Contesting the History of Benin Kingdom

By Peter P. Ekeh

Publication Information: Article Title: Review Essay. Contributors: Peter P. Ekeh - author. Journal Title: Research in African Literatures. Volume: 31. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2000.

Books Discussed:

Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity, by Isidore Okpewho . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.

Anioma: A Social History of the Western Igbo People, by Don C. Ohadike. Athens: Ohio UP, 1994.

Ancient African civilizations span the course of several millennia, in time, and a large expanse of lands stretching from the Nile Valley across the cursed Sahara to the forest states of West Africa, in space. Many states and kingdoms lived and thrived centuries ago in these regions. Most of them have now been packaged into intellectual memory banks that historians and their ever-probing kindred colleagues in learned literary studies love to mine. Egypt, Kush, Nubia, Ghana, Songhai, and dozens more ancient civilizations that are claimed for Africa have been respectfully treated by African historians and literati.

Many of these past states and civilizations died away before European incursions into Africa introduced new dynamics in the continent's public affairs. Their histories live in blessed memory and are generally safe from attacks by either European managers of the images of Africa or by modern African historians and literary men and women. Who wants to besmirch Egypt's reputation for its atrocities in Kushland? Many African intellectuals would prefer that we allow the holy pharaohs, who have brought so much pride to us in Africa, to rest in peace. Ancient Ghana's glory and veritable history of conquests of ethnic neighbors have been appropriated by nationalist Kwame Nkrumah for his country whose profane colonial designation of Gold Coast he changed to the famed and exalted name of Ghana in 1957 -- perhaps the greatest gift this anti-imperialist campaigner made to his native land. Walter Rodney, the formidable Caribbean scholar of African affairs, was
bemused by the practices of African intellectuals who rush to invoke the heritage of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in their search for the validation of claims that Africa too was well developed before the troublesome Europeans arrived in our lands. 1 In this wonderful show of good grace and good manners to kingdoms that are no more, such acts as King Mansa Musa of Mali's reckless endangerment of his country in his carting away so much wealth to Arab lands in his year long pilgrimage to Mecca in the fourteenth century are forgiven or even glorified. 2

Such robust respect for dead ancient African civilizations contrasts sharply with the searching attitudes and attention by African historians and the literati towards those of Africa's indigenous states and civilizations that survived into the European era of dominance and into our own times.

Consider just how well Ethiopia and Benin would have been received into our archives of glorious history if they had avoided survival from the past, thus escaping confrontation with vicious English propaganda in the 1890s that has ruined their images. If only it too had died, Ethiopia would have escaped scathing attacks from Oromo intellectual nationalists who have successfully revealed many foul blemishes in the moral valuation of what Oromo intellectuals derisively label as Abyssinian civilization. 3 And if only Benin had disappeared by, say, some act of self-inflicted civil war, as Oyo did in the nineteenth century before the British arrived into its once proud country, then perhaps Benin kings would have dodged Isidore Okpewho's biting analyses of their behaviors in Once Upon a Kingdom.

We must take Okpewho's analysis and thesis on Benin seriously. To do so we need to evaluate his claims not just against local standards and sentiments in Benin City and its historic peripheries. That is what Okpewho has called upon us to do. We will engage him and his book in such local analysis. But we must go beyond that angry land of disputes among ethnic intellectual nationalists and treat Benin as an ancient African civilization that survived from the past, diminished but relatively intact at the end of the nineteenth century. In this respect, pagan Benin has close parallels, but also sharp contrasts, with Christian Ethiopia. I will continue to invoke these similarities and differences in efforts aimed at answering intellectual problems posed by Okpewho. This review, however, must pose other problems that Okpewho's brave book suggests but does not illuminate. For one troubling instance, Once Upon a Kingdom raises the specter of Igbo intellectual
nationalism, which has been relatively dormant since the Nigerian Civil War, to a level about which its author does not appear to be fully conscious. In a word, we must treat Okpewho's Once Upon a Kingdom as a major undertaking with consequences for intellectual history and folkroric studies but also as a book of some significance for Nigeria's current affairs, albeit in directions that are different from those that our author has urged.

Okpewho urges us to treat Benin Kingdom as a local organization involving several ethnic fragments in close proximity. He derides the extraordinary phenomenon, far removed from Benin City, of the change of Dahomey's name to Benin and the naming of Togo's National University after Benin as "more likely [to be] tokens of mythic wish fulfillment than of historical reality" (193). One could of course make the same claim of Nkrumah's choice of Ghana for independent Gold Coast, which was never in the orbit of the original ancient Ghana. The point is, both Ghana and Benin are in the imagination of Africans as ancient African civilizations. That Benin loomed large in the whole of the West African region may be seen in the names given by European cartographers to various geographical entities: Bight of Benin and Benin River are stretches of waterways in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Niger Delta that do not belong to Benin territory. 4

This larger African setting challenges one major assumption of Okpewho's analysis of the nature of the relationships between Benin and those neighboring ethnic groups whose folktales Okpewho so capably analyzes. He ceaselessly canvasses the view that Benin's presence in the

affairs of these neighboring groups was imposed by force of arms. While Benin did have a formidable fighting organization at various points of its history, it is as likely that its power was based on accumulated influence as by sheer force of arms. Benin kings controlled the institutions and instruments of governance and peace-making that regional subordinate political powers needed. Benin also controlled the trade routes that enabled regional and long-distance trade in the area of concern to Okpewho's analysis. These instruments of power are not unlike those Songhai controlled in the Western Sudan from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century.

Okpewho uses rather alarming epithets to characterize the behaviors of the Benin kings: "dreaded" (14), "blood-lust" (19), "war-mongering reign" (20), "over-bearing imperial machine" (23), "heartless realm of Benin" (117), etc. It is counterintuitive to believe that a civilization (clearly, not Okpewho's term) that lasts for more than nine centuries can be based on such debased monarchical institutions and yet survive. What is remarkable about Benin is that it invented its own institutions. In the course of doing so, many kings and numerous members of Benin aristocracy were destroyed. It would be impossible to sustain an influential kingdom for so long if the kings did not ensure that the people benefitted from its governance and if its peripheries did not gain from the institutions of the empire. Nor would it last for so long if its institutions of governance had no inbuilt self-correcting mechanisms. Clearly Benin had to correct acts of abuse of power
for it to have survived for as long as it did.

Benin's ethnic neighbors do regard the Bini 5 as unusually warlike. But that is why they were able to build a kingdom. It is also true that, as Jacob Egharevba acknowledges (and properly reported by Okpewho, p. 12), the standards of governance of Benin public affairs had diminished dangerously in the second half of the nineteenth century as Benin's independence was endangered from the Atlantic Coast by Europeans and from the northern zone by the Fulani of the Sokoto Caliphate whose scouts had arrived at Irrua, less than thirty miles away from Benin City. It is thus entirely probable that Benin kings misbehaved in this period. Even so, the image of Benin as a "City of Skulls" (described and ultimately accepted by Okpewho at page 11) is a construction of the decade of the Scramble for Africa that deserves to be contextualized.

England, the most powerful nation of Europe, had become dominant in the trade of the western Niger Delta by the 1880s, displacing earlier other European influences by Portuguese, Dutch, and French merchants. There were few complaints from the British of bad government in Benin until there was an urgency in the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1890s, to ensure that Britain laid proper claims to African territories that it wished to colonize. The "City of Skulls" demonization of Benin in Vice-Consul Gallwey's report in 1892 (to which Okpewho refers) thus followed a pattern. It was a pattern that was unfolded in British relations with Ethiopia in exactly the same years in the 1890s. Until the 1840s, Ethiopia was held out as a great Christian nation of Africa. But as Donald Levine so powerfully states the case, Ethiopia was now denounced by the British as a savage country that must be colonized:

A similar point of view was expressed by the Italian delegation which successfully opposed the admission of Ethiopia to the International Postal Union in 1895 on grounds that it was a 'nation of primitive tribesmen led by a barbarian.' [British] Lord Hindlip felt that 'the Abyssinian above all else excels in cruelty, both to mankind and animals.' He agreed with those who argued that 'there are moral considerations which should compel all civilized people of the world to lend their support to the crushing out of the Abyssinian power, and the substitution of a humane government in the place of [King] Manelik's rule.' (10)

In the same year, 1895, Italy, with consent from Britain, attacked Ethiopia. In the ensuing war Ethiopia destroyed Italy's invasion army at the battle of Adwa in January 1986 (see Rubenson; Boahen), compelling Italy and other European powers to recognize its independence. Thereafter the campaign against Ethiopia's image ceased. In 1897, Britain attacked and defeated Benin, carting away valuable treasure. Unlike Ethiopia, the campaign against Benin never stopped. Benin's image continued to suffer from the accounts of the era of the Scramble for Africa. We must now ask of our author's work whether its imagery of Benin's unmitigated violence and cruelty has been unduly projected backwards from the times of unusual stress and travail in Benin history coupled with the historical timing of the Scramble for Africa when Britain unleashed a campaign against Benin's image. The inference that throughout Benin history there was fearsome bloodshed is one that is
inescapable from Okpewho's account of Benin history and the tales of its kingdom that he analyzes. Is this a fair assumption? We must now turn to Okpewho's treatment of Benin mythology and history in order to provide an adequate answer to this important question.

Okpewho's Once Upon a Kingdom has the triple assignment of analyzing Benin history; of unearthing the significance of mythology in the outer regions of the empire from the vantage point of those disadvantaged by Benin's power configuration; and then of relating the themes of the tales to the facts of Benin history. He succeeds excellently in shedding a good amount of light on the uses and meanings of tales and myths in Benin and in its periphery. In his interpretation of some of the mythical characters in Benin folklore, Okpewho proves to be a master in his chosen field of folklore studies. However, Okpewho's account and interpretation of Benin history, and of the history of the entire region in which Benin was set, are essentially flawed. Moreover, his attempts to relate history to mythology have proved to be as elusive as in many other bold ventures that seek to order facts from fiction.

Okpewho has provided a rich interpretation of mythology in the ancient kingdom of Benin in a manner that will ensure its visible presence in this competitive area of Benin studies for a long time. His achievements fall into two areas. First, he provides an engaging interpretation of Benin Empire myths (my own choice of terms, not Okpewho's). Second, he provides a genre of anti-Empire myths (again, my choice of terms, not Okpewho's) that

have been absent from Benin studies and that will contrast with the more benign myths coming from Edoid groups. With these two brands of myths, Once Upon a Kingdom offers us a powerful new perspective on Benin's varying relationships with its neighbors, including difficult encounters with a culturally alien people whose politics and economies Benin sought to control for some three centuries.

Myths built around historic figures abound in Benin. Few of these made their rounds from the myth-making factories of Benin to regions in the Benin Empire and its peripheries. These myths are built around the authority and power of the king. In Benin they were apparently designed to enhance that authority. But some of these myths made their way to areas where Benin's power was paramount as well as those in which its influence was tangential. As they spread across the Benin Empire, these myths changed their motifs. Their meanings also changed, to varying degrees, from their interpretation in Benin City and other core Bini centers.

Okpewho has ably analyzed the transmutations that two of these myths underwent outside Benin. The prime Benin Empire myth is Agbohidi. In its imperial Benin rendition, Agbohidi was a warrior who was underrewarded for successfully destroying a recalcitrant Igbo chieftain. on the Oba's orders, leading him to purposely misbehave and to kill the king's messengers sent to bring him to court. In the ensuing battles between his forces and the Oba's, he was most successful until his allied villages were destroyed by red-uniformed soldiers, leading to his suicide by drowning. Okpewho presents four other versions of the Agboghidi myth in Ishan and Etsako, both of which are Edoid groups, and in non-Edoid Ijo and Western Igbo. The Ishan and Etsako Agboghidi myths had changed in their details, but the outcome is the same as the Benin version: the Oba's red-uniformed forces prevail at the end, leading to Agboghidi's suicide. In the Ijo story, the details had been
lost, but Agboghidi appears as one of several characters who were killed by the Ijo mythical hero, Ozidi. More dramatically, the Igbo version, according to Okpewho, inverted the results of conflict, with the rebel (whose name, though, is not Agboghidi -- unlike the other instances) victorious, forcing the Oba to sign a treaty recognizing his town's boundary!

A second Benin Empire myth is the fabulous character of Arualan, son of King Ozuola who had giant features and superhuman strength, although not endowed with great wits. According to the Benin version, he had ten fingers and ten toes. His inordinate strength allowed him to do many things requiring physical prowess that ordinary human beings could not attempt. He put his strength in his father's service, conquering several regions that became part of Benin. However, in the struggle for the throne, he was outwitted by his brother Esigie, leading to Arualan's rebellion against his brother-king. After many battles, the Oba's soldiers destroyed Arualan's forces, including his only son. He committed suicide by drowning. Okpewho narrates three other versions of the Arualam myth. The Edoid Ishan version is almost identical with the Benin account of the mythical prince. In Ukwuani (an ethnic fraction of Western Igbo) the giant (here with twenty toes) behaved as
did the European mythical St. Christopher, saving children and other helpless people in need, but also helping to avenge insults to his father from foreign powers that sought to harvest his teeth for feast-making. In an Ijo version, Oguaran (now with twenty feet and twenty hands) was the most formidable opponent against the local Ozidi who was able to destroy him!

Empires, possibly all successful empires, have their ideological ways of persuading the metropolitan folk of the justice of deeds and misdeeds of empire-building and of inculcating the values of the empires in those outside its core. In the British empire that displaced Benin, the novels of empire played such a role, in Britain and in the colonies. In Novels of Empire, Susanne Howe tells us that they served their purpose well, enabling ordinary men and women in dreary Victorian times to participate vicariously in the deeds and misdeeds of empire-building (8-9). In the colonies, where the empire novels were avidly read, their interpretation was not always the same as in England.

It is entirely possible that Benin empire myths bear a resemblance to the empire novels that were very much part of British imperialism in Africa. In the Benin case the empire myths were so differently presented in different parts of the old Benin empire that Okpewho has attempted to explain their variations. He offers the hypothesis that physical distance from Benin City accounted for the variations: "[T] he extensive physical separation of the Ijo homeland from the heartland of the Benin kingdom would tend to attenuate the impact of Benin on the content of the [ Agboghidi] story" (20) and "Much further away from Benin City the image of Aruaran undergoes [. . .] transformations" (23).

Distance indeed accounts for certain variations in the empire myths. However, two other factors not explicitly considered by Okpewho are significant in understanding the changes in the motifs and meanings of the empire myths. First, cultural ties to Benin have made significant differences in the contents of the stories. Of the Edoid groups, Ishan was the closest to Benin in matters cultural and linguistic. It is not surprising that Joseph F. Sidahome's Ishan accounts of the empire stories are almost identical with those in Benin City. But those Edoid groups farther removed culturally have more distant versions. Thus, Agboghidi features very little in IsokoUrhobo's Benin empire stories, because they migrated from Benin long before the episodes of Agboghidi in the sixteenth century, whereas the older Aruaran stories are plentiful among them. 6 But neither cultural distance nor physical distance from Benin can fully explain the inversions of the empire
myths among the Western Igbo who have no linguistic or cultural ties to the Benin. Okpewho emphasizes that what the Western Igbo remembrance of Benin ties is conquest. Stories of harvesting the king's teeth for feast-making and of defeating the king and enthroning rebels would be sacrilegious in hardcore Benin and shocking in other Edoid areas. 7 But they appear to be favorites among the Western Igbo where anti-Empire myths abound.

The mythic characters who matter in Okpewho's study are local heroes whose behaviors contain "material [that] is intimately bound with a people's nationalist and other aspirations -- no less in the wars between Benin and the Ubulu than in the ones between the Germans and the Western allies -- [therefore blurring] the lines between [. . .] the historian and the artist" (30). These heroes may behave in a private manner, for their own self-interest, but they are nonetheless esteemed because they uphold values that are dear to their host culture and its people. A man who avenges an insult to his family's honor may have a private motive, but he is wellrated in Okpewho's scheme because the community values honor. Far more significant is the public hero who defends the interest and honor of the community. These mythic public heroes are celebrated because "there is much greater admiration for, and comfort in, those who put their extraordinary qualities on the
line so that the less-well-endowed masses are protected from the reckless abuse of power by those who have such a superabundance of it" (37).

Given these prescriptions, Western Igbo heroes cannot be aggressors, that is, cannot initiate aggression. The private hero is one who avenges wrongs on himself or his family, most probably from someone in authority. The much bigger public hero avenges the community's disgrace and humiliation, usually attributed to the agents of the king of Benin. In the Western Igbo myths, the Benin kings initiate aggression. If Western Igbo heroes are not aggressors, they are certainly avengers. The hunter who became king attained his lofty status because the king of Benin was harvesting his teeth by the season. His twin children had an abiding desire to avenge their father's and community's disgrace, compelling them to fight the king's messengers. They killed all the king's soldiers and, mysteriously, the king himself -- enabling their father to become king of the Bini.

In Okpewho's method of mythic exposition, these are not mere laughable fables. They do blur the lines between "the historian and the artist" in a confusing way. In one of the most mysterious and Levi-Straussian statements in Once Upon a Kingdom, Okpewho vows that "Ojiudu's tale [of 'The Hunter Who Became a King'] is history, although not in the sense in which philosophers of history (not excluding historians who have come to oral tradition with biases inspired by literate culture) understand the term" (60). It is history, Okpewho continues, because in the prerogative of oral history, "context makes more than a little difference not only to event but to the narrative of it: the latter, as I have suggested, may have been influenced both by the culture of military dictatorship [in Nigeria] on the one hand and, on the other, by the conduct of those [disruptive] youth corpsmen around our narrator [at the time of performing the story on 18 October 18 1980]"
(60). This claim of validity for situational history reminds me of the misfortunes of Ethnomethodology in Sociology in the 1960s-70s. Ethnomethodology built its stores on the foundation of "commonsense knowledge and practical reasoning" whose claims of validity could not be challenged by ordinary tools of sociological investigation. Oral history of course has made tremendous contributions to objective history in Africa because its claims can often be crosschecked and therefore confirmed or rejected. That is why it has survived -- unlike Sociology's Ethnomethodology. It is to be hoped that demands like this one from literary pursuits will not overwhelm the mainstream methodology of oral history.

Doubts about the methodological claims of the historical status of these myths notwithstanding, Okpewho makes powerful uses of the Western Igbo myths in two major ways. First, his representation of these Western Igbo myths makes them the counterpoints of Benin Empire myths. Benin Empire myths will honor their heroes if they contribute to the expansion of Benin's influence. Agboghidi and Arualan were the prototype heroes of Benin Empire myths because they helped kings of Benin to push the frontiers of the empire. Their subsequent battles for rewards were tolerated because they were cheated in the high-stakes games of Benin politics. But they could not be allowed to overthrow the empire. They did the right thing by committing suicide -- usually by drowning.

Western Igbo heroes are completely different from such Benin Empire heroes. Their motivation was to shrink the Benin Empire, at least in Igboland. They did not initiate aggression, as the Benin mythical heroes. However, they smartly avenged the wrongs on their people, in several instances by replacing the Benin king with an Igboman on the throne of Benin. In the Igbo stories there is the absence of such high-minded acts as suicide by the hero. This may be because these heroes are driven by moral outrage and community's moral support. There is no sense of guilt for their actions -- as in Benin heroes who turned against their king.

These mythical avengers should remind us of the famous class of "resisters" to colonial rule that nationalist history made famous in African historiography. Does one imitate the other? Were the avengers modeled by Okpewho's sophisticated narrators on the anticolonial resisters? Or is it possible that the image of the avengers has been abroad in the folk imagination and that the resisters are the reconstructed historical representation of a mythical characterization of resistance to alien rule in precolonial times? These are probably just idle questions that will agitate some minds and do no more.

Second, Okpewho emerges from the internal interpretation of the characters of the Western Igbo myths as a master in the social science of mythology. Many of his interpretations endow the characters with LeviStraussian proportions. Once one moves beyond the obsession with Benin and its kings, the Western Igbo mythical heroes have their own signification in the context of a robust Igbo culture and its resplendent values. The integrity of these characters is in many ways disrupted by the passion with which Benin and its kings have been brought into every phase of their lives by the narrators. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Igbo men and women worshiped their gods, established marriage ties between communities, cultivated their lands, and bought and sold goods and services, without looking over their shoulders for the nemesis of an omnipresent king of Benin. In other words, the Benin king's presence in these Western Igbo myths appears to me
to be overdetermined.

Okpewho is in his most brilliant employment when he focuses on the internal meanings of those aspects of Igbo values and culture that the heroic characters represent. In an Igbo culture that boasts its wealth in agricultural production, it is significant that the farmer is left out as an heroic character. Sedentary agricultural pursuits have always been belittled by culture historians who have elevated the pioneering spirits emanating from herdsmen and pastoralists as more consequential for the expansion of human civilizations than what sedentary farmers have added to the growth of human history. In the forest civilizations of West Africa, the hunter appears to have taken the place of herdsmen and pastoralists of Asia Minor and the steppes and savannah country of the Western Sudan. In a strong comparative analysis of the hunter's place in West African mythology, Okpewho covers the grounds for the mythical elevation of the hunter as the harbinger of
civilization (48-53). The strength of the hunter "tales may lie in the heroic mystique of the singular figure venturing into the fearful domain of wild animals and supernatural figures that inhabit the gray zones of the human imagination," our author authoritatively opines (48).

Leading from a highly textualized discussion of the complexities of Benin religion, marked by the divine construction of the individual's guardian spirit ehi and his (rarely her) personal destiny, Okpewho launches into a thicket of the mythology of Igbo religious life. What emerges from this splendid scholarship is the imagery of an individual's spiritual life that enjoys a degree of freedom that would be the envy of Lutheran theology and yet is constrained by the needs of the community. The individual is endowed by God with a unique destiny and a personal guardian spirit chi (comparable to the Beninehi). But he is not its slave. He is free to get into an argument and even a fight with his guardian spirit, although he is more likely to supplicate for its favorable intervention in his worldly affairs. If he is dissatisfied with the net outcome of the personal achievements of his life, he may return to God to renegotiate the reconstruction of his prenatal
destiny -- as the handsome penisless son-in-law of the Oba of Benin successfully did with a refitting of his genitalia. However, this religious freedom must not amount to selfishness that disregards the values of the community. A man endowed with the destiny of high physical prowess must not use it recklessly to destroy the community; otherwise his chi may intervene and help to destroy him. Okpewho states the essence of the Igbo construct of chi with the grace and intellectual reach of an anthem: "In this culture [. . .] the concept of chi unites the king in every man with the god in every man to ignite a spark of unbounded freedom that occasionally craves to be kept in check" (92).

There is a streak of populism, a compulsion to attribute good faith to the underdog, and an abiding ill-wish towards monarchy and nobility that runs through Once Upon a Kingdom. This contrast is endowed with moral distinctions. Womanhood is not seen as a constitutive element in a functioning social structure, but rather as a deprived segment of society righteously fighting against privileged authority by siding with the dispossessed and the down-trodden (ch. 4-5). Inside this populism lie tough moral valuations. For Okpewho, these "constitute the bedrock of a civilized moral code": "the triumph of justice over exploitative privilege"; the victory of "[t] he poor and the helpless [. . .] against the rich and the privileged"; and "the fearless resolution of the ordinary citizen matched against the menace of the powerful ruler" (117-18). Igbo republicanism, a repeated theme throughout the book, is invested with moral behavior and contrasted with the
oppressive immorality of Benin monarchical traditions.

The great strength of Okpewho's study of these myths probably flows from the comparative perspectives that he brings to bear on the interpretation of Igbo and Benin myths. Akan and Tallensi myths from Ghana are juxtaposed with Yoruba and Ijo myths from Nigeria, providing a regional compass in this inherently comparative social science of the mythologies of two contrasting cultures that Benin and Igbo histories and societies have yielded. Reading Once Upon a Kingdom is like taking a charter tour of West African mythology, with firm anchors in the ambience of two of the richest cultures in the region. All in all, Okpewho's mastery of the art of the interpretation of Igbo and Benin mythologies achieves a degree of profundity that will ensure Once Upon a Kingdom a secure place in the social science of mythology.

Space and time are usually telescoped in the Western Igbo stories as if Igbuzo and Ubulu-Uku were in the same neighborhood as Benin. We do not know of course just how long these Western Igbo myths have been around or whether they were more generous towards the Benin king at the time of the Benin Empire. In 1897, with the fall of Benin into British conquering hands, Benin's provincial control in Western Igboland was freed from Benin's domain. Were these myths invented at that point? It is difficult from the account of these myths in Once Upon a Kingdom to be sure just how long they have been around in Western Igbo folk imagination.

Okpewho's study boldly marches into the land mines and quarrelsome territory of African history. The first paragraph of the book, right in its preface, employs history in the author's battle with the might of Benin hegemony. But it is laden with strands of a controversial understanding of Benin and African history. Two of these will provide us with our opening examination of Okpewho's sense of the history of the region. First, Okpewho assumes that the most significant and active portion of Benin history is from the end of the fifteenth century when the Portuguese arrived in Benin City in 1485, seven years before Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean islands. It alleges that Benin "began a career of [successful] military campaigns" apparently following empowering "commercial relationships with various European nations." Because Okpewho is largely silent about the five centuries preceding the arrival of the Europeans, we must assume that his
understanding of Benin history is that this earlier period is not as significant as the post-1485 era. This is a view of the history of the region that is not widely shared. There are important reasons for contending that the period before the arrival of the Portuguese was the Golden Age of Benin civilization.

Second, that opening statement, along with the rest of the book's argumentation, makes a far-reaching claim about the nature of the relationships between Benin and its neighbors. There are difficult relationships between Benin and many of its neighboring ethnic groups in modern times. But it is doubtful that all Benin's neighbors have "ingrained resentments" subsisting from their subjugation by Benin from past centuries, as Okpewho categorically states. One must concede that Benin 's relationships with Igbo communities were difficult in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But that is not necessarily the case with Benin's relationships with its Edoid neighbors. Such conflicts as the Benin-Ubulu war (49) that verged on inter-ethnic warfare, are difficult to locate in the long annals of the relationships between Benin, on the one hand, and its Edoid neighbors (Isoko, Urhobo, Ishan, Owan, and Etsako), on the other hand. In generalizing from Igbo
experiences, with Benin's attempts to impose its suzerainty on an alien Igbo people, to Benin's relationships with Edoid neighboring communities, many of which migrated from Benin, there is the danger that Okpewho might have indulged in the venial sin of historical exaggeration. But much more significant in the reckoning of historical scholarship is the probable exaggeration in the harm that Benin dominance might have caused in Igbo communities. We must debate the implied notion that Benin's relationships with Western Niger Igbo were catastrophic for its peoples.

Okpewho's Once Upon a Kingdom alludes to the degenerate first dynasty of the Ogisos from his analyses of Benin tales (66-69). Remarkably, he seems to allow that there was a difference between that first dynasty and the succeeding ruling house of the Obas. But this does not appear to be significant since he goes on to characterize the successor dynasty as exhibiting the same atrocious and oppressive behaviors as the Ogisos. He is so mistrustful of the Benin kings that when one of them appears to be in only one of the Western Igbo myths that he collected and analyzed, he was compelled to search for the resolution of "a paradox of a killer king [appearing] as a just king" (92-96; citation at 93). His conclusion is that it was all "wish-fulfilment" that is no more than a "mythic compromise between the horror which the old Benin conjures in the minds of its old rivals and their vision of the proper qualities of an ideal ruler of the people" (96). In some of
the most closely reasoned pages of his whole book (70-75), Okpewho argues that whereas the Ogisos employed brute force, the Obas used the monopoly of the institution of brass-casting to achieve divine kingship, turning religion into "an opium of the people" (72). Other than offering these literarily rich texts but fragmentary historical references, Okpewho tells us little about Benin history before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1485. But Don Ohadike's Anioma: A Social History of the Western Igbo People, 8 to which Okpewho refers graciously, is far more adventurous in attempting to demarcate eras of Benin history. Ohadike's best guess is that Benin expanded during the reigns of five enterprising kings spanning from about 1440 to 1606. Before then, Benin was no more distinguished than other ethnic groups in the region. Ohadike's views here are important: " [U]ntil Ewuare the Great ascended the throne about 1440, Benin remained a small political unit,
embracing no more than the capital -- Benin City -- and a few scattered villages within a radius of about fifteen miles. It was only about 1440 that the Obas of Benin embarked upon a career of territorial expansion -- by warfare" (44).

Ohadike is right in pointing to the rapid expansion of Benin power in several decades before the arrival of the Europeans in West Africa in the late fifteenth century. The consecutive reigns of five of Benin 's most imperialistic and aggressive kings -- Ewuare the Great, Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda -- in all likelihood were defining periods in Benin's relationships with its neighbors. But Ohadike grossly undervalues the achievements of Benin history in its first five centuries, although he correctly credits this early phase as one that prepared the fledgling kingdom for "constitutional and ritual development and territorial expansion" (44). Most of the institutions by which Benin became a dominant regional and international power were already in place by the mid-fifteenth century. After experimenting with various forms of succession to the throne, Benin invented the principle of primogeniture, not just for royal accession but also for other
aristocratic establishments as well as domestic succession and inheritance of property in private families (see Egharevba; see also Ekeh, "Benin and Thebes"). The concentration of power that this form of generalized principle of primogeniture enabled should not be underestimated. So also did the unique establishment of a city-centered polity contribute significantly to the development of Benin's power. Whereas neighboring Yoruba states tended to dissipate their political energies in various centers of power, Ore-Edo, that is Benin City, became a religious, economic and political capital whose control by the king gave that institution a privileged status in the whole region. The building of a massive trench around the city, called the Benin moats, unique in all of West Africa, enhanced the value of the city and the institution of kingship that was closely tied to it. All of these were already achieved before the mid-fifteenth century. They allowed the
Bini and their king to take advantage of the arrival of the Europeans, at least for a brief period before the Portuguese fell out with Benin and cultivated other associations.

There is another form of achievement in the earlier period that stood Benin in a good stead. A series of migrations from Benin, beginning with the Isoko-Urhobo probably in about the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, helped to develop this vast forest region of the western Niger Delta and areas to Benin's northwest especially. The resulting ethnic groups were fragments of Edoid culture and language that retained ties with Benin City, in one form or the other. Benin benefitted from this expansion, exploiting its cultural ties to an incredible degree. It meant that its expansion was achieved in many instances without war. If the Benin had had to fight for their control of the entire region as they had to do with the Igbo, Benin's power would have been much smaller. Benin's control of economic and political power in its region of influence was made possible because of its political, religious, cultural, and linguistic ties with the Edoid Isoko and Urhobo
in the western Niger Delta and because of its greater control of the politics and economy of groups to Benin's north (Ishan, Owan, Etsako) whose emigration from Benin was much more recent than the IsokoUrhobo. The bulk of these ties was well established before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1480s.

Benin certainly benefitted from the European trade that followed the Portuguese's arrival. It probably helped Benin to wage wars of domination against Western Igbo communities, which Ohadike's Anioma documents and which have supplied Okpewho the myths that he analyzes in Once Upon a Kingdom. But the operation of the Europeans also resulted in its loss of dominance in the entire region. The Portuguese sought out Benin and its king because they already exercised the dominant power in their region of West Africa by the late fifteenth century. But the Portuguese had their own mission and desire that were not always in accord with those of Benin. Benin was not the terminal point in the Portuguese journeys of exploration. Like , they were in search of a route to India for which Benin and West Africa were only way stations. They also sought converts for the Catholic Church. In 1487, two years after Benin, they reached another powerful kingdom in the Kongo in
central West Africa. Its king was more pliant in the ways of the Portuguese, agreeing to be baptized as King Alfonso I. On the other hand, the Benin king refused to become Christian, leading to conflicts that allowed the Portuguese to turn to the Itsekiri, an Atlantic people in the Niger Delta, as their chief partners. Itsekiri's dominance of the trade in the western Niger Delta cut off Benin from its area of influence among the Urhobo and Isoko, diminishing Benin's power relatively.

As the European presence in West Africa progressed, with other European nationals than the Portuguese becoming influential in the European trade, Benin's dominance was increasingly endangered. This was particularly the case in the so-called European Age of Imperialism, from the 1840s to the 1880s, when Western Europeans had grown arrogant in their relationships with Africa. In the wild nineteenth century, the autonomies of African kings were everywhere in jeopardy. Benin was also threatened from its northern zone by aggressive agents of the Fulani's Sokoto Caliphate. It is in terms of these wider issues that Benin's controversial relationships with neighboring Western Igbo communities must be considered.

Kenneth Onwuka Dike's masterful Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta introduced the conceptual distinction between the slave trade and legitimate trade which has since become central in studies of West African economic history, of the nineteenth century especially. In many ways these were opposing domains. The slave trade was destructive, not simply of human beings but of whole social structures. Legitimate trade was expansionist in a positive direction, enhancing the prospects of bringing peoples together instead of poisoning inter-ethnic relationships.

Dike offered the first wholesome peep into Igbo history and culture in his celebrated opus. His distinction between legitimate trade and the slave trade was not an idle one in his study of Igbo historical origins. He tells us that human population in the Igbo heartland increased many-fold in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This tremendous increase in Igbo population was due to the dynamics of legitimate trade and the slave trade from two different directions. From the west and Benin came legitimate trade that served as a magnet for fresh populations to move into Igboland. From the north came the drama of Fulani slave raids of the nineteenth century that ravaged whole regions of the Benue valley whose populations moved into protected Igboland:

The northern branch was a direct result of the slave trade. The indigenous home of the Ibos, which lies mainly to the east of the Niger valley, is within the forest belt where the calvary used by the Fulani in their annual slave-raids could not operate. These raids were conducted mainly in the plains north of the forest region, and were organized from Kano, Sokoto, Bida, and Ilorin. They inevitably led to the movement of tribes, south of the Benue to inaccessible areas and places of safety such as the Ibo forest area provided. (Dike 27; compare Slattery)

Where Dike, the doyen of Igbo historical studies, reported legitimate trade as the prime characteristic of Igbo's relationships with the Benin west, Ohadike's Anioma sees wars. Dike thought that the troubling population density in Igboland was a consequence of the two types of trade, legitimate trade from the Benin west and slave trade from the Fulani north. But Ohadike postulates, or speculates (since he offers no evidence -- given the time span of millennia that he considers), that Igbo populations scattered from the Nri heartland in the Anambra Valley east of the Niger because of an unbearable population density and a degraded agricultural environment, pressing the point that the Igbo had "the highest rural population densities in Africa" (33). Whether such a conclusion is a result of what Reinhard Bendix from Berkeley many years ago called a fallacy of retrospective determinism -- imposing the evidence of our times onto the circumstances of the past
and thus retrofitting the past with the standards of the present -- may well be difficult to determine in this case. Modern Igboland has suffered from uncomfortable population densities and the curse of soil erosion. Have these been leveled backwards into antiquity or was ancient Igboland as choked as it is in our modern times?

Whether or not he has exaggerated their significance, Ohadike's Anioma must be rated high for its pioneering efforts at documenting the wars between Benin and its Igbo neighbors. He tells us that "[t]he people of Anioma [sic] as a whole battled the Bini for more than three hundred years during which some of them [. . .] retraced their steps toward the Igbo heartland [. . .] in Onitsha, Ogbaru, Ukwuani, and Aboh" (40). But three hundred years represent a long span of time within which to fit a handful of Benin-Igbo wars, the major ones being Benin-Ubulu-Ukwu (1750) and Benin-Agbor (1577). It is entirely possible, then, that Dike's interpretation can be reconciled with Ohadike's -- that is, legitimate trade in Igboland came from the Benin west but Igbo-Benin relationships were punctuated with a number of wars in the western Niger.

In any case, the consequences of Benin presence in Igbo economic and political affairs in the three centuries before the onset of colonial rule in 1897 do not appear to have been destructive. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were deadly years in West Africa . The slave trade had eaten into the souls of various communities. Our two authors tell us that the conditions of eastern Igbo were brutalized by the slave trade. Indeed, Okpewho smartly paraphrases and approves Ohadike's arguments suggesting a greater peaceful environment in western Igboland than the degenerate culture of head-hunting orgies that the slave raids of the Aro-Igbo had compelled in eastern Niger Igboland:

Ohadike contrasts these western Igbo peoples with some other Igbo communities east of the Niger [. . .] where brigandage was the norm [. . .]. Ohadike makes the interesting point that this practice of head-hunting developed in response to the aggressive commercialism of the Aro-Igbo. The Aro, as middlemen in the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, encouraged young men [. . .] to organize slave raids on neighboring communities. ( Once Upon a Kingdom 32)

This is a far cry from the smaller scale of the slave trade in western Igboland. Ohadike conceded that "even though the people of Anioma [that is, western Igboland] participated in the Atlantic slave trade and in the provisioning trade, their political institutions remained unchanged by the facts of those trades" (xviii) and that "while the Atlantic slave trade transformed the economic and political structures of many West African communities, it made little or no impact on [western Igbo] social structures" (xix-xx). These are in sharp contrast with the destruction that the slave trade wrought in eastern Igboland.

How are such vast differences between western and eastern Igboland to be explained? It is not enough to invoke religious practices in western Igboland which were the same with those of their eastern kinsmen. The critical difference between eastern Igboland and western Igboland was the presence of Benin hegemonic power in the west. If we were practicing ordinary historical scholarship, we would hasten to urge that the rules of a comparative historiography strongly suggest that we credit the Benin presence in western Igboland for safeguarding this region from the nemesis of the slave trade. But we trudge in the forest of nationalist history whose canons do not permit easy credit to imperialist powers like Benin. Whether there will ever be enough evidence to overcome the obduracy of the logic-in-use of nationalist historicism is a relevant question to ask with regard to these two books whose nationalist credentials are not in question.

There are important grounds for associating the greater peace in western Igboland in the centuries of the slave trade with Benin's hegemonic power in the west. Although the European slave traders first arrived in the western Niger Delta before striking trading relationships in the eastern Niger Delta, the subsequent axis of the slave trade fully shifted eastwards. The volume of the trade in the western Niger Delta pales in comparison with its vast volume from the eastern Niger Delta. The eastern Igbos were the main victims of this greater volume of the trade in the east. Why was there such a sharp differential between the west and the east in the volume of the slave trade from the Niger Delta? One reason was that Benin refused to exploit its vast trade and political networks in the whole region for the purpose of the slave trade. We do not read from our authors that Benin engaged in the type of slave raids that Aro-Igbo inflicted on eastern Igboland or
the Fulani used for depopulating whole regions of the Benue Valley. No matter whatever other malevolent indices the Benin Empire deserves in its relationships with neighboring ethnic groups, one must acknowledge that its policy against a vast slave trading network saved our region from the depredations that were visited on the eastern Niger Delta in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this regard, the preservation of its social structures was not unique to the western Igbo. It was more pervasive in the entire region west of the lower Niger. We can state this point in a counterfactual manner thus: if Benin hegemonic power had been absent from western Igboland it would in all probability have faced the same wasting violence and destruction of social structures that the eastern Igbo experienced in the centuries of the slave trade.

In this regard, one of our authors is unconvinced that Benin kings did refrain from any excesses in the European slave trade from West Africa. Okpewho chides me for giving such a misleading impression: "I hardly see why Ekeh (1990: 676-677) finds it necessary to join Ryder in absolving the Benin monarchy of large-scale slaving. If Benin did not sell slaves directly to Europeans, it was evidently because Itsekiri middlemen like Nana Olomu had secured franchise for the entire supply zone between Warri-Sapele and Benin, thus disabling direct contact between the Europeans and Benin nobility" (220). 9 Historian Ohadike's more considered assessment of Benin's role in the slave trade is much closer to the historical truth:

Slavery was neither an economic necessity nor a vital component of the entire political and social life of [ Benin] society [. . .] even after the rise of Benin as a large kingdom, its involvement in slavery was limited. Ryder has demonstrated that Benin's participation in the Atlantic slave trade or the European trade generally was minimal. Ryder's thesis is confirmed by the fact that the Edo political structures were not particularly affected by the European trade as was the case with Dahomey and the Gold Coast. (42; compare Igbafe 27)

This rare difference between our two authors may be related to their differing perception of the power and authority that kings wielded in policy formulation and public affairs in ancient Benin. Okpewho calls them warrior-kings and tyrants (see p.195 for a point of view on this score). He portrays them as supreme, enjoying the unchallenged power of divine kings. On the other hand, Ohadike's representation of the power of the Benin kings is far more nuanced and complex. He sees kings who were increasingly losing power to their chiefs and councilors, especially in the nineteenth century, "confirming that the hierarchy of the state was crumbling and that power rested, not entirely in the hands of the Oba [king], but largely with the powerful chiefs and kingmakers" (45). Where Okpewho sees a record of despotic rulers, Ohadike has drawn a picture of kingship that had to fight for its survival. Ohadike calls them kings, with its suggestiveness of rulers who
worked for their power. Okpewho repeatedly employs the more ponderous and intimidating Latin-French derived term of monarchs to refer to the Obas of Benin.

Okpewho states with unusual candor his motivation for putting together this impressive assemblage of fragments of Benin history and Igbo refractions of mythology of Benin hegemony in Once Upon a Kingdom. In the
book's front-loaded preface, Okpewho unloads his frustration with the monotony of our glorification of great 'emperors' and 'warrior kings' of the romantic past [. . .]. What about the peoples they destroyed in pursuit of their greatness: have they no stories of their own to tell? [. . .] If we continue to sing the praises of successful warmongers and usurpers of other peoples' lands and wealth, what right do we have to chastise European colonizers who did exactly the same? (xi)

Okpewho makes this same point more reflectively in his rich 1998 article in Research in African Literature announcing the themes of his book. He finds the misconduct of postcolonial "indigenous leaders who have done much worse to their people than the foreign usurpers" to be "uncomfortably similar to the heroes we have grown accustomed to glorifying in our studies: leaders who held absolute power, exercising total proprietorship over the material and perhaps spiritual lives of those who lived under the shadow of their might" (1).

The point of contention here is an important one and deserves to be further developed. Clearly, it is not Okpewho's wish to argue that all historic leaders of past African states were scoundrels comparable in their misbehaviors to the wasting misdeeds of men like Jean Bokassa, Idi Amin, or Sani Abacha. Historians have long been reminded of this class of actors in African history of the nineteenth century, almost thirty years now. Christopher Wrigley in 1971 warned of the danger of according heroism to men like Shaka the Zulu for no reason other than that they spilt blood. Such veneration of violence for its own sake can be seen in several writers of the Ibadan School of History who seemed anxious to prove that Africa has its own set of conquerors equal in cruel valor to European conquerors (see my "European Imperialism").

As I have argued elsewhere, however, in pursuing this point, such men of wanton violence were concentrated in African history of the nineteenth century. African historians unwisely made that wild century the central point of concern and concentration because it was in its duration that the frontal attack on African indigenous states by European imperialists matured. Resistance to imperialism was the mantra of African nationalist historians. Moreover, they borrowed the self-serving methodology of imperial history that justified conquest for its own sake. To be a conqueror was its own justification in nationalist history, whose genre the Ibadan School of History epitomized. 10

Okpewho is thus right in showing concern about a theme in modern African studies that has an especial salience. However, his choice of Benin to make his case seems unwise. In his campaign to redress an intellectual grievance of the deification of false heroes, Benin kings stand out in Okpewho's view as unjustly glorified while Western Igbos, over whom they stood as hated persecutors, have had their stories suppressed. Now he presents accounts of tales of Igbo collective memory. In them, the Igbo raise their subaltern voices and spit out their spite at kings of the Benin, who reigned centuries ago, in tales of revenge. True, they could not do it in real battle, but now is their turn to regain their glory -- in fiction. I fear, however, that Okpewho exaggerates the glorification of Benin history while he dangerously underestimates the strength and vastness of Igbo intellectual nationalism that he is now summoning to arms, perhaps unwittingly.

There are several reasons that Benin and its kings are not good cases for illustrating the poverty of leadership that modern African rulers exemplify. First, of all ancient African states, Benin, along with Oyo (before its debacle of the nineteenth century), stood out as a civilization where the norm of accountability was supreme. The many instances of suicide that are encountered in the tales that Okpewho analyzed, along with possible instances of royal suicide, are indications of how seriously the affairs of state were taken in ancient Benin. It is remarkable that no African leader has committed suicide for failures of state policies in modern times -- a remarkable contrast to ancient Oyo (and Benin) practices whereby mandatory royal suicides were one way of redressing state affairs. It must also be remembered that several kings in Benin history lost their lives because the people rose against them on account of their failures in public policies.

Second, Benin history has not been glorified. If there is one land in Africa whose history has been especially vilified it is Benin. Where are the historians who have glamorized Benin's history? Is this not the land that Europeans made an occupation of maligning long before Africans had any chance to write on it? We must of course salute Kenneth Dike's wisdom for promoting the indigenous Benin historian Jacob Egharevba whose A Short History of Benin was translated from Benin language into English and published by the Ibadan University Press in 1968. But he was not a trained academic historian. Philip Igbafe's Benin under British Administration dealt with a humble period of Benin history when it was under British conquest. And yet Igbafe is about the only Nigerian academic historian who has written about Benin! Contrast this negligence with the amount of historical scholarship by Nigerian scholars on Igbo, Yoruba, and Fulani heroes in Nigerian history of
the nineteenth century. Have Kenneth Dike ( Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta) and Joseph Anene ( Southern Nigeria in Transition) not lauded Jaja as a genuine hero? Jaja was a merchant in the eastern Niger Delta of Igbo origin, who rose to power on the shoulders of his British friends in the nineteenth century but then "resisted" the British when he fell out with them. Or consider the huge amount of scholarship by Nigerians on the controversial Sokoto Caliphate of the nineteenth century in Hausaland. Or consider the good number of studies of the Yoruba states of the nineteenth century. In the realm of literary learning, Benin lags behind these powerful ethnic conglomerations as well.

Even when the scholarship on Benin history and culture is compared with those of other Nigerian ethnic groups of comparable size and diminished influence in modern times, Benin fares very poorly. Remarkably, there are no native Bini modern scholars who have devoted their energies to the study of their history and culture on the same scale as Obaro Ikime has done for the western Niger Delta or ClarkeBekederemo and Alogoa have achieved for Ijo culture and history. All of these far outstrip any attention by Nigerian scholars on Benin history and culture, despite its significant presence in ancient Africa. There is indeed a huge bibliography of published works on Benin. But the vast majority of these are by non-Nigerians, most of whom have been hostile to Benin achievements. 11 Nigerian scholars seem to have abandoned Benin studies to the abuses of European scholarship without raising a finger. There is little doubt that Benin fame and ancient achievements
have been underserved by Nigerian scholarship.

Third, much of what is known of Benin history has not been about its conquests. After reading Okpewho's and Ohadike's books, I myself recognized that there is an active body of historical facts concerning Benin and its Igbo neighbors about which we know very little. I knew nothing of the Benin-Ubulu war of 1750 until I read Ohadike's insightful book. But that would suggest that Benin is not renowned for its conquests. The irony is that these two books may well publicize Benin conquests in Western Igboland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Benin is much better known for its internal achievements in Benin City: the extraordinarily wide roads constructed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries before the Portuguese arrived; the deep trenches, called Benin moats; Benin's famous art works; the organization of a splendid oral history. These are not the achievements of tyranny, but of a free people. It is remarkable that we have no information that
Benin used, say, slaves to construct the deep trenches. As Ohadike's Anioma so generously acknowledges, "it is doubtful that Benin made use of slave labor on a large scale. In fact one cannot categorically state that Benin owed its rise and sustenance to slavery" (42). Nigerians also know Benin through British caricatures as a land of violence and bloodshed. This was the Benin of the nineteenth century whose standards of civilization had diminished significantly, in alignment with the generalized crises of that cursed century. That period deserves its criticism, but it is hardly representative of the entirety of Benin history.

The greater irony in Okpewho's caricature of Benin history is that it is projected as a powerful state even in modern Nigeria. The Western Igbo are pictured as modern subalterns who are oppressed by those who still wield hegemonic Benin power. The prime example of this modern Benin hegemonic power is the "Scheme for the Study of Benin History and Culture" with whose account Okpewho's book begins and with whose denunciation it ends. For the sake of completeness, it ought to be mentioned that the Benin Scheme was one of several projects designed in the mid-1950s by the well-endowed History establishment at the University of Ibadan. Okpewho castigates the Benin Scheme as an exemplification of an "hegemonic program" that favored the undue promotion of Benin history and culture.

Such statements are out of alignment with modern realities in Nigeria. The Bini have had very little influence in modern Nigeria. For much of the period between 1952 and 1963 (when the Midwest Region was created out of the Yoruba-dominated Western Region), Benin was completely marginalized along with the Urhobo, their Edoid kinsmen in the western Niger Delta. Meanwhile the Igbo, at least in Eastern Nigeria, wielded considerable power in Nigerian political affairs. During the Civil War (1967-70), the first victims of that conflict were Nigerians in the Midwest Region, including the Bini and their King, who were rapidly conquered and governed for several months by Igbo-led Biafra. I see that Okpewho has recorded Western Igbo complaints against their Eastern kinsmen for invading the Midwest and making them suffer the consequences of the subsequent defeat of Biafra in the region (197). But the Bini and other Edoid groups have their own bitter tales about
that invasion, which, among other things, resulted in the humbling of the Benin king. In the last two pages of his remarkable book, Okpewho provocatively asks: "Will the Subaltern Please Speak Up?" (19091). I would suggest that it would not be incorrect if the Bini and their king stood up and spoke up in response to Okpewho's clarion call. They might have been masters in the nineteenth century. But it is unfair to demand that a people and their king who were so easily conquered by the Igbo not long ago should pose as a hegemonic force in modern Nigeria.

Therein lies the rub. Okpewho never intended that his powerful book should be limited to the analysis of myths and fiction. This brand of fiction bites. If the conquest of Western Igboland in the eighteenth century can provoke so much myth-making, how about the Biafran conquest of Benin and its king thirty years ago? The Bini are masters at myth-making. We do not know how many myths have been spun from that experience, but they are likely to be deep and plentiful. Should we allow myths of conquest to be revived in a region where myths easily come aglow? I do not know. But tales of harvesting king's teeth for feast-making by his enemies are not likely to be read with the same amount of equanimity with which we are accustomed to studying, say, that master myth Oedipus Rex in Sophocles's trilogy.

We must of course heed Okpewho's passionate plea that "the political course I urge in this study rests as much on common ground as on mutual regard" (xii) and that "this study is not aimed at promoting divisive ideology [. . .] wherein all fruitful engagement is deferred or erased and social reality is headed for irreparable ruin" (xii). One wished, though, that mythology and live politics were not conflated. Sadly, all literary men and women are increasingly and ineluctably becoming public intellectuals. We must plead with such literary gems as Isidore Okpewho to separate profane politics from sublime literature, and mythical fiction from historical facts.


1. Walter Rodney writes: "The Western Sudanic empires of Ghana, Mali,and Songhai have become by-words in the struggle to illustrate the achievements of the African past. That is the area to which African nationalists and progressive whites point when they want to prove that Africans too were capable of political, administrative, and military greatness in the epoch before the white men" (56).

2. Ironically, Songhai faced sustained campaigns against its image from Arab sources. While Arab scholars and travelers were fond of Ghana and Mali, earlier versions of these triple civilizations of the Western Sudan, they were increasingly intolerant towards Songhai on whose powers they clearly had designs and whose territorial extent many Arab states envied. The first of these recorded complaints came from Leo Africanus (whose Muslim name was Al-Hassan Ibn-Mohammed Al-Wezaz Al-Fasi, a Moor, baptized as Giovanni Leone, but better known as Leo Africanus). He visited Hausa country shortly after Askia Muhammad, Songhai's king, conquered several Hausa states, probably inthe 1520s. Leo Africanus criticized Askia Muhammad's treatment of the Hausa (828-31) in rather harsh terms: "Afterward, he sent gouuernors hither who mightily oppressed and impouerished the pople that were before rich: and most of the inhabitants were carried captiue and kept for slaues by
[Askia]" (828).

3. For a readable account of Oromo's views on the conquest and absorption of Oromo into Ethiopia during the "European Scramble for Africa," see Oromo Liberation Front.

4. It is one bit of palpable frustration on the part of the ethnic neighbors of the Bini that their kings are making proprietary claims to these Benin names give by European catographers in honor of Benin's influence. Benin's modern claim over Benin River, calling the Ijo who have inhabited this river's basin for millennia tenants, is a piece of historical distortion that irks Benin's neighbors.

5. It is a local Nigerian practice, of no certain origin, to call the indigenous people of Benin, Bini. The Bini are city-centered, with most of them claiming some section of Benin City as theirs. They call their city Ore-Edo, the city of Edo, and they call themselves the Edo. On the other hand, their neighbors call the Bini various other names (Idu by the Igbo, Aka by the Urhobo, for example), preferring to use the term Edo as a more inclusive reference to the Bini and the various ethnic groups that trace their origins to or else claim a common ancestral origin with the Bini from a more distant era of Udo before Benin City was founded in the ninth century AD. In this paper, the term Edoid is used to refer to the cultural and linguistic ensemble that includes the following ethnic fragments: Bini, Isham, Owan, and Etsako, in Benin land and northern zones; and their more distant cultural relatives: Isoko and Urhobo in the western Niger Delta. The Bini and
all these groups call the Benin king Oba, although the Isoko-Urhobo complex also refer in their folktales to the older dynasty of Ogiso who were reigning when many of their fractions left Benin in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.

6. The cultural and linguistic distance between Benin-Ishan and Isoko-Urhobo complexes of the Edoid groups of languages may be imagined from the uses of the word ohwo, which is pronounced in identical forms in both fractions. In Benin-Ishan languages, ohwo means "woman." In Isoko-Urhobo, it means "human being." While Benin and Ishan are approximately mutually intelligible, Isoko-Urhobo is probably as distant from Benin as the Scandinavian languages are from German.

7. Folktales in Edoid groups -- including Benin -- tend to be harsher in their views of the failed dynasty of Ogiso than of the reigning and successful dynasty of the Obas. One supposes this practice is similar to British harsher attitudes towards the failed Stuarts and more benevolent regard for the successful Tudors. In one of the Benin stories recounted by Okpewho, we are told that "Ogiso goes back on his word. Whereupon heaven and earth threaten to convulse the nation, forcing the Ogiso to capitulate. '[His rival] became the Oba, and the Ogiso became his sword-bearer'" (67). It is doubtful that any Edoid myths
would allow such ill-fate to befall their Obas. Also see Okpewho's conclusion on this point at p. 68.

8. The term Anioma is about twenty years old. It was invented in an effort to create a separate political entity out of a fraction of Igbos who live in the western Niger. Ohadike defines it so: "Like many groups in Nigeria, the Western Igbo began to seek a new identity. The name they chose for themselves was ndi Anioma. . . a term they coined in the 1970s when they began to agitate for their own state within the entity known as Nigeria" (xvi). It is noteworthy that Ohadike has applied the term retrospectively to the history of the different Igbo fractions in this region.

9. My position on Benin's role in the slave trade, which Okpewho rejects here, is embedded in a classification of precolonial African states with respect to the slave trade. The first class is a small group of African states that were reluctant, or refused, to participate in the slave trade. Only strong states could do so, of course. Ethiopia and Benin were exemplars of this class. Second, there were existing African states that were corrupted into the slave trade, shredding their customary institutions. Oyo, Asante, Dahomey, and the Hausa-Fulani states are examples of this class. Third, there were states that were especially created for the sake of the slave trade. Here the Ijo states of the eastern Niger Delta and Effik state of the Cross-River Estuary are the prototypes of this class. (See Ekeh, "Social Anthropology".)

10. This is how I put my views on this subject in a paper on the Ibadan School of History:

This widespread notion that the evolution of kingdoms is justified even when it involves the destruction of defenseless small ethnic groups calls into serious question the sense of morality in African history. Amoral adulation of conquerors who foundeed their hegemonies on the reckless and unnecessary spilling of blood is heavily entrenched in African historiography. Unfortunately, it is a piece of historiography that African historians willingly learnt from liberal Western historians intent on claiming for Africa the existence of its own set of conquerors. It is through their handiwork that conquering immigrant groups, like the Fulani in West Africa and the Tutsi in Central Africa , gained their esteem in the West. For instance, the conquests of the Fulani in West African history have been catapulted to the highest pedestal of praise, while their victims have sometimes been denounced, even by Western historians of liberal persuasion. E. D. Morel (1902:
127), perhaps the earliest liberal friend of Africa, agreed with Frederick Lugard that the Fulani "are born rulers and incomparably above the negroide tribes in ability. . . . The wholesale manner in which the Fulani have succeeded in stamping their individuality upon the races with whom they have come in contact is astonishing. Everywhere in their wonderful trek from east to west, and from west to south . . . new and more virile generations have sprung up beneath their fertile tread, destined in the course of time to found for themselves separate kingdoms. . . . And yet the pure Fulani element has preserved itself, and while absorbing countless tribes and becoming itself greatly modified in certain districts, has succeeded in perpetuating the parent strain which has never been absorbed" (Morel 1902: 127-8; compare Suret-Canale 1988: 39-50; Davidson 1988). Yet in the path of these achievements, the Fulani have destroyed whole peoples. Ethnic groups have
ceased to exist as a result of the Fulani slave raids in Northern Nigeria especially. These liberal historians and the Ibadan School of History never seem to demand from their conquering heroes accountability for their behaviors, implying that conquest for its own sake is a virtue.

11. The most comprehensive compilation of bibliography of Benin studies is by Charles Gore from the United Kingdom. Gore maintains a homepage in the world wide web at that is devoted to bibliographic references to Benin studies. At the date of this writing, neither Okpewho's nor Ohadike's book has been included in Gore's bibliography, possibly because they do not bear overt references to Benin in their titles. Using the world wide web to search for references to Benin is a nightmare, with Dahomey studies conflated with Benin studies because of the change of name of Dahomey to Benin some time in the 1980s. It is helpful that Gore has been able to keep these names apart in his bibliography.


Africanus, Leo. The History and Description of Africa and the Notable Things Therein Contained. 1600. Trans. John Pory [in 1600]. New York: Burt Franklin, 1896 .

Anene, Joseph C. Southern Nigeria in Transition, 1885-1906; Theory and Practice in a Colonial Protectorate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966 .

Boahen, Adu A. Afirican Perspectives on Colonialism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987 .

Davidson, Basil. Preface. Essays on African History: From the Slave Trade to Neocolonialism. Jean Suret-Canale. Trans. from the French by Christopher Hurst . Trenton: Africa World P, 1988 .

Dike, K[enneth] Onwuka. Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956 .

Egharevba, Jacob. A Short History of Benin. 1934 . Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1968.

Ekeh, Peter P. "Benin and Thebes: Elementary Forms of Civilization." The Psychoanalytic Study of Society. Vol. 7. Ed. Werner Muensterberger, Aaron H. Esman , and L. Bryce Boyer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976 . 65-94.

-----. "Social Anthropology and Two Contrasting Uses of Tribalism in Africa". Comparative Studies in Society and History 32. 4 ( 1990 ): 660-700.

-----. "European Imperialism and the Ibadan School of History". Paper present ed at a workshop on "Agency and Problematising in African History." Centre for African Studies, U of Cape Town, 22-24 Oct. 1997 .

Gore, Charles. "Bibliography of Published Research on Benin City". Available at htip:// [ 30 May 1999 ].

Howe, Susanne. Novels of Empire. New York: Columbia UP, 1949 .

Igbafe, Philip Aigbona. Benin under British Administration: The Impact of Colonial Rule on a Western African Kingdom 1897-1938. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities P, 1979 .

Levine, Donald N. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974 .

Morel, E. D. Affairs of West Africa. 1902 . With a new introduction by Kenneth Dike. London: Cass, 1968.

Ohadike, Don C. Anioma: A Social History of the Western Igbo People. Athens: Ohio UP, 1964 .

Okpewho, Isidore. "African Mythology and Africa's Political Impasse". Research in African Literatures 29. 1 ( 1998 ): 1-15.

Oromo Liberation Front 1998 . "Oromia". Available at

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1972 .

Rubenson, S. Wuchale XVIT: The Attempt to Establish a Protectorate over Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Haile Salassie U, 1964 .

Sidohame, Joseph F. Stories of the Benin Empire. London: Ox ford UP, 1964 .

Slattery, Katherine. "The Igbo People -- Origins and History". Available at [ 22 May 1999 ].

Suret-Canale, Jean. Essays on African History: From the Slave Trade to Neocolonialism. Trans. from the French by Christopher Hurst. Trenton: Africa World P, 1988 .

Wrigley, C. C. "Historicism in Africa: Slavery and State Formation". African Affairs: Journal of the Royal African Society 70b. 279 ( 1971 ): 113-24.




- Abolish Edoid Group of Race for One Edo Nation or Edoid Nation!

- Contesting the History of Benin Kingdom By Peter P. Ekeh

- Benin - Urhobo Relationship By Dr. Nowa Omoigui

- Language and unity of Edo people By Uyilawa Usuanlele

- Benin_Igbo_Yoruba Historic relations (Onitsha, Orisha) By PHILIP EM...

- Esan Not An Ethnic Group But Benin(Edo) By Uwagboe Ogieva

- Ogiso and Eweka times: A prelimnary history of Edoid Complex of cul... By Peter P. Ekeh
- Let Boko Haram have their own country, says Omoruyi By Omo Omoruyi

- Crisis in Belgium:If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates

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- First European Contact With Nigeria Was 1485 By The Great Benin Emp...

- Greatness of an African Queen Mother: IDIA By Uwagboe Ogieva

- Excellence in education and culture for the new millennium By Chief Oje Aisiku, PhD

- Bini Names in Nigeria and Georgia By Roger Westcott, Professor Emeritus, Drew University

- Nigeria: The Edo of Benin By Osamuyimen Stewart, Ph.D.


- Agbor link with Edo people "Origin of Agbor - Agbon" By By Emeka Esogbue

- Benin (Nigeria) and its Mystique By MIKE JIMOH

- Benin History and the Museum's Benin Collection From the




- Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 by Alan Frederick Charles Ryder
Product details: Hardcover: 388 pages / Publisher: Prentice Hall Press; 1st Edition edition (July 1969) Language English / ISBN-10: 058264514X / ISBN-13: 978-0582645141

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- Kings, Magic,& Medicine " by Chief Dr. Dayl Peavy JD. An African American that has an Esan Chietaincy title (2007). An Ob'oguega as well as an Ob'orunmila. Have been conducting research in Edo State since 1997 and published in a book titled: "Kings, Magic & Medicine".

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- The Edo Man of the 20th Century (Oba Eweka 11 life history). $10.00

- Erediauwa, Prince of Benin. (About the Price and not this Oba).$10.00

- Iwu- The body marks of Edo People. $10.00

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- The Portuguese National Archives in Lisbon

- British Museum

- National Museum Benin City






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Comment by Omosun Sylvester Oseremen on December 19, 2011 at 5:16pm
thanks for sharing this

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