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Benin Palace And The House Of Igbinedion 


Benin Palace And The House Of Igbinedion
By Reuben Abati
There have been many interpretations of the reception organised for Governor
Lucky Igbinedion by the "Benin people" under the auspices of the Benin Forum
at the Oba of Benin palace grounds on Saturday, December 1. The issues at
stake are worth considering. First, the APP in Edo state is livid with rage.

Chief Dan Orbih, the party's National Welfare Officer as well as Benjamin
Abhulimen (Chairman, Edo-APP) and Comrade Godwin Erhahon (Publicity
Secretary) have issued public statements in which they are seeking to tell
the public that Governor Igbinedion is an enemy of the Benin palace and that
he is guilty of such a degree of misadministration which makes him
undeserving of any honour. Second, there are persons who are saying that the
fact that the reception was held at the Oba's palace should not be seen as
an endorsement of Igbinedion by the Omo N'Oba N'Edo Uku Akpolopolo. Oba Gha
To 'Kpere!. They insist that the Oba obliged and gave a speech at the
occasion, merely out of politeness. I disagree, and I intend to show why.

I thought the Oba himself had settled the matter when he said: "I like also

(sic) to commend the movers of the idea that the Palace compound should be
the venue of this reception. They consulted me and I agreed. I also
consulted and God Almighty and my ancestors accepted the idea. So any
persons who seek to impute negative motive and sow the seed of discord in
what my people are doing today has himself or herself to blame." My
preliminary response is to say that the December 1 event is a successful
maneouvre by Governor Igbinedion and his strategists. The Benin Forum is a
group of elites who have collected themselves to think about the city in
which they live. This is not the first time that they are honouring an Edo
son, but it is the first time they would go to the palace for such a
purpose. They have succeeded in using the reception to position themselves
very well; people are now talking about them as if they are influential.
Maybe they are. Essentially, what they have done is an endorsement
reception. Recall that the Oba had said, rather dramatically: " I believe we
can, without fear of contradiction say today that in Governor Igbinedion our
prayers have been answered." If this is not an endorsement, I wonder what is.
Without any fear of contradiction, I dare say that Governor Igbinedion has
succeeded in using the Benin palace as a campaign tool towards 2003. The Oba
of Benin of course does not need to campaign. His position is too secure for
that. It is too well ordained. The Oba's job is a lifetime assignment. He
does not need to go out of his way to please a man who has a four-year
assignment. Still, on December 1, the Oba went out of his way to please
Governor Igbinedion. It is an unusual departure for the Oba of Benin.
Usually, the Benin palace has provided a perfect illustration of the
conflict between traditional and modern authority in the state. What I am
saying is that there has been no love lost between the Benin palace and
Governors of Edo State, with perhaps the notable exception of John
Odigie-Oyegun, formerly of the SDP. The crisis is both historical and
personal. Colonial authorities had begun their career in Nigeria by
humiliating traditional rulers in the Southern protectorate; they later
befriended them, only to discredit them eventually. With independence, the
traditional institution progressively lost its authority and hold on the
people. Politicians became more powerful and deposed Obas. Military
administrators used traditional rulers as something worse than rubber
stamps. This was possible because the authority of the traditional rulers
had been subsumed under that of the ruling Governor or administrator.
Traditional rulers receive their staffs of office from the Governor, they
are on the state's payroll, and like civil servants, their movements could
be restricted, or they are required to obtain the governor's permission. To
drive home the point about the location of power in modern Nigeria,
traditional rulers are even classified into Grades A, B, or C with telling
implications for their level of influence and remuneration. To survive in
office therefore, the traditional ruler needs to be seen to be in the good
books of the ruling Governor. The kind of absurdity that this could generate
at critical moments was realized during the Abacha years when traditional
rulers were taken to Abuja to watch coup video and to march for General
Abacha. One traditional ruler from the East even died in his hotel room in
the process.
But in the midst of all that self-denigration, and mockery, one traditional
ruler who has tried to maintain his dignity, and insist on the sacredness of
his sphere of authority is the present Oba of Benin, who is revered not just
for the historicity of his office but also his own sense of history. This
has brought him into regular conflict with governors or military
administrators in Edo state, and especially with the house of Igbinedion,
which without any further equivocation on that subject, is the most powerful
family in Edo State, after the House of Akenzua. The Igbinedions dominate
the most strategic businesses in Edo state: commerce, education and power.
Which is why it is often so easy for Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, the
patriarch of the family, to get involved in nearly every major trouble in
the state, and to move one of his sons from being local government chairman
of Oredo to the State House. Such a family is bound to get so cocky and
sassy that it would clash with the Oba of Benin.
The challenge in Benin is about who owns the city. Ordinarily, the Oba of
Benin is the undisputed owner of the city. But his authority is informal and
traditional. There is a formal authority that resides in the governor. What
happens is that the present Oba usually tries to stretch his authority to
the other frontier. He would always like to say something about how Edo
State is run. His source of relevance in this regard lies in the fact that
he is generally accepted as the father of the state, that is the paramount
ruler, despite the unsuccessful rebellion of the people of Udo, Usen and
Egor. It is something like this: the Governor of a state is the boss in that
state, but he is not the father. The father recognizes the role of the boss
but he is still the father of the boss. In Edo state, however, that line has
not always been that clear. In his second coming as Governor of Bendel
State, as it then was, Chief Samuel Ogbemudia and the Oba were in different
camps, and this created tension. When Navy captain Anthony Onyearugbulem
became Abacha's military administrator in Edo State, he went out of his way
to embarrass the palace, suspending the Oba from the state traditional
rulers council. The Oba was quietly opposed to Abacha's misrule and he had
treated Dr. Anthony Onyearugbulem as if he were an upstart. When
Onyearugbulem's wife later lost her pregnancy in the course of the fight, it
was widely alleged that the Oba's juju was still potent. The matter was that
serious. But we should ask the Isekhure, the Oba's chief priest.
Anyhow, the quarrel between the palace and the house of Igbinedion is easy
to explain. The latter has exercised for so long an informal authority
arising from its wealth; it has since sought formal authority and grabbed it
twice (Chairman, Oredo Local Government, and now, Governor), and on every
occasion, its ambition was bound to clash with the divine mandate of the
Oba. In 1991, when Lucky Igbinedion wanted to be governor on the platform of
the National Republican Convention and lost to John Oyegun, the matter had
gone to an election tribunal which summoned the Oba as a witness for his
alleged anti-Igbinedion activities. In the last election, it is also common
knowledge that the Benin palace was against Igbinedion, preferring instead
another Edo son, Lucky Imasuen. The Oba and Lucky's father, Gabriel
Igbinedion, Esama of Benin, an Eghaevbon'Ore chief have also not been on
good terms. Gabriel Igbinedion is one subject who is accused of not wanting
to act like a subject, and hence the palace is always trying to cut him down
to size. In 1992, he was declared an Oghionba (the Oba's enemy) and stripped
of his title and ostracised and later pardoned. 
The two strands identified above came together on December 1 at the Oba's
palace: the conflict between traditional and formal authority, and the
tussle between the palace and the house of Igbinedion. I had made the point
earlier that the Igbinedions have succeeded in outmaneuvering the Oba
because whatever happened on December 1, is not simply between the
Government house and the palace, but between the Esama and the Oba of Benin.
The house of Igbinedion is determined to win, and it may well think that the
December 1 event is another demonstration of its political prowess. But I
hasten to argue that the Oba is indeed the winner. It is noteworthy that the
reception was not his idea, it was other people's idea. It was not a case of
the Awujale struggling to make Governor Olusegun Osoba the Aremo of
Ijebuland or the Oba of Lagos making Governor Bola Tinubu the Ashiwaju of
Lagos. The real dynamics lies in the recognition of, and acceptance of the
palace as an important centre of power by Governor Igbinedion and his
supporters. The point is that the Oba of Benin cannot lose anything by any
Governor quarrelling with him. Where is Onyearugbulem, for example?. There
is nothing you can do to beat the Oba of Benin in his kingdom. The Benin
palace is lucky because it has the people on its side. The Edos are
fanatical about their Oba, and they are perhaps alone in this respect in the
whole of Nigeria. Elsewhere, rich men snatch the wives of the monarch, or
they tell him to shut up. No Edo man can do that, and get away with it. In
the end, a civilian Governor who needs the people on his side ought to be
seen to be nice to the Oba of Benin, because as they say, "Aimi'Oba eva
vb'Edo" meaning there cannot be two Obas in Benin. It is a very neat system
that they have in Benin. When the Oba dies, his son succeeds him unlike the
segmentary, opposition system that is the norm in other places. If you
embarrass the Oba of Benin, you'd still have to deal with his son, and his
grandson after him. This is perhaps why Governor Igbinedion and his father
have been playing it by the ear. It is also why the APP is angry. They think
Lucky Igbinedion has made yet another lucky move.
But I want to end this piece by saying that it does not quite matter what
kind of horse-trading goes on between the Edo State house and the Oba of
Benin. Obas are supposed to be fighters for their cities. The Oba of Benin
cannot fight for his city if he and the Governor are involved in little
matters. The city of Benin needs revamping. The whole of Edo state still
needs a lot from Igbinedion beyond all the diplomatic things that the Oba
said about him and his wife. The real challenge lies ahead. The people of
Edo state will judge Governor Lucky Igbinedion not by the number of
receptions he gets from the Oba of Benin, or the chieftaincy titles he
receives from the Enigies but by the positive difference he as "the Man in
the Arena", is able to make in the lives of the Edo people. As the Oba has
spoken, "Umaegbe gha ne'Edo..." Oba gha to okpere!