Benin Monarchy: Its restoration, challenges
By Musa Odoshimokhe
Life Midweek Magazine
A century after, the echoes of the British expedition in Benin kingdom are still reverberating. At the birthday celebration of Prof. Siyan Oyeweso at the Osun State University, Dr. Victor Osaro Edo spoke on Benin society after the restoration of the monarchy within 1914 and 1939.
Dr. Edo, a historian from the University of Ibadan, said the institution of the monarchy was an important event that has transformed over the years into a constitutional one. he noted that besides the Yoruba and Hausa of Nigeria, it is apparent that this is a sacred body.
He notedin looking at the kingship from the period in question, it would be seen that the colonial government that administered Nigeria brought its instrument of divide-and-rule entrenched discord between the Oba and his subjects, to maximise its economic agenda.
Edo said prior to 1914, the Benin society was to face a period of interregnum following the deportation of Oba Ovonramwen to Calabar and was only restored after he died. With the restoration of the monarchy, Aiguobasinwin (Oba Eweka 11) ascended the throne but loyalty was now divided; and this became a major challenge, not only to the Oba but the people with the passage of time.
"The paramount chiefs headed by the Iyase, Agho Obaseki were not quite contented with the restoration. Chief Obaseki, who was made vice president of the Benin Native Council, head of the administration, became the over-might subject. The implication of this was that the British continued to recognise the relevance of Obaseki (now Iyase) as in the pre-restoration era more than the newly installed Oba, " he said.
The historian pointed out that, it seemed the attitude of the paramount chiefs towards the Oba was as a result of the support they got from the Commissioner for Benin Provinces. This attitude included the fact that they no longer paid tribute to the king, obeyed his instructions or visit his palace regularly. Moreover, in the address to the Oba and Council on February 27, 1916 by the Commissioner which stated that the Oba was to be advised by the Iyase, who was also the president of the Native Court justified this position.
According to him, British authorities ensured, that Oba Eweka and the Iyase who were already potential antagonists, carried out the pre-colonial traditional political hostilities and conflict to the colonial era, as well as renew the political tactics and divisions in various interest groups also antagonistic to the Oba. He stressed that even though this was difficult to believe, the relationship between the Oba and the Iyase until the latter passed on in 1920 was a marriage of convenience.
"The immediate effects of the restoration and challenges posed had to be taken in its stride by the monarchy. For instance, in establishing the Native Administration in Benin, the British were confronted with a number of difficulties. There was the problem of finding offices and places for the hereditary chiefs and other office holders, particularly finding a suitable position for Obaseki and those who served faithfully and loyally when Ovoranwen was in Calabar," he said.
He explained that if the new system was meaningful, most of these chiefs who could not by traditional position fit into the scheme, should have been given compulsory but honourable retirement, but for years Chief Obaseki dominated the Benin political scene by the force of personality as well as by the calculated backing of British political officers.
Edo who spoke at the 49th birthday of Prof. Siyan Oyewole, provost of the College of Humanities, Osun State University, said "on the restoration and establishment of the native administration, a new relationship had to be established between Aiguobasinwin who had been forced to occupy a very lowly position among the paramount chiefs, while the Obaseki star showed brightly."
He said that if the administrations were true native administration, these difficulties had no need to be there as the Oba and the traditional organisations built around him were obvious hierarchy governmental institution. Instead, the administrative officers were busy compensating their old and faithful servants and by so doing they produced an administration that was neither ‘native’ nor related to indigenous political system.
"In other words, the Iyase continued to be the right hand man of the British officers, what he lost prior to the restoration he gained in the actual exercise of practical power in the Benin politics of the post-restoration period. As long as the Iyase wielded the power of those positions he occupied, the Oba was hardly given any opportunity to demonstrate his potentialities. That the Oba was made the theoretical head of the administration at all was probably due to the ‘advisory position’ accorded to the Iyase.
"This was to tally with what Acting Lieutenant-Governor F.S James, said that as long as Oba Eweka 11 followed the advice of Iyasere, he would not go wrong. It was also said that before 1914, the Iyase was given steady support by the administrative officers at the Oba’s expense. This was the background to the post-restoration politics in Benin and the hostility between the Oba and the Iyase, on one hand, and between the Iyase and the other chiefs on the other which culminated in the 1920 crisis," he noted.
The Edo State born historian stressed that as a result of this crisis, the native administration was broadened to take in more chiefs and also to restore some initiatives to the Oba. These, he said, were possible because of the death of the Iyase in September in 1920. With the encouragement of administrative officers, the council began to meet regularly and to submit proposal for the revision of customary laws to meet modern requirement.
According to him, the most important factor, which accelerated the pace of re-organisation in Benin, was the emergence of new vocal elements represented by the educated and commercial classes in the society.
He said: "The emergence of this articulate group brought another lesson home to the Benin traditional institutions. They came to realise it was not only the British political officers they had to contend with in the struggle for power but an indigenous group which wanted recognition and reform of the status quo.
"As a matter of fact, this development was not peculiar to Benin during this period; it was a universal development whose impact was felt even in the North. Indeed, the growth of education and the expansion of trade on the establishment of schools and the opening up of new commercial opportunities meant that the business of administration was becoming more complex for the competence of the traditional authority,"
He recallrf that among the developments in the late 30s which quicken the pace of re-organisation of the Benin Native System of Authority was the water rate agitation of 1937-1939. But taht one interesting but ironic feature of the water rate agitation, however, was the support given by the traditional chiefs to the movement spearheaded by the young educated elements.
Continuing, he said: "Many of the chiefs who teamed up with educated elements did so because of the abolition of the district head system, which stopped their main income. This was the recommendation of the Chief Commission; a body set up to look into ways the districts in Benin Division could be restructured, which had abolished the offices of some former district heads and did not grant increase of salaries to some chiefs.
" Oba Akenzua 11, who had succeeded Eweka 11 when the latter passed on in 1933, had supported the move to abolish district headship. This brought a serious antagonism between Akenzua 11 and the chiefs, some of them very influential in their area, who were even district heads before he became the Oba, lost out their positions. Given this development, the Oba incurred the wrath of his people for pursuing what he considered a just cause."
According to him, what the chiefs did not understand was the fact that, the partial re-organisation, which was being carried out by Oba Akenzua 11, was the making of British Administrative Officers. Thus, in 1937, the chiefs re-aligned with Benin Community Association led by the educated elite during the water rate agitation to make things difficult for the Oba.
Before the eruption of the agitation, he said, the Oba had denied the Iyase the right to use his beaded head dress and also disallowed him from carrying the Ada ( a symbol of honour) when visiting other chiefs. "This, of course, was a manifestation of the old – the animosity between Oba Eweka 11 and Agho Obaseki now playing out between Oba Akenzua and the son Agho. It was said the Oba refused to admit the Iyase’s son to the Iweje society. The Iyase also looked upon a reduction in his salary in this circumstance as a plan to undermine his position."
He explained that traditional chiefs were the first to oppose a system that had immediately after the imposition of colonial rule placed them at an advantage position became discontented because of re-organisation that now put the Oba in advantage position.
Added to the conflict between the Oba and the traditional chiefs, he said, was the native authority regulation regarding the planting of permanent crops, having been aware of the usefulness of economic plants such as the oil palm trees, the people began have palm tree plantation. This development, according to him, made the Oba to believe that a lot of the village land in Benin was being devoted to palm tree plantation without the permission of the village councils.