Godknows Boladei Igali
The Greek word ‘chronologia’ pertains to the order, sequence and time line in which historical events are appreciated. Indeed, from the cradle of human society, all events and measures of human reckoning are better appreciated in the order in which they occur thereby giving them proper significance in time and space. It is in this context that the 20th day of the tenth month of the 16th year of the second century, anno domini, (20 October, 2016) will be remembered throughout history as one in which a new dawn birthed in the history of the Benin people, Nigeria and indeed the world. On that date, erstwhile Crown Prince Eheneden Erediauwa, the Edaiken of Uselu, after completion of the various time-tested rites, prescribed customs and ritualistic dictates, was formally crowned and invested as the 40th Oba of Benin under the Eweka dynasty. He now reigns as Oba Ewuare O’Ngidigan the Second.
The significance of the day and date lie primarily in the fact that another ruler has emerged to preserve and actuate one of the world’s richest cultural traditions sustained from 900s AD. This was when the first of the ancestral primogenitors of the new monarch laid the foundation of what has become the Benin (Bini) or Edo civilisation encompassing the royalty, the people, culture and language; and the greatly inspiring historical legacies. But the greater significance of that historical date of ascension, lie in the fact that the entire pomp, protocol and pageantry were symbolised in the personality of one man.
A man who is not only meaningfully-bent towards the preservation of the Edo culture, but also, a urbane global citizen, a consummate diplomat, and an intrepid entrepreneur. In all, he is a very urbane and cosmopolitan personality with modernist outlook to life. The new monarch, therefore, enters the firmament of Nigeria and indeed the world’s monarchical circles shoulders high with alluring panache, etiquette and prompting.
What is again spectacularly important about the events of 20th of October, 2016 and the new monarch, is the fact that of all Benin kings before him, he represents a portentous watershed. A crossroad between the past cladded in resplendence of mystery with many high points of personal accomplishments by ancestral lineage on the one hand, on the other, a new world of the triumph of the nation-state, multi-level pluralism, and the immediacy of modern technology leading the force of globalism.
So many things could be said about the Benin people and the history which the person of the new Oba represents. Some may assume the Benin story with the modern-day nation of the Republique du Benin (Dahomey), Nigeria’s immediate western neighbor. However, the actual Benin Empire, the epicenter of which is the world famous Benin city, is located in the upper hinterland of the Niger Delta of Nigeria, and home to many other kingdoms and peoples of Nigeria. Although the word Bini refers to the people, it could and is also used interchangeably, with regards to the political structure, which is history emerged from there.
Oral tradition as particularly recorded by the leading authority Chief Jacob Egharevba (1893-1980,) has it that as far back as the 900s AD, a kingdom with the awe-stuck name, Igodomigodo, emerged deriving its name from its first king, Igodo. The Ogiso (King of the Sky) dynasty which Igodo formed had an unbroken succession of at least thirty-one monarchs. One of the outstanding legacies of the founders and rulers of the Ogiso dynasty was the foresight and strategic acumen in building the wall (moat) around the ancient capital city. This was a feat not seen before in this part of the world. Much later in history, about the 16th century, the Benin wall (moat) had become one of the most reckoned with of its type around the world and its relics are today listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
From about the 12th century AD, a new kingdom emerged with the reign of one Eweka I. But Eweka is believed to have been the child of Oramiyan, who himself was the son of the epical and venerated founder of the Yoruba race, Oduduwa. History records that Oramiyan had come to Benin from Ile-Ife at his father’s behest for an artful diplomatic move to restore normalcy to a neighbouring sister state which had some level of internal political upheaval at the time. Oramiyan came to Benin at about 1170, and was able to establish his authority and laid the foundations of this new kingdom, which in the process of time became an empire.
Needless here labour on the intellectually interesting and unsettled claims and counterclaims between the Binis and the kindred Yorubas on the actual origin of the great epochponous progenitor, Oduduwa. Neither need we get involved in weighing the worth of all the mythologies and inherited oral history about the rather shrewd and dexterous figure, Oramiyan. No, it suffices to note as a historical realism, that Oramiyan, the genius which he was, shuttled between Ile-Ife, Oyo and Benin and left his mark in punctilious political designing in all these places. He enthroned his mild-mannered, insightful, and perspective son, Eweka, to found a dynasty which has maintained unbroken succession following a primo genitive tradition (that is from father to son), now for at least 1000 years. It will therefore just be enough for now to quote Oba Ewuare11 himself during his coronation inter alia “Historians all agreed that Oduduwa sent his son Oranmiyan as requested by the elders of Benin, to return with them as ruler of their realm….”
In the course of time and history, a total of thirty-nine predecessors, who were all not only greatly revered potentates, but considered to a large extent as absolute and divine by their subjects and all other surrounding people. The deference and plenipotentiary worth of the Benin Oba are encapsulated in the official titles and accoladal appellations, Omo N’Oba Nedu Uku Akpolokpolo, which literally means a mighty and unassailable principal.
With the advent of the Eweka dynasty came the title “Oba” which adumbrates the cross-cousin relationship with the Yorubas. Gradually, what had been a city-state and later a forest kingdom, became a wieldy and sophisticated empire. Its influence spreading up to the outer borders with Central Africa and on the westward direction, going into the heart of modern-day Benin Republic, Togo and even the Ga of Ghana. Far northwards the empire’s influence, attracted forms of allegiance and collaboration with the diverse Kwa language-speaking people, spread towards the Ibo, Igala and Nupe peoples.
Southwards for example, among the Ijaws, the concept of “Oba-ama” (Oba’s town) as the setting in all folklores, signals to social anthropologists the recognition of the existence of a great king in a big city where all manners of wonderful feats and events happen. For them, it was a kind of Lagos, London or New York of the time.
The 15th and 16th centuries, in particular, were times of great ascendency for the Bini people and some of its most outstanding monarchs held sway. For example, under Oba Ewuare the Great (1440-1473), Ozolua (1480-1504) and his son Esigie (1504-1547), remarkable territorial expansion took place. By 1472, the first sets of European explorers led by Ruy de Sequeira, the Portuguese, were navigating the Benin River and by 1485, they physically landed in Benin City in search of commerce and to spread the gospel of Christ. The period therefore also became a golden era and moment of massive economic prosperity of Ancient Benin. This, in turn, made Benin City center of regional and global activities. By the time contact with Europe came, the Benin Empire was best positioned to deal with them in trading, diplomacy and cultural exchanges.
Indeed when the Portuguese first came to Africa at the end of the 15th century, they interacted with two main African empires which they met on ground. One of them was the Benin Empire and the other was the Congo Empire of Bantu speaking led by the supreme ruler (Manikongo). The Congo Empire covered most of Central Africa and extended even down to Angola. In both places, the rulers romanticised with a form of syncretic Roman Catholicism. From that time, they also established full-fledged political and diplomatic relations with Lisbon. Both royal houses in Benin and Congo ensured that their children and those of their nobles, nearly one thousand years ago, went to elite schools with European privilege classes in the courts of Lisbon.
In the case of Congo, its ruler (Manikongo) Nzingaa Nkuwu, (became baptised as a catholic and took the name Joao I) succeeded by his son, Mvemba a Nzinga who took the name Nfonso I. On the Benin side, a young prince who later became Oba Orhogbua, was not only educated in Portugal as far back as 1604 but returned back a converted catholic. The catholic religion, the bastion of Christianity, from that time took a strong hold on the Empire and its impact till today can be noticed from the official dressing, regalia, paraphernalia and appearance of Benin rulers and nobility.
In the world of inter-state relations, ambassadors are only exchanged between royal courts of equal competence. Hence Iberian Kings of the States of Portugal, which at the time were the world’s super powers, saw their counterparts in Benin and Kongo as rulers of equal reckoning and had no problems to deploy full diplomatic retinue to these African kingdoms. Interestingly, by the time the British arrived in 1552, Benin town was described by explorers as a metropolis by all ways comparable to British towns of the time such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Bini civilisation which was noticed from the first contact with Europe was the complex and intricate political and social structure of the Empire. The institutions of administration and delineation of functions were intricate but were clear and functional. Another distinct feature was the role which the Obas played as patrons and masters of the arts, craft and literature. The entire historical traditions and cultural assuetudes were elaborated in oral poetry, dance, drama or the more, expressed in craft and sculpture.
Even prior to the British conquest of 1897, Benin sculptures on bronze, ivory and coral beads had become highly priced pieces in private collections and leading galleries all over Europe. In 2009, the new Oba Ewuare II, then Nigerian Ambassador in Italy, visited this author, as Special Guest of Honour at an Exhibition at the Swedish Ethnographic Museum, where never-seen pieces of arts from the 1600s from private collectors were on display.
The new Oba therefore, comes from the background of origins of warrior kings to empire builders, merchant kings, global players, and ultranationalists such as Oba Ovanramwen. In 1897, Oba Ovanramwen, the great-great-grandfather of Oba Ewuare II did not yield to summary British conquests without putting up an able fight, even if it meant losing the throne. Gladly, the new Oba has very rich education from the University of Wales, following the footsteps of his father Oba Erediauwa I who was schooled at the prestigious Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He later on proceeded to the Rutgers University, New Jersey in the United States of America. In the current unipolar world where Pax Americana holds sway, this is an added balance to the conservatism of British education.
It needs added that Rutgers is one of America’s top listed Ivy league schools and a home to some of the most outstanding Nobel Prize winners including the famous economists, Milton Friedman and physicist and inventor Selman Abraham Waksman. Oba Ewuare II worked severally as an entrepreneur particularly in oil and gas which is the mainstay of the Nigerian national economy. As part of his self-actualisation, he also had some work experience with some international organisations dealing with issues of economic and social development.
It needs be noted though, that the greatest asset which Oba Ewuare II brings to the throne is his wide experience in international politics, diplomacy, administration and strategy. He served for several years in some of Nigeria’s key diplomatic outposts as the country’s principal envoy. Appointed in 1996 by the intriguing military ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha, he was, at a time, Nigerian Ambassador to Angola. A fellow oil-producing country and an African state with which Nigeria shares great parallelism in dealing with the onerous challenge of state-building and national integration. This outing was therefore particularly important.
But shortly after that, under the watch of President Olusegun Obasanjo who ushered in Nigerian’s new democratic dawn, the new monarch in 1999 found himself deployed to head Nigeria’s diplomatic mission to the Scandinavia(Nordic countries), with a base in the picturesque town of Stockholm. There, he was able to relate at first hand with some of Europe’s finest remaining monarchs, that is, the Royal families of Sweden, Denmark and Norway with whom he shares the gift of blue blood.
This remarkable exposure provided him with no finer opportunity for acculturalisation with the dictates of modern monarchy as Europe in contemporary times is preoccupied with the debate as to properly balancing old monarchical order and modern industrialised statehood and republicanist predilection. To crown it all, similar to his forebears who had engaged in such world-class diplomacy, in 2008, Oba Ewuare II got appointed by President Umaru Yar’Adua to Italy as Nigeria’s Ambassador. Due to long standing concordance between the Vatican and the State of Italy, Ambassadors to the later cannot be accredited to the Holy See. However, Rome, Oba Ewuare diplomatic station, provided him with ample knowledge and insight into the effusive discourse on state and religion, inter-faith dialogue and the global worth of the Roman Catholic faith, once adopted by his forefathers.
Coming with such broad diplomatic experience is the benefit of working with three Presidents, several Foreign Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and dozens of intrepid Nigerian career diplomats. Some of these persons within the Nigerian Foreign Service apparatus are amongst the finest public servants the country has ever produced. This would unarguably have left very positive imprints on the administrative temperance and instincts of the new monarch.
It need mention that this cognate public service and bureaucratic experience is a familiar path, trodden by his departed father, Oba Erediauwa, who rose in the Federal Civil Service to attain the rank of Permanent Secretary. Back in the royal palace, he had amply fed from the great foundation of knowledge of both his grandfather, Oba Akenzua II and father Oba Erediauwa, both whose names he had born at various times in his life and at whose feet he had sat, as much as custom permitted.
It is against this backdrop of a kaleidoscope of academic, professional, personal experiences and established tradition coming down from many centuries; Oba Ewuare faces the certainty of a modern Nigeria which is diverse, heterogeneous and complex. Even within the relatively micro level of Edo State, South-South and other nearby neighbours, the fact that he is central puts him under the burden of ensuring that his royal swagger is used in a rather delicate and cautious manner to ensure that the bandwagon of respect and esteem for the throne remains enduring and unassailed.
At the larger Nigerian level, particularly at a time when our nation’s democratic consolidation and state building is undergoing moments of anxiety and demand for effective consolidation, the Oba’s experience will be needed to play the roles expected within the constitutional and established norms.
Of particular interest would be his role along with others of like calling to build a peaceful and stable country. No wonder, some of his peers of no less regal bloodlines whose forebears had also greatly impacted their times, were at hand to welcome, cheer and usher him into the vaunted club, one of their own. These include Sultan Muhammadu Abubakar III of Sokoto, Emir Sanusi Lamido II of Kano, Dr. Yahaya Muhammed, Etsu Nupe, King Godfrey Emiko, Olu of Warri, King Daneson Jaja V of Opobo, Oba Adeyeye Ogunusi – Ooni of Ife, King Edmund Daukoru – Mingi XIII of Nembe, Dr. Alfred Achebe -Agbogidi – Obi of Onitsha, and several others. Interestingly, some of these monarchs are also of about same age and of no less public service pedigree and professional reference. It should be easier, therefore, for them to as it were, speak the same language.
At a wider global level, would be a need for the new Oba to find relevance and appreciation for the preservation of the rich Benin culture which has been bequeathed to him. As alluded earlier, great amounts of Benin historic and cultural artefacts and appreciation still lie in private homes and public galleries all over the world especially in Europe. This could form the basis for renewed cultural revival and deepening of relations between Nigeria and those countries.
Gladly, Oba Ewuare II’s inaugural speech has left none in doubt as to his direction of activism and proactive engagement in various pursuits which will greatly impact the Bini people, Nigeria and the wider world.
What remains is to wish him a great, long and successful reign in peace and progress to the Benin people and Nigerians under his watch.
Ambassador Igali, Ph.D, is a fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria, administrator and award-winning author. Email firstname.lastname@example.org