Professor Eghosa Osagie, Ph.D
Director of Studies
National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru
Jacob Egharevba Memorial Lecture organized by the Institute for Benin Studies, and delivered at Oba Akenzua Cultural Centre, Benin City, on December, 10, 1999
I would start by putting on record my appreciation to the Institute for Benin Studies for inviting me to deliver the Second Egharevba Memorial Lecture. Two years ago, the Institute organized the inaugural lecture delivered by my friend, brother and colleague, Professor Unionmwan Edebiri on "Benin and the outer world". That scholarly lecture appropriately set an admirably high standard for succeeding ones.
It is indeed a great honour and privilege to be invited to deliver a public lecture in memory of one of Africa's greatest scholars, visionaries and sages. Chief Egharevba devoted his life to carrying out research into Benin history, civilization, and publishing his findings and conclusions in books that are most valuable for the study and preservation of Benin culture. There is one aspect of his work, which I consider most important for the purpose of this lecture and to which I will return later. This is his foresight in anticipating problems and wisdom in proffering fitting solutions. Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to quote from his BENIN LAWS AND CUSTOMS as follows: -
"Although not as far advanced as the Europeans, yet our social life before their advent was not a chaos. Our method of government, our administration of law, our system of landholding, our farming..., and festivities were well regulated. Each man knew his place and his work and could regulate his daily life accordingly. THE CHRISTIAN GOSPEL AND SOME OF THE EUROPEAN INSTITUTIONS AND WAYS OF LIFE WHICH WE SEE TO BE GOOD, HAVE TO BE FITTED IN WITH OUR OLDER FRAMEWORK. At some points, certain negative aspects must be discarded. It is no easy task. But a prerequisite of any success is a proper understanding of the old Benin way of life."
This lecture concerns itself with an objective assessment of the performance of Benin in the twentieth century, and more importantly, its place and destiny in the twenty-first. I would therefore seek to identify problems and closely follow the approach of Egharevba in the suggestions of strategies and solutions to problems which, due to the mistakes and wrong attitudes observed in the closing years of the twentieth century, are bound to arise in the next.
A preliminary, even tentative draft of this lecture was written at the request of the Benin Forum one-year ago. It was presumably the belief of the Forum, and mine as well, that a fairly balanced assessment of the performance of a people one year to the end of the century was feasible. Since the delivery of that lecture at the Annual Conference of the Benin People under the auspices of the Benin Forum on 2nd January 1999, a number of developments have necessitated a major review of the original text. Among these are the replacement of the military regime by democratically elected civilian administrations at all tiers of government, access to additional research documents through the good offices of the National Council for Arts and Culture, Benin City, and contact with a small but growing body of young idealistic Binis whose selflessness and commitment to community development are bound to have positive impact on the performance of Benin the twenty-first century.
End-of-year celebrations are convenient occasions for stocktaking, reflection on achievements as well as failures, and preparation for the year ahead. Three weeks from today, the end of three units of measurement in the calculation of time would coincide. December 31, 1999 represents not only the end of a particular year, but more significantly the end of the remarkably tumultuous 20th century and the culmination of the second millennium A.D. The period starting from January 1, and extending to the early years of the 21st century, representing the turn not only of a century but also of a millennium, would be an exciting time of rapid changes, new attitudes and dramatic transformation in fortunes of continents, countries, nationalities and interest groups. Before people know what has transpired, groups that did fairly well in the 20th century but failed to plan sensibly for the 21st will find to their regret that they have been relegated to the background. Conversely, groups that fared rather poorly in the 20th century for reasons discussed later, but which took note of their dismal performance and developed realistic strategies for improved performance in the 21st century, will move into leadership positions that may appear surprising and unexpected to other competing communities. The difference between brilliant success and disgraceful decline in the quality of life of the people and preservation of their culture will surely be determined by differing abilities to assess current situation, work out strategies and implement plans effectively.
Analysis of the place of Benin in contemporary Nigeria connotes an assessment of her relative position when compared with other nationality groups in Nigeria. Such a discussion provides a platform for planning in the coming millennium and century. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, an analysis which is limited to the present and future is not complete and lacks the comprehensiveness that comes with a proper understanding of critical factors that were decisive in the past. It is therefore necessary that our discussion should be historically focused. The past is brought in as the fountain of attitudes, institutions, achievements and failures that in turn condition contemporary and future performance. A critically important factor that has had far-reaching impact on the Benin people in the 20th century is the so-called "Benin Massacre" of 1897 which I refer to as the "Contrived Incident of 1897". The hostility and bias engendered by this incident, manipulated by the British colonialists and surprisingly passed on to neighboring groups that by history are closely related to Benin, are issues that have to be understood and addressed by the people themselves and their leaders before they venture into the breadth-taking and adventurous years of the new age.
This speech takes an added significance in view of the exalted placed occupied by Benin in the history of black people not only in Africa but also in the black diaspora in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. Even if contemporary Benin people, because of their unseriousness and lethargy demonstrated in the second half of the 20th century to the survival and development of the BENIN IDEA, were to decide today to embark on an irrational programme of stamping that culture and idea out of existence, the African diaspora outside our continent would rise as a holy and committed army to counter such an unwise decision. Scholars belonging to other races who have spent whole life times studying such aspects of Benin civilization as the Edo language, history, art, administration of law, political organization and other cultural manifestations would raise
a deafening chorus of protests in such global locales as the United Nations, the Organization of Africa Unity, and other organizations in the comity of nations. I would, in the limited period of time assigned to me, attempt to consider the fortunes of Benin in the pre-colonial and colonial periods, aspects of disgraceful decadence that became glaringly noticeable in the post-independence era, and map out a strategic agenda for survival in the 21st century. No effort is made to assign blame for failure experienced this century, as such as exercise does not serve any useful purpose. It would be equivalent to a soccer team that is five goals down during injury time (which is usually not more than two minutes) blaming the striker, goalkeeper or even the coach! Such an exercise increases the margin of defeat as team members work at cross-purposes while each defends himself or herself or attacks the other members for their presumed incompetence. Nevertheless, I will, in the analogy of a school end-of-term report, come to some definite conclusions regarding the performance of Benin in key aspects of human endeavor in the twentieth century. This is necessary before proposing a strategy for survival in the 21st century.
B. PRECOLONIAL AND COLONIAL EXPERIENCES
The history of Benin spans a continuous period of 1,400 years. In 601, AD, Igodo, the first in a series of Kings, settled in what is now known as Benin City, which he named Igodomigodo. About six centuries later, the Ogiso dynasty, during which 31 kings reigned, was terminated by the misrule of Owodo. The Second Dynasty has survived such traumatic experiences as the "Contrived Incident of 1897", and forced incorporation into a new country later named Nigeria. What comes out clearly from a careful examination of Benin history are the following: that intrigues played important role in the collapse of the Ogiso era as well as the incident of 1897 that women played outstanding roles as 2 out of 31 Ogisos were women that, as emphasized by D. N. Oronsaye in his important book: THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT BENIN KINGDOM AND EMPIRE (1997), a decisively large part of the political, administrative and religious aspects of Benin civilization was established during the Ogiso era, and that the Eweka dynasty, in a wise spirit of continuity, built on the solid foundation laid by the Ogisos. The political experience of Benin after incorporation into Nigeria has not been inspiring. Mutual distrust between Benin and the British alienated Benin from the political experiments of colonial Nigeria. Two parallel systems - the colonial and the rump of the Benin Kingdom - existed side by side. British colonial administration was, by law, superior, but in terms of de facto legitimacy, the institutions of the kingdom were more highly esteemed and respected than their colonial counterparts. The relative unimportance attached by Benin to the colonial political system was clearly demonstrated when, during the colonial period, a non-Benin was elected into the Western House of Assembly. This phenomenon, which sent wrong signals to neighboring nationality groups that Benin was a no-man's land, is among the factors that have created grave political problems for Benin today. Unresolved, this misconception is bound to result in intractable political crises in the 21st century.
Benin had over 1,400 years of continuous history developed a well articulated culture which captured the way of life, and indeed, the world view of the people. While outstanding achievements were observed in such aspects of culture as art, law, administration, medicine, and architecture, the system was open to influences from neighboring groups and even from the Portuguese. This openness to outside cultural influences introduced a peculiar flavor of cosmopolitanism, which however retained its basic Benin character.
The colonial period introduced additional cultural influences in the areas of education, religion, politics, language and economy which, because of the fact of colonialism, placed British cultural intrusions above the indigenous ones. In the economy, the introduction of commercial rubber plantations and exploitation of timber reduced the dominance of subsistence agriculture and communal orientation to economic transactions. This development opened the gate to personal alienation of land and the development of a crudely exploitative form of capitalism.
Education in pre-colonial Benin was organized at the family level and under the apprenticeship system of the professional guilds. Families that specialized in specific occupations passed on skills from one generation to another. Education, largely based on observation and practical training, employed the Edo language as medium of instruction.
During the colonial period, education was formalized and the English language became the medium of instruction. The British, influenced no doubt by the "Contrived Incident of 1897", deliberately limited the number of schools and other social infrastructure established in the Benin traditional areas to the extent that she was severely disadvantaged when compared with her neighbors. The use of English as medium of instruction in educational institutions struck the first blow at the Edo language, leading to the indefensible neglect of the language in schools located in Benin during the post-colonial period. A curious, and indeed, hostile attitude was developed by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the precursor of the Anglican Church, to the Edo language. After its arrival in Benin in 1902, the CMS, with the support of the provincial commissioner (Mr. James Watt), was more interested in imposing the Yoruba language on the people rather than using Edo in worship service. According to Bishop Tugwell,
"... it will not be possible to translate the scriptures or to produce literature of any kind in these languages (of Benin Province) since the population do not warrant the necessary expenditure of time, labour and money and the number of persons acquiring an intelligent knowledge of English is small."
This misguided language policy failed woefully because of the good sense displayed by both the Edo and Yoruba. In the words of Uyilawa Usuanlele in his "Continued Survival of Edo Culture in Spite of Annihilation Efforts by Western Culture," 'Yoruba teachers were unwilling to learn Edo and the Edo people were unwilling to learn Yoruba' (p.10).
Other important factors working in favor of the survival of the Edo language were the following:
In spite of these positive developments, there has been observed towards the end of the 20th century, continued effort by some Christian denominations to promote other Nigerian languages in churches located in the Benin Traditional Area. Also of importance is the lack of interest displayed by the Edo State Government and Local Government Councils in the Benin Area in the teaching of the Edo language in educational institutions.
Before 1897, Benin encouraged her creative citizens to develop technology for improving the quality of life. Some of the leaders of the people participated actively in the development of technological innovations. The basis of these achievements was not physical scientific experimentation but intuitive knowledge based on right balance between the human spirit and Osanobua (God) developed through solitude in the forest and/or Egun, and utilization of that knowledge to interact with the natural environment (MAINLY FOREST). Such interaction produced technological breakthroughs in rudimentary manufacturing, farming systems, herbal medicine, art, cuisine, etc. It is important to note here that one of the most successful technological innovators in Benin history was Oba Ewuare who reigned in the 15th century. He made good use of his years in exile in the forest occasioned by disagreement with the people to acquire valuable knowledge which is the basis of numerous herbal cures that are today far superior to modern chemically based medicines.
Technological development in Benin started to decline during the colonial period. The introduction of formal Western education significantly disrupted the traditional apprenticeship system, a physically oriented approach to the study of science and technological development largely truncated the intuitive approach, and the naively presumed superiority of Western technology to its indigenously developed counterpart which has its roots in the peoples culture, virtually put a stop to indigenous Benin technological development.
C. DECADENCE IN POST-INDEPENDENCE ERA
As hinted earlier, Benin experienced decline and under development along a broad spectrum of human endeavors in the 20th century. I shall now attempt to be specific in outlining aspects of decadence that should be addressed urgently. I point out areas of decadence not in a critical spirit, but with a view to sensitizing Benin leaders on areas in which their society is in decline. While discussing late 20th century decadence, we shall not fail to identity areas of success.
(a) Social Life and Custom
Foreign influences, particularly British and American, have continued to make remarkable inroads into Benin social life and custom. This phenomenon is facilitated by foreign travel, access to satellite television, and American movies and music.
A real and present danger is the increasing Americanization of the youths in the area of fashion, food, musical and lingo, in particular the emerging Anglo-Edo medium; a process which unchecked, has the potential of completely destroying Benin culture and replacing it with a counterfeit American system.
In spite of this negative development, some particularly resilient aspects of Benin culture have held their own in the face of formidable opposing forces. Traditional ceremonies of marriage, naming of children, as well as organization into interest groups (now largely in the form of social clubs) have largely remained intact, though additions by adherents of world religions have taken root. What is of great significance here is the fact that the influence of religion did not displace traditional practices.
It is when we consider funeral rites that we encounter a major process of transition and change. The exploitative attitude of the extended family towards children of the deceased is inducing a significant abandonment of traditional Benin funeral rites in favor of simpler Christian and Islamic ones. This change which is due to negative tendencies of the extended family may in future extend to undermining the communal basis of Benin society and the extended family system itself. An important social innovation this century is the development of social clubs interested not only in the welfare of their members, but in the development of the community as a whole. The example set by the Benin Social Circle formed more than 60 years ago by the then young Benin intelligentsia has been followed by hundreds of clubs today, with the Benin Forum occupying the apex position. These clubs and the Benin Forum have in the last decade been engaged in defending Benin interests in the larger Nigerian society. They are destined, as we shall demonstrate in the next section, to play critically important roles in the implementation of the Agenda for the 21st century outline there.
(b) Political Organization
The dichotomy between the traditional system of government and the modern one continues to exist, though there have been attempts during constitutional reviews exercises in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to integrate the two systems. In spite of these largely unsuccessful efforts, the traditional system with its institutions and personnel remains distinct from the modern. The Palace remains distinct from the State Government, the Enigie and Edionwere from the Local Governments, and the Palace Societies from political parties. Recent developments in the modern political system have been to the disadvantage of Benin. Political parties organized along ethnic lines in the First and Second Republics left Benin politicians as appendages to their counterparts in the larger ethnic groups. Similarly, the long period of military rule with its characteristic of sycophantic canvassing for patronage and key national appointments (which is at variance with the Benin man's attachment of self-respect and "pride") left Benin critically under-represented in many national institutions. In the rising national tide of clannishness and nepotism, Benin was marginalized at both national and state levels.
Problems arising from these political developments may be itemized as follows:-
(c) Economic Evolution
Political problems identified above had, and are still having, negative economic repercussions in Benin. These, coupled with the structural adjustment programme (SAP) have facilitated the collapse of the few manufacturing enterprises, rendered most intractable the incidence of poverty, unemployment, emigration and crime. Exploitation of timber which was restrained by the demarcation of forest reserves by the British during the colonial period is now largely uncontrolled as illegal felling of immature trees threatens the survival of the Benin forest (now reduced to barely 2 percent of the original) which is the source of numerous pharmaceutical plants.
A major problem area is the alienation of land to private individuals. In the 1970s, the Land Use Decree vested control over land in Federal and State Governments. In spite of this, uncoordinated transactions in land in urban and rural areas challenge control of land by each ethnic group in its traditional area as defined by colonial maps. The danger in the current confused situation in land matters in Benin is the widespread sale of land to more than one buyer, and sale of large tracts to Non-Binis. The result of these difficulties is the deliberate attempt of some groups to acquire control of the lionís share of Benin land with ill-gotten wealth obtained from fraudulent government contracts. A growing number of Binis are being left landless in their traditional area, and neighboring ethnic groups are gradually encroaching from all directions on Benin land in the rural areas. This process of unconsciously ceding land to other groups has been unwittingly encouraged by Binis moving from their villages to Benin City. The land problem is very sensitive. It has to be handled with care if major inter-ethnic crises are to be avoided in the 21st century.
(d) Edo Language
An alarm was raised in 1998 that unless something urgent was done, only 3 out of the more 250 Nigerian languages would survive the early years of the 21st century. The Federal Government has encouraged the development of the 3 so-called major Nigeria languages to the detriment of others, some of which are older, richer and more poetic. It is surprising that though the constitution provides for the teaching of other languages at the state level, such was not the case with Edo in the defunct Bendel State, and even in present day Edo State. The recent upgrading of French as one of the officially sanctioned languages will no doubt further undermine the survival of the vast majority of Nigerian languages. It is however encouraging to note that efforts are being made to include Edo language in the Senior Secondary curriculum, that an Edo-Edo dictionary project has been initiated by the Institute for Benin Studies and that there has been a renewed interest in the language. In spite of problems discussed earlier, a major achievement was recorded in the development of Edo language in the last two decades of the 20th century with the publication of the Edo Bible. The effort of the late Archdeacon Uwoghiren and his associates, including the Bible Society of Nigeria, in the translation of the Bible into Edo language represents a high water mark in the development of the language and general appreciation of its beautiful lyrical nature.
It is in the area of religion that the most dramatic changes have occurred in Benin in this century. At the beginning of the century, the overwhelming majority of Binis were adherents of the traditional religion of their ancestors established by Igodo in 601 A.D. This religion, while recognizing Osanobua (God) as the supreme God however made provision for the worship of subsidiary gods, and a form of ancestor worship. During the century, a large number of Binis abandoned this religion for the two major world religions i.e. Christianity and Islam. In spite of this apparently revolutionary turn of events, quite a number of Benin Christians and Muslims participate in indigenous religious rites and rituals, reflecting a form of syncretism which is also observable in Brazil, Venezuela and the West Indies, and among many Nigerian ethnic groups.
The attitude of a number of the Christian denominations towards the Benin people has worked to the disadvantage of both sides Specifically, the wholesale condemnation of the local culture, hostility to the host community and its aspirations, disregard for the Edo language in preference for other languages, and a naive attempt to mimic foreign culture displayed by these denominations have adversely affected the business of evangelization and created distrust among the people. The Benin people are often amused by attempts of some "churches" to copy American and European music, mode of speech, dressing, as if such practices are manifestations of holiness. The wise advice of Egharevba of fitting new religious practices within the original Benin framework was, and is still being ignored by some of these denominations to the advantage of all concerned. It is possible to have a distinct Benin approach to Christian worship, which, in addition to acceptance of the basic tenets of the religion (mono-theism, the in-dwelling Spirit, resurrection, virgin conception, justification by faith, etc) provides for use of the unique Edo expression of praise and thanksgiving, quiet time and fasting as practiced by Benin elders from time immemorial, use of local musical instruments as well as the people's language in worship. This is an area that should attract considerable attention in the twenty-first century.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I wish to recapitulate some of the conclusions regarding the attitude of Benin people in the closing years of the 20th century. Concretely, I identify the following negative attitudes: -
From the foregoing, we can confidently assess the performance of Benin in the 20th century. The report card is not flattering. It indicates continuous decline and regression in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the analogy to a football team, the final whistle leaves our team decisively defeated. The options open to the team are relegation to the second division, disbandment or regrouping for the next season. From the analysis so far, the performance was not disastrous. Afterall, a number of successes were recorded in some areas. It would therefore be appropriate to disregard and indeed, reject the options or relegation to a lower division (continued declined) and disbandment (final collapse). This leaves us with the option of regrouping (reorganization) for the next season (century).
D. AGENDA FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
The environment of the 21st century will be radically different from that of the 20th century about international organization, economic arrangements and the structure of the Nigerian Federation.
In terms of geopolitics, the basic unit will be the economic community (or union) with the leading communities being the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area, and another in Latin America. Several of these would move in the direction of monetary union leading to the elimination of many currencies and their replacement by a few dominant ones strong enough to challenge the US dollar as the leading international currency. The G7 whose members are also participants in the leading economic communities will completely dominate the United Nations' Agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade organization (WTO) in the formulation of international economic policy. Many countries in the developing world that fail to establish and strengthen their economic communities will fall prey to extreme domination and manipulation by the leading industrial nations.
In addition, the 21st century will be one characterized by globalization. Information will flow instantaneously between local communities no matter the distance between them; companies providing services will carry on their business without leaving their home base, thanks to facilities provided by Information Technology (IT). Similarly, transitional corporations with headquarters in one country will carry out different aspects of business in several countries where WTO agreements guarantee them rights and privileges identical to those enjoyed by local firms. They will also enjoy the benefit of marketing products in a globalized market where restrictions on trade are eliminated and the most efficient producers survive the expected high level of competition. In the new era, Information Technology, computerization and satellite broadcasting will be important tools for fostering economic and cultural aspirations. Countries and, indeed, communities that invest heavily in scientific and technological research will record to their credit major technological breakthroughs which enhance their competitiveness in global markets and boost their prestige in the comity of nations. Countries that are able to preserve important aspects of their culture and incorporate such in the performing arts (e.g. music, dance, drama) and in such other areas as language, traditional games, and in a unique approach to the practice of the major world religions will project their cultures by satellite broadcasting to the rest of the world. The broadcasting companies of countries that fail to preserve their cultures will be engaged in the ridiculous business of propagating the cultures of other countries. While the processes of globalization, Information Technology and economic integration diminish the importance of the nation states such as Nigeria, they have the paradoxical impact of raising the profile and identity of constituent nationality groups that make up a nation state. Globalization enable transitional companies to locate in any community of their choice without being subjected to undue bureaucratic interference introduced by governments. Similarly, Information Technology, employing computer and satellite communication facilities, enables a company located anywhere in a country to provide computer-related and other services to any customer located anywhere in the world. In the emerging system, a well-organized local community can plan to be prosperous in countries where governments implementing wrong economic policies impose poverty generally. Also, economic integration, by transferring economic sovereignty from the nation state to the authority of the regional community, frees ethnic groups from the control of dominant hegemonic coalitions within each nation state, and allows them to associate with other ethnic nationalities in other countries within the community.
The goal of the Benin people in the 21st century is corporate survival. As we have demonstrated earlier in the speech, the objective of the "Contrived Incident of 1897" was the destruction of the Benin people and what they stood for. For one century, we watched with bated breadth two opposing forces at work: one seeking to destroy, and the other striving against all odds to defend the Benin idea.
In these circumstances, the goal of Benin in the 21st century is the preservation of her culture which is the source of the creativity of her people with the objective of contributing to the expected revival of Nigeria, and indeed of the Black World. Evidently, the goal of corporate survival is not for the sake of survival itself. It is for a world-historic purpose. It incorporates the following manifestations of renaissance after the near- death experience of the 20th century.
The aspirations are reasonably related to the local and international environments in which nationality groups will operate in the 21st century. Although they are realistic, the people will have to discuss and brainstorm on them with a view to developing a consensus. Once they are generally accepted, a strategy for implementation becomes imperative. Such a strategy will have to be fine-tuned by the Institute for Benin Studies and managed by the Benin Forum.
The following aspects of strategy are proposed: -
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, it appears that this speech has become longer than I originally thought it would be. However, I have no regrets. The issues, problems and proposed agenda are wide-ranging, and the need for specificity in some aspects was very persuasive. What now remains is to re-emphasize a couple of conclusions. First, that Benin experienced a protracted period of decline in the 20th century, and second, that the 21st century represents a period of renaissance and revival in all aspects of human endeavor for Benin if the proposals and recommendations made in this speech are taken seriously.
What then is our overall prognosis for the twenty-first century? The analysis so far shows that the Benin people have not fared well particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. It might rightly be said that they have been comprehensively frustrated in their aspiration in a situation where all is for the worst in the most of all possible worlds. However, in spite of the welter of problems experienced during this century, glimmer of hope was discernible in a number of key areas. These are: -
Dear brothers and sisters, these bright points of hope represents seeds for revival in the future. The 21st century holds in store great opportunities, formidable challenges and outstanding achievements for Benin. For as it is with Benin, so will it be for Nigeria, the Benin diaspora world-wide, and the future great continent of Africa.
Commentaries are welcomed, please send to:
firstname.lastname@example.org (Institute for Benin Studies)