13 Incredible Things You Never Knew About OGBONI Fraternity

A lot has been said about the Ogbonis but what is fact and what is fiction? I have written this piece on the Ogbonis for your reading pleasure. Have a nice time with it.

  1. Like Freemasons and the Illuminati, the Ogboni Fraternity is a secret society. As a matter of fact, it is one of the foremost secret cults in Africa. Brotherhood is believed to be extremely important in the fraternity and members will always go to any length to protect other members even if that means going against the laid-down conventions of the society. In September 1959, Nigerian journalist, Nelson Ottah, carried out his investigation on the Ogbonis and wrote: 

    Members of the Ogboni Fraternity in 1959, a year before Nigeria became independent. The secrets of the Ogboni are closely-guarded from the uninitiated. Laws of morality for the Ogbonis are derived from the Earth and the ancestors and not the gods (orishas). Ogbonis worship and sanction the Earth as a Spirit and protect their secrets from external inquiry. They believe that the Earth existed before the gods and the Ogboni cult, before the kingship. Some believe that the Ogbonis are so old that they came before the earliest inhabitants of Yorubaland. For the Ogbonis: ‘The eyes should see, the ears should hear but the mouth must be silent.’

A member of the Ogboni Fraternity, for example, is always safe in an office in which a fellow member is in charge. Inefficiency won’t lose him a job. Neither will insurbodination. He is safe in every possible way, as long as the big man at the head of his department is a member of the Ogboni Fraternity too, and takes his membership more seriously than his job. He could even steal from his employers and get away with it, because the police would not be called in without the sanction of the head of his department, with whom he is in cahoots by reason of their membership of the Ogboni Fraternity’.

2. Members of the Ogboni Fraternity are taught certain secret signs which they use to communication or to make their membership clear or send a signal to others. This is done without a non-member even knowing what is going on. Ottah continued:

…even in court I have seen a member of the Ogboni Fraternity, brought up to the dock between two policemen, look around casually and then knock loudly three times on some resonant surface. That is an Ogboni sign. Who was he trying to influence by showing that he was a member. Perhaps he had never met the police prosecutor before, and perhaps he thought that the prosecutor was a member who might help him by presenting his crimes more leniently than otherwise to the court…

But that is not all to the secret signs and symbolisms of the Ogbonis (Ogbonis means ‘the Elders’). The complementary nature that exists between males and females is always highlighted in the Ogboni society. This is reflected in their unique gesture where the left fist (considered feminine) is placed on top of the right fist (considered masculine) with the thumbs concealed, in front of the stomach. What this signifies is a symbol of giving blessings and recognition of the dominance of spiritual and sacred matters as well as the primacy of the spiritual over the physical. Also, if you want to shake hands with an Ogboni member, you use the left hand to shake, you extend one forward and extend one in the middle. This is known as the sacred handshake of the Ogbonis and it symbolizes the fact that all the members are nursed from the breast of the Great Mother. 

For the Ogbonis, the left is very important. Their handshakes are dominated by the left hands (called owo alaafia or the hands of peace or tranquility, even their dances are oriented towards the left. An Ogboni elder explained this saying:

The right is used by humans, the left is for the gods‘.

Ajinijini Ogun of the whole Universe, the late Oluwo Agba, Antonio Deinde Fernandez in his Ogboni shawl. Note the placement and orientation of his hands. The Oluwo or the Apeena in time past presided over decapitated bodies of criminals turned over to the Oro cult. While the hands and mouths of these condemned criminals are bound, the Eye Oro Aragamegun feasts on their heads. These might be criminals who have committed grievous crimes such as murder. These powerful roles of the Ogbonis as the dispensers of justice with the power of life and death in the most serious criminal cases in the past has earned them a reputation of fear with a piercing blend of mystery. The Oluwo or Apeena is expected to conduct himself with the highest levels of discipline, finesse, sophistication, elegance and self-respect. The shawl is the ultimate symbol of power of an Ogboni member. When the egbe snatches and tears the shawl of a member who flouted rules, an Ogboni becomes disgraced and ‘naked’. The shawl which is the badge of office for an Ogboni member is also called the SHAKI meaning ‘guts inside out’ as it is believed by the Ogbonis that nothing can be hidden from their gaze.

In The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology and Orature, this was explained thus: 

Because of its infrequent use, the left hand is owo isura or owo ipamo (the reserved hand), keeping something in mind is ”hiding it in the left hand’‘. In the realm of the occult, the left connotes concealment; hence it is owo awo (hand of secrecy), and the left handshake affirms cultic knowledge and solidarity (imule). Thus, in Ogboni iconography, the left signifies the female and among the ”children of the same mother” (Omo Iya), the mystique and ambivalence of earth deity, and spirit of togetherness and self-discipline expected of initiates….

Please note that the Egbe Iyami Oshoronga (or the Great Mothers of the Occult, not witches in the traditional European or Caucasian sense of it) are considered to be the Mothers of the Ogbonis and also use the same symbolic gestures and handshakes when greeting or saluting each other. In fact, the Edan Ogboni takes its name directly from Egbe Iyami Oshoronga. Ogboni members are also known as Awon Omo Iya and the breast milk of the Mother (Earth) takes a very central place among the Ogbonis. The breast milk is symbolized in the greetings of the Ogbonis and when they greet they chant three times: 

Omu iya dun mu, gbogbo wa lan jo mu (Mother’s milk is sweet to drink, we all drink it). 

Make no mistake, women are behind the secrets of the Ogbonis. And when I say women, I mean the Ajes, Awon Iyami Oshoronga, Iya Mapo, Iya Nla, Edan (aka Iya Aye) and other prominent female members of the awo (occult). These names do not really connote negativity but rather mystery, unusualness or the remarkable nature of their prowess of the centuries-old traditions of the Yorubas. Women are believed by the Ogbonis to be more secretive or reserved than the men so mothers are deeply respected by the Ogbonis as the vessels carrying the most important secrets of existence and the occult. 

Odi (inversion) is also another concept that is very dear to the Ogbonis. Thus, they wear their ceremonial clothes inside out and place special importance on number 3 instead of 4. This explains why they use three concentric rings or circles as one of their symbols.

Members of the Ogboni Society near Onitsha, Nigeria back in time.

3-To join the fraternity, there is a special form that you have to fill. You can learn all about the form HERE.

4-Although Ogboni Fraternity started out as secret cult indigenous to the Yorubas of southwestern Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo, it has expanded over time to become a more dynamic institution to accommodate members from diverse backgrounds.

5-Like the other secret societies all over what is now Nigeria, like the Nze na Ozo of Igboland or the Ekpe cult of the Akwa Ibom/Cross River area, Ogboni secret cult had been very influential long before the colonialists came to Nigeria with their imperialist ambitions. Ogbonis are an integral part of the history of the Yorubas. At a time, the Ogboni members were so powerful that the judiciary of the Yorubas was under their strict control and tutelage. Also, another illustration of their influence was that in the old Oyo Empire, the Ogboni had the power to prevent members of the Oyo Mesi from asking the Alaafin to commit suicide.

Therefore, the Ogbonis served as a check on the excessive use or abuse of power by the Oyo Mesi. In other words, only two arms of the government, the Oyo Mesi and the Ogboni could remove the Alaafin as stated in the traditional and constitutional provisions of the Oyo Empire. However, some researchers debate this point with some even arguing if the Ogbonis were ever present in Oyo. They based their argument on the tyrannical powers of Bashorun Gaa who prior to 1754 initiated a series of royal suicides. Out of the eleven Alaafins that ruled around 1658 and 1754, seven of them were rejected by the Oyo Mesi and forced to commit suicide. That there was nothing to prevent these royal suicides has made some researchers to question the presence or wide-reaching influence of the Ogbonis in the affairs of the Alaafinate.

   But there is a consensus on the tremendous influence of the Ogbonis in places like Egba, Ijebu, Egbado and surrounding areas before 19th century where the Ogbonis were so powerful they could limit the powers of the king and his council of chiefs and prevent them from becoming absolute dictators (in Egba, the Ogbonis were the de facto senate). Ogbonis were also believed to have some degree of influence on the traditional judiciary in Ile Ife at about the same period. Ile Ife is considered the cradle of the Yorubas. In places where the Ogbonis functioned as the Oba’s Council of Elders, they also set up institutional checks and balances to protect the community against excesses or abuses from the king. If need be, Ogboni members also got involved in capital offences and decided which criminals were to be killed by handing them over to Oro, a secret ancestral group that is within Ogboni.

Whatever the case with Oyo, what is clear is that Alaafin Atiba, who founded the New Oyo Empire (1837 – 1859), brought Ogboni to the new state. This was because Atiba had lived in areas like Akeitan, Ago Oja and Gudugbu, all towns that were close to the forest kingdoms of the Egbas (where the Ogbonis had become masters of the rituals of the forest religions) and he saw firsthand the degree of importance of the Ogbonis and how they can be of help in his new government. Atiba knew that the collapse of the Old Oyo Empire was due to factors like the overzealousness and dictatorial tendencies of the Oyo Mesi and he concluded that the Oyo Mesi had to be defanged so the Alaafin can have a greater sense of freedom in piloting the affairs of the empire. But that in no way should mean you should imagine the Ogbonis were powerless in Oyo, their meetings were held right inside the Alaafin’s palace, the Ogboni priests were crucial to the choosing and installation of a new king and the Alaafin himself had to attend the Ogboni meetings but he dared not appear in person – he had to be represented there by a female member. Ogboni priests were also integral part of the funeral ceremony of a deceased king. This was further explained: 

”The Ogboni priests have a part in the ceremonies following the death of a king and during the installation of his successor. In Oyo, they are summoned to the palace as soon as an Alaafin has died and attend while the corpse is washed, then they cut off its head and take it to clean all the flesh from the skull. A palace official removes the heart and puts it in charge of the Otun Efa, the titled eunuch responsible for the Sango cult. During his installation the succeeding Alaafin is taken by the Otun Efa to make a sacrifice to Sango and while with him is giving a dish containing the heart of his predecessor, which has been filled with a corn gruel which he must drink. This rite is said to enable his ears always discriminate between the true and false; and to give compelling power to his words. Thus, the death of an Alaafin cannot be concealed from the Ogboni, and his successor cannot be properly installed without their acceptance and collaboration.”

   Please note that this (Alaafin Atiba’s reign) was a time when Yorubaland was engulfed in a torrent of wars and revolutions. Atiba was politically smart enough to ensure that the Ogbonis would not wield the same powers as the Oyo Mesi even if he was the one who introduced them to his new empire. What Alaafin Atiba did was that he set up the Ogbonis to serve as a checkmate against the Oyo Mesi which he had identified as the only major threat to his reign. He succeeded and was able to consolidate his powers and even paved way for his successors as the Ogbonis stuck to their duties even long after the demise of Atiba.

Meeting chairs of Ogboni members, the ankh symbol is visible on one of the chairs.

  The members of Ogboni also took part in the commissioning of brass jewels and sculpture especially the Edan Ogboni, a symbol that represents a pair of Ogboni initiates. The male and female figurines were joined at the necks by copper or iron which represents male virility (to the Ogbonis, female symbolism of the earth is exemplified by brass), photos shown below.

An Ogboni wearing edan around his neck.

 The spiked Edan Ogboni is worn around the neck as pendants. Brass is also used by the Ogbonis for their shrine furniture, insignia and other items like the Ogboni ceremonial swords or cutlasses known for their elaborate patterns of human or animal forms. Brass is chosen as it has a lot of significance to the Ogbonis. Believed to be incorruptible, brass symbolizes the immortality of the Ogbonis while the tied male-female pair is a reminder of the important complementarity of the sexes for the perpetuation of human existence. Some other researchers have argued about the ‘three-ness’ rather than ‘two-ness’ of the Ogboni symbol. Like the earth, brass is indestructible, or nearly so, in contrast to iron and the following Yoruba poem about the Edan Ogboni illustrates this:

The edan does not die, rocks never crumble.

The ogri sakan does not die from year to year.

I become the hill, I become the rock beneath the sea,

I die no more.

May it please God that I become like the rock beneath the sea.

Edan Ogboni can only be made by blacksmiths who have had children because it is believed that the complex rituals, incantations and spells invoked in the manufacture of the Edan can affect the potency of younger men. Making an Edan involves various libations, vigils, sacrifices and a host of other rites. See below for more photos of the Edan Ogboni:

This pair of Edan figures, a male smoking a pipe and a female holding an infant, are attached at the heads by a chain. They are made of sand-cast bronze and have a fine, natural patina. They are major symbolic objects of power among the Yoruba People, and are worn at official ceremonies by elders, members of the revered and exclusive Ogboni Society, who act as judges and counselors for the village or nation. They are worn suspended from the neck while performing solemn duties. The figures represent the survival of the Yoruba People, being symbols of balance between male and female and of the future through procreation. Since bronze resists rust, bronze Edan figures represent the soul’s immortality and the Earthly survival of the Yoruba nation. Provenance: This pair of figures was purchased by an American citizen who was a consultant in civil aviation to the Nigerian Government in the 1960’s when Nigeria was forming a civilian air service and building a civilian airport. He was also an avid collector during his foreign assignments. A Yoruba chief, whom he had befriended, advised him to acquire this pair of Edan figures for his collection. The Yoruba People are themselves survivors, and maintain a strong presence in the modern nations of Nigeria, Togo and Benin. Their culture and religious beliefs have remained strong into the 21st century. The measurements below are for the male figure only. The female figure measures 3.75″ x 9.5″ x 3.75″. The bronze chain is 4.88″. Credits: 1st Dibs

Among the Ogbonis, the metaphysical arrangement of the Universe is demonstrated in the association of brass with the Edan Ogboni as a reflection of the spirit of the earth. Let me quickly chip in an Ifa myth about these metals and why brass takes such a primary role among the Ogbonis: once upon a time, brass, lead and iron were all children of the same mother and they were all told to make sacrifices against death. Brass and lead dutifully did so but iron refused telling the diviners that they were blowing ostrobogulous lies that the Sky God (Olodumare) had ordained everything to last forever. According to this Ifa myth, iron rusts today because it refused to make that sacrifice against death.  

Pair of Brass & Iron Ogboni Society Staffs (Edan) Yoruba People, Nigeria, circa 1880
Height: 24.5cm (not including the stand), weight: 825g (including the stand). These two figures known as edan have been cast in brass over iron rods. Each is a figure of the opposite sex and is in a sitting position. They are linked by a chain attached to loops to the tops of their heads. The figures resemble Onile, the owner of the earth, in both male and female forms. Even though the figures have the characteristic Yoruba features: almond-shaped eyes with heavy eye-lids, flared nostrils and fine lips; but their faces are express wisdom and authority. The male figure has a chiselled beard and a protruding penis. He wears an edan around his neck which he holds with his left hand. His right hand holds a ceremonial knife. The female figure wears a chiselled necklace. Her gesture of holding her breast is a reference to the traditional female role of providing nourishment or care, a reference to Onile’s provision for humanity. This gesture corresponds to the formal salutation between the Ogboni members where they prostrate upon the ground, clench their fists together with the left on top of the right with thumbs hidden, and the elder kisses the ground three times and each time declares, ‘The mother’s breasts are sweet’. Based on the forms of the figures, this edan probably was worn by a higher if not the highest ranked Ogboni member particularly in ceremonies worshiping the Mother Earth. The set has a superb dark patina and contours softened by age and ritual use. Edan are among the most fascinating sculptured objects in Yoruba culture. They are presented to an initiate into the higher ranks of a secret society, Ogboni or Oshugbo. Ogboni is one of the most prominent Yoruba religious cult societies, which worships the owner of the earth, Onile. Its prime function is to harmonise all spirits and forces of nature. It is lead by the eldest and wisest man and woman from the community. The edan were worn around initiates’ necks, as symbols of rank, at society meetings and ceremonies. The casting over an iron rod signifies the union of the magical forces associated with brass and iron. The non-rusting character of brass symbolises immortality – the desire for longevity and well-being. The union of the male and female figures by a chain represents the duality of Onile. Ogboni venerates Onile to ensure human survival, peace, happiness, and social stability in the community. The edan are used in five main functions: judicial, oracular, healing, protective, and communication/surveillance (Roache, 1971). For the judicial role, it is believed that an edan placed upright by its spike on the ground will fall should a man not confess his guilt. For its oracular role, it is required to be present with its owner in ifa divination for predicting the owner’s future. The Ogboni society has its own odu, a set of sacred verses of the spiritual and ethical tradition of ifa, predictions; that relate to both mundane and spiritual prescriptions. For the healing role, the edan are sometimes shaped like a spoon for medicine preparation. For the protective role, the edan are worn or carried to keep the bearer from harm and witchcraft. For the communication and surveillance role, the edan are believed to have the power to travel in the form of a bird to disseminate messages as well as to watch over people. According to Williams (1960), the Ogboni believed that a union of two Ogboni becomes three. The third entity is a mystery or a secret that sprung from the union of male and female as demonstrated in the edan. The secret may refer to the completion of life: from kneeling before the High God or Father Olodumare, receiving a personal destiny ori, entering the world of sexual, social, political and religious differentiation and opposition (Fagg & Pemberton 1982). The edan often was placed in places of conflict to demonstrate unity, reconciliation and adjudication of differences among mankind, and ultimately with the earth. The Ogboni society acted as a town council, a civic court, and even controlled over regents in local monarchies. Membership implied power and prestige, and this status generally was reinforced through the commissioning of religious and courtly paraphernalia. Williams (1964) argues that Ogboni art was absolute, static and linear as opposed to the formal theme of Yoruba carving: abstract, dynamic and architectonic. The membership is limited to the few people who achieve distinction through their profession and who prove to be of high integrity. Ogboni societies still exist among more traditional Yoruba today, but not to the same extent. References: Bacquart, J. B., The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames & Hudson, 1998. Fagg, W. & Pemberton, J. III., Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982. Roache, L.E., ‘Psychophysical attributes of the Ogboni Edan’, in African Arts, 14(3): 48–53, 1971. Williams, D., ‘The Iconology of the Yoruba Edan Ogboni’, in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Cambridge University Press and International African Institute, 1964. Williams, P. M., ‘The Yoruba Ogboni Cult in Oyo’ in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Cambridge University Press and International African Institute, 1960. Provenance: Private collection, France. Credits: Michael Backman

6-The Ogboni cult does not discriminate as far as religion is concerned. Members from all faiths are seen in the cult and many high-ranking clerics of the Islamic and Christian religions in Nigeria are also top figures of the Ogboni like this woman HERE. It is also important to state that Ogboni membership transcends political differences or even ethnic hostilities or racial differences. The Ogboni society sees all humans as the same. 

7-The Reformed Ogboni Fraternity (ROF) is not the same with the Aboriginal (original, native or indigenous) Ogboni which is further divided into or strongly affiliated with the Gbarayile, Awo Opa, Osugbo, Ogboni Ibile and others. The former is seen to be more modernist in its views while the latter are much more conservative.

8-In 1867, something remarkable happened in Egbaland, in what is now Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria. There was an intense hostility by the Egbas who were predominantly followers of the African traditional religions against the new faith of Christianity. But some of the Ogboni chiefs spoke out in defence of the local Christians and even supported them in the reconstruction of their damaged churches. Bashorun Somoye was one of such chiefs and when he died later in the year, John King, a catechist prayed to God to raise another caring ‘pagan king’ like Somoye. Some of these chiefs were believed to have been some of the earliest converts (some converted secretly while still remaining members of the cults) to Christianity and would later go on to reform the Ogboni.

9-Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary, was one of those who brought Christianity to Nigeria and he focused on the southwestern part of Nigeria peopled by the Yorubas. As at the time he was spreading the gospel and encouraging the Yorubas to give up Ifa, some Ogboni chiefs believed that Ifa already gave them a prophecy that the whites would come. Townsend was friend to an Ogboni chief who told David Williams that the babalawo from whom he received his first Ifa years before in Old Ake gave him a prediction that ‘after many years, white people would come and dwell among them, that out of them I would form a friendship on which would depend my prosperity.’ But please note that not all the Yoruba chiefs believed or followed this pattern of thinking. When a British missionary repeated something similar to chiefs in Ondo, they told him pointblank that he was mad that Ifa oracle did not say anything of such.

10-By 1850s, many members of the Oyo elite in places like Ijaye and Ibadan were already Ogbonis. By the 1870s, the Ogboni cult spread to the eastern parts of Yorubaland. This was done primarily by the return of the former slaves, military recruits and soldiers like Ogedengbe in Ilesha, Fabunmi in Okemesi, Aduloju in Ado-Ekiti, Fajembola Olugbosun in Igosi and Lisa Edun in Ondo. They all became members of the Ogboni cult via a pact of nonaggression which sealed a peace accord between the chiefs of Ibadan and some of these warlords. This was one of the reasons why Ogedengbe and Aduloju initially refused to mobilize troops for the anti-Ibadan war in 1878. The Ogboni belief then was that any war commander who ordered the death of his peer or a king will eventually meet the same fate at an early date.

11-The Ogbonis are worldwide and not just limited to Nigeria or its neighboring nations. The Yorubas shipped off to other parts of the world as slaves resuscitated the power of the Ogbonis in places like Bahia in Brazil in the early part of the 19th The Ogboni society of Bahia is so influential that it supported many of the revolts of the enslaved Africans and its influence is still felt today in the Candomble houses.

12-Although the membership of the Ogbonis is open to both males and females, the members are predominantly male elders. This has led many to brand the organization as a fraternity or a fraternal order but it is in no way a sexist organization and does not discriminate based on gender.

13-The laws of Nigeria explicitly states that a member of a secret cult like the Ogboni fraternity cannot contest for or become the Executive President and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Section 137 of the Nigerian Constitution says:

That said, a person shall not be qualified for election to the Office of the President of: 

(a) subject to the provisions of section 28 of this Constitution, he has voluntarily acquired the citizenship of a country other than Nigeria or, except in such cases as may be prescribed by the National Assembly, he has made a declaration of allegiance to such other country; or
(b) he has been elected to such office at any two previous elections; or
(c) under the law in any part of Nigeria, he is adjudged to be a lunatic or otherwise declared to be of unsound mind;
or
(d) he is under a sentence of death imposed by any competent court of law or tribunal in Nigeria or a sentence of imprisonment or fine for any offence involving dishonesty or fraud (by whatever name called) or for any other offence, imposed on him by any court or tribunal or substituted by a competent authority for any other sentence imposed on him by such a court or tribunal; or
(e) within a period of less than ten years before the date of the election to the office of President he has been convicted and sentenced for an offence involving dishonesty or he has been found guilty of the contravention of the Code of Conduct; or
(f) he is an undischarged bankrupt, having been adjudged or otherwise declared bankrupt under any law in force in Nigeria or any other country; or
(g) being a person employed in the civil or public service of the Federation or of any State, he has not resigned, withdrawn or retired from the employment at least thirty days before the date of the election; or
(h) he is a member of any secret society; or
(i) he has been indicted for embezzlement or fraud by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry or an Administrative Panel of Inquiry or a Tribunal set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, a Tribunals of Inquiry Law or any other law by the Federal or State Government which indictment has been accepted by the Federal or State Government, respectively; or
(j) he has presented a forged certificate to the Independent National Electoral Commission.

If you want to learn even more interesting things about the Nigerian Presidency, see HERE.

Now you know more about the enigmatic Ogbonis…lol!

THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.

ABIYAMO. 

REFERENCES

  1. The Truth About Ogbonis by Nelson Ottah, Drum, September 1959, pages 172 – 174.
  2. Ogboni (ROF) and the Holy Writs, Akinwale Akintola (Prince of Igbon), 1997.
  3. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba by John David Yeadon Peel, pages 270, 301.
  4. Nigeria, Nationalism and Writing History by Toyin Falola and Saheed Aderinto, pages 135, 136, 137.
  5. Movements, Borders and Identities in Africa by Toyin Falola and Aribidesi Adisa Usman, pages 61, 62, 77.
  6. Encyclopedia of African Religion by Kete Asante and Ama Mazama.
  7. Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture by Eugenia W. Herbert, pages 40, 255, 292, 294.
  8. 1st Dibs
  9. Michael Backman 
  1. From the Womb of Earth: An Appreciation of Yoruba Bronze Art by Evelyn Roache-Selk

 

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