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By Dr. Uyilawa Usuanlele (Last update February 19, 2022)

Language And Unity Of the Edo People.

The Edo people exist in various groups, but are conscious of their common identity as one people bound by a common history, culture and language. The groups, which are today referred to as EDO, are the Benin, Esan, Afenmai, Ora, Akoko Edo and Owan in Edo state. But there are other groups in Ondo, Delta and Rivers states, who for political reasons shy away from being identified as Edo, but accept the nomenclature of “Edoid” language speakers. As a result the Edo people lack the necessary group cohesion and demography to critically affect their own development in Nigerian politics.

What has made it difficult for us to achieve our much desired unity is the misfortune we suffered under colonial rule which employed and emphasized divide and rule more against the Edo people. Due to our valiant resistance to British incursion, the Benin Kingdom and its traditional institution were viewed as ideological obstacles to achievement of British objectives. Since the Oba was a rallying point of Edo people, the British deported Oba Ovonramwen and argued “that the power of his juju is such that it would be dangerous to allow him return”. With this development, they had a freer hand in dividing further the Edo people and privileging some groups over others, which further drove a wedge between them.

Other Nigerian groups like the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo had their languages developed into standard lingua franca by both the colonial administration and Christian missionaries and were thus enabled to use their languages to promote their own unity. The Edo people were not so lucky. Our language was not only discriminated against, there was even an attempt to impose Yoruba language on Edo people. In 1914 Bishop Tugwell of CMS recommended the introduction and use of Yoruba as the lingua franca in Benin and Delta Provinces and was adopted by the CMS and supported by James Watt, District Commissioner of Benin Province. In fact the chief of Igarra in Akoko Edo was fined fifteen shillings in 1917 by the District Commissioner for his failure to speak Yoruba in court. But our people resisted the imposition of Yoruba, embraced English and still struggled to promote Edo language by developing its orthography and grammar on their own. They formed Institute for Home-Benin Improvement comprising Benin, Esan, Afenmai, Ora, Agbor, Igbanke and Sobe people in 1932 to promote Edo unity and development. This institute metamorphosed into the Edo National Union in the 1940s and had Chiefs Anthony Enahoro (Esan), T.J Akagbosu (Afenmai), Gaius Obaseki (Benin), and M.N. Banmah (Ora) amongst others in the executive council. These prepared the grounds for the latter agitation for the creation of Midwest region for the unimpeded development of Edo people and their culture.

But these groups, to develop the language because of more pressing political problems of the time did not much. Though some individuals and missionary agents continued to produce books in the local dialects, they were insufficient to promote the language and develop large body of literature. Due to lack of support and promotion by the colonial government, not one of the dialects of Edo language was standardized and promoted as a lingua franca. The various dialects developed marginally and various groups with the assistance of some later missionary agencies (interested only in evangelization) competed amongst themselves to include them in school curriculum in the areas where they are spoken. As a result of this politicization, the dialects could not develop further and have become instruments of disunity.

The struggle for creation of Midwest and later squabbles over resources and amenities in the new region in the early independence era further detracted our people from addressing the language problem. Benin and Urhobo languages, which the federal government employed for national radio broadcast from Ibadan, were never seriously promoted locally. Rather competition to promote various dialects have continued to prevail and suspicion continue to trail any attempt at adopting and promoting any one as the standard language and lingua franca. Whereas the major and indispensable ingredient of nationhood is the existence of a literary language which more than any other factor cement people together. So long as we are unable to adopt a lingua franca and standardize it for literary and other communicative uses, so long will unity and development within and without Nigeria continue to elude us. It is time to put parochialism aside. The Jews are what they are today, because they were able to resurrect a dead language-Hebrew- and promote it to forge nationhood.

Dr. Uyilawa Usuanlele, one of the founders of Institute for Benin Studies.

Source: Institute Of Benin Studies.

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