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Benin and its mystique

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By MIKE JIMOH [jimoh.mike3@gmail.com] Updated 09/10/2017

The exodus of the Jews from Egypt was followed by a mass movement of a dark-skinned people not recorded anywhere in the Holy Bible. But descendants of the migrants of yore still remember their story today. They were not slaves, nor were they unduly oppressed under the Pharaohs. Their departure was voluntary. And nobody tried to stop them when they decided to leave.

Thus began the great trek of the founders of what would become Benin kingdom. Led by a few intrepid ones – dab hands in magic and mysticism inclusive – the band of migrants braved it down the desert, across mountains and great rivers, through the vast savannah, overcoming obstacles along the way, fending off marauders or forming alliances with local tribes until they reached the jungly forests of Benin where they eventually settled.

The wayfarers from Egypt immediately made themselves at home, as shipwrecked sailors suddenly discovering an island.
The first settlers were organized into family systems called Okhaigbe whereby the head of each family decided on domestic matters. Of course, the land they settled was fertile enough for subsistence agriculture and so many of the new arrivals took to farming. There were hunters as well. As the population increased over time, it became necessary for authority to be vested in one man. This was the beginning of the Ogiso dynasty – derived from Ogie n’ oriso (king in heaven or king from the sky).

The first Ogiso was Obagodo while the last, Owodo, reigned until the current obaship system started with the ascension of Oba Eweka 1 in the year 1200 when the monarchical system of government began proper in the ancient city. On the throne now since Eweka 1 is the 38th king, Oba Erediauwa (formerly Prince Solomon Igbinogodua Aisiokuoba Akenzua), crowned on March 25, 1979. In-between have been great obas such as Ewedo, Oguola, Ezoti, Esigie, Akenzae, Akengbedo, Akenzua 1, Adolo, Ovoramwen, Eweka 11, Akenzua 11, and many more. All of them were sired of royal blood, thus conferring on the ancient city an authentic monarchy as well as an empire that has endured for centuries compared to others before or after it.

True, there was once a British empire. It ceased to exist with loss of its colonies in the sixties and seventies. There was once the great empire of Ghana, of Mali and of Songhai. All of them are no more, having disintegrated into several different modern nation states now presided over by political rulers. But Benin kingdom has survived the vicissitudes of time and tribulation, its traditional institutions intact and held together by the infallible authority of a monarchy founded more than 800 years ago.
From Eweka 1, the chain of succession of rulers of Benin kingdom has remained unbroken down to the present monarch. More than any other monarchical system in Nigeria, the baton of kingship has passed from father to son from generation to generation over the years such that the obaship system in Benin has been unsullied by bastard blood.

Once, a usurper tried to impose himself as king after Oba Ovoramwen was exiled to Calabar by the British in the wake of the invasion in 1897. The gods promptly decided the matter themselves as the impostor became paralysed as soon as he sat on the throne.
From then till now, the royal house in Benin boasts real blue blood, not tainted by a truculent uncle or a Machiavellian son-in-law rising to become king as a result of court intrigues.

“There is only one Oba in Benin, we have no other monarch,” Chief Nosakhare Isekhure told Sunday Sun one Wednesday afternoon in his palace on Sokponba Road, sort of confirming the uniqueness of the monarchical system in Benin. “We established a monarchy that is so unique, it’s unparalleled because the way we organized our kingship system is so pronounced,” Chief Isekhure continued extempore. “We have the oba at the apex and then the chiefs. Next to them are the dukes – mostly princes and warriors rewarded by the oba. Following that are priests who minister to the well-being of the Oba of Benin.”

Sixtyish, articulate and well groomed, what Chief Isekhure lacks in size is more than made up for with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Benin. Sitting on his high-backed throne of bronze-plated chair with bronze casts of lions on each armrest, his voice carries an authority far more than his frame. Isekhure had stepped forward long before human rights activists took to the streets against military dictatorships in the nineties. (His home was surprised and raided many times by security forces. “They never met anyone at home even though they had reports that we were always meeting in my house,” he now recalls.)

His title as the chief priest of Benin kingdom makes him next to the oba in terms of power and influence – not next in line to the throne, however. By his definition, he functions as “minister to the kingdom on the basis of our spiritual values, particularly as they relate to the Oba of Benin. I am the chief keeper of the highest deities in Benin belonging to the king.”

A Canadian-trained journalist, Chief Isekhure is a raconteur of sorts, telling the history of Benin off the cuff, easily segueing from the early settlers from Egypt to the first capital of the kingdom (Udo) the distinct architectural features of pre-colonial Benin to great warriors like Asoro and traitors like Obaseki down to the culture shock now experienced by younger generation of Binis due to modernity.
Ancient Benin, the custodian of the most important shrines avers, was one of the best-planned cities in the world. Even now, it occupies a respectable radius of nine miles from Ring Road, which is the centre of Benin City.

Though the city itself falls mainly under Oredo local government area, Bini-speaking people are scattered across several more like Ovia North-east, Uhunmwonde and Orhionmwon. Unlike now, flash floods were non-existent in ancient Benin. Buildings never collapsed. The streets were wide and straight and houses far from the roads as you still have in some major roads and streets like Akpakpava today.

Taking a swipe at the dangerous proximity of fences to roads and streets in parts of Benin today, particularly GRA, compared to what obtained in the past, Isekhure laments that today’s tenants are the ones “who are supposed to have gone to university but they’re the ones doing the wrong things. Our fathers never went to school but they built good roads.”

There were green belts all around the ancient city. And ponds into which rainwater emptied. There was a moat (now covered with shrubs and bushes as you enter Benin through Airport Road) constructed for defensive purposes where approaching enemy soldiers were spied first before they reached the city. The length of the moat spanned 15, 000km, and each village had one “to keep enemies at bay.”
Right from time, Isekhure says, Benin had always operated a democracy, even in territories conquered by the Binis. Other parts of the state like the Esan, parts of Afenmai owe their origin to the Binis. Prince Ginuwa, the founder of Warri, famously left Benin for the coastal settlement.

At its peak, the empire’s influence stretched as far as Ghana, Benin Republic and Togo. The Ga in Ghana, for example, claim to be descendants of Benin but they don’t speak Bini language. The reason for that, Isekhure allows, is because “we didn’t impose our language in territories that we ruled over.”
Back home, the dose of democracy was no less administered judiciously. As Isekhure tells it, the people reached their oba through the chiefs, though he also admits that people don’t get to see the oba regularly. But the oba’s position makes him “the final arbiter and that is the way it has been for the 800 years of this current obaship system.”

Listening to Isekhure is like hearing a Tibetan mystic expound on the virtues of spiritualism. Coupled with his function as the chief priest of Benin, he is a self-proclaimed member of the Rosicrucian order. “The essence of spiritual power is to bring peace and ensure development and progress in the society,” he says engagingly. “We hold onto our tradition also in a way that we will be able to bequeath to upcoming generation the values of our people just as we inherited it from our fathers. So we want to bequeath to our children the values of sincerity, hard work, love, honesty and respect for the authoritie.

Respect for the authorities is what you notice everywhere in Benin – whether at home, in offices, parks, bus stops or markets. And in just about any part of the city, too – New Benin, Ugbowo, Ekenwan, College Road, Okhoro, Uwelu, Iyaro, GRA, etc. However well off young people are, or have become, you’d almost always notice their deference to older people – male or female – through the common salutation of Epa domo o (translated roughly as “my greetings elder” mostly for males.)

But all that is unmatched by the collective reverence Binis have for their traditional institution as represented by the oba. Witness the altercation between the current oba and a state governor in Edo years back. In a show of executive might, the governor was resolved to discipline the traditional ruler. Of course, it failed as nearly all of Benin rallied to their oba’s support. And what was the end result? “Oba no de go transfer,” the people chorused.

More recently, a popular chief, businessman and parvenu in Benin allegedly riled the monarch on more than one occasion. He was immediately de-ranked for his misdeeds. Sources say he has since gone on his knees, demonstrating to all that respect for constituted authority is paramount.
“We’ve been able to imbibe all these through the years,” Isekhure adds. And such has been the order in Benin that by 1485 when the first European traders arrived, they found “a rich and powerful civilization on the west coast of Africa.” Others commented about the administrative ease with which the city was ruled with indigenes owing complete allegiance to their king.

“Benin people are a very unique set of people because of their belief in a system of spiritual values,” Isekhure continues, on how the system has been sustained for years. “We see relevance in everything in creation – both animate and inanimate objects. So, when we relate to the tree, we relate to it as if we are dealing with a human being, same with water. All these things have their values and they are essential to us just as we are essential to them. That’s why we recognize four elements – water, fire, wind and earth – and these elements never die.

“We need these elements in order for humans to exist. Therefore, when we are talking about God, we first recognize these elements and we dedicate shrines to them, we talk to them because they are very vital in our lives. We’ve been able to preserve all the important shrines despite Christianity. We believe in God but God would not come from the sky to come and do anything for you. We are the ones who must invoke the authority God possesses. We are representing God and we can decree things to happen and they will happen because God has given us the power to invoke him because God is within us. We tap the energy of God through the rain, sun, wind and earth. It is up to you to tap that energy and use it for positive goals.”

The positive goals of the ancient empire were already evident to early European missionaries and merchants that landed in the fifteenth century.
The Portuguese connection
The first to visit were the Portuguese. Historical accounts record that a certain Alphonso visited the court of Oba Esigie. Esigie was actually taken to Portugal where he was converted to Catholicism. He in turn converted many of the royal household on his return. The red-roofed, white-painted sturdy building on Akpakpava named Holy Aruosa Cathedral is a result of Benin’s early contact with the Portuguese.

According to record, the church is one of the oldest in Nigeria built circa 1485 - evidently renovated - and the only place generations of obas worship. After the 30th coronation anniversary of Oba Erediauwa two months ago, for instance, the monarch repaired to the church for thanksgiving.
Another Portuguese influence discernible today is the sartorial preference of Benin chiefs. The up-and-down outfit they wear is a complete imitation of the cassock worn by Catholic priests. The Portuguese, it seemed, enjoyed cordial relations with Benin people – in and out of the court. (The current ambassador to Portugal is the heir apparent). The Portuguese taught people in the royal household the art of bronze casting. They also fought as mercenaries in some of the city’s wars with other tribes. Today, young and old in Benin understand when you say Potoki – a corruption of Portuguese.

Next were the Dutch, the Spanish and then the British. All came for trade purposes – in search of palm oil, pepper, ivory and slaves. Indeed, it was for reasons of monopoly of trade the British sent an envoy early in January 1897.
As Isekhure recalls, Captain Philip and 10 other Europeans arrived Ughoton, a port town near Benin, seeking audience with Oba Ovoramwen. At the time, the king was deep in the annual Ugie festival and so could not see any visitor because of certain ceremonial rites he had to perform. Whether or not Queen Victoria’s envoy felt slighted can never be truly understood. What much is known is that he barged his way into Benin. They were ambushed by natives and murdered save for two – Captain Boisrogan and R.F Locke – who escaped.

On February 10 in the same year, the British organized a punitive attack with a contingent of Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) and Hausa soldiers against Benin – known to history students in secondary schools around Nigeria as the Benin massacre of 1897. (In reality, it was an invasion, insists Moses Oboh, a photojournalist with the Nigerian Observer, because “if it was a massacre then there would be nothing left.”) At the end of the invasion however, the ancient city of Benin was in ruins, the monarch deported to Calabar, most of the precious art works looted by the rampaging soldiers, famously Festac mask still in the British Museum to this day.

Culture capital of Nigeria
With the prodigious pillaging of art works during the invasion, anyone would conclude that Benin would be as good as finished culturally. Wrong! Instead, the city founded by the Ogisos seems much in the lead when it comes to arts and culture in Nigeria. Proof of that is everywhere in the city. Walk around Ring Road, for instance, and you’ll be amazed at the number of sculptural works mounted on pedestals.

No fewer than seven such works adorn half a dozen roads and streets leading from Ring Road, statues of kings and warriors. There is a sculptural representation of Oba Esigie, another of Ewuare the Great and Ovoramwen. Ovoramwen’s chief warrior, Asoro, reputed for his mystical powers in battle, is somewhere at the beginning of Akpakpava. Lying beneath him are the bodies of slain British soldiers.
A jogging distance from Ring Road is the headquarters of anything art today in Benin. Igun Street is as famous for bronze casts, iron smelting, ivory and wood carving as red earth is native to Benin. From Sokponba Road, a bold gold lettering: “Guild of Benin Bronze Casters World Heritage Site” emblazoned on an arched gate proclaims to visitors the chief occupation of artisans on Igun Street.

On both side of the street are shops crammed with finished bronze casts, animal figurines, busts of past and present monarchs and famous sons and daughters of Benin. Inside the shops, instructors and their apprentice fuss over plaster casts of soon-to-be finished works or beckon to passers-by, hoping for a good bargain. The street was once the place to go for rare and original works but today, a source told the newspaper, they’re are mostly ersatz works because of mass production.
But if you’re looking to see original works of art, then the National Museum and Monuments is the ideal place. Right in the middle of Ring Road, you need some pluck, however, to be able to view, at close range, ancient carvings of men and beasts, ceremonial swords, Portuguese mercenary soldiers and scores of objet d’ art.

The courage you’ll muster is not for fear that one of the life-size masquerades in the gallery will suddenly come alive and whack you across the face. For such a repository of history located in the middle of an ever-busy thoroughfare, visitors have to dodge hundreds of vehicles swishing by in a maddening rush. Certainly, this is not the place to visit after a round or two of alcohol.
But what about people who work in the museum, especially mothers and their children who have to cross over a road that is as busy as Allen Roundabout on a Monday morning? A source did say a looping pedestrian bridge connecting the museum over and above Ring Road was actually planned but was scuttled for fear that pedestrians using the footbridge could literally look down on the compound of the Oba of Benin, a gazing distance away.

Surely, spying on the goings-on – whether intentional or not in the compound of the number one citizen in a city famous for its tenacious adherence to tradition is out of place. But on a good day, visitors are allowed into the centuries-old, mud-fenced palace of the reigning monarch. Wide and spacious as several football fields combined, the palace is the centre of culture in Benin.

Apart from being the residence of the oba, it is the traditional hosting place of the numerous festivals the Binis are known for. Only last March, Oba Erediauwa marked 30 years of his coronation. By December, the annual Ugie festival will commence. Of the significance of Oba Erediauwa’s 30 years on the throne, Isekhure says the “number three is for perfection while zero is for continuity.” Besides, he sees the well-attended anniversary as an opportunity “to wipe off all the negative propaganda being bandied about Benin kingdom.”
Though it was left unsaid by the inscrutable chief, his allusion could not be anything but what outsiders now refer to as the Italian connection.

Benin and the Italian connection
Whenever Nigerians talk about prostitution in Europe, two places readily come to mind: Italy and Benin. True, statistics of deportation of Nigerian prostitutes from Italy show that majority of them are from Edo State, specifically Benin. And so alarming was it once that the wife of a former governor of the state had to do something to check the rising trend.
Whether or not it is true that young women from Benin dominate prostitution in Italy is debatable. For one, ladies from other states in Nigeria are known to claim Edo as their state of origin in their travel documents. Second, as some Edo indigenes argue in defence of the scarlet ladies, prostitution is as old as man, plus that it didn’t start, and will not end, with girls from Edo State.

Today, returnees from Europe own some of the attractive and sturdy structures in parts of GRA, a fact borne by the number of banks proliferating in Benin. As a native volunteered to the newspaper, “there is no other city or town in Nigeria, apart from Lagos and Abuja, where MoneyGram and Western Union have made more profit than in Benin.”

What is also not lacking in Benin City is the number of colleges and institutions of higher learning. There is University of Benin, known to every alumnus as Great Uniben. Igbinedion University is another. College of Education, Ekiadolor, School of Nursing and several colleges such as Edo College, Immaculate Conception College, Idia College are revving up the educational machine in a state that has a sizable sheaf of distinguished scholars.

As with major cities and state capitals in the country, banks and sundry finance houses are fairly adequately represented in Benin. First and second generation banks like First Bank, Union Bank, Guaranty Trust, Zenith, Oceanic, Finbank, Fidelity and ETB are everywhere in town. Most of them have more than a branch, some with two on major roads and streets. Of course, many of them are only too delighted to handle the remittances from Europe.

Also boosting the commercial activity of Benin City are the numerous markets. There is Oba and Uselu markets where all kinds of foodstuff are retailed and sold, drawing buyers from within and outside the city. Santana market on Sapele Road is a wholesale market where traders discharge their commodities straight from farms in the bush around the city. Food items like cassava, yam and other tuberous plants are more on display.

In all of these places – banks and offices, schools and markets, shops, buses, motor parks, and on streets – pidgin is the language of choice. Old and young understand and speak it fluently such that, as Orobosa insists, a five-year-old or 80-year-old can give directions down to the last detail in pidgin.” Indeed, it is a remarkable feat of language that in a city where there are no bus stops, all commuters need say is “I wan stop here,” for the driver to step on the brake and the conductor to slide open the door. It could be a tuke tuke (mini Toyota Hiace buses common on Benin roads) or any of the more modern L300 and Vanagon buses. Cabbies speak pidgin, too, so with the numerous okada riders roaming around any part of the city.

Ringed round by a forest of timbers – iroko, ogbeche, mahogany and masonia – logging and furniture making are thriving businesses in Benin. As such, furniture companies – big and small – are to be found on most roads and streets in the city. Some of the big ones are Sam Best and J Charles. So valued are some that one, Sam Best, according to a source, equipped the entire furniture requirement of the senior staff quarters of Atiku Abubakar University in Adamawa in 2007. These companies and enterprises are all sources of employment for natives and non-indigenes alike.
Just as young women from Benin are drawn to Europe, so are other Nigerians irresistibly attracted to the ancient city, or must pass through it on their way to other parts of the country, thus effectively making it a gateway city.

True gateway city
For Mr. Omo-Ojo Orobosa, Benin City remains the true gateway city in Nigeria. Orobosa is the Special Adviser on Arts, Culture & Tourism in Edo State. A graduate of Fine Arts from Auchi Polytechnic, he is the publisher of Midwest Herald. He knows Benin like the back of his palm, a place he was born in the early sixties.
“Benin City is the gateway to the north, gateway to the east, gateway to the south-west, gateway to the south-south,” Orobosa declared one afternoon in his home in GRA, Benin. “There is no other city in the federation that I can easily point my finger at that is so centrally located for the benefit of the nation.”

A confirmed Benin man who is almost always to be found in traditional attire, complete with beads, the SA compares Benin to the heart. “The road networks are like arteries while Benin itself is like the heart. If you cut off the arteries, it stops pumping blood to the heart and the heart stops pumping blood to other parts of the body.” Any wonder Benin is the capital of a state called the heartbeat of Nigeria?
Those who know Benin well will hardly disagree. From Ring Road, nine fingers of road lead to other parts of the country. Sapele Road, for example, snakes to Sapele onward to Warri, Patani, Port Harcourt as far as Calabar and the rest of the Niger Delta. Akpakpava courses through Ikpoba Slope to Agbor, Asaba and eastern towns and cities. Through Ikpoba Hill, you can connect Auchi, Igarra, Ibillo, Okene and then the north. Lagos/ Benin expressway link up with western Nigeria, a crucial fact capitalized upon by Biafran soldiers during the civil war when they marched on, and effectively occupied, Benin.

As Orobosa recalls, “there was an urgent need to liberate Benin because the rebel soldiers were going to proceed to Ore and from there to Lagos. General Gowon made it a point of priority to liberate Benin and that’s why the occupation of Benin was just for a week or thereabout. So, Benin is very vital to the survival of the nation.”
Sustaining this vitality in Benin are dozens of hotels, restaurants, clubs and scores of recreational centres. In GRA alone, the hotels seem to crowd themselves from street to street. There is Prest Motel, Benin Motel Plaza, Edo Hotel, Randekhi, Grayton Court, Boston Hotel, Ritz Carlton, Sage (the priciest for now), Elegance, Isno, etc.

Many of them are relatively new. But the older and more familiar ones are also seeking a toehold in the hospitality business. Thus, there are De-Limit and Country Home on Sapele Road. Saidi Centre, owned by Lebanese and the only one with a casino, is also raking in customers on Murtala Mohammed Way. Screened by a phalanx of palm trees, Precious Royal Palm Hotel occupies a swathe of land as vast as a golf field directly opposite the Ugbowo campus of Uniben. Despite these many hotels in Benin, late arrivals in town on weekends find no place to stay.
“If you’re not booked into any hotel in Benin by Friday, then forget it,” cautions the Arts, Culture & Tourism adviser. “They all have their own market, catering to different sets of clientele. This is how it should be in a city in business.”

Zinging up business alongside hotels in Benin are clubs. Two of the most popular are Hexagon and Time Out. Both are also in GRA. Every night, you’re likely to find young people living it up in those places – hanging out in clusters on the street, swaying on the dance floor or sitting pretty over drinks and their ubiquitous cigarette. But Time Out, say habitués, is the reigning joint.
“If you’ve not been to Time Out as a visitor to Benin,” says Cliff Urubusi, a Chartered Accountant and Public Relations expert with a sybaritic sensibility, “then your visit is as good as incomplete. No Nollywood star comes from Lagos to Benin without stopping over or unwinding at Time Out.” He claims to have sighted Patience Uzokwor, Eucharia Anunobi and other famous Nollywood actors at Time Out.

Faced with encroaching modernity in a society where cultural values are held in high esteem, what are the survival chances of Benin in the coming years?
Again, the chief priest speaks: “There’s no way modernity cannot affect culture because no culture is immune to modernity. It is a global thing. The Oba of Benin studied abroad, his children studied abroad. Some traditional rulers in this country have their children abroad. And then the white man came with Christianity. There is also the problem of language. Modernity allows many people to do many things because others are doing it. We are faced with a problem of losing part of our culture, losing our identity bit by bit unlike the Chinese and Indians who hold on tightly onto their identity. They pray to their gods, speak their language even in the Diaspora. Again, modernity has affected those values we cherish most – sincerity, hard work, honesty.”

Even so, he is pleased that Benin has “made profound contributions to the world in the art of governance. Besides, all the primitive art that are so well known today in the western world are from Benin.” His city, he says, is best in plaque making. Festac mask, though purloined by the British, is still the symbol of black people all over the world.

And then, the city has produced its own share of prominent Nigerians. Festus Iyayi. The Bello-Osagies and Giwa-Amus. Austine Eguavoen. Dr. Iro Eweka. Rtd. Col. Paul Ogbebor. Sebastian Broderick Imasuen. Humprey Edobor, among others. Of course, there is Daisy Danjuma whise highrise building on Akpakpava was recently commissioned.

But the ancient city’s winning card today is the monarchy that has survived for centuries upon centuries, despite attempts to undermine it. Part of the reason is the very fact that there is a certain aura around the oba, which makes him more than ordinary to mere mortals, a man who can, in the words of his chief priest, “decree things to happen and they will happen.”

Commenting once on why the privacy of the British monarchy should not be intruded upon by way of unnecessary publicity, an eminent anthropologist, David Attenborough, wrote: “The monarchy depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”
If Benin monarchy has defied attempts at demystification for 800 years, nothing suggests it won’t survive for just a little more.

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