By Louis Odion
An epic display of cultural sovereignty, it was. On a certain day in July 2012, the ancient city of Benin literally quaked under the crushing weight of a presidential presence. Muscular presidential bodyguards had displaced the palace sentinels as Goodluck Jonathan led PDP supremos to the royal chamber.
The Edo 2012 governorship poll was few days away. Then President Jonathan was in town to attend the grand rally convoked to sell PDP’s standard-bearer. As is customary, a courtesy visit to the Oba topped the agenda of the day.
With the entire GRA and the adjourning neighbourhoods completely locked down, Jonathan and crew took their seats in the oak-paneled lounge to await the great Leopard’s entry.
Then, a twist entered the plot. The secluded Oba Erediauwa, apparently tracking outside proceeding by some native “close-circuit monitor”, changed his mind. Suddenly, words came that the king would no longer sit on the throne to receive the mammoth crowd seated. Rather, he now wished to receive only President Jonathan in the inner sanctum.
A pin-drop silence descended on the hall over this dramatic turn of events.
Jonathan soon went in and came out few minutes later. The hordes of local PDP gladiators and name-droppers who had gate-crashed into Jonathan’s entourage hoping to get some photo ops with the Oba and thereafter appropriate some political mileage were left high and dry.
For all the elaborate carnival they had put up on the way to the Benin palace, all they got was a brief, perfunctory prayer led by a palace chief. They more or less left the palace empty-handed.
Though no official reason was given for the Oba’s last-minute decision to receive only President Jonathan that day, the import was hardly lost on keen followers of His Majesty’s enigmatic style. As the July 2012 polls approached, the king, by his body language, left no one in doubt that Governor Adams Oshiomhole deserved a second term in office on account of his sterling performance in the first term. The oracle had spoken. So, it was pointless baiting the gods through cultural invocations for a gambler predestined to lose.
In all, even more significant was the demonstration of Oba Erediauwa’s fierce disdain for clan sentiments. PDP’s candidate, Charles Airhiavbere (a retired general), is a Bini man. But an uncommon advocate of merit, the Benin monarch chose instead to back Oshiomhole from minority Afemai stock in Edo North.
While pundits have in the last four years been divided on the propriety or otherwise of the cold royal shoulders the PDP had sensationally received in Benin in 2012, what no one is able to assail yet is the Oba’s personal integrity. If nothing at all, that the Oba could put his feet on the ground, insisting on what he thought was in the best interest of his people, was also because he was beyond federal inducement. He certainly did not belong in the dingy club of political contractors. He had no IOU to redeem to the Abuja overlords. Quite unlike most other five-star monarchs across the country who see nothing unwholesome in bartering their honour away for material things, the Benin Oba did not have any account to render for any failed federal project.
This exceptionality partly defined the mystique of Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolor Erediauwa I for the 37 years reigned. Born June 22, 1923 as Solomon Aiseokhuoba Igbinoghodua Akenzua, he was the 38th Oba of Benin.
Following the news of his passing last week, only the shallow would then fail to notice his transcendence in the continuing torrents of tributes. Indeed, whereas the Bini nation and indeed all Edo people have since been roiling in sackcloth and ashes mourning a death, the nation at large is actually celebrating the transition of Oba Erediauwa to immortality. As his extra-ordinary life story vividly tells, he was not just a giant of history who embodied the finest of Bini gene and the noblest of Edo character, he, with the force of personal example, set a durable template for dignified royal behavior in a political environment.
Little wonder then that, on account of the aforementioned formidable moral capital, his voice for the most part of the last four decades packed so much weight on the national airwaves. At a time when many a royal father began to shed age-old cultural inhibitions to become public disco freaks and were no longer even shy to be photographed in the company of women of easy virtue, Omo N’Oba remained an exemplar in introversion and grace. With him, the portrait of beaded poise accentuated by a snow-white handkerchief elegantly held close to the mouth became emblematic of the Edo identity.
Even when royalty dictated taciturnity, Oba Erediauwa never failed to raise his voice for the people. For instance, while many monarchs traded honour away for fat brown envelopes and sweetheart contracts from dictator Ibrahim Babangida following the June 12 annulment in 1993, High Majesty was one of the principled few who stood unmistakably and spoke unambiguously that the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people – as reflected in the electoral outcome – be respected.
He was not part of the obscene royal contingent that later trooped to Aso Rock and, plied with briefcases of cash, began to reason with the fumbling despot that there was sense in foisting interim national government on the people in place of June 12, summing it with the pathetically dubious refrain, “so that Nigeria can move forward”.
Nor did the voice of Omo N’Oba lose its resonance later in calling for the unconditional release of MKO Abiola and other political prisoners after the deranged Sani Abacha took over and worsened the national trauma by simply sending snipers and bombers after dissents.
His voice was also dominant in the public clamour that the Benin-Ore road that had turned a death-trap be fixed. In fact, brushing royal protocols aside at some point, he openly told off visiting Minister of State for Works, Mrs. Deziani Allison-Madueke (yes, the future multi-billionaire oil empress), on the deplorable condition of the expressway. That he could not understand why it was so difficult for the the Federal Government to fix the highway obviously the busiest in the country, being the getaway from the South-west to South-south and South-east.
He did not relent in the crusade even when a Bini man, Chris Ogiewonyi, was appointed Works minister. What perhaps made the royal activism on the Benin-Ore road quite instructive was that the monarch hardly stood to personally enjoy a smooth ride as he rarely left the palace. Nor was it a blackmail to make Abuja invite him to nominate the contractor. That summed up the essential Omo N’Oba: forever acting in public interest.
So, after 37 eventful years on the throne, there can be no controversy about the position of Oba Erediauwa on the success ladder. Success or deficit of a monarch’s reign is customarily evaluated by how widespread was prosperity or abundant was peace during the epoch under review. In terms of peace, commerce and political influence, there is no dispute that His Highness left Bini kingdom and indeed the Edo nation far, far better than he met it.
Though conservative in philosophy, he was actually progressive in practice. For more efficient and effective administration of the kingdom, he created seven dukedoms to cater for the seven councils in Edo South senatorial districts. Thanks to his cultural reforms, there has been a drastic reduction, if not total eradication, of ritual killings across the kingdom.
No less memorable was the recovery in June 2014 of two precious bronze artifacts from the vast trove looted from the Benin palace during the 1897 invasion by British colonial predators. Presenting the “loot” in Benin, Andre Walker, grandson of one of the marauding British generals, confessed it was a form of restitution decided by his family back in UK to make peace with their conscience.
But for the royal company that received him that day, the two cultural totems no doubt offered yet some balm to soothe the enduring pain from the scar of 1897. Of course, the Walkers’ historic gesture was a consequence of decades of relentless advocacy and quiet international diplomacy orchestrated by Oba Erediauwa. A crusade further energized by the Crown Prince, Eheneden, deploying his vast contacts in western diplomatic circuits. Little wonder then that many now see the Edaiken N’Uselu as a worthy successor. As Oseni Elamah, the Okaviore of Benin kingdom recently put it, “With the Edaiken N’Uselu, the Bini kingdom and indeed the Edo nation will only move to more glory.”
Much more remarkable is the legacy of tolerance and conciliation Omo N’Oba bequeathed. By according communal neighbours respect, he clearly demonstrated that even though artificial boundaries now put political wedge between them, such can never untie the historic bond nor freeze the ancestral kinship all Edo people share.
In deeds more than words, he bore the crown with panache, carried himself with uncommon dignity and exercised traditional authority with Solomonic wisdom. Historians would attest that rapid urbanization and the attendant rise of republicanism in the twilight of the 20th century have significantly eroded the power and prestige of the traditional institution in post-colonial Nigeria. But it is to Oba Erediuwa’s sagacity and high integrity that the colour of the Benin crown has still not faded. Neither has the stool been diminished under the relentlessly corrosive influence of state authority, nor has any clan under the Benin suzerainty failed to pledge allegiance.
As he related with the high with accustomed panache, so did he show humanity and solidarity to the lowly as well. Until he became too enfeebled by age, His Majesty made it a point of duty to host quarterly local journalists under the auspices of the Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ) during which he ventilated his mind on matters of public interests. That way, news-hounds were able to distill clarity on burning issues of the moment – whether local or national – and draw from his deep well of native wisdom.
A bag of humour, the lion forever sought to make everyone feel at ease in his otherwise awesome den. Such interactions, often rounded off with a feast of pounded yam and bush meat, were always punctuated with his rib-cracking jokes. Reflecting the agility of his mind even at old age, he would effortlessly recall the headlines cast for past reports by some of the journalists. He was quick to tease that, “Even if I don’t go out, I monitor all of you through the newspapers, radio and television.”
At a personal level, my recent political sojourn in Benin brought me even closer to feel the intensity of his charisma and the energy of his generous spirit. No sooner had I assumed duty in July 2011 as Commissioner than the palace secretary sent me a letter conveying the king’s felicitations. He went further to announce the king had graciously fixed a date to receive me at the palace and offer royal blessings and prayers.
On the appointed day, my entourage consisted of no more than my dad, uncle and few directors from the Information ministry. Once I was introduced as “the courageous journalist who with his pen has been doing us proud at the national level”, Baba nodded with patriarchal pride, his all-white ensemble making him look even more mercurial, if not angelic, under the golden ceiling lights against the backdrop of a life-size bronze sculpture.
Then, his legendary humor tap turned the moment the name of my native community, Odiguetue (in Ovia North East), was mentioned.
“Oh!, my people from Ovia,” he said under his breath, muffling royal chuckle with his trademark white handkerchief, drawing mild laughter from the hall filled with ranking chiefs.
Of course, there are two Ovias: Ovia South-West and Ovia North-East. Long marginalized by successive administrations in Edo State, the common joke is to deride the Ovia zones as provincial. Traducers so unkind, they proceed to corrupt Ovia North-East to mean “Ovia Not-Eat” (or “not-eating”). So, the probable joke beneath Baba’s chuckle: with their scion now made a Commissioner, maybe “Ovia can now Eat”.
The highlight of the reception was His Majesty’s brief speech, enjoining me to use “your special skills” in information management to add value to the state during my tour of duty. Thereafter, he directed a palace chief to lead a special prayer for my success.
I left the palace that day completely overwhelmed by the king’s fatherly disposition. For the “little Benin boy” who had spent most of his time outside, I found that really, really humbling.
It is for this reason one today feels political actors whose activities lately tend to heat up the Edo polity should be restrained from polluting the climate of unity, peace, tolerance and justice Baba bequeathed. The deluded slaves and other misbegotten heirs of Tuketuke politics being induced with blood money and armed to go and kill their kith and kin will, by their iniquities, only end up poisoning the communal stream. Let these political urchins and rats be told in plain language that the ember of clan hatred is what inadvertently gets fanned when the impression is created that a Bini man is no longer free to go to Auchi to campaign or that an Afemai man will no longer be welcomed in Abudu or an Esan can no longer access the historic Urokpota Hall in the heart of Oredo to speak. Let politics be deployed to unite, not divide Edo people. The time has come for all Edo patriots to rise and stand against politics of violence, thuggery, hate, intimidation, injustice and primitive stealing. All his life, Baba treated and related with all Edo people as one. These political philistines should not be allowed to loot or vandalize the great castle Baba toiled hard to build in the last four decades.
Indeed, as the great Leopard retreats into the proverbial savannah forest to join the pantheon of giants, what we owe his memory is not shopping for sugar-coated, grandiloquent epitaphs; but upholding his value of service and living the high ethical standard he set.
*Louis Odion is a Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors