As Chairman of the organising committee of the Benin Centenary, I congratulate New York University(NYU), on the 20th anniversary of its Museum Studies Programme. I am grateful to the organizers of this symposium, especially Prof. Flora Edouwaye Kaplan, for giving me an opportunity to address this gathering of distinguished scholars.
When Prof. Kaplan asked if I would like to address this gathering on Benin Kingship, I wondered what I would tell scholars who may have made years of research into various aspects of that subject. I am not an academic and I have not done any research into Benin Kingship. My only credential is that I was born into the Royal Family and was raised in the palace during the reign of my father, Omo N’Oba Akenzua 11, which spanned 45 years. During that period, I listened to stories told to us by professional storytellers as we were growing up in the palace. With that scanty credential, it was great relief when Prof. Kaplan told me that the topic of my paper was ORAL TRADITION OF BENIN KINGSHIP. But having only ten minutes to speak I am afraid, one cannot do justice to this institution that has more than one thousand years of history behind it. We will therefore go straight to the point. I have broken the topic into two parts, namely: the myth and the contemporary.
Mythology tells us that kingship in Benin is as old as time; it was there at the time of creation.
When OSAN’OBUWA (God, the Creator) finished creation, He decided to send his sons to live on earth. Before they departed, He asked each one to take along a talent or a gift. Among the talents were wealth, knowledge wisdom and an old snail shell. One of the sons chose wealth, another knowledge, and another wisdom. When the youngest was to choose, only the old snail shell and a couple of nondescript items were left. As he wondered which to take, a hornbill emerged and whispered to him to choose the dirty, old snail shell. What would he do with an old snail shell? But he obeyed the hornbill and told OSA N’BUWA he wanted the shell. They set forth on their journey, each in his boat. They arrived at their destination and found it was water. The boats could not berth. The hornbill appeared again and told him to pour the shell’s content into the water.
As he did so, the water solidified: land emerged and rolled forth into the distance. He anchored his boat and stepped onto TERRA FIRMER. OSA N’BUWA was impressed by the intuition which made his youngest son choose the shell. God named the land EDO and made him king over it.
The other brothers could not find a place to anchor their boats and settle down. They offered part of their talents to their younger brother in exchange for a place to settle. Thus the Oba of EDO became owner of all land on earth. To this day, a snail shell containing medicinal earth forms an important and integral part of the coronation rituals of the Oba of Benin. The story we have just heard is told and retold to every royal child.
Some contemporary historians claim that kingship began in Benin in the 13th century with the arrival in Benin of the PRINCE FROM UHE( Ile-Ife or Ife) ORANMIYAN, son of ODUDUWA, who was sent to Benin at the request of the people of Benin, to become King, circa 1200 AD. The respected Benin historian, Jacob U. Egharevba, in his SHORT HISTORY OF BENIN, stated that Benin requested Oduduwa to send a king to rule over them. Some persons who read Egharevba have concluded that there were no kings in Benin until ORANMIYAN arrived. Those who have jumped to that conclusion have not taken into account, the period of the OGISOS of Benin. Egharevba named 15 Ogisos who ruled over Benin. He referred to the period of the OGISOS as the FIRST DYNASTY of Benin Kingship. Dr. O.S.B. Omeregie, in a paper on THE EVOLUTION OF BENIN which he presented as part of a series of lectures on the LOST TREASURES OF ANCIENT BENIN, organised by Nigeria’s NATIONAL COMMISSION FOR MUSEUMS AND MONUMENTS in Benin City on June 25, 1982, named 31 Ogisos of Benin. Both Egharevba and Omoregie however, named OGISO OWODO as the last of them and the father of EKALADERHAN.
However, the view that the first king of Benin came from Ile-Ife, has raised an interesting, albeit controversial question about the BENIN-IFE CONNECTION and the origin of the Benin royal family itself. Since Egharevba, some historians hold the view that the Benin royal family has its origin in Ife and that the OONI OF IFE is the FATHER of the Oba of Benin. Some have even said that the entire people of Benin come from Ife.
The controlversy is not whether or not the relationship did exist. There are anthropological and folkloric eveidence that prove the existence beyond a doubt. Songs and rituals are still performed today in both Benin and Ife which eulogise it. In Benin, the story is told with nostalgia; in Ife, with euphoria and pride and belief that the Ooni of Ife is the father of the Oba of Benin.
That belief was, no doubt, on the Ooni’s mind when he hosted the Oba of Benin who paid him an officail visit on November 11, 1982. The Ooni, speaking with the pride of a father receiving a son who made good abroad, described the oba’s visit as a “short home-coming” He said, inter alia: “We welcome Your Royal Highness most heartily back to Ile-Ife, the cradle of our common culture. The origin of your dynasty and ours…… Today is really a very good day for us in Ife and its environs because since you left in 891 AD, we have come to know that your dynasty has perfomed wonderfully well. As we have mentioned briefly during our historic visit to your domain not too long ago, we said that we were there to pat you on the back for a job well done… Your present visit…. we regard as a short home-coming where you will have an opportunity to commune with those deities you left behind…. Now, my son and brother, long may you reign.”
That address made a clear, unequivocal allusion to the suggestion that Benin, or at least , the Royal Family, owes its origin to Ife. But in his reply, the Oba of Benin tacitly rejected that submission. In the prelude to his main speech, he said: “IF THE OONI OF IFE CALLS THE OBA OF BENIN HIS SON AND THE OBA OF BENIN CALLS THE OONI HIS SON, THEY ARE BOTH RIGHT.”
He did not elaborate But that assertion, innocuous as it might seem, represents the other part of the story which never really been fully told, although told with varying details in Ife and Benin. Despite the varying details, the central theme THAT BENIN DID GO TO IFE TO GET A KING, remains constant. The question then is: WHY DID BENIN CHOOSE IFE INSTEAD OF A NEARER “COUNTRY,” TO GO AND LOOK FOR A KING, ESPECIALLY AS IFE ITSELF NEITHER HAD A KING NOR A MONARCHY? The question was answered by the Oba of Benin himself in a lecture he delivered on the EVOLUTION OF TRADITIONAL RULERSHIP IN NIGERIA under the auspices of the Institute of the African Studies of the University of Ibadan on September 11, 1984.
The Oba said, inter alia: “Another important traditional ruler whose origin deserves examination is the Oduduwa of Ife whose origin is also shrouded in myths and legend. He is believed to be the father of the principal rulers of Yorubaland, the father of Oranmiyan who was the the father of EWEKA 1 of Benin and who was the founder and the first Alafin of Oyo Kingdom; Ife traditional history says Oduduwa descended from heaven ( in a like manner to the Edo account). Some modern historians say that the great Oduduwa was a fugitive from the Moslems of the Middle-east and that he came to settle in what is present -day Ile-Ife. We in Benin believe, and there are historical landmarks for such belief,that the person whom the Yoruba call Oduduwa was the fugitive Prince EKALADERHAN, son of the last OGISO OF BENIN by name OGISO OWODO; he found his way to what is now Ile-Ife after gaining freedom from his executioners and wandering for years through the forests. It was after the demise of his father and when, in the interregnum, Evian, and later his son Ogiamien, tried to assume the kingship, that those who knew that Ekaladerhan was still alive organized a search party to fetch him. It was this search party that emerged at Ile-Ife and discovered Ekaladerhan, known then to the people of Ile-Ife as Oduduwa and already enjoying the status of a King. After failing to persuade him to return with them to Benin, they succeeded in getting him to send his son, ORANMIYAN, to rule Benin….”
This part of the story is not widely known especially outside Benin. This is not the first time the BENIN-IFE CONNECTION has been discussed. It also will not be the last time. But this is probably the first time the Benin-Ife connection and the origin of Oduduwa have been discussed out of the realm of myths, esoterica and magic. The story we have just told will rattle some established legends and beliefs. Those who hold primordial beliefs may even feel that such beliefs are threatened or challenged. But the time has come for chroniclers to tell stories about Africa dispassionately if African history is to survive the often hard and harsh scrutiny of modern assessors.
Let me now discuss some attributes or qualities of Benin Kingship. As has been shown, monarchial system of administration has lasted about one thousand years in Benin. During that period, a special relationship built on primordial norms and usage, developed between the people and the king.
The king is OSA N’OBUWA N’AGBON (God-on Earth). He is the spiritual and temporal head. He is held in great reverence and only referred to in absolute terms. It is a taboo to pronounce his name. He is referred to as ” EKPEN” or EKPEN N’OWA” ( The Leopard or The Leopard of the Manor). Leopard the mammal is EKPEN N’OHA ( Leopard of the jungles). The adoption of the name “Leopard ” in reference to the king is a metaphoric expression which is intended to show the similarity between the King and the King of the Forest. Both inspire fearsomeness and awe.
b) As God-on-Earth, he does not indulge in the natural functions of earthlings such as sleeping or eating. Thus it is not said ” the King is asleep:,” rather , EKPEN RU IRRU” which literally means ” the Leopard is roosting.”
c) In obvious reference to the immortality of God, it is said the King never dies. Such transition is euphemistically referred to as “OSORHUE B’UNRUN” (The Big mould of White clay chalk is broken) or “OWEN D’OKUN” ) The Sun has descended into the depths).
Kingship in Benin has some basic similarities with the same institution in Britain and some European countries, especially in the mode of ascension to the throne. This is strictly by the principle of primogeniture although, in Benin, unlike Britain and Europe, to the exclusion of the female child.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attention.
That is it, Ladies and gentlemen ,especially those who wanted to know the Benin Palace’s views about this aspect of Edo/Yoruba History. The issue is not that of supremacy. It is giving accurate account of historical incidents. Like Prince Edun Akenzua’s said, the Oduduwa tradition among the Edos surely rattled some people especially Yorubas (not necessarily historians who already knew that a different tradition existed in Benin but preferred to ignore it ).