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Ode to Itsekiri and a game called life

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Prince Tsola Emiko waves after being crowned as the 21st king or the Olu of Warri kingdom and the Ogiame Atuwatse 111 during his coronation at Ode Itsekiri on August 21, 2021. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

On Saturday, August 21, the Itsekiri people of Delta State installed Prince Tsola Emiko as their 21st monarch, Ogiame Atuwatse III.

The leaders of Nigeria descended on Warri, the oil-rich city, to rejoice with the Itsekiri, one of the main ethnic groups in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It was a great milestone for the new king and his people. He started on a good note by invoking the majesty of his office to revoke a curse on the land said to have been pronounced by one of his ancestors at a period of national and personal distress.

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In the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the position of a traditional ruler is an oxymoron we have learnt to live with. One, it was the traditional rulers who signed the treaties with the British imperialists as they cobbled together this vast land which they nicknamed Nigeria. So divided have been our forefathers and their successors in power that we have not been able to agree to give our country a different name. The city of Port Harcourt, the elite enclave of Victoria Island and many other landmarks of Nigeria continue to remind us that no matter what we can say, this our beloved country was created for us by ambitious British imperialists. Therefore, when we celebrate the Olu of Warri and other monarchs, we are reaching out to something deeper, older and more relevant than the amalgamation of 1914.

The Itsekiri are regarded as part of the extended House of Oduduwa by the Yoruba people. The Itsekiri language sounds like a distant dialect of the Yoruba language. Olu of Warri is regarded as a direct descendant of Oranmiyan, the most famous of Ife princes who was reputed to have founded both the Benin and the Oyo dynasties. Both Benin and Oyo were later to create large empires that dominated the eastern part of pre-colonial West Africa. When party politics came, it was not surprising that many elites of the Itsekiri identified with the Yoruba and the leadership of the Action Group (AD) party.

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One man who was enthusiastic about this linkage was the late Chief Alfred Rewane, the ultimate apostle of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the AG. Rewane once served as Awolowo’s private secretary and from there on, they formed a lifelong relationship. Rewane was to become one of the founding leaders of the opposition National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), and he stood firmly against the continuation of military dictatorship in Nigeria until he was assassinated in 1995 during the dark days of General Sani Abacha.

Rewane cherished the historical and cultural linkage of the Itsekiri and the Yoruba people. He was not alone. It was therefore not surprising that many Yoruba traditional rulers, led by the spiritual leader of the race, Kabiyesi Oba Adeyeye Eniitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, the Ooni of Ife, were present at Ode Itsekiri, to honour the new monarch. It was indeed a glorious day for the Olu and his people. Now he has climbed onto history centrestage. May God grant him the grace and sagacity to fully occupy the majesty of his high office.

Thirty-four years ago, Chief Awolowo had also led a high delegation from the West to attend the coronation of the Olu of Warri, Godwin Toritseju, Olu Atuwatse II. He was accompanied by top leaders of the Awoist Movement who were all colleagues of Rewane, and many of the Itsekiri elites. It was a hectic schedule for the 78-year old Awolowo and when he returned to his country home in Ikenne, Ogun State, his doctor advised him to take a complete bed rest. But there was a social commitment that Awolowo had already made. He had been invited to attend the wedding of Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye’s daughter, then a director of Nigerian Mint, which was to take place on May 9, 1987.

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Awolowo’s wife, Chief H.I.D Awolowo, the Yeyeoba of Ife, agreed with the doctor that Awolowo should take a complete bed rest. She would go and attend the Durojaiye’s wedding and deliver Papa’s regret to them. She was fully dressed and decided to say goodbye to Papa who was in his room. She entered and met her husband, lying dead. It was only that night that Sienne All-Well Browne announced on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), network news, that “Chief Obafemi Awolowo is dead!”

Though he was an old man of 78, the passage of Awolowo shocked many Nigerians. The coronation in Warri was his last public outing.

He died like the ancients, without fuss and no lingering goodbye. He moved on quickly as if summoned suddenly by a higher king.

Awolowo’s burial was like no other. The men who brought in government muscle to give it solidarity were the Babangida governors of the constituent states of the West. Their leader was Colonel Adetunji Olurin, then the military governor of Oyo State. Ramrod and spare, he was the ultimate symbol of the military elite. At the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, built by the Awolowo regime in the golden era of the old West, Olurin gave a moving speech, evoking the allure of history and the enduring romance of the Yoruba people with Awolowo. Olurin later served with credit in Liberia as the commander of ECOMOG. He was made the administrator of Ekiti State after President Olusegun Obasanjo aborted the controversial regime of Ayodoele Fayose. He supported him to become elected Governor of Ogun State but was upstaged by the new musclemen of his party and General Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC). Olurin died on August 21, 2021. A good man and a great patriot has departed from us.

After the funeral of Awolowo, politics was to change dramatically and one of the new entrants was Durojaiye. After his banking job, he embraced service to his fatherland and to humanity. Durojaiye, a trained accountant later became a lawyer. He believed faithfuly in the transition programme engineered by General Ibrahim Babangida and he too contested to be president on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP). He lost the nomination to Abiola who emerged the candidate of the SDP and later won the presidential election of June 12, 1993. That election was to change our lives.

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When Babangida annulled the victory of Abiola, Durojaiye became one of the most ardent fighters for the actualisation of Abiola’s victory. One night in December 1996, agents of General Abacha stormed his residence in the elite enclave of Opebi, and whisked him away. He was to stay in detention for more than two years. It was a harrowing experience at the cell of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Apapa, when many suspected to be leaders or having sympathy with NADECO were detained.

Durojaiye was freed after the death of Abacha in 1998. He later joined politics on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), and won a seat in the Senate to represent Ogun East. He was a very capable legislator and though he did not return to the Senate in 2003, he remained a formidable leader in Ogun State, much sought after for his sagacity, his courage and his understanding of the Nigerian political landscape. Until last year, he was the chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). He was a vigorous and capable old man and his death was a shock to many people. He was 88.

He led a fulfilled life of service and devotion to the idea of Nigeria that must be a democratic and egalitarian country ruled according to the tenet of true federalism where every nationality would have its space under the sun. He was a true follower of Awolowo.

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