n The Great Oba of Benin Kingdom.
By Obadiah Mailafia (DPhil Oxon)
By Obadiah Mailafia (DPhil Oxon)
For more than a year the rumour mills had been rife with speculations about the passing of the Oba of Benin, His Royal Majesty Omo N’Oba N’ Edo UKu Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa I. In March last year, Secretary to Bini Traditional Council, Frank Irabor, in characteristic understatement, revealed tersely that, “the leopard is ill in the savannah bush”. The monarch had not been seen in public for a long time. During the 2015 presidential elections, candidate Muhammadu Buhari was in Benin City to pay homage, but was received instead by the royal council of chiefs.
The speculations were put to an end on Friday 29th April, when the palace officially announced the passing of the monarch. The Prime Minister, the Iyase of Benin Kingdom, Chief Sam Igbe, in company of royal chiefs and Enigie (Dukes), broke native chalk at the entrance of the palace, signalling that the leopard has taken leave of the savannah bush, re-joining his royal forebears. He declared: “Osorhue Bunrun, Oba Erediauwa of Benin Kingdom, the Prince of Peace, Ebo, Ayemwirhe, emini mini, has returned with his ancestors. May he find perfect peace with God.”
There has been an outpouring of eulogies for the departed monarch, from President Muhammadu Buhari to the leadership of the National Assembly, Governors and captains of finance and industry. Edo State and its ebullient Governor, Adams Ashiomhole, declared five days of mourning, as shops and markets are closed down as a mark of respect for the departed monarch. Given the strict constitutional rule of primogeniture that underpins Bini royal succession, the lot has fallen to Crown Prince Eheneden Erediauwa, who was formally installed as the Edaiken of Uselu, early March 2016. A Former Ambassador to Italy, Norway and Angola, the Crown Prince has made his mark in the oil and gas sector as a successful businessman. When I was a young Research Fellow at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Prince Eheneden was a much respected colleague of ours at the counterpart Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) in Victoria Island, Lagos.
Let me set the records straight: I am not a great fan of monarchies. As a matter of temperament, I am a republican. Although I have royalty in my bloodline and hold the ceremonial title of Majindadi (the one who gladdens the king’s heart) in Sangaland of Kaduna State, I prefer democracy and rule of the people to rule by Divine Right of Kings. There are also some evils that are associated with traditional rulership in contemporary Africa that many people prefer not to talk about. The idea that a king must have many wives is the relic of a barbarous past. Some of the coronation ceremonies for ascension to kingships involve initiation into ancient cults. To protect myself, during my own turbaning in 2006, I ensured that I brought no less than 20 pastors with me. There is anecdotal evidence that ritual killing has not been completely erased as part of traditional practices. When the Ooni of Ife passed away in July 2015, not a few people fled the ancient city. Many feared that there were likely going to be mysterious disappearances of young virgin maidens and the likes. The same trepidation greeted the passing of the illustrious Oba of Benin recently.
Another issue has to do with the economics of monarchy itself. We in Nigeria have never sat down to calculate how much maintenance of traditional institutions is costing our national treasury. Every year in England, a great deal of debate surrounds the amount being required by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take care of the royal household. In times of austerity, royal yachts, royal castles and the general expenditure surrounding the upkeep of the royal household, have often been subjected to drastic financial cuts. In Nigeria that debate has not even begun. We have been told that in some northern states, traditional rulers take as much as 10 percent of total local government allocations. Some of them may be taking home as much a million per month – all of it at taxpayers’ expense. We must cast a major searchlight on the cost of royal institutions on our public finances and decide whether or not we should not subject them to major structural reforms. During the eve of Indian independence in 1949, Nehru, Gandhi and Indian nationalist leaders decided to excise any mention of traditional rulers in their country’s constitution. The thousands of ancient Maharajahs that predominated in Indian society became ipso facto privatised institutions. The same debate has taken place in democratic monarchies of Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Benelux countries. I doubt if democracy and the rule of law can long endure in the face of burdensome, irksome and financially ruinous traditional institutions.
Having said this, I must confess that I have never failed to be awed by the pomp and sheer pageantry of African royalty. There is nothing to be compared to the durbar marking the coronation of the Emir of Kano, for example. At a time when collective psyches are pulverised by mindboggling, disorienting changes, our monarchies remain a symbol of stability, continuity and tradition. The custodians of the collective memory and the springs of tradition and immemorial custom.
If my reading of history is right, the longest reigning monarchy in Africa is that of Borno, which recently celebrated 1,000 years of continuous rule. Borno people can account for every single one of their monarchs going back a thousand years. When the Sultan of Ottoman Turkey sent emissaries to Kanem Borno in the eighteenth century, they came back with a report that simply stated that Old Kanem was the equal of the Ottomans and that the Sultan should perish the thought of ever invading that kingdom.
By contrast, the Fulani Caliphate in northern Nigeria is a comparatively young upstart kingdom of barely over 200 years. It was founded by chicanery and cant, when a group of Fulani immigrants from Futa Jalon in Upper Guinea took it upon themselves to violently overthrow their self-satisfied and naively trusting Habe kings. And they all did it ostensibly in the name of religious authenticity and puritanism. Even at that, when one reads the philosophical treatises of Shehu Usman ibn Fodio and his son Mohammed Bello, one cannot help but be impressed. They were highly learned austere and fastidious Sufis of the sacred Order Qadiriyya. Unlike their contemporary pretenders, they were pious and self-abnegating; frowning at greed, materialism and ornamental displays.
When the Scottish explorer Richard Clapperton visited Mohammed Bello in his palace in Sokoto late in the nineteenth century, he asked his host if there was anything he needed from Europe so that he could bring it to him on his next journey. To Clapperton’s surprise, the Sheikh did not ask for expensive raiment, gold, ornaments, or trinkets; he asked, instead, for a copy of Euclid’s Geometry, because his only copy, he lamented, had been lost in a fire. I am awed by the poetry of the Sheikh’s sister, Nana Asma’u. She was not just a fine poetess; she was a teacher who began a community of women scholars to promote education and literacy among women. Nana Asma’u ought to be on our One Thousand Naira Note, not some dour looking old male bankers.
For me personally, no royal stool in Africa is as regal and as grand -- no crown is as heavy with sheer gravitas and power as the ancient Crown of the Bini Kingdom. The stool of the Oba is over 800 years old. And if you add the Ogiso period before the emergence of the constitutional Oba, the Bini monarchy goes back 1,600 years old. What makes it stand apart, as the eminent sociologist Peter Eke opines, is the fact that it was not based on conquest or usurpation of power. It emerged from the mist of antiquity as the will of the people themselves as they wished to be governed and led. The Oba is venerated as a living god and oracle; an embodiment of the spirit of the venerable ancestors. Indeed, a whole country in our own neighbourhood of West Africa, took its name from that ancient kingdom, changing its old colonial name of Dahomey to La République du Bénin. In my humble opinion, perhaps the only other crown that rivals Benin in terms of reverence by its people is the Kabaka of Buganda.
A few years ago, a rather intemperate debate took place between the late Omon’Oba and the late Ooni of Ife, Alayeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, who passed away only July last year. In his much acclaimed memoirs, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant (Spectrum Books 2004), he took the view that Oduduwa was a prince of Bini Kingdom who went to settle in Ile-Ife; in effect, turning on its head the long-head teachings of the Ibadan School of History. The doyen of Nigerian academic history, late Jacob Ade Ajayi was uncharacteristically insolent: “Who is the Oba of Benin to come and tell the Yoruba what they should believe about themselves….When he says from his studies, what did he study?”
The gravamen of the controversy centred on the question of seniority and precedence. The late Ooni maintained that, on the contrary, the Bini stool was founded by one of the princes of Oduduwa who immigrated farther south to the forest region of Edo. A long-held tradition solemnised by the British colonial administration had placed the Oba of Benin as third in order of precedence among the monarchs of the old Western Region; with the first being the Ooni of Ile-Ife, and the Alaafin of Oyo in second place.
More recently, perhaps as part of the euphoria that greeted the emergence of a young and handsome new Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, the Alake of Egbaland, Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, reminded the world that he was Number 4 in the order of precedence, with the Awujale of Ijebu Kingom in fifth place. This predictably drew the ire of the powerful and wealthy Awujale, Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, who used rather un-royal language in ‘putting the Alake in his place’.
My good friend the poet Odia Ofeimun, a native of the Ishan people who pay allegiance to the Omon’Oba, wrote an impassioned essay defending the pre-eminence of the Oba of Benin. Drawing from historical accounts intermixed with Ifa mysticism, myth and social anthropology, he strenuously sought to make the case of the Oba of Benin being the “first born among Yoruba monarchs”. He also argued, rather cleverly in my view, that if the Yoruba reject this view, then he would have to revert to the position, held by the likes of Chief David Edebiri, the Esogban and Odionwere of Benin Kingdom, who insist that Oba of Benin is not a Yoruba and therefore cannot be ranked within a hierarchy of Yoruba monarchical pantheons. According to Ofeimun, “The reality is that whenever the Oba of Benin sat among the Yoruba Obas, he knew he was the eldest. He did not have to say it for it to be true. Those who deny him his place may stand on ethnic arrogance, which is hollow.”
For my part, I do not know. I do not who is the older or the superior king. I am glad that throughout that rather unseemly debate, nobody brought the heresy that the Edo and Yoruba are strangers to each other. As a matter of fact, they are siblings and sibling rivalry is as old as humanity itself. Ironically, in choosing his new Olori (Queen), the new Ooni of Ife went for the Edo-born Wuraola Otiti, the buxom, delectable damsel formally known as Sonia Itohan Obahan.
When European explorers visited Benin Kingdom in 1485 they were deeply impressed with what they met. They saw a well built and well planned city with a highly sophisticated system of government in place. They reported that "The king's court is very big, having within it many wide squares with galleries round them where watch is always kept”. In the sixteenth century the Oba of Benin sent an Ambassador to represent his kingdom in the courts of the King of Portugal. The Portuguese on their part sent missionaries and traders. Commerce flourished between the two kingdoms.
The royal stool of the Edo people was perhaps the most powerful in the who of the West and Southern Nigeria during the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, extending as far as Igala land, Nupe land, Owo, Akure, Lagos, Benin Republic, Togo land and as far as Ghana. It is a known fact that the ruling house of Onitsha is of Bini ancestry. The simple truth is that the Benin Kingdom was unsurpassed in its regal dignity and international pedigree until the beloved capital was razed down by a British military expedition in February 1897. Omon’Oba Ovonramwen was sent to Calabar on exile. The white barbarians pillaged the precious art works in the royal galleries like common thieves. Famed for their grace and beauty, Benin bronze art works are to be found in the greatest museums of the Western world. And as if to show their respect for the ailing king, in March this year, the Omon’Oba’s alma mater, Cambridge University, sent back a bronze cockerel that had adorned the main hall of Jesus College, Cambridge.
If truth be told, you judge the power of a ruler by how much he is revered by his people. On that criterion and on the longevity of its line, the Oba of Benin is Number One in Nigeria.
According to the writer Naiwu Osahon, the Benin monarchy shares eerie similarities with the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. According to him, “Bini monarchy demonstrates strong affinity with ancient Egyptian gods and Pharaohs, with which it shares identical authority, grandeur and a great deal of reverence from their subjects”. For example, the hairstyle of Bini chiefs is in the same manner as that of the small helmet worn by the great King Ramases II, arguably the greatest of all the pharaohs. The kings of Bini were often addressed as ‘the Open Eye’, analogous to the Osirian mysteries who described the Pharaohs as possessors of omniscient eyes. Sadly also, like their ancient Egyptian forebears, the Bini used to bury slaves and domestic servants purportedly to accompany the king in his journey into the great beyond; a practice, we are told, was ended by none other than the recently departed Omon’Oba.
As a struggling graduate student in England in the early nineties, I met a rather elderly English gentleman at a luncheon reception. He was a retired consultant surgeon. When he got to know I was from Nigeria he casually asked if I knew his old mate at Kings College Cambridge, by the name of Solomon Akenzua. I told him, well, he is now the King of Benin and he could not be seen without an appointment. The man was astonished, protesting, “But he never told anyone he was a prince”!
The departed monarch was born Prince Solomon, Aiseokhuoba, Igbinoghodua Akenzua, on 23 June, 1923. He attended Edo College Benin before proceeding to Government College Ibadan, where he flew with bright colours in academics and sports. He later attended Yaba College for his higher studies before proceeding to Cambridge University, where he studied Law and Public Administration. Upon returning to Nigeria, he joined the Eastern Region Government as a District Officer in 1952, incontrovertibly the most prestigious job that any young man could hold down in those days. He later transferred to the Federal Service where he rose up to the rank of Permanent Secretary, retiring in 1973. He briefly served as the Regional Director for Gulf Oil and was later Commissioner of Finance in the defunct Bendel State. He ascended the throne of his ancestors as the 38th Oba after his father Oba Akenzua II passed away in 1979.
It was not for nothing that Oba Erediuwa was hailed as ‘the Oba of Peace’. During his long reign Edo land was an oasis of peace in a troubled region. We were told that when the South-South militants wanted to extend their activities to his domain, the palace sent out a decree with a ring of finality: “Omo n’Oba will not hear of it”. We have it on authority from none other than Eric Teniola, a former Director in the Presidency, that the late Oba played a central role in keeping this country together. He was one of the top civil servants who accompanied former Head of State General Yakubu Gowon to the Aburi peace talks in Ghana in Janaury 1967. Gowon had unwittingly conceded what amounted to a dangerously loose confederal arrangement. Upon return, Prince Akenzua did not sleep. Through the night he penned a strong memo urging the Head of State to reconsider his position. It was on the basis of that fateful memo that the Gowon administration beat a hasty retreat from an agreement that might have spelt the death knell of our great federation. Those who insisted on the battle cry, “On Aburi We Stand”, did not quite know their international law. Treaties entered into are of no legal effect until they are duly ratified. The Aburi Agreement was not ratified by the Federal Government and was thus invalid and non-binding as a legal agreement. As it turns out, it was the wisdom, foresight, courage and sagacity of the young Prince Akenzua that saved Nigeria from the jaws of dissolution.
I am a proud son of the Nok civilisation of the Middle Belt. But I am also a passionate believer in the unity of our great nation. I am a fervent and unrepentant believer in One Nigeria. Which is why I have no iota of sentiments against any ethnic group, not even against the Fulani, who have continued to slaughter my people like Sallah rams. I have had the good fortune to have met some illustrious sons of Benin Kingdom. Emmanuel Emovon, an eminent professor of chemistry and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jos, impressed me by his decorum and cosmopolitan culture. It was only recently that I got to know that his ailing wife is the sister of the late Omon’Oba. My former boss at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Professor Eghosa Osagie, has been a mentor and friend. He used to speak to me in soft tones about the Oba of Benin, who was his senior at Government College Ibadan. By their unfailing courtliness, calm dignity, decency and intellectual integrity, Emovon and Osagie embody what I believe to be the high spiritual qualities of the ancient Edo people.
The Omon’Oba was a great royal father and a true Nigerian patriot. He loved our country and fought for its good. He led his people with honour and dignity. Whenever politicians were reaching for each other’s throats, as they often did, his was always the voice of peace, reconciliation and justice. In announcing his parting, the Iyase of Bini Kingdom, Chief Sam Igbe, declared that, “Oba Erediauwa is the Oba of Peace, the Oba who brought prosperity to his people, the Oba who understands his people. He makes sure that no one was offended, the Oba who could sit in judgment and give judgment against his own son for a commoner. It is rare. Oba Erediauwa is the best that has happened to Benin Kingdom in the last 1,600 years.”
In an epoch when men do not know how to exercise power with wisdom, moderation or restraint, the late Oba was a shining light in a confused and illiberal age. His legacy is imperishable. Great Leopard of the ancient savannah; Prince of Ogodomigodo; Solomon Aiseokhuoba Igbinoghodua Akenzua; Osorhue Bunrun; the Prince of Peace; Ebo Ayemwirhe; Emini mini mini; Omo N’Oba N’ Edo UKu Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa I, Oba of Benin Kingdom; Uma gha gba ni ma, uma gha gba ne Edo. Oba ghato Okpere Ise.
(Dr Obadiah Mailafia is a public finance specialist and a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria; a connoisseur of Bini art works, he is a newspaper columnist, philosopher and public intellectual, with interests in Egyptology and ancient African civilisations. E-Mail: email@example.com; Text only: 08036590990)