The Olu of Warri, Ogiame Atuwase III, speaks with FRIDAY OLOKOR on his reign and national issues
You recently travelled to Canada. What was the purpose of the trip?
There were a lot of positive reactions to my emergence (as king). Clearly, the world was watching and we already had family ties to Canada. There were a lot of people who reached out, wanting to see how they could partner with the Warri Kingdom, because we had made a call that everyone in the Diaspora should please join us in rebuilding (the kingdom).
So, I think our sons and daughters who are in Canada, listened to that speech, and it inspired them to want to work with us. That is coupled with the fact that we already had family ties in Canada. We decided to use that opportunity to see what professional and developmental opportunities there that we could bring back to Warri.
We used that as an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. It was a bit unorthodox but we decided to go there and serve as a brand ambassador of sorts and open the gates to Warri kingdom.
Warri is known to be a business environment. How do you intend to open up the kingdom to the global community?
That is also one of the reasons we went to Canada. The government has done the best they can and they are always doing their best to open up, not just Warri but all of Nigeria. It is good when there is out of the box thinking, because one needs to do something different to attract progress and development. I felt that while my role is defined as a traditional ruler, I am able to have some sort of influence over the sort of investments we will like to see.
We (Warri) are not a sovereign kingdom. Nigeria is a sovereign nation but ultimately, we know that in doing the best we can to attract progress and development to Warri, all tiers of government— from the local to state and federal— will benefit ultimately; depending on how it is structured.
I think it was a former President of the United States of America, John Kennedy, who said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’. I see this as this is something I can do for my people and my country.
What are your short-term and long-term plans for the people of Warri?
The short-term plan is to lift their heads up and this is really beyond Warri people. The past few years have been quite tough for Warri people, and Nigerians in general. Sometimes, one may not necessarily have what the people think is the solution. I am sure if one shares $10bn to the people of Warri and all Nigerians, they will say one has given them the solution to their problems. While we don’t have that money to share, we are able to open up doors and avenues to make money come in. The immediate plan is to give them hope. Once, one is able to give people hope, one can then prepare their minds for the increase and blessings that are expected to come in. That way, they will be able to make better use of it, because if one just makes all that money available to people who are not mentally and emotionally ready for such blessings, the likelihood is that they may not use it well.
When you were announced as the Olu of Warri designate, some people disagreed with your selection. How do you intend to reconcile such people and win their support to have a successful reign?
If you look at the history of Warri kingdom, there is always some sort of contention when succession is ongoing. Ultimately when the king emerges, everybody usually comes together and work for the common good.
Unfortunately, this time, there was a bit of politicking. By politicking, I mean it was more intense than usual. Now that we have emerged and we are supposed to be the father of all, we are still doing all we can do reach out to everybody.
The message that comes from me and the throne is that there is no individual too black, too bad or too sinful to be reconciled. We always compare the role of the king to the keeper of the forest. Even God himself created all kinds of animals— both the wild and domesticated ones. God did not create all soft and good animals.
We have not labelled anybody good or bad. Those people on the other side should also forgive themselves and come because even while we are still inviting them, it is likely they have still not forgiven themselves.
But, we keep the door open and hopefully with time, everybody will heal and know that truly, they are welcome.
What was the first thought that ran through your mind when it was announced that you would be the next Olu of Warri?
It was very heavy because I had seen my father there for 28 years. As I got older, I really saw how heavy the responsibility was and what had happened in 2015 after my father passed on and the opportunity bypassed me, I felt that I would resign to the life of regular individual. But, it (opportunity to be king) came back and at that point, I needed to mentally readjust my mind that I was now going to be the father of not just my biological children but all Itsekiri people. It was a serious and heavy moment. But, with the help of my wife and even my children, it has been made easier with each passing day.
It was alleged that some people opposed your announcement as the Olu of Warri because of your relationship and affinity with the Yorubas. How do you feel about that if it is true?
When you say my affinity or relationship with the South West, I understood where they were coming from, and I always made it clear that this was always going to be determined by God. And, if you and even those who opposed it want to be fair, they will admit it was God’s doing.
There was no way one could lobby or try to influence the outcome. For the first time in our recent history, even down to the process of the oracle confirming, it was open to a lot of people. It was not as secret as it was in 2015 or when my father emerged in 1987; definitely not as it was when my grandfather emerged in the fifties. Back then, there was no media; it was all in-house and secret. But, this time, it was actually open to the public and everybody saw what transpired.
I believe that the same God who started this process is going to heal and unify everybody, no matter how strong their sentiments are in whatever direction.
The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, was said to have intervened in the crisis that heralded your nomination. What is your relationship with him and do you intend to partner with him in any way going forward?
First, I am thankful to the Kabiyesi because I know you say he intervened. I am not entirely sure of how much of an intervention it was though. We woke up in the morning of the day it was announced publicly to hear that Kabiyesi had sent two royal representatives, and it was a complete shock to us. We saw that as the king knowing the Yoruba affiliation, and wanting to show that they can support one who is seen to be part of them. Without any interview or saying anything; it was just the gesture, and it ended up adding weight, glamour and colour to the process.
He is a relatively young man like I am and I know that we are both very progressive in our outlooks. It is always good to know that one has somebody like one who thinks along the same line, and is facing the same situation that one is in.
Many people do not like associating with traditional rulers because they believe that they are involved in fetish practices. As a Christian, did you have such fears?
The answer is no, I don’t have such fears. Second; yes, I am a Christian. Christianity is more importantly about one’s individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ. When the Holy Spirit tells you to do a particular thing; even to fellow Christians, it may not sound Christian-like.
For instance, when it came to standing before the oracle, a lot of people felt that because I am a Christian, I wouldn’t do it. However, I prayed about it and the Holy Spirit made it very clear to me not to be afraid. I was told to go and stand (before it), and I stood. I believe that the spiritual world can be accessed by anyone of any faith. If one shies away from the spiritual world because one is afraid or because one is not aware of how it operates, one will lose out on a lot of good things that God himself has destined for one.
It is really about knowing one’s identity, knowing who one is and being bold in that identity.
Some people believe that traditional rulers no longer command the respect they used to. If that is true, how do you think traditional rulers can command more respect from members of the public?
The only way I can answer that question is by saying ‘time can do and undo things’. Time can change perceptions; and while time is doing what it does, it is also about how the individuals and institutions evolve. Culture and tradition are supposed to be dynamic. However, it does not mean that one has to throw everything out and try to reinvent them. That way, one would lose one’s essence.
One has to keep one’s essence which is like one’s anchor, and reinvent one’s style and approach. If one is able to do that, even with the passage of time, Nigerians will find their way back to favourably looking towards traditional rulers.
The Niger Delta region, which Warri is part of, generates a lot of money for the country but is in a bad shape. What plans do you have as regards working with the government or oil companies to clean up the environment and make the region more conducive for living?
In that regard, what one can do is to present one’s plans in tandem with what the government and oil companies are doing. As a traditional ruler, one is domiciled there with the people, so one experiences the same things that one’s people are suffering. That way, one is in a position to go to them (government and oil companies) and say, ‘You have a budget or developmental plan, and as grand as it may seem, can we meet at a point so that your plan works with the consent of our people’.
One has to make sure that one’s local government chairman is in on one’s plan. One also has to involve those who approve the budget in the National Assembly, as well as those who are going to put line items to say they want to build a certain number of buildings, boreholes and other amenities. One needs to make sure that all those monies are well spent, if not, things will just be replicated and they will not really address the needs of the people. Once we are able to come together and synergise plans, things will work out for everybody.
You are now a First Class traditional ruler. What are some of the things you used to do before that you can no longer do as a king?
Immediately one becomes a king, one is now a symbol. One is held in high esteem, so the way one carries oneself has to change. It is almost like the people look at one and they draw pride, confidence and inspiration from one.
Of course, there are certain things, traditionally and even generally, that is not expected of a king.
And, there are some things that are neither here nor there, that even if as a king one decides to do them, inasmuch as it may be shocking to people to see the king doing it, it could still inspire them, that even if the king decides to do this particular thing, he does it with class and in a regal way. I think that is also part of the things that make the institution and the individual relatable to the people as the times are changing.
Warri has produced a lot of comedians and other entertainers. What plans do you have to discover and groom new talents from Warri kingdom?
I don’t know if I necessarily have a plan in that direction. But, one thing I know is that I will do anything for anyone who is from Warri that I meet. It does not even necessarily have to be an Itsekiri person, because I see myself as a father to everybody who calls Warri home. Anybody who comes from here and shows me that they have certain abilities and talent, I will do all that is in my power or use my network to help them. If possible, I will provide a local platform for them to demonstrate that ability and perhaps, based on that platform that they were able to perform for the Olu of Warri, they could be picked up by the media at a higher level. If that sort of platform is what works for them, we will create it.
You are a handsome man. How were you able to ward off temptation from other women and get settled with your heartthrob?
Women aside, this is a world full of temptation and the truth is that if one wants to succeed in life, one has to know what the big picture is and what is important. If one pays attention to every single distraction, one will not achieve what God has called one to achieve.
It is about understanding ones identity and what one has been called to do. One’s focus should be on all those things.
I am very much a family man, and I have always been that way. I will also like to add that time shows one what is important. A lot of these distractions and temptations are not important in the long run, no matter how flashy they are. It is about looking beyond the flashiness and knowing where one is going to.
So, women could be distractions?
The truth is that if one is a married man, any woman who is not one’s wife, that one is not working with in a professional manner or one is not helping out, is clearly a distraction, and vice versa.
A lot of people are advocating for Nigeria to be restructured to truly solve the present challenges the country is facing. Are you an apostle of restructuring?
I think what you call restructuring, some people may call it ‘retooling’ or ‘readjusting’. It depends on what one calls it. But, what is clear to everyone is that despite how hard the government is trying, certain things are clearly not working. For things to better trickle down to the masses, and for resources to be more efficiently applied, things have to be revisited without sentiments. Once we do that, we will be able to better manage the resources we have to make Nigeria get to where it needs to get to.
Some churchgoers were recently killed in cold blood in Owo, Ondo State. What is your view about the rising spate of insecurity in the country?
First, my heart goes out to the people of Owo. As soon as I heard about the incident, I got in touch with my friend and brother, the Olowo of Owo, to sympathise and commiserate with him. It was really unfortunate what happened. I think it demonstrates what Nigerians and even the government already knows, that we need to revamp our security apparatus all across the country. That is glaring.
The first responsibility of any government is to protect lives. In any part of the country, the government must be able to guarantee security of lives and properties. It does not matter who is responsible for the insecurity and chaos, there will always be such elements in society. The most important thing is for the government to always be up to the task, to make sure such criminal minds are not able achieve their evil aims.
For me, the take home from the Owo incident is that our security architecture needs to be seriously revisited. The life of every single Nigerian, in whatever part of the country of whatever faith, is very important.
What fond memories do you have of your father that you will never forget?
He was an open, kind, generous and firm man. He was a lot of things rolled into one, and I think especially now, just barely a year into my reign and knowing that he occupied this position for 28years, I appreciate and respect him even more.
What was your childhood like?
Though it is hard to believe, my childhood was actually very normal. My father did well not to overly expose us to palace life and its activities. He really did well to make sure we had a normal childhood, even though we never lost track of our identities. My childhood experience was similar to what any other middle-class Nigerian family had, growing up in the eighties.
What was your wife’s reaction when it was announced that you would be the king?
Her reaction was similar to mine. We understood the gravity of what was coming and we knew there would be some changes in our lives, as we were about to go from private individuals to public figures. It was also a feeling of gratitude because it is a privilege to be called to this office to serve. While we were grateful for the opportunity, we also understood the magnitude of what the assignment was. As a matter of fact, it is something we are still learning with each passing day.
The 2023 general elections is fast approaching. What is your advice to the youth, and what are the qualities voters should look for in the ideal president and other leaders to be voted for?
To the youths, they have to open their minds and think critically of the decisions they are about to make. It is particularly important for the youth because they are going to be here for much longer than the older ones who have gone through many election cycles and have made their own decisions. It was even some of those decisions that brought us to where we are today. The youth have to look back and analyse all that, and decide where and how do they will do things differently. If we keep doing things the same way those before us did them, we will get the same results. No matter how much we complain or cry, we will get the same results of we go down that route. So, we need to think differently and follow through on our decisions.
Do you think Nigeria will ever get to the ‘Promised Land’ and be like other advanced democracies in the world?
The short answer is that it is going to be a roller coaster ride. But, as long as we trust one another and start seeing ourselves as Nigerians, not based on the regions we come from; whether North-West, North East, North Central, South-South, South-East or South West, we will get to that promised land.