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pre-conquest and the present Benin Kingdom system of governance 

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By IMUETINYAN PRESS JOHN UGIAGBE  (Last update 06/10/2017)

The Benin Kingdom has been in existence since 400BC and was called Igodomigodo (Eguavoen, 1962). Though history has it that the Binis or Edos migrated from Egypt, they actually left Egypt at the same time as the Israelis when God commanded the Israelis to leave Egypt, which makes them to be one of the Israeli’s tribes that emigrated from Egypt. The pinnacle of its strength was in the 17th -19th century, in which the British maliciously and vindictively in what they called “a punitive expedition” inhumanely in 1897 brought the empire to an abrupt end. The empire spread all over the coastal region of the Atlantic Ocean as far as the now Republic of Benin and Ghana (Banbury, 1970). The people of Benin republic, the Fante, Ewe and the Ga Adame people of Ghana detailed their origin to Benin, in Nigeria. That Lagos, or Eko (camp) as named by the Binis was founded by the Binis or Edos has never been in doubt. Unfortunately this great peoples’ empire was abruptly brought to an end by the war mongers of the British imperial order in 1897.
How did these people that in present day Nigeria with a population of less than 6 million people come to build a vast and strong empire that was resolute, acclaimed, respected and revered throughout the world? The answer is simple: the system was built on good governance, strong, affable and delectable leadership, collective responsibility, adherence to the rule of law, checks and balances, transparency, accountability and respect with strong belief in tradition, culture and religion. Even up till date the Benin monarchical institution, its democratic principles and system of governance are still in place and well respected throughout the history of mankind.

Let’s Posit Its Facets. (Great Edo)
The Benin Kingdom headquarters was Benin City or Edo as the Edos affectionately love to call it and it is also the capital of modern Edo state of Nigeria. Today the Kingdom is confined to the present Edo state, partly because of states creation, and is bounded in the north by Kogi state, east by Delta, west by Ondo state and in the south by Atlantic Ocean. The administrative organisation of the kingdom has remained intact despite the British crude and unjust so called punitive expedition that brought the empire to an abrupt end in 1897. At the head of administration is the paramount King, therefore the paramount ruler of the Benin Kingdom (Omo N’ Oba Ne ‘doUkuAkpolokpolo) Oba of Benin, whose ascension to the throne is by principle of primogeniture and is also hereditary. He was and still is the focus point of the Benin Kingdom and his powers are spiritual, social, religious and political. The King or Omo N’ Oba rules from the palace in Benin City and his authority is unequivocally accepted by all the Edos. The King is affable, assiduous, magnanimous,sedulous, delectable, blissful and pious in all human ramifications. He leads by example and consequently the flag bearer of the Edos. His personal qualities are unequivocally unparalleled to any other person in the society. The administration and leadership structure could be viewed from two folds: central and provincial.

Central
The central administration and leadership structure comprises of three different sets of functional chiefs of importance each with different functions and responsibilities to perform. At the helm of the central administration and leadership structure is the Uzamanihiron (7 Uzama) and the Uzama comprises of Eghaevbo (chiefs): the Eghaevbo no re and Eghaevho no gbe. The palace also has its own chiefs (Egua- Enigie) that are assigned different responsibilities and functions of importance. The palace chiefs comprise of the Iwebo, Iwague and the Ibiwe. The Iwebo, looks after the King’s (Oba) regalia, Iwague looks after the king’s apartment and are his private attendants and confidants, Ibiwe looks after the King’s wives. To be an Uzama or Eghaevbo, one must be some one of high repute, resolute, tested, and credible and has proven himself beyond all reasonable doubt in society. In fact anybody elected to the office of chieftaincy whether to work with the king or within the palace or outside the palace, and the village provinces must pass the acid test of credibility.

The Uzamas are the kings makers and together (Eghaevhonore and Eghaevhonogbe) constitute the administrative council of the palace. The central administrative council is headed by the Iyase of Benin who effectively is the prime minister and therefore occupies number two positions in Benin Kingdom. In a way they act as the cabinet ministers in which the Omo N’ Oba presides over to discharge his duties to society. Consequently the council assists the Oba in the administration and discharge of justice at the Oba’s palace. The Institutions of the Benin Kingdom were and are still guided by its democratic principles which were and are never compromised in any circumstances. It is based on a system of checks and balances but when a decision cannot be reached the King’s decision is paramount and therefore final. 
Province

The provinces are semi-autonomous. Every village has its own Odionwere (Head) and to be an Odoinwere one does not necessary has to be the most senior person but the choice has its own characteristics which are governed by the custom of the land: for example when such a person was first initiated to the village staff order by the elders in council in the village’s hall (Oguedion). Some villages are assigned with Enogie (Chief), by the Oba (King) and when this happened the Enogie would become the head of that community, and also some villages have priest/ess (Ohen), who is chosen by divine means, all of them play their role for the smooth running of the provinces. The organ of policy makers in the village consists of Enogie (Chief) or where there is no Enogie, the Odionwere (Head Man) would be joined by his council of ministers comprising of four of the most important senior elder men of the village, town or community in case of a City.

The women are also very important and constitute an integral part of the community. Every village has its Women’s forum that is headed by the most senior woman of the village. They hold meetings when it is necessary and when it is called for by the women’s head or ordered by the Odionwere (Head-man) or Enogie (Chief) to discuss issues affecting their Communities, take decisions and consequently report their decision to the Men’s Council of Elders for action. However most decisions are handled by the village general assembly which consists of all the adults both young and old in the village (Igbamas and Edions) Any dispute that is not satisfactorily settled could be referred to the Enogie of the area for settlement and any serious dispute unsettled by the village assembly headed by the Odionwere that could not be settled by the Enogie would be taken to the Omo N’ Oba’s palace, which act as the last Court of Arbitration, and the King ( Omo N’ Oba) decision in the dispute is final (Gievbonbase).

How corruption was checked!
Perhaps the way corruption was checked to enhance democracy, rule of law and transparency is the most affable characteristics of the Benin rulership. These were heavily guided against by the use of religious spiritualism. At a time of serious discord, the Chief Priest/Priestess (Ohen) would be used to seal the faith of the dispute by way of special divine intervention. The Priest’s/priestess’s duty was to ensure that peace and tranquillity prevailed in the land and in time of discord, turmoil or trouble the priest/ess would be called upon to discharge his/her spiritual know-how either to cleanse, appease, or discharge a curse depending on the event at hand at that time. The Benin Kingdom was backed up by strong religion and spiritual belief.

Every city, town and village had its deity which they all passionately worshipped, and the villages had an Oguedion (Village Hall) that housed a special ancestral shrine, where the consent and conscience of someone could be judged and proven. It was also a place where the village was cleansed of evil and ancestral spirits were appeased when the gods were not happy with them. Most importantly as I said earlier, both decisions were made and disputes were settled there. The people adhered to it and believed in it very strongly, therefore to indulge in corruption, lie, theft, incredulous act, or anything unethical to the community was alien to the people, for example there were revered and feared deities such as: Awuanuho, Ovia, Ova ‘du nigieduma, Olokun nu rhonigbe, Okhuahe, Osun, Arho ‘sun oba, Ododonikan, Azelu, Ikoko, Ayelala.

These deities helped to strengthen the Oba’s power with fears, reverence, respect, honour, and also helped to harness compliance, allegiance and loyalty of his people. Most importantly it helped to check corruption of all proportions and vices and vile acts such as robbery, theft, graft, adultery, and prostitution. These were seldom heard of. The Ohens (Priests/Priesses) were very important in the administration of law and order. In time of crime, crisis, turmoil, trouble, the Oracle would be consulted and the Ohen’s (Chief Priest) findings and decisions were taking seriously and were final. His/her judgement was never in dispute or in any doubt whatsoever, and obiter dicta.

Therefore religion was a very powerful force in checking corruption and other vices of the society. Consequently the fear and influence of gods and the Priests/priestesses helped to influence and moderate behaviour and this immensely assisted the Oba in the maintenance of law and order that resulted in good governance that helped build a corrupt- free society of great honour and respect throughout the kingdom. It was also the driving force behind political behaviour, social mindedness, economic and religious piousness.

The Oba (King) was the mirror that the people look at themselves, therefore he leads by example. In Bini parable; “Oba men Edo” ( The King is the Edos role models).

Besides religion, the Benin Kingdom also had high regards and respect for elders and seniority.

They also believe very strongly in their tradition, custom, ethics, value, belief systems, norm and most especially in freedom of expression, transparency, liberty and collectivism as against individualism, consequently ours and not mine was the order of the day.

The Igue Festival was also a powerful force in harnessing the unity amongst the people of the Benin Kingdom. The festival period was a time whereby all the sons and daughters residing far and near would get together with their parents and families to share their best flocks in harmony and it was also a time when the land was properly and thoroughly appeased and cleansed of evils by the Ohens (Priests and Priestesses) and the people concerned with the land.

This is similar in value and significant to the Jews’ feast of Passover in the Bible. (There was more on this in my previous article (Nigerian observer 17.12.12.) . Before the so called punitive conquest by the imperial British of 1897 the villages in the provinces were asked to raise the Army by which the land was defended and the capital city, Edo (Benin City) was heavily fortified and impregnable to enemies. There were Moats dug around Edo and the entire periphery. As I have said before the Oba never ruled alone. He had advisors and had cabinet ministers, together they made and took decisions for the land and as such earned his due respect and loyalty and allegiance from his people. Anyone found to be wicked, unscrupulous, or bringing the land into disrepute could be ostracized from society. It was practically impossible to honour anyone without proven moral or social standing.

The Benin or Bini Kingdom system of governance was based on a system of effective checks and balances of the sort that made effective governance to flourish. It is similar to the so called three arms of government adopted by the Federal Republic of Nigeria: Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, but it is different in meaning, value, integrity and form. It is a reflection of true democracy and expedient governance and no wonder the Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo UkuAkpolokpolo was and is still so revered all the world over. Let it be known that this kingdom had an empire that probably surpasses any in Africa and was never defeated in any battle and war until the British in their nefarious crude way to dominate and control the trade in Benin Kingdom, and Nigeria as a whole, and under the pretence of the so called punitive expedition descended on the Kingdom with their world’s best machine guns of that millennium to end the empire in 1897. With the Kingdom defeated, it was never the same again, the king, Oba 
Idugbowa Ovonramwen Ogbaisi (1888-1897) was exiled to Calabar where he passed to glory in 1914.

There was a vacuum of leadership created in the kingdom until Oba Eweka 11 was installed in 1914. It is a fact and on record that when the Portuguese visited Benin in the 16th century, they had enthused, that Benin City was comparable in size, beauty and status or better than Amsterdam, the capital city of Holland. However, from 1897 and up to 1960 when Nigeria became independent, the People of Benin Kingdom were in mourning, development and progress stopped. They refused to send their children to school to gain the so called “western education” in rebellion to the misdeeds and anarchy into which the greediness of the British had plunged them.

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