The Olu of Warri and his God, by Olusegun Adeniyi



“Henceforth, I submit and present the title ‘Ogiame’ to God, the creator, who made the sea and rules over all. Therefore, no Olu or person may bear the title or name that now belongs to God. I nullify all tokens of libation poured on the land and seas or sprinkled into the air in Iwere land. I frustrate all sacrifices of wine, blood, food, water, kola nuts and other items offered in Iwere land. In conformity with the new covenant, through the blood of Jesus, I release the royal bloodline, the chiefs of the Iwere kingdom, the Iwere people and land, waters and atmosphere of Iwere kingdom from all ties to other spiritual covenants and agreements.”

With the foregoing royal proclamation, the Olu of Warri, Atuwase II, recently decreed a stop to some ancient customs of the Warri Kingdom after publicly renouncing the traditional name ‘Ogiame’. The Olu also vowed to replace all the rituals and practices that do not conform with his new faith in Jesus Christ. But the royal father did not have the last word on the matter as he met a stiff challenge from a cross-section of Itsekiri people who called for his dethronement. By the third day of what was almost becoming a violent protest, several youths and women had erected canopies and were cooking in front of the palace gate.

However, following the intervention of the Delta State governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, himself an Itsekiri man, the traditional ruler (who happens to be a staunch member of the Foursquare Gospel Church), had to annul his own decree for peace to reign. And with the crisis resolved, a thanksgiving service was held last Sunday with the crème-de-la-crème of the Itsekiri nation, including Governor Uduaghan (who came with his deputy, Prof. Amos Utuama (SAN), Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Mr. Victor Ochei, and a large number of senior government officials) in attendance.

While it is noteworthy that Governor Uduaghan and other prominent Itsekiri sons and daughters were able to rally to put out the fire that could have had far-reaching consequences on the peace in Warri Kingdom, a most pertinent question remains as to whether indeed the Olu could unilaterally reject the title ‘Ogiame’ which represents the ancient identity, custom, heritage and symbol of the people over whom he presides. This question is worth interrogating in view of the fact that what the royal father sought to jettison without due process were established values and deep-rooted beliefs of his people which have persisted over generations – traditions over which he was appointed to serve as custodian.

I find the Warri Kingdom crisis fascinating because it speaks to the tension between Pentecostal Christianity and tradition, especially in our country and Richard Niebuhr’s highly revealing book, “Christ and Culture”, perhaps opens some window of understanding. To demonstrate how Christians have attempted to deal with the challenge of their faith against the background of old beliefs and customs, Niebuhr identifies five approaches which he listed as: Christ against Culture; The Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture.

Unfortunately, the Pentecostalism that has been embraced in Nigeria today fits into the paradigm of “Christ against Culture”, a notion which rejects all the traditional African mores as archaic, backward and evil. The presupposition is that those traditions belong to some sinister gods that need to be dropped for us to prosper materially and spiritually. 

For that reason, many Nigerian Christians have had to change their names based on the theology that those names were dedicated to some ancestral spirits whose yokes would have to be broken for them to be free from poverty, disease and curse. While expressions of faith differ from one denomination to another, the preponderance of opinion among pastors is that our traditional heritages (sometimes including priceless artifacts, dating back to centuries) are hindrances to our faith and callings as believers hence we have to do away with them. It is within that context that we can situate the spiritual edict which got the Olu of Warri into trouble.

Now, I must make something clear: I am also a Pentecostal Christian – even with all my failings and imperfections – and I understand that one cannot serve the true God and still be worshipping idols. But I have problem with a faith that is expressed in symbolisms and even superstitions. For instance, I have listened to several songs and messages that the economic and political problems which plague our nation today can be traced to our hosting of FESTAC in 1977 during which, as the tale goes, several countries came to dump their Satanic gods on our land. Not only do I believe there was nothing wrong in our hosting FESTAC, I see no correlation between it and our inability as a nation to harness our enormous potentials for the advancement of our society.
The Warri incident is instructive because there is a constitutional dimension to it which in itself can be considered within the context of the Christian faith. The Olu, for instance, already has a Church within the palace and it is not on record that his people quarrel with that; so the attempt to change the tradition under which he came to power is not only wrong but indeed self-serving. Like all positions of authority, there are sacred rules that bind the leader to the community and that explains why in other climes, Kings have been known to abdicate their thrones whenever there are irreconsiliable conflicts between personal convictions (which sometimes include the love of certain women) and the traditional order.

In the particular case of Warri, the matter is even simple. If the Olu can demonstrate the true essence of his faith and his subjects could see the evidence in his deeds, perhaps he could gradually reform some of the traditions without the public drama that almost ended in hubris. The problem I see, however, is that such public profession of political Christianity has become the vogue. I have read of a minister who holds a strategic portfolio under the current administration who also doubles as the General Overseer of a Church he founded. Even if we choose to ignore the several issues begging for clarification in such God-Mammon portfolio, the question must be asked as to whether his faith is reflected in his stewardship as a public official.

But before we digress, what many fail to understand is that in order to develop our country and uplift our people, we need to burnish our cultural identity while adopting the instruments and methods of scientific civilisation. However, a fuller exploration of the issues will take us to the place of symbols in belief systems; the essential privacy of religion and indeed the tricky point of how all these intersect to sustain public order and social peace. To that extent, the peaceful resolution of the clash between the Olu of Warri’s private Christian belief and the imperatives of his public cultural symbolism as a traditional monarch speaks volumes to the rest of us.

Religion as an aspect of culture thrives on symbols and rituals. Pentecostalism, of course, rejects the rites of the traditional Christian churches as it is founded on the redemption work of Christ on the Cross of Calvary. But I remain unconvinced that salvation is also a function of cultural suicide. For me, there is nothing that should preclude a traditional ruler from being a disciple of Christ as well as an authentic symbol of the culture of his people. This is the crux of a debate that is waiting to be inaugurated.


•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com


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