Benin, kingdom of the sky-kings

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This piece is in response to Femi Fani-Kayode’s article,’ Who Are The Yoruba?’

By Ambrose Osawe

Benin, once known as Igodomigodo, was the kingdom of rulers who regarded themselves as sky-kings, those whose divine rule is derived from the sky – Ogiso. At the eclipse of this dynasty, there was still no authentic heir to the throne, Owodo; the last of the Ogisos was desperate for a successor. His only heir, Ekaladerhan, being the son of an unfavoured queen (Arukho), had little or no prospect of succeeding his father as he was entrapped in a web of palace intrigues with the sole aim of depriving him succeed his father.

A plot purported to be the wish of the gods was eventually hatched to eliminate him.

The executioners, sensing intrigue and betrayal, spared his life. He secretly sojourned westward into a community the Binis called Uhe (Ife).  At Uhe (Ife), he assumed the title of  Oduduwa (I have sought my path of prosperity).
Back home, the last of the Ogisos died without producing a heir to his throne. During the period of interregnum, a republican called Evian as administrator of the kingdom was succeeded by Ogiamien who became overzealous and ambitious. He wanted to perpetuate Evians hegemony in
Benin. In order to sustain the age old tradition of primogeniture, the elders resolved to set up a search party to trace the whereabouts of Ekaladerhan, the only surviving heir of Ogiso Owodo.

The elders, headed by Oliha, who were opposed to the overbearing nature of Ogiamien, were resolute to invite Ekaladerhan home to take over his rightful position as heir apparent. It became evident that the system of succession (father to son) had been the culture of the Binis since inception. It is therefore obvious there was an existing kingdom under the rule of the Ogisos before the establishment of Eweka I dynasty.

It is also beyond doubt that this practice had been with the Binis before the establishment of the present dynasty of which Erediauwa is the 38th Oba in an unbroken succession since Eweka I in 900AD.

A delegation of nobilities, under the leadership of Oliha, eventually arrived at Ile-Ife and implored Ekaladerhan to return to Benin. At the time the emissaries reached him, he yelled in excitement, ‘Ewore ka,’ meaning the nucleus or the source, heart or soul of the flow will never go dry. He was assured of his safety and the hope of making him the ruler of the kingdom. The aged prince refused the invitation and promised that he would rather delegate power to one of his sons.

*Oba of Benin

*Oba of Benin

Ekaladerhan’s refusal to honour the elders’ invitation could be subject to many interpretations. Firstly, he must have become so old that  he felt it unreasonable to move to Benin. Secondly, he had adapted himself to the culture of his new environment that he would prefer to remain.

He was, in fact, the leader of the community as a result of his ingenuity and prowess in all aspects of community enterprise.

Thirdly, he probably wanted to abide by the pledge he made that he would not set his foot on the Benin soil again.

However, Ekaladerhan entrusted his son, Oranmiyan, into the care of Oliha who had promised to ensure his protection. Oranmiyan’s reign in Benin was short-lived. His departure from Benin was dictated by two factors. One, he was greatly embarrassed by the opposition of Ogiamien and his adherents.

Two, Oranmiyan’s cultural background was in conflict with the custom and tradition of Binis.

On his way back to Ile-Ife, Oranmiyan had a short stay at Ego where he impregnated Erhinmwinde, the daughter of the Enogie. This affair resulted in the birth of Eweka 1.

Femi Fani Kayode’s write up in Sunday Vanguard of May 26, 2013 at  pages 20-21 entitled, ‘Who are the Yoruba People?,’ was quite interesting.

But while discussing the Ife-Benin relationship, like some others before him, he too fell into a similar error by referring to old Benin Empire as one of the kingdoms established by Oduduwa’s progeny. He also wondered how the name Yoruba came about. Mr. Femi Fani Kayode, a lawyer and former minister, is probably influenced by a vengeful clique of revisionist theorists and court
jesters commissioned to deliberately rewrite the history of the Yoruba vis-à-vis Ife/Benin relationship to assuage the hurt ego of some monarchs in search of contemporary political relevance. History has today, therefore,  become an intellectual pawn in the pen and armour of ethnocentrics as forerunners of empire builders and irredentist adventurers.

I would, therefore, proceed by avoiding historical pitfalls which has become the lot of some bubbling Afrocentrics who seize every opportunity to re-invent myths as favourable facts of history.

YORUBA is not originally a Yoruba word. Rather, it is a corruption of Iyoya rruoba (I have gone to pay my homage to the Oba). It is a Bini word corrupted into Yoruba which Fani Kayode queried. He wrote “yet the fact of the matter is that the word ‘Yoruba’ has no meaning in our language or any other language that is known to man.…  For all we know it could even be a deep and ancient insult….”

Ife sources are founded on a mythology of how Oduduwa descended by the use of a chain from the sky and, dispatched his seven  sons to found the various Yoruba kingdoms including that of Benin but they are not able to prove whether they are talking about Orunmila or Oduduwa (Ekaladerhan).Benin was never a kingdom created by Oduduwa; rather, the kingdom had existed long before the coming of Oranmiyan who impregnated ERINMWINDE, the daughter of Enogie of Egor, and gave birth to Eweka 1, the founder of the present dynasty in Benin.

On  Erediauwa, Professor Jacob Olupona,  in his book, ‘Ile-Ife: City of 201 gods’,  launched on Wednesday, December 12, 2012, at the Institute of

International Affairs, Lagos, wrote, in part: “The story established the sacred origin of Benin kingship …a kingship relationship between Benin and Ife kingdoms”. Benin later took on a more radical form of a sacred kingship than that which exists in Ile-Ife. Benin became an obsolete monarchy, with the first son of the reigning Oba named as the heir apparent.

This was not a later development, it was for this purpose a search party went to look for Oduduwa. Benin does not owe its origin to Oranmiyan.

Benin (Beny) is a Portuguese name after which was named the Bight of Benin in view of its political, economic influence and value by the Portuguese on trade missions.

“Ile-ibinu, the land of anger,” that  Prof. Olupona claimed had become Benin’s permanent name is in no way applicable.

Oranmiyan  was not taken to Benin  to change any of the existing traditions. He was in no position by any stretch of imagination to change the name of the kingdom from Igodomigodo to Ile-Ibinu.

However, no parent would abandon a dangerous and turbulent project and  request his son to take over.

A transplanted Bini/Yoruba origin in transit, whose grip on the social/cultural life of the people was fragile, could not suddenly assume the position of a magnificent ‘patron saint’ whose imprecate profanity becomes an insignia for a rooted kingdom that flourished centuries before. And what is the existing anthropological support for adaptation of a foreign name for an unconquered people of a different culture who speak a different language? The same concept is applicable in the choice of name by Oranmiyan’s son who later assumed the title of Eweka. Eweka I was now a product of Benin socio-cultural environment which means he was able to speak in his mother tongue. He was never brought up in the Yoruba environment. It was more likely his utterance was in Benin language, EWOREKA, which his father chose for him instead of a foreign word, Owo mika, adulterated as Eweka  that  is more relevant in meaning to the circumstances of his choice as Oba.

Nevertheless, the Yoruba influence in Benin is more in the areas of worship of deities, Shango, Ogun,  Sonpona, Orunmila which filtered into Benin over the years including Ogboni cult which is still very vibrant in Benin. Binis culturally practice ANCESTRAL worship. Worship of deities was borrowed from the Yoruba. Ancestors are the gods they serve.

During the reign of Ewuare the Great in the 13th century, the city was renamed Edo. The Portuguese, during the reign of Esigie in the 15th century, called the city Beny (Benin) (Papiva da Beny) which in Portuguese meant broad road of the city of Benin.

Papiva was corrupted to Akpakpava, the road that once housed the Catholic Cathedral established in the 15th century, now known as Aruosa Church where the Oba occasionally worships.

Professor Olupona raised a pertinent issue when he asserted that “…the institution of sacred kingship ….is part of the royal cult of Benin mysticisms, indeed more than any other kingship system in Nigeria. Benin rituals, art and ideology of kingship demonstrate the importance of sacred power for the preservation of kingship.”

He continued “…part of Benin’s continuing enigma is that the city’s centre cannot be unfolded, especially by outsiders, a dilemma that caused Oranmiyan (an outsider) to vacate the throne and replace himself with a son born of
a Benin woman (an insider).  The inherent tension in the “insider-outsider” conflict remains part of Benin’s identity today”.

The professor’s remark merely confirms the fact that at no time did the Binis  make the mistake of transplanting an outsider for such an important assignment after a long history of the practice of primogeniture (of a son succeeding his father). In actual fact, it was in sustenance of this tradition that a search team was dispatched in search of Ekaladerhan who later assumed the title of Oduduwa.

Still, on the Ife/Benin relationship, the American-based professor of history wrote “…… a kingship relationship between Ife and Benin, although Benin later took on a more radical form of sacred kingship than that which exists in Ile-Ife. … Benin became an absolute monarchy with the son as the heir apparent whereas in Ile-Ife the kingship rotates among its ruling lineages…”

If in Ile-Ife the kingship rotates among its ruling lineages, it means it is still  passing through the traditional crucible to attain a later, more acceptable monarchical system where the throne passes from father to son as practiced in Benin and parts of Europe like Britain, Netherlands, Spain etc., as relics of absolute monarchy.

Every system has its checks and balances. Benin system, for example, allows the heir apparent to be one of the seven kingmakers, while the Ezomo is third in the hierarchy after the Oba, and the Iyase, with his kingdom at Uzebu, doubles as the general  officer commanding the Benin forces at Obadan. This was a form of a diarchy which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first  president, was proposing in 1974 as a system to curb military incursion into political power.

In my rejoinder to Zik’s proposal for which he was grateful, I reminded him that  diarchy had been in our traditional system as far back as the 13th century during the reign of Ewuare and that it was not  an innovation. I also reminded him that military incursion had  been in our traditional system of governance. I told  him of how at the death of Atiba, Alafin of Oyo, in 1859 and was succeeded, contrary to custom, by his son Adelu, the crown prince, the powerful Are Onakankanfo of Ijaye, in defence of the tradition and  constitution, rose to defend the constitution as a war general.

In the true sense of it, this was the first attempted military coup in Africa and it was in Yoruba land. The powerful Are of Ijaye refused to recognize Adelu as Alafin for he ought to have committed suicide on the death of his father in accordance with tradition.

This eventually compounded the Yoruba wars similar to the 30 years of the war of Europe of the 17th century.

Africa, indeed the black race, has its history of origin, empires, kingdoms and nation-building before the coming of the white men.

Recently, Professor Wole Soyinka was at the palace of the Oba of Benin in pursuit of his project : The meeting of two empires (powers): Benin and Portugal,  in the early 15th century when the pope, by the Papal bull of demarcation, divided the world between Spain and Portugal, the then two world powers. This act enabled them discover other empires and founded new settlements in their imperial and mercantile quest to conquer the world of the astronomers.

Benin, which fell within the axis of the Portuguese, was the first place within what is now Nigeria, in Africa to be visited by any European in 1478.

Ukuakpolokpolo Erediauwa the Oba of Benin in his book: ‘I remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant’, wrote in chapter 36, at page 205: “…Before the advent of Oranmiyan, the ‘kings’ that ruled the people who became known as Edo or Benin were called ‘Ogiso’ derived from the description Ogie n’ oriso (meaning king in heaven). This is to confirm that the old Benin Empire had long flourished ever before the recall of Ekaladerhan. This was the situation that led to the relationship between Ife and Benin in which Oduduwa a Benin prince once known as Ekaladerhan had to send his last son Oranmiyan as his successor to the Benin throne, having established fully his roots and tentacles in Ile-Ife … Ife people today perform a ritual festival that re-enacts the events that caused the original settlers including their village head to flee from Ife when Ekaladerhan (or Oduduwa) became the head of the community”.

In 1897, the British conquered Benin, dethroned the monarch and exiled him to Calabar. The monarch, Ovonramwen, later settled into normal life.
He had additional children partly of Efik descent. If back home there was probably no resilient traditional institution to recapture the past when he died in 1914 and a  team was dispatched to search for his children, though of Efik cultural background, would it be correct or proper to record that the Binis had asked the Obong of Calabar to send them a prince to rule over them? This analogy would draw a parallel in Ife/Benin relationship and assist contemporary historians of ethnocentric bias a more acceptable view of the origin of the Benin monarchy.

When Femi traced the Yoruba route of migration from Egypt/Saudi Arabia through Bornu to the present day Western Region of Nigeria, the abode of the Yoruba, little perhaps did he know about the recent discovery of  Igbale Aiye. This community, located in Akpotoku Ketu (commune de ketou), Republic of Benin, is said to be 450,000 years old.

It is also projected in significance to host the first inhabitants of the planet earth “where the builders of the pyramid of Egypt came from”.

The success of this project, sooner or later, will reverse all existing Eurocentric views about Africa as the “Black continent”.

The kingdom of the sky-kings was Igodomigodo. During the era of the warrior kings, it became Edo and later Benin Empire expanding as far as Republic of Benin, Lagos to the west and across the Niger to Onitsha in the east. The Oba of Benin starting from Ogiso dynasty was known as Ukuakpolokpolo Omo n’ Ogie, i.e., the anointed, processed and purified.

The subsidiary kings were known simply as Ogie … of this or that.

After the amalgamation and the creation of provinces, the traditional rulers of Western Region generally were referred to as Obas for the administrative convenience of the colonial masters. Bight of Benin was descriptive of Benin’s political and economic influence in pre-colonial Africa. The Oba is still referred to as Omo. Benin pre-historic events are on display every year at the Oba’s yearly Ugie festivals. Since it is a yearly traditional ritual, it is a living history to which all are always invited.

*Osawe, a journalist and historian, was a member of the House of Representatives in the botched Third Republic.

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