By Prisca Sam-Duru
Not many Nigerians have good grasp of the country’s history, especially those bordering on pre-independence struggles.
It was therefore a high mark for the Drama Club of the Atlantic Hall Schools, Poka Epe, for offering guests historical insight into the rise and fall of Benin through an enthralling stage performance of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, a historical tragedy written in English.
The play is written by one of Nigeria’s finest playwrights, the late Professor Ola Rotimi and directed by Atlantic Hall’s drama teacher, Mr Gboyega Jerome.
With appropriate sets and props, Benin attires and songs as well as cultural dances, the students’ breathtaking reenactment of Ola Rotimi’s play elicited a standing ovation from the mammoth crowd in attendance.
The name, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, meaning the rising sun that spreads over all, which is synonymous with the Benin history, through the eyes of Rotimi, chronicles the many travails of the then Oba of Benin Kingdom, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, perpetrated by political unrests characterising the period between 1879 and 1888. At that time, the colonial masters threatened the peace of the kingdom with their punitive expedition.
Overami, as he was also called, being the 35th Oba was the last Oba of the African Kingdom of Benin, also sometimes referred to as the Benin Empire.
For many years prior to Ovonramwen’s ascendance to the throne, British influence in the area has been expanding and strengthening but Benin remains independent. That independence, particularly the trade monopoly the Oba enjoys in the region, arouses the jealousy of elite colonial investors and businessmen. This leads to their determination to control Benin and its endowments.
However, powerful forces are arrayed against the king, particularly the Vice-Consul, James Robert Phillips played by Finutan Onanuga and Captain Gallwey (Temi Toluhi) of the Oil Rivers Protectorate. Their goal is the full annexation of Benin to the British Empire and the overthrow of the Oba who stands in their way. Phillips and his entourage, in 1896, attempt to meet with Oba Ovonramwen in Benin but are prevented from seeing the monarch who is occupied with performing important ceremonies at the time. Another expedition is launched despite warnings from the Oba advising them not to come as their visit coincides with the celebration of the annual Igue Festival; a time of much ceremony when all outsiders were encouraged to stay away.
The British refuse to postpone the visit until two months. Instead, Phillips sends the king his stick; a traditional sign of insult and a deliberate provocation. As a result, the visitors are massacred after Benin warriors ambush them, with only a few managing to escape.
The British launch a full-scale attack on Benin City which falls after eight days of fierce fighting. The Kingdom of Benin is destroyed, many inhabitants killed, the city looted and many valuable artifacts taken as trophies. The accused mastermind of the ambush and massacre of Captain Phillips and his party, Ologbosere acted by Okah David, is tried and hanged. Oba Ovonramwen who was earlier advised by Ifa priest (Jason Okpere) from Ile-Ife, to exercise caution, actually had nothing to do with the massacre of the British knowing fully well that such an act would only provoke a war he could not hope to win, which is exactly what happened.
After his surrender, he is deposed and exiled to Calabar with his two wives where he dies in January 1914. Consequently, the area of Benin is annexed and allowed for further British expansion into the interior of West Africa.
While the Principal of the school, Mr. Andrew Jedras, noted that the response of the audience spoke volumes of how outstanding the production was, the Artistic Director, Mr. Jerome congratulated the students for a job well done.
Jerome disclosed that due to demand by parents, Oba Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi was chosen to acquaint children with history and culture of the country. This, he pointed out, is needed to assist in preserving and promoting the country’s cultural heritage.