By Anote Ajeluorou
Lawyer, playwright and minority political rights activist, Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe is of Itsekiri stock and has distinguished himself in many fields of endeavours. He sat with the late Olu for four hours during his 90-day period of seclusion in 1987 and gives insight into Itsekiri historical evolution, the coronation process and other salient issues. Excerpts:
With the coronation of the Olu-elect, a new era seems in the offing. How ready is the Itsekiri nation to embrace it?
There are times when the old must pass away and the new must take over. It’s a natural phenomenon, and given the shortcomings of life itself as made by God and nature, there is never a perfect situation. The development and growth of nations are a quest that human beings never stopped seeking. There is always hope that today will be better than yesterday. To that extent, those of us who are older do not easily embrace change. When change comes, you find the younger people in society embracing it.
There is hope in that the new Olu is a younger person. The young people are the ones who would naturally be involved with him; the only set of old people he would be dealing with are the chiefs that he inherited. In that respect, it is a new era for the Itsekiri people.
There have been a lot of inter-ethnic problems between the Itsekiri and their neighbours. How can the new Olu help sustain the subsisting peace?
That would be good for the Itsekiri people and all of those in their immediate surroundings. I don’t think that it would be necessary, the Itsekiri and their neighbours being at each other’s throats as you would have in every locality. It is not necessarily because they are not from the same ethnic group; it is because of human nature. Wherever you may be, because of scarcity of resource, there is always the need to inter-fight (if there is a word like that) over the scarce resources of life, those resources that human beings need to survive, whether it is land, general resources and so on. We have the examples of the Yoruba, as demonstrated by the Modakeke and Ile-Ife, which shows that it is not necessarily ethnicity that brings about such neighbourly quarrels.
Now, for the people in the Delta fighting, particularly the Ijaw, the Itsekiri, it is more acute there for reasons other than ordinary neighbourly disagreements. For me, Delta State is the Eldorado of Nigeria, if only because there is this one resource oil. The Nigerian authorities have decided that the only resource that is worth pursuing is the one resource that God naturally God gave them the right for it to be on their land, but who are not allowed to enjoy it to any extent for that matter and because it is the bread basket of the nation.
It is my firm belief, and examples can be given, that it is not in the interest of the unitary Federal Government of Nigeria that the Itsekiri, the Ijaw and the Urhobo would find peace, because there is this anticipation that once they do, it would also cost those powerful authorities who rule over the area, and they cannot suffer the inconvenience that the peace in that area would bring. On the principles of divide and rule, the three ethnic groups must forever remain in dispute. The best example of that was the fight between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri not so long ago.
Could you give us the historical background of the Oluship of the Itsekiri?
As an Itsekiri man, my elders taught me that the history of Itsekiri land had its origin in Benin. The fact is that the titles of chiefs in Benin have the same correlation as the chiefs in Itsekiri, and that is the linkage. That is why in Itsekiri, if you have a title that is not in tandem with the titles in Benin, it will be known that you are a modern creation, and that is why in Itsekiri you have what is called Omajaja, Otoloye and you have the royal family. The Omajaja are those people who were there before the son of the Oba of Benin came to rule over them. The Otoloyes are the chiefs that the descendants of the chiefs of the Oba of Benin that came with the first Olu of Warri. Then you have the royal family; those are all the new people that descended from the Olus.
It then means that the coronation rites of the Itsekiri are similar to that of the Benin since there is the same ancestral link?
Yes; it does, in every regard. We have the same titles
There is the story of the altercation, not long ago, between the Oba of Benin and the late Olu of Warri. The Oba of Benin and the Olu of Warri were at a meeting, and he said that ‘My son here’ (referring to the Olu of Warri) is well aware of what I’m saying. That is how it goes by tradition….’ The late Olu retorted by saying, ‘yes, that is how it goes, but I’m not your son; I’m your senior brother.’ And, of course, you know how powerful the Oba of Benin is. It didn’t go down well with him at all. But the late Olu was a lawyer who was talking law, he was talking history; he was talking ascendency. If the person who left Benin to found the Itsekiri Oluship was the first son of the then Oba of Benin because of a royal plot to kill him, it means that after he left, someone junior to him on the succession line was the one who became Oba of Benin. Then any new Olu of Warri, tracing through that, is the senior brother of any new Oba of Benin. So, to that extent, the Olu was correct; but to the extent it was the son of the Oba of Benin who went to found Itsekiri Oluship, the Oba was correct in saying the Olu of Warri is his son. There was a father-son relationship that went on for a long time, and there was a senior bother to a junior brother relationships in modern times; so, both of them were correct.
How does the coronation of a new Olu go?
As the Secretary General of Delta State Movement that led to its creation as a state, the late Olu was just coming in and he was in seclusion, and I had to go and brief him about what the state was all about. So, I spent close to four hours talking with him before his coronation. I did not do that this time. But of course, the Agbeyegbe went as a family.
What happens during the coronation?
The Olu-elect is presented by the priests to the generality of the Itsekiri people in an open ceremony and the swords of his ancestors are on display. And after the introduction, after all the ceremonies that they have to perform; talking to their ancestors. You know, those who misunderstand Itsekiri religion call them ancestors worshippers because they always talk to their ancestors, but those who understand it better know that they only call upon their ancestors to intermediate with God. Therefore, the so-called Itsekiri religion is like the Christian religion, like the Islamic religion. In Islam, you talk through Mohammed and in Christianity they talk to their God through Jesus Christ. These are people who intermediate for them. That is what the Itsekiri people do; they talk to their God about how the new era is about to come to life. They are about to put the crown on the incoming Olu’s head. Then they will get up with their arms folded and be directed to where the sons of all past Olus are on display and they will pick one of the sons to get his title.
If you remember, the late Olu was Atuwatse, and the sword that he picked was that of Atuwatse I. He is named after the sons. The coincidence was quite impressive because he was a graduate; Atuwatse the first was the first graduate in Nigerian history. He went to Portugal to study.
Whose sword does he pick?
There are swords of the past Olus that are lying down there. So, if you pick it, you keep it. Atuwatse II when he picked the sword of Atuwatse I became Atuwatse II. Now he is gone and the sword goes back there as belonging to the first and second Atuwatse. The incoming Olu would have to pick his own sword and it will be too incredible if he picks the same sword. But if by some coincidence he picks the same sword, he automatically becomes Atuwatse III.
Why are coronations usually held at Ode-Itsekiri?
That is the homestead of Itsekiri royal family. The palace from time memorial was at a place called Ijaja which is next door to where you have the refinery in Epan because that was where the son of that Oba of Benin landed when he came from Benin with the first sons of Benin chiefs in his party. That’s why the Olus are buried there at Ijaja. Though he left there and went to a place called big Warri, which is Itsekiri Odu. The palace in Warri is a newer version of what is in Itsekiri Odu in performing the coronation and burial of an Olu on the mainland, they don’t do any of those in the mainland.
As a playwright you have not always portrayed the monarchy in glowing light. It isn’t something you obviously subscribe to, yet you have it as part of your cultural heritage. How do you deal with this?
In all my upbringing, I have been a libertarian. My political development has been in the liberal mode. To that extent, there is some contradiction given my personal view of an Olu or King or Oba. Those of us who have been seeking some amendments in the Nigerian scene point to the fact that we are supposed to be a Republic. And we are filled with pockets of monarchy. That is part of the contradiction of our country. Yet the Federal Government identifies with my traditional ruler.
Yet the Federal Government identifies with my natural ruler. But differently from all other ethnic nationalities, the Itsekiri and the Benin are at one in the succession line. It goes through one family lines and it goes through the eldest son. It doesn’t happen like that elsewhere. In Itsekiri, it is even worse in that you don’t have the Enogies represent the Oba of Benin in the districts, but the Itsekiri don’t have such structure. There’s only one Olu, one ancestry, one ruler, one monarch. Whatever you are or have, it is in Itsekiriland that you have everybody keeping quiet once the Olu has spoken. Of course, what that means is that he doesn’t speak first; every other person would have spoken, including his advisers; that is why he is called Afomasin, that party, that entity or that deity, if you like, after he has spoken nobody dares, nobody challenges him, nobody has any other thing to say. The loyalty in Itsekiri is that nobody obeys, everybody believes, nobody dares.
Why isn’t the son of the late Olu the one being crowned now? Why is it the brother? Is that the tradition in Itsekiriland?
No, the late Olu was the son of the one that went before him. This one coming in now is the brother of the late Olu. It is his elder brother who has passed away. He did not pass it on to the son because changes in modern times are coming into the system. Otherwise, it would have gone to the eldest son. When it used to be strictly adhered to, it used be not just the senior son, but the first son that was born to him after he became an Olu. In other words, he could have been there, and his father is sitting on the throne and he is grown enough to get married and he gets married while his father is still alive, but he eventually succeeds to the throne. When he is to be succeeded, because he was married before his father died, and he’d had children before his father died, his first in life may not necessarily be the Olu, but the son he has after succeeding to the throne as Olu.
What is the position of women with regard to the throne in Itsekiri? Can they succeed to the throne?
Historically, Itsekiri are not a matrilineal people like the Ghanaians and some ethnic groups. Nigeria is largely a patrilineal society. In Itsekitiland, the importance of women is not diminished by the fact that they don’t get on the throne. As I remember it, there has never been a female Olu in Itsekiriland. But there was one that could have broken, if you can call it a jinx, that jinx. In the end, she did not make it although she had all the powers. It nearly happened because there was no son at the time who could have inherited the throne. It ensured a period of interregnum in Itsekiriland when there was no Olu for a long time.
So, how was she schemed out of inheriting her father’s throne?
It was like fate and the belief, of course, that a woman never becomes the head of an Itsekiri community; that a woman can never become an Olaraja, the head of the people. In Itsekiri, the Olu is the head of all Itsekiri. In itsekiri communities, the Olaraja is the head, the oldest man in the community. It must be a man. When women are the oldest, the right to leadership falls to a younger man who is the oldest man around, or the Olaraja, the leader.