Warri – After the the unrest that trailed the Coronation of the 21st Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwase Ill, palpable calm indeed has returned to the ancient kingdom.
However, expectations from sons and daughters of the kingdom and even neighbors are indeed very high as His Majesty , makes history as the youngest monarch to have ascended the throne of his forebearers.
In this interview, BETTY IDIALU speaks with Chief Brown Mene, the Ogwaolusan of Warri kingdom, who was also a member of the Olu Advisory Council . Despite his bold profession of his christian faith, he is an encyclopaedia of Itsekiri history, culture and tradition.
He bares his mind on the build-up of events leading to the Coronation of the 21st Olu.
Chief, much ado about the imbroglio that dogged the pre-olu Coronation era. How did it go and how did you win the battle?
I’ll give some background to enable you understand better. Our system of transition or succession is very simple and straight-forward which is why we have only one ruling house.
The transition is also from father to son; even though that is not automatic because a father may not have a son; or may have a son who is considered not suitable.
So, there’s a room to have a pool to draw from aside the immediate children of the immediate past ruler.
Therefore, we have the second-next and the third-next. By the time you get to that, you should be able to have enough to draw from. The responsibilities of the transition to getting to the conclusion is handled by two broad groups. The family, on one hand, and the chiefs, on the other.
The family has a responsibility to present a candidate, but following the due guidelines and when the candidate is agreed on among themselves, they will present him to the chiefs, this time, represented by seven chiefs: The Ojoye Ojisan, the same as we call The Olu Advisory Council.
They have a duty to screen the individual including taking him through the Oracle. And this is done not privately, but publicly.
Publicly in the sense that all the seven chiefs will be there, members representing the family that presented him will also be there; and some other observers could be invited to be there. In the event of anyone being rejected, it will be in the full view of everyone. When such person is rejected, the chiefs will tell the family to bring somebody else. The chiefs have no responsibility, duty and privilege to have to jump into the family and pick anybody.
What brought about the problem was that we know how long the process should take. For instance in 2015, the demise happened in September 2015, but by December 12, 2015, we had another Olu because it has been followed that way. So, the general people know how long it should take; even though they know what is happening, they would not dare say the king has joined his ancestors because they want it to be proclaimed the proper way. But if you unduly delay it, the people will now start to get restive. And what has prolonged it was that, though the family had played their role in presenting a candidate, the then Ologbotsere and chairman of the group of chiefs to handle this was then acting contrarily. When the date was set for that screening to happen, he would just wake up and leave town. He would leave and nobody knew when he’d come back. This is something that happened in December. By February, March, someone had already been presented to the chiefs, but he refused to take it forward; so people were now becoming restless. And some of us chiefs, who felt whatever they were doing they were doing it on behalf of us the chiefs, so we met at the Council of Chiefs meeting, drew their attention to it, because when we heard a report from them, it dawned that it was only because Ayiri was acting unilaterally all the time and we had to say to them to go back, bearing in mind and recognizing the Ojoye Ojisan is not just one man, but seven of you. We told them to go and work together collectively.
Secondly, we told them “where you had reached, carry on from there and give to us chiefs, the timetable on the various steps that had been taken for us to get to the end of the transition.
That was necessary because there had been too much foot dragging; unfortunately this was not done. Because we met on March 19 and as we were getting to the end of March, this was still not being done. And then, again, Ayiri summoned the family together and unilaterally decided to disqualify the person who was presented. On what ground if you ask him, he will keep saying ‘edict, edict edict.’ And when you ask him, what in the ‘edict’ must be met that is not being met, he cannot tell you other than the fact that Ologbotsere has played one role or the other. But forgetting the Ologbotsere is not a unilateral figure. He is only first among equals; he is only chairman of the group and in all our 541 years of monarchy, we have had 20 Olus who had come and gone; and we are in the process of getting the 21st Olu. In all of our history, Ayiri is only ‘number four’ Ologbotsere; that is to say a lot of the time, we have been carrying on without Ologbotsere; so without him, we can carry on. We, therefore, had to take that position as the Council of Chiefs, passed a ‘vote of no confidence’ in that group and reconstituted it. And from then, things started moving forward up till the glorious conclusion you saw on Saturday.
Gauging the mood of the Itsekiri Nation six days after the event, what are the feedback that you’ve been receiving?
Let me put it this way, because there’s a sense of euphoria that you can derive from the coronation event itself. But you should step backwards to the time when the rest of us chiefs had to take charge and started moving things forward. Excitement has filled everywhere among our people; they were happy and relieved that finally, we are on course. This has been a continuous build-up. By the time we were taking the next step like confirming and concluding the screening process till determining the candidate, there were jubilations. An then, when the announcement was made for the gathering of National Congregation of Itsekiri People where the news would be made, the whole place was jammed and that was on the 15th of April this year. And by the time the Omoba then had to also go to Ijala for another rite, the place was also jammed. This has been the build-up and climax of which you saw on Saturday, 21st of August during the coronation. The ripples of this has reverberated everywhere; we’ve had people calling from USA, UK Germany and other places. Some Itsekiris and those who are not Itsekiris but friends of Itsekiri have called congratulating us. The excitement has been very electric, but we do not want to be carried away with that because we know that expectations are high; when people rejoice this way, it is because of what they know will be coming ahead of us. The meeting we held today was at the instance of His Majesty to look at what’s on ground, where are we going, and what do we need to do.
It is not just to perpetuate ourselves in pageantry, but it is in terms of our people and our land; their needs, how do we meet them, what do we do to help them? We cannot depend on government to do everything; there are things we can do for ourselves. After all, we were a kingdom long before there ever was Nigeria and we used to look after ourselves. And we also know that in these days, if you cannot help yourself, you don’t expect government to help you. Unfortunately, we also don’t rely on politicians because when they get there, their songs are different from the time when they were campaigning for votes. When they get there after getting their votes, nothing tangible touches people on the ground.
Those are the things we are engaging our attention right now and we are praying we will remain on course; we will not be dissuaded, lose our steam, lose our focus; we will not be diverted and like the king described it this afternoon, this is not a dash, it is a marathon. You don’t expect the full result tomorrow or next week, but we want to be doing the right thing and moving at the right pace.
Was the suspended Ologbotsere matter discuss at the meeting whether to bring him back or has he made any effort so far to reconcile and what is also going on about the missing crowns?
There are some things that ordinarily if they were well-handled, we wouldn’t have needed to come to the public domain. This is really strictly our own internal business. However, it is unfortunate that he who is wrong, when he fails to be penitent, it becomes difficult even for you to take remedial reconciliating footsteps. That’s what we have in our hands at the moment. Before the coronation, some people led him (Ologbotsere) and a few others to the then Omooba (Olu-designate) and the advice he gave to him personally was “you have offended the generality of the Itsekiri people. Because you can see the mood of anger, frustration and then the relief had come when remedial steps started to be taken. And people have been saying they don’t want to see you anymore, you need to apologise to the nation. Write and publish an apology to say ‘you’re sorry,’ the way you acted, you didn’t know this was going to be the result. It has come out of your hands, out of your control and you need to be forgiven. When you do that, tension will come down.” Next, just before the crown and the accessories were stolen, the Olu told him he’s not accusing him of stealing the artifacts, but that he has a network of people he could talk to, to ensure that they were returned. “Do these two things and people’s tension will come down and they will be able to take another look at you.”
He left the place, thankful at first, but later denied ever being told that. He said he was never told to do that. Even if you were never told to do that and if you have your own senses, should anybody teach you to do that? And if somebody has told you that, should you think about it twice? Worst still to deny ever being told and that was his position. What next did he do? He then went to court to challenge the process because he kept saying that unless he would say with his own mouth that the transition has happened, it has not happened. How can you say that to a people? A generality of whom do not joke with their Olu as an institution; if you touch their Olu, you touch their own core; they will fight you to the end. You know this, how dare you take this kind of stand? He went to court to try and stop the process and, of course, we know that going to court on a matter such as this, the court will also listen to facts and we were very confident that when the facts are laid down, there’s no way he would get his way. And as we expected, the court could not stop the process.
But they had continued. The other prince, whom he was instigating, and who instigated and is suspected to be involved in the stealing of the crown, because he was here in the palace, when he got missing, the crown also got missing. You now dressed him up like Olu-designate and there was no way he was proclaimed to the nation as the Olu-designate, yet you dressed him up and put him on social media as the Olu-designate saying that you were going to use the missing crown to crown him on the 19th of August. How does this leave room for somebody to be easily forgiven and reconciled? It doesn’t leave room at all. And the generality of people are even saying “don’t ever bring him near,” and that can be understandable. But if he were penitent, it would have been a different thing, altogether. But unfortunately, up till today, he doesn’t sound penitent; he doesn’t appear penitent; he is not taking any penitent move. Even God will not forgive one who refused to repent, you must repent before you’re forgiven. He who fails to repent can never find forgiveness. I’m praying for him that somehow, God will help him to have a penitent heart to see where he has gone wrong so that he will take the steps that will make people to forgive him.
Isn’t that act of stealing the crown and dressing up the wrong Olu-designate itself sacreligious and could attract penalties?
Dressing the prince as Olu-designate is sacrilegious; that’s why we are praying for them. Because when you do this, the way that I put it, you offend Heaven, the Earth and the Nation. You see, That crown was made 1611 A.D, 410 years ago; and it has been in use since then. It was made with the cross of Jesus Christ on top of it. Those things that they have taken, they’re all part of the order of Christ that is associated with the monarchy since then. That someone would have the effrontery to carry it away and intend to use it, we don’t know how or where they’ll handle the burden they are carrying and God will ask them. I know God will ask them that’s why I pray for them that they should repent before it is too late.
Has such sacrilege ever happened before in the history of the kingdom?
No! Such incident has never been recorded in history. The crown has never gone missing since it was made 410 years ago. In fact, nobody dared touch it except the king himself or the one who is crowning him and that is the only time he can touch it after that, he can’t touch it, again. It’s only the king that can touch it because it is sacred. And for someone to think that this is something he could toy with, what kind of a person is he? What sense of traditional value does he have?
QUESTION: If the missing crowns and other artifacts were to be found and brought back to the palace, will it take some ritual sacrifice to get them restored in their prestine state spiritually?
ANSWER: It’s value is not lost so it is not a question of doing something to restore the value. But those who are not supposed to have access to it and to handle it, have a burden; the burden is on them. How they will divest themselves off that, only God knows. And then something that the king said at his first speech on the throne on Saturday; he said what some people had done sacrilegiously, somehow there’s some good from it. Because the first six Olus were crowned with Coral Beads, but from the 17th to the 20th Olu, 16 of them – were crowned with silver crown. However, this opportunity has made the 21st Olu to be crowned with a golden crown.
QUESTIONS: What’s the symbolic significance attached to this golden crown?
ANSWER: The symbolism of it is continue progression. They had thought that they would withhold the progression of the advancement of the Warri Kingdom, but the way things have turned out, it is a progression. In my lifetime, this is the first coronation I have watched; there’s none as glorious as this one!
I have witnessed three, there’s none to be compared to this. CNN has expressed positive opinion about it; even Clarence House, which is the official abode of Prince Charles, in America, the President, they’ve all turned and looked because of the Olu’s address. We didn’t ask for it to be so, but it was so.
QUESTION: Given the king’s young age, do you think he will be able to walk, talk?
I don’t know why you said given his age, because to some extent, his age is an added advantage. So, it shouldn’t be seen as a minus but as a plus. You know, good managers don’t do everything, but they get things done through people. When you recognize the talents that are there to be harnessed, you drive it , encourage it, , and things get done. He doesn’t see himself as a lone ranger; he sees himself as being in the midst of talents that are available and he also sees the opportunity which are down and are around us, he sees the capacity that can be harnessed to bring together so that good can come out of it. That’s what it takes.
There are criticisms against the maiden speech of the Olu, particularly his Christian worship songs intro which he rendered on an African traditional religious stool; what’s your take on this?
I think that whoever takes that position needs a lot, lot, lot more to learn about life and living and therefore tradition and customs practices. This is why I said so:
There’s someone who has said years ago that because God created man in His image, there’s something of God that is in everybody; and of course I recognize that from the the Bible as well. That is why some of his practices, you can see semblance of God and Godliness in it. It is also in his culture. But because since from Adam and Eve man has fallen into sin, disobedience against God, there are also other things that come into man in the sense of value that are ungodly. So, you have a mixture of this. Take any human group anywhere and this is what you will find. But for those who are touched by God, and who the before know Him more than the ordinary, they would also identify certain things in cultures that are Godly and promote them. Then, you will also find certain things that are not Godly and you know that it will be better for you to drop those things.
Did you know, for instance, that where I come from they (the Itsekiri people) practised female circumcision? It used to be so. Do you know how long ago it was stopped? Over 400 years ago by an Olu who was a Christian; who said that was out of tune with God’s creation. That it was violence against women and he stopped it. So, many people didn’t know, but all those nationalities who are around us are still struggling to stop it today; but we stopped it long ago.
There are many things in our culture and tradition that are Christian based; because we were exposed to Christianity long ago. And by the way, Christianity is not a Western religion. It is a worldwide, global religion; because the whole world is for Christ. So, any tradition that will, as it were, see itself as against God is against itself. But a tradition that recognizes the Lord God Almighty and gives due honour to Him is on the way to redemption. Tradition by our own recognition and definition is not put against Godliness; tradition is bringing God to bare upon your tradition, uphold by your tradition the things that God will approve of. So God is therefore in every tradition.
The first five Olus were not Christians and, of course, they brought in practices which included certain things that are not Christian. But there are also some things that are Christian. In fact, since from the 6th Olu, the 6th Olu was a Christian and it was his son, when he was a crown Prince, who made the crown with the cross in 1611 and he became crowned in 1625. That was the first time they used that crown; his father was not crowned with that crown though he was a Christian.
There are practices that people will import and do whatever they like and also, as we understand Christainity, God does not force anybody to yield to Him. He will show you his ways and tell you this is the better way to go; if you go, the blessings that are in there, you inherit, but if you refuse to, even though God has warned and you chose another way, He won’t strike down with a hammer; he will leave you to do what you want to. So, there are individuals who have brought different kinds of things into the system. In all of the period we had Christian Olus, there were also some that were mixing it up with all kinds of things that were not really pure. Whatever method that we use to praise God today is not alien to our tradition.
Sir, I recall that about a year before the demise of Atuwatse II in 2015, there were protests around the palace over the title ‘Ogiame.’ We were told the Olu wanted to drop the title ‘Ogiame’ because of it’s perceived occultic connotations… What was the true account?
I would not want to comment in details because I was also there. My understanding and which the king actually told everybody based on which those who were tensed up, was that what he was trying to do they did not understand. When God created man, He gave man dominion over all His creation. And Jesus having come, died and resurrected and seated on the right hand of God in heaven and all believers are seated there with Him and that all principalities and powers are under His feet. And by our traditional beliefs and custom, no juju can overtake the Olu. All jujus are under the feet of the Olu and every Itsekiri man and woman knows this. All jujus bow to the Olu. And if for some reason one juju arrests an individual, the Olu can declare such a person loosed and he’ll be loosed and the juju will give way. What he was trying to say then was the misunderstanding, the misinterpretation as if he’s the one to serve the god of the sea, No! But this is what they did not understand. To Ogiame, it means he’s king over the waters, yes God has made us kings over things under the waters whether physical or spiritual. The context in which you accept things matters a lot because that’s the meaning it conveys to you and that’s the meaning that determines your response.
Was that what probably informed his son using his authority as it were to reverse the curse his late grandfather, Olu Erejuwa II placed on the land?
Exactly. He has the authority to do so. So, when you call Ogiame, you’re not implying that there’s a bigger juju than him, somewhere.
You spoke about an Olu that halted the tradition of female circumcision. Are there remaining practices among the Itsekiris that this present Olu may also need to abolish in due time?
We don’t know yet, but even the way we dress, our full regalia as chiefs, we look like Catholic Cardinals is because of how it derived from Christian culture. Even the way we conduct ancestral worship, which we call ‘Ebora,’ it is a corruption of the Holy Communion. So, there are many such things that we’ve taken from our Christian background some centuries ago some of which have been distorted, taken out of contest, given a different meaning, but when you get to the Scriptures, you’ll get the proper meaning and align yourself with them.
Photo of former President Olusegun Obasanjo kneeling before the Olu is still doing the round across the globe. What reactions have the palace got from the gesture?
The reaction was positive. We’re deeply touched because for one thing he’s not an Itsekiri man but he knows the tradition, he knows the level of that throne. He did that to the institution of the Olu of Warri. And we deeply appreciate him for that.
What effect will that have on the entire Itsekiri Nation, I mean what’s the significance?
Like I said, the people were touched deeply. Because for some to do such, even though he didn’t have to, someone who was an ex-president but he did it voluntarily. It’s a positive for him, too as more people will respect him.
What’s the role of divine predestination in the enthronement of the current Olu?
Yes there are many things which confirmed that to us. There were prophecies that had come before now. And in the course of the process, you could see the hand of God in it for any discerning person.
Suspended Ologbotsere, Ayirimi Emami, once said the current Olu was rejected by the Oracle in 2015, giving that as one of his grouses?
You see Ayirimi was not telling you what he knew because he was in no position to know what actually transpired. I was in the Olu Advisory Council as of then and he wasn’t. The new Olu was never presented to us as a candidate at all let alone rejecting him. How would you reject somebody who has not been rejected? It is the final candidate the ruling house brings to the chiefs that we work on. And if the chiefs have a reason to reject any candidate, it will objectively done in the clear view of everyone. He was never brought to the fore in 2015 neither was he rejected. We don’t interfere how the family brings up its candidate. The family never brought him then and as chiefs we have no right to ask for any particular candidate to be brought forward.
This so-called edict aspect of an Olu-designate’s mother must be Itsekiri nor Edo, has it not been distorted and may boomerang in the future by the coming of the present Olu?
Do you know who wrote that? Do you know if it was an edict or a declaration? What’s is written there black and white is “whose mother is Itsekiri or Edo (not Benin) origin. Do you know any Itsekiri person who knows the story of Itsekiri and will tell you that no iota or trace of Yoruba in Itsekiri origin? None! Those who formed the Itsekiri nationalities include Yoruba groups, Nupe groups, Igala groups, former Dahomey groups, they all came at different times. But when they came, the base they met was first, Yoruba group and they started developing the language which is why you have the difference between Yoruba language and Itsekiri language. Of all the languages in the whole world, the nearest to us is Yoruba. It’s because Yoruba is at the base of the Itsekiri language and nationality. By the time Benin came, the language had already been developed fully which is why in the main body of the Itsekiri language you don’t find Benin in it. It’s only in chieftaincy affairs and royal where you have Edo language and terminologies because the institution was brought from there. And when they came they didn’t come to replicate Edo, the Yoruba group that came didn’t come to replicate Yoruba, just like others. They all came and were assimilated into Itsekiri. And when you talk of Edo origin, you cannot also shove away Yoruba from it.
So those who wrote it could be considered a superflous since Yoruba is inherent in Itsekiri and also Edo. Why should that be a problem? This thing was first written in 1931 when we were in the process of having the 17th Olu ahead of 1936 and the colonial government needed to have something written down in their name. Every Itsekiri person who knows his worth knows that you cannot isolate Itsekiri from Yoruba and therefore should never be a problem. Why wasn’t it a problem in 1936, 1952, 1987, so why now? It is because people who are mischievous in content and intent wanted to nit-pick that. That’s what happened. It’s a non-issue.
Sir, would then say that, from every indication, Ogiame Atuwase III ascension to the throne was God-ordained?
Yes! You know, there were many things which confirmed that to us. There were propheies that have come before now. Then, in the course of the process, you could also clearly see the hand of God. Fir any discerning person, you could see clearly that the hand of God is in this!
Sir, Chief Ayiri Emami has been hammering on the fact that the present Olu was rejected by the Oracle in 2015. What is then your take on that?
You see, Ayiri was not telling you what he knew. Because, he was not positioned to know that. I was a member of the Olu Advisory Council as at then, he(Ayiri) was not . And he (Olu) was never presented to us by his family at all. If somebody has not been presented,how would you have rejected the person? He was never! You see, look, can I say this to you? The family had a duty to go through their own internal process. It is the person that the family projects and brings to the chiefs ,that the chiefs will now process. It is only if the chiefs have reason(s) yo disqualify that individual that it would to us not be subjective.
It would be in the full view of others, including the view of those who bright him. It would be clear to all that the person has been rejected. All the chiefs need do is, you see now , it is not taken . So, go bring somebody else. That never happened in 2015. So, him saying that ; he manufactured that from his head because it never happened that way. Now within the family, they may have whatever way they went about it. We didn’t want to interfere. Whether some of us liked it or not, we had to abide by it. That was what happened. They never brought him(Olu) the first time . As chiefs , we had no duty , no privilege, we have no responsibility to demand that they bring a particular person or particular person be presented. So, we couldn’t do it.