By Pastor Ayodele Joseph Oritsegbubemi Oritsejafor
Ayodele Joseph Oritsegbubemi Oritsejafor, fondly called Papa Ayo Oritsejafor by many of his numerous admirers is the founding and Senior Pastor of Word of Life Bible Church, located in Warri, Nigeria. He became the national president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on the 7th February 2005, a position he held for five years. He was elected President of CAN, Christian Association of Nigeria. As a result of this, he became the first Pentecostal leader to hold the two positions simultaneously. He is married to Hellen Oritsejafor and they are blessed with many children in the Lord. In this interview, he speaks about the history of Itsekiri people and other topics:
What would you say is unique about the Itsekiri people of Warri kingdom?
First of all, it is very important to establish the fact that Christianity started in Nigeria in Warri kingdom. It is what the average Itsekiri man or woman knows but they don’t talk about it. One of the reasons they don’t talk about it is a lack of spirituality. The first church that was built in Nigeria was not in Abeokuta, Badagry or anywhere. It was built here in the 16th century. The ruins of it are still here.
The first Christian missionary that came here was the Roman Catholic. In fact, the first contact with a white man was here. The Itsekiri people are the first contact with the white man in Nigeria. By the way, the second thing that many people in Itsekiri may not elaborate on is that Itsekiri is Yoruba. The Itsekiri language is a dialect of the Yoruba language. Itsekiri people migrated from Yorubaland. Some of them migrated directly from Ife. Some migrated from the riverine areas of Ijebu, and some migrated from Ondo. Some of them especially the ones that migrated from Ife, they migrated with the Ilaje. The Ilaje stopped at a point but the Itsekiri continued and they ended up here in Warri. Now, a few of them came from Benin Kingdom. The Benin connection came from the palace. The palace connection is still Yoruba at the end of the day because the first Oba of Benin was a son of Oduduwa.
The first Olu of Warri was a first son of the Oba of Benin. That’s the Benin connection. The Itsekiri, when they moved here, they came with their Ife. The upland Yoruba called it Ifa. We are the waterside Yoruba. Our people will call the other Yoruba, Iroke. They called the Oyo people Iroke and other Yoruba Iroke but the Yoruba called them Ara Oke. This history is very important because they are dying away. In those days, the Ife which the mainstream Yoruba will call Ifa was the god of divination. The Ife had told the Itsekiri people that a prince would come and become their king. Therefore, they stayed without a king for a very long time, in fact for many years.
They were waiting for that prince, eventually this prince who was the first son of the Oba of Benin was a grandson of Oduduwa. He was very proud so he had a lot of problems with Benin chiefs. They were going to kill him. His father who was the Oba of Benin, you know he was supposed to be the Oba of Benin after his father, but for his own protection, his father had to get him out of Benin Kingdom. He gave him about 70 chiefs. They smuggled him out, put him in a boat and they performed all kinds of rituals. They put him in a boat then sailed to Warri. When he ended up here, remember our own people were waiting for a prince, they have been waiting for years. When he arrived, they consulted their Ife again and the Ife says, “This is the prince”. So, that was how he became the first Olu of Warri. That was how the first Olu of Warri came about.
In those days, in the palace, in Warri kingdom, they used to speak Yoruba. The palace was 100% Yoruba. Don’t forget the Itsekiri language is a dialect of Yoruba land and therefore a Yoruba language as it is to this day. The Benin are not Yoruba; they are descendants of Oduduwa but the palace is Yoruba.
*History says Benin people came from Yoruba land?*
That can’t be disputed. Some people will argue it but I don’t want to get into that, because that is not the point of discussion. We are discussing Itsekiri. However, it was the son of Oduduwa that moved to Benin and became king, according to history. It’s almost like our own history too. I don’t want to get into that side of it.
In fact, before the late Ooni of Ife passed away, some years back, they did this their Ifa and the Ifa lead him to an Itsekiri village, not far from here and gave details of it and they traced it and came to the village, the village is called Omadina. I am partially from there myself. The people already knew that they came from Ife. The people from Ife traced them to the village and got to them and there was a great re-union.
*I was told that the Oni of Ife has a permanent chamber in the palace?*
Yes, because we are the same. Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s last outing was here. Shortly before he died. His last outing was here when the late Olu of Warri was crowned. When he left here, he went home and passed away.
Yes, I read it in his wife’s autobiography that when he wanted to go on the trip, he complained of being tired. His wife advised him to send people to represent him. He insisted that he must go there himself.
Yes, He came himself and it was the last outing after that, he passed. So, the connection was very strong. The Ooni of Ife came here and the Olu of Warri went there as well. You see the Itsekiiri made a big mistake by not emphasizing their Yorubaness. It’s unintentional though, they have down play their Yorubaness. The reason is because they migrated here and other peoples came and they mixed with them and they have almost forgotten who they are. They almost lost their identity. They are many Itsekiri today who don’t even know they are Yoruba. They have been here so long here, the Itsekiri have unintentionally almost lost their Yorubaness. They lost their identity when you move to a place and you are mixing with other people you start losing your identity. To a large extent in my opinion it as affected them. They needed to highlight that fact and this why I like what you are doing right now. I was very, very impressed years ago when Chief Abraham Adesanya who was the head of Afenifere, he knew all this history and he used to come out strongly in defense of the of the Itsekiiri. I was really very touched by what he would do and say personally, I don’t play with my Yorubaness. I am very proud of it.
*Maybe if you give us a little information about yourself that the public may not know* .
My grandmother was originally from Owoh, from my mother side. My grandmother from my father side is partly from Ilaje. My wife is from Ado Ekiti. I was born in Lagos. I was born along Moloney Street. I am a real Isale Eko boy. I did my elementary school at Holy Cross. So to a large extent, I am a Lagosian. I have a church funny enough around Moloney, about 2 blocks from where I was born, where my parents lived, where I was raised. The church didn’t know when they acquired property there, so when I went to preach in that church and because I was very rascally as a young boy, the very bad boys in that area, once they know that I am around, they will all come to church. They will gather around me. I am like one of their own. I always feel right at home. My people will try to drive them, I will say no, no, no don’t. I was exactly like them. They were certain names they used to call me then. I see myself as a Lagosian. But later I finally moved back home. I went to secondary school not in Warri here. I was so messed up in my ways until I gave my life to Christ.
Then I went to study Theology at the Baptist seminary at Ogbomosho. I went back to the west.