By Tope Templer Olaiya
IT is exactly 34 years and two days short of three full months today that the venerated Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, the Oba of Benin, was crowned the 38th Oba of the Eweka’s dynasty, which was established in 1200 AD. However, it is 24 hours to the big moment, when the monarch would join the exclusive club of nonagenarian tomorrow, June24.
Named Solomon Igbinoghodua Aisiokuoba at birth, no special star decked the firmament on June 24, 1923, the day he was born, but everybody knew that a king had been born. It, however, took 56 years for the once Ediaken of Uselu and the most junior member of the Uzama, the seven kingmakers, to ascend the throne and sit on the ultimate seat in Benin kingdom.
The Binis did not just have a new Oba on March 23, 1979, they equally had a new beginning. Oba Erediauwa ascended the throne armed with a Cambridge degree in Law and thus going down the annals of history as the first formally educated king of the ancient kingdom.
The Oba of Benin is the traditional ruler of the Edo people and head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Kingdom, reaching to the modern day Republic of Benin, which was formerly known as Dahomey.
By virtue of the royal house he heads as the Oba of Benin, Edo State, Oba Erediauwa is one of the most prominent personalities in Nigeria. It was therefore not surprising that an ongoing project tagged Living Legend chose the period of the preparation for the 90th birthday of the Oba to be celebrated on canvas and in sculptures.
Few days ago, some artists from Lagos joined their counterparts in Benin and had the Oba sat for portraiture section. An initiative of painter, Olu Ajayi, Living Legends started documentation of great Nigerians in 2008 with the first sitter, Prof. Wole Soyinka, who was captured by about 20 artists inside the Aina Onabolu Building, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos.
Others who have sat for artists as part of the Living Legends project included Prof. Yusuf Grillo and Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya.
However, as the Oba marks his birthday, one of the biggest challenges of the Benin monarchy remains the stalemate in retrieving the looted cultural objects of ancient kingdom, currently in foreign museums and private collections in Europe and the U.S.
In 1897, the British colonialists, in what is now known as Benin Punitive Expedition, sacked the then monarch, Oba Ovramwen and looted the palace.
Last February, when representatives of some selected museums from Europe were in Benin on the invitation of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the Oba, through one of the chiefs, insisted that the looted cultural objects must be returned.
The monarch is given to diplomacy even in spearheading crusades for causes that are beneficial to the people. In 1991, when it was discovered that over 100 Benin artefacts were scattered in Italy, he rose to collect a million signatures of influential persons to launch a campaign for their recovery.
At 90, Oba Erediauwa typifies the resolve of the average Bini man to assert himself in the affairs of life. This fact is cast strong in metal like the famous Bini bronze mask renowned the world over.
For the kingdom that has been through an invasion by the British army in 1897 with the consequent devastation and re-emergence thereafter, its resilience could not have been detached from the constituent characters that have helped in moulding its strong cultural destiny.
His post-graduate experience in the public service is spread-out. He had traversed the public service of the then Eastern Region as administrative secretary before joining the Federal Civil Service.
He was at different times permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Mines and Power and later Ministry of Health. He returned home to the then Bendel state in 1975 to continue as commissioner for finance.
Before he retired fully into royalty in 1979, he had served as the chairman of Tate and Lyle Sugar company, the board of governors of University of Lagos Teaching Hospital and University of Ibadan, as well as the management board of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA).
To mark the silver jubilee of the monarch in 2004, Oba Erediauwa wrote his biography titled I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant, published by Spectrum Books, and as expected, it generated considerable interests and reactions.
Explaining the origin of the title in the preface to the book, the author said: “I have taken the title from the very first letter that I signed as an assistant Secretary in the Nigerian Secretariat when I was appointed to the Nigerian Colonial Service in 1952.” The letter was a reply to a petition from a member of the public to the Governor-General and it ended with the words: “I remain, Sir, your obedient servant.”
Although the kingdom has come a long way, being one of the most outstanding monarchies of modern age, Oba Erediauwa, like his great grandfather, Oba Ovoramwen, has had his challenges in contemporary times. In 1992, a total of 76 traditional rulers in the state planned to remove him from the leadership of the state Council of Chiefs, insisting that the Chieftaincy Edict be amended to allow for the rotation of the chairmanship position.
The matter was amicably resolved and the ban on three chiefs, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin; Chief S. Asuen and the Ezogba of Benin, Chief Robert Ize-Iyamu, from entering the Oba’s palace was lifted.
Oba Erediauwa faced another battle in January 1999 in the much-publicized face-off between him and the then Military Administrator of Edo State, Navy Captain Anthony Onyearugbulem (now deceased). The crisis started shortly before the governorship election of January 9, 1999, in which the military administrator accused the Oba of partisanship in favour of the then All Peoples Party (APP) candidate, Lucky Imasuen.
The APP candidate was said to have paid a visit to the royal father in his palace during the Ugie Ewere celebration. In his prayers, the Oba was said to have remarked: “Your visit is auspicious as it falls on Ugie Ewere day, which portends good fortune.”
It was this prayer that became the subject of interpretations and mis-interpretations by observers to the effect that the military administrator suspended the Oba from both the state Security Council and the chairmanship of the state Traditional Rulers Council.
The face-off, which lasted for about four months, ended after series of consultations and reconciliatory visits by well-meaning Nigerians, including traditional rulers, even from across the Niger.
But beyond these challenges, the reign of the Oba has enjoyed the loyalty of his subjects. Oba Erediauwa has consistently called for greater participation of traditional rulers in governance, pointing at what Lord Lugard did using the institution of these rulers in his time to pilot the colonial administration.
Although he is not for traditional rulers going for political leadership, he believes there should be a forum through which they would advise government on a permanent basis without being seen to be interfering in governance.
Perhaps, this had more prominence during the years of military rule. It is doubtful if the present democratic dispensation would take them in its stride the way the khaki counterparts did.
Unlike many before him, Oba Erediauwa has brought the epitome of education to bear on this sacred traditional institution to the extent that the Oba, until recently when slowed down by age, makes frequent public appearances; though diehard conservatives see it in a different light. They feel it demystifies and places less sanctity on the stool.
The Binis have enough heritage to attract scholarly adventures. And many scholars are united in tracing the origin of the Binis to Egypt or the Middle East. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Oba of Benin’s power was at its peak and different monarchs of the dynasty controlled significant stretches of land in what is now West Africa.
During this era, exquisite naturalistic bronze art was created to enhance and embody the power of the Oba. The art often depicted the ancestors in order to establish both continuity and legitimacy. Due to this, only the Obas of Benin were allowed to own the famous bronze heads of Benin.
But in all matters including anthropology and history, the Binis listen more to their Oba than scholars. Oba Erediauwa has said in more than a few occasions that available facts do not align with any of the scholarly postulations on the origin of Benin.
“Benin is the cradle of the world.” The Oba insists that Edo land is one of the few places where life sprang up originally and by extension, all other Edo speaking groups in the former Bendel state, which include Urhobo, Isoko, Esan, Estako, Ora, and Auchi do not have a history that goes beyond Edo land.
The Oba has also delivered very useful lectures on the contentious link of the Binis with Ife. The position of many historians is that Oduduwa, the grand progenitor of the Yoruba race had helped to reinstitute the Benin monarchy after about a 100-year interregnum that followed the banishment of the last Ogiso, Owodo. The Ogiso dynasty ended in 1100 AD.
Oranmiyan, son of Oduduwa, was sent to Benin following a request by the Binis to Oduduwa for a ruler. Oranmiyan, on arrival, married a Bini woman who gave birth to Eweka. Oranmiyan was said to have found the Binis a bit difficult to handle and he returned to Ife, from where he was assigned to Oyo.
He became the first Alaafin of the Old Oyo Empire. Eweka survived to revive the Benin monarchy as Eweka 1 between 1200 and 1235AD. He established the current dynasty of which Erediuawa is the 38th Oba.
The Oba’s and by estension, the Binis’ version of the advent of Oranmiyan in Benin history is like the reverse of the popular version. Oduduwa, the Binis claim, was actually the fugitive Prince Ekaladerhan, who after years of sojourn in the forest arrived the present day Ife.
The oracle at Ife had said that a total stranger would arrive the land to assume the leadership of the people. Thus, when the people saw Ekaladerhan, they found in him a fulfillment of the Ife Oracle and promptly crowned him king.
The Binis have even gone a step further to situate clearly all the fragments of the myth. They claim that the name Oduduwa was a corruption of a Bini description – Imaghidoduwa or Imadoduwa, meaning, “I have not missed the path of prosperity.”