Oba Erediauwa belonged in the caravan of honourable servants. He was the ultimate carrier of royalty, who served, ruled, and led an ancient city with the finest virtues. Despite his exposure and education, he was puritanical about preserving his Bini heritage. Besides their ancient history, the infectious pride of the Bini regarding their culture and monarchy rests on the undiluted richness of the Benin tradition, the unapologetic allegiance to its cultic purity and the long historical diplomatic relationship with other nations, especially European ones. Anyone who aspired to lead such a people must have the moral stamina of a genuine custodian of traditions, the wisdom of a true repertoire of cultural history, and an instrument of justice and peace. Oba Erediauwa exuded all this in one iconic personality.
Born on June 22, 1923, this scion of Oba Akenzua II, ascended the throne as the 38th Oba of Benin, on March 23, 1979. Before then, he was an illustrious super civil servant and public officer by the name of Prince Solomon Igbinighodua Akenzua. For his formal education, he attended the Government College, Ibadan, between 1939 and 1945, and later studied at the Yaba College of Technology, before proceeding to King’s College, Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom, where he studied law and administration.
After graduating from the university, he joined the Eastern Nigeria Civil Service as District Officer, and later moved on to the Federal Civil Service where he retired as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health in 1973. Erediauwa served as a regional representative of Gulf Oil, and had a stint as Bendel State Commissioner of Finance under the military administration of Brigadier George Innih.
As a public servant, he was noted as an administrator of high professionalism, exemplary probity and candour. Perhaps, these were the qualities that informed government’s choice of making him part of the high-powered delegation to the Aburi Conference during the Nigerian Civil War.
Upon his occupation of the Oba stool, he held court with equanimity and justice, settling disputes amongst Edo kin and between the Bini and other ethnicities. Government and state administrators tapped from his wise counsel for a peaceful tenure. In his reign, Benin City rose from a rustic and sleepy town to a sprawling modern city. He also maintained a kingdom of peace and tolerance without sacrificing traditional culture.
In recent times, owing to the sweeping effect of westernisation, the role of traditional institutions has wrongly been viewed as simply symbolic in this part of the world. Apart from being primarily a living form that signposts the cultural history of the people, traditional institutions have succumbed to the pre-eminence given to civil government by the dominant western political order. The effect of this is that traditional rulers have given in to the whims of devious political powers.
A reference, in the not too distant past, was the infamous military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha, when traditional rulers were blackmailed and hoodwinked to support obnoxious policies against the people. When the dictator summoned traditional rulers to Abuja to well up support for an extended tenure, amongst other atrocious plans, Oba Erediauwa, alongside other royal fathers, answered out of respect. But that would turn-out the only time he went to Aso Rock. Having listened to the dictator’s plea, he came back to his people, and vehemently criticised Abacha’s intention. While other monarchs lay low, cowed by the irascible and mercurial Abacha and his killing machine, Oba Erediauwa stood up against Abacha and the military.
One of the lessons to be learnt from the Oba is this: If we want to redeem Nigeria, we need people who will represent the traditional institution this way. As Nigerians can observe today, traditional rulers collude with politicians and public office holders to oppress the people. Some are so power-seeking that they want to be both custodians of their traditional values and promoters of alien culture. This is demeaning of the authority and position of the monarch even as it demystifies the efficacy of traditional institutions.
The life and times of the late Oba Erediauwa also pose a challenge for the Crown Prince Edaiken N’Uselu Eheneden Erediauwa. Judging by conventional standards, the elder Erediauwa seemed to have left shoes too big for anyone to fit into. Yet, it is these shoes that posterity is inviting the Crown Prince to step into as Oba one day soon.
Just as his father, whose firm paternal grip of the Benin Kingdom was like the solicitude of a gentle giant, the Crown Prince is beckoned by the demands of the throne and the times, to display uncommon courage, sacrificial empathy, and eloquent wisdom in the service of the land. He is also challenged to advance the traditional institution with equal integrity, royal distinction, and class which his father fittingly bestowed it by his character and moral finesse. As a distant but respected voice in the affairs of state, the oracular admonition of the traditional monarch is expected, like his father’s, to guide the polity onto the part of values and genuine leadership.