “Igbala Aiye will eventually become a place of worship for all Yoruba-speaking peoples of the world. Every year, they will come together here to re-establish contact and to ensure that the memory is not erased”.

Both sites are located in Akpotokou, which stands roughly 32km from Ketou. Ketou is an aboriginal Adjache settlement and stands some 135km northeast of Cotonou. Many natives of Ketou were keen to inform one that their ancestor, Alaketou (Alaketu) was the first son of Oduduwa. Right or wrong; for us, the most important issue here is the fact that there is no argument as to their common ancestry with the Yoruba of Nigeria.

To get to Ketou; the wayfarer coming from Cotonou would travel through Seme-Podji, Porto Novo to Sakete, Pobe, which is home of an aerodrome; Onigbolo, which hosts a notable cement factory; Idjou (which is the same as Iju), Odometa (same as Three Streams in Yoruba) and Idigny et cetera.

Although the total length of motorway across Benin Republic is little compared with Nigeria, the road network of the former is much better; even though the highways are simple two-lane affairs. Across Benin Republic, the roads are not crater-infested as is taken for norm in Nigeria.
However, after travelling the relatively smooth avenue all the way to Ketou, a 12km bumpy ride down a dusty earth-road, which leads in and out of Akpotokou; is the classic anti-climax.

Although Ambassador Lawrence Akindele, Nigeria’s envoy to Benin Republic, was unavoidably absent; he was represented by Mr. Yusuf Abdul-Rauf, Head of Chancery. The head of chancery was accompanied on that assignment by two other embassy staffers; Mrs. Esther Umoh and Mrs. Akinola Abiodun. Mrs. Umoh served as translator for the Nigerian embassy delegation.

Around 9.10am, there was a brief stopover in Porto Novo, the official capital city of Benin Republic. Although most people mistake Cotonou for capital of Republic of Benin, this country’s capital is still Porto Novo; even though the seat of virtually every organ of government has been replicated in Cotonou. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the construction of a new National Assembly complex in Porto Novo is nearing completion.

We berthed at the old National Assembly premises located opposite a cenotaph near the Haute Cour du Justice (High Court of Justice) during our stopover. A member of Benin Republic’s Parliament, Hon. Fikara Sacca, who was on hand to receive the entourage; was briefed by Olofindji Akande as to the purpose of the visit.

The head of chancery at the Nigerian Embassy, who stood in for the Nigerian ambassador; also gave a brief address after which he passed on a donation of CFA 100,000 from the mission to the organisers of the Caravan.

During his remark, Mr. Abdul-Rauf said the token was more important in its symbolism as identification with the objective of the exercise, which aims at promotion of African culture and global peace. The Nigerian mission, through the ambassador’s representative, went on to advise the organisers to explore the possibility of collaborating with the local Nigeria House in subsequent years.

After the exchange of pleasantries and the presentation of the gift from the Nigerian embassy, Hon. Sacca and others appended their signatures on the travelling banner; and, by 9.45am, we were through at the Benin National Assembly complex and were heading out of Porto Novo on our way to Ketou.

Around 12noon, there was another short break at Maire de Ketou (Ketu Local Government Secretariat); where our convoy waited, so that more tourists travelling in other vehicles could join us. In fact, some others had actually assembled there, so we could catch up with them. After resuming our journey from Ketou, by 12.57pm; we had since traversed Ofia and Igadji towns and were heading out of Idigny into Akpotokou, where we alighted around the site of the memorial for repatriated souls at 1.13pm.

We departed the memorial around 13.25pm and headed to the site of the underground village. By 1.42pm we were through at the site of the underground dwelling and finally got to Igbala Aiye at 1.45pm. At 4.50pm the day’s ceremonies, which included delicious meals at Igbala Aiye’s conference centre, were over; and, less than 10 minutes after departure from Igbala Aiye, we sighted the memorial site in Akpotokou on our way out. Around 6.10pm we were traversing Onigbolo Town and by 6.30pm had passed Pobe on the way toward Porto Novo.

The organisers deservedly got glowing tributes from Mr. Gregoire C. Glowe, Coordinator of Coalition of Civil Societies in Cotonou; among others. The Caravan tour featured numerous other participants/observers, including; Mr. Sikiru Sule, Counsellor at Consul-General of Benin Republic in Lagos; Fr. Yves Richard, a Jesuit Priest working in Benin Republic since 1986; his brother, Mr. Claude Richard; and, Claude’s wife, Mrs. Anne-Marie Richard; Mr. Marck-Desire Alocheou; and Mr. Loukmon Bakary. Gbedan Mathias, Mayor of Seme Podji; Croix Rouge (Red Cross), Francois Houessou, are among others, who signed the Caravan Banner.

As to how to rationalize the involvement of Reverend Father Yves in an event that some could put down to pagan exercise, this is what the Catholic cleric had to say: “I am here with the knowledge of my archbishop. Vizir Olofindji had visited my archbishop since last October to explain the aim of this programme to him. Interestingly, our mission had a similar programme to promote peace before, during and after the forthcoming elections. So, seeing that this programme aims at the same goal of peace, I am here as representative of my archbishop”.

For us, Igbala Aiye symbolizes tolerance, and by extrapolation, peace. Here, people of every race, tribe and creed enjoyed several hours shrouded in harmony, tranquillity and reason.

Truly, as Ambassador Olusola did forecast; if properly managed, Igbala Aiye could easily evolve into a destination for pilgrimage by those interested in archaeology, religions and tourism generally.


PS: This piece, originally published in Daily Sun on 20 January, 2011; has been reproduced by popular demand.

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