Nigeria: The Itsekiri’s Rich History and Their Bond With the Yoruba
One of the lasting friendship that I most cherished while I covered the Senate as National Assembly Editor between 1979-1983 was with Senator Franklin Oritsemueyiwa Atake (1928-2003), former Chief Judge of the old Bendel State.
Shortly after losing the Senate Presidency to the now ailing Dr. Joseph Wayas on October 7, 1979, I asked Senator Atake of the then Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) what the O. in his initials stood for. He smiled, and said “Oritsemuyiwa” and translated the meaning in clear and fluent Yoruba language to “orisa-mu-yi-wa” which means “God has brought this one”.
From then on till he left the Senate in 1983, Senator Atake made it a point of duty to converse with me in fluent Yoruba language.
“Madawonlohun” meaning “don’t mind them” while referring to his NPN colleagues in the Senate. I salute his scholarship till today.
The last journey Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987) made before he died on May 9, 1987 was to his trusted friend and steadfast colleague, Chief Alfred Ogbeyiwa Rewane (1914-1995) in Warri.
He was in Warri for three days and some interpreted that Chief Awolowo went to Warri to thank Chief Rewane for his enduring love and friendship that spanned over forty-five years. It turned out to be a farewell visit. A sort of good-bye. Abbe Jacques Delile wrote “Fate chooses our relatives, we choose our friends” while Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote that “A friend is, as it were, a second half”.
Those who knew Chief Awolowo very well like Chief Ayo Adebanjo,Chief Olanihun Ajayi, Chief Ebenezer Babatope (Ebino Topsy), Senator Ayo Fasanmi, Chief Fasoranti, will acquiesce to how Chief Awolowo values true amity and friendship while disavowing ingratitude.
Till he was assassinated on October 6, 1995 in his residence at Ikeja GRA, Lagos by yet unknown persons, Chief Rewane was the Ologbotsere of the Itsekiris. The title Ologbotsere is very common in many Yoruba cities and in the Bini kingdom also. In Idanre for example, the Ologbotsere, Chief Felix Olagundoye Olurankinshe, is one of the kingmakers and very close to the Owa of Idanre, Oba Frederick Arubuefin Aroloye. He inherited the title from his late dad, Chief Isaiah Akinyawo Olurankinshe, who was very powerful and highly influential in Idanre before he died in 1967 at the age of 112.
I attended a nuptial in Lagos recently, between Eyituoyo Amuka Pemu, son of my mentor, Chief Sam Amuka Pemu, who employed me thirty-seven years ago in the Punch, and the love of his life, Oladepe Funmi-Adeshina.
Great man, all of us whom Chief Sam Amuka Pemu employed in the Punch and in the Vanguard between twenty to forty years ago, including Mr. Shola Odunfa (Our Editor), Muyiwa Adetiba, Gori Ogunyemi, Kenny Adamson, Bunmi Sofola(Our bonny and plantinum with undying beauty), Toyin Akiyode, Fola Arogundade, Jimi Disu, Gbenga Adefaye, Ikeddy Isiguzor (Ilekun) and others were all present at the wedlock.
I noticed a strong resemblance between the Yoruba and the Itsekiri cultures.
The resemblance confirm to what Professor Obaro Ikime wrote years ago: “Though distance might be long the Yorubas and the Itsekiris have common and spiritual bond”.
The likes of Chief Arthur Edward Prest (1906-1976), Chief Alison Ayida, Professor Horatio Oritshejolomi Thomas (1917-1979), Chief Festus Sam Okotie-Eboh (1912-1966), Professor I.E. Sagay, Sam Omatseye of the Nation, Pa J.O.S. Ayomike, Alex Ideh, Chief Mrs. Rita Lori Ogbebor, Daniel Reyenieju, Ojoye Oma Eyewuoomo, Mr. Omolubi Newuwumi, Edward Ekpomo, Chief Thomas Eteyitomi, Isaac Jemide, Dr. Stephen Gbejero and others remind us of the Itsekiri.
Who are the Itsekiris? The Itsekiri are a peculiar and unique people in the Nigerian Niger Delta. They have for long inhabited their homeland,which now constitutes the three Warri Local Government Areas out of the twenty -five local governments of Delta State. The Itsekiri have rich traditional and cultural practices.
Itsekiri modern history dates from the late fifteenth century when the Itsekiri people adopted a prince from Benin Kingdom as their monarch. Prior to this time, Itsekiri lived independently in different communities that included Irigbo, Ureju, Omadino and Ugborodo. With the arrival of the prince and adoption of the monarchy. These communities coalesced to become a Kingdom.
History reveal that in several waves of migration before the 15th Century, and some a little later, groups from Igala in Nupe country came in through the creeks; Yoruba from Ijebu-ode, Akure, and Owo found their way into parts of the kingdom and a group from Aboh also came in. Some along the coast came in through Gulani/Amatu.
Historically, the Itsekiri have a monarchy, over 500 years old, and which, as a rallying point in their society, remains its supreme government. From 1480 to now, there have reigned 19 Olu of Warri: five Olus of the Christian era; 1480-1597: eight Roman Catholic Olus from 1597-1735 and six Olus of the post-Roman Catholic Christian era.
According to Bini and Itsekiri histories, Ginuwa, a prince of Benin founded the Iwerre (Warri) kingdom about 1480. In the 15th century, Warri was visited by Portuguese missionaries. At the beginning of the 17th century, a son of the reigning Olu was sent to Portugal and returned with a Portuguese wife. Their son, Antonio Domingo, was Olu of Warri in the 1640s. OluErejuwa, who reigned from about 1720 to 1800, expanded Warri politically and commercially, using the Portuguese to further Warri’s independence off Benin and to establish control over wider area.
Later Warri served as the base for Portuguese and Dutch slave traders. Warri became a more important port city during the late 19th century, when it became a centre for the palm oil trade and other major items such as rubber, palm products, cocoa, groundnuts, hides, and skins. Warri was established as a provincial headquarters by the British in the early 20th century. In May 1952 the government of Western Nigeria under Chief Obafemi Awolowo changed the title of the Itsekiri ruler from the Olu of Itsekiri to the Olu of Warri, at the request of the Itsekiri. The Ijaw, Urhobo and other people of the community objected to the change, since they felt the new title implied that the Olu was ruler of Warri, not just of the Itsekiri.
Section 5 of the Constitution of Mid-Western Nigeria Acts 1964 states that “Without prejudice to the provision of section 9 of this Constitution, the House of Chiefs shall consist of – the Oba of Benin, the Olu of Warri and the persons for the time being holding such other chieftaincies as may be prescribed by the Governor, who shall be ex-officio members of the House, fifty-one Chiefs having such qualifications and selected in such manner as may prescribed by the Legislature of the Region; such Special Members, being Chiefs, as may be selected by the Governor, acting in accordance with the advice of the Premier.
The present Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwatse II, was crowned in 1987.
In 1997, General Sanni Abacha set up a committee for the creation of states and local governments.
The committee was headed by Chief Arthur Mbanefo, a renowned Chartered Accountant while Alhaji Adamu Fika, who is now the Chairman of the National Assembly Service Commission, was secretary. The committee created a Warri South-West Local Government Council, with headquarters at Ogbe-Ijoh,in the Ijaw area of Warri. Due to political pressure by the Itsekiri, the headquarters was then relocated to Ogidigben, an Itsekiri area of Warri. Riots ensued, hundreds died, and six Shell Nigeria installations were taken over by youths. The crisis was known as “Warri Crisis of 1997”.
Whatever may be the future of Nigeria, it is to be hoped that the Yorubas and the Itsekiris will strengthen the spiritual bond between them in spite of the distance that exist among the two tribes.
By Eric Teniola,a former Director at the Presidency.