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THE LAW OF INHERITANCE AS INFLUENCED BY THE ONOJIE

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It can be seen that practically every Esan law, was made or modified either to please or protect the Onojie, less often to appease the spirits of the departed ancestors, and by chance, for the common good. Since the wheels of the Onojie grounded more swiftly and more mercilessly and on the living, those who were affected by the laws feared the Onojie more than the unseen and slow-acting spirits. That was horse sense.

Originally therefore, the laws of inheritance particularly regarding murderers, suicides and childless people were different as could be seen from those that obtained in districts which are lucky not to have had tyrants as Ogbeide or Eromosele of Irrua, Okolo or Ogbidi of Uromi, Ehiemuan of Odia of Ewohimi, Usifo.of Ubiaja etc.. Unfortunately, those lucky districts where the true Esan custom existed were few and inconsequential.
When a man killed another man in the same town or village, the Inotu or Otu gathered at the village where the man died. The criminal was demanded with a terrifying war dance (Ikhio). He was tried with a view of knowing what category of murder it was. If it was in self-defense, he might escape with a fine, but for all other categories, the murderer suffered supreme penalty: after dancing him round the village, he was led to the edge of the village where he was directed to hang himself. If the crime was a grotesque or savage one, he was mercilessly treated as a deterrent to all onlookers before he was tied up alive to die on the stake. His house, farm and everything in his family were looted. In some cases, the Inotu who were really law unto themselves, over serious criminals, sold the murderer and shared the proceeds. If he came from an influential family he was asked to buy off himself; he produced a man or woman depending upon the sex of the murdered person to replace the loss in the aggrieved family, and after settling accounts with the Inotu he was set free penniless a bewildered penitent.

A MAN FALLING INTO A PIT LATERINE

Esan latrine consisted of a dug-out hole, six feet long, four feet wide and bout ten to twenty feet deep. Across the hole were placed palm tree trunks leaving a service gap of about eighteen inches. The user, very carefully stepped upon the two middle trunks, squats to defecate, stepping off equally carefully, after easing himself. The men had their own while the women usually in Uelen, had theirs behind the compound. One had to be fully conscious to use these latrines. If a person carelessly used such a latrine and fell into it, that person automatically becomes the Onojie’s property. Since no free-born wanted to become a slave, this law taught carefulness and constant presence of mind in the use of these old contraptions.

DEATH BY DROWNING

There were other inanimate forces that could bring about the death of a man, e.g. the pond which was for most Esan Communities, the only source of water till 1958, when through the influence of our son Chief Anthony Enahoro, Northern Ishan Plateau got pipe borne water. The pond was Esan’s water reservoir from which both man and domestic animals quenched their thirst. For people of Esan ‘A’ it was their only source of water supply during the rainy season. Now if a defeated neurotic went and drowned himself in the village only source of water, the pond was treated as a murderer. It was adjudged innocent, in that it would never have caused anyone’s death if a blundering idiot had not fallen into it, (Equivalent explanation is enshrined in the Esan proverb - El MUN JE EDE, EDE DA RE NE, it was brought to the stream (water) and it flowed away with it). The pond was quite incapable of throwing the man back out of the water, so the water was not bailed out, nor did it become the Onojie’s property. The suicide was taken out and. ASHES were thrown into the pond: later, everybody was again free to make use of the precious water.

INANIMATE CRIMINALS

In their simplicity Esan regarded a law breaker particularly if a life was lost in the breaking, as a criminal deserving a fair and a just punishment if guilty, be the law breaker living or inanimate. Thus, if a wall fell and killed the occupants of the house, the wooden lintel (UHANHAN) was ‘arrested’ as the murderer. The dreaded and ubiquitous Inotu seized it, and followed with ikhio (war dance), the lintel was taken to the Onojie. If the branch of a tree fell and killed a person, this was reported to the Onojie who directed that the tree be cut down. A log of it was cut and placed in the village square and on this people might sit at village meetings or assemblies.

For example, in September 1953 the titled man of Akho - Irrua, Chief Uwague, fell off his kola nut tree and died instantaneously. An argument arose amongst the villagers as to what was the correct treatment for the tree, according to Esan custom. The tree was finally cut down, the Akho elders maintaining that was what Esan custom prescribed. Two months after, a boy fell off an orange tree at Ewu, and died. The tree was also cut down some years before these incidences; a man fell from a coconut tree at Ewohimi. The tree became the Onojie’s property.

Despite all I had said regarding inheritance, as influenced by the Onojie with particular reference to areas that had always had autocratic Enijie, the Ewohimi interpretation is correct. This interpretation is supported by the Inotu, the only near effective challenge the Onojie ever had, sending a useless lintie to the Onojie at Eguare. In the same way a human killer or a tree that caused a man’s death, became the Onojie’s property. It is no excuse to say the Enijie influenced basic laws to suit themselves. We have seen several examples cited above. But if what an ethnic group normally does is its custom, what is law? As- a lay man, a law is a common agreement in a community, which must be obeyed or risk punishment, made by the leaders of that community for the common good. But that is not all it needed enforcement, hence Policemen, Magistrates, Judges and Prisons of modern times; In ancient Esan (AGBON OBA), the Onojie was the judge, the Magistrate, the policemen and prison, all put together. He was the supreme custodian of laws, limbs and property: HE WAS THE LAW.

Therefore, strictly speaking, in native laws and custom, the Ewohimi interpretation must be correct. In addition the wise elder’s of a village knew that it was safest for them to report all accidents, all loss of life etç to the Onojie at Eguare lest they be accused of killing somebody.

Now to come to a conclusion about Esan laws and custom affecting inheritance I have given the picture above, as it appeared on’ both sides the Onojie’s and the republican sides. Now on which side was LAW? I will illustrate my answer with a modern analogy. The state makes a law. A man breaks it and he is arrested by a Policeman. He is tried by a Magistrate and sent to goal. If the man is not satisfied he appeals to the High Court. If the High Court confirms the sentence of the lower court and the prisoner is still not satisfied, he appeals to the Federal Court of Appeal. If the man still feels he has not got justice, he may appeal to the Supreme Court. If this authoritative body still finds against him, he has had it. He must go to serve the sentence. In the picture I have drawn, the body that has the final say or appeal is LAW, in this case - the Supreme Court. On this side of heaven, no further appeal. Whatever judgment is rendered by who heard the last appeal, MUST BE THE LAW.

Similarly in ancient Esan, a man was tried by the Inotu. The Onojie of course, never attended meetings of commoners, but he had a veto power over their decisions: if the accused man’s voice was loud enough and he was quick enough to get to ‘SEE’ the Onojie, to hell with the decision of the dreaded Inotu, which after all was composed of individuals that could be liquidated by a cunning Onojie. In any case, right from the family head through the council of Edion and up to the Inotu, the final appeal lay with the Onojie. Therefore his word or his interpretation of laws and custom went as law. An enquirer might counter with the observation that this was morally unjust and ethically oppressive: True, but he must remember the basic law in the world, civilized or primitive - MIGHT IS RIGHT: Borrow a leaf from the Mother of all Wars of 1990 - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein versus President George Bush of America! United Nation supported America!

Coming nearer home, is a parallel situation in which after the first coup d’ etat of January 15, 1966, the Federal and State Military Governments issued numerous decrees and edicts. Although, the Federal Military Government was not voted into office, these became’ laws being interpreted’ by the Courts of the land.

PROPERTY OF A MAN WITH NO NEXT OF KIN

Outside of a slave, I have been quite unable to find an example of a man in Esan without a next-of-kin since the village community was. Organized on patrikin system; thus it was impossible for a “FREEBORN of the village to die without a living cousin however distant. The term ‘without a next-of kin’ in Esan tradition, is therefore a misnomer. In districts traditionally ‘blessed’ with very autocratic Enijie such as Irrua, Uromi, Ewohimi, the property of any man dying ‘without a next-of-kin’ passed on to the Onojie.

In actual practice this meant anybody dying without a son. Favour-seeking informants or evil-minded men wanting to get their own back on a dead man, were always quick to go and make a report to the Onojie that such and such a man had died without an heir A message was at once fired to the Ekosi (the titled man) of that village demanding EVALA LE which meant the dead man’s farming matchet and hoe, the euphemistic way of saying ‘ALL HE POSSESSED IN THIS WORLD’, including unmarried daughters! As recent as 1895, a few years before the white man came with a more balanced law and order, Idiata, an influential Okhaemon in Agwa - irrua, died leaving only a daughter called Ebode. Despite the fact that this was a Chief himself, all his property, including Ebode, was swallowed up by the acquisitive Eromosele the Great.

In most other districts in Esan, my. enquiry revealed that it was only a slave, whose home could not be traced, that died without a next-of-kin, the property of such a man could be taken by the Onojie, but even then, the reason for this was sheer greed and oppression; in those days, how could a slave die without a next-of-kin? He must have been owned by somebody, otherwise he was no slave.

However it was the desire to avoid the long tentacles of the octopus who ruled at Eguare as Onojie, that led our fore-fathers to design the system of Arebhoa, Adebhomon, children from legal harlots etc.

Still it is painful for me to admit that even in the year, 1992 this autocratic practice lingered on. In the main, they are people who die without relatives, however distant, whose properties are still being claimed by some Enijie. I am painfully aware of properties of even princes and princesses not slaves, being taken over from people with sisters, cousins etc.

PROPERTY OF A MURDERER AND SUICIDE CASE

In those wicked days when the Onojie was the unbridled autocrat, a murderer not only forfeited his right to live, but he and all he ever possessed with the instrument like gun or machete used for the crime autocratically became the Onojie’s property. He might have paid heavily to the Onojie, and the aggrieved family but the best he could get was’ that his life was spared as the Onojie’s slave. There are today living examples in places like Irrua and Uromi of men now living in Eguare as a result of homicide.

For an example of what happened to murderers, take the case of Orii of Idumuoghodo. Round about 1890 when the youthful Eromosele made himself a nightmare to his subjects at home and a dreaded enemy abroad, his royal surgeon (Owenan) called Idaeta came to make a report at Eguare - Irrua that Orii of Idumuoghodo in Uwessan had caused the death of his son, who as a matter of fact had died after a protracted illness. Orii, a very rich man, influential and a much liked man, was sent for by the Onojie, Eromoseleb Knowing what his fate would be if he went to Eguare, and he dared not refuse to go, Orii began to buy himself. He sent two of his children, male and female the Onojie accepted these with thanks and reminded him that he wanted to SEE HIM.He added more of his family until he had sent fourteen persons, that is seven of each sex; each human being sent was accompanied with Ebo or Uje, nearly 19,000 cowries worth thousands of our Naira in those days. Finally the Great Eromosele sent that he was then satisfied and asked Orii to come for a formal burying of the hatchet and blessings. Wealthy Orii went to Eguare fortified with more gifts in money and human presents. These were encouragingly accepted at Eguare, but he was immediately tied up on the wooden cross to die a slow and shameful death at the present Usugbenu junction, near the present Council Maternity. Of course having been killed for an alleged murder, his property automatically passed on to Eromosele, Lord Supreme of Irrua.

Yet another example again from Irrua. Olada was an Odibo (steward) to Eromosele the Great. He had just one wife while Eromosele at that time had only sixty-five wives in the harem, and many more living with his mother, Queen Ebade. Eromosele seized this only wife of Olada, who in desperation, drank himself to insanity and committed suicide. As a suicide, he became a self-murderer with the result that his only wife became Eromosele’s property.

These heartless acts and the forceful inheritance of the property of Ikhalea of Usenu who had died without an heir, were the last straw and rightly drew the ire of all Irrua who took up arms against their king; the great Eromosele fled to Ehizojie of IIleh.
A man, who had taken his life, was in Esan custom a murderer of himself and appropriately, if the attempt to take his life failed, he was tried for attempted murder. If his plan succeeded, all his possessions hike those of a murderer, passed on to the Onojie. The punishment for attempted suicide was the slaughtering of a she-goat at sight, by the Edion, against the man that made the attempt.

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