The unique position of the Oba

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Last Update August 4, 2020

"The unique position of the Oba has been aptly summarized by Bradbury in his hook, The Benin Kingdom pages 40-42 as follows:

"The sacred kingship is the focal point of the Benin political system. As the latest in the line of Kings descending from Eweka I, and the reincarnation of one of them the Oba has his own divinity. His person s surrounded with mystery. Before the coming Of British rule he left the palace only on important ceremonial occasions. It is forbidden (formerly under penalty of death) to say that he dies, sleeps, eats, or washes, all these ideas being expressed through metaphorical circumlocutions. The Oba is credited with all kinds of’ magical powers and the members Of certain wards in Benin City are expressly concerned with maintaining these.

Oba of Benin palace

"Formerly must of his time was taken up on State rituals of which the most important were the annual sacrifices to his ancestors and to his own head his head is equated with his good of had fortune and with the well-being of the kingdom, and the sacrifices to it are followed by the treatment of all parts of his body with medicines designed to strength him against the coming year. The procedure at state rituals dramatizes the order of procedure between and within chiefly and other ranks in the state; groups and individuals make obeisance to the king in order of rank and seniority. He himself is set apart from and above the rest on a raised dais occupied only by himself, his wives and children and the Ihogbe who are priests of his ancestors and his own head.

"Apart from the state rituals in Benin City the Oba maintains control over the cults of their deities, performed by many village communities ostensibly on his behalf. Those cults are directed to the spirits of former heroes in the state and in a few cases to particular aspects of past kings. The dates of annual festival in their honour must be approved by the Oba, who frequently provides regalia and sacrificial offerings and, in the case of the more important ones, sends someone to represent him. He fixes, too, the dates for the performance of the annual rites in connection with domestic cults at all of which the final prayers is for the Oba himself...

"The Oba, once installed, cannot in principle be deposed. War of succession that occurred in the past are explained in terms of uncertainty as to which of the deceased Oba’s son was the senior. It is the custom for each new Oba to make two or three of his immediately junior brothers the hereditary chiefs of villages within or (formerly) outside the kingdom. In the absence of sons the Oba may be succeeded by a brother

"Economic support for the palace organization and state rituals came from a variety of sources. Regular tribute of foodstuffs was levied twice yearly on all villages in the kingdom and in tributary areas and the Oba could call upon any village to provide labour for such tasks as building and repairing the palace. In addition special levies were made upon villages and on chiefs in Benin City when circumstances demanded sacrifices for the good of the nation. Apart from the regular collection of tribute through chiefs in Benin City, the Oba could send his own palace officials directly to the villages to make special levies. Each of the seven gates leading into the capital was guarded by a titled chief whose servant collected tolls from all persons entering and exacted from persons coming to trade their customary dues in proportion to the amount of produce they carried. In the trade with European the Oba had a monopoly of certain exports and he maintained a rigid control over all transactions. Fees from prospective title-holders were a further source of income and court fines were another...
In the last analysis the basis of the Oba’s power appears to lie in the traditional mystical values attaching to the sacred institution of kingship and to the eguae (palace). The latter is the hub of the nation. Individuals al! over the kingdom claim to belong to one or caber of the palace associations and the high position which anyone can aspire is to be ‘next to the Oba”, a claim which is made with some, degree of truth, by, and on behalf of, the heads of many groups within the State. Over a wide area outside the kingdom the ultimate validation of authority or of an institution or custom is that we brought it from BENIN” or that “the Oba gave it to us..”

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