How I Remember Ooni Sijuwade [opinion] (

In 1998, I was privileged to be part of the first annual “Nnamdi Azikiwe Symposium on Africa and World Affairs” at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The unique three-day symposium entitled Nigeria and the Future of Africa: Defining Issues for the 21st Century was organized in honour of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria who was a 1930 Lincoln University graduate. The conference was convened by Niara Sudarkasa, then President of Lincoln University, and co-chaired by two distinguished historians: Professors Ali Mazrui & G.N. Uzoigwe.

In the list of participants were many eminent Africans amongst whom were our own former President Shehu Shagari, and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, founding President of Tanzania. There was also a glittering array of Nigeria’s royalty including HRH the former Ooni of Ife, Oba Sijuwade, HRH the former Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, HRH The Sataloye II of Ode Remo, Oba Sunday Adeolu, HRH The Emir of Daura, Alhaji Mohammed Bashir, HRH The Asagba of Asaba, Prof. Obi Chike Edozien as well as Prince & Mrs. Adelowo Aderemi and Princess (Mrs.) Tejumola Alakija. I had never seen so many prominent Nigerians scheduled to gather in one American hall!

In the list were greats such as T.O.S. Benson and Maitama Sule, Dr. Yaro Gella, then Director General of the Nigerian National Museum as well as Dr. Dike Odogwu and Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, internationally known leaders from the private sector such as Mr. O.A. Adeyemi Wilson, Manager, Mobil Nigeria and Dr. George Obiozor, then Director of the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs. Prominent scholars and international civil servants were scheduled to make presentations: these included Dr. Adebayo Adedeji, former head of Economic Commission for Africa (ECA); Dr. Babacar Ndiaye, former Chairman and CEO of the African Development Bank; Professor Ali Mazrui, author and narrator of the “The Africans”, Professor Jacob Ade Ajayi, Editor of Volume 6 of the UNESCO “History of Africa” and noted Africanists such as Professors Richard L. Sklar of UCLA, Willard Johnson of MIT and our own erudite scholar, Isawa Elaigwu of University of Jos. Small fry like yours truly were scheduled to make presentations towards the tail end of the conference when all the political big guns would have retired to their posh hotel suites.

And so it came to pass, that except for Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who thankfully stayed until the last paper was presented, all the big men and women from Nigeria predictably left after the plenary and the cameras. When he found himself alone among the scholars, Nyerere told us that he had agreed to come to the event not only to see the school that produced such great Africans as Azikiwe and Kwameh Nkrumah of Ghana, but also to listen to the presentations on Nigeria and the Future of Africa.

I was a very proud Nigerian standing there at the beginning of the conference as court musicians ushered in our blue bloods, led magnificently by the Ooni of Ife and the Emir of Kano. For me, it was the first time to see an Emir. The Ooni I had seen before and had developed a long distance affection for him for a reason that I will share shortly. That day at Lincoln, he was very regal as usual, decked in blue regalia from shoe to glasses. And the Emir in his official attire was picture perfect as well. Unlike the Ooni, his mouth was covered throughout and he never uttered a word. I was fascinated and confused at the same time. I was sitting near one of the Emi’s aides and I turned to him and asked why the Emir would fly all the way to America for the conference without saying word. He said something that I have always remembered: “Prof., there is power in silence.” I still don’t get it, but back to the Ooni.

I met him twice before, and I was very impressed each time. The first time was in 1987 when he accompanied Otunba Adekunle Ojora during the Centennial celebration of Central State University of Ohio, Wilberforce, USA, when Ojora was awarded an honorary doctorate of Law by the university. During the luncheon after the Commencement, I enjoyed the most companionable but short conversation with the Ooni. He was so easy. It was if we had been friends before then. He spoke Igbo to me as an opener immediately after I introduced myself. The rest of our conversation was in English. He told me that the Obi of Onitsha was expected to join the team.

I had no idea who the Obi of Onitsha was, but I could not tell the Ooni that. Better to keep my failures to myself. However, it was when the monarch later visited Columbus, the capital of Ohio, a year or so later as the guest of Governor Richard Celeste that I truly was blown away. He came in grand style and conducted himself in way that brought respect for all Africans and African Americans in Ohio.

The first thing that struck me was that the Ooni wore his nobility well, and as a result, commanded respect from most of the people who saw and listened to him talk. Over all, his speech was very intelligent and motivating. It compared favorably in eloquence and delivery with those of African heads of state whom the governor had previously honored during their visits to Ohio during my many happy years in that beautiful state. These included the presidents of Senegal, Mali and Togo: all of who delivered their speeches in tedious French. The Ooni was different and very refreshing.

He showed very national and cultural pride in the gifted way that he delivered his speech. This makes me wonder why traditional leaders of the Ooni’s intellect are not allowed constitutional roles in our political system. Since the Ooni joined his ancestors, I have begun to wonder more and more why our political system has not managed to carve out a role for traditional rulers of his caliber especially those of them that have proved their capability in the private sector, in government, and in the maintenance of peace and security within their dominions. But I digress.

My Cameroonian friend, Fon Ngu, who planned and executed the logistics of the Ooni’s successful visit to Ohio, was then the Manager of Africa and Middle East Trade at the Ohio Department of Development in the International Trade Division. He still remembers with nostalgia the day that the Ooni spoke in Columbus. Both he and his wife Frieda hold the monarch in very high regard. “I revered the Ooni,” he told me when I broke the sad news to both of them over the phone. Fon’s picture with the monarch is still prominently displayed in the formal sitting room of their home. And Fon and Frieda are not alone. Many Ohioans who met the Ooni were similarly mesmerized, He had come to Ohio from the New York Waldorf Astoria, with an entourage of about 30 people including former Ambassador Leslie Harriman.

During a state dinner at the governor’s mansion, the Ooni gave a statesmanlike global and substantive speech on the welfare of the African Diaspora. He also stressed the need for fair trade between African countries and the West. It was as if a world leader talking! The man was grand, from head to toe – complete with a white secretary trained to bow before the monarch each time he summoned her.

And this in the full view of white and African American guests! Recall my first meeting with the monarch: I found right there and then that his English was better than mine. But here in Columbus, among fine white folks like Governor Celeste and some of the closet rednecks in his administration, and in the presence of Africans and African-Americans, the Ooni – with the very polished and suave Ambassador Harriman standing on his side as interpreter – delivered his speech in pure Yoruba, as though he could not speak a word of English. I was suddenly, ten feet tall! May his proud soul rest in perfect peace!