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.
(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!