How I sold rice, sugar to survive – Ooni Ogunwusi …after coronation, tradition forbids that I ever see my dad again
Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, the Ooni of Ife, exemplifies the lofty, sublime words of truth: 'True greatness lies in simplicity. For greatness does not know conceit, since it has no need to be conceited'
Given his affluence and influence as occupant of arguably the most powerful throne in Yorubaland, Ooni remains the 'spiritual head' and custodian of the culture of the Yoruba people, who number about 90 million people in the country and the Diaspora, including Sudan, Ghana, Republic of Benin, Togo, USA, Brazil and other Carrebbean countries. At the young age of 41, Ooni Ogunwusi could well huff and be condescending amidst the fawning of courtiers and the royal splendor of his palace at Okunwa, Ile Ife, Osun State.
The interview with The Sun team was billed to take place at 3pm on Tuesday, April 19, but had to be reslated for between 10am and 12 noon the following day, as an unscheduled trip took the Ooni to Ogun State.
Although, the journalists had arrived the royal court by 9am, one full hour ahead of the appointment, they only had the first opportunity of an audience with the king at about 6 o' clock in the evening. Since 12 noon, when, with royal flourish, he breezed into the Ooni Okunade Sijuwade Hall, his official reception auditorium, he had been busy receiving a throng of guests, including various guilds of artisans, members of the Association of Nigerian Movie Marketers accompanied by popular Nollywood artistes, some traditional rulers, religious groups, a team of professors and students of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, others who came to seek favour, or on some other missions.
When the visitors were eventually ushered before him, the youthful monarch exclaimed in an apologetic tone: 'Oh, The Sun! Awfully sorry, but, you too didn't come on time,' hinting that the media chat could have held before he began to hold court. Apparently, there was a communication gap as to the presence of The Sun team.
Informed that we had been around since 9am, the Ooni ordered that we be taken to the inner chamber and served lunch, since he was sure we could not have eaten, promising to join us for the session as soon as he decongested the hall of the remaining crowd.
As it were, the more than one hour discussion eventually held about 10pm and lasted till past 11pm.
Time for commemorative photograph taking. The reporter, inadvertently placed an arm in a reclining gesture on the massive immaculate throne, with touches of cream and a sewn wild animal skin, on which the Ooni sat. But, immediately, the 'Emeses' (royal servants), who formed a shield and rampart of protection around the Ooni, intermittently chanting his'oriki' (praise name) and sanctioning every word of prayer he uttered with 'Ase', rushed and pushed the hand away and bid the reporter move away from the symbol of the Yoruba traditional spirituality. In an attempt to carry out the directive, the reporter's hand again fell and touched the flowing tail of his all white lace costume on the floor. Again, the Emeses swiftly moved, but halted in their tracks, with a gentle restraining wave from Ooni Ogunwusi, who turned and smiled kindly to the reporter. 'It's nothing really. It's actually just for your own protection,' he said, trying to explain that the restriction of such close physical contact with him, was to prevent etheric radiations emanating from his immediate surrounding from harming visitors and not necessarily a vain display of power.
This experience and revelations from the subsequent interview with him underscored that the rare wisdom and modesty Ooni Ogunwusi has charmed the world since he was crowned late last year were no fluke. He has lived his philosophy, signaled in his inaugural address in which he declared that he was in no supremacy contest with other Obas, especially elderly and influential ones, perceived as rivals of his predecessor, the late Ooni Sijuwade, with his consistent pacifist attitude and message of peace and unity in Yorubaland.
This humility and perceptibly deep passion and empathy for the poor, underscored by his many collaboration with organizations and tertiary institutions for empowerment and entrepreneurial skills acquisition and development among youths and the grassroots, Ogunwusi gained early in life, when as a graduate, he dropped pride and dumped his certificate and a career in accountancy, to start trading in sugar and rice, with illiterate traders in Agbeni and other local markets around Ibadan and the South west. His humble association with these unschooled set of people, however, paid off as it taught him trade secrets that made him a millionaire at just age 20!
The monarch says that he is familiar and also able to connect with the poor. He recalled as a child, there was nothing he did not do, including hawking to support his middle class parents struggling to raise six children. His humility explains his closeness to his workers and why he knew each one by name, when he diversified his business into construction industry.
Ooni Ogunwusi, who fielded questions on sundry issues, among them, his controversial marriage to a Benin woman, considered a foreigner, his agenda for the Yoruba race, life as a monarch, leadership, and Alaafin's contention that the National Council of Traditional Rulers, which he (Ooni) co-chairs with the Sultan of Sokoto, offends the federal principle, narrates how a prediction of his fortune in becoming the Ooni would have been aborted when, some years ago, he almost drowned in a boat mishap in the Lagos lagoon, on his way to inspect a tourist resort he was developing on an island. The interview is unputdownable.
Was there any indication that you would one day occupy this exalted stool of your forebears, maybe through dream, oracular prediction or whatever?
Well, yes. Many years before I was born, it was predicted to my parents that indeed, a child would be born, a male child and things about him would be very different. In fact, the prediction was so specific about the time and day of the week that it would happen. My parents, my father and my late mother of blessed memory, had the first child, it didn't happen, the second, the third, the fourth child, the prediction didn't happen, but the fifth child was born exactly on a Thursday at 1.00pm in the afternoon. Immediately I was given birth to, my mother of blessed memory knew. Another very mysterious thing that happened was that my grandfather from my mother's side in Ife was on a sick bed. My mother wasn't even due to have me, but my grandfather kept pushing her that she should leave, that she could not have the child in that place. Basically, my grandfather pushed my mother and my mother told him she was not due yet. My grandfather said to my mother 'you are due, you need to leave this place now and go and have this child. This child is a very peculiar child. This child has a mission in this world, quickly go and have this child'. So, my mother quickly rushed with force. Immediately, my mother gave birth to me, my grandfather left this world. That affected my mother so much. Thank God that I still survived, because after my mother had me, immediately they told her, 'your father just died,' she left me and hastily went to take care of her father. She was the first child and the most loved child. My grandfather on my father's side knew when I was born too. He sent a message that: 'This child that just came to this world, there is a reason why he is here. They gave me the name Adetoyeoye ( Adeyeye, the crown befits the king). My parents, my father and my mum named me Enitan, that there is something very mysterious about this child, a child of history, all because there was a powerful story behind my birth. My mother, herself named me Babatunde meaning 'My father is back, our ancestor is back.' Unfortunately, because my mum couldn't take care of me very well, having just lost her father, the first 11 days were very tough for me, according to my parents' story. But, ever since that time, God has been guiding me, the King of kings has been doing very peculiar things. I believe so much in the power of making impossibilities possible. Anything that is impossible that is where I take challenge, I take it up as a challenge and I go for it. So it was very clear God has been involved, really. It is one thing to have predictions, it is another thing for you to work towards it.
With the circumstance you have just narrated and your being named Babatunde, could you be a reincarnation of a past Ooni?
Well, I never put it in my head because the stool of the Ooni is a very revered stool and highly spiritual. It is a stool that we don't joke with in Ife, but my grandfather used to address me as Adeyeye Ooni. At two years old, they warned everybody not to touch me on my head or hit me on my head. My grandfather gave a stern warning that I should avoid being knocked or touched on the head by anyone all my life. Anybody that tries to hit me on my head, there is a problem. As a result, everybody in my family just believed that there is something about me. And God has been faithful to me, God has been very protective and has been my guardian angel for a very long time. So working towards such a thing is not by power nor by might, it is by the Grace of God. So, reincarnation, or me becoming the Ooni of Ife can only happen if God says yes, because there are so many predictions in life that may not come to pass. Yes, it came up severally but by the Glory of God, God gave me that grace for it to come to pass.
How was growing up as an Ife prince?
Very interesting, I was a very inquisitive child, extremely so. It was very challenging to my parents. I went as far as opening the television at a very tender age to see which human beings were there. I went as far as trying to unlock the socket to see how it brings electric currents that lighted up the house and almost got electrocuted. At age four, people nicknamed me 'NEPA'. I lived all my life at a tender age asking my parents questions. In fact, my late mum used to get very angry that I was always asking questions. But, eventually, when I started to grow up properly they later understood that it was how God created me. So, it was very interesting!
How about influences of peer group, societal values of the era and did you enjoy special privileges coming from a royal family?
Very interesting! No, I won't say we were from a well- to -do background. No! There was nothing that I didn't do to support my parents. Both of them were civil servants and they struggled to raise six children. My mum never believed in things of this world. What was primary was to raise her children. She had six and she would tell anybody that cared to listen that: 'I have six houses that I am building, I don't have any other house. I don't need to do any other thing'. So, anytime she leaves work, she does another petty trading-selling drinks, soft drinks. She was born into the family of business, they were all entrepreneurs. They used to go to the North to bring beans, locally made rice, corn flour, maize and all that. That was what her grandmother was doing. I supported my mother to the extent of even hawking after school,
(cuts in) Here on the streets of Ife or Ibadan?
In both places, because my grandparents were in Ife. Both of my parents are from Ife, even my grandparents are all from Ife. So we moved from Ife to Ibadan, very short distance. We moved from Ife and we moved to Ibadan. So anytime we were out of school, we come to Ife to stay with our grandparents and we would still help them because that was their trade. In Ibadan after school we helped my mum. I schooled up to the tertiary level in Ibadan. I came to Ife briefly as well and I did my national youth service in Benue, I went to the North. Then in Ibadan, I started business at a very tender age. I started trading the same rice and sugar that my mum used to do and God was very faithful to me. I did it on a very large scale at a tender age, to the extent that I became a major distributor for the likes of Dangote, Olam, Stallion Group and so many others.
(Cuts in) So, what has been your experience with childhood friends, school mates etc when you were crowned Ooni?
They were very excited. It gave them a level of hope, it gave them conviction that, indeed, when God says yes, no one can say no. That there is nothing God cannot do, and that we shouldn't underestimate anybody. I saw one of them recently in Abuja. He came to look for me and I have not seen him since our youth service days, 1996. And I could remember because he was the head of our platoon then, very jovial and we got talking and were able to hook up with a lot of people that we served together. Well, some of them didn't know how to address me with the current status, in which it is only God that elevates. But for me, I never forget where I was coming from. Anytime you forget your source, there is a problem. So, I reached out my hands to them and embraced them and encouraged them that 'don't worry it's still me. It is just the position, and let us have our eyes on the ball, how to get things done well in the country that is all.'
Now, you are an astute entrepreneur, what gave you the idea that your path to success lies in business?
Like I told you, I ask a lot of questions and everyday of my life, I usually ask myself what have I achieved. I have two options; to become a banker or accountant and go all the way and practise, set up an audit firm and practice accountancy. All to just leave that line of accountancy and go into business at a very early age. Today, I never regretted diverting into the line of becoming an entrepreneur. The reason is, it gave me a lot of exposure at a very early stage and it gave good opportunity to be exposed to how to make money from the scratch. I can account for every penny I made today to the glory of God, because I started quite early. When my other colleagues were out all the way to rise up through the professional career ladder, I focused on business and God helped me.
So, when and how did you hit the first million and the mega bucks started rolling in?
Interestingly enough, I still have the account of when I started making millions. I was just 20 years old, a trader of rice and sugar inside Agbeni market in Ibadan. A trader of biscuits and vegetable oil. I saw a very good opportunity, a very good window, that there would be strike. So, I thought it was better to have this stock so that one could sell at higher profit. I wasn't even particular about price increment. So, what did I do, I stocked up 50 bags of sugar, 100 bags of rice. I used to go to Owo in Ondo State at that age, to Ajao family Farms to buy vegetable oil made from soya. And I used to buy biscuits from Sumal Foods and I stored everything in my warehouse. But, I needed more money, I had good relationship with everybody in the market, I didn't sell. I think a good spirit led me on that day. All of a sudden, there was scarcity, serious scarcity and those goods became almost triple in value. I couldn't believe it and that was the beginning of my breakthrough in life. I started doing really big turnover in sales. So, I only worked for three months in a company. Then, I started doing my normal deal. When Dangote wanted to come to Ibadan to open up- country sales, we did a lot in terms of opening up sales for Dangote around that time. We got a very big warehouse in Ibadan and were pushing a lot of sales for Dangote. I had a friend then, we are both princes, but we never knew, the current Olofa of Ofa and myself in Ido market. I would travel to Lagos, shuttle between Lagos and Ibadan. We were both rice and sugar merchants and we both did it majorly for Dangote. We didn't know both of us are future kings.
A highly educated person like you moving about towns and jostling with mostly, illiterate market people. Weren't you embarrassed?
Yes, it was a major issue then and a lot of people didn't want to mingle with me. Yes, a lot of these people were illiterates, they didn't go to school, they had little education, but they were highly educated in commerce! They got it from their parents, uncles, aunts etc. But thank God I always believe so much in humility, I didn't wear that toga that, okay I'm better exposed, because I went to school. So, I was able to learn a lot of trade tricks from them, despite the fact that they didn't go to school. So, in life when you are humble and you don't put your position on your head, God will elevate you. God elevated me at a very tender age, I thank God for that.
You had a stint in a business relationship with your elder brother. The business was said to be doing well, but you suddenly pulled out. Why?
Well, he is my senior brother, you have to respect your elders. But, in actual fact, it was like a collaboration between the two of us, but he is the senior one. He has his own company, so I supported the cause of developing his company and at a time that was right for me to leave, we had that understanding. I went to start on my own. I went into real estate sector.
(Cuts in) Now, what informed that decision to divert into this sector of the economy at that point in time? Had you foreseen that area as the next growth sector that it has eventually become?
Very interesting! Everything started from trading. I told you I was doing rice and sugar. I went into biscuit, I went into vegetable oil, then I went into cement. That time Nigeria was majorly a trading economy. Dangote was importing cement, we were selling for him as well. Pacific Holding was importing iron rod, we were selling for them. They are friends, the owner of Pacific Holdings, Dr. Deji Adeleke and Dangote are very good friends. I realized that the demand for cement and iron rod was very high, it was unbelievable. Very incredible! I later realized that I needed to move higher. My brother in the banking sector, my brother that we worked together had very strong background in Finance and he became a consultant to land owners in Lagos. I am very strong in marketing and business development. Based on my background in trading in rice, sugar and later cement, I realised the demand for those products for construction. So that got me interested in real estate and from there I started real estate on a very large scale. Initially, it was challenging, but it was very good because you are building what you can see. We did so much opening up the Lekki corridor. I facilitated so much in that corridor and that is why I believe so much in collaboration and partnerships. We did quite a lot. The first one we did was with Aircom Limited owned by Yemi Idowu, whom I have much respect for, we did that together. And from there, I started doing so many. I did some with my brother too. And from there, I became very big in that industry and God has been very faithful.
Being an urbane, well traveled, accomplished businessman, one tends to wonder what attraction you found in Obaship that many people believe is a relic of archaic tradition and sure to be a boring life.
It is a clarion call for me and I thank the King of kings. The reason why it is a clarion call is because somebody must do it. It is more of social service, how to make things work in your community. So, my point is, it is not an old relic anymore, it doesn't belong to that class of institution. Like I told you, I like to delve into areas where people believe this is the set ways and bring positive change. I like to reinvent and put a proper structure, that's my philosophy-to blend modernity with tradition and God has been very good to me.
Won't leaving the management and direction of your businesses and investments in other people's hands not affect your fortunes now?
In life you cannot have it all. You win some, you lose some. Trade off is part of the game, you leave the business and serve your people. Leave the business and serve mankind, it is a sacrifice one must make. You cannot be there to oversee things, but God is looking at you in anything you do. So, I am very happy, I am at peace, I don't have any regret. Somebody must give up something for something.
With your unassuming personality and pacifist attitude Kabiyesi, you seem to have won the hearts of everyone in Yorubaland and beyond, including elderly and influential Obas, whose relationship with Ile Ife was hitherto not particularly cordial, due to rivalry and superiority contest with your predecessor. I recall that people marveled at the wisdom displayed in your inaugural address last year, when you declared that you were not in any supremacy battle with anybody. If I may ask, who is your teacher?
Thank you very much. My teacher basically is the King of Kings. I don't have any other teacher other than Him. Everyday of my life, I go on my knees and I pray to Him and for the rest of my life I will bow to him. He leads and guides me well. Well, why are you claiming supremacy over others? Who can claim that, except the Supreme Being Himself, the I Am that I Am. Don't you know the name they call Him, the King of Kings. So, why are you now saying that it is you that is superior. I just want to focus on youth empowerment, I just want to champion peace and harmony, for the world to be a better place.
Now, talking about that, there is the belief that the Ooni is a god. You have also been accused of desecrating tradition when you bowed or knelt down at a Thanksgiving service in the church shortly after your coronation. I like to ask, are you a god? Then, how do you resolve conflict between your Christian beliefs and tradition and customs, which in Ife may even require your participation in palace or festival rituals?
(Chuckles) I am not god and I will not call myself a god. God is in heaven, above everybody. But what I will say is that the occupant of the stool has a high level of spirituality. We don't practice…there are some things that I cannot do again in the public, that I used to do when I was a prince. Ife is a very, very spiritual ground, so the kingship system in Ife is very different. To your other question about people saying that I should not have bowed, they are ignorant. I didn't bow to anybody, I bowed to Almighty God, the Kings of kings. I will bow over and over again, because He is the One that makes kings. He can put you there and He can take you away from there. So, I will continue to bow to Him, everyday I will bow.
The second question about my Christian beliefs, sacrifices and the other. You know we are ignorant of so many things and I pray to God Almighty for us to have that exposure. As a black race, our our ancestors have a peculiar way of worshipping God. The way Christians worship God is through Jesus Christ and for Muslims, it is through Prophet Mohammad. The traditional worshippers go through the smaller gods, or the deities and then to the main God. But there is something common to all three major religions, they call on the Almighty God. Why do we now have differences? Why do we have variations? It is because we haven't really taken time to understudy the similarities among these three religions. They are very similar. The only thing about the traditional belief is that it is nature -based. Everything in the tradition is nature all the way. Christianity is grace, grace, grace all the way. It is easier. Islam is based on strict regulation, discipline. Five tenets of Islam, five pillars of Islam. So, you look at it, it is the same God we are calling. And nature -based religion is complete Old Testament way, if you read your Bible very well. So, why can't you still worship in the Old Testament way? It is even much more difficult to serve God through Old Testament ways, because it is very routine-based, because you have to give sacrifices to God. You have to do certain things and processes. The New Testament way is based on grace, but people misuse that grace to perpetrate all sorts. And it is in the same Bible that it is said: 'Shall we continue in sin and expect grace to abide forever?' So my point is, I will never condemn the traditional way of worshipping God. It is even the oldest of all.
Critics have faulted your taking a Benin woman for a wife. They say there are enough Yoruba damsels to warm the royal bed of the spiritual head and custodian of Yoruba culture other than a 'foreigner'. Your reaction, Your Royal Majesty?
It is another display of ignorance of people. Benin and Ife have so many ties and affinities. We are blood-related and that is the truth. One may be trying to claim supremacy over the other, I really don't care about that. We are one in the presence of God. But the truth is that the Olori has her root from Ife here, from Oluyari compound in Ile-Ife. They migrated to settle down in Benin for bronze casting. So, she is back at home. Her forebears left Ife to start bronze casting in Benin and after teaching and learning bronze casting, they came back to Ife to rejoin their families. So, they still have blood cousins and relations in Ife. So, you now understand why we are one and together.
How has life as the Ooni of Ife been- i.e, coping with the stress of attending to numerous visitors, managing local affairs, etc?
It is complete turn around, 360 degrees. But I thank God, you know, it is a calling from God, you have to attend to everything, because you are very close to your community. You listen to their views and cry and try to proffer solutions, because they look up to you so much. As a result, you need to have your temperament right and you need to instill hope in your community. So, it is a very big shoe, very big one indeed. It takes the grace of God for that shoe to be filled and God has been faithful to me.
In your speeches, activities empowerment programmes, you have shown deep empathy and concern for the poor. One wonders how a wealthy person of your status is able to connect with the plight of this class of people?
I love human beings so much. It is part of me, it is my life. I have to live my life. I live my life for people. Anytime people are successful in climbing up, that is when I am happy and that is my happiest moment. The private sector background I came from is a labour intensive one -construction sector and tourism sector. I have all sorts of categories of workers and I know thousands of my workers' name and I have close relationships with them. We eat together, we dine together. If you see me, you will never know that I am their boss. So, God has been preparing me for this stool for a long time. So, for the rest of my life, I will be a lover of people. I don't like to see anybody sad. Before I do anything for myself I would have done it for people. It is a policy that has remained in me for a long time. And I don't intend to change and I will not change. Nothing will make me to change by the special grace of God. So, it is something that I am used to.
You co-chair the National Council of Traditional Rulers with the Sultan of Sokoto. But, a prominent Oba has said that the existence of that body offends the federal principle. How do you react to this?
People have different opinions. We don't need to condemn ourselves in life. Whoever that might have said that I don't know who it is. I don't want to know the name, but I respect people's opinion.
It is the Alaafin
Oh! If it is Alaafin, yes, I respect his opinion. He is an intelligent king. He has been there over 40 years. So, if that is his view, there will be a reason why he said so. But the truth is God made structure, it still boils down to trying to prove supremacy, or trying to say that this is what it should be or not be. No! Let us come together in form of team. Anybody can be co-chairman, anybody can be president, but the team work is much more critical than the leadership. Wherever there is leadership, there is followership. To me personally, I will never blame him. It is his opinion, so let him express his opinion.
Now, you are Oonirisa, the focal point of the Yoruba people in the country and the Diaspora. Can you recall an experience in your past, that could, peradventure, have aborted this fortune?
Well, I go on water. I am a very daring person, yet I don't know how to swim. I have a very huge investment off an island in Lagos. I am not afraid of death. I have never been. I have had cases that the boat would just stop in the middle of the water and I didn't know how to swim. So, I'd been close to having an accident, wreckage, but God saved me, then the engine would just be moving again. That did not stop me from going again.
Can you cite a particular instance?
Like I told you, I have a resort on an island in Lagos. I was going for inspection. I like to go on water because it is very therapeutic for me. People go on top of water and they lose their lives. The accident on water is very minimal, but it happens. Maybe that would have probably cut the dream short, but God intervened. I was afraid, but I prayed to God and I had battle with the flow of current.
Again, maybe if I had been involved in things that are not good, which I am always careful of, we won't be talking of me as Ooni. I really don't like to get involved in problems and God has really guided me.
What does being endowed with wealth and leade r s h i p mean to you?
Wealth to me is how impactful you are to your neighbour next door. How impactful you are to your driver, your cook, the cleaner of your house, how impactful you are to your subjects, to your peers and contemporaries. That is wealth to me. Leadership to me is stewardship, nothing but stewardship. A leader should take responsibility and bullet for everything. That is a good leader because a typical leader is what everybody will be calling a steward 'bring this, bring this fork, bring that knife'. That is a responsible act and that is leadership. To me, leadership and stewardship go hand in hand.
Elders including national leaders such as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a former president of this country, who was head of state when you were probably, a school kid have been coming to pay you homage and as tradition demands prostrating to you. How do you feel about it all?
Point of correction, they don't prostrate to me, but to the office of Ooni of Ife. I think we should not get that wrong. They are respecting the stool. Former President Obasanjo I have tremendous respect for. He has been an amazing leader and a very peculiar human being and he knows the customs and traditions of the Yoruba very well. So, it is our culture. It is our tradition. If you think that it is all about you personally, you are getting it wrong because a lot of people are coming from left and right and if it is getting into your head, you are getting it wrong. Respect is reciprocal. If you respect them, they will honour you. What I believe is, it should not get into your head.
What about the king's father now? Does he also come to visit you?
Traditionally, it is not possible again. It is forbidden in our tradition. Mobile phone (GSM) is there, we communicate a lot. We have so much respect for each other. But, that is how it is…You want my father to prostrate for me?
What agenda do you come with for the Yoruba people?
Very simple. Unity, peace and youth empowerment. 70 per cent of Nigeria's population is youth and nobody is championing their cause. The stool is dedicated to youth empowerment. That us what I stand for. That is my philosophy for the entire Yoruba and Nigeria as a whole. - Culled from The Sun