Letters from Nigeria
TRAVELS IN AN ANCIENT KINGDOM
My apologies for the long break in communication. I travelled to Ekpoma and Benin City to see my folks and to try to get my book in one or two places. And since coming back I have not been well at all. The fatigue spells are so frequent getting around and moving my limbs are tasks. My stomach, too, is acting up. These ulcer attacks used to be fewer and farther between, now they come frequently. And I am yet to chance on anything to relieve it apart from milk which one certainly can’t afford daily. I am looking to see a doc soon to see if there are drugs. The trip to Ekpoma was not really a book tour or promotion. It was difficult getting the books out at the last stage, so I have no resources for anything I might want to do now. But my marketer friend is working on something. While at Ekpoma I made calls on certain places. I went to see an old professor who is something of a power broker at the university community.
Let me tell you something about the places I visited. I know you do not believe stories put out by some scholars in the West that Africans have no history, art or science, but I hope you appreciate reading this. Such stories were put out to justify the slave trade, colonialism and racism.
Ekpoma is a town in Edo State, in the south-south of Nigeria. It is one of the five largest towns in Esanland. Ekpoma is the headquarters of Esan West Local Government Area. A local government council is headed by a chairman (equivalent of mayor) who is elected to a term of four years – or three; they keep changing the law. From about the early 16th century, Ekpoma was a clan ruled by an ojie (king). The current king is addressed as His Royal Highness, Zaiki Macaulay Akhimien, the Onojie of Ekpoma. All contemporary Esan kings use the zaiki title. It is probably a meaningless word conferring honour. The Esan people generally trace their origin to Benin. The Esan language, which I was brought up with, is similar to Bini (Benin) also known as Edo. There are different dialects of the Esan language. The Esan spoken at Ubiaja, where I was born, and that spoken at Ekpoma are quite different but understanding is easy. The Onojie of Ekpoma, like the other Esan kings recognise the Oba of Benin as head and paid tribute to him since the olden days when traditional systems were the order and the Oba of Benin ruled the world as it was known. (Those were the days the Esan now call Agbon’ba, that is the Oba Age. Now we live in what is called Agb’enboh, the White Man Age.)
Ekpoma was a rural town until around 1980/81 when the coming of electricity, paved streets, running water and a university opened it up. Today, the Ambrose Alli University is the town’s major industry and most things in the town revolve around it. If you live in Ekpoma, you fall into one of two categories of people – a student or a non-student, and a kid of six can tell the difference out of two people half a mile away. If you visit Ekpoma, you will easily know the male students by their swagger, the females by their zany attires and false accents. And if you run a business in Ekpoma you are necessarily in business when school is in session, and barely surviving when they are off.
Benin City, the capital of Edo State, lies at the peripheries of the Niger Delta – the large networks of rivers and streams formed where the River Niger flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Benin City gets a lot of rainfall and has a rich historical past. It is the capital of an ancient forest kingdom, which was one of the two most powerful empires in the West African coast (the other is the Oyo Empire, in today’s SW Nigeria) until the establishment of the British Protectorate in the nineteenth century. At its height, the Benin Empire had sovereignty over places as far as Onitsha in the east across the Niger, Idah to the North, and Lagos in the west and on the coast. The Benin monarch is known and addressed as oba and was very powerful in pre-colonial times. Very little is known of the early history of the Bini. Like the origins of most tribes in all the continents of the world, that lies deep in the forgotten past, is mired in colourful mythologies and is the object of endless conjectures. Traditions which say the early settlers came from Yorubaland to the west have been largely discredited. Some say they came from northwards. A recent book by David Ejoor, a former Nigerian Army chief, boldly posits that the first settlers came from the Middle East, having been one of the lost tribes of Israel. None of these is supported by reasonable evidence. (For your information, there are one or two other tribes around here that claim Israelite origin. The most consistent are the Igbo east of the Niger who claim that Igbo is in fact a corruption of the word Hebrew.) What we are sure of, though, is that those early Bini people were very skilful carvers because from their times survive sculptures in bronze and terra cotta that rank among the world’s best masterpieces.
It is believed that the Benin Empire reached its height during the reign of Oba Ewuare (reigned about 1440-1473) the empire builder who is said to have captured 201 towns and villages and to have travelled widely in West Africa and as far as the Congo. Besides these he was a magician and a physician. The oral tradition about the early life of Ewuare is very colourful. Prince Ogun and his younger brother Prince Uwaifiokun were wondering in the forest at a time Ogun was needed to take the throne. It appears that high treachery had forced them to flee for their lives. Efforts to find them were unsuccessful. One day Ogun sent Uwaifiokun to go and see things for him in the kingdom. When he was brought to council the chiefs asked him after his brother. Seeing the throne was unoccupied, Uwaifiokun told the chiefs that he and Ogun went different ways. The chiefs and the kingmakers could not wait to crown a king for their kingless kingdom. Later, worried about his brother and about everything, Ogun came at night to spy on the kingdom. He was found by the outstanding lady Emotan who intimated him that Uwaifiokun had usurped the throne and had sent warriors into the forests to find him and bring home his head, separately from his body. Ogun ran away. The oba got wind of the nocturnal visit and ordered Emotan and her servant, Edo, brought to the palace, bound. During the show trial, Emotan spoke her mind to the oba who had her and Edo executed. One night, Prince Ogun sneaked into the palace and somehow cornered the oba alone. They fought and Ogun killed Uwaifiokun. Ogun was then crowned oba and he took the name Ewuare. He passed a decree that Emotan be immortalised and renamed the kingdom Edo, after the manservant who opened the door for him to escape. The Emotan statue in Benin City is today listed as one of this country’s tourist sites and there are institutions named after Emotan.
Ewuare N’Ogidigan (Ewuare the Great), as he came to be called, is remembered not only for his conquests but for his administrative feats. It was he who put in place the state council and developed systems of political administration, with instituted officials and departments for administering the vast empire. It was he who built defensive walls and made most of the renowned roads. It was in his time that Benin acquired the name of city. He was the first oba to come in contact with Europeans.
Another noteworthy oba is Esigie (reigned about 1504-1550). Esigie is reportedly the first oba to go beyond the practice of feting the nobility to recognising outstanding commoners and appointing them to positions of authority. It was Oba Esigie who instituted the position of Iy’oba (queen mother). His mother, Queen Idia, was a famous warrior who played a major role in the conquest of Idah. It was about the time of Esigie that relationships with the Portuguese, the first Europeans to come this way, reached their height. Oba Esigie received ambassadors from Portugal and sent ambassadors to Europe. One of them was reportedly welcomed by a grand feast held in his honour by the king of Portugal. In 1540 Esigie made a crucifix in brass and had it sent to the king of Portugal as a present. Esigie, who reigned for nearly half a century, is said to have been a man of learning, having practiced astrology and having been able to read and write in Portuguese.
Let me say at this point that interaction between Africans and Europeans at this time was based on mutual respect. Each people marvelled at the ways of the other. Racism, as we know it today, came into the world after the commencement of the transatlantic slave trade.
The decline of the Edo Empire is the coming of the British. The Empire suffered its worst defeat in 1897, at the hands of the British. It would appear that Oba Ovonramwen, or his father, Oba Adolor, had been tricked into signing a treaty allegedly agreeing to Benin becoming a British Protectorate. Dispute over this later degenerated. Note that this was the era of the industrial revolution in Europe and European greed and expansionism in Africa knew no bounds, and this forest region was prized for rubber among other things. Some British officers, including the strong-headed Consul Phillips, had insisted on entering the kingdom at the time of a certain festival that forbade strangers from doing so. Oba Ovonramwen counselled his chiefs that the men be left alone, but some chiefs led by the fiery warlord Chief Ologboshere would hear nothing of it. Four white men and some of their African attendants were seized and murdered. The response of the British was typical of what they did in those days wherever British men were killed. They declared war and their soldiers marched through the city. The Binis put up a fight. A British battalion is said to have been routed and its commander beheaded. But the sides were not evenly marched in what was to be repeated several times across Africa – people armed with firearms against people armed with machetes. The war is referred to by some as the Benin Massacre. The oba’s palace was burnt down. The Benin are world-famous for carving and casting. A huge amount of art was looted by the British and taken to British museums. That, too, was probably repeated a hundred times throughout Africa wherever the marauding Europeans had a “conquest”. (Recently the head of a museum in New York declared that arts taken from other places and brought to the West will not be returned.) If you visit Benin City, look out for the statue of a man in war garbs at Sakponba Road junction in King Square. That is Asoro, one of the heros of that war, who, it is said, single-handedly defended Sakponba Road and held on well before he was killed.
Queen Victoria’s chief agent, Consul-General Moore later sat on trial over Oba Ovonramwen and his chiefs. Claiming to be applying the Benin rule that when a chief is murdered, a chief from the other clan is executed in return, Moore sentenced Ologboshere and three other chiefs to death. If I recall it well, one committed suicide, two were hanged. Ologboshere evaded capture for three years before he was caught and hanged. Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi (Ovonramwen the Lord of Beyond) was exiled to Calabar. It was forbidden for a Bini monarch to be on exile, but since he was still alive, the kingmakers could not crown another oba and so Benin temporarily became a republic. The British overloads would have no Benin kingdom anyway. It was after the death of the oba in Calabar in 1914 that his son, Prince Aiguobasimwin, was crowned as Oba Eweka II.
Eweka N’Ovbi-Udu (Eweka the Lion-hearted), as he was nick-named, used his education and diplomatic skills to persuade the British to restore the Benin monarchy which he argued was at par with the British’s. He was an accomplished carver in ivory and wood and a gifted blacksmith. He rebuilt the palace burnt down in 1897. The palace he built is the one occupied by the oba today.
Oba Eweka became father to Oba Akenzua who became father to the present oba who is addressed as His Majesty, Omon Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolor, Oba Erediauwa, the Oba of Benin. (The address is actually full of repetitions and translations because Uku Akpolokpolor means majesty, and Omon Oba N’Edo apparently means Oba of Benin.) The traditional institution has witnessed a lot of changes. To become a monarch today you must get the approval of the governor of the state. This ensures the traditional people do not run parallel governments but operate within the framework of the sovereign state. A governor has powers to remove a king at his discretion and the courts have jurisdiction over succession disputes. The traditional institutions are very useful in the area of dispute resolution. In Esanland where I was raised, many, especially country folks, prefer them to the court system which is plagued by incessant adjournments. Submission to a monarch’s jurisdiction, though, is optional. They have no police powers. Jurisdiction is circumscribed and superseded by the court system. The oba himself is adapting to the times. A few years ago, when fallouts of the military’s annulment of an election brought the country to near-boiling point, Oba Erediauwa, after praying at his shrines, went to a church, and then a mosque, to pray for peace in his domain. By saying little publicly, staying out of partisan politics and contract seeking, unlike several other monarchs, Oba Erediauwa has managed to avoid controversy and to maintain his dignity and to retain some of the mystique that surrounds the Benin monarchy. But a few years ago, a confrontation with a military governor who was renowned for his bad temper got his name in the papers.
On Oba Erediauwa has fallen the task of reconciling the conflicts between an all-consuming modernity and entrenched traditions. Consider this incident that took place a few years ago. Igbafe, a non-native of Benin and a history professor at the University of Benin was “given some beads” by His Majesty. This is one of the highest honours the oba can confer on a non-Bini. During an occasion at the palace, Professor Igbafe wore the bead with his wife. The oba publicly reprimanded him, telling him that the bead was given to him, not his wife. The don took umbrage and promptly returned the bead to Omon Oba. This was unheard-of and was considered a sacrilege and on affront on the throne. Some Benin young men almost declared what must be the Benin version of a fatwa on the professor. I have read some Benin scholars who are so nostalgic about the old days they cannot accept the present. They will tell you this or that throne has lapsed. That the other one ought not to be recognised by the government, as it was created by the British rather than the oba.
There are a lot of other obas about who little is known. There was one who, according to a tradition, married a Portuguese woman. When he died it was decided that white children could not be oba or princes, and so the children he had from that particular wife were settled and escorted far into the forest where they formed other kingdoms. And there was Oba Orhogbua (reigned about I550 - 1578) who was trained at a naval school in Portugal and who established Eko (Lagos) as a war camp in his efforts to control the coast. And there is Oba Eresoyen (reigned about 1735 - 1750) who invented ivory flutes and introduced the institution of banking by building a house called owigho (bank). And there were Ohen and Ewuakpe. The Benin system was by no means democratic, as neither the oba nor his council were elected by the people. Checks and balances on the powers of the oba were provided by the councils of chiefs and kingmakers and by certain cults. He was assisted in legislative and judicial matters by the different councils. He could lose his throne if these lost confidence in him, as it appears nearly happened in the case of the strong-headed Oba Ewuakpe (reigned about 1700 – 1712). There was Oba Ohen (reigned about 1334 - 1370), the paralysed, bad-tempered oba who was stoned to death after killing his lyase (prime minister) for spying on his deformity.
If you visit Benin City, be sure to look out for The Benin Moat. This series of earthwork gullies served as protection for the kingdom against invaders in ancient time. According to archaeologist, Patrick Darling, the Benin concentric moats, added together, are longer than the Great Wall of China. The first is believed to have been dug on the orders of Oba Oguola (reigned about 1280-1295) There are legends surrounding The Moat. One is that a certain one was single-handedly dug by Aruanran the Giant Prince. Aruanran, so the story goes, was a son to Ozolua the Conqueror (reigned about 1481 – 1504). Succession in the Bini kingship is based primogeniture – first son to first son. Aruanran was the first son of the oba but because he was all brawn and no brains he lost out to his younger brother who became Oba Esigie. But this may not be unlike Jacob and Esau – Esau did not lose out the day he brought the food to his father late. An oral tradition has it that the two wives of the oba were both pregnant. The first one was delivered of a male child and a messenger was dispatched to inform the oba. That one saw a drinking party on the way and joined them. The second woman then had her birth. The second messenger informed the oba first. The second son automatically got the right to the throne since his birth was reported first. Aruanran grew up a giant and used to uproot palm trees to sweep. When he lost the throne, he left Benin in anger and went to Udo where he later disappeared. It is unknown what happened to him. A legend has it that he went to war and did not return. Another has it that he went away and founded another kingdom. But another has it that a family crisis forced him to dig a pond, jump in and form a lake. Till this day, the lake is worshiped by some adherents of traditional beliefs in Udo who believe he did not die, but live in it.
One of the things the European visitors found most remarkable was the well-planned streets of Benin City. In 1688 a certain European visitor gave an account of Benin City as having 30 straight streets about 120 feet broad with intersecting streets at right angles to them. He described the splendour of an oba who he said could in a day bring 20,000 warriors to the field, 80,000 to 100,000 if necessary.
According to the historian Crowder, what is remarkable about Bini is that the growth and development of this purely African state was not stimulated by contact with Islam or Europe. It developed a highly advanced political system and the arts on its own. It developed the workings of international trade by contact with the Oyo Empire and with the Europeans. The Bini, even today, are still very proud of their monarchy. If you meet a lot of Binis, you are sure to observe that many of them bear names like Igbinoba (I seek refuge with the king), Enobakhare (what the king says), and so on. You will even meet Binis with names venerating specific obas such as Igbineweka, Igbinadolor and so on. Family and clan meetings are begun with the invocation “Oba khator kpe’e, ise.” May the king live long, amen.
It is 2006. There has been a flurry of activities here. People are making new year resolutions. Offices are making plans. Politicians are scheming, 2007 being a major election year. There has been a remarkable rise in the price of goods and services. The other day I went to the buka near the office – oh, yes, the very same place they did in my tooth – and was surprised how much the wrap of eba that goes for twenty naira has shrunk in size.
On the world scene one wonders what will happen in 2006. For example, will financial scandals force Jacques Chirac out of office? Will Saddam be convicted for crimes against humanity and executed or will there be a declaration of “no trial” due to every judge that is not shot resigning? Will the bird flu mutate and cause an epidemic to kill one billion people as some doomsayers are predicting? Will Tom Delay be convicted and jailed? How many Nigerian elected officials will lose their jobs to corruption? Will President Obasanjo declare intention to run for a third term of office? Will Kenya’s President Kibaki fall down like humpty-dumpty? Will George Bush be impeached for the quagmire in Iraq? Will poor health force Dick Cheney to resign? Will John McCain or Hillary Clinton or both declare for the presidency? Will Vladimir Putin be assassinated by Chechen rebels? Will Hugo Chavez again come to the aid of down trodden people in the American South? Will rogue scientists clone a human? Will Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea stop clamping journalists and dissenters into jail and stop persecuting religious minorities? Will Osama bin Ladin be captured? Will Bill Gates become the world’s first trillionaire? Will Israelis vote for the first leader to centralise the matter of the 25% of their country’s population (1/3 in the case of children) who live in shocking poverty amidst so much prosperity? Will the Commonwealth Games in Australia be aborted due to race riots? And Ehi – will he hit millions? Will he get married? Will he take a trip to go see the Niagara Falls
How are you doing? I agree with the sentiments you expressed in your mail, Wendy. I guess I ignored something. Because you are from a different culture and because you are a very compassionate person, you are moved. Truth is: I know of kids half my age who will have stories twice as grim to tell. The kind of things I tell you about my experience are nothing new. Two years ago a World (something) Survey found that Nigerians are the happiest people on earth. A lot of people laughed at it. The truth is that what the surveyors found had a lot to do, not with the circumstances in which Nigerians live, but the attitude to life of Nigerians. If you live here you learn to laugh at yourself.
So these letters are not meant to invoke pity or awe in you. They are personal stories told for the sake of telling them. In these mails, I set out to focus more on culture, social issues, science, etc. But it would appear I have ended up talking too much about my experiences. Of course, my experiences only tell you about here.
How about your appointment at the doctor’s? Those items have not arrived. Sometimes it takes time, so I am still waiting. Remember the beautiful white cup? I was wondering what it was made of. I found out. It is ceramic alright, but it is not quite of the same stuff as the last one I bought. How I found out? I kicked it two days after I bought it. I guess a not-so-careful guy living in a cramped one-room apartment has no business acquiring breakable cups. And I found that while everything else is in excellent shape with my radio, the recorder does not work.