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Despite colonial Britain’s menace, Benin monarchy still stands

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By Emmanuel Agozino (Updated 09/10/2017)

IT initially appeared like stepping into the ongoing controversy over the Benin people’s account of their origin and the Yoruba report of the same development when the Department of History and International Studies of College of Humanities and Culture of Osun State University (UNIOSUN), Ikire recently hosted a forum on Benin royalty in 20th Century. But those who came to see the event further deepen the controversy went home happy that they witnessed a robust discourse even as it was not a further thaw in the debate.

Guest speaker at the event was Dr. Victor Osaro Edo, a History lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Oyo state. The scholar who was very comfortable with his turf dug into the recent history of Benin Kingdom to the chagrin of a capacity-filled hall that was held spellbound with his polemics.
Edo noted that the  advent of the British rule not only ended the political sovereignty of the Oba of Benin, it also considerably modified and enhanced his political roles. He maintained that the  British administration ushered in a political system in which the Oba had political superiors whose decisions he had to implement. He also added that, the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, which brought all the parts of the country together as a political entity, set in motion a political process in which both the Oba and his subjects had to be loyal to a superstructure – a Governor-General – a mode of allegiance that eroded the independence of the Edo nation and the absolute authority of the kingdom’s royalty.

This was the political fortune of the Benin Kingdom up to the 1940s when the decolonisation process began.
The event which paraded an array of notable academic scholars, researches, students and people who were keen on the theme:  Benin Society after the Restoration of the Monarchy (1914-1939). The discourse was initiated to bring to fore, recent developments in Benin history.
Held under chairmanship of HRM Oba Adedokun Abolarin the Orangun of Oke-Ila, Osun state, the event also marked the 49th birthday celebration of Provost of the college, Prof. Siyan Oyeweso – a historian who has been in the hearth of the on-going Benin-Yoruba history controversy.   

Establishing the importance of the issue of the day, Edo, said that at times goes on in the history of Nigeria as a modern nation more revelations about its people, ethnic groups and kingdoms will definitely come up for critical scrutiny.  He noted that but for providence, the royalty of Benin kingdom would not have survived into the 20th  Century as there were many challenges that the institution passed through – from the  political and military operations of the British colonialists to the internal unease among the chiefs. The late 19th Century attack of the palace of the Benin monarch and depose of the king by British officails made the kingdom enter the 20th Century without a royal father. When the throne returned, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.

Giving the  the background of the rift, he explained that it started  with the restoration of the monarchy in Benin in 1914, when Oba Eweka IIascended the throne. Loyalty, to him was divided. The paramount chiefs were loyal, first to the British before the Oba. This was one major challenge, among many others that the Oba had to contend with. According to Edo, as instruments of the British, the paramount chiefs, headed by one Chief Agho Obaseki were not happy with the restoration of the monarchy.

Obaseki, Edo explained was the one made the vice-president of the Benin Native Council by the British and he was virtually the head of administration. The implication of this was that the British continued to recognise the relevance of the Obaseki (cultural holder of Iyasetitle) as  more than the then newly installed Oba.  , the Oba powerless with difficulty in controling his chiefs – a situation which resulted to long running battle for supremacy between them.  Due to this lack of respect for the Benin monarch, his chiefs were only seen with him when they deemed it fit to join him, especially when  traditional  rites were to  be  performed. Worse still, those rites were made known to the British officers who held superior powers.

According to the university don, from 1897 when the Brtish struck Oba Ovonramwen’s palace, looted it dry and sent him into exile to 1914, Benin experienced a period of interregnum which left the kingdom open. The challenge was such that by 1914 when the throne was restored in the Benin palace following the death of Oba Ovonramwen the institution already had mountains of challenge waiting for it.
Sub-topics comprising: Native Administration Reorganisation of the 1930s,  Abolition of District Head System and Challenge by the Traditional Chiefs, Opposition by the Commercial Elite, Water Rate Agitation Crisis (1937-1939) and Socio-Economic Conflict Between the Monarchy and the Benin Elite were among other issues dotted upon at the seminar which paraded an array of eggheads.

The list of scholars in attendance included, . Akin Alao, of the  Institute of Cultural Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife,  Prof. Bashir Adekunle Olasina (UNIOSUN), Prof. Clement Adegoke, Dean Faculty of Engering (UNIOSUN), Prof. Olabode Olufumi, Prof. Olaniyi Odebode (OAU), Prof. Joseph Olaniawo of the College of Education, Ipetu Ijesa, Prof. Taiwo Adewole, Provost, College of Health Science, (UNIOSUN), Prof. I. Omojala, Head of Language and Linguistics, Dr Kolade Adetunji among others.
Edo used the thrust of conflict between the Oba and the chiefs for instance, to highlight how the colonial masters abused traditional authority just to undermine the king. Among the instances were the sudden elevation of some paramounts chiefs by the British. As a result of this, he claimed, many of the chiefs stopped paying tribute to the Oba, some disobeyed his instructions and stopped paying regular visits to his palace. For example, on  February 27, 1916, the then British Commissioner for Benin Province, Mr. Watt, reminded the Oba of Benin, Eweka II, that, he should be advised by Obaseki, who culturally was a luitenant (Iyase). To further drive home their ploy, the British elevated Obaseki as President of the Native Court.

“Apart from the fact that, many paramount chiefs were made district heads. The most popular among them were the Ezomo and Osula, and they were sent to areas where they were known. Consequently, they were awarded medals for meritorious services. The services rendered by the chiefs to the British left little or no room for them to serve the Oba. The paramount chiefs collected taxes and supplied carriers to the white men wherever they were needed. These chiefs were only permitted by the Commissioner to go to Benin when the Oba wanted them for any ceremony like the Igue festival. Thus, in spite of the restoration, the Oba had no full control over his chiefs,” Edo noted.

There were also instances of blackmail and strategic manipulation of the people against their king.
Sample from Edo’s paper: “Added to the issue of the conflict between the Oba and the traditional chiefs was the Native Authority regulation regarding the planting of permanent crops. Having been aware of the usefulness of economic plants like the oil palm trees, the people began to have palm tree plantations. This development made the Oba to believe that a lot of the village land in Benin was being devoted to palm tree plantations without the permission of the village councils. This implied that too little land might be left for the growth of food crops. Today, there is hardly enough land in Benin to farm. For this reason, the Native Authority made a rule in 1937 that all applications from anyone to cultivate palm tree plantations were to be sent to the village councils who would send them to the Oba for scrutiny.

“The development resulted in the holding up of hundreds of applications for scrutiny and inquiry so much that the agricultural department became restive of the delay. The rule whipped up widespread discontent against the Oba and the Benin Native Administration. Joined to the water rate levy, this regulation was seen as another arbitrary measure of the Oba and his council of traditional chiefs. In the pre-colonial era, most of the Benin chiefs had free access to village land.

In fact, in some cases, Benin chiefs had villages or camps, which were personal possessions where they settled their captives and farmed freely. Chiefs thus became the founders of such villages. The new rules denied them of their traditional rights to use land in their villages. The situation was further worsened at the end of 1937 because the British authority enacted the regulation on the planting of permanent crops without any previous discussion with the Oba’s council. However, discussions on the matter took place among the chief commissioner, southern provinces, the Oba, the Resident, Benin Division and the Agricultural Officer in the area after which the rule was given approval.”

Edo therefore made it clear that the British worked asiduously to undermine the Benin  royalty but the palace’s perseverance, and to some extent tactical engagement of issues saw it through the odd years. However, the historian did not leave without commenting on the core historical issue that has put most Yoruba researchers at loggerheads with their Benin counterparts.

On the controversy of the Oduduwa and Elkaladiran characters in Yoruba and Benin history Edo offered: “My stand is that as a nation we are moving forward. We should stop opening old wounds. The problem generally, is that those who have written our histories wrote not in objective sense. It was not until recently that Benin began producing professional historians for which the Yorubas have produced several years back. Even the works of Egharaeva was assumed to have been assisted by Yoruba historians  So his position is more or less a Yoruba position.”

While noting that the issue has been overflogged, Edo urged that the matter to worry about should not actually be that of origin but governance.

Speaking at the opening event, before Edo’s paper, Oba  Abolarin had urged teachers of history to take their duty serious because it is a vital calling. Bemoaning the currently growing ignorance among young ones of their historical roots, the royal father emphasised that without the knowledge of history the future generation is lost.    

 “For us to make progress, there is a need that we start from the past. That is why I always call for History, as a course, to be a compulsory one,” the monarch noted.

Source: Nigeria Compass.
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