One year after, how does the palace compare with your former life as a diplomat?
That was my first shot at His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, at his expansive palace in Benin, Edo State capital, on Monday evening. He shot back immediately: “Segun, I have no other life. This is my only life. If you cast your mind back, you will remember that even in those days at L’Aquila with the late President (Umaru Musa) Yar’Adua, I was always in my royal beads and regalia. That is because this has always been my life. This is what I was born into.”
Despite the awe-inspiring palace protocol that the four Benin Chiefs (who were present in the course of my interaction with their monarch) seemed bent on enforcing at every point, the 39th Oba of Benin indulged me a great deal on Monday, perhaps because he was the one who invited me to his kingdom from Abuja. And we had a most engaging conversation, especially considering that he wanted his chiefs to know about a difficult challenge he once encountered as the Nigerian ambassador to Italy. It happened during the 35th G8 Summit between 8th and 10th July 2009.
Hosted by the then Italian Prime Minister, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, the summit was held in L’Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region of Southern Italy located in the middle of some amazing snow-capped mountains. It was the first G8 summit attended by then United States President Barack Obama and the last by former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was also one of the last official trips of the late President Yar’Adua who was invited as one of the six leaders from Africa.
The problem started when on arrival in Rome, I learnt that an embassy official who was in charge of accreditation had been sloppy hence could not register members of my media team within the stipulated time. Given the way G8 is usually organized, that in effect meant that they would have to remain in Rome and not travel to L’Aquila with us. But the then Benin Crown Prince took charge the moment he got to know that the official detailed for the assignment had messed up.
At this point, Oba Ewuare II took up the story. “That night, I called my father to inform him of the challenge I was going through. I was very close to my father so he prayed for me with the assurance that my ancestors would not let me be disgraced. How would the media team of my president not be allowed to cover a meeting he was attending? I got in touch with the office of Prime Minister Berlusconi and all my contacts in government. I was desperate. At the end, they agreed to reopen the accreditation process to accommodate my request. When I walked into your room in L’Aquila that night to inform you and the ADC that I had brought your journalists, I saw your relief and I felt really happy,” said the Oba as he recounted the episode more for the benefit of his chiefs than for me.
Looking back, it was indeed a defining moment because I recall the sacrifices and the efforts he made. Rather than join us in the presidential helicopter; he volunteered to travel by road to L’Aquila, just because he was determined that all the members of the media team from Nigeria would secure accreditation to cover the summit even after the organisers had said they would not allow them. At the end, his tenacity paid off and in a way, the Oba has brought that same sense of purpose to the Benin Kingdom where he is redefining the role of the traditional institution.
As Oba Ewuare II explained to me, the first proclamation he made on assuming the throne in October last year was the immediate suspension of Community Development Associations (CDAs) in all the seven local government areas of Edo State which constitute the Benin Kingdom: Oredo, Egor, Ikpoba Okha, Uhunmwode, Orhionmwon, Ovia South West and Ovia North East. He could do that because, as the paramount ruler within that jurisdiction, the Oba has traditional right over all native lands that fall outside the consent of the governor under the Land Use Act.
When I asked him why he took the decision, Oba Ewuare II explained that for a long time, some men of questionable character had turned the CDAs into an avenue to threaten the peace of communities while extorting money from land developers. “They were collecting dues in hundreds of thousands of naira from land developers through violence and intimidation and many of them were also notorious for selling lands, including those that do not belong to them, to different persons. These people had become not only a big nuisance but also law onto themselves.”
The Oba said he took time to study the antics of the CDAs while his father was on the throne. “What they were doing was antithetical to our culture and they were driving development away from Benin. At a point, I came home from Rome to discuss the issue with my father. ‘Why is the palace condoning this sort of criminal practices in Benin?’ I asked my father, who was already advanced in age at the time. He said he had done all he could on the matter but the people would not listen. He said he had also written to the government to no avail”.
According to Oba Ewuare II, before he returned to Rome, he went to see the then Governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole on the issue. “Governor Oshiomhole was genuinely concerned and he promised to deal with the situation and he actually made efforts in that direction. But I could also see that the government was hamstrung because of what could be the political repercussion of taking up those powerful people who had constituted themselves into terror gangs. I have been to Sicily so I understand how such gangs work and how to dismantle them. I told myself that if and when I assumed the throne, I would never allow those gangsters to continue to hold Benin people to ransom.”
Following the Oba’s declaration banning CDAs upon his coronation, the Edo State Governor, Mr Godwin Obaseki, went further to give it official seal with a bill to the State House of Assembly. And with its passage, Obaseki appointed the former Inspector-General of Police, Mr Solomon Arase, to chair the task force to drive its en¬forcement. “My administration be¬lieves that the way to sus¬tainable development is to unleash and nurture our productive energy and that of investors. Investment will not thrive in a lawless environment, it is a thing of pride that we signed this bill into law”, Governor Obaseki told the Benin monarch while presenting him a copy of the law in April this year.
One other intervention of which Oba Ewuare II seems excited is the Benin Customary Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee (BCADRC) which will be inaugurated today to replace the Open Mediation System that he instituted upon assuming the throne. “What I met on ground was a compromised system in which most Benin people had no trust in. Nobody believed they would get any justice from the chiefs who served on the panels to settle disputes and that explains why, after bringing matters to the palace, the people were still going to court to seek redress. What I did was to personally head a panel of chiefs. Once a week, we would sit to hear cases and at the end, deliberate and give our rulings. That way, we brought back equity but I want to delegate that responsibility. I am reconstituting the committee to be composed of eminent Benin sons and daughters with unimpeachable integrity” said the Oba who told me that it will be headed by Justice Samson Uwaifo, one of Nigeria’s most respected jurists who retired from the Supreme Court in January 2005.
From human trafficking, especially the prostitution ring on which Benin has become internationally notorious, to the issue of cultural reawakening, Oba Ewuare II told me of the plans he has to change some of the negative narratives of his people. On the first, he is planning a skill acquisition centre to discourage girls from seeking the elusive greener pastures abroad while on the second, his plan is still evolving. Benin, according to the monarch, has 201 dances even though many of them are now lost. But in assuring me of his commitment to the cultural exposition of the kingdom, I was delighted he’s fully behind the effort of my friend and brother, Ose Oyamendan, as he begins the creative process of making a film about the looted Benin Art works. It is a project very dear to Ose, a proud son of Benin and an accomplished Hollywood-based filmmaker.
On food security, Oba Ewuare II said he has a vision of a day no Benin man would go hungry by creating a system that will ensure that indigent people within the society are taken care of. “Right now, I am working on the idea of a special market like you have in Europe where poor people can shop for their groceries at affordable prices. I already have the land I want to use for the project and plans are at an advanced stage for its launch. In the special market, I am looking at a situation where a tuber of yam will sell for about N50 so that the poor can also buy foodstuff. We must banish hunger from our society” he said as he explained to me how the concept would work.
At a time traditional institution is fast losing its allure due to a combination of many factors, including politics and religion, it is remarkable that Benin people have succeeded in preserving their own institution to combine elements of both the ancient and modern. With Oba Ewuare II preoccupied with the socio-economic welfare of his people that should ordinarily be the concern of government, he can only endear himself to his subjects. And as he prepares for the first anniversary on the throne next week Friday, October 20 (also his birthday, as he told me), the Benin kingdom palace is already buzzing with preparations for what will be a very big occasion.
Oba ghato ‘kpere, Ise!