26 April 2009

Nigeria: Olu of Warri Coronation - Focus On Itsekiri Cultural Heritage


IT is no longer news that the anniversary of the coronation of the Olu of Warri comes up next month. And like always it comes up amidst spectacular cultural activities, media glitz, glamour and razzmatazz.

It is a time when the oil city bubbles and it is enveloped in air of celebration and jubilation, like the Greek bacchanal revels of old when the whole of Greece took to the streets to celebrate and commemorate the life and times of Dionysus or Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and agriculture. It is a time when the global focus is on the splendour and courtly pomp and pageantry of the great Itsekiri monarchy, which is considered equal to the splendour of the English royal majesty.

It is also a time when Itsekiri in the Diaspora in their hundreds of thousands return home from the proverbial "bloodless wars" "involved in acquiring" the golden fleece" to participate in and empathise with the culture and the sociopsychology of the Itsekiri ethnocentric entity, a time when the cream of the Itsekiri nation: The Rewanes, the Emikos, the Ayomikes, the Nanas and the Boyos, the Okotie-Ebohs, the Loris, Ikomis and the Omatseyes converge round their charismatic king to felicitate and solidarise with him in his hour of glory. The anniversary of the Olu of Warri is one compelling cultural fiesta that celebrates more than ever the historical link between the Warri Kingdom and the Old Benin Kingdom.

Mangrove swamps

Historically speaking, the Itsekiris inhabit the area around Benin, Forcados and Escravos rivers in Western Delta - an area of countless mangrove swamps - despite the fact that those of Warri City, the capital of the Kingdom, live on drier land, and they are very much influenced by Benin and Yoruba culture. If oral traditions are correct, the hard core of the Itsekiri people was made up of two parties of immigrants from Yoruba country who arrived and settled near the site of modern Warri in the early 15th Century.

Afterwards, another party of Edo people were said to have moved down from Benin in the same century to an area near Warri, led by a Benin Prince, Ginuwa, who left Benin in anger around 1475 after he had disagreed with his brother over succession to the throne of Benin.

Although Ginuwa was said to have died at a village on the way, his son however made it to a settlement just outside the location of the present day Warri. At this place, Ginuwa's son was accepted as the new leader of the settlement called Ode Itsekiri, the land of Itsekiri, after the headman who genuflected to Ginuwa's son who was given the title Olu.

Olu of Warri,Ogiame Atuwatse ll

In the middle of the 16th century, the King's palace was relocated to the site of today's Warri, which then became the capital of the Itsekiri Kingdom in the Delta. Going by the reports of early travellers, Warri was originally under the control of Benin.

Portuguese influence, in this port town during the 17th and early 18th centuries as well as a relaxation of Benin's control over the coast at this time, might have been the reason the late 18th century travellers regarded the city as seemingly independent. The Olu's beautiful palace, visitors reported, dominated the broad streets of the fine town, looking every inch like the Oba's building at Benin even though

it was slightly smaller.

It is possible that Europeans traders first visited the Western Delta in the 16th or 17th century, one of whom was Pereira who came in the ship Esmeralda. What, however, is sure is that the Roman Catholic Missions sent priests to Warri in the late 16th and early 17th century, whom traders from Portuguese ships may have accompanied.

During the first decades of the 17th century, Mingi, a son of the reigning Olu, travelled to Portugal for ten years for education. He came back married to a noble beautiful Portuguese woman and requested for missionaries to teach his subjects about the Catholic Faith from Pope Innocent X.

The Pope obliged in 1682 although the missionaries were to leave in frustration because the growth of Catholicism was decidely feeble by the end of the 18th Century. It was Mingi's son, Antonio Domingo, who reigned in the 1680s.

Then came one of Warri's greatest Kings, Olu Erejuwa, the successor to Antonio Domigo, who reigned from about 1720 to 1800 and expanded Warri politically and commercially. Erejuwa it was who used the Portuguese to further Warri's independence of Benin, sending emissaries to trade for him with Portuguese ships berthed in the Forcados estuary, and emboldening his kinsmen and women to move down towards the mouth of the Benin river where they endeavoured to cement their control over important commercial outlets.

So much for the historical perspective, underlining the relationship of Warri with the great Benin Kingdom. Now to the coronation proper.

The significance of this particular coronation anniversary is that it is coming at a time the seat of power in Delta State is occupied by a bona fide Itsekiri illustrious son, in the person of Governor Emmanuel Ewetan Uduaghan. So in every way this particular coronation assumes a monumental significance. Many indices point to the fact that it is going to be festivities galore.

To start with, the urban renewal project of Uduaghan, in every way, will certainly pave the way for the cultural festival to register the much - needed impact. Authoritative sources affirm that Warri and Asaba are wearing new looks courtesy of the Uduaghan's streetlight project.

It is on record that commercial activities are on the increase because of the streets illumination. Small enterprises like GSM retailers now do business far into the night in an environment devoid of criminal activities since the streetlights discourage criminals.

Other projects like the Warri Industrial Park will positively impact on the forthcoming coronation. With industries taking root in this cultural enclave, it is certain that one ugly monster which could affect the coronation negatively, youths restiveness, is pre-empted.

Interestingly, the Olu's coronation has always been a great crowd puller. The coronation that crowned His Majesty Ogiame Atuwatse II was attended by no less a person than the great Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Nigerians from diverse backgrounds will grace the occasion. And so will foreigners like the Portuguese, etc. The Itsekiri in the Diaspora will put in an appearance.

The whole world, figuratively speaking, will come to witness this great show, especially the Itsekiri Beauty Pageant which will further highlight the Itsekiri cultural heritage. What will they want to see in this festival, especially since the Itsekiri nation is arguably one of the nation's largest producer of oil?

Will the focus of the beautification exercise be on Warri alone? What about the other towns and villages of Itsekiri extraction? Are they also beautified for the world to see? These are the pertinent questions that should agitate the minds of the organising committee of this cultural fiesta, and indeed Uduaghan.

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