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Political paternalism of Benin empire and question of the unity of Southern Nigeria — By Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe


The Dilemma of Ethno-Religious Politics in Nigeria

At the heart of Nigeria’s nationality question lies the present state of ethnic and religious configurations of the nation and their relationship to the issue of politics—the framework on which the distribution of scarce national resources is predicated. While religion is definitely artificial in its political corollary since being a secondary definition of collective identity within a defined socio-political unit, ethnicity on the other hand represents the pristine mark of identity on which are embedded defined primordial culture, linguistic identity and in most times physiognomic characterizations. This further explains why the borderlands of ethnic interface are more permeating and centripetal in nature in contrast to the often isolationist and centrifugal character of the borderland of two religions.
Indeed religion plays a subordinate functional role in political mobilization where ethnic consciousness and pride in one’s primordial culture are elevated to the level of instruments of primary group nationalism. A living instance is the case of the Yoruba where ethnic nationalism overrides religious identity as an instrument of political mobilization, a characteristic political feature that created a habitual atmosphere of relative religious tolerance among the Yoruba more than any ethnic group in Nigeria.

Taking the Yoruba experience as a launching pad of analysis, it becomes evidently clear that ethnicity if properly applied has the tendency of constructing lasting political alliances than religion. It has over the years worked well in Southern Nigeria except for the lacuna created by the ambition-driven politicians.

Coleman (1986, Coleman, Pp. 330 – 333) in his analysis of ethnicity as a factor in political competition in Nigeria, stressed three basic spheres of conflict within the wider Nigerian polity. They include first, the rivalry between the Yoruba and non-Yoruba in the South, in which the Igbo are marked out; the rivalry between the South and the North; and the rivalries between the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo and their respective minority ethnic neighbours.

While the above analysis by Coleman could be factual in broad definition, it does not appear to be so with the reference on political competition between the North and the South as defined political units. To the Fulani political machine, the deciding factor of political mobilization is not hinged on ethnicity but driven by an internalized Fulani imperial consciousness woven in Islamic religion. In fact, the attitude of the Fulani ruling class towards other members of the Nigeria nation remains guided by Sultan Abdul’Rahman’s injunction against the British in 1902 in his reply to Frederick Lugard’s overture for peaceful relations to wit:

From us to you: I do not consent that anyone from you should ever dwell with us. I will never agree with you. I will have nothing ever to do with you. Between Mussulman and unbelievers, war, as God Almighty has enjoyed on us. There is no power or Strength Safe in God on High. This is with salutation. (Burns, 1969, P. 189)

This injunction became the guiding principle for the imposition of Segregated Quarters known as Sabon Gari for non-Hausa-Fulani and mainly Southern and Middle Belt Christians, including Yoruba Muslims in major Northern Cities. It is beyond arguing the fact that living together increases the chances of mutual respect and understanding, while living apart on the other hand increases the chances of mutual suspicion and hatred between the people of different ethnic groups. It is therefore clear that since ab initio the people were never encouraged to live and interact closely together as one people belonging to one nation, the forces of disunity, hatred and mutual mistrust are bound to exist among them.

Ijo (Ijaw) and Igbo Factors in the Peopling of Southern Nigeria

From various analyses of linguistic classification of Africa the Ijaw (Ijo) language is the oldest language and by extension the Ijo-speaking group as the earliest ethnographically defined settlers in Southern Nigeria. This can be understood against the background of the age of the language in relation to other languages of Southern Nigeria of Kwa origin. Floyd (1969, P. 23) affirms this fact when he re-counted Talbot’s classification of Ijo as “one of the most ancient tongues in West Africa.”
It is clear that most of the Kwa languages pushed southwards out of their original Confluence home-base probably following the trail of the Ijo movement who seem to have pushed southwards earlier before the others. It is therefore likely that the subsequent settlement of the Ijo at the southern-most central point of the present Nigeria was the result of the pressure exacted by the later southward migrations of their Kwa language nephews notably led by the Igbo. Indeed a version of Ijo tradition of origins recorded by Anene (1966, P. 6) claims that not only was the present Benin territory an original Ijo settlement, but that the name “Edo” was adopted from the Ijo greeting “DO”.

According to this tradition, when the immigrant Edo arrived at the location, the bulk of Ijo people drifted southwards in what was described as a peaceful migration. The remaining group was eventually absorbed by the immigrants who subsequently gave the name “Edo” to the latter. Here again the question might be asked, what was the immigrant Edo people called before adopting the name “Edo”? Again, bearing in mind that even among the Edo and West Niger Igbo groups “Doo” and “Ndoo” remain extant forms of expression of greeting and sympathy, could it therefore be equally said that both terms originated from the pre-Edo settlers of Southern Nigeria?
On the other hand, while Benin tradition acknowledges the existence of an autochthonous group, it however has a contrary version of the origin and meaning of the word “Edo”. Osadolor (2001, P. 54) in confirming the evidence of an autochthonous group stated:

The use of a Benin political vocabulary—ivbiota –meaning “children of the land” but often interpreted as “children of the soil” suggests there were some people who are the original inhabitants of the land. In fact, an area in Benin City is called Idunmwun Ivbiota, which is a well known neighbourhood. This may also suggest that the original inhabitants were joined by immigrants from other areas. The question is: from where did they come from?

On the origin of the name “Edo”, not much evidence is provided to contradict the Ijo tradition of its origin. Citing Egharevba (1954, P. in a somewhat foggy account, Osadolor (2001, P. 53) narrated the Benin tradition of the origin of the name thus:

The name ‘Edo’ or Oredo for the capital of Benin Kingdom is also claimed in Benin tradition to have originated through royal proclamation by Oba Ewuare the Great who reigned in the second half of the fifteen century. The circumstances surrounding its proclamation are not well known except that the name Edo, became an expression of love. In this case, the tradition which claims that Ewuare’s aim was to immortalise his deified friend, Edo, for his love and goodness, seems more acceptable. Hence, the City became known as ‘Edo N’Evbo Ahire’ meaning ‘Edo, the City of Love’.

Yet there is the contradiction arising from the fact that the Ijo presently do not refer to the Edo as “Edo” which goes to question the authenticity of the Ijo tradition. Osadolor (2001, P. 52) had noted that different neighbours of Benin refer to her by different names. For instance, to the Igbo she is referred to as Idu; to the Yoruba—Ado; to the Urhobo—Aka; to the Ijo—Ado; and to the Itsekiri—Ubini. So the question is, why do Ijo people refer to the Edo as “Ado” instead of “Edo”, which was the term claimed to have originated from them? One important point of note in this argument over the origins of the words “Edo”, “Ado”, and “Benin” is that we were told by Roth (1972/1903) that the “Ado” was the first capital of the Benin Kingdom, which was situated north of the present capital. He went further to state in a quite convincing manner that, “Great Benin up to the present time was called Ado. In the song it is said: Obubu, eriado. Obubu—don’t go to Benin; and again Uhado—Do you understand Bini; Imahado—I do not understand Bini.”

From the names pointed out above, it is evident that it was indeed from the Itsekiri’s “Ibini” that the name “Benin” eventually evolved. This is aptly supported by the fact, as noted by Osadolor (2001, P. 52) according to Aisien (1995, P. 12) that it was the Itsekiri who first introduced the name to the Portuguese visitors; being their guides to the Great kingdom, with the latter popularizing the name through its corrupt version of “Benin”. Osadolor (2001, P. 52) noted that Ryder (1965, Pp. 31-2) disagreed with this line of argument on the ground that “the possibility that the Portuguese took the name ‘Benin’ from some coastal people before coming into contact with the State is an unlikely one, because no Southern Nigerian language offers a reasonable source for it.” He instead pointed towards Nupe north of Edo-speaking peoples as the probable source of the name “Beni” which Osadolor accepted.

But Ryder’s assertion does not seem to be aligned with the current of historical events at the period of Portuguese intervention in Africa, which was south-bound for most of the Peoples and States of what is today Southern Nigeria. It is necessary to point out that at the period in question, Nupe people were driven by the historical current of the Trans-Saharan Slave trade and associated political influences.

If therefore there was any “Beni” associated with the Nupe it could not be further than the Arab Clans of “Beni Hilal” and “Beni Soleim” associated with the Fulani tradition of origin, migration and settlement in West Africa, as Meek (1971, P. 61) noted. But then there still remains the question of Prince Oranmiyan’s description of the land of Benin as Ile-Ibinu—land of vexation, as Osadolor (2001, P. 62) noted. In this case, could it then be assumed that the Itsekiri adopted the word “Ibini” from Oranmiyan’s expression since there was no probable source of the former’s use of the term?
Be that as it may, there is no dispute so far over the matter of the antiquity of Ijo settlement in Southern Nigeria vis-a-vis other ethnic groups. However, of all the Kwa sub-group of languages, Igbo appears to be the earliest to diverge from the parent stock, pushing southwards after the Ijo and probably occupying the greater portion of what is today defined as Southern Nigeria with the Ijo. The Igbo southward push from the Niger-Benue Confluence seems to have been undertaken in two directions—the southeastern wing which created the Nsukka-Awka-Orlu-Okigwe core area of Igbo settlement, and the southwestern wing which created the original Igbo core area of settlement at Ife known as Igbo-Mokun and the Ijebu settlement axis.
The later emergence of the Anago (present Yoruba) following the trails of the Igbo on the two wings of the dispersal in which the eastern wing resulted to the Igala developing a separate identity with time, and the further intrusion of the Ebira section of the Nupe- Ebira- Gbari-Bassa linguistic complex seems to have created consequential ethnic disruptions which resulted to the permanent separation of the Anago from the Igala. It is probable that it was in the course of this early dispersal that Idoma and Igede emerged as distinct languages as the consequence of fusion of proto-Igbo settlers in the area and proto-Anago immigrants. This process of fusion seems to have equally resulted to the emergence of the Edo on the west as a distinct ethnic group from their original proto-Igbo root.

This assumption seems to be supported by a number of evidence. First is the fact that only the Ijon and Igbo have defied any origin of their names, unlike the Edo and Yoruba, although no effort has been made to trace the origin of the word “Anago” as in the case of “Yoruba” which is currently in use. From the traditions of both people there is yet no account narrating the origins of the two names. Speaking of the Igbo in this regard Floyd (1969, P. 29) wrote:

It is well-nigh impossible task to trace the history of the Ibo or the origin of their nomenclature. Both have been lost in the ‘vicious circle’ of traditions. Migration to their present home in Eastern Nigeria from distant land must have taken place very many years ago. Since their domicile in the region, villages have begotten villages to the extent that the traditions of the offshoots have beclouded the original Ibo tradition of their beginning.

The above statement of fact when view against the background of Yoruba traditions of migration and settlement will no doubt prove the primacy of Igbo settlement in the present Southern Nigeria. Unlike the name “Igbo”, the term “Yoruba” originally stood for the Hausa reference to the inhabitants of the pre-Colonial Oyo Kingdom, or what indeed is currently described as the Oyo sub-ethnic group of Yorubaland. It gradually gained currency as the collective identity of the entire people currently known as Yoruba through the dominant writings of such Oyo-born Freedmen as Bishops Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Samuel Johnson.

Before then the present Yoruba knew themselves collectively and respectively as Aku which remains their peculiar identity in Sierra Leone to the present day, and Anago which remains their peculiar identity in the present Benin and Togolese Republics. On the other hand, they were known by the Igbo as the Olukwumi. Indeed of all the four names, only Yoruba did not appear on the records of European Slave Merchants. Atanda (1973, P. 4) in substantiating this fact wrote:

But it is essential to point out that the name ‘Yoruba’ was originally used to denote only the Oyo-speaking people, their country or their dialect. The Ijesa, Ekiti, Ondo, Ijebu, Egba, and so on, did not refer to themselves or their territory as Yoruba. In fact, there is no evidence that these descendants of Oduduwa had a common name for themselves. Only some of their neighbours referred to them commonly as Olukumi. (Ulkamy of Barbot) and their language as Anago.

In fact to confirm the assertion that the use of the term “Yoruba” as a collective identity of Anago-speaking group in Nigeria, since those at the other divide of Benin Republic still refer to themselves as Anago, Atanda (1973, P. 1) went further to quote Samuel Ajayi Crowther ipso facto: “At one time they (the tribes of the Yoruba Country) were all tributaries to one sovereign, the king of Yoruba (the Alafin of Oyo), including Benin on the East, and Dahomey on the West….”

But by far the most detailed account of the origin of the term “Yoruba” to connote the identity of a people came from the nineteenth century American Baptist Missionary to Yorubaland, Bowen (1857/1963, P. 267) who came across through Major Denham and Captain Hugh Clapperton Sultan Muhammad Bello’s work in Arabic titled: “The Dissolver of Difficulties in the History of the Country Takrour.” It was indeed in this work that Bello provided us with the earliest account of Yoruba (Yarba) history and the origin of the name. Quoting Bello, Bowen (1857/1963, P. 267-68) wrote:

The inhabitants of this province, it is supposed originated from the remnants of the children of Canaan, who were of the tribe of Nimrod. The cause of their establishment in the west of Africa, was, as it is stated, in consequence of their being driven by Yaarooba, (Yaruba) son of Kahtan, out of Arabia to the western coast between Egypt and Abyssinia. From that point they advanced into the interior of Africa, till they reached Yarba, where they fixed their residence. On their way, they left in every place where they stopped at, a tribe of their own people. Thus it is supposed that all the tribes of Sudan, who inhabit the mountains, are originated from them, as also the inhabitants of Yausi.

There is no doubt that it was from this tradition which passed through Denham and Clapperton to early Missionaries to the Northern part such as T. J. Bowen, Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Samuel Johnson that the term “Yoruba gained currency as ethnic identity.

However unlike the above case, although the various Igbo subgroups never called their neighbours by the name “Igbo”, it remains to be added that all were conscious of the fact that their language was Igbo and all their neighbours knew them as Igbo. This is ably confirmed by the records of European Slave Merchants who at various points of their activities identified them as Hakkbos, Heebos, Eboes before arriving at the anglicized term “Ibo”, which has now been discarded in favour of the original term “Igbo”.

But the most revealing harvests of evidence that the Igbo were once the dominant ethnic settled group in Southern Nigeria are connected with the two historic towns of Ile-Ife and Igbo-Ukwu in the Southwest and Southeast geo-political regions of Nigeria. Quite striking in this evidence is the fact that the present ancient city of Ile-Ife was originally known as “Igbo-Mokun” before the arrival of Oduduwa, while the historic archaeological town of Igbo-Ukwu was originally known as “Igbo”.
Atanda (1980, P. 2) in his opinion agrees with the evidence of pre-Oduduwa settlers of the present Ile-Ife and its environs who might not have been Yoruba-Speaking. But it was indeed the work of Olomola (1992) that actually revealed the identity of the pre-Oduduwa inhabitants of Ile-Ife to be Igbo autochthones. Basing his argument on Ife-Ikedu myth Olomola (1992, P. 52) postulated that the present Ile-Ife was inhabited by a group of aborigines who had produced between 93 and 97 kings before the arrival of Oduduwa. He stated further that the original name of Ile-Ife was Igbo-Mokun and that the term ‘Ife’ came into currency during the reign of fourth Ooni of the Oduduwa dynasty–– Oranmiyan. (Olomola, 1992, P. 54)
The term “Igbo-Mokun” no doubt goes further to reveal the Igbo character of the aborigines of Ile-Ife. But it was indeed in the third part of the Ikedu myth as explained by Olomola (1992, P. 55) that the fundamental elements of the evidence are embedded. As he succinctly put it, “We are thus left with Igbomokun. This name has occurred in many folktales of the eastern Yoruba and among the Ijesha and Ekiti.” Quoting the Ikedu myth further, Olomola (1992, P. 55) went ahead to state: “The dawn is usually reserved for the most solemn assemblies because, as they say, the dawn belongs to the King of the Igbo.”

Quoting further he stated:

In Ife tradition also, reference is made to ‘Kutukutu, Oba Igbo’, that is ‘Early morning, the King of Igbo’ In Ijesha and Ekiti, reference is made to ancient Ife as ‘Igbomokun Akiri’ and, as the aforementioned reference to dawn shows, the people are known as Igbo. Even in Ife tradition the people are referred as Igbo…the wars of vengeance they fought against the new dynasty and the city are referred to as ‘Igbo raids’. (Olomola, 1992, P. 55)
Adeniran (1992) also tries in his own account to establish the Igbo character of Ife through the rituals of the economy of the aborigines basing his argument on the culture of palm wine tapping, introduction of yam cultivation in Yorubaland and the presence of age-grade system among the people. Making reference to one of the thirteen original settlements of the present Ife “Ijugbe”, Adeniran (1992, 44) wrote:

Each quarter was headed by a priest king (Elejugbe/Obalejude) and it appeared there was division of labour based strictly on the age-grade system. In the settlement, there was a hierarchy of chiefs. The economic basis of this hierarchy may be founded in the names Eteko (farm founder) or Orisateko and Akosuu l’Ogbe (producer of yam in the dry season). The priest king was said among other things, to be in-charge of rain, to have introduced yam seeding into Ife and to have been a palm-wine taper.

Thus given the ritualized status of yam cultivation, the institutionalization of the age-grade system and the fundamental spiritual roles of the priest-king––Eze-Ana among the Igbo, it becomes historically convincing to agree with Olomola that the original settlers of not just Ile-Ife and its environs but much of the Eastern Yorubaland were aboriginal Igbo by remote ethnic extraction. Although some scholars might attempt to disagree with this logic of history perching instead on the logic of the Yoruba word “Igbo” to mean forest.
Even among the Igbo themselves the word had come to connote “slave” among some sections of the riverain Igbo sub-groups. In recent times it has been interpreted with the Yoruba tone of “Igbo” as forest (Igbo-Ile) to mean Indian hemp. But then if we decide to agree with this logic of “forest” to mean Igbo, how do we then explain the fact that the title of the Oba of Ijebu Remo, one of the many Ijebu Clans that trace their origins to Ile-Ife is Akari-Igbo?

In recent times the Ooni of Ife Oba Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Ojaja ll, the politico-spiritual potentate of the whole Yorubaland had reaffirmed this aboriginality of Igbo settlement in Ile-Ife before the arrival of Oduduwa and his Anago-speaking group to the Igbo settlement of Igbo-Mokun now re-named Ile-Ife.

A Comparative Overview of Benin Ethno-Historical Relationship with the Igbo and Yoruba
As noted from the studies of Bradbury (1964, P. 150) the Edo language is significantly closer to the Igbo than to the Yoruba. Bradbury in the same report suggested that the Yoruba, Edo and the Igbo might have started to diverge from about four thousand years ago. In laying further credence to the wide dissimilarity between the Yoruba and Edo, Armstrong (1964, P. 127) added by stating that “it comes as a surprise to many students to learn that Tiv, spoken in the Benue Valley, is far closer to Zulu than Yoruba is to Edo, the language of Benin.”
Osadolor (2001, P. 62) seems to sum up this distinctiveness in language and culture between the Edo and Yoruba when he noted that “comparative ethnography in Benin and Yoruba points that while Ife and Oyo belong to same linguistic and cultural bloc, the Benin Kingdom was part of an entirely different one.” He further pointed out that the Edo and the Yoruba differed markedly in their principle of organization.

Going further, a closer look at Edo socio-political structure, particularly that of Benin suggests a much closer affinity to the Igbo than the Yoruba. Indeed beyond the superstructural political edifice defined as the “Oba institution” which clearly suggests Yoruba origin evidently only in title and not by the principle of organization, everything else at the Edo village level wears the garb of the socio-political structure of the traditional Igbo society.
As in the case of the Igbo, the Benin society is structured on the pattern age grade system— Iroghae which is made up of youth between the ages of 15 and 30 years, Ighele—made up of adults between the ages of 30 and 50 years and the Edion who constitute the elders, beginning from the age of 50 years or thereafter and above, with clearly defined roles. In this case the Edion stands for Ndichie among the Igbo in which the oldest among the elders assumes the title of Odionwere which again stands for Okpala or Diokpa as the case may be among the Igbo. Like the case of the Igbo too, Odion represents the spirit of the ancestors, playing the same Spiritual and political guiding roles among the living in line with the concept of Ndichie among the Igbo.

Strikingly, the Esogban of Benin Kingdom, who is the second in rank among the town chiefs after the Iyase of Benin Kingdom, is the Odionwere-Edo (Odionwere of Benin Kingdom) holding the custody of Odion-Edo (Ancestral Deity of Benin Kingdom), of which the Oba is subject to. Indeed, the first four town chiefs of Benin Kingdom—Iyase, Esogban, Osuma, and Osodin are known as the Edion-Nene (Four Elders) or Four Pillars of Benin Kingdom. This pattern of socio-political organization based on gerontocracy permeates down to the base village level where the roles of the Odionwere as a political institution in Benin society are strongly manifested. As Osadolor (2001, P. 66) noted at length:
One important influence of the social system on the evolution of political culture was the pre-dynastic development which took the form of a rapid growth of gerontocratic rules. The head of the village was the eldest man known as Odionwere or Okaevbo. The criteria for selection as an Odionwere or Okaevbo were the following conditions: first, membership of the village community; second, membership of the edion grade; third, the actual age of the candidate; and finally, must be the oldest free-born man in the village. There was no election or selection process of candidates. Once an Odionwere or Okaevbo has been named as the village headman, he immediately took responsibility for internal affairs and external relations. The village headman was assisted by four elders known as edion nene, who were ranked in order of seniority. They were set apart from other edion in status and respect. Any of the edion nene acted for the village head in his absence. Hence, relative seniority between those at the highest level in the age-grade organisation was thus, at any particular time, rigidly defined.

In addition to the above graphic representation of an ideal socio-political structure of the traditional Igbo society in Edo form, the Ezomo of Benin Kingdom holds the custody of the Ikegabo (the War Cult Deity) of Benin Kingdom, which is the replica of the Igbo Ikenga with similar roles and significance assigned. It is clear from the socio-political structural definition of Benin society that not only is the monarchy tied to the traditional apron-string of gerontocracy, there is very strong convincing evidence of primordial Igbo root which tends to support the tradition of Edo-Igbo origin.
Indeed, apart from the existence of the social title system as a form of status-defining stages of ascendency in Igbo society, there is no much difference between the Edo and Igbo socio-political structures at the material base level. It therefore becomes possible for one to hazard the theory that the present Edo-speaking peoples of South-Central Nigeria in the remote past once formed part of the wider Igbo ethnic complex but later diverged to become a distinct ethnic group through the gradual intrusions of such other groups as the Ijaw, Yoruba, Igala, Itsekiri, and probably Ebira. The Nupe intrusion in this regard only emerged lately around the 19th century as a consequence of the Fulani Jihad, which led to massive Nupe presence and consequent islamization of the Northern Edo group.

The Political Paternalism of Benin Empire and the Question of Southern Unity

Beyond the ethno-linguistic evidence of commonality between most of the ethnic groups of Southern Nigeria lies the superstructural political influence of Benin Kingdom, which by far stands out as the most effective and most enduring legacy of primordial unity of Southern Nigeria bequeathed by the Kingdom. The Kingdom of Benin was the most all time powerful Empire in what is today the modern State of Nigeria, up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

At the peak of its imperial exploits it embraced most of the eastern Yorubaland, the Niger Delta, Western Igboland, the Igala, deeper into the Ebira and adjoining Nupeland, Lagos, and extending westward to the present Badagry with considerable influence over the Adja kingdom of Dahomey. It was the only Empire that developed, sustained, and diffused its indigenous culture of sophisticated state-craft, unrivalled material culture in arts, and streams of uterine links beyond its traditional ethnic boundaries.

The Oba of Benin by the fact of this uterine links remains up till this day the shadow imperial overlord of many traditional kings outside the present traditional Edo Kingdom of Benin. Indeed the Oba of Benin is the only monarch in Nigeria with the highest preponderance of multi-ethnic claimants of origin from his root accompanied with strong sentimental pride and dignity of historical connection. To state therefore that the old Benin Kingdom was the only effective bridge that once united the greater part of Southern Nigeria is not to exaggerate the known historical facts.
Olauda Equiano gave us a vivid picture of the extent of Benin influence among the inhabitants of Igbo hinterland in the second half of the 18th century, as quoted ipso facto by Jones (1967, P. 70):

That part of Africa known by the name of Guinea, to which the trade for slaves is carried on, extends along the coast above 3,400 miles, from Senegal to Angola, and includes a variety of kingdoms. Of these the most considerable is the Kingdom of Benin, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its King, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. It is situated nearly under the line, but runs back into the interior part of Africa, to a distance hitherto I believe unexplored by any traveler; and seems only terminated at length by the empire of Abyssinia near 1,500 miles from its beginning. This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts: in one of the most remote and fertile of which I was born, in the year 1745, situated in the charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. The distance of this province from the capital of Benin and the sea coast must be very considerable; for I had never heard of White men or Europeans, nor of the sea; and our subjugation to the king was little more than nominal; for every transaction of the government, as far as my slender observation extended, was conducted by the chiefs or elders of the place.

Writing on the extent of Benin power Dike (1956, 21) graphically state:

Throughout medieval West Africa the kingdom of Benin was the dominant power in southern Nigeria and extended its conquests from Lagos in the West, to Bonny River in the east, and northward to Idah. It was the one state with which the Portuguese, during their early visit to Delta, maintained diplomatic relations. The persistence and universality of the claims to Benin origin in Delta traditions is evidence at least, of the powerful influence which this kingdom exerted over the imagination of her neighbours, particularly south eastern Nigeria, where her military power was felt by Ibos and the Ibo-speaking peoples east of the Niger.

Dike’s view no doubt appears more economical with the facts of the myth and legend of Benin influence and power than that of Olauda Equiano, yet the facts seem to be supported if not by outright military conquest but by copious traditions of migration from Benin Kingdom and royal links with the Benin monarchy. Afigbo (1986, P. 1) described such traditions as “a vain search for a noble cultural ancestry; an over-reaction to the cultural snobbery of the West.”

Ryder (1969, P. 3) while emphasizing on the same aspect believed that while it could be probable to regard some of these claims as “the product of hankering after prestige” it was obvious that some of such claims could lay credence to a certain degree of truth owing to the fact that the Benin monarchs occasionally used settlements as a way of consolidating their hold on power. Be that as it may, extant traditions whose authenticity might not be easy to question seem to defy the above hypothetical assertions.

Even Afigbo (1975, P. 46) seems to have paradoxically accepted this fact of Benin tradition among the non-Bini groups by acknowledging the wide influence of the Benin Kingdom among the Igbo of the West Niger, when he stated:
Of all the neighbours of the Igbo mentioned above, the Edo Kingdom of Benin and the Igala State of Idah would appear to have had far-reaching impact on the evolution of Igbo culture. The influence of Benin was most felt in the Western Igbo area, the riverain region around Aboh and Onitsha. Benin influence was largely political and could be seen in the institution of village monarchies which exist all through the area. It is also seen in the character of the title systems as in the name of some of the titles.

There are in fact some traditions which are so popular that one does not need repeating them here— such as that of Lagos, the West Niger Igbo, Itsekiri, and Eastern Yorubaland consisting much of what we have today as Ekiti and Ondo States. Nzimiro (1972, P. 7) has given us a vivid account of the respective traditions of Ezechime whom he described as “Chima Ukwu” and, Esumai Ukwu, both of which culminated in the foundation of Umuezechime Clan West of the Niger of which Onitsha, Aboh and Oguta form parts, and.
On the other hand Ikime (1968; P. 9) equally provided us an account of the origin of Olu of Warri dynasty from Benin through Prince Ginuwa. Akintoye (1971, P. 26) on his own account noted that Benin armies first entered Akoko and Ekiti regions during the reign of Oba Ewuare in the fifteen century, and by the sixteen century had overrun the entire territory pegging the limit of the Empire at Otun Ekiti. Smith (1976, P. 65) in supporting Akintoye went further (P. 66) to reveal the strong influence of the Benin Kingdom over the people of Akure through which are settled the large population of indigenes of Benin origin.

Beyond Benin military exploits are the copious traditions of migrations of waves of people out of the centre of Benin power to several places. In fact there is no ethnic group in the Niger Delta which does not have accounts of migration from Benin. On Urhobo-Benin connection, Adjara lll (1977, P. 3) linked the origin of Urhobo people to one Prince Urhobo son of Oba Egbeka. On the other hand, Ikime (1972, P. 1) divides the Isoko Clans into two migratory groups—Benin and Igbo in which he linked Aviara, Emevo, Iyede, Okpe,Owe, and Uzere to Benin origin; while Enwe and Ume claim Igbo origins. According to him, Erohwa, Igbide, and Olomoro claim to have no links with either Benin or Igbo. But he added that while Igbide might have been originally Benin in origin, it appeared that their ancestors first settled briefly in Igboland before coming to their present location, Olomoro might have originated from the Olomu Clan of the Urhobo.

Both Anene (1966, P. 6) and Alagoa (1972, P. 53) have given us copious accounts of several waves of Ijo migration out of Benin to the Niger Delta Zone of which space constrain will not permit us to recount. But the underlying fact of the traditions is that most Ijo-speaking settlements in Niger Delta today trace their origins to the Kingdom of Benin. The dominance of Ijo traditions of Benin origin without noticeable accounts of autochthones seems to support the earlier assertion that the present set of Ijo settlements in the Niger Delta was the result of continuous southward pressure of the Igbo group, which made it difficult for an autochthonous tradition to develop among the people.

The interesting account of the Benin origin of the Igbo Kingdom of Ogba in the Niger Delta which has become a household tale tends to support Dike’s definition of the extent of the influence of Benin Empire. But one other tradition which although looks sensational but helps us to fully understand the extent of Benin influence that strongly guided Dike’s assertion is that of the present Abam-Ohafia head-hunter warrior clans of Southeastern or what is also referred to as Cross River Igbo in the present Abia State. The Abam-Ohafia head-hunters were indeed the power behind whatever influence the Aro claim to have exerted in the body history of Igboland. Njoku (2018) narrating from the evidence of Ejituwu, both of Abam-Ohafia Clan stated that the Abam-Ohafia people migrated from Benin Kingdom to their present abode at the extreme Southeast Igbo borderlands.
According to the tradition they moved through Owa, possibly the present Owa-Riuzo Idu (Owa on the road to the Benin Kingdom) in the present Orhionmwon Local Government Area of Edo State, an account of the journey which is preserved in Ohafia war poetry and song. Their leader was named Uduma Ezema, who might have left the Benin Kingdom about the same time of the mythical Ezechime of the Umueze Chima Clan, and Esumei Ukwu of Aboh and Oguta traditions. Their movement took them probably through Ndoni and Ibeku before arriving at their present destination where the earlier settlers referred to them as “Ndi Mben”, which was a corruption of “Ndi Bini” (Bini people). It would therefore appear that their present names—“Abam” and “Ohafia” developed overtime as honorific warrior titles given to them by neighbours.

It should be recalled that the emergence of the Aro as a distinct Igbo sub-group was the consequence of the revolt of erstwhile Igbo slaves against their Ibibio masters through the support of Jukun (Akpa) invading forces—see Jones (1939), Ekejuba (1972), and Nwaezeigwe (2013). It could therefore be right to state that one of the far reaching consequences of the Aro revolt is that it marked a vivid confrontation of Benin influence represented by the Abam-Ohafia settlers, and Jukun influence marked by the Jukun (Akpa) elements involved in the Aro revolt. In other words, it could rightly be stated that not only did the presence of Abam-Ohafia settlers define the Northern Cross River Basin as the probable limit of Benin influence east of the Niger; it equally seems to have stopped the possibility of Jukun intrusion into Igboland through the Jukun-Aro elements.

From the foregoing analysis there is no gainsaying the fact that the Oba of Benin—His Imperial Majesty Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Okpolokpolo occupies a centrality of traditional leadership in Southern Nigeria, not just for the location of his Kingdom vis-à-vis Southwest, Southeast and Niger Delta, but fundamentally by the act of his ethno-paternalistic roles as the fountain-head of common historical consciousness of most peoples of Southern Nigeria across ethnic divides. This historical role clearly assigns to him the unquestionable status of a shadow imperial overlord over the great part of Southern Nigeria cutting across the Yoruba, Igbo, Itsekiri, Ijo, Urhobo, Isoko and other Edo sub-groups north of the kingdom.

That Benin Kingdom possesses the highest preponderance of historical claims of origin with strong sentimental attachment undiluted by ethnic boundaries in Nigeria remains cannot be a subject of debate. This explains why the Oba of Lagos, His Royal Highness, Rilwan Akiolu would be confident enough to snub the revered Ooni of Ife—the Primate of Yoruba royalty, His Royal Majesty Oba Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Ojaja ll, on account of his ancestry from the Oba of Benin, yet without equally noting the remote historical link between the same Ooni of Ife and the Oba of Benin.
Ironically, modern Igbo and Yoruba political leaders often speak of building bridges of inter-ethnic understanding between both peoples, but quite unknown to them, such bridges had long existed through the uniting forces of the majestic imperial exploits of pre-colonial Benin Empire, which is historically powered by the primordial Igbo origin of Ile-Ife.

In other words, not only were the kingdoms of Lagos, Badagry, and Eastern Yoruba united with Benin Kingdom, the Igbo of West Niger were also united with the Yoruba under the same Benin imperial umbrella in what could be best described as “Pax Binica”, established by the successive exploits of several imperial Oba of Benin, which consequently created an atmosphere of relative free movements among the various multi-ethnic groups of the realm.

(Adapted from:
“NIGERIAN NATIONALITY QUESTION AND THE FACTOR OF BENIN ETHNO-POLITICAL PATERNALISM IN THE UNITY OF SOUTHERN NIGERIA” in Chukkwuma C. C. Osakwe and Lemuel Odeh (ed) THE NIGER DELTA: Oil, Politics and Culture—Festschrift in Honour of Professor Samuel Ovuete Aghalino Kaduna: Nigerian Academy Press, 2020)

Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, PhD, DD
Director, Nigerian Civil War & Genocide Research Network
Former Director, Centre for Igbo Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka


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