AnalysesArmed Violence

The Curious Journey Of Woman Who Declared Yoruba Independence From Nigeria

Modupe, the factional Yoruba separatist leader, is among many secessionists who choose to stay abroad, fighting for self-determination on the internet and instigating people at home against the state.

No one saw it coming.

A fair woman clad in white native attire sat before a camera on April 12, reading a scripted speech. She declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Yoruba, suggesting that the Southwest region would no longer be a part of Nigeria.

Her proclamation found a viral appeal online after some people in strange military camouflage, who described themselves as Yoruba Nation soldiers, invaded Oyo state’s secretariat, attempting to take over the place. But the combined forces of Nigerian soldiers and the police foiled the attack, taking strategic positions to open fire at them.

When security agents interrogated some of the miscreants upon arrest, they claimed they were backed and bankrolled by one Modupe Onitiri-Abiola, the same woman who announced earlier that the Yoruba people now had their sovereign state. 

Her name rings a bell. 

The separatist leader was one of many wives of the late Mashood Kashimawo Abiola (MKO), a Nigerian business mogul and the apparent winner of the June 12 1993 presidential election — which was annulled by former military president Ibrahim Babangida.

Some critics at the time contended that Babangida had annulled the election because the winner, once his political ally, belonged to the Yoruba ethnic group. In a country split between three major ethnic groups — Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba — the annulment caused serious political chaos.

Modupe is now leading a faction of separatists wanting the Yoruba people to break away from Nigeria.

“We are declaring this day that we are no longer part of this country,” she announced in Yoruba. “With the awesome power that God used to create the sky and seven clouds, moon, and stars, I, Modupe Onitiri-Abiola, proclaim the Democratic Republic of Yoruba.”

The declaration video and the arrest of the so-called Yoruba Nation soldiers have sparked conversations and questions about the political trajectory and profile of this woman.

Eyed governorship seat, but failed

In 2014, Modupe declared her interest in the governorship seat of Lagos state, asking Lagosians to prepare for a divine change. Curiously, she had only just returned to Nigeria after spending several years in the United States. Many political allies and families of the late Abiola, including Modupe, had to flee Nigeria following the assassination of Kudirat Abiola, his first wife. 

When she made her official declaration that year, she said her focus would be to eradicate poverty in Lagos. “There is so much poverty on the ground and the situation on the ground is extremely terrible, worse than what we thought it was at that time, but, I am trying to look at what exactly is in the interest, actually, the true interest of the people,” she remarked.

At first, Modupe didn’t seem to know under which political party she would run when asked; she later became the governorship candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), a seemingly unpopular platform at the time.

In one interview, Modupe was asked why she wanted to contest even though she was unpopular, she insisted she was the most popular candidate running for the topmost political seat in Lagos. Asked again why she thought she would win against Akinwunmi Ambode of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Jimi Agbaje of the main opposition, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), she argued that it was not the party that mattered, but the personality and credential of the candidate.

The journalist also wondered why Modupe thought she could win an election in Lagos despite being away from the state for a long time and now “sounding like a foreigner”.

“I might be away but my heart is in this country, I am with the people,” she responded.

However, results of the 2015 governorship election in Lagos showed the contrary, as the ruling APC won with a wide margin, polling 811,994 votes against the PDP’s candidate who had 659,788 votes.

Modupe’s party didn’t come close to winning.

Born into politics, living in the past

Two things seemed to be Modupe’s biggest political pride: Being born into politics and being the wife of a late renowned politician. In her interactions with journalists, while contesting to be next the Lagos governor, it was clear Modupe believed coming from an influential family and getting married to a popular politician are good grounds to contest and win elections.

Her father, Chief S.A. Onitiri, was a member of the Action Group (AG), a political party founded by the late Obafemi Awolowo, former leader of the Southwest region. Modupe said she believed she could ride on her family’s political integrity to be the governor of Lagos state. Although she initially didn’t show interest in politics, her husband’s decision to become President of Nigeria aroused her passion for political leadership, she said.

“Lagos is my state, I am a Lagosian and when we did the struggle for June 12, the centre of everything in Nigeria was in Lagos. I just thought let me start from my state, but I am still going higher than that,” she told a journalist. “I was born into politics. My family has been involved in politics in this country — before, during and after independence so I am not new to politics.”

She also said she ventured into politics to accomplish what her husband couldn’t achieve in his time. “So I have to be in a position to do it; you know, you can only do what we wanted to do when you are in two positions, either governor or president. If you don’t have those positions, you cannot reach the number of people we wanted to reach,” she claimed.

“So this is why I am going in (as a governor),” she added. “There’s no other position I can contest in this country. It’s either it’s governorship or presidential.” 

Leader of Ominira Yoruba Group

Not much was heard about Modupe after she lost the 2015 Lagos governorship race to Akinwumi Ambode. She appeared on Nigeria’s political scene again in 2021, now as an agitator for the secession of the Yoruba people. During former President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, incidents of insecurity and kidnappings sowed discord between the Fulanis and the Yorubas in some parts of southwestern Nigeria.

Secessionists then took advantage of the situation to demand a Yoruba Nation. Sunday ‘Igboho’ Adeyemo, a self-acclaimed separatist activist, was at the forefront of this mission. He had led other Yoruba youth to illegally sack a Fulani community in Oyo state on account that they were kidnapping sons and daughters of the Yoruba and causing unrest.

Modupe would form a factional group of the Yoruba Nation agitators, named the Ominira Yoruba Group. ‘Ominira’ is the Yoruba word for ‘independence’ or ‘freedom’. In May 2022, she announced that the group’s mission to get signatures for petitions to have self-determination for the Yoruba people had been accomplished.

“The five million petition results have been submitted to the United Nations and also to several other Yoruba settlements and kingdoms in diaspora,” Modupe claimed in a report, stressing that this signalled the secession of the Yoruba from Nigeria.

Proclaiming the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of Yoruba in her recent broadcast, the secessionist leader suggested that the Yoruba people now have the newest nation in the world.

“We are indigenous people, we’re sovereign people, we’re ethnic nationalists. We’ve decided to secede from Nigeria on November 20, 2022. And today, April 12, 2024, we decided to finally leave Nigeria,” she said.

Unity only happened once in this country and that was during the June 12 1993 election, Modupe said, responding to one interviewer asking if she believed in the unity and oneness of  Nigeria. 

“Those saying the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable are the ones behind the disunity of the country,” she noted. “Before the 1993 June 12 election, there was no unity in Nigeria and still they killed it when it came that year.”

‘Ruling on the run’

Since her declaration video went viral, Modupe’s whereabouts have been unknown. Following the attack many insinuated she sponsored, the Oyo state government demolished two buildings belonging to Modupe in Ibadan on account that those buildings were housing dangerous weapons used by the so-called Yoruba Nation soldiers against the state.

Known to be US-based, Modupe is among many secessionists who choose to stay abroad, fighting for self-determination on the internet and instigating people at home against the Nigerian state.  Some observers have likened Modupe’s actions to the public display by Simon Ekpa, the factional leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who fuels violent agitations at home while based in Finland.

The attack on the Oyo state secretariat was not the first attempt by the Yoruba separatists to cause unrest in the state. A day before Nigeria swore in its new president on May 29, 2023, a group of Yoruba Nation agitators, also suspected to be working on the commands of Modupe, hijacked a radio station in Ibadan. They asked the staff of the radio station to remove all Nigerian flags and welcome their listeners to the Yoruba Nation in their broadcast. 

“We are being sent to inform the people that Yoruba people have been freed. Henceforth, no more Police and Army harassment. We are hereby calling for the release of our brothers and sisters who are serving jail terms,” the radio staff were forced to announce.

The miscreants also hijacked commercial vehicles at gunpoint, blocking major highways leading to the radio station for over one hour until police and army officers arrived to disperse them.

On the same day, the agitators stormed the Alausa Police Division in Lagos, chanting “Yoruba Nation has taken over”. They went ahead to plant the new flag of the Yoruba Nation when the police officers asked them to leave. Police said they opened fire at them when they tried to attack their officers at the station.

“The suspects who were arrested with charms, dangerous weapons and different offensive insignias bearing Yoruba Nation Army, stormed Alausa Division along with others at about the same time another set of the group was attempting to take over a radio station in Ibadan, Oyo State,” said Benjamin Hundeyin, the Lagos Police Public Relations Officer.

“They claimed they came to officially inform the Police that the United Nations had granted approval for the take-off of the Yoruba Nation. The arrested suspects are currently assisting the police in the ongoing investigation into the subversive plans of the group as well as their network of sponsors, all of whom will soon be unveiled and brought to deserved justice in the overriding internal security interest of the state.”

Disowned by Abiola family, others 

Immediately news broke that Modupe was allegedly behind the Oyo secretariat surprise attack, Jamiu Abiola, one of MKO’s sons, said her speech and actions did not represent the family’s political stand in any way. He told a PUNCH journalist that although his father had only four official wives, he had other women also known as his wives, including Modupe.

“After his death many years ago, you cannot expect every member of his family to act in a way that represents what he stood for. But by and large, most members of the Abiola family are promoting the ideals he stood for, and I am proud to say that,” he said.

Although Modupe claimed to be one of Abiola’s prominent wives, Jamiu refuted that in his recent interview, saying he had not met the woman in his entire life. He added that, like many Nigerians, he does not take her declarations seriously and noted that the family is not in support of her campaign.

“When it comes to Nigeria’s unity, many people know how much my father believed in it. Even after his arrest and incarceration, not for once did he advocate Nigeria’s division. So, I don’t believe that any Abiola family member has the right to promote the division of this country, particularly now, because if my father were alive today, he would have been so happy that his closest and highly competent associate, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is doing all he would have done if he had been allowed to exercise his mandate,” Jamiu said.

Other Yoruba Nation agitators also denied having a hand in the invasion of the Oyo state secretariat and the declaration of independence of the Yoruba people. Banji Akintoye, one of the leaders of the Yoruba self-determination movement, said the objective of the group remains the peaceful pursuit of an independent Yoruba Republic without any form of violence. He dissociated himself and other agitators from Modupe, saying she’s an enemy to their cause.

“I have no doubt she is working for the Fulanis or other entities against our simple objective of leaving Nigeria peacefully. I have warned all peace-loving agitators to distance themselves from this devilish character; she is an enemy,” Akintoye said.

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Ibrahim Adeyemi

Deputy Investigations Editor at HumAngle. Ibrahim covers conflict and humanitarian crises with a special interest in terrorism financing. While his works have tackled the routine of criminality and injustice on many occasions, they have also earned him both local and international journalism accolades, including the One World Media Award, the Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, the Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Reporting, and recently the Kwame Karikari Fact-checking Award for African journalists.

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