The ancient kingdom of Benin is now in Nigeria. This vast empire reached it peak in the 16th-19th century and was the first kingdom in ancient southern Nigeria to have a direct contact with the colonial master, being the Portuguese traders. At the eclipse of this dynasty, there was still no authentic heir to the throne, Owodo; the last of the Ogisos was desperate for a successor. His only heir, Ekaladerhan, being the son of an unfavoured queen (Arukho), had little or no prospect of succeeding his father as he was entrapped in a web of palace intrigues with the sole aim of depriving him succeed his father.
The Benin Empire was a pre-colonial empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City. It should not be confused with the modern-day country called Benin, formerly called Dahomey. The Benin Empire was “one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE”, until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.
The original people and founders of the Benin Empire, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) dynasty who called their land Igodomigodo. The rulers or kings were commonly known as Ogiso. Igodo, the first Ogiso, wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son. In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue and battle for power erupted between the warrior crown prince Ekaladerhan son of the last Ogiso and his young paternal uncle. In anger over an oracle, Prince Ekaladerhan left the royal court with his warriors. When his old father the Ogiso died, the Ogiso dynasty was ended as the people and royal kingmakers preferred their king’s son as natural next in line to rule.
ORGANISATION AND STRUCTURE
The empire was ruled by a regent called the Oba. Today, the Oba of Benin is still very respected in Nigeria; he is the most revered traditional ruler in Nigeria though his powers are largely ceremonial and religious. The capital of the Benin Empire was Edo, now known as Benin City in what is now southwestern Nigeria. The system of government is a mixture of autocracy, democracy and gerontocracy. The Oba has absolute powers but there is an Iyase (Prime Minister) who heads the town chiefs who can argue or disagree with him on rare occasions. There are the palace chiefs and the Uzama ni Ihinron who are the King makers.
At the summit of precolonial society was the king (oba ), who was the focal point of all administrative, religious, commercial, and judicial concerns. He was the last resort in court matters, the recipient of taxes and tribute, the controller of trade, the theoretical owner of all the land in the kingdom, and the chief executive and legislator. As the divine king, he crystallized generalized ancestor worship in the worship of his own ancestors. It is in his office, then, that the various hierarchies met.
The members of the king’s family were automatically part of the nobility. His mother was a title holder (iyoba ) in one of the palace societies and maintained her own court near Benin City, and his younger brothers were sent to be hereditary chiefs of villages throughout the kingdom, thus constituting part of a limited, rural-based elite. Besides the king and his family, the political structure consisted of the holders of various chiefly titles, who were organized into three main orders of chiefs: the seven uzama, the palace chiefs, and the town chiefs. These various orders of chiefs formed the administrative bureaucracy of the kingdom, and their main concern was to augment the king’s civil and ritual authority. They constituted the state council, which had an important role in creating laws, regulating festivals, raising taxes, declaring war, and conducting rituals. The king controlled the granting of most of these chiefly titles and used this power to consolidate his control over governmental processes. Once granted, a title could not be rescinded unless treason could be proven.
The kingdom was formerly divided into a number of tribute units, which corresponded to local territorial groupings. Each was controlled by a title holder in Benin City, who acted as the intermediary between the villagers and the king and whose main duty was to collect taxes and tribute in the form of money (cowries) and goods (cattle, yams, etc.). The income the king received from these sources enabled him to carry on elaborate state rituals. The king could also call on villagers to supply labor for the upkeep of the royal palace.
Kings varied over time in their ability to control the political situation. At the end of the eighteenth century, for example, senior chiefs rebelled against the king, and a long civil war ensued, which the king finally won. According to oral traditions, several obas were in fact deposed.
In contemporary Nigeria, Edo State officials consult with the Benin king and chiefs. Since 1966, the federal level of government in Nigeria has vacillated between military and civilian rule, with the exact relationship between federal and traditional authority changing under each new circumstance. In 1993 the newly established military government dissolved all existing state bodies and prohibited political activity. Supreme executive and legislative power was vested in a military-based Provisional Ruling Council and an Executive Council, both headed by the commander-in-chief, who is also the head of state. Plans for a return to civilian rule have been announced.
The lineage is patrilineal as succession in the Benin kingdom is very unique. Succession is by primogeniture, hence there is no in fighting for the exalted position when the Oba transcends unlike in other communities. The heir apparent is usually conferred with the traditional title of Edaiken of Uselu. Aside from Benin City, the system of rule of the Oba in his kingdom, even through the golden age of the kingdom, was still loosely based after the Ogiso dynasty, which was military and royal protection in exchange of use of resources and implementation of taxes paid to the royal administrative centre. Language and culture was not enforced but remained heterogeneous and localized according to each group within the kingdom, though a local “Enogie” (duke) was often appointed by the Oba for specified ethnic areas.
Age Grades Level Stratiform of Benin Culture are age sets of squads in the age grades ceremonies.
There are about seven age squads as follows:- Oyaghiroba, kinna, Oboghironmwen, Ehonsi, Uzamete, Obokhae, Awanrhenkpen.
TITLE HOLDING AND CHIEF DOMS
The Oba of Benin, or Omo N’Oba, is the traditional ruler of the Edo people and head of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Benin Empire – a West African empire centered around Benin City, in modern-day Nigeria. The ancient Benin homeland (not to be confused with the modern-day and unrelated Republic of Benin, which was then known as Dahomey) has been and continues to be mostly populated by the Edo (also known as the Bini or Benin ethnic group). The title of Oba was created by Oba Eweka I, Benin Empire’s first ‘Oba’, who is said to have ascended to power at some time between 1180 and 1300. The Oba of Benin was the Head of State (Emperor) of the Benin Empire until the Empire’s annexation by the British, in 1897.
In 1897, the British launched a Punitive Expedition, sacked Benin city and exiled then Oba Ovonramwen, taking control of the area in order to establish the British colony of Nigeria. The expedition was mounted to avenge the defeat by the Binis of a British invasion force that had violated Benin territory earlier in 1896. It consisted of both indigenous soldiers and British officers, and is still remembered by the Edos with horror today. To cover the cost of the expedition, the Benin royal art was auctioned off by the British. Ovonramwen died in 1914, his throne never having been restored to him. His son, grandson and now his great-grandson, however, all preserved their titles and statuses as traditional rulers in modern-day Nigeria. The present Oba, Erediauwa I, is the 39th Oba of the dynasty.
In the Benin society, the categorization of people into socioeconomic strata, based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political) is a common phenomenon. The status differentiation in the kingdom is too complex. prominent attention is paid to the oba and the royal house then followed by high ranking chiefs and title holders in the kingdom. The basic organizing principle within both the village and the urban ward is the division of the population into age sets. Every three years, boys who reach the age of puberty are initiated into the iroghae grade, whose main duties within the village include such tasks as sweeping open spaces, clearing brush, and fetching water. After the age of 25 to 30, they pass into the ighele grade, which executes the decisions made by the senior age set, the edion. The elders are exempt from physical labor and constitute the executive and judicial council of the village, led by an elected senior elder (odionwere ).
Precolonial Benin society had a clearly demarcated class structure: a mostly urban elite, comprising the governmental, religious, and educational bureaucracies; a commoner group, consisting of lower-status urbanites, such as artisans; and the peasantry. Formerly, the king and chiefs had slaves, primarily acquired through warfare, who constituted an agricultural workforce for the elite. In contemporary society, factors such as the extent of one’s Western education and the nature of one’s employment—or lack thereof—play a role in determining one’s position in the multidimensional system of social stratification.
The kingdom of Benin was an interesting place. It was tucked into the forest region of Africa. It began in BCE times and was not conquered until the 1800s by the British. That’s a long time. The people developed some unique things as their civilization developed.
One of those unique things was their art. They wove cotton fabrics with stripes of color. Their carved wood masks are still world famous today. Their art was playful and fun. Art and fabric made by Benin artists were in high demand by other civilizations and tribes.
Benin did not allow foreign traders to visit their villages, but they did trade with other people. Trading was a highly respected profession in ancient Benin. They had a very interesting way of trading. Benin traders would meet with foreign traders at an appointed spot.
• Ben-Amos, Paula Girshick (1995). The Art of Benin Revised Edition. British Museum Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-7141-2520-2.
• • Robert W. Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources, Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2012, pp. 695-696
• • http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Nigeria_native.html
• • Time Life Lost Civilizations series: Africa’s Glorious Legacy (1994) pp. 102–4
• • Chapter 77, A History of the World in 100 Objects
• • Osadolor, Osarhieme Benson (23 July 2001). “The military system of Benin Kingdom, c. 1440–1897 (D)” (PDF). University of Hamburg. pp. 4–264.
• • Robert Sydney Smith, Warfare & diplomacy in pre-colonial West Africa, University of Wisconsin Press: 1989, pp. 54–62
• • R.S. Smith, Warfare & diplomacy pp. 54–62
• Hernon, A. Britain’s Forgotton Wars, p.409 (2002)