The Untold Tale between Oba Esigie and Iyoba Idia of Benin
Over time in history, women have been in either at the forefront or at the back of the scene of most major historical events. They are like the painter with the oil and brush behind every masterpiece, we don’t see them at work so they are less appreciated or respected for feats they have achieved.
Yet, history books, have over the years, deliberately left out some remarkable achievements carried out by these females because of their gender. But women don’t just charge into the fight against societal injustice or any other fights without proper cause. An important catalyst that has always propelled women to stand and fight is their children. The unconditional love between a mother and a child is as powerful as the force of life and nature merged. The fierceness of a mother hen when her chickens are attached is as terrible as bringing down any creature that dares goes after her chickens.
Around the 1500s, when the 15th Oba of Benin passed on to join his ancestors as a living god; the Kingdom was left with two contestants to the throne. The actions Idia, one of the wives of the Oba, took after his death would alter forever history and change the destiny of the powerful Benin Kingdom to date.
Now, Arhuaran was the first son from the first wife while Esigie was the son of the Idia, who was the second wife. Tradition states the first son would be the Oba. But since birth, Idia nurtured Esigie to be next in line to the throne even though in that era, it was almost impossible.
Arhuaran was a bright logical child. At a young age, he was sent to Portugal to receive training and learn more about the ways of the white men, while Esigie stayed at home holding tight to wisdom and learnings from his mother. When Arhuaran came back from Portugal, people in the palace could barely recognise him, he was as tall as a giant.
Meanwhile, Esigie, huge and fierce looking, had grown to be a master of his father’s court. His speciality in magic, portions and also his relationship with the royal guards and the Oba’s army had made him a familiar face to the throne.
But there was a problem
The ancient culture states if an Oba is crowned, his mother must be eliminated as they were considered a threat to the future Oba and throne. This was the dilemma Idia found herself after the death of Oba Ozolua. The grave had been dung and her time to visit the land of her ancestors was closing in. Idia powerful in her own right as the Oba’s wife and the queen mother of the next Oba made moves physically and spiritually to have Esigie as the Oba.
This caused a heavy rife between him and his brother. Two powerful minds, the battle for the throne has to be more than just matching hot words’ against one another. It became physical. Each of the brothers commanded a small army that can quell any domestic uprising. But with the help of Idia who mobilised an army around Esigie, he defeated Arhuaran and Esigie became the 16th king of Benin. Arhuaran would go on to rule Udo, about 20miles away from Benin.
After Esigie became Oba, the cultural death warrant was still valid on his mother. He asked for the help of Omoregie Ero the 17th Ero of Benin. It was him that helped Esigie preserve Idia, the Oba’s mother, in 1504. Omoregie Ero had a secret groove at Idumwum-Oro at Uselu and called it Aro-Osun- the Shrine of the god of herbs- which no one, except those initiated could enter the place. For a long time, he kept Idia the mother of Esigie there while Oba Esigie also fought to eradicate the bad custom of eliminating the Oba’s mother.
After the barbaric tradition of killing the Kings mother was successfully abolished by Esigie, his mother was restored back to the Palace and there he crowned her the Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen Mother) making her the first Iyoba.
The King’s mother was saved but at the cost of the King promising never to have direct contact with his mother again for life. That is why the Queen Mother in Benin cultures cannot come into direct contact with her son once he becomes king. Iyoba Idia was allowed to rule at Uselu as a ruler- the hidden Oba of Benin.
As time went on, Esigie became a very powerful Oba with his mother right by his side, protecting and advising her son on what steps and measures to take to develop and improve the great Benin Kingdom. As a patron of arts, Iyoba Idia was responsible for many innovations that still hold strong in Benin’s cultural history till date. The famous Idah battle of 1515 couldn’t have been won if not that Iyoba Idia dressed as a man marched alongside her son and won the war for him. Not forgetting countless assassination attempts she thwarted to save her son.
In 1550, Iyoba Idia died and left Esigie devastated but not without the support of Elaba, Esigie favourite’s wife whom she had specially groomed to fill her space. Esigie would later commission the royal carvers at the palace to carve a figure in the honour of the woman who was not just a mother but a war general, a priestess, his advisor and a patron of arts and culture. The figure that was carved would later be used as the official emblem of the FESTAC 1977 Festival in Nigeria. Her name and role in history would never be forgotten.