A Short History On The Origin Of The Benin Throne
The Benin throne has its origins in the monarchical dynasty of the Ogisos – kings with wisdom from above, which some writers translate as kings from the sky. The Benin throne or monarchy which is one of the oldest sustained monarchies in the world had its origins in c.500 AD. In tracing its origins, some other writers suggest a much later date of c.900 AD, though some other Benin local historians argue that the monarchy originated in c.40 BC. From its beginnings, a hereditary monarchy evolved in which the position of the monarch was inherited according to an order of succession within the royal family.
The first king on the Benin throne was Ogiso Igodo, who is remembered in Benin traditions for his leadership qualities, in particular, the manner in which he combined wisdom with eloquence, effectively communicated his message, and had his influence on the conduct of community affairs. Undoubtedly, he rose to power on the grounds of his ability and charisma, but the successful establishment of the monarchy was linked to a “mandate from heaven,” which was reflected in the title of the monarch as Ogiso Igodo, translated as the “king with authority from above or the sky.” The authority from above is also interpreted as mandate from heaven. The mandate of heaven defined the sacred function of Ogiso Igodo as the first king of Benin. The mandate and sacred function transformed into the divine right of the king, which led to the emergence of the royal family in Benin and the establishment of a hereditary monarchy. Although this ensured the immediate continuity of political leadership in the position of the monarch, the high degree of social currency of divine right had tremendous influence over the shape and character of the institution of monarchy.
Once the source of royal legitimacy was established, the exercise of power and authority defined with roles and responsibilities, the institution of monarchy was strengthened. The first palace of Ogiso Igodo was built at Ugbekun, his successor Ogiso Ere relocated the palace to Uhunmwindun, where he organized a new palace system, which also included the establishment of guilds in the palace. The guilds were organized as craftsmen or specialists and were defined by their specific functions and services. Chieftaincy titles were created for specific functions in the king’s palace, and district chieftaincies were created such as the Enigie (in singular, Enogie) who were of two categories: hereditary and non-hereditary. They were princes from the royal family who were made rulers of villages. This was the highest rank that was bestowed on some of the princes, and in some cases, it became hereditary. They were representatives of the king in their areas of authorities and presided over the affairs of the village council which regulated, coordinated and controlled the social, political, economic and religious activities of the village.
Benin oral historical narratives claim that princes and princesses of the Ogiso royal family reigned in succession. Two queens Ogiso Emose and Ogiso Orrorro reigned as 17th and 18th monarchs. The events or circumstances which led to the complete exclusion of females from dynastic succession are not well known but may not be unconnected with palace rituals and ceremonies. The rituals are webs of mystification that also ensured legitimacy, as well as the roles and responsibilities that are connected with kingship.
The king list of the Ogiso dynasty is given in the chronology of their reigns:
- Igodo 17. Emose (female)
- Ere 18. Orrorro (female)
- Orire 19. Irrebo
- Odia 20. Ogbomo
- Ighido 21. Agbonzeke
- Evbobo 22. Ediae
- Ogbeide 23. Oriagba
- Emehen 24. Odoligie
- Akhuankhuan 25. Uwa
- Ekpigho 26. Eheneden
- Efeseke 27. Ohuede
- Irudia 28. Oduwa
- Etebewe 29. Obioye
- Odion 30. Arigho
- Imarhan 31. Owodo
The Ogiso dynasty colapsed in c.1100 AD after the reign of thirty-one kings. The collapse was a result of the banishment of Ogiso Owodo from the kingdom for misrule, and the period of interregnum in which the kingdom was ruled by administrators. In the absence of the continuity of political leadership after the banishment of Ogiso Owodo, the kingmakers agreed that Evian should be named as the Administrator of the kingdom until the issues of succession were determined. However, before his death, Evian appointed his son, Ogiamien to succeed him, which was an attempt in establishing a new dynasty. This was resisted by the kingmakers on the grounds that Ekaladerhan, who had been condemned to death by his father, Ogiso Owodo was spared by his executioners because of his innocence in the palace intrigues that eventually led to the banishment of his father. After he gained freedom from his executioners and wandered for years in the forests, some hunters found him. With his attributes of royalty, and in particular, the prophecy of the gods in the new land where Ekaladerhan had taken refuge, he was made their king in the land that is now known as Ile-Ife. His name, the people of Benin claim derived from either Izoduwa, meaning “I have chosen the path of greatness” or Imadoduwa, meaning “I have not missed the path to greatness.”
On account of this development during the period of interregnum, the kingmakers led by the Oliha insisted that the fugitive Prince of Benin now at Ile-Ife should be persuaded to return to the throne of his ancestors. First, he grew up as a Crown Prince in the royal family of the Ogisos, and as a future monarch, he had been trained for the responsibilities of expected future role. All efforts to persuade him to return to Benin failed but he finally agreed to send his son Oranmiyan if the kingmakers and the people could guarantee his security and protection. The struggle for the restoration of the monarchy began. This resulted in conflict and the emergence of different warlords, including the Ogiamien.
After three years, the Oliha was able to convince the fugitive Prince Ekaladerhan, now called Oduduwa (the Ooni) of Ife concerning the conditions he had given him for the protection of his son Oranmiyan. Hence the Oliha is known to the present day as Oliha n’Ogele, meaning “the Oliha who is able.” In spite of this, the coming of Prince Oranmiyan to Benin was strongly opposed by the Ogiamien and his supporters. For this reason, Oranmiyan could not enter the City and had to live briefly in Egor, a village of some distance from Benin City. There, he married Erinmwinde, the daughter of the Enogie of Egor through whom he had a son who grew up at Useh, a village under Egor. Due to the conflict in Benin, Oranmiyan settled at a new palace built for him at Usama on the outskirts of the city but later left Benin, describing it as Ile-Ibinu, meaning “the land of vexation.” The son of Oranmiyan from Erinmwinde, who later took the title of Eweka was crowned king of Benin at the new palace at Usama.
The kingship of Oronmiyan in c.1170 AD marked the beginning of the second dynasty of kings in Benin and he was succeeded by his son Eweka I in c.1200 AD.
The Oronmiyan-Eweka dynasty has royal ties and links with Ile-Ife through Oranmiyan the son of Izoduwa (Oduduwa). Eweka I created the title of Oba and re-established the rules succession in the royal family. He also created a new institution of state known as the Uzama with all the members of the Edionnisen that survived the Ogiso dynasty. The king added a sixth member, the Oloton whom his father sent from Ile-Ife to assist him in securing the throne.
The basic problem of the new dynasty was competition for the sharing of power with the established Uzama chiefs and whose influence overshadowed that of the new Obas for a long time. On the other hand, the opposition of the Ogiamien and his supporters to the Oronmiyan-Eweka dynasty ended with the battle of Ekiokpagha in c.1255 AD during the reign of Oba Ewedo, the fifth in the line of kings from Oronmiyan. Oba Ewedo relocated the palace from Usama to its present location at Alaka. Following the defeat of Ogiamien, Oba Ewedo took possession of the royal stool while Ogiamien signed a peace treaty with the king.
Benin kingdom court style; Edo peoples; Nigeria; Mid 16th-17th century; Copper alloy; H x W x D: 45.6 x 35 x 8.9 cm (17 15/16 x 13 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.); Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program
By the terms of the treaty, all hostilities arising from the political crises which began during the period of interregnum were to cease immediately. Second, the Ogiamien accepted the kingship of Ewedo as the Oba of Benin kingdom. Third, the Ogiamien ceased to identify himself as the king of Benin kingdom and subsequently, handed over the royal stool of the Ogiso rulers to Oba Ewedo. Fourth, the Ogiamien was made a hereditary chief, retaining his name as his new title. Fifth, there will be no resort to armed struggle and bloodshed or renewal of conflict once the agreement has been endorsed. Finally, the battle of Ekiokpagha will be re-enacted after the coronation of a new Oba.
After his victory at the battle of Ekiopkagha, Oba Ewedo then consolidated the throne through his policies of reform. To curb the powers of the Uzama, he prohibited them from having swords of state (ada) carried before them into the palace or through the streets like the Oba himself. He deprived them of their rights to wear semi-kingly regalia, and that all members of the Uzama should not confer titles any more. He created new political positions of non-hereditary title holders, in particular the title of Iyase as the final solution to the power struggle between the king and the Uzama. In fact, the power of investiture of titles was afterwards given to the Iyase of Benin who did so in the name of the Oba. Other titles created were the Esogban, the Uwangue, the Oshodin, the Uso, and the Isekhurhe.
The period beginning with Oba Ewuare the Great c.1440 AD and closing with Oba Ehengbuda in c.1606 AD, was the era of warrior kings in the history of Benin. Except for the brief reign of Oba Ezoti and Oba Olua, the other kings namely Ewuare, Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda took the position of supreme military commander of the Benin army. Each successive warrior king embarked on military campaigns which extended virtually into all directions. The military activities aimed at the growth of an imperial power through expansion and empire-building only slowed down by the beginning of the seventeenth century when the era of warrior kings ended in Benin. It was indeed an era which witnessed extensive warfare in comparison to any other period in Benin history. At its height during this period, the Benin Empire reached its boundaries at the River Niger to the east and the sea to the south, and established suzerainty over Yoruba areas to the west and southwest up to the border of what was to become Dahomey, and in the late sixteenth century, it reached a common boundary with Oyo.
By the mid-fifteenth century, Oba Ewuare had created a new political order that consisted of distinct but interdependent institutions which formed the government and the state administration. He created two groups of Eghaevbo (councilors of state) namely, Eghaevbo n’Ore (Town Chiefs) and Eghaevbo n’Ogbe (Palace Chiefs), whose titles were non-hereditary. The Palace Chiefs were grouped into three great societies namely, the Iwebo, the Iweguae, and the Ibiwe. The two groups of Eghaevbo with the hereditary Uzama constituted the three great orders of chieftaincy which, between them, were responsible for the continuity and government of the state.
Oba Ewuare increased the number of hereditary Uzama from six to seven, by including the Oba’s eldest son and heir apparent, the Edaiken. Hencee, this class of nobles became known as the Uzama n’Ihinron, that is, the seven hereditary nobles and kingmakers that constituted the highest-ranking order of chieftaincy in Benin kingdom. The court society which developed created new elite of title holders and a variety of ceremonies that strengthened the monarchy. In the early sixteenth century, Oba Esigie created the institution of the Queen Mother, the Iy’Oba (Iye-Oba). Once internal political system was firmly established, Benin set out on the path of imperial conquests and expansion. The capacity for empire-building through the activities of the warrior kings launched Benin on its golden age. The age witnessed the activities of European traders, missionaries, and travelers which connected Benin with Europeans in international trade and diplomatic activities. After the era of warrior kings, the Benin monarchy was transformed into ritual kingship. The restrictions of the Oba to palace activities re-defined the sacred functions of kingship and the strong link between the monarch and divinity until the British invasion and conquest of Benin in 1897.
With the British conquest of Benin in February 1897, the political system of one of the most powerful pre-colonial empires of Africa was overturned by the imposition of colonial rule. The British sent the Oba to exile in Calabar and Benin was without king until the restoration of the monarchy in 1914. The period of interregnum from 1897 to 1914 was the first phase of British colonial rule in which “the British did not rule in theory in the name of the Oba nor his nominee, but rather with the notion of the ‘whiteman’ as the king.” The deportation of Oba Ovonranmwen meant the abolition of the traditional central authority in Benin, which was replaced by a Native Council. The imposition of a new system of political authority undermined the Benin authority structures and eventually led to new socio-political formations that vied for power and authority, and whose cross-cutting interests and obligations played out in the restoration question.
In 1914, the British conquistadors restored the Benin monarchy. This was due to the interplay of several factors. First, the reported death of Oba Ovonranmwen on 13th January 1914 in Calabar was an ooprtunity for the Benin royalists to renew the struggle for the restoration of the monarchy. Second, the threat of insurrection that grew from the unpopularity of the ruling clique or collaborators with the British. Third, the British needed a strong and powerful ruler in Benin in its proposal to reconstitute the provinces in Nigeria and use Benin as the headquarters of one of the provinces. Fourth, Lord Lugard had proposed to extend the colonial administrative system of indirect rule to the south of Nigeria and experiment the policy in Benin. Finally, the British bowed to the pressure of the royalists on the need to restore the monarchy.
The year 1914 was critical in the history of the Benin throne. A new political force led by Chief Agho Obaseki, and the Ezomo constituted the political opponents of the royalist movement with the aim of establishing a new dynasty in the family of Obaseki. Mr. James Watt, who was the Commissioner for Benin Province favoured Chief Obaseki to become the new Oba of Benin, as he was the main challenger to the existing dynasty. The British officer believed he was an indispensable candidate for the throne considering his leadership role since the British conquest of 1897. Chief Obaseki confided in Watt his willingness to accept the offer of appointment as Oba, and built his palace near the Oba market; thus ushering in a period of bitter struggle for the throne of Benin. As a scheduled meeting between the royalists and their political opponents with Watt was deadlocked, Prince Aiguobasinmwin wrote a petition to King George V and the Secretary of State on 26th February 1914 requesting their intervention and protection.
Lord Lugard on the other hand, sent Colonel H. C. Moorhouse, Secretary for Southern Provinces, to Benin for an assessment of the issues and problems involved in the restoration of an Oba in Benin. Moorhouse advised the colonial government about the law of succession in Benin and that a non-member of the royal family could not reign. On his recommendations, Prince Aiguobasinmwin was proposed to succeed his father. On 20th April 1914, he was officially recognized as the Edaiken and heir apparent with all the pomp and pageantry at the investisture ceremony. Chief Obaseki was disappointed, which explains his absence from the coronation ceremony on 24th July 1914 when Prince Aiguobasinmwin was crowned as Oba Eweka II.
The struggle for restoration of the Benin throne was over, but the political conflict was not. With the British colonial officers reserving all rights to policy-making and the allocation of administrative responsibilities, they appointed Chief Agho Obaseki as the Iyase of Benin. The political conflict assumed a new dimension as the Obaseki, now the Iyase, resented surrendering much of his power and influence to the new Oba (Osadolor, 2011:58). The monarchy was restored but the Oba’s power and authority to rehabilitate the pre-colonial Benin polity was not restored by the colonialists. In fact, the colonial government introduced a native administration system that usurped some of the traditional powers of the Oba.
From 1914, the Benin monarch lived under a façade of real power. The consequence was the political crisis and conflict that characterized the second phase of British rule in Benin from 1914 to 1932, led to the reorganization of native administration. The history of Benin throne since 1914 has been that of institutional adaptation to change. It was not until the death of the Iyase, Chief Agho Obaseki in 1920 that the leading role of the Oba in Benin was restored. Under colonial rule, the Benin monarchy was transformed from the sovereignty of a king to other arrangements of subjection to the British conquistadors. After restoration, the Oba functioned under a native administration system as the Head up till 1939. From 1940 to independence in 1960, the functions of the Oba were redefined under the modern system of local government.
However, under colonial rule, the transformation of chieftaincy structures was contingent on the encroaching forces of modernization and colonial imperatives; and despite the rapidly shifting political, social and economic conditions, chieftaincy thrived because colonial administrators, traditional chiefs, and the educated elite adapted the legitimating ideologies of traditional culture to the unfolding structures of colonialism and decolonization. The use of indigenous political institutions for the purposes of local government was a policy conceived by Lord Lugard. Such institutions were continually developing into more efficient units of administration, responding to and adapting themselves to the new institutions created by colonial rule.
Since Nigeria regained independence from the British imperialists in 1960, the Benin throne has proved capable of adapting to the new structure of modernity. From the rise of the monarchy to the present day, the king made appointments to vacant titles, created new ones, transferred individuals from one order to another, and redistributed administrative competences in such a manner as to maintain a balance between competing groups and individuals. The distribution of authority was such as to prevent any one group from obtaining too much power in a particular administrative sphere. However, the Oba was not an autocrat as he had to operate within the framework of the conventions of Benin traditions and rituals. Once a title had been granted to a man, it could not be revoked nor would the man be removed. More importantly, a new Oba had no right to sack the chiefs appointed by his father. But the king was free to reallocate duties and privileges by a judicious devolution of power.
As a divine king, the Oba was the conveyance of the traditions, values and culture that had ensured the vitality and continuity of the society. His principal sacred functions were: first, to maintain the bonds of ritual communion between himself and his predecessors, on the one hand, and his people and their dead, on the other; and, secondly, to foster his own magical powers and to deploy them for the good of his people. As it were, the continuity of the state and the sanctity of its institutions were reiterated in rituals by linking each significant office and institution with the king.
Throughout its history, the Benin throne has represented the cultural identity and symbolism of the Benin society. The institution has proved capable of adapting to the stress and strains of different periods in history while also enduring royal intrigues and conflicts. The sacredness of the institution of kingship, the idea of divine kingship, and the political culture that made the Oba a political king all combined to make him the pivot around which the social, political and economic activities revolved. All chieftaincy titles in Benin were the property of the Oba, and it was he alone who could confer a title. Since honorary titles were not created in Benin chieftaincy system, the Oba could not award such.