- Monarch’s opponents mull factional Olu as crisis persists
- Group slams monarch for dividing Itsekiri, warns of consequences
- Monarch, family feuds split communities
- Group writes Olu, snubs monarch’s meeting offer
OLUS of Warri Kingdom, Ogiame (king of the river), are crowned with great fanfare and high expectations from the Itsekiri people. They ‘lord’ over their subjects across five local government areas in Delta State and at least two others in neighbouring Edo. This was the same for 39-year-old 21st Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse III, despite the controversies that bedeviled his election and inauguration in April and August 2021 respectively.
If there is any string that binds the Itsekiri ethnic nationality tightly, it is their monarch, who is second only to God in the realm of their affairs. He is worshiped and revered to an extent that Atuwatse II (the current Olu’s father), felt was only befitting of Jesus Christ and God, and not any human. He tried but failed to change this godlike worship of the throne and the title of Ogiam (water king), which he felt owed allegiance to marine deities. In a far-reaching proclamation, the monarch banned the singing of Ara olori re, the tribe’s anthem, which encapsulates respect for the throne. He was forced to recant the controversial September 2013 decree after a weeklong siege to his palace by his aggrieved subject, who insisted on the status quo ante.
Atuwatse III’s ascension to the throne, six years after the death of his father, was greeted with much pomp and pageantry, despite the controversies that dogged his selection. His choice of title, Atuwatse III, was significant and toes his late father’s path, and promised to deliver on the dreams of the nation.
He fits the bill of 21st century ‘woke’ monarch; he is handsome, walks majestically, shoulders straight, head high and his gait measured. He is suave, and soft-spoken, delivering words in flawless English language spiced by a cool Western brogue that confirms his upper-class upbringing, and Western education. To some, he seems more of a fashion model than a monarch, yet he strikes the right chords with the youths, who backed him loyally during the succession battle in 2021.
Two years later, he sits precariously on the throne, the euphoria surrounding his ascension and the hoopla of his personality still hold his audience, especially the youths, spellbound. His popularity is boosted by his social media presence; posts about him are greeted with copious positive comments and ‘Likes’, not just by his subjects. His traipses across the globe are well documented and reported on Facebook, Instagram, and other media, and he and his wife frequently graces the cover and societal pages of newspapers.
But the monarch and his handlers are fast coming to terms with the reality that leading an enlightened tribe as the Itsekiri nation is not a function of social media acceptability. There are seething underground issues begging to be addressed, and his style of leadership, it was learnt, could be alienating even some of his most ardent supporters and those who hold solutions.
The Itsekiri nation was shocked recently by the explosive revelations by Prince Yemi Emiko, his uncle, and one of those who worked for his elevation to the throne. Yemi, a seasoned player in the palace’s politics, was actively involved in the intrigues that led to the suspension of Chief Emami, a boulder on the path of his succession. The dethrone Ologbotsere was unwilling to bend the law book guiding Olu’s succession, to accommodate the then Prince Tsola.
The 1979 Edict listed the prerequisites of would-be Olu and the process under which he must emerge. It insisted that to qualify, a prince must be born by either an Edo (Bini) or an Itsekiri mother. Those who didn’t fit that bill were exempted from the race. It was the yardstick used that exclude the current monarch in 2015 when he was first in the succession line (as his father’s first son) after the demise of his father.
Ayiri was thumping the same rule book when Yemi led other members of the Ginuwa I ruling House, the only one in the land, to suspend him. The suspension paved the way for the emergence of a willing Chief Johnson Amatserunleghe (Iyasere of Warri), to assume leadership of the Ojoye Ojusan (Olu Advisory Council). Days later, Amatserunleghe announced Prince Tsola as the gods-chosen successor to Ogiame Ikenwoli.
However, in a volte-face, Yemi said he and other handlers of that process acted against the terms of the edict. In fact, he said they installed Atuwatse III despite knowing that he was not qualified.
“I am not saying that everything we did at that time (2021) was correct or legal because we have a law that governs succession. We took certain actions with the hope that when the Olu emerges Itsekiris would sit down and look at the provision of that law (edict), and see how best we can tinker with it to be in compliance.”
“Ayiri did not commit any crime against anybody in this land. All he did was stand by the law; he was not the one who wrote the law. I called the elders and say let’s find a way to put him (monarch) on the throne and after that, we can sit down and amend the law.”
While many are wondering why it took Yemi two years to become repentant, intense criticism has greeted his disclosure, especially by supporters of the monarch, and Chief Brown Mene, the Ogwa Olusan of the kingdom, who said, “Whatever Prince Yemi Emiko said, he has no locus as far as chieftaincy is concerned. They (princes) do not have a voice to determine who is a chief or not.”
While the kingdom was reeling from the bombshell, various groups, including the Itsekiri Consultant Forum, are warning that the kingdom is drifting dangerously towards the rock. The Itsekiri Leaders of Thought had also in the past tried to calm the storm, but seems to have given up. But ICF, in a 7-page letter to the monarch, reeled out a litany of his perceived failings and wondered who is advising him.
One of the many problems that have refused to die is the palace’s handling of the dethronement of Emami as Ologbotsere, and speedily replacing him with Chief Oma Eyewuoma. The Ologbotsere Descendants have dared the monarch by not only rejecting his pick but insisting on the former.
The drama began just days before Atuwatse III’s 39th birthday, and two years after his selection as Omoba (Olu-elect). The monarch had surprised many by sending for the beleaguered Emami. He reportedly told his confidants of his mysterious dream encounter with his late father. Following the dream, he paid an unscheduled visit to the Ogbowuru deity, one of the most sacred in the nation, at Ode-Itsekiri (Big Warri). But he also riled traditionalists by visiting the shrine with a pastor and copious bottles of ‘anointing oil’.
Speaking on the fall-out of his visit to the palace, Emami told our reporter that he was suspicious of the invitation “because I also had a dream, and I suspected that something sinister was afoot.” He said he was sure that the monarch was not sincere in his call for reconciliation.
A very reliable source confided in our reporter that prior to those ‘dreams’, the Olu had approached Prince Michael Diden, and appealed to him to lead a peace shuttle to resolve all issues surrounding his kingship, Ologbotsere, and the crisis in the kingdom in general. The purpose of the meeting was to ensure the withdrawal of all pending court cases for internal settlement.
“But Diden (alias Ejele) reportedly turned down the offer, insisting that his opposition to the monarch’s coronation was well documented. He had openly denounced the Olu and insisted on Emami as the rightful Ologbotsere of the kingdom. Ejele said he would not be objective as head of the committee, and advised a neutral and generally acceptable person. The former President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor was then chosen.”
The monarch’s nominees into the peace committee included chiefs Brown Mene and Robinson Ariyo, while other interest groups such as the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought brought in its secretary, Mr Amorighoye Mene. Members of the ruling and princes sent in Yemi Emik and others, with Chief Thomas Ereyitomi, Richard Omare, Michael Diden, Wilkie, Mrs. Edema, and others also listed.
It was against this backdrop that the monarch’s invitation of Chief Emami for their first face-to-face meeting generated excitement and raised hope that the crisis would be laid to rest. Yet, the man in the centre of the storm, Chief Emami was not excited. He told our reporter afterward that he was not convinced. He said he consulted his ancestors and “I knew that there is something insincere about the sudden change in the king’s stance.”
However, Pastor Oritsejafor, a respected Itsekiri pastor, and other members worked hard and gave their words that it was the way to go. Oritsejafor also dragged in Emami’s wife, Asba, a member of his flock, to convince her husband to accept the monarch’s olive branch in the “interest of Itsekiri nation” and peace.
Emami said he felt locked between a rock and a hard place: “If I didn’t attend, I would be seen as the one who does not want peace or the kingdom’s progress. I had my doubts, yet I had to go to satisfy my supporters and respected leaders who I cannot say ‘No’ to.”
The day was also set out for the revalidation of his title and the formalization of the peace in the kingdom. Revalidation is done by chiefs whenever there is a new Olu. The process involves the return of all paraphernalia of titleholders’ office, to allow the new monarch to bless and return them to signify ‘reappointment’. Emami had refused to perform the ceremony because of the insistence that the process that brought in the king was illegal.
On that day, in the presence of all Itsekiri leaders who gathered at the palace, the king urged Emami to step forward, but rather than revalidate the Ologbotsere, after retrieving his bead, uda (sword), he whispered to him to accept a downgraded from Ologbotsere to Akulagba (Ajuwaoyiboyemi) of Warri kingdom, which was the title he inherited from his late father.
The shocked chief refused, telling the monarch that it was not part of the plan. Yet the king went ahead to announce that he had been stripped of his position as Ologbotsere. He also immediately announced Chief Oma Eyewuoma as the new holder of the title, much to the angst and surprise of the family and shocked members of the Itsekiri Peace Committee. Ayiri staged a walk out leaving Oritsejafor and his team red-faced
Pa Higson Oporokun, the nonagenarian head of Ologbotsere descendants said, “We leaders and elders of the family thought they had gone there to settle the matter, and to our greatest surprise another person was installed right there. This has never been done. They disgraced the Ologbotsere family (who honoured the king’s invitation) to the event.”
Pastor Oritsejafor and his peace committee members were shell-shocked. The pastor hurriedly gathered his cassocks and left the venue, shortly after Ayiri had stormed out. Sources quoted Oritsejafor saying, “If the devil had known that crucifying Jesus would make him more popular, they probably would have had to rethink.”
Ayiri is no Jesus, some would even say he is the opposite, but his cause has been helped in no small measure by the events of April 19. Aggrieved members of the committee are now mostly sympathetic to him. Diden has on many occasions denounced the monarch and insisted that he recognize Emami as the Ologbotsere. The peace committee did not only collapse but has not held a meeting since the incident.
The failed peace meeting and its aftermath are also reverberating outside the kingdom, as far as Yoruba kingdoms in Southwest Nigeria, particularly in Ife, where the Ooni, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, is working for peace in the kingdom. The Ooni visited Warri in January, meeting with his Warri counterpart before visiting Emami’s home. He openly assured Emami that he would remain Ologbotsere, saying that it was not easy to replace the man who knew so much about the kingdom and had invested his time, resources, and goodwill to promote its culture and tradition across the country.
Is the Olu of Warri being held hostage by his advisors and inner circles? Prince Yemi thinks so, and he accused some unnamed persons of misleading the monarch. “I was taken aback by the issue invitation of Ologbotsere to the palace. He (Olu) spoke about forgiveness. Asked Ayiri to come and revalidate, I was with Papa Oritsejafor and other respected Itsekiri people. Unfortunately, we came and he (monarch) did what he did and the rest is now history.”
The Prince said his nephew was getting carried away by the aura of his position without paying attention to the responsibilities it demands. “The current leadership in Itsekiri is focused on esthetics, the beauty of it all, freshness, yanga (fashion) part. People are hailing, (but) you (monarch) forget the ethics, the main object for which you were made a leader.”
Other stakeholders said the monarch played for applause in a matter that demanded wisdom. “Tsola and his handlers used the avenue to exact their vengeance on Ayiri and to prove that he is a powerful king and to satisfy his coteries who had personal grievances with the man. This is not a mafia novel where you ‘teach enemies lessons’ by humiliating them; leadership is about the value of your words and reliability. Has the Olu displayed that? He should be a man whose words count.
“We saw on April 19 a king playing applause while forgetting that the value of his words has greatly diminished. In the future when he speaks or makes promises to people as he did to Oritsejafor, Itsekiri leaders, and stakeholders, they will be retrospective.”
Our source also faulted the caliber of the monarch’s advisers, and likened the current situation in the tribe to the biblical story Rehoboam and Jeroboam, while praying that the kingdom does not split across the various fault lines as a result of bad bits of advice.
Meanwhile, the April debacle has not only strengthened opposition to the monarch, but it has led to the resurrection of cases that were withdrawn in deference to Oritsejafor’s committee. Cases instituted by Prince Ben Emiko, on one hand, and Prince Oyewoli and other children of late Olu Ikenwoli, have been restarted. Our correspondent gathered that Pa Oporokun-led Ologbotsere Descendants in court to challenge the powers of the Olu in appointing an Ologbotsere without recourse to the family.
Prince Benjamin (Ben) Emiko, who was contacted on Friday, declined to make a comment on the telephone. Sources close to him revealed that he had reopened his legal challenge on the process that threw up the Olu. The lawyer and retired CNL staff told our reporter in 2021 that the process of selection and coronation of Atuwatse III was ‘null and void’.
Meanwhile, the Itsekiri Consultative Forum, in its damning open letter to the monarch last week, highlighted some of his shortcomings in handling the kingdom’s affairs. The group expressed concerns about the future of Warri Kingdom while reminding the Olu of the fates of his predecessors who toed similar paths.
The innuendos-laced letter vocalized the concerns of prominent Itsekiri leaders and keen followers of activities in the kingdom in the last two years. Messrs Clem Ade Omotoye, a lawyer, and Arubi Ajofotan, Chairman and Secretary respectively of ICF, liken the current situation to what in 1963 led to the deportation of Ogiame Erejuwa II, to Ogbese, an agrarian community more some 300 km from his kingdom, in today’s Edo State.
It also reminded the monarch of his constitutional limitations and cautioned him against being carried away by his position to the extent of arrogating to himself authorities that aren’t his: “By the Delta State Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Law, the Olu is a Traditional Ruler. He is neither a monarch nor a sovereign.”
It also expressed deep concerns about the ambitious changes being made by the monarch, including his elevation of his wife to a formal position in the kingdom, mode of dressing, carriage, and penchant for public attention. It frowned at their incursion into partisan politics while lamenting the inclusion of Olori Atuwatse III into the state government’s transition committee in April as embarrassing.
The letter pointed out that Olu and his family is “expected to be circumspect in their carriage. Ogiame can imagine the consternation of Itsekiri when it appears in pages of newspapers that Olori was appointed to the inauguration committee of the incoming governor of Delta State. It is very embarrassing for us as it is against the Itsekiri tradition, culture, and more. It puts the Itsekiri crown squarely in the political arena with its attendant risk, it brought to the fore a feeling of déjà vu.”
Meanwhile, our investigations revealed that face-offs between the monarch on the one hand, chiefs and and princes on the other, are polarizing communities and clans. Okere, one of Itsekiri communities in the Warri metropolis, is already manifesting symptoms of the crisis. Located just meters away from the Warri Palace, Okere is a stronghold of Emami, and his late father’s house is there. Two weeks ago, Chief Rita Lori Ogbebor, Kofi Kartey, and Pa Amorighoye, among other supporters of the monarch released a statement tying the community’s crisis to the Ologbotsere Chieftaincy title.
In a swift response, former Okere youth leaders, David Iwere and Oyibo Awani, denounced attempts by the palace to divide the community. They said, “Chief Emami is our brother, an indigene of Okere Community. We owe him every support and brotherly protection in all his life’s pursuits. We stand with him and shall defend him when push comes to shove.”
Meanwhile, the ICF has spurned an invitation for a meeting with the monarch. The monarch called for the meeting following the publication of the letter and the issues they raised. A letter signed by the Head of the Back Office of the palace, Mr. Oritz Onuwaje, called the meeting, urging the group to choose a convenient date to meet with the palace to address their concerns.
But Messrs Omotoye and Ajofotan, in their reply, a copy of which was made available to our reporter on Friday morning, said they would not attend the meeting. They said they “merely voiced the concerns of most Itsekiris, who were too scared to speak out about the monarch’s activities.”
“We are however at a loss for the rationale for us to seek an audience with His Majesty because we had not sorted or suggested the need for a meeting. The letter is plain, clear, and direct to the points raised… The letter is self-explanatory and does not need further elucidation.”
It was gathered that ICF’s stand may not be unconnected with the humiliation of the members of the peace committee after the monarch assured them that he was ready for peace. Omotoye and Ajofotan expressed doubts about the genuineness of the monarch’s invitation, saying, “We have unequivocally highlighted what our observations are on the state of the Itsekiri nation and advice offered in the letter. It is honestly left to His Majesty to heed our advice or continue in the same trajectory.”
There are indications that the window of peace in the kingdom is fast closing, as a faction of the ruling house may have concluded plans to install a factional Olu, using the original paraphernalia of the office, including the 400-year-old crowns, which couldn’t be found for Atuwatse III’s coronation. It was gathered that the planned parallel coronation, which was billed to be held in Ode-Itsekiri, however, is yet to garner the support for it to go on.
“I know the plot was stronger after the failed peace efforts. Some members of the committee may support it because of their frustration. But even the most ferocious critic of the Olu would not support any move that will bring the kingdom to disrepute. We value the stool and it is one of the strongest ties that hold us,” a source familiar with the matter said.
How much longer that situation remains in the face of the current situation cannot be ascertained. Still, it was reliably gathered that a candidate (names withheld) has already been chosen and is being primed to mount a stool.”