By Osmund Agbo
When on Sunday, September 22 of 2019, the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan, in an interview with Daily Trust and on the sideline of the Brazilian Consulate exhibition of Ife artifacts, stated that there are more Yoruba people in Brazil than in Nigeria, many believed that His Royalty Majesty grossly exaggerated the facts and so stretched the truth way beyond its elastic limit. But at any rate, there is no denying that Orisha and other aspects of Yoruba culture and religion, continue to define the everyday identities of many Afro-descendants in the old Portuguese colony and beyond. Today, you will find many worshipers of Yoruba diasporic religion in Brazil where it goes by the name, Candomblé or in the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico where it’s referred to as Santería.
Once upon a time, the old Oyo empire was a powerful kingdom comprising the Yoruba states in present day South-West Nigeria. It was connected with the Kingdom of Dahomey of what is today the southern part of the Republic of Benin. Although the then Oyo kingdom was far more powerful and its army compelled Dahomey to pay tribute to it from the 1730’s up until 1819, the two were both great kingdoms and important regional powers that had an organized domestic economy built on conquest and slave labour. The late Nigerian historian and former Head of the Department of history, Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor Isaac Akinjogbin, once referred to the pair as the “Aja-Yoruba commonwealth.”
Ouidah, a southern city in today’s Republic of Benin, is known for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Oyo empire relied upon Ouidah port which was within the control of the Kingdom of Dahomey for access to European trade. From Ouidah alone, more than one million Africans were exported out before closing its trade in the 1860s. In the late 18th century, the Oyo empire came to rely heavily on slave sales to Europeans for its sustenance. When the trade eventually ended, income dried up and power steadily declined, Oyo eventually fell to the superior forces of the Fulani Empire in 1835. The Slave Route, a track down which slaves were taken to the ships from Ouidah, and leads to the Door of No Return represented by a memorial arch, still exists today as a monument of that inglorious era. But I digress.
According to a 2010 Census, Brazil has 14 million Black people. Funny enough, of Black Brazilians, only about 10% identify as being of African origin (afrodescendente) while the majority claim to be of “Brazilian origin,” whatever that means. But by far, one of the most celebrated Afro-Brazilians in history today is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known all over the world simply as Pelé.
Pelé is world-famous for his exploits playing the round leather game and is regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. At the peak of his career, Pelé was the highest paid athlete in the world. Since retirement, he has become a worldwide ambassador for football which he managed to turn into many lucrative commercial ventures. He went on to become Brazil’s Minister of Sports in the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Suffice it to say that Pele’s privileged status in Brazil is a world apart from the daily realities of his fellow Afro-Brazilians. Blacks in Brazil are victims of humiliating racism and overt discrimination and many are condemned to a life of crime and wallowing in abject poverty.
Brazil is the largest country in South America, with a population of over 217 million people. It is the world’s 7th most populous country and the only nation in the Americas with Portuguese as the official language. This nation of predominantly Roman-Catholics is also one of the most culturally pluralistic and ethnically diverse nations in the world. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese and at some point, Rio de Janeiro was the capital of the Portuguese empire that stretched from the Americas to many nations of Africa and Asia. It achieved independence from Portugal on September 7, 1822.
The country’s Amazon basin is a vast tropical forest that is home to a variety of ecosystems and an exotic assortment of wide life. The issue of deforestation triggering environmental degradation, makes Brazil a subject of serious global interest especially among biodiversity advocates and climate change activists.
Present day Brazil was once occupied by indigenous peoples who were mostly semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Tupis, Guaranis, Arawaks and Ges ethnic stocks. With the arrival of the Portuguese fleet, the land was claimed for the Portuguese Empire on April 22, 1500. By the mid-16th century, Sugar cane had become Brazil’s major export helped by slaves purchased in Africa. The majority of an estimated 4.9 million African slaves shipped to Brazil between the years of 1500 to 1800, came from the old Oyo empire and are mostly Yorubas and Fon people of the Gbe ethnic group in Benin Republic and the rest are mostly from Angola, Congo, Zimbabwe and coastal Mozambique. Mozambique and Angola were former Portuguese colonies.
Brazil is very rich in natural resources and has the tenth largest economy in the world. After a period of rapid economic growth in preceding decades, however, the country has been battling a crippling recession for the past several years with nationwide protests and allegations of widespread political corruption. She is a member of the BRIC alliance, an acronym for countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China whose original aim was the establishment of a fair, democratic and multi-polar world order. With a combined total GDP of $49.967 trillion in 2022, the alliance is a counterweight to the G-8 and The BRIC mechanism aims to promote peace, security, development and economic cooperation between member states.
The election this month, regarded as Brazil’s most consequential in decades, is in part because of the stress test one of the world’s biggest democracies is being subjected to currently, which is threatening its very health. It also comes at a time when approximately 33 million out of the nation’s 217 million population are experiencing hunger and extreme poverty.
The two major contenders are political heavyweights who offer radically different visions for the country. The incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro, is the far-right leaning candidate who campaigned on protecting conservative values, under the slogan “God, family, homeland and liberty.” His primary challenger and former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (simply known as Lula) is a leftist whose main pitch is built around raising taxes on the rich so that the poor can get ahead.
Lula served as the President of Brazil from 2003 until 2010, was imprisoned in 2018 after he left office on corruption charges, but his conviction was later overturned after the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that the judge in the case was biased. He led in polls for months leading up to the election, as Brazilians yearned for a return of his days when everyday people experienced decades of social and economic upward mobility.
President Bolsonaro, looked upon as the underdog in this race and seeing a less than impressive poll numbers, resulted in the old tactics of casting doubt on the electoral system. Very recently, he has been busy selling the idea that voting machines are prone to fraudulent manipulation and giving the impression that the only reason he could lose in the election is because of that; a charge that was not founded on any iota of credible evidence.
With more than 99% of the vote counted on Sunday evening of October 1st, Lula is ahead with 48.4% of the vote versus Bolsonaro’s 43.2%. Unfortunately, no candidate achieved a majority of more than 50% of the ballot required to win, paving the way for a second-round run-off billed for October 30th. Bolsorano, a divisive figure often referred to as the Trump of the Tropics, showed up stronger than most predicted.
Unlike Nigeria where political parties hardly subscribe to any particular ideology and elected officials switch parties faster than changing baby diapers, Brazilian election is a clash between two ideologies, led by a left leaning challenger and an ultra-conservative incumbent. The fight for the soul of Brazil is between Lula, a populist who imposes tax on the wealthy to help the poor get head and Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right president, reputed to be tough on crime but being accused of weakening environmental protections against Amazon’s destruction and thereby turning Brazil into a global pariah. The world is watching with keen interest and only time will tell who will prevail in this very consequential election.
But on a lighter note, the very next time the Super Eagles play Seleção Brasileira, don’t forget to holla “e ku ojo meta” to the brown-skinned folks in the Brazilian team. You might just be warming up to our Yoruba brothers in the diaspora.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com