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The Enigmatic World of the Oba of Benin

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(As Told By the Isekhure of Benin Kingdom) 03/08/2017

The Bini kingship and the kingdom have a lot of myths and mysteries. What is the Bini cosmology like?

We believe in Osanobua, the supreme god or Oghanosa, who is the creator of the world. The Bini believe that Osanabua created the earth. Afterwards, three or four other spiritual entities or beings came down to inhabit the earth. As they were making preparations for their journey down to the earth the king endowed each of them with certain properties to enable them exist. This was because then the earth was void and was filled with just water. One of the creatures descended with a bowl of wealth, the other one had a bundle filled with several kinds of minerals while last one came with a snail shell containing a piece of earth. Once they landed on earth they had no place to hang on to. Then, a certain local bird came and whispered to the last creature to pour out the contents of the snail shell. The creature obeyed the instruction and that was how the earth came into being. Afterwards, the other creature unleashed something that looked like a chameleon to test the suitability of the earth. The chameleon was meant to feel how solid the ground would be for habitation. That perhaps explains the nature of the chameleon to date. All the creatures agreed in unison to deposit all their wealth inside the earth with the exception of one of them. The one that rejected the idea came to be known as the goddess of the sea. She felt that she was very superior to the other creatures. She rather decided to deposit her wealth inside the water and she came to be known in Benin Kingdom as Olokun, meaning the goddess of the sea (river). The others are referred to as the gods and goddesses of the land. Mythically speaking, the being who deposited his wealth in the land is seen as the progenitor of the Benin Kingdom. It is believed the Oba of Benin has his ancestry from that lineage. It is regarded as the beginning of the Benin kingship. The kingship chain started form the Sky King (Bini mythology) and later developed into the Ogiso kingship system.

When exactly did the Obaship start?

It started way back about 1,000 years ago. Judging from historical accounts and records, it has lasted over one thousand years from when the first Oba namely Oba Eweka was coronated. The Oba’s lineage has run without any break till the present day. The succession system is passed on from father to son.

What do you say about the popular version of the history of Benin and the ‘authentic’ Edo version? What does the oracle say about the Obaship as recently alluded to by Oba Erediauwa in his book?

There are no two ways about it. The Omo N’Oba N’Edo’s version is the most authentic. It is the one that is logical. It is the one that is traceable and can be supported with facts and historical evidence. The Oba of Benin’s account talks about a certain man named Ekaladerhan, who was a Bini prince. He was the only child of King Owodo, who was the last of the Ogisos. Owodo was worried about the fact that her retinue of wives could not bear her children. He decided to unravel the cause of the barrenness in his palace. The oracle was consulted and it was actually revealed that Isagho, the most senior wife of the king was the culprit. However, by a stroke of her mischievous nature, Isagho induced the Chief Priest to lie to King Owodo that Ekaladerhan saw her (Isagho’s) nakedness. The king accepted the report and pronounced that Ekaladerhan be sacrificed as a punishment for the taboo. He was to be executed at a place called Ughokhokho. Bu the truth of the matter was that the oracle did not pass a death verdict on Ekaladerhan. However, luckily for him, Ekaladerhan escaped and fled to Uhe which I suppose is the same place that is referred to as Ife in Yorubaland. Interestingly, the people around Uhe had been informed by the oracle that a man was coming from the East and that the man would be their ruler. And this account tallies with the most accurate historical record. Ekaladerhan, the Bini prince, was well endowed with good looks befitting of the son of a king. So, the people around Uhe embraced him and in no time, his personality became so venerable. Bini oral tradition used to refer to Ekaladerhan as Oghene N’Uhe. He was crowned as Izoduwa which is probably corrupted into Oduduwa by the Yoruba. Izoduwa means “I found a part of prosperity.” Here was a man who had a death sentence hanging on him coming face to face with wealth and being crowned as a king. He became so happy that he decided to settle there. However, in no time, news of Ekaladerhan’s new-found status spread to Benin. The Oba implored him to return home. But Ekaladerhan blatantly refused to accede to the Oba’s entreaties. Later on, the king sent a group of people from the royal family to go and bring him back to Benin. The people got there, pleaded with him and even stayed with him to see if he could change his mind, but he remained adamant. However, Ekaladerhan later sent his son named Omonoyan instead to go with the emissaries from Benin. It was people from the Urogbe royal lineage (which is where I also belong) who brought Omonoyan to Benin. I suppose that it was Omonoyan that the Yoruba refer to as Oranmiyan. Right here in Benin, we have all the original artifacts, relics and other items which Omonoyan brought from Uhe to Bini kingdom. They are all very much intact in our archives. We have a documented record of all the places and the routes Omonoyan passed through, and the places he visited before he eventually arrived Benin. Our own account of the whole thing is not based on imagination or imaginary history. We have proof and evidence to support our claims and stand on the entire issue. It is pertinent for me to make the point clear that the issue is not actually about whether the Yoruba people came from Benin or the other way round. Our argument is that origin of the Yoruba kingship has a correlation with an event that happened in Bin Kingdom. They claim that Oduduwa came from the sky. This is not possible in the human concept. None of the great men in history including Jesus Christ and Mohammed are said to have come from the sky. When the Oba of Benin came up with his book, it drew a lot of criticisms especially from the Yoruba people. But when I wrote a rejoinder, which set the facts straight, I threw a challenge to them which they have not been able to contend with. I think the contents of the rejoinder I wrote laid the matter to rest. Our stand is based on historical analysis backed with traceable facts and evidence, and not mere hearsay or conjecture.

What is the relationship between the Bini, Ife and Oyo?

We always see them as our brothers. We are related historically. Oranmiyan (Omonoyan), who is the progenitor of these kingdoms, was of Bini ancestry. Oranmiyan could not stay in Benin because he could not quickly adapt to the lifestyle of the people. This could be because he was not born in Benin. However, before he left he had an affair with the daughter of a Bini Chief namely Ogiegor. She got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy namely Eweka, who was later crowned as Oba Eweka 1. It was when Oranmiyan left Benin that he went on to found Oyo and the Alafin kingship. There is a strong interrelationship between the Benin, Oyo and Ife. In Benin Kingdom today, we have the Ododuwa festival which reflects the historical link between the Bini and the Yoruba people.

Which are the kingdoms who owe traditional allegiance to the Oba of Benin? For instance, which kings are crowned by the Oba of Benin?

The first Oba of Lagos was crowned by the Oba of Benin. The Ashipa ruling house has a Bini ancestry. In those days, the Benin Kingdom had territorial authority over Lagos and even up to Dahomey. Most of the royalties in these areas had direct relationships with the Benin Kingdom. The Awujale of Ijebu-Ode has a Bini ancestry. The kings of Owo, Ado-Ekiti, all have roots in Benin. The Olu of Itsekiri is a direct descendant of the Oba of Benin. Indeed, almost all the monarchs in present day Delta State are installed by the Oba of Benin. The influence of the Oba of Benin is reflected even up to Onitsha and some of the Igbo speaking areas. The Onitsha monarchy has a lot in common with the Bini tradition.

Do you mean that the Oba of Benin crowns the Obi of Onitsha?

In the olden days, Onitsha area and its environs were under the authority of the Oba of Benin. Even till today, you find that the royal scepter of the Obi of Onitsha looks exactly like the one we have in Benin. Indeed, any royalty that holds that kind of scepter must have had a linkage with the Benin Kingdom. It is very symbolic. It is the instrument of power and the centre of authority of the Benin monarchy. Such royalties as the Obi of Agbor, the Obi of Ubulu Uku and the rest trace their ancestry to Benin Kingdom. Recently, an Isoko community in the Sagbama Local Governemnt Area of Bayelsa State came to the Oba of Benin asking him to come and crown their king. I was among the five chiefs delegated to carry out the assignment. Aside from all recently retracing their ancestry to the Benin Kingdom. All these go to show that the Benin kingship and kingdom have really come a long way.

What is the relationship between the Bini and the Esan?

Esan people have their roots in Benin. They are originally Bini. We refer to them as Esanlaha. Even till today, most of the Esan dukes and title holders are installed by the Oba of Benin. They derive their royal authority from Benin Kingdom. The people who founded what is today known as Esanland came from Benin. They were a set of people who were supposed to fight under the army of Oba Esigie, the then Oba of Benin. Instead of going to the battle field they fled and dispersed far into the forest. They refused to return to their native home. Most of them were from the Uselu Quarters in Benin. The word, ‘Esan’ is derived from the Bini expression Esanlaha, meaning those who jumped into the bush. The authentic account of the origin of Esanland is documented in the book written by Dr Clifford Okojie. The difference you find between Esan language and Edo language is very small. Those fleeing warriors decided to change the way they spoke the language to avoid being identified and to avoid being taken back to Benin to face the punishment for their mis-indeed.

What is the place of the word, “Esangbedo in all this?

It implies that the Esan cannot fight the Edo. It means that the Esan are like an offspring of the Edo. The relationship is like that between a senior and a junior.

Is it true that the Edaiken of Uselu, the Crown Prince of the Benin Kingdom does not behold the face of his father?

That is not true! It is a blatant lie. It is obviously one of those old myths and misconceptions about the Benin Kingdom. The Crown Prince goes to see his father any time he likes. He goes to see the Oba every day.

The Edaiken of Uselu

Tell us about the Holy Aruosa. We hear it is the church of the royal family. Is this true?

The Holy Aruosa was established when the Portuguese first came to Benin. They were the first people to bring Christianity to Nigeria. The people of Benin found their kind of worship very strange and alien to their indigenous tradition. Notwithstanding the challenges, the Portuguese missionaries made spirited efforts to win converts but their success was very minimal. However, the reigning Oba of Benin allowed them to carry on their activities and even gave them portions of land to build churches. As time went on, Oba Esigie had a kind of agreement with the Portuguese missionaries. The king sent an ambassador and a team of Bini chiefs to go and study the religion in its original form in Portugal. Afterwards, they returned to Benin and the church was set up at different locations in Benin although the activities of the Holy Aruosa Church were not quite popular then. When Oba Akenzua came to the throne, the saw the need to fashion the church in line with the Bini traditional style of worship. It was he, Oba Akenzua, who built the first Holy Aruosa Cathedral in Benin. Although the cathedral he built was similar to the conventional Western church building, the mode and method of worship was entirely different. It was Oba Akenzua who resuscitated the Bini traditional style of worship in the Holy Aruosa Church. Today, at the Holy Aruosa Cathedral, we pray directly to God and not through intermediaries. Instead of preaching sermons on characters from the Bible like St. Peter and St. Paul, we talk about Osagbaiye and other Bini deities who played significant roles in the survival and continued existence of the Benin Kingdom. We have 201 deities and divinities in our land which we pray to. The language of worship in the Holy Aruosa today is the indigenous Bini language. We pray and call on God Almighty in our native ways and tradition.

Who presides over a typical worship session in the Holy Aruosa church?

The duty can be performed by anybody. The Oba of Benin goes there in his capacity as the spiritual head of the Edo nation. The church does not actually belong to him as a person. Although he is the head of the church, every other person has the right to worship in the church at any time. We do not speak English language right inside the church. The Holy Aruosa used to have branches in Enugu and Onitsha. But the activities of the church in these places have waned since the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war. The major point of our preaching in the Holy Aruosa is that God manifests himself to all and sundry through diverse ways. Therefore, one has to pray and worship him according to the dictates of their indigenous community.

How did the Portuguese react to the prominence of the Holy Aruosa Church in Benin?

The Portuguese did not have any problems with us. They went ahead to preach and spread the Catholic faith while the Bini people practiced the Holy Aruosa in their own native way. The Holy Aruosa received severe criticism only when the British people came with their Anglican faith. They particularly kicked against the playing of tradition musical instruments like gongs and maracas in the church. They saw the instruments as fit only for idol worship. But today the playing of music with local instruments has become the vogue. It all started from the Holy Aruosa. The Holy Aruosa was the first to introduce the use of gongs and other traditional musical instruments to church worship. Oba Akenzua stood firmly against the British critics of the Holy Aruosa style of worship. He challenged the British to produce facts to prove that God answers prayers only through one language. He maintained that in the absence of any proof he would remain firm in his worship with the Bini language and through the indigenous tradition.

Do you make use of the Holy Bible in the Holy Aruosa church?

No, we do not. We have what we call a sacred creed which directs our worship in relation to life and living; crime and punishment and all that.

Does the Oba of Benin attend any other church?

Indeed, the Oba is the head of all churches including the Catholic and Anglican. He is at liberty to attend any of the churches any time and any day. However, the Oba does not attend church just like any ordinary man does. He attends church when occasion demands for it. There is no inhibition to the choice of the Oba concerning churches.

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Generally, what are the dos and don’ts of a Benin Oba? What are the things he must not do as a matter of tradition?

The Oba of Benin is the owner of taboos. The Oba does not visit anybody’s house. It is forbidden for the Oba to shake hands with anybody. The Oba must not fail to perform the rites which tradition has vested on him. The Oba does not go back on his words. His words are his bond. He must not revoke any of his pronouncements. The Oba has the duty to listen to all his subjects irrespective of their age, class or social status. As the leader of the people, the Oba shows the way. He leads by example.

How does an Oba marry for instance? Is it like when he points his finger, the maiden must be brought to him?

That may have been the case in the olden days. But today, the story is different. The incumbent Oba of Benin is a very dynamic and refined man. The Oba has the right to admire any lady. He does not force anyone into marriage.

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