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And they burnt down an empire

BRITAIN has expressed regret for the abuse of Kenyans by colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency and announced compensation for 5,228 survivors, but stopped short of apologising.

The deal was settled out of court after elderly Kenyan torture victims won the right in October to sue the British Government. “The British Government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament.

“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.”

The 5,228 claimants are due to receive 13.9 million pounds ($21.4m), about 2,600 pounds each,or about 340,000 Kenyan shillings.

Lawyers representing the veterans will separately receive six million pounds in fees for years of work on the case. London will also pay for a new memorial in Nairobi to the victims of torture and ill-treatment during the colonial era.

A British diplomat said Hague stopped short of offering a formal apology because that could be interpreted as the government accepting responsibility, which would have had legal implications. Mau Mau veterans danced, prayed and ululated to celebrate news of the agreement at an event in Nairobi.

The question I asked myself after reading the news item is, if the British could reward the Mau Mau in Kenya, how much are theygoing to pay for the government and people of the old Benin Kingdom?

For, what the British did to the Mau Mau in Kenya is a child’s play to what they did to the old Benin Kingdom,the last Empire in Nigeria.

Let me make a confession.

I am from Idanre in Ondo State. Idanre has over 400 villages and if Idanre were lucky enough to be in another part of this country, it shouldhave four local government by now  or  to be a  full-fledged senatorial zone on its own instead of  a single local government as it is now, sharing a seat with Ifedore local government in the House of Representatives.

Idanre has strong ancestral link with Benin Kingdom and for years, Edo language was the second language spoken among senior Idanre citizens.

Ufosu is one of the villages of Idanre and the village has a border post with the present Edo State. In the heart of governmentUfosu like almost all the villages in Nigeria does not exist with no energy, water,hospitals or roads. Ufosu was established by my late grandfather, Joseph OlatubiTeniola, after which he establishedOmolifon and Bajare villages. His Edo language was as fluent as his Yoruba language having once lived at Onikatamo in Lagos Island as a tailor.

He used to tell me beautiful stories about the Old Benin Kingdom before his passage in 1969.

The Benin Kingdom at its zenith stretched from Lagos in the West,along the coast of Nigeria to the River Niger in the East an area which equates to about a fifth of Nigeria’s current geographic area.

The Benin Kingdom dynasty is believed to have been founded in the 13th century and has a direct linage from the founders to the current Oba of Benin, Solomon ErediauwaII, who still holds strong political and spiritual power, in Edo and Delta states.

History has it that the Benin Kingdom was originally under the rule of Ogisos, meaning “King of the Sky”. When the last Ogiso died, the nobles and chiefs disagreed over who would be the next Ogiso,so the Benin sent a message to Ife to the Ooni of Ile-Ife, Oba Oduduwa,the mythic ancient first king of Ife. The Benin pleaded with him to send them a king; eventually Oduduwa sent to them his grandson, Prince Oranmiyan. When Oranmiyan came to Benin, he struggled with the culture and customs of the Benin people. However, before leaving Benin,Oranmiyan had a son, Eweka, by Princess Erewinde who could not talk. When Oranmiyan heard of this,he sent to him seven marbles for the child to play with. One day,as the prince was playing, one of the marbles broke. He immediately said “owomika!” or “eweka”, meaning “I succeeded!” He immediately became the first true Oba of Benin, Oba Eweka I. Oba Eweka was the first to reject the title of the native Benin “ Ogiso” and took the title “Oba”, meaning ‘king’ in the Yoruba language. Allegedly Oba Eweka later changed the name of the city Ile-Binu,the capital of the Benin kingdom to “Ubinu”. This name would be reinterpreted by the Portuguese as “Benin” in their own language. Around 1470, Ewuare changed the name of the state to Edo.

This was about the time the people of Okpekpe migrated from Benin City. The Portuguese visited Benin City around 1485. Benin grew rich during the 16th and 17th centuries due to the slave trade with the Dutch and the Portuguese, as well as through the export of tropical products. The Bight of Benin’s shore was part of the “Slave Coast” from where many West Africans were sold to slave who enticed them to sell able-bodied men into bonded servitude. In the early 16th century the Oba sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the King of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin. Some residents of Benin could still speak a pidgin Portuguese in the late 19th century. Many Portuguese loan words can still be found today in the languages of the area.

The Ancient Benin Empire, as with the Oyo Empire which eventually gained political ascendancy over even Ile-Ife, gained political strength and ascendancy over much of what is now old Mid-Western and Western Nigeria, with the Oyo Empire bordering it on the west, the Niger river on the east, and the northerly lands succumbing to Fulani Muslim invasion in the North. Interestingly, much of what is now known as Western Iboland and even Yorubaland was conquered by the Benin Kingdom in the late 19th century – Agbor (Ika), Akure, Owo and even the present day Lagos Island, which was named “Eko” meaning “War Camp” by the Bini.

The present day Monarchy of Lagos Island did not come directly from Ile-Ife, but from Benin, and this can be seen in the traditional attire of the Oba of Lagos and his white cap High Chiefs, and in the streets and area names of Lagos Island which are Yoruba corruptions of Benin names (Idumagbo, Idumota, Igbosere,IgaIdunganran, etc.).

Till he wasassasinated a few months ago, the late Onimole of Lagos,High Chief KayodeAdeshina, cousin to Murphy Ojikutu, Mrs.DerinOsoba,GbengaTiamiyu and Major General Leo Ajiborisha wore traditional dresses similar to the ones worn by the High chiefs of Benin.

By the last half of the nineteenth century Great Britain had become desirous of having a closer relationship with the Kingdom of Benin.Several attempts were made to achieve this end, beginning with the official visit of Richard Burton in 1862. Following that was an attempt to establish a treaty between Benin and the United Kingdom by Hewtt, Blair and Annesley in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively.

However, these efforts did not yield any results. Progress was finally made by Vice-Consul H.L Gallwey’s visit to Benin in 1892.

Mr.  ERIC TENIOLA, a former director at the presidency, wrote from Lagos.


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