In 1986 the University of Ife (later renamed Obafemi Awolowo University) unveiled a wood statue of Oduduwa, the mythical founder of the Yoruba nation. Present at the occasion was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the most famous Yoruba politician of the twentieth century. Either for political gain, or to celebrate or praise him, an Ife intellectual told Chief Awolowo that the statue looked exactly like him and that, in trying to represent the image of Oduduwa, the carver, the highly distinguished Chief Lamidi Fakeye, had simply used Awolowo as a model.
Chief Awolowo was very happy with this comparison, and gladly affirmed it. The story spread like wildfire. As the statue came to be interpreted, Awolowo and Oduduwa had the same physical build, elegance, and cap which they wore in the same style! Here indeed was the modern Oduduwa. To those in search of heroes, the Yoruba now had two “national” ones—Oduduwa, the progenitor and Awolowo, the modernizer—and a host of other aspiring and local ones. If Oduduwa founded the nation, Awolowo would unite it, after a period of internal division.
Both in Yoruba popular and intellectual discourse, the hero commands prominent attention. The Yoruba appear to be seeking the equivalent of a Mahdi, the reformer in Islam, a cultural, folk, and political hero. The ambition of many Yoruba elite, especially the politician, is to become a hero of the nation. Many have tried in vain—men such as Chief Adisa Akinloye, a longtime veteran politician, and the Chairman of the National Party of Nigeria during the Second Republic, and, until recently, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the business magnate and politician who was denied the presidency of the country by the military regime in collaboration with powerful civilians.