By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin-City
The Enogie of Obazuwa and younger brother to the Oba of Benin, Prince Edun Akenzua, in this interview, gives an insight into the greatness of Oba Ovonramwen and how the centenary celebration coincided with that of Nigeria. Excerpts:
I believe people see it from different points of view. I believe government officials who proposed the celebration of this event are thinking of corporate Nigeria. As a country, we are 100 years old, therefore it is worth celebrating, but when you look at the so-called amalgamation, I don’t think it is anything to celebrate because it wasn’t done in the interest of Nigerians, it was done in the interest of the colonial masters.
The British did the amalgamation to give themselves an easy way of administering their new acquisition. During the Berlin conference and, 14 European powers converged and shared out the continent of Africa, the areas that became known as Nigeria fell under the British sphere of influence. When they said they are celebrating the centenary of our amalgamation, one thinks the amalgamation was our own achievement, something that we did; it wasn’t our achievement, it wasn’t done by us. If anybody is to celebrate that, to my mind, I think it is Lord Lugard and his descendants who should be celebrating because this is the country they named which is now 100 years.
Oba Ovonramwen’s death gave room for amalgamation
Lord Lugard, who was the governor, arrived and settled in the North where already there was a system established by Uthman Dan Fodio, the Sokoto Caliphate, and the Sultan was in charge of the emirs all over the North. The Uthman Dan Fodio regime had ceased to be but the machinery they set up was still there and it was quite suitable for what Lugard wanted because he wanted indirect rule; so he continued using that machinery.
That was one of the things that actually provoked the invasion of Benin in 1897. A number of people might think they wanted ivory, they wanted bronze, that was secondary because when Philip, who led the British exhibition to Benin, got to Benin area, before he came, he had sent an intelligence report between 1895 and 1896 to the British Home Office saying that they had to come to Benin and depose the Oba of Benin if what they were going to do will be successful.
What people thought he meant was the Oba did not want trade between his people and British agents but, strictly speaking, you don’t mount a war to depose the king of a foreign country just because of trade. Unknown to most people, the indirect rule which Lugard had in mind was what he wanted to extend to everywhere in the area they just acquired. Captain Philip had seen that there was no way this could be done without coming to provoke a situation that will lead to war between Benin and the British.
Philip wrote to the British Colonial Office saying they must invade Benin. He assured that there was plenty of reasons to believe that the value of the bronze and ivory they will find in the Benin palace will be enough to offset the cost of the war; it was another way of telling them that they were not going to loose anything in the war. So they came to provoke the Benin people. At the end of the war, they tried everybody including Oba Ovonramwen and could not find anything against him because the chiefs who were physically present at Ogbenewen where they killed Captain Philips and his six men were interviewed and they denied that the king sent them to kill the white men.
Some even said the Oba told them to go and clear the road and make it passable for the British people. What they told him was that they had set up a new administrative system in Calabar and he should go there and be exposed to it so as to know how to administer his people in future. They were cajoling him, they knew they will never allow him to come back, they controlled the means of movement at the time. So they took him away. They kept him in Calabar for 17 years. Thereafter, they made efforts two or three times to install another Oba in Benin; the Benin people of course resisted.
Lugard needed a powerful king through whom the British could introduce indirect rule in the South. They got to Lagos and precipitated problem between Dosunmu and Kosoko. The one they met that the people actually put there, they instigated another set of people against him and consequently removed him and put another one but he didn’t have authority over many areas in the South like the Sultan had in the North through the emirs.
They heard of another one, King Jaja of Opobo, they thought he could be it, they got to the place, they were not satisfied with him, they removed him, now they had Nana of Itsekiri. Nana was not the traditional ruler, he was only an influential businessman and they thought they might be able to use him, they didn’t succeed.
To remove Nana, they had to build a military cantonment in Sapele and it was from that cantonment that they invaded Ovonramwen in Benin. They knew he was the man who fitted the role like that of Sultan they wanted but he was also the man they hated because he had some high degree of independence, he was not subservient as they would have liked.
They were no longer comfortable, they needed to act fast to introduce indirect rule down South so they needed to do something about him and I have reasons to believe that they gave him the kind of treatment they gave to Abiola. My belief is reinforced by two events. During the centenary here which we did few years ago, I tried in Nigeria, UK, America to find the death certificate of Oba Ovonramwen.
The Public Office in London is very rich, there is nothing that happens in that country that you will not find evidence, marriage, death, birth and whatever; William Shakespeare’s birth certificate is there but the one of Ovonramwne was not there. You ask them, they say go to Nigeria, go to Ibadan in the archives, it is not there, go to Calabar, go everywhere, it is not there. That one, they have kept it quite close to their chest, they didn’t want to show it to anybody.
But then, there is a place called Etinam, Akwa Ibom State. In 1982 when the present Oba made his goodwill tour of the country, I was privileged to be one of those in his entourage. When we left Calabar, we visited Etinam and the Obong and they told us a story. They said they were the friends of Ovonramwen. They said years before, one of their princes came trading in Benin-City, took ill and died. So, they came from home to look for that prince.
This led them to Oba Ovonramwen who gave them chiefs to assist them to exhume their prince and they took the body home. Shortly after they got home, they heard that the Europeans had brought a big chief to Calabar. They knew what had happened to Jaja, to Nana and all of that; so they were wondering who was the big chief they had brought again. So, they decided to go to Calabar.
When they got to the place, to their great surprise, they discovered it was the same king who gave them all that help when they came to Benin to look for their dead son. From that moment, they became his friends and they were visiting him regularly. These people just visited him when they heard the story that the man was dead. During the visit, he was in good health, he was jovial, everything was fine with him but they just got back home only to hear that the man was dead. This is the second thing that convinced me that what they did to him in Calabar was similar to what they did to Abiola.
The British planned to invade Benin, depose the king and, after doing what they did, they couldn’t press forward with their indirect rule and then they had to eliminate him and having eliminated him, they went ahead to do the amalgamation which Lugard had wanted more than 20 years before. If Ovonramwen didn’t die, it would not have been possible for the British to amalgamate the Northern and Southern protectorates, and if that was not done, Lugard’s fiancée or girlfriend as they described her could not have named the area Niger area which, in turn, became Nigeria. Therefore, it was the death of Ovonramwen that created the country called Nigeria.