By Victor Omoregie
THE Binis are a people known for their respect and adherence to their tradition and culture. All aspects of their lives is woven round its tradition and culture. As a pointer to this, their traditional rulers (Obas) have always upheld the tenets of the peopleâ€™s culture and this has made them legendary.
When officials of the British empire wanted to see Oba Ovoramwen as part of their expansionist policy, the request was turned down. The reason for the refusal was because the Oba was performing some religious and traditional duties and could not receive visitors at that time, especially foreigners. For this the British Empire directed that its armada should head towards the Benin Kingdom through the Gelegele port and destroy the kingdom.
In the protection of his people, culture and tradition, the Great Oba Ovoramwen defied the entire British empire army and held its army at bay for weeks. It took the mobilisation of other British troops along the West African coast to join in the battle before the Benin army was subdued. This event was the famous 1784 invasion of Benin by the British army.
The entire city was looted of its artifacts and sculptures, which today adorn private and public museums and the great king was sent on exile to Calabar. Despite the humiliation and defeat of his army, Oba Ovoramwen told his people to hold their heads high and await his return. He returned as Oba Eweka, Oba Akenzua and presently Oba Erediauwa.
In the month of December 1978, the Benin Kingdom and the entire world lost a great â€˜Lion Kingâ€™, Omo Nâ€™Oba Nâ€™Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Akenzua, who joined his ancestors.
It was a very sad period for the people of the Benin Kingdom. Oba Akenzua was a father, husband, spiritual leader, traditional & cultural repertoire, political analyst and a very just leader. Under his reign, Benin Kingdom experienced innovations and improvement in the lives of all who lived within the kingdom. His most trying time was during the Nigerian civil war, he diplomatically made sure all lives from both sides of the conflict were protected .
This was evident in the fact that not a single shot was fired or bomb exploded in Benin City. So upon the official announcement of the transition of Oba Akenzua, following the century old tradition, all males within the kingdom were mandated to shave the hairs off their heads, as a mark of respect. For persons living within the kingdom it was like asking for too much. A lot of such persons had to relocate and leave Benin City until the traditional ceremonies were over.
Enter Gani Fawehinmi. Earlier in the year, one Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Aburime had been wrongfully dismissed from the Nigeria Police over a case he handled. ASP Aburime aka â€˜Ogidiganâ€™ was a fearless officer who had served the Nigeria Police and as would have been expected, had stepped on toes in the course of his duties.
ASP Aburime choose Chief Gani Fawehinmi as his lawyer, based on his antecedents of defending the defenceless and a social crusader. The case had been running for quite some time and judgement was to be delivered in December. Which was why Gani found himself heading for Benin City. With the various myths and rumour surrounding what happens when a Benin monarch joins his ancestors, the number of visitors to Benin City reduced.
The flights into Benin City carried very few passengers. It was one of these flights, a Nigeria Airways (when the going was still good) plane that brought Chief Gani to Benin City. As told by Gani himself, he said his relatives and some close associates had pleaded with him to send another lawyer to represent him at the judgement. But in his characteristic stoic stance, he took the decision to come to Benin City.
At the Benin City Airport, there was a resident barber there to carry out the traditional mandate given to all males in the kingdom. On the day of Ganiâ€™s arrival, the Benin Airport had an unprecedented crowd.
They had not come to take flights out of Benin City, but to see the response and reaction of Gani to the issue of hair shaving. There was absolute silence as passengers disembarked from the Nigeria Airways plane that brought them from Lagos. After what looked like eternity Gani eventually emerged from the plane and to the surprise of all, asked where he could get a barber to shave his hair.
A lot of people around were taken aback. Some Benin palace chiefs that were around informed Gani that the act was not compulsory but just a mark of respect to a departed Oba. To the hearing of all present, Gani said that as an African and Nigerian, who respects the tradition and culture of a people, the only way he could pay his respects to a great king like Oba Akenzua was to shave his hair. He wished he could have done more.
Gani was later shown the barber that was stationed at the airport and had the entire hair on his head shaved clean. The media made news from that singular act by Chief Gani. However the most important message that the act carried was that people must respect their traditions, irrespective of where they come from.
Chief Gani showed that we were all one with that singular act. A lot of persons were expecting that Chief Gani, a known human rights crusader would object to the shaving of his hair, which was a violation of his rights.
To a lot of people, Chief Gani was known mostly for his human rights crusade and legal defence of the less privileged. To the Bini people, Chief Gani would be most remembered for his respect for their Oba and that is what is paramount.
As providence would have it, ASP Aburime won his case and Chief Gani was carried shoulder high from the Benin High Court through major streets of Benin by admirers who had thronged the court to hear the verdict of the case.
Later in the day, a grand reception was organised for Chief Gani at 2, Aburime street, New Benin, residence of ASP Aburime. What brought a majority of the people to the reception was to catch a glimpse of that â€˜man from Lagosâ€™ who has become a â€˜Benin manâ€™ with just one single mark of respect.