Ife, Nigeria – It’s a sweltering hot day in Ife, an ancient city in the southwestern state of Osun that is considered the ancestral and spiritual home of Nigeria‘s second-largest ethnic group, the Yoruba. Nothing, not even a hint of a breeze stirs the thick mid-afternoon air. We are being taken on a tour of the grounds of the palace of the Ooni, or monarch, of the Ile-Ife kingdom. King Ojaja II, the 51st monarch of this kingdom, is not at home.
His assistant tells us he has gone to the mosque for prayers. He later goes on to explain that while the Ooni is Christian, as ruler of a people of diverse faiths, he takes an active role in all their religions. While we wait for him, we walk around the compound in the blinding sun, as his assistant describes the ancient customs and traditions that go hand and hand with the monarchy.
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We are alerted to the king’s return by the sound of drums, that grow louder as a crowd – school children with colourful rucksacks strapped to their backs, street traders carrying their wares on their heads – spills through the palace gates and into the grounds.
A gleaming white Rolls Royce comes into view, accompanied by white clad musicians. It proceeds slowly along the tree-lined driveway until it reaches the main hall. The Ooni climbs out and is ushered inside, where he will receive his guests.
The third son in a family of six children, the current king, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, was selected from 21 contenders to the throne in 2015. He’s a descendant of the 44th Ooni of Ife, Ojaja Orasigba, who reigned from 1878 to 1880.
According to Yemisi Shyllon, a Yoruba prince and cultural ambassador, Ogunwusi’s father turned down the position when the previous Ooni passed away aged 85 after a 35-year reign. But the kingmakers had decided that it was his family’s turn to produce an Ooni.
Historian Edward Emeka Keazor explains that the process of selecting an Ooni is complex. “It’s not something that’s done willy-nilly. Ile-Ife is the cradle of civilisation for millions of people all over the world. That title is not a joking matter.”
As descendants of Oduduwa, the first king of Ile-Ife who is believed to have been a demi-God who descended from heaven to create the earth, the Oonis are considered sacred.
Upholding traditional values
In the main hall, the Ooni sits on a white sofa decorated with leopard skin throws. His attendants sit at his feet.
Vistors stream in – businessmen and politicians, old people and children. A long line of blind children enter the hall, taking a seat behind rows of gilt rococo style armchairs. Other guests kneel or prostrate themselves on the plush purple carpet.
As the Ooni speaks to his guests, an attendant relieves him of a glittering gold staff while another arranges the tassels on a woven sash draped over his traditional white robes.
Hours later, when we are ushered into another room, the Ooni explains that he typically starts receiving guests at 10am each day and that the visits can sometimes continue until the early hours of the morning. His visitors are often there to consult him on communal matters, he says.
“People are used to the monarchy system to put things right,” he adds. “We are very close to our people.”
The Ooni describes his typical day; waking at between 7 and 9am before praying and then calling his secretary to go through the day’s appointments.
The 42-year-old former businessman says his life has been transformed since he became king.
Seeming to choose his words carefully, he says: “It’s pretty difficult. It’s a different life I’m living and I’m getting used to it. I don’t have privacy any longer. It’s 100 percent a life of service. I can’t just say, I want to go to this place or go to that place.”
His governance extends predominantly to cultural matters and although his word is persuasive, it’s not law in the political sense, Shyllon explains. “They cannot enforce any political power, their sphere of influence is cultural. He represents the spiritual side,” the prince says.
But his influence is widely recognised among the Yoruba people. “Any Yoruba man recognises the Oba as the spiritual leader. If you don’t recognise the Oba, you won’t be recognised as your cultural identity,” Shyllon adds.
According to the historian Keazor, in the past, monarchs have been banished from their kingdoms after unsuccessful forays into the political sphere. “If you dabble in politics you enter an arena that makes you open to criticism and attack. It makes you open to the effects of partisanship,” he says, adding: “Ideally, a king should not get involved in politics.”
Unifying the Yoruba
Ogunwusi trained as an accountant before becoming a bank director, founding a beach resort in Lagos and spearheading a range of real estate ventures. Before he became king, he says he was an “astute entrepreneur”.
At the time we spoke, plans had been announced to develop Ife into a tourist destination with an initial investment of $20m leveraging on his experience. He discussed the process of searching for international partners and funding for the scheme, which will include the renovation of heritage sites and the carbon dating of artefacts.
Without peace, there can never be progress. It's better to stretch your hand of fellowship. For me it's very critical. I want to be known for a peace movement
Ogunwusi is eager to explain another of his goals: to unify Nigeria’s Yoruba ethnic group.
Since becoming king, he has visited the traditional ruler of Oyo State, breaking a battle of supremacy between the thrones, which spanned nearly eight decades. He says his focus on development was at the heart of this decision. “Without peace there can never be progress. It’s better to stretch your hand of fellowship. For me, it’s very critical. I want to be known for a peace movement.”
As he sits surrounded by attendants, seemingly isolated by the uniqueness of his position, I ask whether his new life is perhaps lonely. He seems surprised by the suggestion and his assistants glare at me.
He admits that the protocol scares away some friends, but insists: “It can’t be lonely because I am on a mission.”
“Every day is full of activities, every hour full of activities, so for me, it’s a life of service,” he continues.
Soon after, he is whisked away to meet traditional rulers from the north. He leaves the room as quickly as he entered in a blaze of white and gold and soon the sound of drums can be heard in the distance.