TROUBLE IN THE KINGDOM: Search for new Olu of Warri polarises Itsekiri

Three months after the Olu of Warri Ogiame Ikenwoli joined his ancestors the news of his transition is yet to be formally relayed to the Itsekiri people. Even though the process to pick a successor has officially commenced it is being bogged down by intrigues and succession politics. Southsouth Regional Editor, Shola O’Neil, in this report deconstructs issues shaping the race, and why the underground current of fear and suspicion among two contending groups is threatening the process and the pushing the kingdom to the brink of collapse.

Olu has ‘not’ joined his ancestors – Ologbotsere
Reigns of Atuwatse II and Ikenwoli x-rayed
Influence of deities, personalities

The Itsekiri people, found in Warri South, Southwest and North local government areas in Delta State, but also scattered along communities and enclaves in other parts of the state as well as Edo State, are a close-knit group that takes pride in their common language (without any dialect) and united under the assured lordship of the Ogiame Olu of Warri. In their affairs, the Olu emits an aura of infallibility and incontrovertibility, which is second only to God. He is the afomasin (one whose pronouncement cannot be invalidated). The Ogiame is the custodian of Itsekiri history, culture, custom and tradition. He is an epitome of honesty and fairness who encompasses everything they hold dear and is the centripetal force that dictates the motion of the tribe.

Under the 19th and 20th Olus (Ogiame Atuwatse II and Ikenwoli) – this godlike aura around the throne has come under intense scrutiny, to the extent of being queried and demystified. The former, who reigned from 1986 to 2015, contended with many internal and external crises, including a costly tribal war with the numerically advantaged Ijaw ethnic group, which led to the loss of thousands of Itsekiri lives, as well as unquantifiable material and land losses. Itsekiri nation lost communities to the devastating forces of powerful Ijaw warlords; hundreds of other communities destroyed, those that were not totally overrun were abandoned and have remained desolate nearly two decades after. Atuwatse II was criticized for not using his vast fortune and influence to help the resettlement of thousands of families who fled their homes, and some have remained displaced unable to pick back the pieces of their lives again.

The 19th Olu also flirted with a forced abdication of the throne when he attempted to impose Christianity on his subject and the throne in the infamous September 2013 ‘Royal Edict’ saga. The edict, among others, abolished the title of Ogiame (King of the River); stopped the performance of obeisance to the king, and banned the singing of the Ara Olorire (Itsekiri anthem), which eulogizes and affirms the Olu as a king. The edict also banned rituals and traditional rites that he considered ungodly.

The 4th September 2013 declaration states: “Today, I renounce our allegiance to the Umalokun (god of the rivers) and other gods of the sea. I also repent from the title of Ogiame that my ancestors and I have borne as it connotes our allegiance to Umalokun and other deities of the sea, all of which are false.”

The people said NO and their refusal set the tone for week-long resistance and occupation of the Aghofen (palace) by thousands of his subjects and representatives from all Itsekiri communities. The declaration and resistance shook and reverberated everywhere Itsekiris son and daughters live across the world to the extent that even his close allies and palace chiefs joined in the four-day protest and occupation of his palace. The protesters urged him to repeal the vexing edict or abdicate the throne. Beyond the edict, the peoples’ anger stemmed from long time disenchantment with the monarch’s style and perceived aloofness to their plights.

Faced with the grim prospect of being forced out, Atuwatse II baulked and recanted the edict. He expunged every item on the contentious list, much to the joy of his opponents, but there was angst from Christian leaders, who had supported his move to make Christianity Itsekiri’s official religion.

The unquestionable king had gone face-to-face with his subject and lost! Was the Afo masin demystified? “The answer is capital no,” Mr Amorighoye Sunny Mene, Benin-based educationist and member of the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought, told our reporter in response to inquiry on the matter.

“For the pronouncement of the Olu to be irrevocable, there is a process that it must go through. That is why we (Itsekiri) would say before the ofo (word) becomes masin (incontrovertible), it must have gone through processes, which include its review by the inner caucus of the palace, Chiefs and others. That edict did not follow this trajectory, therefore, you cannot say the Afomasin has been demystified,” Mene told this reporter in 2013

If the stool didn’t unravel, the Itsekiri monarchy and Ogiame Atuwatse, one of the most influential Olu in modern Itsekiri history was exposed. He joined his ancestors two years later. It was hard to tell if his death was quickened by the bruises of failing to instill his will on the people who he ruled for 28 years, or other causes.

Ikenwoli, the Albatross of Ologbotsere, deities

It was against that backdrop that Ogiame Ikenwoli ascension of the throne came with high hopes and expectations from his people. He arose to the throne on the hope of being a reformer of Itsekiri customs, culture and tradition that were relegated during his predecessor’s reign and he was expected return Itsekiri land to its age-long traditional practices.

He was touted as the gods-chosen successor to his father, Ogiame Erejuwa II in 1986, and when he was overlooked by powerful forces in the kingdom in favour of Godwin Toristeju (Ogiame Atuwatse II), some felt the process was rigged. Then the gods turned to him in 2015 and Itsekiri ethnic nation heaved a sigh of relief. His supporters said Ikenwoli had come to wipe out evil from the kingdom. He was expected to heal and restore order in the land, especially in Ugborodo, one of the richest in the kingdom, where a few live in astounding opulence at the detriment of the majority who wallow in penury.

A year into his reign some of his most ardent supporters became disenchanted. There were whispers that the king had been pocketed by a few persons, from the first day when a chief stealthily guided him to pick a virgin uda (sword) in Ode-Itsekiri on the first day of his reign.

“The new king was expected to be led by the gods (spirits) to choose a mace used by any past Olu, which would in turn indicate the name and direction of his reign. A virgin sword is usually added to those on display; if a monarch picks a fresh mace, he would then be known by his given-name. These processes are believed to be directed by the ancestors and that is why the monarch is usually blindfolded before being led to the row of ancient swords.”

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On 12th December 2015, an influential traditional titleholder was said to have surreptitiously guided the monarch towards the new uda and then ensured that his hand rested on the gleaming golden emblem of his office. Thereafter, shouts of ‘Ogiame suo ooo’ rented the air and Ikenwoli was announced as his official name. Keen watchers of what transpired were distinctly unimpressed, especially because of the owner of the hand behind the move. Chief Ayirimi Emami, was one of the closest bodies to the king on the day.

The crack in the kingdom was brought to the fore when Ikenwoli, before the second anniversary of his coronation, ‘chose’ Emami as Ologbotsere, the highest ranking chief and one of the most powerful members of the Council of Chiefs. The last Ologbotsere was Chief Ogbemi N. Rewane, the no-nonsense older brother of Chief Alfred Rewane, the industrialist and NADECO chieftain. It was remarkable that the last public duty Rewane performed was the crowning of Ogiame Atuwatse II in May 1987. He died before the first anniversary of the monarch, who reigned for 28 years without an Ologbotsere. Some said it was a deft move to tighten his grip on power. Whatever his motive was Atuwatse II avoided the backlash that greeted his successor’s choice because although he reigned without Ologbotsere, he relied on the wisdoms and counsels of the Iyatsere, Chief Gabriel Mabiaku; the Otsodi, Chief Joseph Popo and many others. Reports of disagreements with these trusted inner members of his ‘cabinet’ were never made public.

When the 19th Olu joined his ancestors in 2015, Chief Tesigiweno Yahya Pessu, the Ojomo of Warri Kingdom and oldest serving member of the Olu Advisory Council, ‘acted’ the role of Ologbotsere. He midwifed the process that produced a successor, until the final day when the golden crown was placed on the head of Ikenwoli by the Olare-Aja of Jakpa, Pa Ajofotan Oparokun. The octogenarian Pessu had borne the weight of the entire process on his aged shoulder for several months and sources said his ambition afterwards was to be named Ologbotsere by Ikenwoli.

He was not alone in dreaming of the title. Chief Oma Eyewuoma, an oil magnate who retired as a director of CONOIL Nigeria Limited, and Chief Ayiri Emami, all from Iye stock of Ologbotsere family craved it. But Chief Emami was viewed by many as a candidate with neither the experience nor the temperament for the position. Added to this was the fact that he was one of the youngest chiefs (both in age and investiture).

Chief Emami, Chairman/CEO of A&E Group, an effervescent business mogul and chieftain of the All Progressive Congress (APC), is loved and unloved in almost equal measures by his supporters and opponents respectively within and beyond. He was made Ajuwaojiboyemi of Warri by Atuwatse II in April 2012, taking his late father’s seat in the kingdom

Ironically, it was gathered that Ikenwoli was among Itsekiri leaders who kicked against the installation of Emami as a chief in 2012. In a volte-face, five years later, and before his second-year of his reign, he presented Emami as the kingdom’s highest ranking chief to the nation. Expectedly, he came under intense and scathing criticism for this. Those with knowledge of the matter said Emami thawed the king’s heart and became an integral part of his reign with his services before, during and after his 2015 coronation. A section of the kingdom refused to be swayed.

Ikenwoli’s Spokesperson, Prince Oluyemi Emiko, while defending the monarch in a chat with this reporter in 2017, said the decision was not the monarch’s to make. “The Olu,” he said, “does not choose an Ologbotsere; he only works on the recommendation of the family,”

Yemi said the issue surrounding the outcry against Emami’s as Ologbotesere was political. “Chief Emami is a known member of the APC and those instigating and mobilizing the protests are prominent members of the PDP. The family brought out the names and they decided that one is from a female lineage. So why are they trying to whip up issues?”

Ikenwoli was forced into defending his action, “nobody should be aggrieved by the installation of Chief Ayirimi Emami; Ologbotsere is a family title and not a national issue.” He said Emami was qualified and chosen on his merit.

The fractures resulting from that ‘family title’ divided the kingdom and the fault-lines surfaced communities, widening until the last days of Ikenwoli’s reign. Many notable chiefs boycotted social, cultural and traditional events at the palace.

DID THE DEITIES FAIL IKENWOLI?

For the traditionalists in the kingdom, Ogiame Ikenwoli lived up to his projection as a reformer of the traditional and cultural values of Iwere land. Shrines, deities and gods that were abandoned during 28-year reign of Atuwatse II got breaths of life. The Ogbowuru building, one of the oldest and most significant in Ode-Itsekiri, and seat of a deity, was reopened along with others in several communities. Yet, they failed to uplift the spirit or mood of a faction towards the king.

The climax of some of his subjects’ disappointment in his reign was the manner and time of his transition. At just five years and a week on the exalted throne, the 20th Olu’s reign is the shortest in modern era.

He joined his ancestors at a private hospital (names withheld) in Warri, on December 20, 2020, from what sources said was ‘possible complications from covid-19’, which he contacted during a lavish 5th year coronation anniversary celebrations. The ceremony was held against prevailing mood and counsels of some prominent members of his kingdom.

“At a time when Nigeria, like the rest of the world, was battling the deadly corona virus we felt it was in bad taste to hold a lavish and crowd-pulling ceremony. The Olu, as leader of the people, should show good example by avoiding crowded places. The people that he listened to thought otherwise and they rolled out carpet to welcome people from various background including military chiefs, at a time when the dreaded COVID-19 was ravaging the military,” a member of the council said.

But for others, there is more to the transition of the monarch than meet the eyes. “It is unusual for an Olu to transit as he did. For a traditionalist who opened up the deities and revered the gods, he couldn’t have died like that without a cause. There is more to it,” a community leader said. The line was toed by younger source who hinted that Ebura (ancestral deities) played a role in happenings in the lives of the people, especially for a king who swore allegiance to such gods.

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“If you remember, one of the last rites of the coronation of an Olu is the swearing of oaths; the king would go before the Itsekiri gods and swore never to betray the confidence reposed in him or do anything that is against the wish of the people while the people did their part. For him to die so soon could be because something went wrong somewhere and we should bife (ask the gods) very well, not in half measures,” our source added.

OGIAME IKENWOLI WAS MISMANAGED – CHIEF LORI-OGBEBOR

A furious Chief Rita Lori-Ogbebor, the Igba of Warri, fingered the monarch’s handlers for the manner of his transition. In a petition authored by an Abuja-based legal firm on her behest, she questioned the monarch’s handling by some persons. In the document obtained by our reporter she accused a trio of the late monarch’s closest confidantes and family members of irresponsibility.

“Sequel to the widely circulating news … over the demise of His Royal Majesty, Ogiame Ikenwoli, on or about 20th day of December, our client (Chief Lori-Ogbebor) was mandated to immediately travel from Lagos to Warri as is mandatory for a chief of the palace,” the petition stated.

The document alleged that the monarch was exposed to “situations and circumstances that were flagrantly in violation of COVID-19 protocols, allowed to attend prolonged social gatherings and meet with visitors some of whom were later found to be infected with the virus and also died.”

Chief Robinson Ariyo, the Egogo of Warri, was named in the document as one of the chiefs who were unhappy with the handling of the monarch’s affair by the trio listed. Ariyo, when contacted, was noncommittal, even though he affirmed existence of the said petition.

“I am not aware that anything has happened (to the king). The truth of the matter and where we are now (is that) there are very few people who have the mandate to speak publicly and those are the palace administrator and a few other persons. I need to get clearance from them (before I can speak),” he said. He was yet to get back to us three days after before press time.

SEARCH FOR SUCCESSOR – THE INTERESTS, INTRIGUES

Despite tight-lips from Ariyo and other Itsekiri leaders, Sunday Nation reliably gathered that frantic efforts were being made to produce a successor. The kingdom’s leader would rely on a 40-year-old document (Bendel State Gazette of September 1979), which lists conditions to be met before a candidate is named successors to a late Olu.

The Ologbotsere, who was contacted about process to install a 21st Olu, was apparently not impressed by our inquisitiveness on Tuesday afternoon. He threatened to sue the paper for publishing reports about the transition of the monarch. He said he had intimated a very prominent person related to Vintage Press Limited about his threat. “Have I told you that the monarch has passed on? So why are you asking about the palace? Have you been invited to an Alejefun (traditional rite) where the death of the monarch is announced in Ode-Itsekiri)?”

However, various other sources, including high ranking chiefs confirmed transition of Ogiame Ikenwoli, in confidence, stressing that official notice would only be made after processes are completed.”

“It is only when a successor has been chosen and has gone through all the processes and is fully accepted to the oracles that the announcement of the Olu’s joining his ancestors can be made in Ode-Itsekiri (Big Warri). Then his successor can be declared as an Omoba (Olu-elect). But for now, no true-born Itsekiri will acknowledge the fact that Olu has transited,” a source said.

Sunday Nation’s investigation revealed that the controversies that surrounded the reigns of the 19th and 20th Olus have become albatrosses in the search for the 21st. Some interest groups are angling to play key roles in the process. Some individuals and leaders who felt aggrieved when Emami was named Ologbotsere are also poised to make their points by ensuring that he exhibits no influence in the process.

Mr. Emmanuel Okotie-Eboh, scion of former Minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh, was chosen as Olori-Ebi (head of the ruling house), to execute the process. His appointment has also been enmeshed in a controversy of its own, which he refused to acknowledge in a short telephone chat with our reporter. It was learnt that one of those who was overlooked in the search of Olori-Ebi has challenged Okotie-Eboh’s position.

Mr. Akoma Dudu who was bypassed (because his claim to the position is through a female parentage) in favour of Okotie-Eboh, has declared himself the Olori-Ebe. In a letter dated 19th February 2021, Dudu claimed: “I am Pa Akoma Dudu of the Iye descendant. I am the Olori-ebi of Ginuwa Ruling House.” This was seen as a clear move to counter the Okotie-Eboh’s process and the candidate that emerges therefrom.

A source with knowledge of happenings behind the scene confided that a large section of the kingdom now favours the first son of Atuwatse II, Prince Tsola Emiko. Tsola who married the daughter of Bini business mogul, Capt Hosa Okunbor, in 2014, was knocked out of the race to succeed his father on the basis of his birth – having a Yoruba mother – in 2015.

The second paragraph of the 1979 official document states: “Succession is limited to Olu’s Company i.e. descendants of the last three Olus (Otolus)… ordinarily, succession passes to a son of a demised Olu, failing which a suitable member of the Otolus provided that brothers are preferred to uncles and uncles to grandsons and grandsons are preferred to other relatives within the Otolus. Females are absolutely barred.”

The 4th paragraph states: “To qualify a candidate’s mother must be an Itsekiri or of Edo origin and his father must be Itsekiri.”

ORACLE, DEITIES AND SUCCESSION LAW

It was against the backdrop of the above clauses that the emergence of Tsola is generating more uproar, despite some stakeholders’ insistence that he has been chosen by the oracle. A usually reliable source on the matter said: “Seventeen eligible male children were presented to and rejected by the ife. As the search continued, it was decided that that the name of Prince Tsola should also be considered among those to be sent to the oracle, since all the eligible ones had been considered but rejected by the uncle. Tsola’s name was accepted by the (Ife) oracle.”

Other aspirant in the race are Oyeowoli (Ikenwoli’s son), who is reportedly favoured by the Ologbotsere; Jaiye Emiko son of Erejuwa (18th Olu), Samuel Gbesimi Emiko, and Bernard Emiko, the only Muslim in the race and Ikenwoli’s younger brother, who faced a steep climb on the road to the throne because his Muslim background.

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In a video clip exclusively obtained by our reporter, the chief priest of the oracle swore by the gods that Tsola was the oracles’ choice. Speaking in Itsekiri, he said at least a dozen others were rejected, for various reasons. “There was a warning that the kingdom will be destroyed if a particular candidate was chosen. So we used Tsola’s name (swearing by egbejugbele deity), I don’t know him, I have not met him. But the oracle also warned that he should be cautioned about his stubborn mindset.”

The chief priest cautioned the nation on the influence of money before declaring that if the kingdom accepts Prince Tsola, normalcy and progress would be restored. He further disclosed that one of the candidates would die if he is forced on the people. The chief priest’s avowal has not satisfied doubters who fear that the hands of the gods are being guided by men.

“The normal tradition is that those who would consult the oracle should first present themselves to Umale Orugbo (Orugbo shrine) and swear that they would be above board in their duties, but these people have refused to do this. It is not enough to swear by any deity, but do the first thing, go to Orugbo (a riverside community) and swear to be truthful and honest in the quest in front of the shrine.”

Our investigation revealed that the Orugbo shrine is feared among local religion practitioners because of its swift dispensation of justice and death to offenders.

In spite of that, Sunday Nation is aware that final push is being made for Tsola. Okotie-Eboh, who is the widely accepted Olori-Ebi, wrote to the Ologbotsere to intimate him about the outcome of the oracle. But a photograph obtained by our reporter revealed how the letter was publicly shredded and returned via the same courier to the Olori-Ebi. Okotie-Eboh would not be drawn to this issue during a telephone chat on Wednesday.

A source at the scene insisted that the Itsekiri Prime Minister took the action in protest. “It is procedurally wrong for the Olori-Ebi to invite the Prime Minister to a meeting. He ought to seek permission to meet with him (Ologbotsere) at his convenience; that is the right thing to do as per the Gazette, which is explicit on the roles of the Ologbotsere, and he does not deserve to be treated the way he was.”

Another source said the action of the Ologbotsere was the manifestation of the underground power play surrounding the factions for a role in the emergence of the Olu and by extension the influence they would have in is reign.

“The Ologbotsere and his friend, Chief Thomas Ereyitomi (member representing Warri Federal Constituency in the House of Representative) have a bias for Prince Oyowoli, the son of the late Ikenwoli. Prince Tsola Emiko, on the other hand, is promoted by some chiefs and politicians, including former House of Representatives member, Mr Daniel Reyenieju (who Ereyitomi unseated in 2019), his close associate, Mr David Tonwe, among others close to the 19th Olu and father of Tsola. The two factions have their agenda – real or perceived – and partisan politics and political ambition of the actors cannot be ruled out. Those against Prince Tsola are afraid that he could be used by his backers against their opponent and vice versa.”

Keen watchers of the unfolding drama in the kingdom are apprehensive that the matters could end up in protracted legal tussle, especially in view of the 1979 law which is explicit in choosing and crowning an Olu.

Specifically, one source identified the use of an oracle to determine ‘acceptability’ as troubling clause in the law. “The Customary Law is clear, yet we now hear that a prince born by a Yoruba mother has been chosen by the oracle, even though that same prince was rejected on the basis of his mother’s background when he was naturally the front runner in 2015! The oracles don’t speak; they rely on priests, who could be manipulated by men. If the oracle knew he is qualified, why was he rejected five years ago?”

“Again, the issue is not whether the oracles accepts a candidate or not, but can his name be legitimately considered after failing the first step that state his mother must come from a tribe or the other?”

Feelers from Delta State Government House also points to concern by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, who is said to be keeping a close tab on the events. “The governor has told those involved that the right thing must be done in line with laid down laws and guidelines.”

At the time of concluding this report on Wednesday morning, an eerie calm pervades the kingdom, partly from the events and the death of two prominent chiefs, Chief Nelson Tetsola and Florence Rewane. The deaths added to the burden of a weary nation that is waiting to know who their next king would be.

On the bright side, the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought (ILOT), a respected apolitical organ in the affairs of Itsekiri, led by Chief Edward Ekpoko, a lawyer, has taken up the task of restoring peace among all interests. Ekpoko, who was contacted by our reporter on Wednesday, confirmed that ILOT was searching for ‘amiable solution among interest groups in the kingdom. We are engaging all stakeholders as part of our peace advocacy approach towards breaking the impasse.”

History is on the ILOT leader’s sail. Itsekiris are known to be a resilient people with a penchant for putting personal interests aside when pressing issues that affect their tribe are at stake. But whether the egos, personalities and agendas of today’s protagonists would allow them clear sight will ultimately be seen in how the issues are resolved.

On his part, Chief Emami, amidst his outburst during his short telephone chat with our reporter on Tuesday evening, had hinted of his determination to lead by example: “The Itsekiri interests will always be greater than mine or those of anybody,” he said

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