The Time Traveller

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Edo State governor Godwin Obaseki is attempting to send Edo back to its golden age, and if his excellent track-record is anything to go by, betting against him to do that will be epic folly, writes Solomon Elusoji

In 1550, Oba Orhogbua ascended the Bini throne. When his father died, Orhogbua had been in Europe, learning the ways of the white man. But he returned to take the throne, perhaps because he saw an opportunity to utilise all he had learnt for the progress of his people.
At the time of Orhogbua’s ascension of the throne, beginning about the thirteenth century, Edo-speaking peoples had forged a powerful kingdom at Benin City to the east. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Oba’s dynasty had introduced a series of political reforms which concentrated military power in the institution’s hands, and accelerated a process of imperial expansion, west into Yorubaland. Inspired by the imperial ambitions of the Europeans, especially the Portuguese, Orhogbua began an economic and military campaign that would see the Benin empire grow to its zenith.

By the middle of the 16th century, Portuguese traders had shifted the focus of their activity from Ijebu to the thriving Benin kingdom, which was so dominant in the area that contemporary European cartographers gave its name to the broad bight to the south. At Benin the Portuguese bought small quantities of pepper and slaves for export to Europe and the Americas. The Portuguese offered in exchange manillas and cowries, which served as local currencies, and cloth, beads, and other luxuries for the personal adornment of the Oba and chiefs; Military expansion and economic growth occurred simultaneously in Benin. Both stimulated Edo canoe-borne warfare and trade along the creeks, lagoons, and rivers to the west. Throughout the 16th century, Benin became the largest and most powerful state between the Volta and the River Niger.

A striking instance of Benin’s dominance is its conquest of Lagos. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Oba Orhogbua sent fleets of war canoes to attack Iddo, an eight-to-ten-day journey from Benin City. According to Kristin Mann, in her book ‘Slavery and the Birth of an African City’, these expeditions may have represented an effort to retain control of European trade, which was beginning to shift west with the rise of a powerful Aja state at Allada.

Although repulsed on more than one occasion by a courageous and popular Olofin, Benin eventually established a military camp on Lagos Island, presided over by a number of generals, and used it as a base for pursuing the Oba’s political and commercial ambitions in the area. Andreas Josua Ulsheimer, a German in Dutch employ who left an eyewitness account of the settlement in 1603, referred to it as a frontier town, surrounded by a strong fence, belonging to the Kingdom of Benin and inhabited by none but soldiers and four military commanders. Subsequently, the island, lagoon, and channel connecting them to the sea were sometimes known as “Curamo,” “Korame,” “Ikurame,” or other variants of a term that was probably Edo in origin. The modern city that originated on the island is still known to its indigenous inhabitants as Èkó,which most likely derives from the Edo word for war camp.

Although Oba Orhogbua’s reign ended in 1578, the kingdom missed his visionary ambitions. By the 19th century, the British completed the demolition of the vast Benin empire, sending it into the pages of history. But, on November 16, 2016 the Edo people swore-in an Executive Governor who appears set to restore its glory: Godwin Obaseki.

The case that argues that Obaseki can be Edo’s next Orhogbua has merit. Like the legendary Oba, Obaseki, despite observing his early years within the country, is widely travelled and has crossed vast seas to acquire the wisdom of the white man. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics at the University of Ibadan, Obaseki proceeded to prestigious Ivy League schools, Columbia University and Pace University to obtain MBA degrees in Finance and International Business respectively.

After securing a solid educational foundational, Obaseki then went on to build a glittering career as an Investment Banker, Asset Manager and Securities Trader. He led the core team that set up two of the new generation banks that shaped the face of Nigeria’s banking industry, before setting up one of Africa’s finest investment banking firms, Afrinvest.

As governor, Obaseki has, also, specifically set out to restore the glory days of the Edo people. His focus on raising the quality of the state’s education system, the foundation of every great civilisation, confirms this assertion. In April, when he received executive members of Idia College Old Girls Association at the Edo State Government House, he reiterated his administration’s commitment to improve the standard of education in the state, noting that only teachers who will instill morals and discipline in students will be recruited for its schools. This July, the governor made an unannounced stop at Ologbosere Primary School, Ugbekun area of Ikpoba Okha Local Government, as part of his inspection activities to ascertain the level of sanity in the state’s schools. “We are re-thinking our education sector,” Obaseki has said. “Something went wrong and it has taken us from the enviable position we used to occupy. We are assessing what went wrong and what can be done to revive the standard of our education system. Education is not all about having the infrastructure, but about the content of the instruction and morals.”

Orhogbua’s focus on economic expansion was key in building his revered legacy and Obaseki, true to his investment banking roots, is committed to building Edo’s economy to a height befitting the best states in the global arena. His message to the people of Edo on New Year Day was tilted towards assuring them of a speedy economic recovery, which will set the stage for their increased happiness. “Our goal is to attract investments to and make Edo State one of the easiest places to locate businesses and industries in Nigeria,” he said. In March, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with one of the world largest energy companies, Siemens, to help develop the state’s power and transportation sectors and oversee Edo’s reimagining of its industrialisation strategy. Meanwhile, after promising to create 200,000 thousand jobs during his first tenure, Obaseki has commenced a massive drive towards investing in agriculture, a primary source of wealth for Edo peoples.

Recently, this reporter was in Benin City on a short trip, and signs of a renaissance cannot be missed. The city’s central spot, Ring Road, has been cleared of its disorderliness and has embraced a new shape, a carefully regulated structure; taxi drivers spoke glowingly of the governor’s new vision for the state and commentators on radio waxed lyrically of his early exploits. A Doctor of Communication at the University of Benin told this reporter that the governor has set about doing things in a different way. It might be premature to equate Obaseki with Orhogbua in the bastions of Benin history – some might even frown at the thought, considering the latter’s legendary status – but in the next few years, it might not look so odd. Obaseki is attempting to send Edo back to its golden age, and if his excellent track-record is anything to go by, betting against him to do that will be epic folly.