As the Saturday rain poured down on the crowd of excited guests packed in a barge heading towards Ode-Itsekiri, in Warri, an elderly man, drenched by the downpour, raised both hands skyward in quiet supplication to the elements to save the day from rain.
A few hours later, his prayers were answered. The sky had taken a clear, bright hue, and hundreds of people had converged on Ode-Itsekiri, an island off the Warri river, brimming with collective anticipation as they awaited the emergence of their new king from the Aghofen (palace).
The king-designate performed some traditional rites before he was crowned. In one rite, he paddled a canoe and afterwards swung the paddle three times over his head to symbolise that he’d never undertake the task again as long as he lives.
In another rite, he was blindfolded and led to an array of ceremonial swords, each representing the names of the 20 monarchs before him and one new one bearing his name. While still being blindfolded, he picked one of the swords and the title was proclaimed, for the first time, immediately after his coronation.
After he emerged from the palace, the king-designate, accompanied by his chiefs, undertook a ceremonial walk around the island before making his way to the venue of the coronation.
At exactly 3.30 p.m., Gabriel Awala, the Uwangue of Warri Kingdom, lowered the crown on Tsola Emiko as the 21st Olu of Warri.
He will be known by the title Atunwase III, essentially picking the mantle from his late father who was Atunwase II.
Women danced in the hall, men hugged one another, and the crowd erupted in cheers for their new, 37-year-old king.
It was a joyous occasion – once-in-a-lifetime even, in a way – for the horde of humans decked in flowery red and white attires crammed inside the coronation hall and watching on large screens outside: the 21st Olu of Warri was crowned on the 21st day of August in the 21st millennium.
“We are very happy to be here today,” said Anthony Okotie, a businessman who said he is also a relative of the new king.
“The sword the king picked is the same sword his father of blessed memory picked, that’s why everybody is happy, that it’s a new dawn.
“Atunwase means ‘everything will be renewed, let everything be done in a good way.’”
Fabious Atie, a Warri-based lawyer, said the coronation has “shown continuity in Itsekiri history.”
“In fact, it has brought all Itsekiris together, uniting us together as a people who were once together but not too long ago had different factions created based on financial and economic reasons.
“But today, we are happy to be around to witness a unifying factor in the person of Prince Tsola Emiko, now the 21st Olu of Warri, the Atunwase III.”
It was also the high point of a ceremony that officially began on Thursday with Itsekiri chiefs visiting the Oba of Benin to formally inform him of the coronation.
On Friday, guests defied the rains to attend a prayer and worship event at the Warri boatyard where giant loudspeakers belched popular gospel songs.
Guests began to arrive at the boatyard as early as 7 a.m. on Saturday to watch the boat regatta that precedes the coronation.
They crowded by the bank of the river and waited patiently. Behind them, the new king stared out from large posters and banners. A woman walking past one of the banners screamed at the king, “You too serious,” before quickly adding “But I for like take picture with this guy.”
The regatta began at around 11 a.m. and the crowd cheered and waved as the boats, draped in flamboyant paintings and hoisting Nigerian flags as well as the traditional Itsekiri red and white colours, danced on the Warri river.
Afterwards, families and friends crammed themselves into barges that moved them from the boatyard to the Ode-Itsekiri venue of the coronation. There were notices that directed the observation of COVID-19 protocols but they were mostly ignored.
Before the arrival of the king-designate, a sea of humans had gathered outside the venue, pushing and shoving, with little success, against barrel-chested men stationed at the doors.
An angry guest, visibly frustrated at the futility of his attempts, threatened to drown one of the guards in the river on the way back to Warri mainland.
Singer Omawunmi formally opened the coronation ceremony with a rendition of the national anthem.
In his open address, Johnson Atseleghe, chairman, Olu Advisory Council, said crowning “one of the youngest in history” to seat on the throne is expected to bring the much required youthful energy, zeal and capacity to the kingdom.
“Ogiame! I am happy to be the first person to officially hail your Majesty as such, giving me the rare privilege that will be read in our history books long after I’ve played my part and have left at the right time portioned to me by God. I greet you!”
Ovie Omo-Agege, the deputy senate president, represented President Muhammadu Buhari at the event.
In the keynote speech, the president expressed his delight at the coronation of Mr Emiko.
“Based on traditions and ancient virtues, your ascension to the throne by the Almighty God. Your royal highness, as the youngest ever Olu of Warri, you are certainly a monarch of these times.
“As a well educated and successful entrepreneur with considerable national and international work experience, your royal highness is blessed with the wisdom and vision to look back and fully embrace centuries-old practices even as you look forward to the modern future with the [perseverance] of this generation.
“I am certain that as a monarch with the traditional will to continue the noble 500-year tradition of this kingdom, your reign will witness improved peace, progress, and development of your people and the nation.”
The Ooni of Ife, Enitan Ogunwusi, described the event as a red-letter day in the Itsekiri Kingdom.
“We are all very delighted to welcome you on board as one of our brother kings,” he said.
“You can feel the energy in the air in Itsekiri Kingdom, you are loved by your people. I want to appeal to you, you are the father of the entire Itsekiri Kingdom now. You are the father to the good, you are the father to the bad, and you are the father to the ugly. You have to embrace the entire kingdom of Warri, extend a hand of fellowship to all and sundry, make sure that your leadership is a fatherly leadership.
“For today, God almighty and the spirit of our ancestors will continue to guide you, guard you, and lead you right in all the decisions you will be making on this throne of your forebears. We love and we appreciate and we will work with you.”
The representative of the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, said when the Itsekiri chiefs came to Benin on Thursday to officially inform the monarch, he prayed for the new king in his inner chambers.
“We all know what happened there when the Omo N’Oba prayed in the inner chambers of the palace. Omo N’Oba says you are going to live long. Omo N’Oba says your reign shall be peaceful. Omo N’Oba wishes you very well.
“On getting home, we shall convey the happiness in you to Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo and the relationship between your throne and Benin throne shall continue to wax stronger.”
The representative of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, Festus Agas, said his principal was holding the funeral celebration of his late father and could not attend.
“Congratulated the king. I equally want to commend the Itsekiri people, sons and daughters of Itsekiri land for the hitch-free coronation ceremony,” he said.
“And I say that deliberately, I commend you for the grandeur, I commend you for the cultural display. As a government, we did not expect anything less from the Itsekiri people. The Itsekiri people are well-focused, organised, and a united people.
“They are richly endowed with both natural and human resources, once both resources are well cultivated, they can move mountains. As a government, we are not surprised with what we have seen here today.”
The king speaks – first speech as Olu of Warri
When it was time for the king to deliver his first speech from the throne, he launched into worship songs that lasted about a quarter of an hour.
“You will all pardon me, I’m about to stand. I know the protocol is when I stand, you all stand, but please remain seated.”
Mr Emiko then began by paying tribute to his predecessor and uncle, Olu Ikenwoli, who passed away in December last year.
“He was whole-heartedly committed to the cause of the sustained peace, growth, and development of Iwere kingdom,” the new king said.
“His place of pride is definitely assured in the pantheon of Itsekiri monarchs and in the hearts and minds of all Itsekiri sons and daughters.”
Mr Emiko expressed gratitude to the chiefs who stood by him during the tussle for the throne, saying they need to be “specially recognised.”
“Interestingly, just before this precious moment in time which has brought us to where we are today, that age-long tendency that has always sought to distort and abort our greatness wanted to rear its ugly head in an attempt to truncate our glory and restoration to our original, God-given identity.
“We avow before you all today that we were not and were never offended at any point in time during the process that culminated to this day, that has seen me ascend the throne of my fathers.
“This is, in every ramification, a very special day. One that has been predestined and divinely ordained by the Most High God. He and He alone could have determined that three months after our Idaniken began in May, our coronation will take place today, the only Saturday in this year 2021 that occurs on the 21st day of the month.
“There is no part of this that has been my own doing, it was and remains God’s divine project. And as a result, the mischief that some had intended, God has used it for good.”
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