The Making of a King The Historical Significance of Olu Atuwatse III

Last year, Olu Atuwatse III’s coronation captured the public imagination and shifted the trajectory of Warri’s history. What is this history in the first place? 

When the golden crown was placed on his head at approximately 3:30 p.m. on August 21, 2021, Prince Tsola Emiko completed the process to become the twenty-first Olu of the Warri Kingdom. Tradition dictates that he shall no longer be addressed by his birth name, but by his regnal name and title: His Majesty, Ogiame Atuwatse III, the Twenty-First Olu of the Warri Kingdom. The Olu of Warri, the paramount ruler of the kingdom, is one of the influential ‘first class’ traditional rulers in Nigeria, a designation the federal government of Nigeria uses in referring to a handful of traditional rulers whose ancient kingdoms predate Nigeria’s existence as a geopolitical entity. In present-day Delta State, where the Warri Kingdom is located, the Olu of Warri and the Dein of Agbor are the only two ‘first class’ rulers in the state’s council of traditional rulers. Last year, a man in his late thirties ascended the throne of Warri and became an influential force with centuries of tradition behind him. Olu Atuwatse III has since modernized and energized the institution. His coronation captured the public imagination and shifted the trajectory of Warri’s history, but what is this history in the first place?

The Warri Kingdom is located on the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. The Itsekiri people, are one of the five major ethnic groups in the oil-rich Delta State. Even though they are considered a minority group in Nigeria, they make up a population of approximately one million people resident within Delta State and several hundred thousands more in the ‘diaspora’—primarily in Lagos, the United Kingdom and the United States. Historically, the Itsekiri people have been well represented at the highest levels of national politics and academia through figures such as Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh (an early minister of finance in post-independence Nigeria), Chief Arthur Prest (the first Nigerian commissioned police officer), F. O. M. Atake (a prominent Nigerian judge and senator) and Professor Grace Alele-Williams (the first Nigerian woman to receive a doctorate).

A POLITICAL HISTORY OF WARRI KINGDOM

The origins of the Warri kingdom lie in the neighbouring kingdom of Benin. In the late fifteenth century, Prince Ginuwa, a son of the Oba of Benin, left his home with a large retinue to establish a new kingdom. He travelled toward the Atlantic coastline, eventually settling near the Forcados River in 1480. Ginuwa eventually settled in Ijala, which today is the resting place of all Olus, and was also where he died in 1510. His son, Prince Ijijen, would go on to settle in a town called Ode-Itsekiri that eventually became central to a new kingdom centred politically around the Olu and his council of chiefs. The Olu and his chiefs became the aristocracy of what is known today as Warri. Subsequent interactions with Europeans shaped the political culture of Warri Kingdom for centuries, including the advent of Christianity to the Warri area in the 1500s with Italian Catholic missionaries. Christianity became a ‘court religion’ with a succession of Olus who converted to and practised Catholicism, and built churches within the kingdom The first-ever church monastery built in what today is Nigeria was erected in Ode-ltsekiri before 1700 and was christened Saint Anthony. This church still exists today, in a site is known as Satone.

Saint Anthony Chapel (Saotone) located in Ode-Itsekiri. © Creative Flair NG.

The political instability that exists today in the Niger Delta is part of a long history of land disputes between different ethnic groups in the area. Within the Delta South senatorial district that consists of nine local government areas, for instance, the Itsekiris make up one of several groups that include the Isoko, Ijaw and Urhobo people. Longstanding ethnic tensions were further exacerbated in the 1920s when the different groups sought legal redress for land ownership claims in colonial-administered local courts as well as British ones. These tensions were instigated by the desire by British colonial administrators to raise taxes by dividing up communities in Warri along ethnic lines into discrete, taxable units. British colonial administrators formed a ‘Jekiri-Sobo’ (Itsekiri-Urhobo division) as one of three major provinces  in the 1930s, which fuelled conflict among the two ethnic groups by politicizing ethnicity and creating competition for access to tax and development resources.

The discovery of crude oil in 1956 in Oloibiri, now located in Bayelsa State, has only deepened these tensions. Such tensions now include disputes between local communities and the Nigerian state over control and ownership of oil resources, as well as the profits generated from their sale, to say nothing of the environmental effects of the crude oil economy.

The broader context of the Niger Delta is important to understand the significance of the newest monarch of a long dynasty, given the Warri kingdom’s centrality to modern Nigeria’s oil-powered economy. For one thing, the title ‘Olu of Warri’ was changed briefly in 1950 by British colonial authorities to ‘Olu of Itsekiri. At the time, the entire region that spans present day Delta State was called ‘Warri Province’ but other ethnic groups in the region did not wish to be subject to the Olu of Warri’s rule. The title reverted to its original title in 1952, when the Warri province became known as the ‘Delta Province’, seemingly resolving at least one dispute to the satisfaction of all the ethnic groups in the region. It was an anomaly that the title of the king (Olu of Itsekiri) briefly referred to a people and not a location, unlike other monarchies in Nigeria, including the Sultan of Sokoto, the Ooni of Ife or the Oba of Benin, and many others around the world, like the Queen of England and the King of Spain.

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CHRISTIANITY AND THE WARRI MONARCHY

At Ogiame Atuwatse III’s coronation ceremony, the excitement in the air was palpable when the newly crowned king’s regnal name was announced. During the pre-coronation rites, the Olu-designate picked a sword of authority from a line of swords owned by his twenty predecessors. In practice, the sword he chooses determines his new title. All the swords are arranged before him, including a new, nameless sword. The name of the new monarch is subsequently revealed to the entire Itsekiri nation at the formal crowning ceremony. In 2015, the then Olu-elect, Prince Godfrey Ikenwoli Emiko was blindfolded by Chief Yaya Pessu, the Ojomo of Warri Kingdom, before being led to choose a sword. He chose a blank sword, which meant that he could choose his regnal name, and thus became known as Ogiame Ikenwoli. In Oma-Oba Tsola’s case in 2021, he drew the sword of his predecessors, Ogiame Atuwatse I and his father, Ogiame Atuwatse II.

There is a symbolic as well as substantive meaning behind the regnal name Ogiame Atuwatse III. Ogiame Atuwatse I was a university graduate in 1610 and the first graduate from what would later become Nigeria in the early twentieth century. Prince Oyeomasan, who later became Ogiame Atuwatse I, was also known by his baptismal name Dom Domingos. By the time Prince Domingos ascended the throne as Atuwatse I, the Olu of Warri, he was a seventeenth-century graduate of the University of Coimbra in Portugal. As a prince, Domingos left Warri in 1600 after setting off aboard a trading vessel, briefly stopping over at São Tomé. He spent many months travelling up the coast of West Africa before he finally arrived in Lisbon. His stay in Portugal was sponsored by its king, Filip III, who took great interest in the welfare of the visiting prince during the decade Dom Domingos lived in Portugal.

In Portugal, Atuwatse I received a theological education, and was awarded the Order of Christ, allowing him to wear the Catholic garments still worn by the Olu of Warri today. He married a Portuguese noble woman, Maria Pereira, and returned to Warri with her in 1610. He also returned with two silver crowns gifted to him by the king of Portugal. The crowns given to Domingos in the seventeenth century were reportedly the ones that went missing before the 2021 coronation, roughly around the same time the late Ogiame Ikenwoli’s sons also went missing. Speculation was rife that the two sons were involved in the disappearance of the crown jewels. As is the case in many other monarchies, the Itsekiri crown jewels collection consisted of ancient jewels. Beaded crowns were used by the kingdom’s first six kings before the introduction of the silver crowns in 1625 which were used by the successive fourteen kings. On the day of his coronation, Ogiame Atuwatse III introduced a new pair of crowns to the royal collection—one silver, one gold.

In May 1987, Prince Godwin Toritseju Emiko was crowned the nineteenth Olu of Warri, adopting the regnal name Ogiame Atuwatse II. Atuwatse II, who reigned from 1987 to 2015, was the second monarch to be a university graduate, after his predecessor Dom Domingos. Ogiame Atuwatse II was a born-again Christian but was not the first Olu of Warri who was a Christian. Christianity was introduced to the Warri kingdom by Augustinian friars who were sent by King Filipe II of Spain to spread Christianity to locals from 1571 to 1574. These dates coincide with the period that the Augustinian bishop Gaspar Cão served as the bishop in residence at São Tomé. The Augustinian friars were able to establish a Christian settlement they named Santo Agostinho. The reigning Ogiame Esigie allowed his son to be baptised, giving him the name ‘Sabastian’. Thus, it should have come as no surprise when Ogiame Atuwatse III sang a Christian praise worship song at his coronation last year, when some commentators were perplexed regarding the coexistence of Christianity and a traditional African monarchy.

THE CUSTODIAN OF CULTURE

The Olu is the custodian of the culture of the Warri kingdom. Beginning with the kingdom’s founding in 1480, the Olu’s court consists of his five senior advisers—known as Ojoye Oguadoren—who sit on the Olu’s supreme council. The Ojoyes trace their beginnings to the sons of the Bini chiefs who accompanied Prince Ginuwa on his voyage from Benin, including the many who died during the long exodus. While many traditional titles in the Warri kingdom lost their meaning during the interregnum (1848-1936) and have since been discontinued, some senior Ojoye titles pre-interregnum remain, including the Ologbotsere (Chief Advisor to the Olu), Iyatsere (warlord), Uwangue (custodian of the Regalia), Otsodi (Custodian of the Olu’s Harem), and Ojomo (Captain of Hosts).

Before the coronation ceremony of a new Olu, there is an isolation period of ‘idaniken’ that lasts three lunar cycles. This is the time when the ‘Oma-Oba’ or Olu-designate is instructed in the kingship rites by the Ojoye Oguadoren. Oma-Oba must become familiar with these rites before ascending to the throne as the leader and custodian of the culture of the Warri kingdom. One of the many titles the Olu is styled with is Ogiame, a traditional appellation meaning ‘King of the Rivers’. There are rites that the Oma-Oba must undergo before ascending to the throne, in keeping with the Warri monarchy’s traditions.

Succession rituals ensure the ancestral approval of the selection of the Oma-Oba, and his legitimacy when he eventually ascends to the throne as Olu. Primogeniture is not strictly followed in the Warri kingdom. The selection process to replace the Olu following his death is rarely a straightforward affair, as several princes jostle for the throne. Two groups from the various royal families typically emerge during the selection process for the new king: Otu Moje, meaning ‘we agree’, and Otu Meje, meaning we do not agree with the choice of the front runner. As happened in 2015, male members of the extended royal family are invited to a family meeting, where a shortlist consisting of a male offspring of the last three Olus is drawn up, before the family makes a final decision.

Following this process, the ruling house of Ginuwa I, which is the branch of the royal family descended from Olu Ginuwa, selects a candidate to be approved by the ancestors via a consultation of the Ifa oracles. The completion of that consultation process marks the end of the competition between the two factions and the extended royal family is expected to rally around the newly chosen Oma-Oba. Last year, a power struggle broke out among some of the most powerful and influential chiefs in the Warri kingdom over the selection process. This reignited old divisions between powerful chiefs in the kingdom that spilled over to involve the ruling house of Ginuwa II.

This dispute delayed the selection process following Ogiame Ikenwoli’s passing and extended the period during which he was considered ‘indisposed’, as Warri kings are believed not to die but to have left the earthly realm to join their ancestors. ‘Ale jefun’, the official announcement of the transition of the twentieth Olu, was broadcast April 2021 at the general assembly of the Itsekiri people held at Ode Itsekiri, which is also known as ‘Big Warri’. The succession plan was revealed alongside the announcement of the new Oma-Oba, Prince Tsola Emiko.

Once the pronouncement was made on April 5, preparations for the burial of the late Ikenwoli began and the coronation preparation for Tsola Emiko was set in motion. Apart from a handful of individuals who unsuccessfully attempted to halt the proceedings in court, the majority of the Itsekiri nation appeared to be satisfied with the selection of the new Olu-designate.

THE CORONATION PROCESS

As mentioned, the rites performed at Ijala (the burial ground of all the 20 preceding Olus) are directly linked to the Warri kingdom’s origins. Thus, this distant past is granted symbolic importance as the Oma-Oba surreptitiously undergoes sacred rites on the grounds of Ijala, just as his predecessors did before they were crowned. The prince is also expected to perform symbolic acts of labour—including fetching water, chopping wood and paddling a canoe—one final time before his coronation, which takes place in Ode-Itsekiri. These gestures reflect the centrality of water and labour to riverine traditions of the Itsekiri people, and the performance connotes a connection to the common people of the kingdom. Through these pre-coronation rites—some of his last acts as an ordinary person—the Olu of Warri transitions from mere mortal to a pantheon of deities just below Oritse (God), emphasizing his centrality to the Itsekiri cultural heritage.

In the absence of the two senior hereditary titled chiefs—the Ologbotsere and the Uwangue—which was the case in 2015, the responsibility of crowning the Olu falls to the oldest living he descendants of the Ologbotsere family hailing from the town of Jakpa, in today’s Warri North local government area. The tradition traces its beginnings to the coronations of Ogiame Ginuwa II (1936-1949) and Ogiame Erejuwa II (1951-1986) when the Olare-aja of Jakpa at the time crowned them. The title Olare-aja referred to the oldest man in the community, being Jakpa.

A NEW KING’S MAIDEN ADDRESS

The senior titled chief, the Uwangue of the Warri kingdom, crowned Prince Tsola Emiko on August 21, 2021, thus becoming Ogiame Atuwatse III. In his maiden address, which was livestreamed and broadcast across Nigeria and even beyond its shores, Ogiame Atuwatse III captured the imagination of his far-reaching audience. To his people, he spoke of repositioning the Warri kingdom within a modern Nigeria, as part of ‘a divine project of restoration’. And to the Itsekiri in diaspora, he issued a clarion call to bring their ideas, capacity and resources. To the youths of the Niger Delta, he emphasized looking beyond oil and gas and to the women in the kingdom he recognized and acknowledged their contribution to society. His eloquence, youthfulness and rhetoric of inclusivity matched the mood of the occasion, in which he prayed for the prosperity of the Warri kingdom, as well as its neighbours, the Niger Delta, Nigeria and Africa broadly.

Nearly a year after his coronation, Olu Atuwatse III has shown the makings of a modern monarch that is engaged across multiple communication platforms. He has shown the importance of international engagement to his reign with an official visit to Canada, a verified Instagram account, and a segment on CNN’s African Voices in 2022. August 2021 was not just a coronation but the laying out of Olu Atuwatse III’s vision for a brighter future for all, and an example of the possibilities Nigerian youths can aspire toward, when given the opportunity

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