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A handbook on some Benin Custom and Usages

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The Oba of Benin warns his subjects against unwholesome act that violate Benin customs

PREAMBLE
For quite a long time, the kinds of complaints that aggrieved persons have been bringing to the Omo N’ Oba for his intervention has been giving him much cause for concern. From the investigation of those complaints, it has been found that some of our people are either ignorant of the customs or they deliberately side track the customs. The Omo N’ Oba and the chiefs have been very displeased about the situation and after due consideration. It was decided that the custom/procedure the govern some of these practices be related for the guidance of the general public

(A) PROCEDURE FOR BRINGING COMPLAINTS TO THE PALACE
By a press statement dated 19th October, 1994 the palace set out the procedure by which members of the public may bring their complaints tom the palace that press release was necessitated by frequent complaints reaching the palace that some palaces functionaries hi-jack cases and prevent complainants from seeing the Omo N’ Oba, unless the complainants paid some gratification, while other palace functionaries actually demand bribe from complainants in order to help their case. It was hoped that press statement would put a stop to the unwholesome practice, but it is regrettable that the situation has not improved. It has therefore been decided to re-issue that press statement and is repeated hereunder. The disgraceful action of those palace functionaries cannot be stamped out by merely appealing to or even threatening them because their identity is never known. Therefore any member of the public who falls victim is hereby requested to report his/her experience to the secretary to the Omo N’Oba the secretary to the Benin Traditional Council, or the Iyase of Benin or any other senior chiefs (or any other person that can gain access to the Omo N’ Oba) who will bring the report to the notice of the Omo N’ Oba. Appropriate action will accordingly be taken against the offending palace functionary provided the complainant comes out to substantiate his/her allegation. The press statement issued in October, 1994, is reproduced here under

TO ALL NEWS MEDIA

PRESS STATEMENT
(1) The Omo N’ Oba has directed that this press statement be issued for the information of the general public. For quite some time now, the Omo N’ Oba has been receiving reports to the effect that, when an aggrieved person gets to the palace with the aim of making his or her complaint known to the Omo N’ Oba intervention, the person is hi-jacked on the way by some palace functionaries with promise to help the person see the Omo N’ Oba. These complainants never see the Omo N’ Oba, but are often led to some senior chiefs who proceeds to adjudicate on the complaints without the Omo N’ Oba’s knowledge. There is also the additional information that money is often given to the palace functionaries and the chiefs who have, on their own, undertaken to adjudicate on the matter. The members of the public affected by this unwholesome practice of the palace functionaries are now crying out loud and the practice has become the talk of the city. The Omo N’ Oba has therefore directed that this statement be made for the education of the members of the public to avoid the palace being brought into disrepute


(2) Every person on Benin land, male or female is free to bring his/her complaint to the Omo N’ Oba for assistance or intervention. The Omo N’ Oba, by virtue of his position and in keeping with the custom, invariably grants the complainant audience, with any number of chiefs who happen to  be in the palace, in attendance. The customary principle that underlies the right of any person to take his or her complaint to the palace is the Benin adage- that says “Eguae Oba emwen se” (i.e. the Oba is the last hope of redress or an aggrieved person). Furthermore, because the palace (i.e. Oba) charges no free for listening to and intervening in his subject’s complaint, many people, in modern time of lawyers and the judiciary found the palace least expensive in preference to paying lawyers and court fees

(3) For the information of the public, the procedure in the palace is as follows:
When a complainant appears before the Omo N’ Oba, he or she narrate his or her problem to the Omo N’ Oba and the chiefs in attendance. If the complainant’s problem is for personal assistance the Omo N’ Oba, in consultation with the chiefs in attendance, finds a solution to the person’s problem. If the complainant brings a report against another person, palace emissaries are sent with the complainant to go and invite the person complained against to come and answer. No fee is charged for this service and the emissaries sent on that assignment are forbidden to demand any money or gift. When the person invited appears before the Omo N’ Oba, the complainant is asked to repeat the report he or she earlier made to the Oba, and accused person is asked to say his own side of the matter. In the process, both sides are free to question each other, and any chief present may ask them  questions .At the end of it all, based on the weight of evidence and in keeping with custom, if custom applies, the Omo N’ Oba pronounces a ruling which is final. On the other hand, the Omo N’ Oba may decide to refer the case to a panel of selected chiefs or the whole body of chiefs present for further investigation, usually matters of details and report back to the Omo N’ Oba. When the chiefs bring their findings, together with recommendations, the complainant and the defendant are always present and they are permitted by the Omo N’ Oba to point out faults in the report presented. At the end of it all, the Omo N’ Oba will pronounce ruling which is also final. No fine is imposed on any guilty party unless the offence is a violation of a custom that carries a customary fine (which is not dictated in monetary terms or cash)

(4) It has become necessary to go into this elaborate explanation for the education of the public because  the unwholesome practice of some chiefs and palace functionaries taking it upon themselves to settle a matter that has not previously been brought before the Omo N’ Oba and demanding gifts in cash or kind, is not only bringing disrepute to the palace, but also discouraging persons, who regard the palace as their last hope for redress, from coming to the palace due to the money some dishonest palace functionaries demand. It is hereby restated for emphasis that the Omo N’ Oba does not charge a complainant any fee for listening to his or her complaint, and no fine is imposed on any guilty person except where the offence carries a customary sanction or fine It is hoped that this explanation will re-assure members of the public in the justice and free service in the palace of the Oba of Benin

(5)The Omo N’ Oba has directed, while on this subject of customary sanction, that the attention of members of the public be drawn to an issue that amounts to grave abomination in Benin custom, commission of which causes great displeasure to the Omo N’ Oba. It concerns ownership of land. Cases have been brought to the palace where a person considered that his land has been trespassed upon and, without coming to report in the palace or going to the Law Court, took the law into his own hands and proceeded to destroy the building or structure or farm crops that the alleged trespasser erected or planed on the said land. Such destruction is grave abomination as it is offensive to Mother Earth. Ordinarily, the commission of such offence should not come to the palace if only the Odionwere and elders of the location where the land is situated performed their own customary functions because the offence carries a straight- forward but severe customary penalty.

(6)The Omo N’ Oba wants it stated emphatically that the willful destruction by any person of somebody else’s landed property or farm crops is forbidden by Benin custom, and the chief, if the matter comes to the palace, have the right to impose the customary sanction. All are therefore advised that whoever has a case of trespass to land  should either report it to the palace for the Omo N’ Oba’s ruling or to the Court of Law and, until such a ruling is given, no one has right to interfere with another person landed property.                                

(Sgd) A.A Uwagboe,
Secretary to the Oba of Benin

That is the end of the October, 1994, Press Release

(B)TRESPASS ON UNDEVELOPED LAND OF ABSENTEE OWNER:
The Omo N’ Oba is greatly disturbed by the many complaints reaching the palace against people who illegally take possession of underdeveloped land of absentee owners, i.e. Owners who are ordinarily not resident in Benin and even of deceased persons. Land does not disappear or depreciate to the extent of becoming non-existent, so anyone who genuinely believes he owns a piece of land has the right to come back to it any time he chooses and find it there. What is happening now is that any thief simple gets to a piece of land that has been left undeveloped for a long time, concludes that it has no owner takes possession and proceeds to build on it or sells it outright. The situation is tolerable if the absentee owner is alive. It is sheer wickedness to steal the land of a deceased person. The chiefs have deliberated on the situation and have decided with the approval of the Omo N’ Oba that such wicked person who unlawfully occupy or interfere with the land of absentee owners must desist from such wicked act. The customary sanction in the olden days against such wicked act was for the community to ostracize the guilty person. But modern government, under which people now rush to the Law Court, frowns at ostracism. However, persons who engage in such wicked act of trespassing on the land of absentee owner are hereby warned that should such matter be reported again   to the palace, the palace will apply every means at its disposal to ensure that justice is done to the aggrieved person. Any person whose land has been trespassed upon in the manner described is free to come to the palace to report.  

(C)BENIN CUSTOM AND USAGES ON BURIAL CEREMONIES
The Omo N’ Oba and his chiefs are very disturbed by the alarming increase in the number of cases of dispute amongst children of deceased persons in the course of their burial ceremonies, investigations of these cases have revealed that frequently cause of quarrel among the children of the deceased person is traceable to the family elders who deliberately or through ignorance misdirect the children, and when a quarrel has erupted the family elders divide into camps for and against. In view of the number of such cases that are brought before the Omo N’ Oba, and after due deliberation by the chiefs of Benin kingdom, it was decided, in the interest of the generality of the Benin people, to restate the customs and usages with regard to burial ceremonies. With the consent of the Omo N’ Oba, these custom and usages are set out as below:
1 On the death of a Benin Man, it is the eldest surviving son with his brothers and sisters, who performs the funeral rites of the deceased parent for the family “For the family”, means that all the funeral ceremonies end before the family elder, the “Okaegbe”. Funeral rites are in two   parts: first and second ceremonies. First ceremony includes all rituals performed that end with the actual interment, which may follow immediately after the first or at a later date, depending on the preparedness of the son, includes all rituals performed that end with “ukomwen” (i.e Establishment of the ancestral alter). The oldest male of the family (usually refered to as “Okaegbe” n  Okhue”) normally delegates his personal representative (referred to as “Okaegbe irorinmwin”) to officiate and guide the children to conclude all the funeral rites, at the end of which the Okaegbe Irorinmwin, with children, presents his report with all items used to the family elder (Okeagbe n Okhua). As the items for a funeral are laid down by customs (see below) the family have no right to increase them but may exercise discretionary power to reduce them in order to lighten the load on the deceased’s children who may be financially handicapped.


2 Without prejudice to the desire of affluent children of a deceased person to engage in lavish burial ceremonies, the basic customary requirements for burial in Benin are as follows:
(A)For senior chief, i.e. Eghaevbo and Uzama, the main item is a cow which must be provided by the eldest son: but other children may also provide a cow each if they so wish, otherwise it is a goat for each of them.


(B) For all other categories of chiefs as well as other male and female Benin persons, it is a goat which must be provided by the eldest son, but other children mat also provide goats;


(C) Where a cow is involved, goats usually accompany, depending on the kind of shrine in the family; and where it is a goat, it is goat all the way

3 (¡) The greedy innovations of some family elders who impose levies of money on the children of the deceased person or demand cow where custom prescribes a goat are hereby abolished as they  are contrary to Benin Custom.

(¡¡) Furthermore the eldest son (even if he has a sister senior to him) has the customary discretion, after due consultation with his brothers and sister, to determine what date to commence the performance of the funeral rites of his deceased parent and he must be given a free hand to arrange the mortuary rites to suit his resources.

(¡¡¡) Custom imposes all the responsibility on the eldest son, including carrying his brothers and sisters along with him and the customary responsibility of the family elders especially the Okeagbe (head of the extended family) if they are honest and sincere, is to guide the eldest son.

(iv) In order that silence in this document on the point may not be misconstrued by those concerned, it is necessary to add here, for the benefit of the appropriate class of chiefs, some more aspects pertaining to the funeral of chiefs. The following procedure is what custom provides;  

(A) For all categories of chiefs there must be performed “Igue-Okieke” (last Igue); this ritual is performed by the Ihogbe N’ Ore headed by the Isekhure of Benin who normally delegates officials to perform the ceremony on the chief on the chief’s death bed.


(B) If the chief is of Eghaevbo clas, who ought to have performed the ceremony of “Iyan-Ehien” in his life time, but did not do it, the ritual is performed on his death- bed by the Isekhure group after the “Igue –Okieke”. Both rituals must be performed before interment. If the chief performed the “Iyan-Ehien” ceremony in his life time, it is only the “Igue –Okieke”. That is performed on his death bed. In both cases (Igue- Okieke and Iyan- Ehien) it is the children, led by the eldest son, who provide the items required.


(C) Yet another aspect concerns where the deceased chief of whatever category, had some items of palace beaded paraphernalia at home at the time of his death. The appropriate Iwobo functionaries must get there (before Ihogbe) and perform the necessary ritual for the removal of those beaded paraphernalia. Until this is done and the beads removed, it is forbidden for the family to weep, hence the death of a chief is immediately reported to the Iwebo (as also to the Isekhure)


(D) CUSTOM AND USAGES REGARDING INHERRITANCE

In cases of inheritance, like cases of burial ceremonies already discussed, a lot of acrimony is generated among the children by the mercenary stand of the family elders who preside at the distribution of the deceased person’s estate among the children. The customary procedure on the right of inheritance is therefore re-stated under;

(A)  FOR NON- HEREDITARY TRADITIONAL TITLE HOLDERS AND ORDINARY PERSONS:
(¡) Soon after death, the inventory of the properties of the deceased person is taken by the Okaegbe (or his representative) in the presence of the deceased person’s eldest son and any of the other children who may be present, the inventory is kept by the Okaegbe who has responsibility to ensure their safe keeping pending the completion of the burial ceremonies by the children. A copy of the inventory is also left with the eldest son. Inventory is modern concept. In the olden days all the moveable properties were kept physically in the Okaegbe’s possession while all immovable properties were identified.


(¡¡) On the completion of the final burial ceremonies by the eldest son, this means in Benin custom “orere-Okore”. I.e. He has established an alter for worshiping his departed parent, the Okaegbe, who presided over the burial ceremonies with other senior members of the extended family, if considered necessary, meet with the children of the deceased and share the deceased person’s properties among the children as prescribed by customs thus:


(a) The Igiogbe i.e the house in which the deceased lived and died and usually, though not always, where he was buried automatically devolves on the eldest son.


(b) Custom enjoins the eldest son to accommodate all his brother and sister (subject to their good behavior) until they are able to build their own houses and move out or (if woman) until they get married.


(c)  Where the deceased has other landed properties, these are distributed to the other children according to “Urho” in order of seniority. I.e. according to the number of wives. The male child taking precedence each “Urho”. The eldest son is still entitled to a share of the remaining prosperities.


(d) All other movable properties are similarly distributed among all the children starting with the eldest son.


(e) It may happen that the most senior of the deceased person’s children is a female. In such case while custom place all the responsibility on the eldest son, and give  him all the precedence, it is permissible, and expected, by mutual agreement between the family elders and the children, for something reasonable to be given to the woman being the most senior of all the children.


(F) Once the estate of the deceased has been duly distributed among the children, the responsibility of the Okaegbe and the extended family ceases. Ordinary, where the distribution is done, strictly according to custom and without any bias from the family elders, there should be no cause for quarrel among the children.


(G) There have been cases, which are permissible, where a deceased has one house with many rooms and such number of rooms have been shared among the children proportionally in order of seniority, usually to bring the children together. This however is subject to mutual agreement of all concerned i.e. the eldest son with the family elders.


(H) The custom says that it is the eldest son that automatically inherits the Igiogbe of his deceased father while the remaining landed properties. If any are shared among the remaining children.  But there have been cases where the Igiogbe property is by far inferior to the other landed property or properties usually because the late man chose to live in the inferior house while he put the superior house out for commercial purpose. The eldest son in such a case would feel cheated to be confined to the inferior Igiogbe while his juniors are given the superior landed properties. On strict interpretation of custom, that is how it should be. But in these days of modern development, it would be manifestly unfair to give the eldest son a dilapidated property simply because it is the Igiogbe and give a more superior one that the deceased earmarked for commercial purpose to a junior. Such case have come to the palace and the Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, in consultation with chiefs in attendance, has exercised his traditional discretion by giving the eldest son the option to choose between the inferior Igiogbe property and the other superior property on the condition that if he choose the other superior property he would forfeit his traditional right to the (inferior) Igiogbe property with all that goes with it. The eldest son had accepted the choice; and it has been endorsed by the palace.

(B) FOR HEREDITARY TRADITIONAL TITLE HOLDERS:
The custom that guides inheritance in the case of a hereditary traditional title holder is as follows:
On the death of a holder of a hereditary title, the principal actor in the burial ceremony is the eldest surviving son; though the other children may make contribution to help their eldest brother .It is the eldest son who performs all the ceremonies. After the eldest son has performed the final burial ceremony, which of course, will end with the establishment of an alter for his deceased father (ukomwen) he succeeds to his father’s title and inherit the entire estate exclusively. But Benin Customary Law is not “an ass” (like the English Law is said to be) hence our custom expects such a son, morally to make gifts out of the estate to some of his brothers and sisters next to him in seniority. Again custom expects him to accommodate his other brother and sister (subject, of course to their good behavior to him) where there is no male child to succeed to the hereditary title, a brother or any other male paternal relation of the   deceased succeeds to the title after due confirmation by the Oba, but the deceased’s properties are shared among his female children. If a person, be him a title holder or not, made a grant of a gift to any of his children or other persons while alive. Such property ceases to be part of the estate of the person upon his death and is excluded from those to be shared           

(D)  WILLS:
In this modern time enlightened persons make statutory wills by which they determine in advance how their estate would be shared among the children our custom is not concerned with that. But it has been said by lawyers that the provisions of a will must not conflict with Customary Law of inheritance or the will could be set aside.

(E)  PERIOD WITHIN WHICH ESTATE IS SHARED AMONG THE CHILDREN

Custom allow “Akia” (three lunar months) from date of final funeral rites (Ukomwen) within which the Okaegbe N’ Okhua (Head of the extended family) must share the estate of the deceased among the children. If there is dispute, usually as to how to share or who gets what then as soon as the dispute is resolved; the sharing of the estate must follow. The Okaegbe is forbidden to deliberately or unreasonably withhold the act of sharing the estate. Ehere a child is dissatisfied with his or her share and reports the “Egbe” (family) to the palace, the Oba in consultation with his chiefs has the customary discretion to adjust to meet with requirement of custom.
(F) A copy of this hand book has been sent to the Honorable President of the Customary Court of Appeal for the information of Customary Court Judges in our five Benin Local Government Areas: A copy each has also been sent to the Chief Judges of Edo state, The Commissioner of Special Duties Governor’s Office  and the Director-General Directorate of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Benin City for information.    
                                                                             
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