In the recent past I have confessed my fascination for royalty and as much as possible I accord it its deserved dues and deep respect. The African royalty is not only colourful but one whose mystical connotations are legendary. Some royal households date back to centuries and others from time immemorial. When one beholds great royal representative in Nigeria say Oba of Benin, Alaafin of Oyo or Obi of Onitsha it is with traditional nostalgia; reminiscing the great culture and tradition we were bequeathed with by our forefathers and forebears represents a beautiful journey of soul and natural aesthetics of a people colonised and sold into slavery.
I do not belong to any royalty. Since royalty is hereditary my family does not belong to this special breed of natural rulers destined by their ‘Osanobua’, ‘Chi’ or ‘Oduduwa’ to provide traditional leadership. But happenings around kingdoms and kings get one interested as either a subject or a public commentator. Against this backdrop I must indicate my passionate enthusiasm about the kingdom of Benin and his majesty the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa. In Nigeria he remains one of the few royal fathers I still accord high regards for his deep sense of identification with the people’s lot and solid academic background. The other is the Sultan of Sokoto, S’aad Abubakar 111.
My first close encounter with the Oba of Benin Kingdom was in 1994. Much after the criminal annulment by General Ibrahim Babangida of the June 12 presidential election won by the late Bashorun Abiola the latter visited Benin City and I was one of the June 12 students who trooped down to the Oba’s Palace off Airport Road, Ring Road axis to welcome him. There and then as Chief Abiola came in to pay homage to the king the palace wore a mystic look with some ‘sacred stones’ and sea sand visibly noticeable.
The John Odigie-Oyegun administration over the state radio and TV announced the Abiola visit as a “presidential state visit” urging all to line the streets to welcome the late June 12 hero. Chief Abiola during the June 12 political crisis was hugely popular in Edo State and the struggle to validate June 12 was a cause fought by heart by many Edos.
Another encounter with the Benin monarch was when he was sacrilegiously sued by the Igbinedions for making Odigie-Oyegun, by the strength of his support, win the gubernatorial poll in the state against an Igbinedion, Lucky. Oba Erediauwa walked bare-footed to the High Court of Justice off Sapele Road with huge crowd following him and cursing the Igbinedions for doing the traditionally unthinkable. After the court session we waited for the king to go back to his Palace at Ring Road for us to catch a glimpse of him.
In Benin City in particular and Edo State (much like in Yorubaland) in general tradition is of great essence. The Edo people hold their natural ruler in high esteem. The relationship between Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin, and the Benin monarch has not always been cordial. And this dates back to decades ago. Neutral observers have always seen their frosty relationship as an irreconcilable clash between money and rich cultural heritage. Whilst the Oba brooks no impersonation, insubordination or acts inimical to tradition and the traditional stool he occupies Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion has used his stupendous wealth to undermine the Oba’s authority sometimes subtly questioning the heritage.
Chief Igbinedion sometimes wittingly or unwittingly gives the impression that he is competing with the Oba over a crown he can never wear. Since the crown is not purchasable one wonders why Igbinedion is desperate to play Oba at any opportunity. Years back he was accused to have gone abroad to introduce himself as the Oba of Benin and received the paraphernalia associated with the high stool? Abomination?! He has been suspended on many occasions by the Oba and his chieftaincy council on account of irresponsible behaviours.
The recent royal rumble in Benin city between Chief Igbinedion and Oba Erediauwa calls for interesting analysis. One does not know what Igbinedion gains by seeking always to subvert the Obaship in Benin. Throwing his wealth around and peddling influence cannot be equated with a great royal responsibility like the Benin monarchy. As far as the Benin Kingdom is concerned and to the best of my knowledge there is no royal blood flowing in Igbinedion’s veins. If the stool is electable Igbinedion would have since bought it over as he did the governorship for his lucky son, Lucky who bastardised leadership in Edo State for eight long years. The EFCC is getting closer to him wherever he is currently hiding.
In Benin City and Edo State the Igbinedion effect and influence cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. The entrepreneurial dynasty is heavily planted on the ground in form of a TV station, a high institution, a wonderland, Okada, single-handedly developed into a modern town by the business mogul. He once co-owned the defunct Okada airline. And in his home town of Okada one of the best specialist hospitals in Nigeria was built there. In Benin city Igbinedion is synonymous with money but also with immorality and arrogant grandstanding.
Reportedly the Okadaman had allegedly played host to the Ooni of Ife Sijuwade and Ghanaian monarch by going to the Benin Airport to receive the Otumfou Osei Tutu, the Asantehene of Kumasi, Ghana, leaving the airport in a colourful parade straight to his palatial residence at the GRA instead of taking the Ghanaian King to the Oba of Benin Palace to pay homage. Besides the Esama had chosen to decorate the visiting former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Sir P.J. Patterson with royal beads, a function that can only be performed by the Oba of Benin. All these events were sequel to the convocation of Iginedion University where the special guests received honorary doctoral degrees.
And just weeks back some five prominent high chiefs were suspended by the Palace for absenting themselves from the ‘Ugie Ewere’ ceremony on Jan. 1, 2008 which held at the Palace and instead chose to go to Igbinedion’s house at the same time to participate in a pa
rallel ceremony. The traditional ‘Igue’ festival is an important annual event in Benin in which every Bini man or woman ought to visit the Oba in his Palace and pay homage and celebrate with him.
The Palace was said to be irked by the action of the chiefs who were said to be co-operating with Igbinedion despite their awareness of the pending charges against the Esama of Benin before the panel of chiefs for several breaches of Palace rules and Edo culture and tradition. These suspended Chiefs could be said to be Judases in the Monarchy so their indefinite suspension could not have been more appropriate.
With the situation degenerating some Edo youths took to the streets of Benin, accusing the Esama of willfully impersonating the Oba and questioning the Obaship hierarchy. The youths later called on Oba Erediauwa to sanction the Esama. Igbinedion was later summoned to the Palace where he was tried by the Chiefs. But the matter was resolved amicably after the Esama apologised to the palace.
The Oba of Benin is not in any competition of any sort with Gabriel Igbinedion for acquisition of wealth or whatever of mundane value which approximates vanity. Oba Erediauwa as a custodian of a rich cultural heritage owes it as a duty to maintain traditional control over his kingdom. The Esama, in spite of his richness, must be a responsible subject or go to his town of Okada to struggle for its kingship. Doing things that undermine the Benin monarchy must be met with stiff sanctions to deter future recurrence.