Bookmark and Share

By Prof. Odion Simon Ehiabhi (Last Update July 9, 2019)


The causes of war anywhere in the international system are as illogical as the passion involved in executing the war. There are various reasons why war occurs and these reasons, whatever they are, provide parties involved in war the justification for warfare. The paper argues that war is preventable if only humanity could control the influence of pride, ego, and the use of aggression. The article uses ancient wars in Esanland of Nigeria as bases to argue that the reasons why nations go to war in contemporary international politics are basically attributable to weaknesses in human nature. “War is the greatest of all crimes, and yet there is no aggressor who does not colo[u]r his crime with the pretext of justice

The above assertion views war from a moral perspective, but there are various reasons why war occurs and these reasons, whatever they are, provide parties involved in war the justification for warfare. The predominance of war in the international system has made “warfare… one of the more common events in the history of man.” says Krause. Really, contrary to Krause's opinion, man could do without warfare for his survival, if only he could control his pride and ego, and the use of aggression. Ancient wars in Esanland up to the 1900s were indeed fought with the pretext of fighting for justice, except the war against British colonialism. The real reason for most of the wars in Esanland, and in contemporary international politics were (are) of course beyond the vicinity of justice, rather, the weakness in human nature could be held responsible for the causes of wars.

In order to appreciate our discussion using an ancient African community as a case study, the paper is segmented into five parts. The first part concerns itself with the geography of Esanland, part two takes a look at the nature of Esan military organization; causes of wars and commentaries will engage us in part three; part four demonstrates the relevance of ancient wars in Esanland in relation to contemporary international politics; while part five summarizes our discussion. However, we are indebted to Dr C. G. Okojie, who documented for posterity, the ancient wars, and the bulk of information we have presented in this discussion

Getting acquainted with the geography of Esanland would help us appreciate the locality of the various wars. Esanland is part of the territory that constitutes the present Edo State of Nigeria, West Africa. Esanland presently has a total landmass of about 2987.52 square kilometer. It is within longitude 50 301 and latitude 50 301 north, and 70 301 east of Benin City, the capital of Edo State. Esan people speak variants of the Edo language linguist believes separated into various strands over , 500 years ago. Though the Esan language is grouped within the Edoid languages belonging to the eastern subbranch of the Kwa group of Niger-congo, the people are distinct in cultural practices from the Benin's. They are called Esan due to “their common cultural practices as reflected on their language, dressing, belief, norms and values.”

Esan communities began as an agrarian settlement of four centers before the 15th century, which are Irrua, Ekpoma, Uromi, and Ugboha, and by 1900, thirty communities are identifiable within Esan landmass. The other communities, though not listed in order of evolution are Amahor, Emu, Egoro, Ekekhenlen, Ewu, Ewohimi, Ewossa, Ewatto , Ekpon, Ebelle, Ubiaja, Idoa, Okhuesan, Ohordua, Okalo, Oria, Opoji, Ogwa, Orowa, Ugun, Ujiogba, Ugbegun, Igueben, Ukhun, Urhohi, and Udo. It should be mentioned that these 30 communities were not at war at the same time, though they all experienced one form of war or conflicts up to the 1900s


The ancient military organization in Esanland was structured along what Sun Tzu called 'natural organization'. The core of natural organizational military strategy, according to Sun Tzu in the words of Krause is that “they exist to serve a defined purpose.”10 This means that it was a non-standing army. The idea of natural organization is derived from the organizational skill of the ant colony. The Bible attests to the focus minded division of labor in the ant colony in proverbs 6:7-8 that, ants “have no leader, chief, or ruler, but they store up their food during the summer, getting ready for winter

The import of the above statement is to emphasize the structure of Esan military organization purposely designed to respond to specific challenge, and once such task was accompanied, the military was disbanded, which is a resemblance of “the ant colony [that] exists solely for the purpose of providing food and shelter for its members. Once successful, in this purpose, it does not seek to expand its domain by acquiring, say, a near by beehive or getting into another line of business.

In the case of military organization in Esanland, there was no standing army; rather, it was an ad hoc arrangement. The emergence of an army was provoked by imminent challenges, which were responded to spontaneously. For us to appreciate this nature of military arraignment, we should first of all understand ancient Esan traditional political structure, which was (is still) patterned along several age groups (Otu), and three of them are the Edion, Igene, and Egbonughele .

The Edion group is made up of men from their mid-fifties in age and experience, and the group constitutes both the executive, legislative and judicial arm of the community. The Igene is for adults between the ages of 25-50 years, and this group is in change of the village works department, maintenance of internal security and defense of the community from external aggression. The Egbonughele is for adolescent between 12 and 25 years saddled with the duty of maintaining environmental sanitation in the community.

Given our understanding of Esan political structure, it is therefore easy to identify that members of the military wing would be recruited from the Otu-Igene. Being a member of the Igene was not an automatic license to be invited into the ad hoc military in time of conflicts. Rather, amongst the Igene, the bravest among them called the Okulokhimioto were the fortunate ones to be enlisted into the army.This infantry was led in war time by the Okakulo or war commander after he had made sure that all necessary weapons of war were assembled at a specific meeting place.

The Okulokhimioto would be taking to a sacred forest in a chosen village to be properly drilled on military discipline and the art of warfare. The duration of training was determined by the urgency of war. But, in a situation when the military had to respond spontaneously to war challenges, members of the Igene would be hurriedly summoned to curtail or arrest the situation in the interim, pending when the Okulokhimioto would be ready. The Igene was able to hold brief, because of the Para-military training new entrance into the group was made to undergo

Some of the weapons of war used in time past in Esanland were "poisoned arrows, metal weapons, akin to heavy machetes, cross-bows and cudgets.“ …and "the Okede-the twin talking drum of native doctors and medicine men, both of which many warriors were” in Esanland. Others, which were considered very important, even in contemporary Africa, was the traditional fortification against the effect of gun short, machete and poisoned arrows by way of "armlets, charms, and antidotes" given to the soldiers by the Edion. It is important to credit the Uneme ironsmiths who provided most of the weapons of war not only in Esanland, but the whole of the Edoied. Interestingly, some of these weapons of war in Esanland were not different from those used by soldiers in Medieval Europe, such as axes, pikes, lances, two-edged swords, arrows and mounted warriors


The causes of war anywhere in the international system are as illogical as the passion involve in executing the war. For example, the thirty years war in Europe, which was a series of protracted armed conflict from 1618 to 1648 leading to the signing of the peace deal in Westphalia, Germany in 1648, was caused because of religious ideological incompatibility between adherents of Protestantism versus Catholicism. The causes of the First and Second Would Wars of 1914–1919 and 1939– 1945 respectively, are equally absurd, ranging from arms race, nationalism, the alliance system, colonialism, suspicion, and attempt to repudiate the Versailles treaty.

The seemingly unending series of armed conflicts and hostile threat over the decades between some Arab states on one side, against the 'state' of Israel since 1948, are not primarily caused by Arab nationalism, but more of the feeling of perpetrated injustice and hunted pride that, part of their territory had been forcefully handed over to Israel by the United Nations.Be that as it may, the causes of war can be reduced to three broad headings, from human nature, behavioral pattern of states, to the ungovernable nature of the international system.

Human nature: is the human nature designed to be war-like, therefore making war a natural expectation? Toynbee seems to be saying no that war occurs because men choose to use war than other means to resolve conflicts. But Konard Lorenz gives us an interesting perception of the causes of war, this he summarizes as man's incapacity to control aggression. For example, in the case of Esanland, Okojie has identified some factors that provoked wars in ancient periods, these are; divorce, struggle for political power, arson, kidnapping, and murder. All these variables responsible for war in Esanland could be summarized, and in agreement with Lorenz, and Stoessinger, are attributable to human nature.

However, while Lorenz holds human inability to control the use of aggression as the primary cause of war, Stoessinger argues that the quality of decision taking at every turning point in a crisis of international dimension are responsible for the causes of great wars, therefore, war results from bad decisions. Rather than aggression, or wrong decisions, we believe that the "decision" to use "aggression" in settling most dispute is all about human concern to protect public image and ego. The causes of war cannot be the abstraction of the behavior of states, or the international system, rather, human beings in the states decide, out of pride, for the state; decisions with severe aggressive consequences.

Behavioral pattern of states and the ungovernable nature of the international system: are also attributable as the causes of war. This is also argued in the sense that states in the international system are always in contention of specified scarce resources, thus making conflict of interest inevitable, and out of failed diplomacy, war becomes the instrument through which states resort to acquiring their national desires. The fall out of the behavior of states, makes might to be right, thereby heating up the international system that has no superpower government to enforce discipline. This cannot be logically substantiated because states do not have lives of their own but live ascribed to it because of human existence. A study of some of the great conflagration of conflicts in the international system would reveal that rather than blame states, human errors should be held accountable.

The authority to declare war always lies with those in charge of leadership. In Esanland of old, the communities were governed by the Edion which decided policies for the people including going to war. Whenever there was a war situation against any village in Esanland, the Edion in that village would have to convey a special meeting to appraise the situation

These Odionweles are the respective heads of each lineage in the village. After due consultation and reappraisal of the war situation by both the Edion and Odionweles, if there was need to still go to war, the Ighene would be mobilized for military duty in preparation for war.34 However, the final authority to go to war lied with the Onojie (title for king in Esanland) of that community so involved. Once the decisions of the Edion and Odionweles were endorsed by the king, then the community would go to war, which was often led by the king in conjunction with the war commander. The town crier (information dispenser) would go to town to inform the people to prepare for war, by screaming “Ogogo-khogo o! okholem rele” 33 meaning, Hail listen o! War has come.


Using Esanland as a case study is to demonstrate that war is not the exclusive preserve of any particular race, no matter how remote or ancient a community maybe in the global system. War cuts across ethnic barriers, and therefore needs a global cooperation to eliminate its use in international politics, if possible. These ancient wars under review have been grouped into two categories. Category one are those wars fought, as occasioned by issues relating to women; while category two concerns itself with wars caused by the struggle for political power. In these groups, one will observe that these wars could have been avoided, if the major actors in the wars had not felt disgraced or challenged in a 'war' of pride.

Category one-here we shall analyse the wars as presented by Okojie.
(1) Udo-Ewatto War of 1870: War is indeed a universal phenomenon as can be noticed that on the same date of the Udo-Ewatto war, Otto Von Bismarck elsewhere was busy using war to unite the various Germanic loose independent states into one body polity. Anyway, the Udo-Ewatto war was brought to being by the ego of the Ojie-Udo (king of Udo), who felt insulted that one of his wives named Eiyoko could walk out of the matrimony to her father's family home at Ewatto. So, the king decided to go to his in-law's abode to take his wife back at any cost, including using violence, thus, his action provoked the war.

(2) Ebelle-Ogua War of 1884: The people of Ogua kidnapped the maternal sister of, and later released her back to Akhueghu, the Onojie of Ebelle without any conflict. It was later reported that the people of Ogua prided themselves by comparing their people to a moving elephant that could not be stopped by lesser animals, thereby taunting Ebelle citizens for inaction when Eihe, Akhueghu's maternal sister was kidnapped. This report, according to Okojie "worked up the Onojie's temper and soon he was on the war part."

(3) Illeh-Akho War of 1890: Iyinbo was married to Akhimie of Illeh, in Ekpoma, heir to Ikhunmun dynasty, but divorced him to re-marry Eroanga of Akho, in Irrua, the brother of Okougbo, one of the Okakulos of the village. Okougbo later mocked Illeh people in the same circumstance that Ogua taunted Ebelle, that Illeh could do nothing for taking their wife. And "this very much wounded the pride of the great Ikhunmun," and that made Illeh to declare war on Akho.

(4) Irrua-Uromi War of 1892-1893: Omanmoje was a Princess from the ruling house in Uromi, but married to Eromosele, the Onojie of Irrua. With the passage of time, Eromosele cared less for Omanmoje at her prime of life. For this neglect, the youthful Princess deserted Eromosele's harem to re-marry at her home town of Uromi. Onojie Eromosele could not bear the thought that another man would sexually be intimate with his wife, an act he probably considered, in his assessment, a royal insult, and subsequently, Eromosele declared war on Uromi to reclaim his wife.

The war was brought to an end when Okolo, the Onojie of Uromi, Omanmoje's uncle sued for peace. The peace terms "consisted of a woman to die in place of Princess Omanmojie; one of Okolo's daughters, as a wife in lieu of the deserting Omanmojie, the return of Omanmojie herself as well as her son from her present husband…"

(5) Ewohimi-Ubiaja War (before 1900s)?: The Onojie of Ewohimi attacked Ubiaja and killed an innocent man in retaliation for the seduction of one of his wives by an Ubiaja man. Thus began the war between these communities, but unfortunately, the village of Okhuesan, which lies between the two warring parties suffered the effect of losing some of its citizens in the course of the war, especially the wanton killing carried out by Ubiaja against it.

These unprovoked attacks compelled Okhuesan to ally with Ewohimi, thus directly incurring the ire of Ubiaja. The attacks on Okhuesan necessitated the involvement of the village of Okhuodua in the war, because tradition holds that Okhuesan and Okhuodua are from the same extended family tree. By implication, Ubiaja faced a three-pronged war from Ewohimi, Okhuesan, and Okhuodua.

(6) Idumebo-Usugbenu War of 1902: This perhaps represents one of the last wars fought among Esan communities as colonial rule had begun to take form in the region. Idumebo and Usugbenu are towns in Irrua but went to war against each other, because of the action of one Ebaide due to her emotional instability. Ebaide's parents were from Idumebo, but she grew up with a benefactor who betrothed her at a very tender age to a man in the village of Usugbenu. When she came of age, she married a man of her choice but unfavourable child bearing experiences made her to return back to her earlier betrothed husband. The lack of happiness and unfulfilled matrimony in Usegbenu made her to make herself inviolate by "tonoli." In Esan custom and tradition, when a lady tonoli, it means she has culturally declared herself to be the wife of the king of the community she tonoli, and thus becoming a royal scared property no other man could be sexually intimate with, except the king. "Aggrieved, Usugbenu people took this incidence as an affront and declared war on Idumebo.’’ When the dust of war settled down, Idumebo was thoroughly defeated and the community sacked.


A simple analysis of the causes of wars so presented will bring us to one conclusion, that, if those actors involved in the wars had not allowed pride and ego to take the better part of their judgment when they assessed crisis situations, the wars would have been avoided.

Udo-Ewatto: If Ojie-Udo had let it be, when his wife walked out of the harem back to her parents at Ewatto. Ebelle-Ogua: If Ebelle citizens had not allowed mere taunting to influence their actions. Illeh-Akho: Just like the case of Udo-Ewatto, Illeh should have swallowed its pride and accept the reality of the divorce, instead of causing unnecessary war. Irrua-Uromi: Cultural evolution in Esanland at that point in time favoured the king to possess any woman of his choice. Then why go to war by the Onojie of Irrua because Omanmojie of Uromi left your harem to be in the hands of another man? Ewohimi-Ubiaja: The wife of the Onojie of Ewohimi made herself available to be seduced by an Ubiaja Casanova, was that not a license for divorce, then why the war?

Idumebo-Usugbenu: Ebaide’s joined the harem of the Onojie of Irrua because of unhappy matrimony implies that she would have opted to be left alone, but Esan culture has less regard for spinsters of marriageable age. Perhaps, those made her to join the harem of the Onojie, who may not have enough time to assign her with matrimonial duties, because of the largeness of the royal harem. 'Good radiance to bad rubbish' should have been the response of Usugbenu instead of taking to war.

Category two -these are wars caused by struggle for political power and authority
(1) The Uzea War of 1502-1503: This war should appropriately be tagged the Uromi-Benin war, but perhaps because the war was fought at Uzea. Just as Adolf Hitler, in the post World War 1 era attempted to reversed the Versailles Treaty as it applied to Germany, so also, Agba the Onojie of Uromi, many centuries before Hitler, tried to reverse the treaty his father made with the powerful Benin king, Oba Ewuare that, Uromi would be a vassalage to Benin. It was Agba’s patriotic zeal to renege the peace deal of his father, which made him declare war on Benin by stopping the yearly tribute and homage to the Oba of Benin under the leadership of a new king, Oba Ozolua.

Of all the Enijie (plural of Onojie) in Esanland, it was only the Onojie of Uzea that heeded the call of Agba to resist Benin’s economic imperialism. On his way to Uromi, Oba Ozolua first destroyed Uzea and beheaded its Onojie, but Agba did not wait for the Benin King to come to Uromi, instead mobilized his army to halt the Benin army at Uzea. This difficult but avoidable war was fought on Uzea Soil. The war ended when soldiers from both opposing camps realized that the war was a war of wounded pride, and so conspired to murder the two war leaders, Oba Ozolua and Onojie Agba.

(2) Irrua-Opoji War of 1845-1850: This was also caused by the nationalistic zeal of the people of Opoji to assert their independence from the tyrannical hold of Irrua overlords. The action of Opoji was taken as an affront on the pride of Irrua, “and this very much angered OGBEIDE the Terrible, who had just come to the throne of Irrua. Ogbeide wanted their heads!,” So war began between those two communities in 1845, though it was a series of conflicts, it lasted for five years until both parties decided not to advance further into each other's territory due to the heavy death toll on both sides.

(3) Uromi-British War of 1901: The British, by extension, Europe’s determination to capture any part of the World for economic considerations knew no bounds during the inglorious era of colonialism, especially in Africa, and specifically in Uromi. After the defeat of the almighty Benin kingdom by the British in 1897, other parts of the extended kingdom were later invaded.

In 1901, a detachment of British soldiers was sent to Esanland to put Uromi, Ulia and Edenu communities in Irrua under British subjugation. It is reported that “Uromi offered strong resistance against the British and it was only after a very well-fought battle that the town surrendered to the superior arms of the British.” This war was therefore caused by British insistence on using violence on its part, and Uromi resistance on using violence to defend its national sovereignty.


The Uzea War: Fighting to defend one's national sovereignty is commendable, but attempts to defend it against a known and ferocious force as that of the Benin could be suicidal. Agba, the Onogie of Uromi should have known better than to challenge the Benin army when he had not fully mobilized enough allies except Uzea. Irrua-Opoji war: This was a protracted war of nationalism fought by the minority Opoji people against the mightier Irrua army. Though Opoji gave a good account of itself, a little bit of caution and diplomacy would have saved the scores of lives lost. Uromi-British war: Pride has its own positive effect on man. It provides a sense of confidence and self importance (even if false) in the face of danger. Onojie Okolo of Uromi should have understood the signs after Benin had been ravaged by the revengeful British forces in 1897 that only a force with parity as that of the British was needed to resist the British might, unfortunately Uromi was no equal to that task.


Situating the causes of ancient Esan wars in relations to contemporary international politics, one would realize that nothing has really changed in terms of causes of warfare in global history. For example, World War I probably would have been avoided, but for pride, as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany regarded the assassination of Franz Ferdinard as a threat to royalty. So, encouraged Austria to declare war on Serbia, hoping, according to Stoessinger, that "crowned heads of Europe would have to take a common stand against the threat of regicide." Stoessinger also believe that the Vietnam War was caused by the "fragile egos of at least two American Presidents…" who took wrong decisions. Trevor-roper, holds Hitler personally responsible for causing world War II because of his self-deluded and overbloated egoism that, he (Hitler) could bring Germany back to its pre-1914 era and dominate European political landscape. In the words of Trevor-Roper, Hitler believed that

Only he, he believed, 'the hardest man in centuries', had the qualities for such a 'cyclopean task': the vision, the willpower, the combination of military and political, political and 'world historical insight.


War is a stupid enterprise ever embarked upon by men. Its cost on human and material resources is beyond quantification. Yet, in spite of its dangerous dimension and cataclysmic effects, even when there are alternatives to war, men still go to war. Why is this so? Stoessinger, has challenged the common proposition that war cannot be stopped in the international system, because of the belief that the chief cause, which is aggression, is considered an "ineradicable part of human nature". But, human capacity to overcome previously held biases, perception, and relevance about events in human history, once regarded as part of human nature, such as slavery, according to Stoessinger, demonstrates human ability to overcome perceived human nature. Therefore, Stoessinger concludes that "…war too can be eliminated from human's arsenal of horrors." Because, "whereas aggression may be inherent, war is learned behavior and as such can be unlearned and ultimately selected out entirely.

Be that as it may, it is germane to mention that some of the causes of war, if properly investigated would show that some wars could have been avoided; only if men had taken to reason other than allow pride to influence their decisions to use aggression. We are not by anyway implying that humans are not reasonable, of course they are. But, even if humanity finds a way to control the use of aggression, and unlearned the art of war, which are possible, but without control of the influence of pride and ego, war maybe difficult, if not impossible to stop, whether as individuals or nations in the international system.

Could not Esanland had avoided those wars already highlighted in spite of the availability of culturally preventive diplomatic mechanism? Yes, it could have, but for the pride of men who took decisions to use aggression to settle disputes. The two major variables responsible for war in Esanland were the concerns for women, and struggle for political power. But, the trigger factor that caused the wars was pride and ego which made Esan political leaders to declare war in order to protect their dignity in their respective community, otherwise, they would have been treated as weakling who could not protect their households, or fail to claim what was rightfully their political birth right in line with African culture.

The discussion only attempted to add to available literature on war and draw our attention to the fact that war can be avoided at the domestic and international levels if those in charge of decision making refuse to allow ego and pride to influence them. War is evil and is avoidable as long as major political actors remain humane.

Prof. Odion Simon Ehiabhi Department of History and International Studies Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria

Comment Box is loading comments...