A Review of Tunde Leye’s “Afonja, the Rise”
Lagos: TLspace Media, 2018, 358 pages
By Nwachukwu Egbunike
Afonja, the Rise is a story of a revered warrior of Oyo but above all his-story of one of the greatest Empires of the Yoruba Civilization. Tunde Leye did not conceal his reason for writing this book:
Because our history must be told…
Around lanterns and around laptops…
So that we may know.
So that we may learn.
So that we may remember (p iii).
Leye’s work is an ambitious task to rendering memory from the perspective of a young man in love with his past. And he does this through a voracious employment of the past – the shared patrimony of his lineage, the recorded history of his people and the many oral traditions – but with the tools of the present. The opening verses which best captures both his intentions and actions – that runs from the first page of the book to the last – are these “around lanterns and around laptops”.
Leye book seems to re-echo the theoretical synthesis of tradition and modernity of Louis J. Munoz who maintained that tradition is simply “the past in the present.” And also of Jaroslav Pelikan who asserts that “tradition is the living faith of the dead.” Leye’s synthesis in Afonja, the rise tells a story that although focused on this great Kakanfo of Oyo Empire, yet is at the same time not really a story about the warrior. The book unwittingly paints a graphic picture of the intrigues of the absolute monarchy of the once invincible Oyo Empire. It takes one on a journey through the personal life of each character: sorrow, joys, victories and the blunders of war, the betrayals and the intrigues of a royal court.
It is through these firm brushes that the author inserts salient points about traditional rites of marriage, the profundity of proverbs or the supremacy of the Alaafin. Yet within this absolute monarchy, lie traditional checks and balances. One sees in the last chapter the wisdom of the past: if the king is too stubborn to take correction, his subjects must cover their heads in a basket and tell his some home truths. Yet if he remains obdurate then the same tradition that deified him will also be employed in granting him an express visa to meet his ancestors.
And so it was in Afonja the rise, the Oyo Mesi rejected their king. It fell on the chiefs to pronounce the solemn declaration that went thus: the “Alaafin Aole Arogangan, I have brought a message from Oyo and it is a message you must receive. The gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you” (p 345). The response of the Alaafin is instructive: “My curse be on you, for you disloyalty and disobedience, so let your children disobey you, if you send them on an errand, let the never return to bring you word again, to all the points I have shot my arrows, you will be carried as slaves, my curse will carry you to the sea and beyond the seas” (p 346).
Although the book maintains a loud silence as regards the fulfillment or otherwise of this royal curse, it worth emphasizing that Alaafin Aole Arogangan ‘obeyed’ his subjects and committed suicide. This is why Munoz insists on using the term “Yoruba Civilisation” rather than ethnic group, nation or even nationality in the describing the socio-political governance of the people of south-western Nigeria. It is only a civilisation that has an inherent memory and institutional measures of state that can enforce the rule of law. Thus, no one is above the law and not even an absolute monarch. These similar traits have characterised great civilizations of the West. Yet it begs the question, if the Yoruba civilization was this organised, is it not painful that Nigeria of the 21st century tethers under the weight of despotic leadership. A country where impunity is the norm and some people are not only above the law, but are now the law?
However, Afonja, the rise also is traumatic – albeit painful. This is because one has this feeling of despondency while reading the book. It seems that the only thing we learn from history is to repeat history. And thus it is that the unending intrigues by all the powerful characters within Leye’s story had one thing in common – selfish personal interest.
Afonja wanted to be Kakanfo at all cost. The lust for power blinded him to become a pawn in the hands of Alami whose only ambition was to “dip the Koran into the sea” and create a kingdom in Ilorin over which he will preside. Same goes for Bashorun Asamu – “the prime chief in the Oyo Empire, second only to Alaafin” (p 5) – who thwarted the young Aremo who defied tradition by not accompanying his late father Alaafin Adesina to the grave but rather wanted to succeed him. Asamu succeeded in preventing Aremo from ascending to the throne. However, he miscalculated by making Aole the Alaafin who he thought he could easily manipulate. This of course misfired. The obstinacy of Alaafin Aole became the price the Oyo Empire had to pay because the king wanted to assert that his nobody’s pawn and in the process went overboard.
Like Oyo – kingdoms either rise through the dint of hard work of people or fall due to the unmitigated vicious ambition and treachery of men. Unfortunately Toye Ogunyemi’s prayerful hope “that the mistakes of the past” are never again repeated seems unanswered. A messiah was sold to us, but sadly a hegemonic irredentist sits on the throne. Not heeding the lesson of history continues to haunt us.
Tunde Leye’s Afonja the Rise is a labour of memory, one that nudges us to never fail to remember. Although the opening chapter leaves the reader with a scathing feeling, trying to navigate the maze of a character too many – the book is well written. Leye employs lucid prose with a well constructed suspense and a splendid use of flash backs. Afonja the Rise is like a ferocious hurricane that sweeps you from the first page and only dumps you at a distant shore of the last page. I recommend you buy the book; it’s worth every second of your time.
 Louis J. Munoz (2007). The past in the present: towards a rehabilitation of tradition. Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd
 Jaroslav Pelikan (1984). The vindication of tradition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
 Louis J. Munoz (2003). A living tradition: studies in Yoruba Civilisation. Ibadan: Bookcraft Ltd
 Toye Ogunyemi (2015). Ibadan Empire: Republicanism in a pre-colonial African Nation. Ibadan: Rasmed Publications Ltd