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The coup of 1914

By Ambrose Osawe

*Oba of Benin
*Oba of Benin

The Pope, by the Papal Bull of Demarcation, divided the medieval world between Spain and Portugal. The old Benin Empire was in the sphere that belonged to Portugal. In 1485, during the reign of Oba Esigie, the Portuguese visited Benin and marveled at her ancient political organization, native technology, arts and the sophistication of her ancient economic and social enterprise. This visit developed into mutual exchange of diplomatic deals between the old Benin Empire and Portugal in almost all aspects of human interactions.

The English explorers never really visited Benin until 1892, 31 years after they colonized Lagos in 1861. The Portuguese and Dutch sources on Benin highlighted a great empire of great kings whose traditional administration and military organization were as sophisticated as those of European states of Portugal, Spain, Netherlands and England of medieval Europe.

However, when the English explorers got to Lagos at the middle of the 19thc, they still met relics of Benin arts and culture in its naval camp (Eko), Benin word for Lagos founded during the reign of Oba
Orhogbua in early part of the 17thc. They heard about (Idumwonta or Idumota) evening settlement for itinerant sailors and Bini words like (Ighayarruoba) meaning ‘I am again to pay homage to the sailing Oba of Benin’. The word ‘Ighayarruoba’ was later corrupted into Yoruba, today’s regional epithet for the dominant Yoruba speaking nation.

Thus, when the English explorers created Lagos colony, their first political act was to destroy any other external influence including that of Benin, Spanish/Brazilian relics prevalent in Lagos. The British later, deliberately, generated crisis in the Lagos ruling houses by her policy of divide and rule and it became easy to colonize Lagos.

At the inauguration of the Niger coast protectorate after the dislodgement of the Royal Niger Company from their various trading posts, attention was now focused on the activities of the coastal kings whose monopoly over trading rights posed a threat to the economic survival of the colonizers and a big challenge to their political interest in the West African sub-region.

Since the Berlin conference of 1884, there had been stiff competition between the participants especially the British and the French over the acquisition of African territories.
With the coming of the explorers, missionaries and the growth of legitimate trade, penetration into the hinterland was intensified.

Ill-advised trip
Through the prosecution of wars, proclamation of  treaties and executions of commercial and mercantile agreements, the colonizers held African nations by the jugular.
Vice – Consul Gallway,  after strenuous entreaties in a treaty of 1892 in which Oba Ovonranmwen’s chief signed when the Oba declined, Ovonranmwen was accused by the British Consuls and traders of violating the terms of that treaty and obstracting trade. It was this situation that gave rise to the bold attempt of the Acting Commissioner and Consul-General Phillips in his ill-advised trip into

Benin in January of 1897 against the Oba’s wish and advice for him to delay or postpone his trip to Benin especially during the time of Igue festivals.
Eventually, there was a clash of interest. This resulted in the so called Benin massacre of 1897. Professor Igbafe in his book, Nemesis of Power,  puts it thus:

“… The claims of this fool-hardiness was that the Phillips party was fired upon by Benin soldiers in ambush who had been sent to intercept Europeans attempting to reach Benin City by force”.
Preparation for the First World War of 1914 was in the offing. In Africa the  war was for the European to consolidate the gains of Berlin conference of 1884. France had exchanged with Germany, Cameroons for Morocco.

The West African Regiment Forces quartered in Calabar now the headquarters of the Niger Delta Protectorate was placed on alert as Germany then had mandatory control over the affairs of the Cameroon once controlled by France.
Ovonranmwen,  who seemed to have lived a normal life in Calabar, suddenly took ill in January of 1914, reported of an undisclosed and undiagnosed ailment.

Non-royal burial
Unlike in other cases there was no medical report of such a high profile political prisoner. He was, against tradition of his people, hurriedly given a non-royal burial in Calabar.
Thus, when the story of the amalgamation of 1914 is to be told as we celebrate the centenary, we should not forget that the 1914 amalgamation of the North and South was possible because of the
expected death of Oba Ovonranmwen in 1914.

To ensure that there should be a smooth installation of the amalgamation, Ovonranmwen was hurriedly buried in Calabar without releasing his body for burial in Benin. His son Aiguobasinmwin was quickly recalled from hiding to succeed his father  in order to have an equivalent paramount king commensurate with what was obtainable in the North.

However, this led to the deportation of Oba Ovonranmwen to Calabar where he died. The deposition of the Benin Oba and his deportation to Calabar created a big and unusual vacuum never experienced in the history tradition and culture of the Binis. A situation where an Oba after his demise (joining his ancestors) was succeeded beyond his son the heir apparent (Edaiken) who right from birth is prepared to succeed his father at the appropriate time was the culture and practice for over a 1,000 years before the coming of the British.

Interregnum
A strange situation where a reigning Oba was held in captivity and the heir apparent Aiguobasinmwin in hiding was traumatic for a people whose cultural and traditional values hardly envisaged an alternative.
The Oba and the heir apparent therefore cannot be separated from the traditional government of a people whose cultural values revolve round the Oba and the established traditional institutions.

Even though the British colonial regime attempted to run the affairs of Benin without the Oba by setting up the Benin Native Council of Benin Chiefs during the 17 years interregnum, the end result was like scratching the surface of the iceberg or merely papering over  cracks.
Long before the massacre had provided a justification for punitive action, commercial interests in the Delta had been urging the British colonial government to opening the hinterland by taking over Benin.

The colonial government was increasingly inclined to heed such representations. However, the fall of Benin even though it was the last major action in the British occupation of Southern Nigeria and marked the end according to Michael Crowther in his book: The Story of Nigeria as one of the greatest and most colorful of West African Kingdoms, its fall nevertheless concretized the amalgamation of 1914 which of course was a coup against the various ethnic nationalities.

Political prisoner
What emerged was a concocted amalgamation of existing ethnic nationalities conceptualized in the imagination of the colonizers, even the name Nigeria was casual. Margaret Perham, Lord Lugard’s mistress,  had,  over a cup of tea; lest I forget sort of, named the territory ‘Nigeria’.

The name Nigeria was derived from the River Niger, a  river that flows through the length and breadth of Lugard’s administered territory inhabited by a concentration of Africans and a multitude of diverse ethnic nationalities. The word Niger is a latin word for black. The River Niger and Nigeria are fortuitous of a race of black people.

The partition, scramble and quest for the wealth and territories of African nations which started at Berlin conference of 1884 was even until the First World War of 1914 still a burning issue. It was an era of ‘what I have I keep’ and a way of preparing for the imminent war.
Calabar was at the flank of the disputed territory of Cameroon occupied by the Germans and a threat to the government of the Niger Delta protectorate now under the imperial rule of the British monarch.

CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

 


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