The Ooni of Ife, His Majesty Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, the spiritual head of the Yoruba people recently opened an exhibition of some 60 artefacts from the Ife Kingdom at the Brazilian Consulate in Lagos. While waiting to interview the Ooni, Daily Trust observed how the monarch held court in Lagos and reports.
From the floor below, a musical din floats up to the balcony of the Brazilian Consulate in Lagos. The music mingles with the voices of the people upstairs, amongs who was the Ooni of ife, His Majesty, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, whose voice sometimes carried to the end of the balcony. He was holding court here, in the balcony of the consulate after opening an exhibition of Ife artefacts at an event to commemorate the Brazilian Independence Day.
“Right now, we are in Brazil,” the Ooni would say later in an interview with Daily Trust. “We are not in Nigeria now. We are in Brazil.”
Diplomatically speaking, yes, it was Brazil. But it was also Lagos. The Ooni has been building a relationship with Brazil where there are probably more people with Yoruba ancestry than there are in Nigeria. “Eighty million Yoruba speakers” the Ooni said.
The Ooni is believed to be a descendant of the father of the Yoruba nation, Oduduwa, on whose throne he sits as the spiritual head of all Yoruba people. That makes him the most revered traditional leaders of the Yoruba people.
On the balcony, the consulate had set up a small court for His Majesty who sat in the middle of a horseshoe formation of white-gowned Yoruba chiefs. He too was dressed in white, in a long thobe that fell to his beaded ankles and cream-coloured asoke toga draped around his shoulder. The silver splotches on the toga compliment his silver shoes but not his mint green crown of sequins, same material his staff of office, held by one of his attendants standing behind him, was covered in.
Once or twice when he spoke, he caressed the long streams of coral beads that looped down his neck and collected on his lap. When he moved his hands—and he moved his hands a lot—one would notice the coral beads on his wrist. The Ooni is young and energetic. He is only 44 but with the authority his office confers, he often leaned forward to pat the backs of the people who prostrated at his feet, seeking his blessings. Some of them fell on both knees to receive this blessing, to confer with him or to take selfies.
A desperate looking woman knelt by the Ooni’s feet as he leaned forward to listen to her. She pulled out her phone and showed him something. He collected the phone and scowled into the screen for a while. When he talked to her, she fell on her hands and thanked him.
Others took her place. One of them whipped out a photo, the Ooni smiled into the camera. Click! Click!
The Ooni was a happy man that night.
He had just declared open an exhibition of 60 Ife artefacts from his personal collection. It was something close to his heart, evidently, from the passion ringing his voice when he spoke about the work. Generally, the Ooni seemed like a passionate man, from the way he spoke, this passion went a notch higher when he spoke about these artefacts. And even though, an Ife Prince said the Ooni was not supposed to speak so loudly in public, this one’s voice sometimes carried to the end of the balcony and halfway down the stairs, before being drowned out by the music from below.
The Ooni was right. This was Brazil. But it was also actually Lagos. The territory of Rilwan Akiolu, Oba of Lagos, whose public shunning of the Ooni at an April 2017 event created a stir. That time the Oba had refused a handshake from the Ooni, waving him away with a scowl and drawing condemnation for himself. The Ooni might be younger, but he sits on Oduduwa’s throne and is considered the Yoruba “King of Kings.” Not surprisingly, the Oba did not turn up for this event in his frontyard but other Yoruba rulers did.
One of them was the flamboyantly dressed Oba Michael Arowatawaya II, the Elerinmo of Erimo-Ijesha, Osun State, who accompanied the Ooni to open the exhibition. He stood out in his rich, royal blue robe with thick coral beads hanging from his neck. He was decked in eye-popping glitter—a fila covered with golden sequins twinkling in the white light, a walking stick coated in the same material, same as the handle of his lush fly whisk. When he pulled out his phone, and stroked the screen, it too was encased in eye-catching sequins as well. Against the white of the other chiefs, he would naturally stand out.
Animated, the Ooni joked with his courtiers, exchanging banters with a close aide or relative, singing each other’s made up nicknames. It looked like an inhouse joke. At one end of the horseshoe formation, a young woman sat in a black gown, fiddling and smiling into her phone, almost oblivious to the spectacle playing before her.
When the CEO of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe, arrived, casually dressed in denim pants and top, the Ooni got more animated. There were hearty fist pumps between monarch and banker and an offer of a personal guided tour of the artefact. The Ooni rose to lead the way, holding the hands of the banker.
The royal attendants, with half their heads shaved clean, who had been loitering around the court, kicked into action. The Emese, they are called, most of them descendants from families that have committed themselves to the service of the Ooni. They were a motley bunch, some young, others not so much.
A palace priest, a man draped in hyena skin, put aside the glass of drink he had been enjoying, whipped out his gourds and with some theatrics chanted incantations, rattled the gourds and proceeded before the Ooni. That seemed to trigger the live band downstairs. They ramped up the tempo, the decibels rising several degrees. Some chorus members seemed keen to outdo each other. The result was a cacophony of music and a buzz as the Ooni and his guest hurried downstairs to the artefacts.
One of the emeses, a lean, young man, stood behind the Ooni, clasping both sides of his toga and waddling behind the monarch as if afraid to unleash the king. He gripped the toga as they descended the stairs, into the gallery, followed and held onto the Ooni as he showed his guest around the artefacts, bracing himself each time he gripped the toga afresh, as if afraid he would lose the king. All through, the Ooni went about his business, paying no heed to the man clinging so tightly to his toga.
“We have artefacts that have been dated to 1300 years,” the Ooni said above the din. “All confirmed.”
It is a refrain he would repeat later, during our interview.
His guest seemed impressed and nodded along. Guided tour over, there were more speeches, more fist pumps and the Ooni retreated again to his court, his emese clinging to his toga, to dispense more blessings to the people waiting for him. As he made to sit, the emeses formed a circle around him, shielding him from view. When he sat, and the sleeves of the outstretched agbadas were tucked away, there was a satisfied glow on his face—a man who was building the bridge between the Yoruba people separated by a history of slavery, by an ocean so vast it threatened to severe that link forever, but some how failed. The Ooni holding court in the Oba’s Lagos, some distance away from Oduduwa’s throne in Ife.
A man fell before him, his nose touching the tiles at the king’s feet. “Kabiyesi!” he greeted.
With a smile, the Ooni reached out to pat him on the back, his face glowing with pride.