For the first 365 days, the people of Iwere also known as the Kingdom of Warri have enjoyed good leadership marked with progress, vision, and peace under the leadership of HRH Atuwatse Ogiame III. The king in his wisdom has ruled in love, equity, and fairness, attracting development and blessing to his subjects.
As he had rightly stated on the day of his coronation, his approach to leadership will be progressive and inclusive—that he has lived up to as an active, young, and intelligent Monarch with numerous development policies, partnerships, and projects.
Together with his wife, the queen, one of the stylish educated queens in Africa , HRH Atuwatse Ogiame III, has managed manage initiatives and delivered on commitments as the youngest and most educated monarch in Nigeria. He has continued to make all the center of his consideration regardless of gender, age, and class.
As the king share the spotlight, marking his first 365 days in office, Azuka Ogujiuba chronicles the culture, social, political, and economic history of the Warri Kingdom with a long line of leadership that dates back to the Christian era from 1480-1597, the eight Roman Catholic Olus from 1597-1735 and the eight Olus of the post-Roman Catholic era.
The Kingdom of Warri, also known as Iwere Kingdom, proudly dates as far back as 1480 and is currently based in the city of Warri in Delta state, lying along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean at the westernmost part of the Niger River delta at the extreme south of Nigeria (south-south region). Since its establishment, the Warri kingdom has been led by a long line of monarchs traditionally known as ‘Olus’, the first of whom is said to be Olu Ginuwa who came from the larger Bini Kingdom (now known as Benin).
The people of Warri, culturally referred to as the Itsekiris, (or formerly called ‘jekri’ in old English literature) are constituted by people of several origins including early settlers from Igala, Ijebu, Aboh, and largely from Benin, which explains their close cultural relations to the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria, the Urhobo (especially the Okpe) and the people of Edo. The earliest communities that played home to these settlers include Omadino, Ureju, Ugborodo, and Inroin amongst others.
As gathered from William A. Morre’s records titled ‘History of the itsekiris’, the territory now known as the Kingdom of Itsekiri or Iwere, was inhabited by three tribes, namely, Ijaws, Sobos (Urhobos), and the Mahims. The brilliant authors of the book, “Ife Oracle in Itsekiri Social System of Nigeria,” also mentioned that Itsekiri people came from Egypt after the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The Mahim settled earlier (28 B.C) in what is now known as Gborodo, Ureju and Ode Itsekiri in the present-day Warri Kingdom.
One cannot accurately relay Warri history without touching on the ancient Benin empire as the first Olu, prince Ginuwa, the son of the Oba Olua who was the fourteenth Oba of Bini (Benin) kingdom, was said to have been set on a voyage from Edo by his father to save his life. It was on this journey that the prince discovered and established the kingdom of Warri around the 15th century. Over the next two centuries, the Warri kingdom would go on to make an exceptional name for itself in overseas trade, matching and even exceeding that of its mother kingdom of Benin. To this day, both kingdoms continue to bear resemblance in culture, royal tradition, language, and religious history.
Warri kingdom, along with the old Benin empire grew in fame and economic strength so much that European countries sought them out for trade and further geographical knowledge while hoping to introduce the Christian faith to them, in a bid to gain African allies in their push back against Islam. By 1480, the Portuguese had explored the coast of west Africa and settled upon Benin as the centerpiece of its missionary strategy, extending to the Warri kingdom not long after. This was marked by the visit of D’ Aviero of Portugal to Benin City in 1485, as well as and the establishment of a Catholic Mission in Benin in about 1515 AD.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a son of a reigning Olu went to Portugal for ten years for education and married a Portuguese lady of high birth while there. They returned to Warri with their son, Antonio Domingo, who eventually became Olu of Warri in the 1640s.
Economic and Political History
For a period, Warri served as the nucleus for Portuguese and Dutch slave traders. However, in the late 19th century, Warri became a major trade centre for important items such as palm oil and other palm products, cocoa, groundnuts, rubber, hides, and skin, ranking it as an important port city in the colonial days – an economic position they held for many years, earning them the respect of the Urhobo. Warri was established as a provincial headquarters by the British in the early 20th century.
Conflicts often arose between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo because, on the one hand, the Urhobo began to believe that as middlemen between them and the Europeans, the Itsekiri were cheating them, so they sought to do business directly with the Europeans. On the other hand, the Urhobo could not always meet the volume demands for palm oil, causing the Itsekiri to take slaves of them in order to ensure production targets were met and debts paid.
The Governor of the Benin River recognized the significant role of the Itsekiri in overseas trade and collected customs duties from the Europeans, as well as acted as a trading agent on behalf of the Olu of Warri who depended heavily on revenue from trade. The office of the Governor also ensured that Itsekiri and European interests were equally protected to preserve a long and successful economic partnership.
As commodity export trade gained ground in Warri province from 1850 to 1900, highly successful native merchants arose who competed favorably with European merchants. Among them were Istekiri established traders such as Chief Nana, Chief Ogboni in Abraka, and Mukoromawo who was the first African to own a building in London. In later years, other prominent indigenes from Warri province replaced the Europeans in the cash crop trade; Chief Alfred Rewane, Chief Michael Ibru who owned fishing trawlers and started sea foods trading, Chief Sunny Odogwu from Asaba, and Chief P.I.G. Onyeobi, an oil magnate.
In pre-colonial times, before road and rail transportation were established, goods and people were largely moved in and out of the Warri kingdom by Canoes, propelled manually by wooden paddles until about 1870, when boats and ships became more popular.
In the 1959 pre-independence elections, the Itshekiri political class stood solidly with Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Action Group. While this solidified the affiliations of the two groups, it also led to the deposing of the Olu of Warri, Olu Erejuwa II, Wilson Gbesimi Emiko (grandfather of the current Olu) by those who were against such an alliance. It is believed that before the late Chief Awolowo’s reign as premier of the then Western Region of Nigeria, the people of Warri lived peacefully with one another and that this political division gave rise to the many feuds that followed, among the tribes of Warri.
In 1991, during the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Delta state was created, alongside several other states across the nation, and in 1997, General Sani Abacha’s government created a Warri South-West Local Government Council headquartered at Ogidigben, an Itsekiri community in Warri. This led to the historic “Warri crises” which claimed many lives as some tribes fought to have the newly designated LGA headquarters moved to an Ijaw community – a change the federal government refused to acknowledge. To this day, the Ijaw and Urhobo continue to express their displeasure about what they consider to be an undue dominance accorded the Itsekiri in terms of political leadership and economic muscle in the three Warri local government areas (LGAs) namely, Warri North, Warri South, and Warri South-West.
Regardless of these divisions against it, the Warri kingdom continues to be a key centre for Nigeria’s crude oil and natural gas production, as well as petroleum refining, and the main Warri town is the industrial/commercial nucleus of the Delta State region. The current Itsekiri population count is about 2.7 million with natives living mainly in the Warri South, Uvwie, Warri North, and Warri South West local governments. They can also be found in significant numbers in parts of Edo and Ondo states, as well as in other Nigerian cities such as Sapele, Benin City, Abuja, Port Harcourt, and Lagos, with many Itsekiri natives residing in several foreign countries of the world.
The office of the Olu
Historically, the Olu of Warri is the highest office in the kingdom, and every Olu must be the personal focus of the people’s loyalty and affection. The crown is highly celebrated as the symbol of supreme authority. The Olu can do no wrong, must not be queried or challenged, and is regarded as the keeper of the corporate conscience of his people. The Olu of Warri bears the title, Ogie-uwu which means “king over death.”
Once an Olu-Elect emerges, he must spend three lunar months in Daniken, during which he undergoes training in the dignity and responsibilities of kingship. The Olu’s mother, traditionally designated as Iyoba, is assigned her special quarters called Itselu (or Uselu) and because of this, the town can never be attacked by the Olu himself.
The title, “Olu of Warri” was adopted in 1952, when it was changed from the initial “Olu of Itsekiri.” The Itsekiri credo is mini mini gbo; Igbo mini, meaning the people own the Olu as the Olu owns the people. Since its establishment, the Warri Kingdom has come under the reign of 21 Olus of Warri: five Olus of the Christian era from 1480-1597: eight Roman Catholic Olus from 1597-1735, and eight Olus of the post-Roman Catholic Christian era.
The present Olu of Warri is Ogiame Atuwatse III and is the 21st Olu of Warri Kingdom to ascend the throne. He was crowned on the 21st of August, 2021 upon the demise of Ogiame Ikenwoli who reigned from 12th December, 2015, to 21st December, 2020. Ogiame Atuwatse III is the first son of Ogiame Atuwatse II who reigned between May 1987 and 2015. He has a very supportive wife. His wife, Olori Ivie Atuwatse III is a woman of substance, she is by all consideration a worthy partner befitting of a king. She effortlessly serves as a great source of strength for the king and has won the heart of the people even faster than the king with her show of love and concern for the growth of her people. She is a stylish—highly fashionable royal woman who is famed for her advocacy and style in equal measure. She is regarded as the most stylish wife of a young monarch in Nigeria. She partnered with Cleverminds Education Foundation and delivered on ‘The Love Garden Project’ in Iyara Community, Warri. This innovative project was officially declared open on February 26, 2022, by her husband, His Royal Majesty, Ogiame Atuwatse III. This project is Agritech, targeted at teaching all children in the community and Warri.
Culture and Religion
The Itsekiri speak a Yoruboid language of the Benue-Congo branch of Niger-Congo languages. The Itsekiri language is uniformly spoken by natives and has no dialects. The language has certainly been widened with the infusion of several Portuguese, Bini, and English words over the years.
The Warri kingdom has always been governed by a monarchy (the Olu) and a council of chiefs who form the aristocracy. The traditional organization of the Itsekiri society is described below;
● The upper class, which is made up of the royal family and the aristocracy – the ‘Oloyes and Olareajas’ drawn from noble houses such as the Royal Houses (that produce the king), the Houses of Olgbotsere (from which Prime Ministers or kingmakers emerge) and Iyatsere (from which the defence minister emerges).
● The middle class, also known as Omajaja who were free-born Itsekiris or burghers.
● A third lower class called ‘Oton-Eru’ describing those who descended from the slave class as a result of slave trade. This class no longer exists in modern-day Itsekiri society as all are now considered free-born.
Prior to the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century, the Itsekiris practiced a traditional form of religion based on the worship of ancestral gods, known as ‘Ebura-tsitse’, which has now become embedded in modern-day traditional Itsekiri culture. Western Christianity was introduced to the Warri kingdom in roman catholic form and dominated the land for centuries before giving way to the current majority of protestants comprising mainly Baptist and Anglican Christians.
The traditional attire of Itsekiri men is a combination of a long-sleeved shirt called a Kemeje, and a George wrapper tied around their waist, complete with a Feather-decorated hat. The women usually adorn themselves in a traditional blouse and a George wrapper, with colorful headgears known as Nes (scarf) or coral beads. The people of Warri Kingdom are also widely acclaimed for their melodious songs and fluid traditional dance steps such as the Ibiogbe and Ukpukpe dances. They are also known for their boat regattas, colourful masquerades, carnivals such as the Awankere, and their irresistible soup dishes such as Banga Soup, made from oil palm, and Owo soup, both eaten with starch.