Interview

August 21, 2022

Olu of Warri: ‘My life, Warri Kingdom and our agenda for peace, progress’

*Talks about transformation into kingship

*His views on spirituality, Christianity and tradition

Fortune must be smiling on the people of Warri Kingdom. 

The ascension of His Majesty, Ogiame Atuwatse III, Olu of Warri, last year, is considered in many spheres as fortunate.

He has knowledge and he is wise.  He is also calm. And he is young, suave and has a panache.  You cannot ask for more in a king.

Yes, he may not be the Biblical King Solomon for many reasons (including but not limited to that monarch’s love for women), but he responds to questions and expresses his sentiments in a manner that enthuses majestic reasoning.

Before the Vanguard team of Jide Ajani, Emma Amaize, Tuoyo Amuka, Neville Amorighoye, Jimitota Onoyume, Akpokona Omafuaire, Ogiame Atuwatse III spoke like a king who means well and wants to do well.

He talks about life and development with an uncommon philosophical insight that is at once disarming.  In the last 12 months of his reign, he has inspired hope.  And, as an author once said, hope is good for breakfast and not for dinner.  Yes, it is early days yet, but the king’s seeming collegiate approach to peace-building and a manifesto of clear-headed proposals for all tribes of his kingdom, stand him in good stead to bring unprecedented progress to his domain.

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Excerpts:

No doubt, you’ve been transformed from that son of late Olu, that young man, into His Majesty, Ogiame Atuwatse III, Olu of Warri.

What has it been like in terms of transformation from a prince to His Majesty?

Thank you. One year into it, sometimes it still feels surreal,  but quickly that sense of it being surreal goes away from the minute you wake up. Sometimes when you wake up you still feel like a regular person. But once you are hit with the protocol as you step out of your comfort zone, you are quickly reminded that it is not a dream and it is not surreal. 

And it takes a bit of getting used to. It is one day at a time. God, obviously, is consistent, helping. It’s good to know that He is around me, beside me, in front of me.  Because without Him, it can appear to be overwhelming. 

Was there a particular event, when you woke up, and, suddenly, you felt  you could have done this or that before, but today you can’t do it anymore?

If I understood you correctly, were you asking if having attained a certain achievement, looking back you are trying to see things you can no longer do because you have attained a certain achievement.

Alright! Well, in that case, obviously, even before the coronation day, to be very frank, Alejefun (that’s the formal announcement of the passing of his predecessor) happened in April last year, and I was officially introduced to the world as the then Olu-designate.

You really couldn’t just do anything anymore or live the way you used to live. To be fair, even before that day I felt like I had always been observed by a lot of Itsekiri people. Not deliberately, not because I knew for a fact that this was what will happen, but because when your father is the king, all Itsekiri know those are Baba’s children.

And he also raised us to conduct ourselves in a way that reflects, well, not just of his person, but also to be an inspiration to all Itsekiri people. So that, whatever it is you are doing, even playing sports, be elegant, be gracious in the things you do. So I guess I always had that background in the way I was raised. 

Obviously that became magnified in April last year; and further magnified in August last year. So, it has been a gradual easing off, if you could do some things, you can no longer do this and that. 

So it’s been step by step. 

In what condition did you meet the Warri kingdom when you were crowned. And what is its state today, one year after?

I think in life a lot comes down to time. The timing in which we came was an interesting one. Naturally when there is a succession, when one king crosses over and the other one is incoming, I think every kingdom is in a state of, we need to successfully get a new captain on board the ship. There is always that, obviously that was there. 

Again, the nature of the process of succession added a bit to the, do I say, the anxiety, the drama. So there was that as well. And then where we were as a nation beyond Itsekiri, the general atmosphere in the country. And I think, I say this with all humility, the manner in which we emerged brought some sense of inspiration, encouragement, hope to not just Itsekiri people, but to even our neighbours who were watching to see how things will unfold. 

One year later, I think we are in a more stable state as a people. We are more stable, it is not quite perfect. 

Where are you taking Itsekiri nation to ?

We are a nation of laws. Unfortunately Warri kingdom, Itsekiri nation is not quite a sovereign one because we are in a sovereign nation, Nigeria. And there is a constitution that guides. Therefore there is a constitutional limitation as to how far I can go. 

So, operating in that context, there will be a lot of outside the box approaches. One in which we are confident that we will not run foul of the law of Nigeria. But on the contrary we will even inspire the rest of Nigeria to say, ‘well, if that  kingdom in a corner of Nigeria can, with all the constitutional restrictions, produce forward thinking outcomes, that’s good’. That is where I imagine myself. 

Before now this area had been a theatre of war among the ethnic groups, how are you driving peace ?

It was in my speech on the coronation day, that I will actively reach out to our neighbours . And it also goes hand in hand with the question you just asked, about where we are taking our people.  We are not just going to go there alone and our neighbours will be looking at us. 

Because we must work with them to ensure that the goodness and the progress that we are bringing they also benefit from it. And that involves a lot of healing. Because a lot has happened in the last twenty five, thirty years. 

What happened in those years was as a result of seeds that were sown  centuries before; distrust in the way we had previously interacted. And they now became evident and manifest in the last two plus decades. So, we are moving forward, knowing that we have to heal ourselves internally so that our neighbours no longer look at us with that eye of resentment, suspicion, anger, bitterness. 

So that when we are making overtures to them because we will, they will see it for what it is, that is very very important. Because like I said last year in my speech, I have no intention to take us to a place of prosperity and our neighbours will remain in a state that they are in. 

And yes, I am the Itsekiri monarch but I will continue to open myself to be seen by our neighbours as a fatherly figure to them. So that they are comfortable enough to come and say, we will like to partner with you in xyz. Of course we will consider every possibility of that becoming a reality. 

What’s been a turning point in your life you would wish to share ?

There are a few. Obviously a lot of them before I became king.  As far as I can remember, I would say going to boarding school was probably one of them. Before then all I knew was Warri in the sense of an everyday life.  Yes we travel during summer. But going to boarding school was the first time when I was not going on a holiday. And I was going to spend three months at a time somewhere that was not my home.

It was with complete strangers in far away Kwara State, where I had never been before. And it was the first time I saw Nigerians who were not southerners, the first time I saw a Muslim pray. So, boarding school really opened my eyes to what is really a melting pot, that is Nigeria. And beyond that, the next step, going to a university in America. Yes, prior to that  I had visited America several times. But this time I was going to live away from my family. This time you are meeting other nationalities and people of other races. That also was clearly another level where the mind and eyes were opened. 

And after that there were a few in between. The next one was becoming a married man, getting married. Prior to that, you had seen married couples, not just your parents. So, to now enter the ship clearly takes you up another level. Quickly following this, becoming a father. Now, I am a biological father of three children. Once again, it takes it to another level, your world view changing. After this, obviously, the passing of my father. That also rocked my world in all kinds of ways. As in, any child who loses a father, there is a loss.

A good family friend of mine, almost like a father, I knew his father, he tells me till today that he misses his father. He is an older man. I remember when he made that statement to me about eight years ago, I looked at him and said, ‘you are a grown man’. Now, I understand what he meant, I guess, in this case, because of the implication of my father’s passing. That obviously put me on a bit of a rollercoaster because there was succession involved. There were sides and accepting everything graciously. And that further puts you on a different level as to life experiences. 

And the most recent one will be where we are now. And the journey through how I got here. That also further changed my view, and was also a turning point in my life. I think these I highlighted are probably the most notable turning points. 

I want to ask this very tricky question.  You started on a prayerful note on your coronation day. First, if there had been a time you thought of this kingship; it would be my turn. 

Let me try to answer it the way I heard you asked it. Did I ever imagine I would  get here! To attempt to answer that part of the question, I will say if you understand or you know anything about the peculiarity or the history of this monarchy, it’s not, even though the succession process comes to a peaceful resolution at the end, the outcomes have not often been as straightforward as any one would imagine . 

There have been instances where brothers have succeeded monarchs, there have been instances where one who ought to have been given up for a nephew or was it an uncle that was older. 

There had been instances where the elder son did not get it. I am saying all that to show that it is not necessarily straight forward or automatic. And having that in mind is very important. And also really believing in providence, God.  Really, just having that in mind makes the  journey easier. This is how I will attempt to answer that part of your question. 

The second leg is, generally, in African tradition, people think it is really going to be difficult if not impossible to have that meeting point between Christianity and tradition. 

One thing I find is that the spiritual world is a neutral place. What I mean is that anybody can access it, traditional (those with indigenous beliefs), Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. That space is a plane where there is interaction. 

The access through which I access the spiritual world is Christ. For me going there through Him and being in Him, anything that wants to try to manipulate or do what it wants to do I just try not to pay attention to that. And the response may almost make it sound too easy. 

But when you actually want to open your eyes to see, what I find is that, especially in my own faith, when you look at the old testament if you are really paying attention to our African traditional belief systems, you will find that often times they are mirroring, replicating what was in the old testament. 

What challenges do you see making the two sides meet on a sustainable basis as the king? And how have you been able to cope with the challenges?

If your eyes are really opened you will see it. It’s hiding in plain sight. Something hiding in plain sight you can almost miss it. But because sometimes certain peoples’ eyes are not opened, this is where religion comes in, where we now start dividing ourselves, thinking one has autonomy or they are the sole custodian of a thing.

The truth of the matter is that that was not the intent when God created things. And monarchy is an institution He created. And monarchy is an attempt to replicate how He governs in heaven. Not an attempt to replicate man’s system but heaven’s system. 

For me, journeying and your eyes are opened each passing day, you will see more revelations as to what culture and tradition is and what it was originally intended to be. 

The unfortunate thing about the gap, what it was originally intended to be and what it has become, is man.  Man kept fine tuning and in this, he tends to drift away from what was originally intended even though he may not realise that he is drifting away from the original intention. But when you identify with the original intent it is like it is easier to relate with what it intends to be.  

This question is a very simple one. What has life taught you?

It is a simple question to ask but not exactly a simple question to answer.  Life, I will say, has taught me many things. Some stand out more than others. So, there is a process through which we must go. 

You tend to know just the pleasant things of life as you begin life’s journey. As you grow, you are no longer a child, you really start seeing the other part of life. And oftentimes these things may not be usually as sweet and pleasant as it was when you started growing up. 

But it is very important that you quickly embrace these things that are not pleasant, not because you want to live a sad life but because there is a reason God allowed these things. It is also tied to that question of turning point in life.

The Bible says it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of celebration. Because I think from that point of view you really see the completeness of life. And  if you are not able to look at both sides and have an appreciation for both experiences it is not a complete one.  I am also thinking about eating sweet things. And everybody loves to eat sweet things. But the things usually that are bitter, not pleasant, often have better effects on your body. Just a general response. That is how I will attempt to answer what life has taught me. 

Oil companies and investors have since left Warri; and this doesn’t paint the picture of an oil city. What are you and other monarchs doing to engage the issue?

There was a part of my response earlier where I had said there are restrictions on steps you can take as a monarch considering how the laws and country is structured. The easy answer is to say the government, Minister of Petroleum, the policies of the country and also we ourselves are what have collectively contributed to the oil companies leaving. 

But that is not all, today in the news we are reading that Mobil wants to leave another part of Nigeria. From what I gathered, where Mobil operates, they have never experienced unpleasant experiences with the communities the way Shell experienced in some areas they operated.  But in a more relatively pleasant environment that Mobil has enjoyed, they are leaving. 

So, it points to you that it is the times we are in, in terms of what happens in the global economy and the transition in the way we consume energy world wide. 

Having said all that, I think this gives us an opportunity to demonstrate capacity, once again, back to thinking outside the box. 

It will involve working with the government because according to the laws of the land, the resource under the land belongs to the government. Now, if that law wasn’t there you will see me fly literally. I will not have to call Abuja to say I want to do xyz and they will give you a list of things to do, see this man, see that one; it’ll complicate the process. 

So once again, within these restrictions  and parameters there is always the approach of partnering with foreigners but you now have to package yourselves in a way that the government cannot resist the creativity of what you have because their interests have been considered. 

Everybody is looking for value addition in the country and the world, especially in Nigeria, especially when they have exhausted every means to benefit from oil and gas, so when you come up with a creative solution or a creative approach and, you, having the credibility of being an indigenous natural leader, it is very difficult to resist. So, it is that inner packaging and partnerships I believe is the way forward. 

I am not just restricted to oil in Warri. There is agriculture, tourism, they all create an economy. I am emphasizing these because nations that have larger deposits than we do – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – are looking to diversify. Saudi Arabia does not care if Chevron and Shell leaves, Saudi Aramco is doing the business but even, they, too, are looking to see that they can diversify what they are doing. 

We have to take advantage of our situation to move forward. And all will come down to creativity. 

We are aware you have been meeting over the PIA, we really want to know where you are driving Warri kingdom to in relation to the host community aspect in the PIA?

The PIA, for me, is an opportunity to get a second look, lay a foundation for our people. 

It’s been almost sixty years of oil activities in the Niger Delta and no matter what people show you, they will tell you we have spent almost twenty billion dollars on infrastructural developments in the Niger Delta. All international oil companies, IOC’s bring their claims, whatever the figure is, they are not telling lies.  Money has been assigned for that purpose but the simple question is, do you see  twenty billion dollars worth of infrastructure in the Niger Delta  or in Nigeria, the answer is no. 

So, as a people, we are now trying to lay a new foundation but we need to carry our people along. It’s one thing to say ‘Your Majesty, come up with experts’.  You  have the rich, brilliant minds, Itsekiri and even non Itsekiri. But there will be that sensitivity of not bringing non-Itsekiri, we have enough of our brilliant Itsekiri that can handle it. 

Chances are that the majority of brilliant Itsekiri are not here,(Warri) they are in the big cities. But there is also a situation on ground, there are people who have remained here, they have passion for development here, maybe not necessarily the capacity. And they are adamant that they must be part of the process and you can’t ignore that. You cannot just bring diaspora-based Itsekiri here to fix the problems because they are so well experienced.

They will run into some hitches. So, what we are trying to do is bring that situation into a perfect equilibrium as much as possible. We need the capacity, the experience and the passion. 

Finding that balance and having the unique vision, the blueprint, and from there, build. Once again tie it to the previous point: it is down to the vision of the king. It is not my personal ambition. It is the spirit that inspires me to bring our people from far and here (Warri); to merge, so that we are creating the vision together. 

I dare say that for all the problems we are having in the country, many grade A solutions have been given to people in government in the past sixty years. It is not like the solution has not come but that hurts, that attitude barrier does not allow the solutions. 

You have met the President, what are the vibes and hope you got from the visit?  Also did you raise the issue of the Koko-Ogheye road which is very passionate to the people of Itsekiri?

The road was definitely tabled when we saw him. And to also respond to the other question, I was actually impressed, humbled, that the President took note of all we presented to him. And when you consider how Nigeria operates, that things may take time, it was not so. We got very timely feedback from those he had directed, to say things were actually in motion. 

So, clearly he did not hesitate in giving directives to issues tabled. It was very encouraging. 

We have been placed on notice. The President has done his part, he did not sleep on it. He did not put them aside. Obviously it is humbling that he has respect for this institution. 

Some have advocated the need for constitutional roles to be  assigned to traditional rulers. Let’s hear your view.

Well, I think it is always good when the constitution recognises you.   Well, let’s  find a balance between both. 

Let’s hear your vision for youth development and the things you’ve already put in place.

I  think it is important that young people are brought into positions through which they can demonstrate capacity. Whether we want to admit it or not, the government in this country is inspired by traditional institutions. 

When you see change in the institutions it will filter into the state. 

What I have met is a lot of elderly people in positions as it has always been. Sometimes, you see the restiveness of the young people, arising from the economic situation in the country. 

They are now beginning to almost disrespect the elderly. Some of it is because they are not employed, not given opportunities to demonstrate their capacity and so on. 

So, we have to come up with creative ways to propel and inspire our youths. That is one of the reasons I am here, to inspire, not just Itsekiri people, but the whole Niger Delta and the entire country. I believe we will succeed. 

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