Benin Kingdom: Yesterday and Tomorrow
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Written  by Victor Omoregie {Last Update August 2, 2022}

Some years ago in the ancient city of Benin, a great phenomenon took place: The  eclipse of the sun  (the moon covering the sun). It  was Friday, 23  March, 1979, when Prince Solomon Igbinoghodua Aisiokuoba Akenzua became the 39th Oba of the Great Benin Kingdom.

As he ascended the throne of his ancestors, he took the name Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa II. By tradition, announcement of the name meant that the crown  prince and all his children have had to forgo forever the name by which they had been known in the past.

Leaders or rulers in the first Benin dynasty were called OGISOS, with the OBASHIP heralding the second dynasty which began around 1170 A.D.

A general survey history of the Benin kingdom from the earliest times has the Ogiso period (c. 900-1170); the second is the period of the new dynasty of kings or Obas (c. 1200-1897), while the third phase is that of colonial rule and its impact on Benin society (after 1897).

Oba Akenzua 11 at a ceremony
The name ‘Benin’ can be found on European maps of Africa from the sixteenth century onward; from that time, the kingdom was an important trading partner. Trading relations was first with the Portuguese, then with the British, Dutch and French. Goods supplied by Benin in 1897 were  Guinea pepper and ivory, then cotton and textiles, beads, redwood, rubber and palm oil. Ivory was also exported up to the end of the 19th century.

The Europeans exchanged these goods mostly for copper and brass manillas or for cowry shells from the Maldives, as well as for diverse luxury goods such as European and Indian textiles and fine silks, hats, and Mediterranean coral. Later also firearms and munitions were traded, and a great variety of metal goods, spirits, tobacco, as well as bars of iron and lead.

In the end it was economic factors that led to the destruction of the kingdom of Benin. In the late 19th century, the Niger coast was dominated by the British, who increasingly became reluctant to accept the trading conditions dictated by Benin, and were desperate to take control themselves. They gradually brought the areas bordering Benin under their administration, removing or exiling unwilling local rulers. Furthermore, they started to add the areas delineated as their sphere of influence at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to their territory.

The uniqueness and influence of the Benin Kingdom lies in the fact that in its  occupation of foreign lands it established a strong traditional and cultural impact on the conquered people. Probably the greatest legacy of the ancient Benin Kingdom is their bronze sculptures, many of which reside in the British museum in London. At the height of its greatness, Benin Obas patronized craftsmen and lavished them with gifts and wealth, in return for the depiction of the Oba’s great exploits as fabulous and intricate sculptures.

Her bronze and carving artifacts that are to be found everywhere in the world today depict the height of Benin civilization as early as the 12th century. The ancient Benin Kingdom had borders from the present day Gabon extending  to Togo through  the Republic of Benin and down to the entire coastline of present day Nigeria to the east. During the reign of Oba Orghogua, who understood the power of navigation and sea power, he established control over the entire West African coastline. He signed treaties of friendship with many of the local leaders.

Wives of the Oba of Benin
The present Edo State of Nigeria is home to Edo people. In spite of different variations in Edo dialects, the language is Edo. These people are all from the same quaver as they left Benin at different times in the history of the ancient Benin Kingdom. All Onojie or Enijie or Onogie or Enogie of towns and villages in Edo State are all blood relations of the Oba. The history of Benin can be divided into three parts.

The first period spans the arrival of Edo people from the Nile valley to Igodomigodo and the reigns of all Ogiso to the last one Ogiso Owodo. The second period spans from the end of the interregnum to the annexation of the Kingdom by the British forces in 1897. The current period spans from 1908 when Oba Eweka the 2nd was crowned and more precisely when the monarchy was restored and authority bestowed by the British to the present day.

There have been three Oba in this period, Oba Eweka who restored the monarchy and power from the British after the deportation of Oba Ovoramwen to Calabar;  Oba Akenzua who campaigned for the creation of Mid West Region and the present Oba Erediauwa who is a product of Cambridge University, a seasoned civil servant   and a keen writer doing all in his power to straighten the history of Edo people.

During the period of the interregnum when Igodomigodo was difficult to govern, diviners recalled that there was  a surviving son of the last Ogiso Owodo who was banished due to the treachery of the principal wife Esagho and the messengers by altering  the message of the diviners.

Ekaladerhan refused to return to the city of his birth as he was very old but sent his son Omonoyan in his place. He found it difficult to rule but had a child from the daughter of the Enogie of Egor who gave birth to a son later crowned Eweka the first.

There have been 38 Obas, most leaving their foot prints in the sand of Edo land. Oba Esigie was the first to come in contact with Europeans (Portuguese) and had an ambassador in the court of the King of Portugal. Oba Ewuare, a physician, magician, hunter and warrior constructed Akpakpava Road and renamed the kingdom EDO.

The history of Benin is documented in wood carving, brass casting and oral tradition and it is authentic.

The system of government is a mixture of autocracy, democracy and gerontocracy. The Oba has absolute powers but there is an Iyase (Prime Minister) who heads the town chiefs who can argue or disagree with him on rare occasions. There are the palace chiefs and the Uzama ni Ihinron who are the King makers.

The Binis excel  in arts. The wood carving industry is located on Owina Street, Bronze/Brass casting on  Igun street and weaving in Ihumwunidunmwun. The Benin artist perfected the lost wax method which they still use till today. After the sacking of the Kingdom by the British forces, a large number of the art works were looted and can be found in major museums in Europe and America. 

The most popular is the Idia mask which was the mascot for Festac 77 and symbol to many Black and Edo groups around the world.

There are numerous festivals in Edo land to commemorate important events in the history of the Kingdom. The most popular is Igue Festival which takes place about Christmas time, the Ehor, new yam festival, Ikpoleki and the initiation of one age group into another.

Generally Benin people believe in the supreme God who is Osalobua (Osanoghodua) who they put first in everything. They also serve or remember their ancestors. In recent history there have been many deities introduced into the City from adjoining ethnic group  like the Yoruba and Christianity by the missionaries.

The impact and extent of the influence of the Benin Kingdom is exemplified in the renaming of the Republic of Dahomey to the Republic of Benin. Isadahomey was the Benin war general that led the army into the area of Dahomey, and subsequently had the area named after him. So when it became imperative that the people could no longer bear citizenship to a country named after an individual, the ruler  of Dahomey  Matthew Kereku had to seek the permission of the Oba of Benin for a change in name. Thus Dahomey was transformed into the Republic of Benin, which to the people was an honour to the “citizens of the Great Benin Kingdom”.

Another influence and extension of power of the Benin Kingdom can be found in the establishment of Lagos referred to initially as EKO. Lagos was established as a WAR CAMP by Oba ORHOGBUA in the 1500s. It was an attempt by Oba Orhogbua to control the present day coastline of Nigeria about 600 years ago. 

Oba Akenzua receiving Europeans in the 19th century
When it became necessary to establish a government in Lagos with an accompanying bureaucracy, Oba Orhogbua made one of his sons to take charge with the title ASIKPA. It is on record that the first ten Obas of Lagos bore distinctively Edo names. The establishment of Dukedom of Lagos was accompanied with the establishment of the traditional bureaucracy. This evident in the dressings of White Cap Chiefs of Lagos

It is also important to note that the Obaship of Lagos has a lot of Benin influence. Up to  the 1920s, the   ruler of Lagos (Eko) was referred to as ELEKO.

This link with Benin is confirmed with the building of a mosque by Olojo, the second son of King Kosoko opposite the Oba market. Olojo Kosoko arrived in Benin while fleeing from British agents when his father Oba Kosoko lost to Oba Akintoye and Madam Tinubu.

A piece of land was given to him where he built his house but later converted it to a mosque, because he was a Muslim. That mosque is still standing at the beginning of Lagos Street in Benin City, opposite the Oba Market. That street was named LAGOS STREET because of Olojo Kosoko, the Edo/Eko man who came back home. His descendants in Benin today simply go by the name OLOJOs and the OLOKEs without the Kosoko attached.

Succession in the Benin kingdom is very unique. Succession is by primogeniture, hence there is no in fighting for the exalted position when the Oba transcends unlike in other communities. The heir apparent is usually conferred with the traditional title of Edaiken of Uselu. The title of the Edaiken (Edayi Ni Iken) has a long history behind it; he is the heir apparent who lives away from his father.

Like some other villages around Benin City such as Ego, Use, Oka and Ihimwirin, to mention a few, the foundation and growth of Uselu dates back to the period of the Ogiso. But its significant position in the history of Benin did not come into limelight until the Palace of Edaiken (Eguae-Edaiken) and the Palace of the Queen mother (Eguae-lyoba) were established there during the reigns of Oba Ewuare and Oba Esigie respectively. Uselu is therefore divided into two sections: the upper Uselu where the Eguae-Edaiken is situated and lower Uselu where Eguae-lyoba is established.

Oba Ewuare the Great sent his son, Kuoboyuwa, to hold brief for a man called Iken of Uselu, who was a strong powerful warrior who constantly challenged the authority of the Oba and  often prevented Uselu people from paying the annual tributes to the Oba in Benin City. As a result of this opposition constituted by Iken, Oba Ewuare wanted to eliminate him by sending him to the battle front during the war between Benin and Owo. Kuoboyuwa, the senior son of the Oba was to hold brief for him during the period. Iken won the war but he was killed on his way back.

When the Oba realised that Uselu people would react violently if Iken failed to return from the war front, he decided to make the position of his son a permanent one to enable him assume full responsibility of the ruler of Uselu. He therefore conferred on him the title of Edaiken (Edayi Ni Ken) that is the person holding brief for Iken. The Palace of Edaiken was established there.

It has since that period become traditional that the first son of every Oba of Benin, is conferred with the title of Edaiken and on coming of age, leaves his residence in the centre of the town for the Palace of Edaiken (Eguae-Edaiken) at Uselu where he remains until when he is called upon to ascend the throne as Oba.

The Edaiken of Uselu, like the Oba of Benin his father, also has various title Chiefs under him, apart from the central ones created by the Oba himself. Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen mother) is located at the lower part of Uselu. It was established by Oba Esigie for his mother Idia the Queen warrior who also exercised a lot of political influence in the administration of the kingdom.  

Oba Esigie started this tradition probably to forestall the conflict that would have arisen between his mother and himself over the exercise of political power. An almost independent domain of the Queen mother was therefore carved out for her.

Thus it has become strongly -established in Benin tradition that a year or two after the coronation of every Oba, he invests his mother with the title, lyoba (Queen mother) and sends her to reside at lower Uselu in Eguae-lyoba (Palace of the Queen mother). If it happens that the mother dies before the coronation of the son, the body is preserved for  a year or two after the coronation to enable the Oba confer the title lyoba on her and later bury her at Eguae-lyoba.

What befell Oba Ovoramwen was typical of the fate of other potentates of the 19th century, who dared to stem the tide of advancing imperialism. The punitive British expedition plundered the Benin kingdom and carried away its rich works of art to museums in Europe. The Benin Kingship regained its foothold when in 1914, when Oba Eweka II ascended  the throne.

His son Oba Akenzua II added respect to the place of the Oba in Benin tradition. Oba Akenzua struck a balance of stability and progress tradition and modernity. He was a father-figure to all. For his dimensional contributions to the development of his people and Nigeria, Oba Akenzua II received such  honours as  Justice of Peace, Knight of the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a honourary doctorate degree from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Today, though the Benin Kingdom has shrunk from  its original size, its  influence and  impact is still being felt all over the world. With a modern King, who schooled at  some of  the best  educational institutions in the world, the Benins have everything to be grateful. Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa of Benin, has brought with him to the throne of his ancestors, a combination of modern administrative skills and the extension of the frontiers of Benin Tradition and Culture. Under the present monarch, the tempo for the agitation for the return of stolen artifacts from Europe has been increased. Individuals, Corporate bodies, Federal and State governments have now joined the Benin monarch in asking for the return of these stolen artifacts.

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