John Owolotan Okenla hailed from Itoku township in the Egba Alake section of Egbaland. The date of his birth is not known. He was from among the Egba people that migrated from the erstwhile homestead of the Egba (popularly called Igbo Egba, Egba Forest) and who were en route from Ibadan to Abeokuta under the leadership of Chief Sodeke in 1830. He was probably a middle aged man at that time. He became a Christian when the missionaries arrived in Abeokuta in 1842 and was one of the early converts. From oral tradition, we have learned that he was a warrior, a man profoundly religious in a way that his heathen kinsmen could not fathom.
When he became a Christian, he became one totally, surrendering all to God. Three things buttressed his new commitment. The first is that he gave up his idols and charms, and the Holy Bible became his “daily food and medicine.” The second is that he took a new name, John, as was the custom. In those days and even until now, converts are given Biblical or English names at their baptism, to mark their new faith. The third is that he sent away all his wives except one. He was a regular worshipper at the Ake Church in Ake, which was a town very close to Itoku. The appellation Okenla (given to him by his kinsmen) means “an insurmountable rock.” This must have been derived from the term “ati-bi-oke,” an attributive term meaning “someone strong and unmovable, like a mountain or rock.” The appellation became Owolotan’s surname. He was a man of prayer, habituated to meditation and fasting.
His courage and faith made him stand out as a leader. Between 1830 and 1900, Abeokuta experienced incessant attacks from her neighbors and war became necessary. However, Egba Christians refused to fight under a commander who wore charms. Consultation of the Ifa oracle and the incessant offering of sacrifices (at times human sacrifices) made the atmosphere uncomfortable for the Christian warriors. They loved their people and their nation, but could not compromise their faith. Their stand was justified, as the Bible totally denounces idolatry. So, until the 1853 Ado war, Egba Christian battalions used to remain at home to pray for the success of their kinsmen. In 1853, they went out to fight in a battalion that was formed under the leadership of John Owolotan Okenla. Their victory in this and other wars drew considerable attention.
A remarkable leader, Okenla led the Christian battalion to victory anywhere they were engaged. Other renowned Christian warriors were David Tambariki of Igbore, Moses Sasegbon, Alexander Jibowu of Ijeun, Ajobo Coker, Josiah Olumide, and Obadiah Onatolu. Okenla’s exploits made him the most outstanding among them, and he consequently became leader of the battalion. In appreciation for his remarkable contributions to the security of the city, his kinsmen offered him a traditional chieftaincy title but he declined the offer because of the idolatry that he believed was associated with the conferring of that title. The Egba wanted him in the Igbimo Ilu (Egba Council) but he could not enlist in the council because of the proviso that one must be titled before one can sit in the council. Consequently, he was encouraged to take up a Christian chieftaincy title. This was a welcome idea to him and the other Egba Christians. The freedom to choose and install a Christian war chief without recourse to the Township Council assured the Christians of external influence and of an “idolatry-free” procedure. As expected, they followed the Egba Jagunjagun (warrior) hierarchy, of which Okenla became the Balogun (general or warlord) in 1860. Thus, he became the first Christian title holder in Yorubaland and the primary layperson in Egbaland.
Like Moses in the Bible, Okenla was said to be always at the rear of the battle with his head bowed in prayer as his men fought gallantly for victory (Delano, 1937). He was always holding the Holy Bible to show practically that the Word of God is mightier and more potent than guns and charms. No wonder, Ajayi and Smith (1864: 102) noted that Okenla and his battalion “fought fearlessly like drunk men” during the 1860-62 Ibadan-Ijaye war. He had a deep sense of the spiritual assurance of the ever-present power of God. It was said of him that:
He seemed to the Egbas to bear a charmed life, and they said that the white men must have given some “medicine” to prevent bullets hitting him. “Yes,” he said, “come to me” and he showed them his Yoruba New Testament Bible . “This” he said, “is my medicine and my daily food.” (Ajisafe, 1964:120)
According to Ajisafe (1964:108), Okenla scarcely lost a soldier on the battlefield. His standard bore the words “Our God fights for us.” So great were his victories that even those who were not Christians were convinced that God helped him, and this attracted many people to Christianity. In 1875 during the Dahomey attack on Abeokuta, Okenla and his band stoutly met and repulsed the attackers. His hand was particularly heavy upon them on that occasion, so much so that the name “Okenla” became a terror to the Dahomey attackers.
Apart from being a war leader, Okenla was also a crusader and an evangelist. He was among the very first to take Christianity outside Abeokuta, as he was one of the three most prominent foundational members of what is today the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral, Okenla, Ifo, of the Ifo Missionary Diocese of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). Founded in 1868, the church is located in the part of Ifo Township that is named after him. He also founded a Christian village called Shuren-Okenla, which is also in the Ifo Local Government Area of Ogun State, Nigeria.
Okenla was Balogun Onigbagbo Egba (General of the Egba Christian Army Band) from 1860 to 1888. He was buried on September 8, 1888 (the date of his death was likely September 7 or thereabouts). The service took place at the Ake Church (now the Cathedral of St. Peter, Ake, Abeokuta). His remains were interred in the church premises as a mark of honor. The appearance of a comet on September 25, shortly after his death, terrified many people. To some, it confirmed the saying that extraordinary events always take place around the death of great men. In 1932, his children built a cenotaph known as “Okenla Cenotaph” in his remembrance within the premises of the cathedral in Ake.
Today, the Egba Warrior Band has metamorphosed into a socio-religious organisation known as Ajo Oloye Onigbagbo Egba (Egba Christian Chiefs Council), a revered interdenominational organisation of Christian men and women title holders. Numbering over 500, the Council celebrates Okenla’s anniversary every September with a solemn service at the cenotaph. They render homage to the Alake (the paramount ruler) of Egbaland and hold a thanksgiving service, among other things. The cenotaph and his tomb are some of the attractions that draw tourists to the cathedral, which was the first church in Nigeria.
Francis O. Falako
Adeniyi, J. S. “Religion.” In Abeokuta: Home of the Egba. Vol. 1, pp. 129-135, 1985.
Ajayi, J. F. A. and R. Smith. Yoruba Warfare in the 19th Century. Cambridge: UP, 1964.
Ajisafe, A. K. History of Abeokuta. Abeokuta: Fola Bookshop, 1964.
Ayandele, E. A. The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria 1842-1914. London: Longman, 1963.
Delano, Isaac O. The Soul of Nigeria. London: Werner Laurie, 1937.
Falako, F. O. “[The] Influence of Christian Chieftaincy Title Holders on Christianity in Egbaland of South-Western Nigeria, 1860-2000” (Ph.D. diss., University of Ibadan, 2005.
Iwe Irohin Yoruba. Vol. xvii, May 23, 1860.
Lokulo-Shodipe, and others. An Outline History of the Anglican Churches in Egbaland 1842-1992. Abeokuta: Egba Diocese, 1992.
Oyeneye, Titus Mofolorunso, (Otun of Keesi Christians, approx. eighty years old). Interview by author Oct. 14, 2002, Keesi, Abeokuta.
Sotunde, F. I. Egba Chieftaincy Institution[s]. Ibadan, (self-published?) 2002.
This article, received in 2010, was written by Dr. Francis Falako, a professor in the Religious Education Unit of the School of Education in the University of Lagos (UNILAG) in Lagos, Nigeria.