Yesterday, the media went aflame after a picture story of the Obol Lopon of Ugep’s visit to President Buhari surfaced on the Amon Yakurr Facebook handle. Sadly, most of the commenters expressed displeasure and outright disappointment that the revered monarch, instead of appearing unclad, (the distinctive and unique appearance of an Obol Lopon), wore a ‘strange’ attire. This, they say is a desecration and betrayal of the age-long traditions of the yakurr people. Sadly, most of the comments were simply unfortunate.
But has the monarch really desecrated the royal Stool? Let’s see.
One of the most distinctive features of the Ke’bol Lopon stool which stands it out from other African examples, is the very lavish and overpoweringly heavy regalia of the Obol Lopon, complete with copper arm-bangles, ivory, precious stones and a wonder of a crown. Apart from the loin cloth and the royal towel over his shoulders, his upper body is entirely bare. This has been described by an author as an aesthetic nudity (Edoja, Okpokunu et al, 2007).
To further enhance his grandeur, for example, an Obol Lopon must undergo the teeth circumcision by an ‘Omenka’. This intolerably painful dental procedure required the cutting and careful filing of the frontal teeth into tinny little fangs.
At a dinner I organized for all NYSC corps members serving in yakurr, with the late Obol Lopon in my capacity as Mr. leboku in 2009, the monarch explained to us on record, that after the teeth circumcision, the obol must chew for several days, a special root which gives the teeth a jet-dark coloration. He added ironically, that the teeth circumcision served no particular purpose than enhancing the dread of the monarch!
He never underwent the teeth circumcision himself, neither has Obol Ubana Ofem, the present monarch. Did they desecrate custom?
The Ke’bol lopon is both a traditional stool and a religion merged together, and complete with strict rituals, restrictions, taboos and mores- the conventions and traditions that embody the fundamental values of the Yakurr nation, and the desecration of most of which is at the risk of the continuous survival and prosperity of the whole community.
An Obol Lopon may never sleep anywhere else than in the Ugep soil. He may never sit down or accept any refreshment on ‘foreign soil’ for as long as it took him to mediate on an Intra communal crises between waring neighboring communities. Safe for the royal towel about his shoulders, he may never wear any clothing on his upper body, just as his beautifully cured feet may never adorn any footwear. Sometimes, any attendant or palace guard ministering to him must have his upper body unclad as well. These restrictions were corroborated by T.V. Osaigbovo, in her work: “An Insight into the Bini Traditional Apparel and Accessories” (1998).
All of these, including the lokaa language; traditional delicacies; dances; Festivals; communal settlements; farming style etc. combined together at any given time, makes up the cultures and traditions of the Ugep People, the chief custodian of which is the Obol Lopon himself.
But culture, like every other aspect of our cosmic existence, is not monolithic. That is, Culture is organic and grows with the society. It does not have a separate existence from the people (F. Wooldrige, 1967). This is why for example, the distinctive native cap (koteni jenghe) of the Yakurr people, which hitherto may only be worn atop an unclad upper body can now be worn over traditional attires. It was a taboo to do so.
Similarly, modern day ‘lokaa’ speakers prefer new words like ‘ewura’ over ‘eco-blami’ for shirts, and ‘Nni kpa’ over ‘mkpo’da’ for footwear. In Edo, Royals around the Oba were unclad, with permanent drawings known as ‘Ukurhe’ painted directly on their skin. This days, they wear ‘ede’ with the paintings on the fabric instead, as seen in the picture below. Does this imply a desecration of custom?
When he became the paramount Ruler of Yakurr and member of the Cross River State Traditional Rulers Council in 1999, the then Obol Lopon wore clothes and footwear for the first time in recorded history after making necessary appeasements. A portrait of him in an elegantly flowing white apparel would latter grace the cover page of a book in his honor “FOR THE LOVE OF MY PEOPLE: OBOL UBI UJONG INAH (JP)” written by Ojei Itam.
During the Adim/Ugep crises of April, 1996, the then Obol Lopon yet again ‘broke’ tradition, and spent several days and night outside his domain in pursuit of peace. He would latter travel to Jerusalem for the Christian Pilgrimage. The list is endless.
Rich cultures are known for its ability of assimilating other aspects of foreign cultures, without necessarily losing its own taste. The ‘etangala’ Masquerade carnival and the Mr/Miss Leboku pageantry are just few of very recent introductions into the leboku new yam festival which is as old as the Ugep community itself. Does this amount to desecration of tradition?
The significance of the royal visit of the Monarch to the state house must not be lost to a keen observer. We must all commend the Monarch for aspiring to such heights. If there be any Nigerian, who has never heard about the great yakurr people, yesterday, HRM Obol Ubana Ofem took Yakurr to Nigeria.
We all must learn humility from the Royal handshake.
The Obol Lopon has not desecrated the royal stool.
Usani Odum is a legal practitioner in Abuja.
Note:This piece is in appreciation of Chief Okoi Obono Obla, who has facilitated the visit. Three weeks ago, he called me all the way from Canada, less than 5mins after he got my mail in response to a very personal request.