Oje-Owode is one of the five major towns in Saki east area of Oke-Ogun in Oyo state. Situated beside Tede, the capital of Atisbo local government, the agrarian community has a sparse population distribution, and it is also home to herders, said to have been living in the area for about 30 years.
Formerly known as Aha, Oje-Owode community doesn’t reveal much in terms of government presence. There’s an ageing road network which is rarely put into maximum use, but well positioned to be a route for vehicles, and also reportedly serves as a path for rice smugglers from neighbouring Benin Republic and Togo.
Visitors who wish to pass the night in the night in the town will have to choose between lodging at the only guest house in the area, which is located on its outskirts, or drive further to Saki town. However, the town still relishes the presence of some historical monuments, such as a church, which is said to have lasted over 100 years.
Apart from the dust left behind by smugglers each time they pierce through the peace of the town, Oje-Owode is a relatively quiet community. But its serenity is now being tested by a religious dispute between Christian and Muslim residents in the town.
Investigation by TheCable during a recent visit revealed that the breakdown of the cordial relationship between the town’s two largest religious groups started with an attempt to change the name of an area.
THE ‘MEDINA AREA’ SIGNPOST SURFACES
It all began in December 2019 when a signpost surfaced at the entrance of Oke-Ayo, an area strategically located in the heart of the town, sitting on the route that leads to Saki. Oke-Ayo has its own traditional leader, who is answerable to the king of Oje-Owode.
It was later discovered that the wooden signpost, which was later replaced with a concrete one on March 5, 2020, was mounted by some Muslim residents and had the inscription, ‘Medina area’ — the signpost technically announced the renaming of Oke-Ayo.
Of all those interviewed on the issue, no one could establish that a formal application was made through the local government to rename the area. However, the Christian community in the area challenged the siting of the signpost, leading to months of disagreement.
RISING TENSION AS CHRISTIANS RESPOND WITH ‘JERUSALEM’ SIGNPOST
As tensions flared between the two religious groups, the Christian community, led by its youth wing, erected its own signpost on May 22, 2020, renaming the area ‘Jerusalem Street’. TheCable also understands that the group did not file an application at the state council before taking the step.
Following the development, the Muslim community stamped houses of their members in the disputed area with the inscription, ‘Medina Area’. The stamps also had drawings depicting moon and star signs.
Lekan Agunbiade, a traditional worshipper in the town, said the action of the Christian community was a response to what the Muslims did. He also said, at a time, traditional worship leaders in the town attempted to mediate in the crisis, but their efforts were futile.
When TheCable visited the palace of Abdulrasheed Olagbemiro, the Oloje of Oje-Owode, he explained that several attempts were made to calm the situation with no success, until January 2021 when the town’s annual general meeting was held, with those in the Diaspora in attendance.
Sitting among some of his chiefs during the interview with TheCable, the monarch said he had cancelled the two names suggested by the religious groups, and renamed the area ‘Ifelodun’. However, the decision led to a protest the day after he made the pronouncement.
“When the Christians reported to the palace that an existing area had been renamed ‘Medina’, I called the traditional leader of the area. I was made to understand that a mosque was established in that area 11 years ago and since then, the name ‘Medina’ had been written there. That was what we were told. After the fall of the wooden signpost bearing the name, they built a concrete wall and wrote the name there for everyone to see,” he said.
“When the ‘baale’ came to me, he said he was aware of the matter. We called a meeting of religious leaders and the chairman of the town council, but on the day the meeting was to hold, we received an instruction from the divisional police officer that we should not hold any meeting because of the coronavirus safety protocol.
“We told the Christians that we had to be patient in order not to go against government order. While waiting to hold the meeting, we heard complaints that a signpost with the inscription ‘Jerusalem Street’ had been erected in the disputed area.”
COMMUNITY LEADERS WADE IN
Oje-Owode is one of the towns in Oke-Ogun and Ibarapa areas of Oyo state affected by clashes involving herders. According to Olagbemiro, in dealing with the religious issue, he was being careful not to provoke conflict.
“I warned that already, we had the issue of herdsmen, and we should therefore be careful not to add to it. Again, we called religious leaders to a meeting to resolve the issue, but there was no desired result,” he added.
However, the monarch said while attempts to resolve the crisis lasted, unknown to him, the Christian community had approach the state government, the Oyo commissioner of police, and the area commander with a petition on the matter.
While the matter remained unresolved, the monarch and leaders from both sides were summoned by the state commissioner of police to a meeting in Ibadan, about 200 kilometres away.
Meanwhile, an application had been filed before the Saki-east local government by the Christian community in 2018 to name an area leading to their worship centre ‘Galilee Street’. Another application was also submitted to the local government with the request to name an area ‘Calvary Street’. Both applications were objected to, despite fulfilling almost all the processes, including doing a newspaper publication to make the public aware of the two names.
During the meeting with the commissioner of police in Ibadan, the two applications resurfaced and became items of negotiation.
“The commissioner of police called us to Ibadan and asked us to settle the issue amicably. The chairman of the Diaspora organisation also appealed to both parties to allow ‘Galilee Street’ and ‘Medina Area’ to stand. We were happy, but the following morning, the Christian community returned to the palace and insisted on standing their their ground,” the monarch said.
“They wanted all stamps to be erased from houses on the disputed area. They have also taken the case to court. We appealed to them to withdraw the case from court and told the Muslim community to erase all stamps as condition for case withdrawal.”
When told that investigation revealed that the case was still in court and stamps on houses have not been erased, the traditional ruler said an agreement had already been signed, noting that soon, all the remaining issues would be settled.
THE LONG ROAD TO A TRUCE
Sunday Aremu, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Oje-Owode, who is the presiding reverend at the First Baptist Church in the area, disagreed with part of what the monarch said.
In an interview with TheCable, Aremu alleged that the king didn’t do much to address the issue when the Christian community approached him at the beginning of the crisis. He also accused Muslim leaders of instigating a ‘mota mora’ (don’t sell, don’t buy) position against the Christians. According to him, the ‘mota mora’ situation discouraged transactions between Muslims and Christians in the town.
“There has been an erroneous impression about what happened in Oje-Owode. People have found comfort in twisting the story to suit their own purposes. We have been patient and accommodating, despite attempts by some people to discredit our own intention,” the CAN chairman said.
“This matter began on December 2, 2019, in Oke-Ayo area of the town, on the way to Saki. On the day it happened, Christians in the area woke up and found a signpost renaming the street as ‘Medina Area’. They came to me as their leader and asked if the street has been officially renamed.
“I told them it was not so and warned them not to cause trouble. I also told them to report same to trustees of the Christian community in the town. The leaders went to the town monarch to report the issue. The king said the name of the area has not changed from Oke-Ayo. The leaders then told the king to give instruction for the signpost to be removed. But nothing was done. We then sent a delegation to alhaji K.K. Bamidele, a leader in the town, who advised us to report the matter to Asafa Adeniyi, the head of the Muslim community in the town.
“When we met Adeniyi, he took us to other Muslim leaders and they told us point blank that their Muslim brothers said they would not reverse their decision. We returned to the king’s palace and told him that such action could cause disunity in the town. As the CAN chairman in the town, I approached the king eight times, but nothing was done.”
The CAN chairman also said attempts to hold peace meetings were thwarted.
“We told the king that this matter must not be allowed to degenerate into religious crisis. There was calm until March 5, 2020, when a new concrete signpost was erected. We called for a meeting between leaders of the two religions. To our surprise, when we got to the venue, we saw that hundreds of people from the Muslim community were in attendance. We then decided not to be part of the meeting because we were grossly outnumbered,” Aremu said.
“Other attempts to hold meetings were thwarted. On May 22, 2020, we erected our own signpost, naming the street ‘Jerusalem Area’. We did this because leaders in the town failed to address our concerns.”
Commenting on why members of his group approached the state government, police, and the court, Aremu said the steps were taken to ensure safety of Christians in the town, noting that they tried as much as possible not to trigger violence.
“After what we did, our Muslim brothers began to put stamps on all houses belonging to their members in the area; the stamp has the inscription of ‘Medina Area’ on it. They also went to other communities and stamped them with ‘Salam Salam Area’ and ‘Kehulere Area’. We raised security concern over the stamps,” the CAN leader said.
“When we realised that they meant to create a major religious crisis in the town, we wrote a petition to the Oyo government, the state commissioner of police, directorate of state security, local government headquarters in Saki east, and to all religious leaders, alerting them to the imminent crisis in Oje-Owode.”
Eventually, on July 16, 2020, a truce was brokered by the chairman of the local government. Both parties were told to remove all signposts already erected. While the Christians community did, the other stamps were not removed, and the council chairman was alerted.
“After that, Muslim leaders in the town instructed their members not to have any dealing with Christians. This included not selling to or buying from us. It was called ‘mota mora’ (don’t sell, don’t buy). We wanted to carry a corpse of a young Christian from the town to Oyo town, but the commercial ambulance operator, who is a Muslim, refused to offer the service,” he claimed.
As part of efforts to restore peace, the monarch addressed Christians and Muslims, and he told them that the street will not be called Medina or Jerusalem, but Ifelodun area.
TheCable’s investigation revealed that the king’s pronouncement led to a protest, with some of the community leaders in attendance reportedly attacked with dangerous objects. A witness alleged that the king was called unprintable names.
“Let me also mention that when the issue was degenerating into threats against our members, we filed a mandamus case in court, with the commissioner of police, the local government, and others as defendants,” Aremu added.
THE WAIT FOR AN OUT-OF-COURT SETTLEMENT
However, in the final peace meeting that was held on January 11, 2021, the Christian community conceded the renaming of Oke-Ayo area to the Muslim community, but maintained that for the case to be withdrawn from court, all stamps must be removed from houses on the disputed street. It was also agreed that no street name with religious affiliation will be allowed in the town again. That agreement was signed on January 13, 2021, by leaders of both parties and other stakeholders in the community.
When TheCable visited Tairu Animasaun, the chief imam of Oje Owode, he said he would not comment on the matter but made telephone calls to two members of the Muslim community for guidance. Both calls were placed on speaker. One of them said he was already on his farm, while the other said the chief imam should not comment on the issue.
While the matter is still in court, TheCable understands that the case was to be mentioned on February 1, 2021, but had to be moved to March 1, 2021 in order to give room for an out-of-court settlement, which has not been achieved as of the time of filing this report.
Investigation also showed that the stamps were still on the houses at the time of visiting the area. Aremu said the Christian community has vowed to continue with the case unless the stamps are removed.
When contacted on the telephone, Rahmat Adeniran, caretaker chairman of Saki east, refused to comment on the issue. She said she was on her way to Ibadan for a meeting and referred TheCable to one alhaji Abdullai, who was later found out to be a school proprietor and the chairman’s sibling. The chairman is an indigene of Oje-Owode.