The Oba of Benin Kingdom: A history of the monarchy
Who is the Oba of Benin Kingdom in Nigeria and why is he so important to so many people?
Benin City, Nigeria – A wooden staff thumps on the landing in front of the temporary palace. “Long live the king!” bellows Chief Osa, as he raises his fist. The sun reflects off the golden decorations on his horn-shaped red hat.
The other Iwebo chiefs who have followed Osa in a procession onto the palace grounds and now stand behind him say “Isee” in agreement.
Then Osa and Chief Osuan, the crown prince’s escorts on his way to the ascension, enter Usama palace, a nondescript bungalow on fallow terrain in the centre of town.
It is 8am and it will be at least seven hours until Crown Prince Eheneden Erediauwa shows himself in public, but his subjects have already come out in great numbers. Thick crowds clog the roads in the heart of Benin City in the south of Nigeria, in expectation of the coronation of the new Oba of the centuries-old Benin Kingdom.
Coronation day in Benin – not to be confused with the West African country that used to be known as Dahomey – on October 20 was preceded by 10 days of ceremonies and rites.
Banners with the crown prince’s portrait and flags with his name fluttered all over the city, the pavements received a new daub of black and white paint and the lawns in front of the cultural centre were trimmed. It didn’t matter which local radio or TV station you tuned into, all of their bulletins started with what the crown prince had been up to that day on his way to the throne.
“The Oba is a father to all of us,” says 24-year-old student of mass communication Esosa, who left home at 5am on coronation day to get a good view of the proceedings.
‘The king’s court is as large as the city of Haarlem’
Nigeria is a constitutional democracy that elects its representatives.
But the 250-plus ethnic groups that have been gathered into one country by the British colonisers also acknowledge their own traditional rulers. Of these leaders, the monarch of the Bini people of Benin is among the most respected. But what kind of power does the Oba of Benin wield? And what is his influence on the development of Nigeria’s Edo State, of which Benin City is the capital?
When the Portuguese first set foot there at the end of the 15th century, Benin was a city-state in the middle of the rainforest that surpassed many late medieval European cities in urban development and where the streets were lit at night by palm oil lanterns.
“The king’s court is as large as the city of Haarlem, and … divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and rooms of the courtiers, and … galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam,” the Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper wrote in 1668 about the Oba’s court, based on accounts of explorers and missionaries who had visited Benin.
At the time, the Benin Kingdom was at the height of its military and political power and stretched far into the east and west of modern-day Nigeria.
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That supremacy strengthened Benin’s position towards the European intruders, explains history professor Osarhieme Benson Osadolor of the University of Benin.
“The Oba maintained his independence despite pressure from the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.”
There was, however, a lively intercontinental trade relationship, during which Europeans provided the Oba with firearms and other items in exchange for slaves that his army brought back after their conquests.
Resistance to the British
From the 19th century onwards the empire went downhill. The slave trade had been replaced by the trade in palm oil and the Oba enforced a personal export monopoly that did not make him popular among his chiefs and the general population, says the historian.
Therefore, when Oba Ovonramwen kept resisting annexation by the British – as one of the few local leaders who still maintained their independence at the time – he did not receive the usual military back-up from his chiefs.
On February 18, 1897, the once glorious city fell within a day. In the process, the British set a large part of Benin ablaze – though only after ransacking the palace’s treasures, of which the famous bronze sculptures can be seen in the British Museum to this day.
Following the defeat, Oba Ovonramwen was banished to Calabar town, not far from Nigeria’s border with Cameroon.
But the Oba’s opposition to Benin’s invaders contributed to the almost mythical status of the monarchy in modern times, says Osadolor: “He wasn’t popular at the time he came to the throne, but his resistance made him hugely popular afterwards.”
Contemporary subjects of the Benin Kingdom often quote the royal resistance as one of the reasons for their appreciation of the monarchy.
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After Ovonramwen died in exile in 1914, the British, who needed a traditional leader for their indirect rule, convinced his son to ascend to the throne. This great-grandfather of the current crown prince had none of the powers of his father, but was presented by the colonial rulers as the new authority, Osadolor explains: “The Oba had become a ceremonial position, but people saw him as the one deciding.”
Even after independence in 1960 the monarch did not regain his previous absolute power. So, on what then is his influence on Benin society based?
A long chain of coral beads, a gift from the Oba, decorates the bare chest of barrister Godwin Aigbe, the Enogie of Ukhiri. It is two days until the coronation and together with the other traditional leaders in the village of Useh, the chief is waiting for the arrival of the edaiken, the crown prince. It is ancient custom that the crown prince choose the name he will answer to as Oba in this dense little forest in front of which an expectant crowd has gathered – a name that won’t be divulged until his coronation.
As a lawyer, Aigbe explains how the Oba’s authority relates to Nigerian law. “In our legal system we recognise traditional law, as long as it is not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.” Simply put: the constitution recognises customary law, and as long as he remains within the boundaries of the law, the Oba’s voice still counts for something. He can mediate, but not adjudicate.
“The Oba settles disputes and is a peacemaker. He cannot legally punish anyone, but he will make you realise when you have committed an offence and you will learn from it,” the chief adds, as he tightens the white fabric wrapped around his waist.
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The Oba has some authority over land issues, when it concerns land owned by indigenes in the south of Edo State, and his decisions are quoted in regular court. To many Nigerians, property is a matter of life and death: land equals wealth and the possession of it is often their only pension plan.
In addition to that, the Oba’s subjects consult him about family feuds and community disputes. The inertia of the Nigerian justice system – the average length of a court case is four to 10 years – turns the relatively quick arbitration by traditional rulers into a welcome alternative form of justice.
That explains part of the Oba’s popularity in the modern Benin City society. But there is more.
“Our Oba stands above the parties,” cheers the plumber Osatohanmwen, as he sees the red and blue parasol covering the Oba moving through the crowd.
Kings are born not made
The woman next to him, who wears a dress sewn of fabric with the Oba’s portrait, agrees: “He is not into politics. That’s why we trust him.” A Bini proverb says that kings are born, not made. And citizens have so little confidence in the game of politics that they prefer a hereditary monarch whose appointment cannot be manipulated.
Not everyone in Benin is Bini. There are many other ethnicities living and working in the modern city, from Hausa and Igbo, to Ijaw and Bajju. That doesn’t matter, they say at the palace: the Oba is sovereign over all of them, and his impartiality exceeds his ethnic background. An Igbo man, they say, has come to the Oba for a ruling and was put in the right. But does everyone in the city feel as invested in the royal festivities as the Bini do?
In front of a student dormitory on the University of Benin campus, 20-year-old Linda is chatting with fellow students. The student of philosophy welcomes the state-wide day off the coronation has given her, but says she feels indifferent to the monarchy: “You see, I am Delta Igbo, and we have never had such centralised authorities. What the Bini call royal does not exist in my culture.”
On the other side of town in GRA, two friends having a beer under a mango tree are muttering about the lockdown of the streets in preparation for the ascension. Because of it, the traffic all over town has reached gridlock.
One of the men has not been able to go to work; the other one turned around halfway to an appointment and cancelled all others for the day. “Why must everything else stop because of the coronation?” he complains. “People at the palace think this coronation is the only thing going, so all of us go suffer. I am Esan, not Bini. What do I have to gain from their Oba? Let me just do my work I beg.”
To the Bini, their history and tradition are still very much alive. That much becomes clear on a visit to Chief Ogiamien’s red clay palace, some two kilometres away from the Oba’s. The single-storey building is one of the few of this stature in Benin City that survived the ravaging flames in 1897.
The Ogiamien were a rival dynasty defeated in the 13th century by Oba Ewedu. That military skirmish is usually commemorated by a mock battle between the current Ogiamien and the Oba-to-be, on his way to the coronation hall. This time, however, that tradition will not be honoured: the person holding this hereditary title vanished almost two decades ago, and no one knows where he is.
Under normal circumstances another representative of the Ogiamien family would have taken his place, explains Moses Igbineweka in the palace courtyard, where a shrine in the wall represents the presence of the ancestors, but the Ogiamiens have been in court ever since a dissident faction of the family went and crowned another man their leader. “Someone came to steal the title from us,” says Igbineweka, “so we cannot honour the tradition.”
He shakes his head over the actions of the self-appointed Ogiamien, who begrudged his exclusion from the royal ceremony and even went to court to stop the coronation process because of it, an injunction dismissed by the court of appeal. Igbineweka does, however, hope that the newly crowned Oba will observe another tradition.
According to him, as part of the 13th-century treaty between the warring dynasties, the Oba offered gifts to his former rival, including a royal stool, a tray of kola nuts, and a bronze staff. He points to a spot in the outer wall that used to be a doorway but is now bricked shut, calling it the gateway to heaven. Only the Oba may pass through this gate, which will be unblocked when the monarch pays a visit.
The representative of the Ogiamien family hopes that he will do so soon, with his offerings: “We are waiting for him.”
‘That’s a secret’
On the morning of the ascension, the ekasa dancers – a group of about 60 men – sit around with their green and red banners resting against them, waiting for the moment the drums start talking and they can perform their traditional dance, which may only be staged during the coronation process and at the burial of the queen mother.
The men – aged between 12 and way beyond retirement age – have some time to chat. But there is not much they can say.
Only people who speak the old Bini will understand.
What do the symbols on your banners stand for? “That’s a secret.”
What text are you singing while you’re dancing? “Only people who speak the old Bini will understand.”
In what way is your family related to the Oba? “We don’t speak about that.”
The practices surrounding the monarchy are rife with myths and taboos.
To many Bini, the Oba has a godlike status. When the previous king passed away, the whole of Benin kept silent about it for months, until the chiefs officially announced that ‘the chalk had broken’. According to Bini tradition, an Oba does not die.
The Bini may hold on to their customs, but that does not mean that traditions don’t change, says Princess Elizabeth Olowu, a sister of the late king. She is at her Benin home taking out the regalia she will wear at the coronation and trying on the coral-bead headgear.
She remembers her father, Oba Akenzua II, who ruled from 1933 until 1978, as a progressive man who refused to marry off his daughters at a young age, as was the custom, but sent them to school instead: “He abolished so many things, like the fact that he was not supposed to see his newborn children for three months after their birth. He figured one of the pleasures of being a parent is to see your children develop, so he put an end to that tradition.”
Another palace taboo concerned bronze casting: it was a craft women were forbidden to perform, since the Bini believed a woman would go barren if she handled the bellows. But then the princess told her father she was interested in casting bronze, to which he responded, ‘Why not?’
“He was sure I would succeed,” the princess, now 71-year-old, says.
The bronze casters saw their female pupil as an abomination, but couldn’t say much, because the Oba’s word is final. The princess would go on to become a well-known Benin artist.
“Culture is not static,” adds her daughter Peju Layiwola, who followed in her mother’s artistic footsteps. Does that mean that one day the Bini will welcome a female Oba to the throne? She smiles and shakes her head: no.
Apart from dancing and singing his praises, women hardly play a role in the Oba’s coronation ceremonies. They are also absent from the customary leadership structures. “Women traditionally face a lot of restrictions,” Layiwola admits. “Benin is still very much a patriarchal society.”
She does, however, point out the important women in the history of Benin, like Emotan, the market woman who warned a 15th-century Oba of a murder plot against him, and Idia, the 16th-century queen mother, who successfully went to war on behalf of her son. The Oba regularly commemorates them, Layiwola says, recognising the role of women in society: “Bini women are no pushovers, and the Oba acknowledges that.”
Lift a spell
The other influence the Oba has on his people is less easy to describe, because it is spiritual. Some believe the monarch possesses supernatural powers.
They are sure that ill fate will strike you if the Oba looks at you with angry eyes; one family even went to plead with the late Oba Erediauwa, the father of the present monarch, to lift a spell one of his predecessors had cast over their entire line. Although the majority of the population in Benin City describe themselves as Christian, many also believe in the indigenous spiritual customs.
We know our history and tell it to our children. That is what everybody should do
Criminals have found ways to abuse that belief. A large number of the Nigerian women trafficked into prostitution in Europe come from Benin City. And many of these victims are controlled by their fear of juju rituals.
Sociology and anthropology professor Kokunre Agbontaen Eghafona at the University of Benin acknowledges that superstitious beliefs play a role in trafficking, but argues that poverty and the patrilineal system, according to which daughters traditionally do not inherit, also play a part in women searching for prosperity abroad. “All the factors that gave rise to the problem must be adequately addressed. Our Obas have declared trafficking for prostitution as wrong, but the phenomenon has gone beyond traditional legislation. It is of global concern,” she says.
In other ways the monarchy does appear to affect society positively. The high degree of education and development of the royal family – the late Oba attended Cambridge University, his son the crown prince was an ambassador in several countries including Sweden and Angola – serves as an example to the Bini, who are known in Nigeria for their thirst for book learning and high levels of formal education.
It’s after 5pm when the crown prince, wearing a dress covered with coral beads said to weigh up to 20 kilogrammes, enters the coronation hall and one of the palace chiefs places the crown on his head. Only then is the new name of the monarch announced: Ewuare II.
“Named after Ewuare the Great, who had our city walls built in the 15th century,” says 26-year-old Owaeghiange, who is awaiting the Oba outside with thousands of others. The hairdresser effortlessly makes this historical reference, which is extraordinary in Nigeria, where history hasn’t been on the school curriculum for years.
“The Bini are not a traditional people, but we know our traditions. That is not the same thing,” says the young woman. “We know our history and tell it to our children. That is what everybody should do.”