In Benin, it is morning
For Governor Adams Oshiomhole and His Majesty, Omo n’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare the Second, last Thursday must be a singular experience. For the third time in 100 years, Benin kingdom, one of the oldest states in Nigeria, is having a new traditional ruler. That day too, Oshiomhole became the first Edo citizen to give the staff of office to an Oba of Benin. Gone were the days of power, but the throne of Benin still evokes the glory and pomp of our ancestors, their deeds, their labour of love and their statecraft.
Now we are living in a new era, with new challenges and peculiar problems. No longer would the king need to order an army into battle to get his ways. To symbolise the new era, the governor approved the appointment of the oba and without that imprimatur, the oba cannot ascend the throne. That is the law. But to also remind us that this is Benin, the land of tradition and old glory, when the Oba was to receive his staff of office from the governor last Thursday, he did so sitting down.
Ewuare was born to be king. He was born in the 1950s when his grandfather, Oba Akenzua, was spending his second decade on the throne. He is lucky therefore to have passed through the mentoring class of two great monarchs, Akenzua and his father, Oba Erediauwa, an old student of Government College, Ibadan who studied law and public administration at the prestigious University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. These two men redefined the obaship of Benin, restoring it to dignity and remaking the institution to evoke the days of power and glory before the humiliation and defeat inflicted by the British during the punitive expedition of 1897.
Benin was one of the great states of Africa before the coming of the Europeans who placed the entire continent, except Ethiopia, under colonial subjugation by the beginning of the 20th Century. By the 10th Century, a state was believed to have developed centered on Benin City where an indigenous kingship, the Ogiso dynasty, reigned. However, at a point in history, the nobles of Benin, following serious succession dispute with the Ogiso princes, were said to have sent to the Court of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife, asking that a prince be sent to them. Oduduwa sent his son, Oranmiyan, a warrior-prince, to Benin where he reigned as the first Oba. A union between him and a Benin lady produced Eweka the First, the second king of the Oranmiyan (or Oromiyan) dynasty.
Oranmiyan is also reputed to be the founder of Oyo Alaafin dynasty and our father, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, the current Alaafin of Oyo, has instituted a yearly festival in his honour. Oranmiyan later became the fourth Ooni of Ife and the place of his burial is marked with the Oranmiyan giant obelisk, made of stone, which is standing in Ile-Ife till this day. The three cities where Oranmiyan was believed to have reigned were to become important centres of African civilisations. However, few cities in the world are richer in history and tradition than Benin. Like Ile-Ife, Benin has remained in its ancient location and from that spot has projected its power and influence far and wide.
Many important kingdoms and states are related to the Benin throne or may have come under its direct influence and control. These kingdoms include that of Ado in Ekiti State, Akure, Ondo and Owo in Ondo State, Warri and Asaba in Delta State, Onitsha in Anambra State and Lagos where the Eleko, the traditional ruler of Lagos Island, is believed to be a direct descendant of a Benin monarch.
It is evocative that the new king picked the throne name of Ewuare the Second. Ewuare N’Ogidigan, who reigned in the 15th Century, was credited with transforming a strangling settlement of the Edo people into the centre of a far-flung empire. He encouraged ivory carving for which Benin was to have universal fame and turned the obaship into a major episcopacy with far-reaching spiritual import. In subsequent centuries, Benin became a dominant power in West Africa, sharing space with the likes of Oyo, Ashanti, Dahomey and Ghana. It traded with other parts of the world and sent ambassadors to the courts of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs.
But by the 19th Century, Benin Empire was facing a dire challenge like the rest of African pre-colonial states. In 1896, a British force led by Captain Phillips, was ambushed by Benin soldiers and routed. Phillips and many of his troops were killed. In 1897, the British struck back, defeated the Benin Army, set fire to the capital, looted the treasury of priceless artifacts and captured the reigning Oba Ovanranwen Nogbaisi. The Oba was later exiled into Calabar where he died in 1914, the year Nigeria, with the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates, officially came into existence as a single political entity.
By the time Ovanranwen’s grandson came to the throne as Akenzua II, in 1933, the empire was history and the Oba was a salaried subject of the British crown. It was to the eternal credit of Akenzua II that he was able to transform the burden of colonial rule to his people’s advantage. He encouraged education and cultural revival and used the prestige of his throne to mobilise the non-Yoruba speaking people of the old Western Region, in Benin and Delta Provinces, to demand for their own region. The name he suggested, Bendel, later became the name of the new state until it was divided into Edo and Delta States. Akenzua was also in the forefront of the campaign to return more than 3000 ivory and bronze artifacts looted from the royal treasury in Benin during the British invasion of 1897. Only two were returned.
It was a surprise to many that he did not emerge as the first governor of the Mid-Western Region when it was created in 1963 out of the old Western Region. Instead, that honour went to Chief Jereton Mariere, a respected statesman and former member of the House of Representatives and personal friend of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first titular President. Mariere was also the first chancellor of the University of Lagos. Like Akenzua, Mariere was a prominent leader of the Mid-West State Movement and leader of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC.
Now the new oba is coming to office at a time of truce in Edo State politics. Unlike his grandfather, he cannot afford to be openly identified with political struggles. However, as his father had shown in moments of crisis, the Benin monarch cannot be indifferent to politics especially as it may affect Edo State and the people of Benin. One could recall the face-off between Oba Erediauwa and Governor Ambrose Alli, the first elected governor of old Bendel State, which eventually led to the second coming of Governor Samuel Ogbemudia. During the military era, the oba kept a respectable distance from the dictator, General Sani Abacha. When a bumptious military governor, Navy Captain Anthony Onyearugbulem, issued the Oba a query, the Edo people rose as one against an impertinent upstart.
The new Oba has made it known that the welfare of the Bini people would be his sole assignment. He used the occasion of his coronation to remember his mother who died 40 years ago. He also established a foundation in memory of his illustrious father, the unforgettable Oba Erediauwa. He said he would use the throne to promote the culture and language of the Edo people and promote peace throughout Nigeria. Said he: “What royalty represents to our people are justice, peace and unity.”
For the Edo people, it is a new dawn. The new Oba may reflect on the advice of Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian and ethicist, which was quoted by his father, Oba Erediauwa, after he was presented with the staff of office in 1978: ‘‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
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