Culture, tradition as a way of life
At a time when cultural and traditional vestiges are either relegated to the background or jettisoned outright, owing largely to Western influence on the polity, the Benin people of southern Nigeria are constituting themselves into a study in reverence for culture and tradition.
Despite their early interaction with the west, and even a war, which led to the death of many, the people have solidly resisted every attempt from any quarter to divorce them from their beloved way of life and beliefs.
For instance, not in many parts of the country would the very educated, the not so educated and even the religious do away with their fancy hairdo and replace same with thoroughly shaved heads just to show respect to a monarch who joined his ancestors, at the prompting of the traditional council.
That exactly is what the likes of foremost human rights lawyer, Mike Ozekhome; former attorney general of Edo State, Mr. Osagie Obayuwana, and former chairman, Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Philip Ugbodaga, did when they publicly went bald.
As part of preparations for the forthcoming obsequies, the Benin Traditional Council (BTC), called on all Benin people at home and abroad, including friends of the Benin Kingdom to, as a mark of respect and love for the departed king, His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’ Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, join the palace in observing all customs and tradition in honour of the deceased monarch.
It has been a booming business for barbers in Benin City, the Edo State capital, and indeed elsewhere for the past four days, as they have been experiencing increasing patronage.
Shortly after the Iyase (Prime Minister) of Benin Kingdom, Chief Sam Igbe, led other top palace chiefs to make public the transition of the Benin monarch to the great beyond, barbers in the state started experiencing a boom in their businesses as Binis at home and abroad, closed ranks to grief in honour of their departed monarch.
Igbe at the press conference he gave had maintained that “… all male citizens of Benin Kingdom will, as a rule be expected to clean shave the hair on their heads with effect from April 29, 2016 in obedience to Benin Tradition.”
Igbe added that, “All our friends and well-wishers, including all those who live with us and work for their livelihood within our kingdom, may wish to join us after the announcement…”
A haven for arts, craft
Beyond a very rich history of its monarchy, the Benin Kingdom is also famed for its legendary arts and craft. Put differently, Benin City is also synonymous with bronze works. Bronze casting dates back to 1400AD when it was introduced by Oba Oguola, into the city described as a continuous centre of civilization, which has also remained a major centre of artistic works for over 500 years. To date, it is still a leading city endowed with rich cultural heritage.
Expectedly, the forthcoming obsequies and other sideline activities, which would ultimately lead to the installation of a new Oba, has presented the people of the kingdom the opportunity to, once again showcase the rich Benin artworks and craft.
According Ambrose Ekhosuehi, a commentator on Benin history and culture, the inscriptions on Benin sculpture and art works, provide important historical perspectives on artistic developments over several hundred years.
He added that the royal ancestral altars have long been a focus of artistic elaboration, perhaps dating back to Ogiso (the title of the monarch before it was changed to Oba) era. And much of the sculptural forms that mostly characterise Benin arts were originally created to honour royal ancestors of the Benin nation.
The materials used in Benin’s royal arts—primarily brass, ivory, and coral—are endowed with sacred power. The innate value of these materials within Benin, and the time and skills that is invested in working them, reflect the earthly and other worldly influence of the Oba and the great wealth of his kingdom.
Benin’s royal arts belong to a tradition that favours convention, even as it promotes creativity and innovation, especially as a reflection of royal prerogative. Through time, rulers have used the arts to interpret the history of the kingdom and to orient themselves with the past in an effort to support their own initiatives and define their images for posterity.
The city’s artworks are mostly of brass casters (Igun eronmwon), who are the highest-ranking craft guild. This is followed by blacksmiths (Igun ematon) and ivory and wood carvers (Igbesanwan) in that order.
The origins of brass casting in Benin City are mostly traced to the reign of Oba Oguola, who is said to have reigned around 1280 AD.
Igun Street, located near the city centre, has a well-established chain of bronze and artefacts shops that boast the best in handcraft, artefacts and other artworks, which depict the rich cultural heritage of the Benin. The area is also referred to as ‘Benin Heritage Site’ and plays host to hundreds of local and foreign customers and lovers of artefacts.
John Emuze Art Gallery, is a family lineage business spanning generations, and with a particular family descendant.
Abieyuwa Emuze, is one of the sons of Pa Emuze, the managing director of the gallery, who learnt the trade from his father, whom he said also learnt from his father. This is handed down from generation to generation.
“Igun Street is known for bronze casting with a combination of other forms of artworks, ranging from sculpture to fibre works,” he explained.
Emuze, who described the learning journey as tortuous, and that which is only common and taught to family members within the traditional bronze casting community said, “I learnt the skill of bronze casting from my family. My father taught me, and my father also learnt the skill from his father, my grandfather. In this view, I will in turn teach my children because it is a family thing.
“In Igun community here, anyone you find doing artwork here must have learnt it from his/her fore bearers. The person must also be an indigene of Igun community and must have come from one of the three families that constitute the kindred known for bronze casting. The three major families are the Akenuwa, Ihama and the Inneh families. Notably, the Inneh family happens to be the traditional head of the Igun community, where bronze casting is their traditional occupation.”
According to him, others who engage in bronze casting outside of the Igun Street community are still from these three families, or are close family relatives that stayed in Igun before moving elsewhere.
“In the years I have spent as a child working as a craftsman, we do not take apprentice or teach strangers or anybody willing to learn because the skill is passed from one generation to the other within the family. So, we do not teach persons outside the three notable families,” he said.
Home of largest man-made earthworks
Benin Kingdom is also famed for its moats, which have rightly been listed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) heritage list. The first and second moats round the city, dug to keep out enemies from the kingdom, were said to have been constructed at about 1280 AD during the reign of Oba Oguola.
The Benin moat is believed to be the largest man-made earthworks in the world. It predates the use of modern earth-moving equipment or technology in these parts. The moat encircles the old perimeter precincts of the city and was constructed as a defensive barrier in times of war. It is believed to be the greatest defence wall to have ever been built by African civilisation.
Oba Oguola was said to have dug the first and second moats to fortify the city from invaders, including the imperial European invaders, who at the time were hunting for African slaves as labourers.
Benin history has it that Oba Oguola further decreed that important towns and villages should build similar moats as defence systems around their communities. This gave rise to 20 of such moats around Benin City and its environs. An extension of the moat was constructed in the 15th Century during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great (1440-1473 CE). The Benin moat is over 3200 kilometers long.
The Guinness Book of World Records describes the walls of Benin City as the world’s second largest man-made structure, after China’s Great Wall, in terms of length, and the series of earthen ramparts as the most extensive earthwork in the world.
The Oba as Benin’s highest political, religious authority
According to a historian in Benin history, Onions Edionwe, the Oba of Benin was, and is still the highest political and religious authority to a true Benin man.
“The leadership of the Oba as the head of Benin political structure is firm and without any controversy. Any other position is enveloped as the subject of the Oba. After the Oba, there is no second, third or fourth in command position to the Oba.”
This perhaps confirms why activities marking the burial of Erediauwa and the enthronement of his heir apparent, Eheneden will, for a long time to come, remain grand in the annals of the Benin Kingdom.
The Guardian gathered that the coronation ceremonies of an Oba of Benin usually last about 10 days. They begin from Egua-Edaiken, the traditional residence of the heir apparent to the Benin Throne.
On a day fixed by the Edaiken, he is escorted by his Uselu people on his journey back to Benin City. On the way, he pauses at an historical palm tree named, “Udin ama-mieson aimiuwa” (meaning “work before pleasure”), which the Edaiken “climbs” symbolically.
This little ceremony, it was gathered, owes its origin to the time of Oba Ewuare the Great, whose life as heir apparent to the throne was characterised by long suffering, which included periods when he personally had to climb palm trees on this spot to cut the fruits for a living. This act of suffering by the father of the first Edaiken has ever since been re-enacted in a symbolic way by every Edaiken. From the palm tree, the Edaiken continues his journey to Benin City; but at the first moat called (lya-akpan), the Uselu chief in the procession would take leave of the Edaiken and return to Uselu, while the Edaiken is thereafter escorted into the City by Oredo chiefs
History has it that the Edaiken would enter the city through Iguisi (now Lagos Street) and proceed to Eko-Ohae (bachelors camp), where he would stay for three days, after which he would continue his journey to Usama, the venue of the traditional coronation rites.
Usama was the site where Orominyan, the father of Eweka I, was said to have built the first palace and all succeeding obas from Eweka I were crowned and lived there, until Oba Ewedo in the 13th Century moved the palace to the present site in the city centre. The Edaiken would remain in Usama for seven days performing all the rituals and ceremonies of the Oba .
Before the expiration of seven days, he would visit Use, a village a few kilometers outside Benin, where he would perform the ceremony for choosing the title he would bear as the Oba of Benin .
Having picked a name at Use, the Edaiken returns to Usama where the crowning ceremony is performed by Oliha, the leader of the Uzama and proclaims Edaiken in his newly acquired name as the Oba of Benin.
It is significant to note that until the ceremony at Use, the Edaiken never knows before hand what name he is going to be crowned with. From this moment also, the Edaiken ceases to use his personal names and he is henceforth known by the new name of an Oba.
Also significant is the fact that both at Egor and Use, there still exists, almost in their original form, the shrines established by the diviners and the native doctors who brought the magical akhue seeds from Uhe. After the crowning ceremony, the new Oba would then leave Usama on the 7th day for the city centre to be proclaimed and presented to Benin people .
On his way to the city, he would stop at lsekherhe to perform the ceremonial crossing of a bridge, a reminder of the day Oba Ewedo, on a similar journey, was said to have erected a bridge to enable him pass lsekherhe territory without stepping on the ground.
After crossing the bridge, the Oba and his entourage are expected to engage in a mock battle with Ogiamien and his followers. The resistance of Ogiamien forces collapses while the Oba and his entourage would proceed to Urho-Okpota. Urho-Okpota (the gate of Okpota) it was learnt dates its existence to the era of Oba Ozolua, about 15th Century, and it is the area now known as “Ring Road,” including where structures like the Exhibition Centre and the Oredo Local Council Secretariat now stands.
Okpota was said to have been a powerful native doctor who prepared a charm of goodluck for the Oba. It is said that the charm, which was buried at the gate of the palace brought prosperity to the Kingdom. The Oba was said to have lodged Okpota in a house near the palace in the area of the present day Exhibition Centre.
The veranda to his house was said to have soon become a meeting place for the elders, even for the Oba, and Urhokpota has ever since remained a centre for meeting and useful deliberations.
For the same reason, Oba Eweka II is believed to have chosen the site for building the new Native Court, now known as Exhibition Centre. The ceremony at Urhokpota completed, the new Oba would then move into the palace as the Oba of Benin .
But by tradition, he still has Ogiamien’s challenge to meet and so seven days after, he is expected to assemble his troops and would proceed to Ekiokpagha where he is expected to engage in a mock battle with Ogiamien, a reminder of the real battle between Oba Ewedo and Ogiamien in the 13th Century when the latter attempted to prevent the former from entering the city from Usama. By the treaty between the two, Ogiamien surrendered his claim to the ownership of land to the Oba.
The Uzama are the most ancient and the highest-ranking order of chiefs in Benin. The origin of Uzama dates back, however, to the era of Eweka I in the thirteenth century. They perform the function of crowning the king, Eweka I ordered that Chief Oliha, the most senior Uzama, should crown every Oba of Benin because it was he who led the team of elders to Uhe (Ife) to persuade Izoduwa to return to Benin, to rule.
Oliha was said to have also performed a rare function of preserving the seven lice given to the team by Izoduwa for three years, which was said to have earned him the appellation Ogele mun iru.
The other Uzama are Edohen, Ezomo, Ero, Eholo-nire, Oloton and Edaiken. Six of them were created by Eweka I, and made hereditary. The seventh, Edaiken, which is held by the eldest son of the Oba and heir apparent to Benin throne, was the creation of Ewuare the Great.Immediately the Edaiken becomes Oba, the title of Edaiken automatically devolves on his eldest son.
In the last few days, many of these chiefs have been engaged in very serious traditional activities that when Chief Oliha was called on phone yesterday, he said they have been very busy with various meetings and activities.
So much transformation in the kingdom could be traced to Oba Ewuare the Great, who was said to have been the first Oba to come in contact with the Europeans in about 1472 AD.
“He encouraged ivory, wood carving. He dug the inner-most city walls,” Edionwe said.He said, “Talking about Ewuare the Great is like talking about Alexander the Great. Most of the cultural norms of Benin today were enacted by Oba Ewuare. In short, Oba Ewuare remains the reference point for other Obas”
In preparation for taking over the throne, Eheneden has been undergoing certain rituals and processes one of the most recent being his relocation to, and assumption of duties as Edaiken of Uselu.