The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, has been a public fascination for some weeks since he embarked on what seems like a race to inscribe himself in the book of records. Within two months, the 51st Ooni has wedded six women. It is possible that by the time you are done reading this, the palace would have announced marriage to wife number seven (and possibly, eight). For a monarch who has had a string of failed marriages, marrying a raft of women is a reprisal for the embarrassment he suffered when his ex-wives left ceremoniously. Never again will it happen that any of the women filling up his harem, each married about a week of the other, will gain as much social mileage for divorcing him. Marriage has become a revolving door. If now, any of the six—and still counting—wives want to leave him dramatically, it is no big deal. By the time she finishes announcing her exit on social media, perhaps another two would have been lined up as replacements. What better tactic is there to assuage shame than shamelessness?
I do not think anyone has issues with his polygamy, but the almost unprecedented act of marrying one woman per week jars the sensibility. Since such a series of quick-draw wedding ceremonies is somewhat unusual, at least from the days of Fela and his iconic 27 wives, people have understandably satirised the king’s libido. The cheers and the jeers are to be expected, especially since a chunk of the Ooni’s private business has been in the public domain. Besides, traditional rulers are sources of meaning-making, and people cannot but be invested in their issues. What I find rather striking about the whole affair is how much modern monarchies, their political relevance severely curtailed under modern democratic systems, thrive on public attention and of course, gossip. And nothing excites gossipmongers like man-woman issues because they reflect the degree of society’s investment in the politics of virility and ecstasy.
Most likely, the Ooni himself relishes the fantasies being projected on him by voyeurs. In a patriarchal society like Nigeria, nothing is seemingly more valorizing for a man than to be ascribed outsized sexual prowess. Some of the innuendos about his serial marriages combine conspiracy theories with suspicions of diabolism. Again, for a traditional ruler whose legitimacy relies on the myths and legends of his ancestry and association with 201 Gods, the Yoruba deities and ancestors, the talebearers are doing him a huge favor. In a superstitious society, if people imagine that you have some supernatural power and your actions are informed by some otherworldly influence, it is your interest to ramp up that belief. It will create fear and reverence, their means of self-subjectification before you.
Like many people, royalty fascinates me too. Some days, I am impressed by its resilience. It says a lot that a holdover power structure from an era of absolute rule still exerts so much force on the public imagination. On other days, I am also bemused by how people maintain the notion that someone who lives like other humans somehow manages to embody “tradition” any more than anyone; asking us to treat them accordingly strikes me as a hoax. Before the modern era, the king did not even show his face to the public. Once crowned, he is deified. From that point, he becomes remote from ordinary mortals to maintain the myth of his invincibility. But these days, Obas take selfies and post videos of themselves doing what ordinary mortals do on social media. It would perhaps be unthinkable for an Oba to be invisible just to prove they are a superior specie. Anyone who tries that stunt will be forgotten while alive. So much for being custodians of tradition!
In the part of Nigeria where I come from, certain Obas do not even reckon with the so-called “traditional” values they supposedly embody before decorating amoral characters with chieftaincy titles. Time and again, traditional rulers have demonstrated they are as complicit in the oppression and power abuse of modern-day Nigeria as other power structures. If we, as a society, have failed to challenge the ways traditional rulers undermine our value system, it is precisely because we bought into the myth that monarchs link us to a romantic African past where our ancestors’ outlook on the world was simple and pure before being tainted by modernity.
But as any royal will tell you, the sentimentality of nostalgia alone is not enough to keep people invested in the institution. Every royalty also needs spectacles, which can be offered to the public in the form of splendour or scandals. Their pomp and circumstance impresses us and produces a feeling of being in the presence of what is deeper than us, runs longer than the times of our lives, and remains stable despite social evolutions. That is why the British monarchy especially does not toy with its rituals during public ceremonies. It is notable that one of the few times Donald Trump spoke of his mother, his memory was of her glued to one of the first few television sets in New York then and watching Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation.
While the grandeur of power excites, royalty also needs an occasional scandal before all its gaudy displays start to feel like tasting saccharine. Their scandals—mostly family drama and therefore revolve around issues of sex—counterbalance the splendour and provide a “human interest” angle that makes the existence of royalty even worth watching. The many television shows about monarchs illustrate how the public satiates its desire to see drama around the royals by inventing them. The British monarchy and the cultural industry built around it have greatly profited from the dissensions of people like Princess Diana and lately, Meghan Markle (who has become another fixation of their press). Scandals are the lifeblood of monarchies as long as they adequately balance the magnificence of their power.
For our part of the world where almost five kilometres is ruled by one pretend royal or the other, the majesty one associates with monarchies are diffused. In the bid to intensify their worth, some traditional leaders deck themselves with anachronistic titles like “imperial majesty.” It is a frantic attempt to cling to relevance in a world that would otherwise treat them as a historical residue. Even “first class” Obas who embody the splendor of royalty cannot do without a little scandal now and then to stoke public emotions. When the late Alaafin, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, noticed how the public ogled his retinue of wives, he turned them into a showpiece. Like it or not, at least he made you look.
The Ooni’s marriage spree is a composite spectacle of both splendour and scandal, and the meaning we derive from his actions depends on the angle we view it. Some women see his union with six of their gender in one fell swoop as a triumph of patriarchy. Some other women see a life of freedom for those wives, each of whose career profile shows as accomplished. Their wedding to the Ooni is a marital arrangement that confers status on them and does not necessarily relegate them to the tedium of domesticity that dooms most women in monogamous marriages. Joining the Ooni’s harem is a convenient arrangement of part-time wifehood. When they are done with what royalty offers them, they can always leave. Nigerian men, especially the ones who like to valorize the benefits of polygamy—but, fortunately, also do not have the economic power to practise it—can at least derive vicarious pleasure from seeing their fellow man live out their private fantasies. Whichever way one views the Ooni’s actions, hardly anyone is indifferent, which makes all the difference to the monarchy.