By Victor Alade
Any opportunity to meet face to face with Oba Ewuare II, the Oba of Benin is usually an exciting one which every tourist or lover of culture or student of history would love to have. Visiting this first class traditional ruler also affords one the rare privilege of receiving royal blessings and gaining profound knowledge of the kingdom’s rich culture and tradition which is like an excursion into the past.
However, before the visitor could be ushered into presence of the Oba, he must learn some of the palace rules on how to conduct himself before the Oba.
This opportunity to meet the Oba of Benin came when the newly-inaugurated board members of the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR), Benin City, paid homage to the monarch to seek his blessings before settling down to their task of rejuvenating the agency.
That day, the NIFOR board members filed into the Oba’s palace, led by their chairman, Emperor Chris Baywood Ibe, an oil and gas player representing Enugu State. With him were Dr Sylvester Ameh Agada, representing Benue State and Alhaji Solum Wakilbe from Borno State. Also present were Mr Lawrence Nwezze from Ebonyi State, Mr Ben Kure from Kaduna State, Chief Wole Arowomale from Oyo State, Husami Aliyu Garko, representing Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria, and Dr Charles Aisagbonhi, acting Director/CEO, NIFOR and his staff among others. It was one moment no one was sure of what to expect.
For the first timer, a visit to the Oba’s place was no less a tourist trip. The arena was expansive, housing an array of buildings from the ancient to the modern. The palace was tucked deeply in the heart of Benin City.
Every day, it was learnt, the Oba’s palace played host to many guests – Bini indigenes bringing up communal issues, as well as government and company officials desiring royal blessings before commencing work in Bini Kingdom. The palace also received foreign tourists.
Once cleared to see the Oba on his throne, guests were moved into an exclusive zone fenced with some welded metal mesh, with men of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) as guards. Guests were ushered into an open pavilion where other individuals and groups were seated waiting. It was like a departure lounge. Then, a palace aide, wearing all-white apparel – a robe upon skirt and a long, yellow beaded necklace, dangling freely from his neck announced a set of strict rules which must be complied with.
According to him, “the moment you come into the Oba’s presence, you must first kneel down, then you let out a howler ‘Oba ghato kpere!’(Long live the king). Just before you speak, you rub your palms together and howl again ‘Oba ghato kpere!”
He then went on to announce the rest of the rules; of course, all cell phones must be switched off too. Guests must rehearse the rules until the palace functionary was satisfied that they have been understood.
There was this aura of serenity that clearly enveloped everyone once they came face-to-face with the Oba and his chiefs. After paying him compliments, everybody would sit down while the announcer would introduce the guests.
Rising from his seat, the NIFOR board chairman Emperor Baywood Ibe began to speak: “Your Majesty, I’m honoured to be here as the head of this Federal Government delegation. I also bring you greetings from Enugu State. I’m a businessman, a believer in the Nigerian project and a youth advocate. We are here to honour you. We are here to seek your support in reviving NIFOR.
“You will recall that a long time ago, the Malaysians came here and picked some palm seedlings with which they developed their own oil palm industry. Today, Malaysia and some other countries in the world have overtaken Nigeria in palm produce production and export.
“But I’m happy that the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is committed to changing the current face of agriculture in the country. And we believe that we can start with NIFOR.
“We are here to seek your royal blessings to revive oil palm in the country and push it to be next after crude oil in terms of earnings. This could have been achieved long ago if not that the sector was neglected.
“I have been in oil and gas industry in the past 28 years; I’m confident that we can turn NIFOR around the same way government has turned around rice production via the Anchor Borrower’s Scheme. We can deploy business ideas and achieve this through the co-operation of stakeholders. I’m sure that we can make a lot of difference.
“We can grow NIFOR to employ additional 1,000 more skilled and unskilled workers. This will mean a lot of wealth creation and I’m sure we can realise this.
“I’m also sure that we can make NIFOR a tourism destination by building a farm settlement, rather than the bush we current have there. In doing this, we need the support of the state government; we need an enabling environment and your support too.”
After Ibe’s speech, the head of the chiefs offered the NIFOR board chairman kola nuts and drinks as a symbol of goodwill and hospitality When the Oba began to speak, his voice kept ringing out, reverberating all around.
“I welcome you and your formidable board members on behalf of the chiefs and the royal family, and thank you for this visit.
“When you said that you were from Enugu State, I figured out that you might not know my connection with Enugu. I had my primary school at St Patrick’s Primary School, Asata, Enugu; I still have fond memories of the school.
“Then when you introduced yourself as an emperor, a title you said you received in Ethiopia, I never knew that after late Emperor Haile Selassie, they also gave out similar title to a Nigerian. Thank you for showcasing the Nigerian image in that country.
“I’m happy that you are committed to turning around things at NIFOR. While you spoke, you touched on very interesting things about the agency which I will be happy if you will address.
“I want to thank the Federal Government for constituting the board of NIFOR which was long overdue. At the same time, I wish to appeal to you and the Federal Government to consider providing jobs through NIFOR and other agencies for the teeming youths who have no jobs especially the ones who were brought back recently from Libya as a way of alleviating their current plight. I plead with the Federal Government to also encourage them to set up small scale businesses of their own.”
The Oba also expressed his readiness to work with the new NIFOR board and the government in bringing about a change of fortune at the agency.
He said, “I will advise the Federal government to reach out to international agencies especially the one I know in Brazil so as to bring about improvement in the oil palm sector through research and constant brainstorming. You can facilitate an improvement at NIFOR through improved collaboration; I task your formidable board to work towards realising this.
“The need for things to change at NIFOR is our collective duty bearing in mind that it was from here that Malaysia picked its first set of oil palm seedlings decades ago. That is why I want the place resuscitated.”
He therefore tasked the board members to draw a road map so that all the stakeholders would not work in the dark, pledging that he was prepared to look at the document himself and to make useful contributions.
As the delegation filed out from the Oba’s presence, there was this sense of awe about the monarch around everybody, with his voice seemingly echoing and resonating with royalty and authority