•His early activism days as a Zikist and later Awolowo follower
•Why Britain proscribed, jailed members of Zikist Movement
•Advocates return to Parliamentary democracy
•How witches and wizards are reintegrated into Benin society
By Alemma-Ozioruva Aliu
BENIN CITY – CHIEF David U Edebiri (OON), the Esogban of Benin, nationalist and elder statesman recently clocked 90 years. He joined the nationalists’ movement while still in college as a student activist and became a member of the Zikist Movement which was formed to espouse the ideas of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He worked closely with late Chief Anthony Enahoro who he said was his mentor and later Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Action Group. He spoke on the struggle for Nigeria’s independence, patriotism, his role as Esogban of Benin and other issues. Excerpts:
What is your role as Esogban of Benin Kingdom
As a chief, I help the Oba in the administration of the kingdom. It is obligatory, as a Benin Chief, that I must go to the Obas’s palace every time to take part in palace activities. These palace activities include deliberating on the state of the Benin Nation, adjudicating over cases brought to the Omo N’Oba for settlement. The Oba is free to delegate any of us to go and look into the issues and make a report. I also perform the traditional roles of the Esogban of Benin. That is what the Esogban has been doing since the time of its inception. I am under obligation to perform those things. For instance, during festival periods, the Esogban as a very senior member of the palace plays a very pivotal role in Emobo ceremony which is held during the Igue festival at the palace foreground where the Esogban dances round a circle four times after which he takes permission from the Oba to retire. On his way out, the Esogban waits a little while at a spot, recites certain incantations appealing to the ancestors to bring peace and tranquillity to the land, to make the soil fruitful and human beings fertile. In addition to all these, the Esogban is the head of the witches and wizards in Benin Kingdom. Any matter concerning witches and wizards, like those who confess to be witches and wizards or somebody has made a confession about another person and the matter is reported to the Oba’s palace, they are usually referred to the Esogban to handle the matter after which those alleged to be witches and wizards will be taken through some processes with a view to making them renounce the past and will be reintegrated to the society as they can no longer use their powers to do any evil to anybody. The Esogban is also a senior spiritual leader.
Can you recall your life as an activist
When Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe came back from America in 1937, he was in Ghana briefly for two years but when they wanted to jail him in Ghana he came to Nigeria. Upon his arrival in Nigeria, he started educating the people about their status as colonised people and called on them to rise and fight for their freedom. In my own case, I was indoctrinated by the radicals who were my mentors. Many of them died but among those whose activities brought me into early activism was Chief Anthony Enahoro who was a young man then from what is now Edo state. Because of his radical posture, the colonial government found it convenient to jail him several times to silence him and if possible to kill him so this stimulated many of the young people then to go into activism and I was one of those who went into activism because of the nationalistic activities of Chief Anthony Enahoro particularly in 1948 when I was inducted into the Zikist movement. Many of the Zikist young men across the country were jailed on trumped-up charges without any right of appeal and this naturally inspired some of us to say, all right, if that is the situation, let all of us go in there. So, that was what brought me into the nationalist movement at the age of 19. This nationalist movement called the Zikist movement was founded in 1946 by four journalists and this is a fact which many people don’t know. These young journalists were working for the Nigerian Advocate Newspaper in Lagos; they were MCK Ajuluchukwu, Kolawole Balogun who later became a prominent lawyer and National Secretary of the NCNC, Nduka Eze, one of the great names in the labour movement and a political activist from Asaba and then Abiodun Aloba aka Ebenezer Williams; these were the four young journalists who got together, built on the philosophy espoused by Prince Nwafor Orizu while he was schooling in America and then formed this association with the name Zikist Movement based on the philosophy of Nnamdi Azikiwe. That was how the Zikist Movement was formed in 1946.
These young journalists formed the Zikist Movement because they did not believe that the NCNC which was the parent body was doing enough to speed up the fight for the independence of Nigeria so they wanted it in a more radical way. And the moment this organisation came up, the character of the Nigerian nationalist movement changed and the British people became afraid that they would soon be driven out. As a young student, I was staying with somebody who was a Zikist and in school, my principal at Benin Public School was the Benin City Branch chairman of the Zikist Movement while many of the teachers were Zikists. As a student then, I was their proof reader, they were fond of writing articles and I would sit down, read through whatever they were writing and helped them to correct errors and by doing this, I became indoctrinated. When I wanted to leave the school for Western Boys High School, they held a party for me where I was formally introduced into the Movement and that was my induction. After sometime, in April of 1950, the British government became so uncomfortable with the movement that they had to proscribe it as a dangerous organisation and when the movement was proscribed, we had no alternative than to form another organisation to replace the Zikist Movement. But in the meantime, many of our leaders were in jail except Nduka Eze, so the NCNC youth association was established. The NCNC youth association was however not as radical as the Zikist Movement. Tony Enahoro was in jail though he was never a member of the Zikist Movement I didn’t know he was not a member and many people across the country also thought he was a member but he was never a member although he associated with the movement and everything he did, the Movement supported him. So, we all went into this fight. In the NCNC Youth Association, I became the General Secretary for Benin Area and from the youth association, we graduated to full political activism of the NCNC. I became an official of the NCNC as a matter of fact. I can claim to be one of those who brought NCNC to the rank and file in Benin area and in what was called Benin province. I was also the Publicity Secretary of Otuedo Party which was in alliance with the NCNC. As at that time, there were two political parties in the country; the NCNC and the Action Group. I was in the NCNC which promised to help us achieve our ambition of having Midwest Region because there were three regions in the country then and we were agitating for our own region. We thought the NCNC would help us but things did not go that way and once the NCNC got into position of authority, nobody was talking again about the Midwest Region. This forced some of us to look the other way and in 1958. I decided to leave the NCNC and join the Action Group to meet my mentor, Enahoro who had tried severally to woo me into the AG but I refused. Omo N’Oba Akenzua II also tried to win me to the AG because he was a minister in the Western Region, I refused but because of certain beliefs and principles, I decided on my own to defect to the AG in 1958. My defection brought life to the AG in this part of the country and this was very much appreciated by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Enahoro. For that, I had a lot of patronage from the Chief and from the party and we were there until the crisis that rocked the AG and which finally destroyed the party.
How was your transition from being an activist to a traditionalist?
Well, it was not by accident that I am in the palace. My fathers before me were palace chiefs. My own father Osawe Edebiri was the Esama of Benin before he transited in 1974. It was after his transition that my friend, Igbinedion became the Esama. But during our nationalist movement, we did not believe in being part of the traditional institution, we condemned them as stooges of the colonialists. In fact, before Enahoro transited, we always joked that this traditional institution we opposed in those days, we were now all part of it. Even when Zik first took the title of Ediokpa we embarked on a protest to his castle in Ikeja that he was betraying the cause of the nationalist movement but today all of us have become part of it.
Can we find in today’s political arrangement, that nationalism that spurred you in your struggle in those days?
What I will say is that there is no more patriotism in the Nigerian space today. I think everybody goes into politics now to look for one thing or the other, nobody goes there now with the frame of mind to make Nigeria a better place. I can say that for certain, that is no longer there. There is no sense of nationalism, people now join politics because of what they can get, we are in a world of materialism but in our days, it was not so. It is a pity.
If what we have now is not the dream of our fathers, where did Nigeria get it wrong?
Like I said, in those days many of us threw away our personal chances, we made sacrifices because we wanted Nigeria to be free and not only to be free, we wanted Nigeria to be the leader of the black race, that was the motivating factor then. Where it went wrong was after the first Republic when the military suddenly came and killed people just like that. After that things were no longer what they should be. The intervention of the military into Nigerian politics was detrimental to our existence. Okotieboh who was Minister of Finance, how much was he budgeting for the whole country that you just woke up one night and started killing people ? That was where we went wrong. Then the democratic government that came started practising something new, they veered from the parliamentary system we were used to and started practising something they had never experimented before. They veered from what we knew and started practising American presidential system, and they are not even practising the American system as it should be. If you say you are practising the American system, why do you leave your judiciary to be British prototype? Up till tomorrow I am still advocating, like my mentor did before he died, that we should go back to the parliamentary system of government.
What is your take on restructuring?
There is nothing like restructuring, we have been restructuring all along. All those who are shouting are just looking for ways to cause trouble. The government they want is not in power, that is why it has become their issue. When Jonathan was president, he organised a conference, why didn’t he do it.
How do you feel at 90
I just want to thank God Almighty, it is not my own making. It is not common for people of our age to stand and talk as I am talking now, it is not easy to find those of our age to stand straight again so, I thank God Almighty. In these 90 years, I had no issues health wise, no doctor has touched my skin with his knife, I don’t take any medicine. What do I take it for when I am not sick? I have not slept in any hospital on account of ill-health except when I was a baby, so it is God’s work.
Your advice to the leaders
Let us all build the country together. I don’t say they should not criticize, criticize when the criticism is right but if the government does something right, you also say so. Even if you don’t want to admit, you can say, well this man has done well but if we were to do it, we would have done it better, that is how criticism can help to build a nation. But what we find here is once you are not in government, you want to destroy everything, it is a bad attitude. When I was a pupil, our teacher told us that any time you winked, a Chinese dies; they were so poor, so wretched that they were eating their own children but on their own, they banned themselves that for so number of years they would not take part in any interaction with anybody in sports, politics, business and others. They concentrated in their government and everybody believed in that cause that what they were doing was right.
Chairman Mao Tse Tsong who was in power had a free time to work for China and today China is lending money to everybody so we should not say destroy it because you are not in government. I recommend that Chinese attitude, let every Nigerian believe that Nigeria will be great and work towards that, whatever party that is in power is not important.