The Isese push for a global holiday


NSEOBONG OKON-EKONG writes that the lone public holiday granted by the Osun State Government in 2018 to worshippers of traditional religion is gathering momentum, five years after

Uba Group

It is just as well that Osun became the first state in Nigeria to declare a public holiday in honour of traditional institutions.

Given that many Nigerian states are named after bodies of water that flow through them, arguably none have demonstrated as much affinity to tradition as Osun.

There are so many myths about River Osun, such that it inspired another sobriquet for that part of the country-State of the Living Spring. That mysterious body of water believed to be home to the Osun goddess captured the fancy of an Austrian-Nigerian, Susanne Wenger who became a priestess of the deity. She devoted her entire life to the preservation of the Osun Grove.

Her efforts were rewarded when the Grove was made a national monument and later, a world heritage site. Wenger was decorated with the Nigerian national honour, Member of the Federal Republic.

For decades, the people of Osun State, particularly, its capital, Osogbo have set aside 12 days in the month of August for festivities celebrating the goddess of the river, Osun.

Undoubtedly, there is no festival in Nigeria that attracts close to 100,000 people from all over the world in a particular location like what has become known as the Osun Osogbo Festival.

Therefore, many were not surprised when the Osun State Government declared a public holiday, for the first time on August 20, 2018 to acknowledge the annual Isese festival, as a day to honour persons who practice traditional religion in the state.

It may be argued that in its corporate or official character, Osun State is open about its beliefs.

For instance, the flag of that state proudly displays the Ori Olokun. Yorubas accept Olokun as the ruler of all bodies of water and revere it for the ability to give its followers prosperity and health. Prominently displayed on the Osun flag also are seven cowries, said to represent the seven grandsons of Oduduwa, acclaimed progenitor of Yorubas.

Last week, almost all the South West states fell over themselves to celebrate Isese Day, which Osun State set the ball rolling five years ago. The day is also known as Traditional Worshipers Day.

Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance

For the first time, the Lagos State Government announced a public holiday on Monday, August 21. It was a work-free day for all public servants in the state “in commemoration of the 2023 Isese Day celebration.”

The Lagos Isese holiday was a loud response to a request from the Lagos State Council of Obas and Chiefs pleading with Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to declare August 20 as Isese Day holiday in the spirit of democracy and freedom of religion.

Similar public holidays on the same day were observed in Ogun and Oyo.

On July 11, the Ogun State House of Assembly gave legal backing to the executive order.

The Oyo State House of Assembly also passed a resolution that earmarked August 20 for the celebration of Isese Day.

Cultural integration of states in the South West is a composite goal of the technocratic body known as Development Agenda for Western Nigeria set up by the governments of the South West states. Wikipedia describes Yoruba religion (Yoruba: Ìṣẹ̀ṣe), or Isese, as comprising the traditional religious and spiritual concepts and practice of the Yoruba people.

Apart from the South West, Yorubas can also be found in parts of Kwara, Kogi, Edo and Delta States. Outside the precincts of Nigeria, Yoruba cultural and religious practices are prevalent in countries like Benin, Togo, Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Caribbean and the USA.


Characterized by dancing, prayers and sacrifice to various deities, Yoruba traditional religion are exemplified with the likes of Ojude Oba, Eyo, Sango, Olojo and Oro festivals.

But the Isese holiday train has run into a storm in Kwara State, where the Moslem community has risen against it, particularly in Ilorin, the state capital.

The Council of Ulama (Islamic clerics) had issued a stern warning that celebration of Isese would not be allowed in Kwara State.

In pursuit of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship, a popular Isese devotee and activist, Adegbola Abdulazeez, popularly known as Talolorun (Who is God), attempted to enforce his right, but he was arrested and is being held by authorities of the Nigeria Police.

Talolorun was accused of insulting the Emir of Ilorin among other offences.

Abdulazeez has repeatedly said, “Nigeria is a circular state; every religion should be respected and have freedom of worship, even in Ilorin.”

Some eminent Nigerians including Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, himself, a self-confessed worshipper of Ogun, the Yoruba God of iron, have thrown their weight behind Isese celebrators, insisting that they be allowed unfettered and open right to reverence their gods.

In June 2022, a human rights lawyer, Malcom Omirhobo, who described himself as a traditionalist,attended proceedings at the Supreme Court dressed in a traditional worshipper’s attire.

He said he was motivated to appear in court in the unusual attire by the apex court’s judgement affirming the rights of Muslim female pupils to wear hijab in Lagos public schools.

Omirhobo appeared in court with white chalk-drawn around his right eye, feathers stuck to his wig and a string of cowries on his wrists. His black gown was worn over a white inner shirt with a gourd and cowries strewn around his chest. A piece of red cloth was tied around his waist. He walked to court barefooted. On his ankles were two yellow bells.

Understandably, Omirhobo was one of the first to felicitate with Isese devotees “for the very important landmark and benchmark of the declaration of public holiday for the celebration of Isese in line with the Nigerian constitution.” He cautioned them “not to take the liberty as an avenue to harass, intimidate , embarrass ,extort, attack ,brutalise or dehumanise our brothers of other faith,” while calling on the elderly ones to guide and advise the young ones to stay out of trouble . “We must not abuse this privilege and opportunity. We must not soil our names or allow ourselves to be wrongly tagged,” he advised.

The human rights lawyer dragged the Emir of Ilorin, Dr. Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, before a Kwara State High Court, Ilorin for allegedly banning the celebration of Isese festival in the state.

Among others, he wants the court to hold that the respondent’s declaration and/or description of the Isese festival, which is a manifestation of his mode of worship, religion, culture and heritage, as idolatry, is a violation of his fundamental rights to dignity of human person and therefore illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional. Omirhobo also wants the court to declare that the respondent and or his privies intimidating and harassing him and the community of traditionalists/Olokun worshippers not to celebrate a three-day Isese Festival or any other Traditional/Olokun Festival in Ilorin, Kwara State, is a violation of his fundamental rights, and therefore illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional.

In a similar vein, Omirhobo berated the Kwara State police command for preventing the devotees and adherents of Ifa/Orisa worshippers from celebrating World Isese Day festival in Ilorin Kwara state. In a statemet titled, “ Police Violation of the fundermental rights of the devotees and adherent of Ifa/Orisa,” Omirhobo averred that the publication of the Nigerian police Kwara State Command that Ilorin is not safe for members of the International Council of Ifa / Orisa Religion (ICIR) to celebrate their World Isese day is a irresponsible, dereliction of duty, abuse of powers and bundle of false hood.

Following threats on the planned celebration of traditional religion in Ilorin, Kwara State, security men drawn from the Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Directorate of the State Service, and military formations were on guard on August 20 at the Yemoja River in the Oko Olowo area of the metropolis in the Ilorin South local government area of the state to prevent a security breach in the state.

The Yemoja River was the venue of the planned celebration of traditional religious worship.

It was gathered that the security men were drafted to the river to prevent a clash between the traditional religion adherents, otherwise known as Isese, and the Islamic preachers, who had vowed to prevent the traditional worshippers from celebrating at the riverside.

Though the security officials were on the ground to man the river, neither the traditional worshippers nor the Islamic preachers were seen at the site.

However, it was gathered that the Isese festival celebration took place at Shao, one of the towns in the neighbouring Moro local government area of Kwara State.

Speaking with journalists at the Yemoja river site, the state Commissioner of Police, Mrs. Ebunoluwarotimi Adelesi, who led the operation, said that the heavy presence of security operatives was to keep peace and protect the lives of the people and their property.

“The Security men are here to maintain peace. We are not here to deprive anyone of his or her fundamental human rights. They have been drafted to this place since yesterday to protect the people of the state.

Also speaking, the Oba Etutu of Shao (chieftain of traditional worshippers), Chief Mobolaji Ajakitipa, who said that he celebrated the festival as an annual event in his home, said that he is an adherent of the traditional religion.

“We practice traditional religion in Shao. It is a Yoruba traditional town from Oyo Ile, which existed before Ilorin was founded. We have to celebrate our own Isese festival.

Oba Etutu, who commended the Police Commissioner for the security and action she took in preventing worshippers from other places from coming to celebrate in the state this year, however, appealed to the Kwara State government to grant recognition to traditional religion worshippers and declare a holiday for the annual Isese festival, as is done in some Yoruba-speaking states.

The state Police Command had earlier advised the traditional religion worshippers not to hold the celebration as planned on Sunday, August 20, in the state, saying that the security report did not favour holding the Isese festival, while the International Council of Ifa and Orisa Religions announced the postponement of the Isese festival celebration in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital.

Also, the Aare Onakakanfo of Yoruba land, Gani Adams, has appealed to governors of Ondo and Ekiti States to take a cue from their counterparts in the South West by setting aside a day or two for the celebration of Iseese Cultural Day in their state. Adams, in his appeal to the two states, said no religion is superior to the other, saying the traditional religion has equal rights with other religions, adding that such would amount to equity, fairness and justice.

Apart from the South West, Yorubas can also be found in parts of Kwara, Kogi, Edo and Delta States. Outside the precincts of Nigeria, Yoruba cultural and religious practices are prevalent in countries like Benin, Togo, Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Caribbean and the USA

Adams, who spoke during the annual Ifa Festival, held in Alagbole, Ogun State, maintained that religious faith is personal and individuals or groups could pray to God in various languages, but to the same God.

The Yoruba generalissimo, who is the chief promoter of Olokun festival, the organisers of the event, pointed out that religious fanaticism had set the country back for a very long time, causing many people to lose their lives, core values and identity through religious crisis and bigotry.

“True religion in most cases tells us about the beauty of life, about God the supreme being and the hereafter. So, we should see it as such.

“For instance, China, Japan and other great countries in Asia become what they are today because they appreciate their culture and traditions. In Asia, except in Indonesia, where the religious crisis was prominent and had been stopped for over a decade now, you hardly see cases of religious crisis.

Section 38 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states, “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”