Urhobo Historical Society



By  O. Igho Natufe, Ph.D.

On December 14, 2001, Professor Peter Ekeh presented the 4th Chief Jacob Egharevba Memorial Lecture in Benin City. His Lecture was titled: OGISO TIMES AND EWEKA TIMES: A PRELIMINARY HISTORY OF THE EDOID COMPLEX OF CULTURES.

As it is well known by social scientists, History concerns itself with the study of the scientific development of society. It seeks explanations for the continuity and change in societal development, and locates the actions of humans as actors or engineers of social change. Grounded in our knowledge of History, therefore, we are able to explain the impact of phenomena on a community that is nurtured by its heritage. As the mother of social sciences, History deals with culture and language as well as with social and political developments. The role these play in a given community, or in a group of contiguous communities, helps our understanding of the continuities and discontinuities of certain vital elements that point to both the similarities and dissimilarities of cultural linkages among communities. This was the thrust of Professor Ekeh's Lecture, as exemplified by the subtitle of his paper: A Preliminary History of the Edoid Complex of Cultures. His paper was not a study in Bini culture per se, but a review of the complexity of Edoid cultures. The word Edoid refers to the following group of nationalities (listed alphabetically) that share certain cultural properties: Bini, Esan, Etsako, Isoko, Owan, and Urhobo.

In his review of Professor Ekeh's paper published on December 28, 2001, in the "Edo Community" forum in the internet, Mr. Ademola Iyi- Eweka deviated from the core of the paper, and made several erroneous statements and conclusions that are devoid of any Historical or linguistic facts. While Professor Ekeh's paper was a scholarly discourse of the transformation of Edoid cultures, Mr. Iyi-Eweka's re-joinder was a pedestrian display of raw hegemonistic tendencies. Where Professor Ekeh offered us an interpretative analysis of the evolution of Edoid cultures, Mr. Iyi-Eweka elected to pursue a non-scholarly critique that only helped to expose his restrictive and myopic understanding of Historical processes and linguistic foundations. Instead of exploring and explaining the cultural and/or linguistic bonds between the Binis and the Urhobos, and thus helping to broaden the frontiers of knowledge, which Professor Ekeh has done in his paper, Mr. Iyi-Eweka's false Historical postulates remain counter-productive.

That the Binis once had a powerful empire is not, and cannot be disputed. As a Nigerian, I am proud of the prowess of the Benin empire, just as I am proud of that of Songhai or Ethiopia as an African, for example. The British invasion of Benin in 1897 is a landmark in British imperialism in African History. Though Benin was defeated in that war, its heroics remain a source of pride, not just for the Binis, but for other Nigerians and Africans. The defeat of Italy by Ethiopia in the battle of Adowa in 1896 also remains a source of pride for all Africans. While the lessons of those events and the exploits of such empires are of vital Historical significance, it is essential that we, as social scientists, do not get carried away by romanticism in our glorifications of those phenomena. Mr. Iyi-Eweka, in his over zealousness to retell Bini History allowed himself to commit Historical and linguistic blunders. His views are reviewed in this critique. But before I do that, let me refer to his concluding statement: "In spite of all observations we have all made, there are many good historical point point [sic] in the lecture." It is instructive to note that, Mr. Iyi-Eweka did not refer to any of the good historical points that he found in Professor Ekeh's lecture.

Let us walk through Mr. Iyi-Eweka's review of Professor Ekeh's lecture. His statements (in red characters) precede my review.

1. "Professor Ekeh is still trying to distance the Urhobos from the main Edoid stock left in Benin. I am happy though that he not did [sic] call Urhobo area a kingdom or Empire, because the whole Urhobo land was part of the ancient Benin Empire."

This view of Mr. Iyi-Eweka is both a falsification of History and a gross display of imperial arrogance. First, who are "the main Edoid stock?" Second, when was "the whole Urhobo land" a "part of the ancient Benin Empire?" To refer to the Binis as the "main Edoid stock" is an unfortunate appellation employed by Mr. Iyi-Eweka in his attempt to portray the Binis as the primus inter pares among the Edoid nationalities. What is his Historical foundation for this assertion? And to state that "the whole of Urhobo land was part of the ancient Benin Empire" is only part of Mr. Iyi-Eweka's expansive and familiar boast on previous occasions that claims the entire West African region for the Benin Empire. It is of course a distortion of History.

2. "Each town or village has its own OVWIE (Ogie-Duke)."

If Mr. Iyi-Eweka was referring to Urhobo, then he is making a mistake. The general Urhobo word for a King is Ovie, and not OVWIE. But if we assume that Mr. Iyi-Eweka had the wrong spelling for Ovie, and wrote OVWIE instead, which he translated to mean "Ogie-Duke" in Bini language, he will render his readers a great service by providing the linguistic roots of both Ovie and OVWIE. Furthermore, if we also assume that Ovie, according to Mr.Iyi-Eweka, means Ogie-Duke in Bini language, he cannot tell the Urhobo what Ovie should mean in Urhobo language. Words are known to possess different meanings across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Take the word agenda for example. In French it means a diary, whereas it means an order of businessat a meeting in English. We all know the meaning of bail in English. But in French bail means a lease. Or, let us consider a situation where a Police Officer stops two motorists, an English and an American, on a highway. He orders both of them to proceed to the boot of their respective cars. The English and the American will definitely stand at different ends of their cars.

3. "The Urhobos themselves were part and parcel of Benin administration even during the so-called EWEKA PERIOD." 

Here we go again with Mr.Iyi- Eweka's blusters. What does this statement mean? Does it mean that certain Urhobos were involved in the administration of the Benin empire? Or does it mean that the Urhobo were administered as part of the Benin empire? If Mr. Iyi-Eweka was referring to the former, he would be correct, because certain Urhobos did play, and still play some role in the administration of the Benin kingdom. He could not be referring to the latter.

4. "Urhobos have held the title of IYASE of Edo land (not the Iyase of Benin City) on more than one occasion."

I do not know of an Iyase of Edo land, but I do know of an Iyase of Benin. To the best of my knowledge, the current Iyase of Benin, Chief Sam Igbe is an Urhobo, who, if we may use the term, is a naturalized Bini citizen. What does this tell us? It is not unusual for certain members of a given nationality to occupy important offices in the administration of another. This is particularly true, where both nationalities share certain cultural variants.

5. "Urhobos participated on all the Benin wars of expansion as part and parcel of the EDO army."

Was there an Edo army? It is unclear what point Mr. Iyi-Eweka intended to make by this statement. It is not different from someone stating that, "Nigerians participated in the US war against Vietnam." Both statements are correct. But they do not question the sovereignty of either the Urhobo or of Nigeria as independent jurisdictions. Who were those Urhobos that "participated on all the wars" of imperial Benin? Were they residing in Benin territory, or were they indentured workers captured by the Binis from Urhobo territory? Furthermore, the fact that certain Urhobos fought along side their Bini counterparts must be seen as a proof of good neighbourliness. It was never a vassal relationship, because the Binis did not invade nor did they conquer Urhobo territory. History is replete with cases where citizens of foreign countries fought, and still fight on the side of a third party against a common enemy.

6. "An Urhobo man running from the word EDO or those in Benin City, is like a man running from his shadows. Of course his shadow is always there."

Urhobos are not Edos. So the question of an Urhobo "man running from his shadows" is an absurdity. They do not deny that they are Edoid. To the extent that Mr. Iyi-Eweka and some of his apologists have come to equate Edoid with Bini, they have introduced an inimical attribute into a rational discourse of the Edoid concept. Let us assess this statement: "Russians are Slavists, Ukrainians are Slavists, therefore Ukrainians are Russians." The illogical inference is obvious. But it is this illogicality that seems to motivate Mr.Iyi-Eweka in his misinterpretation of History and ethnography. Let us consider Mr. Iyi-Eweka's allegation that "an Urhobo" is "running from the word EDO or those in Benin City." The question is WHY? Could it be because of the Iyi Ewekas of this world? This is a poser for Mr. Iyi-Eweka and those who share his brand of Historical falsification anchored on imperial arrogance.

7. "Educated Bini persons do not run away from Urhobos nor do they try to distance themselves from Urhobo. But some educated Urhobos are so bent on creating an Urhobo kingdom where none ever existed, that they write anything."

Is there an Historical deadline for communities or nationalities to create their respective kingdoms? Mr. Iyi-Eweka would seem to suggest that there is. To say that "some educated Urhobos...write anything", as Mr. Iyi-Eweka has concluded, is a reckless way to describe a scholarly paper.

8. "Many of the modern day Urhobo towns and villages were founded during the Eweka Period. New Villages are still coming up."

What is the relevance of this? I hope Mr. Iyi-Eweka is not suggesting the stoppage of History and development in neighbouring territories, simply because of the reign of a particular foreign monarch.

9. "Aka means SNAKE in Urhobo. Some of the Urhobos call the Oba of Benin OBARAKA. Some do not."

Two fallacies here. First, it is an incredible and irresponsible abuse of the Urhobo language to say, as Mr. Iyi-Eweka so clearly does, that Urhobo language has the same word for Binis and snakes. Clearly, that information did not come from any Urhobo-speaking person. The Urhobo word for Benin is Aka; the Urhobo word for snake is orodeko. These are far apart. From where did Mr. Iyi-Eweka get his information? Second, for all Urhobos, the Oba of Benin is known and referred to as Oba r' Aka. The question as to whether the Binis were "worshiping [sic] snakes at a point in time" is a figment of Mr. Iyi-Eweka's imagination, based on his fallacious translation of "aka."

10. "What is the meaning of Urhobo-UHOBO? The Binis gave the Urhobos their name."

One is sad to read such a distortion, by someone who claims to know his subject matter. Not too long ago, Professor Bala Usman alleged that the Hausas gave "Yoruba" to the Yorubas. Now, it is the turn of Mr. Iyi-Eweka to make a similar allegation. What a pity. Let me make several points on this claim by Mr. Iyi-Eweka. (A) Professor Ekeh's original point, which Mr. Iyi-Eweka is supposedly attacking, is that Urhobo is an ancient name, dating back to the Ogiso era, and therefore before the Eweka dynasty of Benin History. Does Mr. Iyi-Eweka dispute that point of view? What generation of Binis is he referring to when he says that "the Binis gave Urhobos their name"? Is he referring to the generation of the Ogisos when the word "Benin," according to Professor Ekeh's lecture, was not yet in use? (B) Mr. Iyi-Eweka claims to have read Professor Victor Manfredi's piece on "From Ogiso to Eweka", but it is obvious that he did not study the paper. The challenging prospect raised in Professor Manfredi's paper concerns the reason why the Urhobo call themselves that name with an "r" before the "h", whereas the Bini refer to the Urhobo as Uhobo, without the "r." According to the perspective in Professor Manfredi's paper, this is because Bini language tends to delete "r" from many words. The linguistic similarities between the Bini and the Urhobo cannot be ignored. But to suggest that one gave the other its name is an abuse of History, and a demonstration of poor linguistics. (C) While we are dealing with names/words, it may be pertinent to note, for instance, what the Urhobo call the Itsekiri. They refer to the Itsekiri as Irhobo, meaning, "people who float on waters." But for Mr. Iyi-Eweka and those not familiar with Urhobo language, Irhobo would seem to be a mis-spelling of Urhobo. What about Edo? Or Makuka? Or Kokori? Or Ogiso? Mr. Iyi-Eweka may be surprised to learn that these names/words also belong to languages and cultures separated by oceans from contemporary Nigeria. For example, Edo is a Japanese word. It is the spelling of ancient Tokyo, the Japanese capital. Maduka, a name popular among the Igbos of Nigeria, is Madhukar in India. Both Ogiso and Kokori are also Japanese words. Can we on the basis of these, conclude that, for example, Japan gave the names Edo, Ogiso, Kokori to the people who bear these names in Nigeria? The Japanese language has no linguistic relationship to Bini or Urhobo, but yet they share the same names. If such disparate languages and cultures can share the same names, would it be surprising for contiguous nationalities to share the same names? Omonigho is one name, Okoro is another. While Omonigho means the same in Bini, Esan, Isoko, and Urhobo, Okoro carries a different meaning in the various Nigerian nationalities that bear it.

11. "But it is funny that Peter Ekeh accepted the Yoruba version of the Ife-Benin connection without touching the Benin side of the story."

Mr. Iyi-Eweka seems to be accusing Professor Ekeh of engaging in anti-Bini activities. Readers of these debates may wish to read Professor Ekeh's paper to judge for themselves whether there is any basis for such an accusation, or whether it is another one of Mr. Iyi-Eweka's unfounded allegations. The Ife-Benin controversy over Ekaledaran is a complex issue. Both Ife and Benin schools of thought continue to uphold their respective interpretations of this question. But one aspect of Ife-Benin relationship that is not contested by both parties is the burial of the remains of the Obas of Benin, during the pre-colonial period, in Ile Ife. Perhaps Mr. Iyi-Eweka will explain the significance of this.

As we can see from the above presentation, Mr. Iyi-Eweka dabbled in Historical matters that he is poorly qualified to speak on. Fortunately, he does not represent a credible source of Bini History. The urge to comment on issues that do not reflect our realities should be tempered with reason and logic. To rush into it, as Mr. Iyi-Eweka has done, is a disservice to scholarship. Hopefully, experienced and mature Bini scholars will tame such brashness as Mr. Iyi-Eweka has demonstrated.

The Urhobo and Bini will remain good neighbours, as long as both parties act within the boundaries of the principles of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect of their respective cultural institutions and practices. Talking about cultural practices, it is instructive to note one vital aspect: nowhere in Urhobo land is there a requirement that, when present, a Bini citizen is authorized by custom to break a kolanut in an Urhobo ceremony. However, in Esan territory, a Bini citizen, regardless of his age, exercises a cultural right to perform such a function.