Women in Yorubaland from time immemorial have always had an important role to play and possess a strong voice in the affairs of Yoruba society.

The date on which Efúnṣetán Aníwúra became the Iyalode of Ibadan is not certain, but it has been situated around the 1860s. What is certain, however, is that she was the second lyalode of Ibadan.

Efúnṣetán Aníwúra was of Egba origin, she was very rich, she had hundreds of slaves on her farms, with many others at home. She was involved in trading with Europeans, taking goods from the hinterland to the coast and bringing imported goods, especially arms and ammunition, back to the hinterland. Efunsetan was a big-time farmer and producer of food crops in Ibadan. At a stage in her rise to wealth and fame, she was said to have had as many as 2,000 slaves on her farms (Johnson). She was conferred with the title of Iyalode of Ibadan and in the early 1870s ranked among the social, economic and political elite in the city.

Efúnṣetán Aníwúra rose to become a very powerful and wealthy trader in the 19th century, she is one of the few Yoruba women that has withstood the test of history. Oral tradition states that she had three large farms, and that no less than 100 slaves worked in each at a time. Apparently she owned over 2,000 slaves in her lifetime.

Like other Yoruba women traders, Efunsetan travelled across the land trading with all sorts of people. Her speciality was in arms and ammunition, she would lend these to warriors when they were going on military expeditions and it seems she also went to war a few times herself. She contributed to discussions on issues of war and peace due to her important position as an arms trader and thus had an influence in politics. She was the Iyalode (I like to translate this as Minister of Women Affairs although this may be limiting) of Ibadan. She is credited with the revival of the Alakija festival and is said to have performed the annual ceremony in dedication to Ori. Efunsetan also possessed “spiritual” prowess, “black magic”, “witchcraft” whatever you want to call it. I’ve read that she was beautiful, rich, audacious, proud, daring, someone who could not be crossed, fearsome…

It is said that Efunsetan’s downfall came when she crossed the wrong person herself. Aare Latoosa (also spelt Latosa) was a powerful general, warrior and warload who fought in the Kiriji wars. He also frequently borrowed arms from Efunsetan and in 1874, he was late in paying the debit he owed her causing Efunsetan to cease her usual support. As a result Latoosa set out on a military expendition without as much arms as he expected, when he returned he had a bone to pick with Efunsetan. Formally, he levelled three charges against her;

That she did not allow her forces to accompany him to war.
That she never sent him supplies during the war campaign.
That she did not come in person to meet him outside the town wall to congratulate him on his safe return.

This apparently started the battle between Latoosa and Efunsetan. According to Okunola and Ojo, Efunsetan was removed as Iyalode in that same year (1874), she was also heavily fined for her “error” all of which she paid. It is then suggested that Efunsetan tried to bribe other powerful people in order to seek Latoosa’s forgiveness, in vain.

The second issue that seriously affected Efunsetan is that of her presumed only daughter dying during childbirth in 1860. In her grief at not having anyone to inherit her wealth Efunsetan transformed, becoming cruel and bitter especially towards her slaves. She would physically assault and starve them, and often kill them extrajudically something that apparently did not happen to other slaves in Yorubaland. It is suggested that her aggressions were targeted towards women because she was childless after losing her only child, she would kill any of her female slaves that became pregnant and any male slave that proposed love. Due to her excessive behaviour, Efunsetan was eventualy found guilty of the contempt by the council of chiefs, the traditional court back in the day, but she refused the punishment of self-exile.

In the midst of this, there was a wider conspiracy to have Efunsetan murdered. This conspiracy involved powerful chiefs surrounding Latoosa. With the help of Kumiyilo (also spelt Kumuyilo), Efunsetan’sadopted son (this is important and I’ll come back to it later), they succeeded in hiring two slaves to bash Efunsetan’s head in while she slept. After this murder most foul, Kumiyilo was installed as the head of Efunsetan’s family. However the family protested and insisted on an investigation into Efunsetan’s mysterious death. Worried about an insurrection, Latoosa bowed to their pressure and summoned Kumiyilo for interrogation whereupon Kumiyilo named three of Latoosa’s close aides in the conspiracy to murder. In the end Kumiyilo was deposed as the head of the family and the actual murderers were executed.

The folkale from earlier and the account from Okunola and Ojo both paint the picture of a woman who grew too wealthy and too proud. According to them Efunsetan Aniwura went crazy over the loss of a daughter. Having no one to inherit her wealth, she became excessive in her wickedness, terrorising those under her charge before she was eventually murdered.

The most recent story I have heard was from the most awesome Ayodele. I learned that Efunsetan Aniwura was a rich and prosperous woman who had sex with her female slaves and had one killed when the slave became pregnant. That she was never married and never had a child that died in childbirth, so the whole story of her losing her mind is dodgy.

I agree that it is dodgy for several reasons. Firstly from the account above we know that Efunsetan’s downfall was due to her political rivalry with Latoosa. She was of sound mind before she crossed the powerful warlord, but once she did she is portrayed as crazy. Second, the account again states that Efunsetan had an adopted son, maybe she had adopted even more than this son because contrary to popular belief adoption is not new to Africa especially not to Nigeria where children have lived with people other than their birth parents for centuries (if you recall, Ahebi Ugbabe also had an adopted son). This stood out to me because if she had a son, Efunsetan had someone to give her wealth to and so had no reason to become the villian after the death of her daughter who we are not even sure existed.

I wonder if this is a classic example of history erasing a woman’s achievements. I will never get tired of pointing out how our current ideas on how our female ancestors lived are very different from the reality. We believe that they all married, lived “under” their husbands, never divorced, spent their lives in the kitchen while the men went out to work, never enjoyed sex, were all straight and so on. Powerful women like Efunsetan, who may have never married or had children and may have even been queer will have their stories snipped and trimmed, molded to become a warning for other women…so as to discourage them from craving power perhaps. Afterall the folklore states that Efunsetan disobeyed God, could this “God” have been Aare Latoosa? And as a punishment of her boldness, she eventually went insane, did she really go insane or did this only happen in the stories that were told of her?

I personally like to imagine Efunsetan Aniwura as a bold, intelligent woman who seems to have been cheated later in life and in death. I will end this post sharing a few songs that praise Efunsetan.

The woman, who instils fear in others, the fearsome one, who slaughters slaves to celebrate Id-el-Kabir.

Efunsetan is one force, Ibadan is another. The valiant that challenges the Almighty God, if the most high does not answer her on time, Efunsetan leaves the earth to go and meet him in Heaven.

Efunsetan, Iyalode. One who has horses and rides them not.
The child, who walks in a graceful fashion,
The great hefty woman who adorns her legs with beads;
Whose possession surpasses those of the Aare.
Owner of several puny slaves on the farm.
Owner of many giant slaves in the market.
One who has bullets and gunpowder,
who has gunpowder as well as guns;
and spends money like a conjurer.
The Iyalode who instils fear into her equals.
The rich never give their money to the poor.
The Iyalode never gave her wrappers to the poor.