Ingrained traditional religious practices are undermining the avowed vision of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub, from elevating itself to a modern, smart and economically advanced state. Tension, which had been building up, reached fever pitch during the observance of the May 2018 annual oro (traditional Yoruba religious) festival in Ikorodu. An extensively circulated notice from the monarchy in Ikorodu, which imposed a curfew (on movement of women) on May 8 in respect of the festival, caused pervasive anxiety among residents. Although the traditional authorities in Ikorodu later disclaimed the ban, too much damage had already been done, leading to severe disruption of movement and economic activities.
Oro practitioners worship secretly. This leads to the restriction of movement – especially for women – during the period. Women who violate this rule often “disappear.” In the Isolo and Ikorodu areas of Lagos, the practitioners forcibly lock up shops and businesses for days to mark the observance. In 1999 in Sagamu, Ogun State, a female Hausa teenager who was trapped during oro worship was mysteriously found dead. Her death triggered communal violence between the Yoruba and Hausa that raged on for days. In another instance in 2015, Precious Nwaigwe, a teenage girl, who was travelling from Ajah in Lagos, to her school in Ikenne, Ogun State, ran into oro worshippers at around 9 pm, after her bus had broken down. The worshippers subjected her to physical assault; she was rescued from rape by a Good Samaritan. In the process, she ended up with human traffickers, who took her to Libya through Niger Republic.
Women who work late are often victims of its restrictions. Even men who venture out suffer harassment. At other times, hoodlums hijack the festival and collect illegal tributes from business owners. During the 2018 festival in Ikorodu, women had to rush home early from their offices across the vast Lagos metropolis so as not to be caught up in the vortex; shops closed abruptly and long-scheduled business appointments were discarded.
The restriction of movement in Ikorodu during the festival is a violation of the constitutional rights of other religious worshippers. Visitors and international business persons, who have appointments, lose out, too. The restriction affects industries located there and workers on shift duties, as well as medical emergencies. However, it is a settled matter that this curfew is illegal. It should not be tolerated again. This is 21st century!
Section 41 (1) of the 1999 Constitution expressly guarantees the right of movement to all Nigerians. Only the government can temporarily take away that right during emergencies. In Nigeria, as a country practising republicanism, where the monarchy has been replaced by democracy, the action of the oro adherents is in direct conflict with the constitution. Therefore, it behoves the Lagos State Government to act in a way that the promoters of this illegality will get the message.
Indeed, oro worship has a long history of acrimony, particularly with the coming of Christianity and Islam to Yoruba land. This is evident in an Ipokia, Ogun State High Court verdict last February following a joint suit by the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Ipokia Muslim community. The petitioners had complained that oro worshippers curtailed their right of movement. Rightly, the court ruled that oro worship in the daytime was illegal; it added that even when observed in the midnight, movement should not be restricted.
In fairness, the Lagos State Government has continued to intervene whenever oro curfews are imposed. On the eve of the Ikorodu festival, the Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Steve Ayorinde, declared the curfew illegal. He asked residents to go about their lawful duties, saying that security agents had been deployed to monitor the situation and prevent a breakdown of law and order. Since Ikorodu residents chose to either stay indoors that day or return early from work, it showed that the government action was too little, too late. Reacting on the eve of an illegal order by a non-state actor shows the weakness of government in dealing with such a crucial issue of safety, security and economic prosperity.
Being an entrenched religious practice, Lagos – and the other state governments in the South-West – cannot afford piecemeal or reactionary responses to make it conform to modern realities. A government that is bold enough to put an end to the sponsorship of religious pilgrimages should be able to dig deep and address, once and for all, this malevolent practice. It should make traditional institutions answerable to the laws of the land.
Religions ought to be put to good use, not to cause disharmony or infringe on the rights of others. With a law in place, oro adherents will be forced to reform their religion. Therefore, to redeem himself and restore the confidence of residents and investors in the capability of the state to enforce its writ, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode should initiate a law to regulate all religious practices that run in conflict with the basic rights of law-abiding citizens.