By P. S. Olumese


Esan socio-cultural relations begin with the family as the basic limit of organisation. The cultural behaviours learnt in the family considerably influenced the people's behaviour and attitudes. This attitudinal and relationship factor in pre –colonial Esan will be the main thrust of this chapter.

Esan cultural institutions have inherent qualities capable of sustaining an enduring bond in the people's life. The social institutions revealed that although the Esan appeared politically autonomous, they had considerable social interrelations which provided peaceful co-existence and stability in the pre-colonial society.

R. E. ·Bradbury had decried the little or the absence of knowledge on how Esan chiefdoms were organised arid interrelated prior to British ruler. It is hoped that this research would fill this gap in our knowledge of Esan.


As in the Yoruba ethnic group, seniority served as a great cohesive force in the social fabric in Esanland and formed the nexus on which respect legitimacy and order in the society were based.

The smallest socio-political unit in Esanland is Uelen. The Uelen could be single or an extended family. Oldest male is the senior and head of the family called odafen. The headship of a family goes to the most senior male member in preference to a female not because Esan society is male-dominated but because women leave the family home for their husbands. Another fundamental basis on which seniority was rooted was the fact that lineage genealogy in Eanland is traced and preserved through the male line.

The head Odafen of the family thus becomes the father of the family, by virtue of age, experience in family customs and the traditions of the society. It was on this premium that members of the family gave him unalloyed loyalty and obedience. In spite of his assumed wisdom, the odafen nevertheless, consulted with other senior members of the family before major decisions that would affect all members of the family were taken. The responsibility for settling quarrels and promoting order, tranquillity and progressive cohesion among members of the family fell on him. Indeed, the allegiance of all the members of each family to the Odafen constituted a unifying factor in the family.

The Odafen was not only a secular head, but also a religious leader. He was and still is the family priest who offered sacrifices to the gods and ancestral spirits. He made expropriation to the gods on the ancestral shrine for and on behalf of the members of the family. He took charge of the faced symbols notably the Ukhur of the patrilineage. The Ukure signified authority and sanction held by the heads of Esan families.  With this authority the Odafen, assumed the rule of the living representative of all the deceased members of the family unit. The Odafen had the first choice and offered blessings and prayers to the ancestors before the main food was eaten, usually in the evenings. Equiano recorded a nostalgic memory of his people's behavioural pattern in the dim past. Among the Esan as the Igbo,
Odafen poured libation before eating food or drinking wine.

"For the spirit of the departed relations which presides over their conduct, and guarded them from evil.

The family role of the Odafen was not singularly aimed at creating internal solidarity but done with full regard and cognizance of the needs and aspirations of the society at large. The family formed only and integral part of the society. Consequently the Odafen maintained law and order within and outside the family circle. If a member of his family had any misunderstanding with a member of another family, it was his duty to liaise with the Head of the other family with a view to effecting an· amicable solution. In like manner, he arranged and influenced the choice of spouse for the young male and female member of his family.


The respect for and dignity of elders was not limited to the family as it transcended its boundaries. It was also at work in lineages and in other Esan social associations. The result of the seniority utilization in Esan society was found in the sober and subtle decisions often taken by the elders. Elders took decisions after careful considerations of the issues involved, based on their profound experience and knowledge of Esan traditions. This respect for elders assumed a wider dimension as it was carried into the village group. The oldest man in the village was referred to as an Odionwele. Edion's counsels were sought before major decisions were taken especially at genera village meetings.

They were accorded some immunities which resulted from the ·deep· respect and reverence they enjoyed as living representatives of ·the ancestors. They had extended relations with their neighbours, through contacts with co-elders in other villages.

A major tool in the elders' conduct of internal and external relations was their knowledge of Esan words and proverbs. They used such. To flatter or provoke expensive thoughts aimed at warning against violence or any action the elders believed was undesirable or persuading people to take the wiser course of action in any given situation. The elders also preached about the calamity that could result if their counsel was not heeded. It was unusual for younger people not to heed the words of the elders since they believed them to words of wisdom. In summary, the role of seniority or eldership in the· socio-cultural context was important as they served as rallying points for acquiring wisdom and cementing cordial intra and inter group relationship.

It is pertinent to highlight the fact that Esanland seniority was not always determined by age.

Some men or women who had distinguished themselves through the exhibition of proven qualities and had shown transparent honesty could be accepted as seniors and leaders in their groups. For example, the leaders of a hunter guild, craft or trading groups could be selected on criteria other than by age. This choice of leadership may be due to the fact that Esan culture also emphasized achievement orientation and honesty. As in the hunter’s guild, the hunter who is most knowledgeable in shooting and following trails could be regarded as a leader of a guild even though he should have other hunters who were senior to him by age. The leader of a craft guild was usually the founder or the sponsor of the guild. In this case all those who associated with him as members of the guild would have done so either through apprenticeship or by direct affiliation. Apart from these few and isolated cases Esan social organisation was purely on age grade. By this traditional order it was most unlikely for someone to enlist in an organization that was led by a younger age group.

Thus, once prayers or blessings were to be offered, such responsibility unavoidably fall on whoever was the senior male member in the group.

This brings into focus the importance of seniority in Esan socio-cultural milieu. Once people are gathered it was customary for the host to present kolanut to the people. Kola nuts has a tremendous sociocultural significance in Esanland. The societal recognition and respect for kolanuts may perhaps be due to the Esan people's belief that kolanut usher in life. The privilege of breaking kolanut and praying over it was usually the prerogative of a man.

If a man presented a kola nut to his visitors who were members of the same village, the eldest among them would break it even if the host was senior. This order emanated from the belief that when a stranger enters a home, new blessings came with him. The host and the members of his household were blessed by invoking God Almighty and the ancestral spirit to guard and protect them all the days of their lives. The-would be partakers of the kolanuts were also prayed for individually, if time permitted.

In some other cases the breaking of kola-nut was not always, dope on the basis of seniority, as other variables were sometimes considered. In certain situations Odion title overrides seniority by age, as a way of relegating the social status of those who are seniors, but unable to perform the ceremonies to become an Odion.

It has been asserted above that the oldest man in an assembly or in a group always had the right of breaking kolanuts, but this order changed once an Odion was present as seniority determined only by age would no longer apply. The Odion could break kolanut even if there were people who are senior him by age. This reflects the Esan social stratification which places the Edion as belonging to the highest social group. Indeed, it was the highest social status an ordinary citizen could aspire to in the society. This social importance of Odion title had compelled people to strive hard in order to perform the ceremony early.

Generally in Esan intra-group relations, claims of common origin and brotherhood were quite dominant. This forms a third base on which seniority in a gathering could be claimed. When people from different village group were gathered, the order of Seniority was determined according to chiefdoms. In order to determine which chiefdom was senior, chiefdom origins were often reiterated before kola nuts were broken. The person to break the kola-nut would 15e determined from a review of origin claims. For example, the people of Udo, Ubiaja and Ugboha chiefdoms have their traditions of origin which showed that these chiefdoms were founded by three brothers. The, breaking of kolanuts when people of these areas were gather was done by an Udo because Udo is the senior chiefdom. In the absence of an Udo man an Ubiaja man would break the kolanut. A young man in the midst of elders who had the traditional prerogative of breaking the kolanut, because he hailed from a senior community could show society and courtesy by transferring such rights to the eldest man present. He would in the circumstances touch the kolanut and pass it over to the eldest man.

The people of Ewohimi, Ewatto, Ewossa are bound together in a traditional brotherhood which evolved from a claim of common origin. The seniority of these communities fell on Ewohimi followed by Ewatto and Ewossa). The breaking of kola-nut here is consonant with the stated order.

Similar intra-group relations that tended to foster social, mutual interaction and interdependence among the Esan people could been in ether various chi chiefdoms. For example, the people of Okhordua, Emu, Okhuesan have a brotherhood bond. This brotherhood was expressed once kola-nut was to be broken. The eastern neighbours of Orowa and Inyenlen were said to have been immigrant that were given land to settle by the Onojie of Emu. Since they were given land they had to ingratiate themselves with their hosts by paying tributes. Therefore they claim junior position in any relationship with Emu.

Uromi and Uzea are tied together in their inter-group relations. Uzea's seniority over Uromi has been a common knowledge among the people of the two village groups. When people from Uzea and Uromi were gathered, the Uzea man broke kolanut and offered prayers and blessings.

These practices tended to show the resilient legacies inherent in communal living which appear to have characterized the pre-colonial Esan commuiunties.

The dominant influence of Ekpoma in this 'Century may have been dependent on her brotherly relation with many Village groups like Egoro, Opoji, Ewu, Ekpon. Among these village groups, Ekpoma was dominant as many migrants left there to settle in the other village Groups. In some, descendants of the Ekpoma royal family were said to have founded the ruling families of the Village groups like Opoji and Ekpon.

When people from all parts of Esan communities were gather, it was the man from Irrua that broke the kolanuts. This had become and undisputed traditional order in Esan society. It would appear however, that the Irrua elder status in Esan is attendant on the 18th century development between Esanland and Benin. Dr. Okojie ascribes this Irrual privilege as emanating from the incident that took place in the palace of the Oba Akenzua 1 who reign from 1713 to 1735. This incident occurred when Oba Akenzua 1 recognized the Onojie of Irrua (Ojirrua) as Okaijesan because he uncovered the food that was presented to the Esan Enijie as well as performing the customary oblation. It would appear that other considerations were significant in the Oba’s recognition of the Ojirrua as primus inter pares among Esan Enijie. In the oral tradition of origin the founder of Irrua claimed to have migrated from Ile-Ife at the same time with Bini’s second dynasty. Apart from this claim, Irrouwa the wife of the founder of Irrua married a Bini Princess. Furthermore, Irrua had been known and recognized especially by Bini as the headquarters of Esan just as Agbor was for the Ika. It could therefore be argued that Irrua monarchy had a long consanguinity with the present Benin dynasty which must have influence the Oba in conferring honours and prestige on the Ojokie of Irrua.

Meanwhile, the Onojie of Ewohimi had openly challenge this seniority order of Ojirrua. The Onojie and people of Ewohimi has also grown very intimate with the Oba of Benin from the early 18th century. Oba Akenzua 1 in 1713 was helped by the Onojie and people of Ewohimi to the Benin thrown when they suppressed Prince Ozuere, by force of arms. Oba Osamwede in 1816 was also help to the thrown by a military force raised and nurtured in Ewohimi. Ewohimi perhaps relied on the closeness with Benin to contest seniority with Irrua.


Esan traditional marriage was aimed at serving two principals purposes. These were to established cordial inter or intra-group relations and to procreate. The contraction of marriages in Esan society was an exclusive affair of the elders or parents of the bride and groom. Families had used marriages to strengthen diplomatic relations with each other or with groups and villages. To this end, infant betrothal which became widespread in Esanland was used by parent to build up intra or inter-group cohesion and brotherhood among families and villages groups. For instance, a parent or an Onojie of one town who needed the friendship of an Onojie of another could effect his desire by arranging to betroth his daughter to the son of that Onojie. Once betrothal had been successfully formalized, the characteristic cordial in-law relationship would commence. This cordiality would be further strengthened once a child emerged in the union. Isidahomen, the Onojie of Irrua had married queen Ebuade, daughter of the Onojie of Ugboha and this union created a peaceful and friendly tie between Ugboha and Irrua. The Enijie or Uromi and Opoji who had quarrelled previously became reconciled through the marriage of Ozedu the daughter of the Onojie of Uromi to the Onojie of Opoji. They gave birth to Omokhoa who later became the Onojie of Opoji.

Although the Esan people had maintained a patrilineal system, no man was ever absolutely isolated from his mother’s people. On the death of his mother, he would traditionally bury the remain of the mother in her ancestral homeland. A man who had problems and difficulties in his father’s homeland could migrate to his mother’s and, where usually he would be subjected to less competition in life. This type of relationship which existed between villages and communities through marital arrangement added a fillip to trade and cooperation in Esan. Traders in one village group would become inviolate in some other villages where their sisters or daughters were married. The in-law interlocking connection was a guarantee for these traders security of life and property.

Esan traditional marriages system allow for the continuity of the wedded group. Once the family of the bride wealth groom and had paid the traditional bride wealth and services to the family of the bribe, the marriage would be then be regarded as conclusive. The children from such union would belong the bridegroom’s family. But when a man was unable to have a male child, the eldest surviving d daughter was allowed to choose a respected man for the purpose of procreation. The children from such union belonged to the woman’s’ family. As no bride wealth was paid, no marriage was contracted. This type of procreation was certainly not prostitution as N.W. Thomas misunderstood the system. The society that had profound respect for traditions would never allow their custom to be abused.

The cementing relationship which traditional marriages fostered in Esan was sustained by its stability and characteristic indissolubility. In proof, Igbafe’s sudy of ancient Benin Kingdom, in which were the Esan people, he asserts that “once an indigenous marriage was contracted under native law and custom, it had a recognised stamp of permanency. The bride wealth which was paid in the Esan traditional marriage to the family of the bride was shared by all members of the family to the bridegroom. To all intents and purpose, all relatives helped to encourage the creation of an enduring good and harmonious relationship between the two families.

In Esan traditional settings, provision was not made for divorce, since prostitution was against the traditional norms of the society. The settlement pattern provided for all members of the family to be accommodated in one house. In such residential arrangement women who were house wives and daughters had their living rooms in houses built behind the main house (Odugha) where the males were accommodated. The living arrangement in pre-colonial Esan, women whose husband had died would be inherited by the dead man’s next of kin after a not too expensive ritual performance. Esan traditions abhorred any reference to a woman as a dead’s wife. This was why a woman was inherited by her late husband next of kin. All women married into family were expected to comply with the order of that home. Peace order and the communal living which were permanent features of Esan prevented divorce.  Whenever dissension arose, it was quickly settled through the intermediary role of the senior members or elders (Edion) of the houses. An Esan house wife in spite of her previous social status or age would realize at marriage that she had become the most junior member of her husband’s pertrilineage. There was no dispute about the order of the precedence. She would be socialized into the community of wives organization in the village by her mother-in-law and other female’s relatives of the family. In the house, she would imbibe the norms of married life and the etiquette of the lineage.

The issue that would have been problematic and capable of causing divorce was that of the wife’s sterility or husband importance but such developments were contained internally in the family. If after a reasonable laps of time, a legitimately contracted marriage had not been blessed with children, the man with full consent could marry second wife without divorce. Also the parent of a husband or in their absence, elders of the patrilineage could provide a wife with a respectful man outside the patrilineage as the husband if a husband’s impotence was discovered. This arrangement was usually conducted with a high sense of responsibility and secrecy in order to avoid denting the woman’s real husband image in the society. Before this arrangement was finalized, the parents could perform some sacrifices which constituted a symbol of dispensation against adultery. The children from such secrete union belong to the family of the woman’s husband. Such children were not susceptible to any social or legal disabilities.

Such internal adjustment became necessary because of the Esan people’s view of life that every family should have children to propagate their lineage. It would also appear imperative that for economic reason. Families ought to have children which formed the power that constituted the insurance against old age. As a consequence, it was of paramount importance for each family to have male children, who served as the family labour force.


In the pre-colonial times, Esan appeared to have had profound inter-village relations. Some village groups in Esan claimed very intimate brotherhood to the extent that no marked land boundary existed to strictly demarcate one area form the other. For example, relationship existed among Udo, Ubiaja, and Ugboha. Even though these independent communities overly expressed their political autonomy, they had no marked land boundary differentiating their geographical areas. Due to this absence of boundary a man in any of these groups could move out from one village group to the other to settle and own land provided such land had not been previously cultivated or inhabited by someone else. Among the Ebelle, Okalo and Ogwa communities, land was free to any citizen for cultivation and habitation. The Ewohimi, Ewatto and Ewossa groups had such unity. Ekpoma, Opoji, and Uromi similarly claim communal ownership of land. Indeed, before the colonial period Esan people would appear to have cherished good neighbourhood, in areas  where fierce and hostile competitions for land would have occurred between people of two abject villages, a conflict situation was averted by the people’s agreement to institutes a blood pact Okoven.

Okoven was sworn to for two fundamental reasons, either to put hint a halt to an existing imminent hostilities between communities or to guarantee continuous peaceful co-existence in Esan society. Traditional, Okoven oath was to be sworn to by the elders and Enebo or diviners representing the affected communities. Once the Okoven oath was sworn to, it was expected to cement relationship, promote relationship, kingship and non-aggression between the affected communities. The spot on which the oath was taken constituted the Alo Okoven alter. Atonement was made here by a citizen contravened its tenets. The ancestors were regarded the people as the custodians of the Okoven oath while the spirits were held to be omnipotent and the oath was most binding. Although it could be argued that the rarity of land disputes in Esanland during the pre-colonial time was due to the vastness of the land, what appeared to be overwhelming was the Esan belief in the power of the departed spirits. The departed spirits were believed to affect an immediate punishment on all people that went contrary to the tenets of the Okoven.

The Esan communities that claimed common origins were automatically regarded to have contracted non-aggressive pacts. The society required members of these communities “not to see or spill each other’s blood.” This pact in pre-colonial times was instrumental in the cohesion of Esan society. Communities that were in hostiles relationships came together after swearing to the Okoven oath. Ubiaja and Uromi were engage in internecine warfare which influenced the transfer of Ubiaja royal palace to Eguare from Oyomon to a more centralised site principally for security purpose within the Ubiaja chiefdom, this transfer further led to the displacement of the Unolo people. However, elders of Oyomon in Ubiaja and Efandion in Uromi who were contiguous neighbours and, indeed, bore the brunt of the warfare decided to ameliorate the conflict by swearing to Okoven oath. Once this oath was taken further military confrontation between Efandion in Uromi and Oyomon in Ubiaja became prohibitive.

There were priest that worship at Alo Okoven (alter). The perception of life, by Esan people was closely tied to the spirits and therefore, people strove not to provoke the anger of the spirits. All oaths sworn to in the name of the spirits or ancestors were scrupulously observed.


Culturally, some village groups institutionalized social relations with other groups within Esan society according to their conveniences and interest through dance alliances. Esan had numerous dances like Ilo, Agbega, Oleke, abayon, aghenojie, Obodorhibhafe, and Igbabonelimin. Each village group had up to about five different types of dances for their social recreation and relaxation. These dances were usually practiced from the periods of harvest to the beginning of the next farming season. The most popular of these dances, and indeed unique to Esan people had been the Igbabonelimin dance.

The relations mutated among the Esan people had been considerable. A village in one specific village-group could established friendship alliance with a village in another village group that hitherto had not been in any specific relationship through the Igbabonelimin dance.

As soon as two villages agreed to establish Igbabonelimin dancing relationships, a date was fixed for its commitment. In this arrangement, the males except the very young boys of the village would move in a body to the village) which became the host on this first occasion), with all their dancing equipment, social and ceremonial dresses. While the males arrived in their host village, they assembled in the village Ughele with joy and felicity the males in the host village, except infants, would come to where the visiting villages were assembled to choose friends. Once this choice made, it usually remained permeant except owning to the death of one of them or due to cessation of the dancing relations. In fact, even when the dancing alliance stopped the personal family friendship continued to exist.

The chosen males would follow their hosting friend’s home where they would be fed and sumptuously entertained for two days. At the end of the second day, before the visiting males departed, their host friend would provide them with valuable gifts like tobacco salt, meat, fish and sometimes woven cloth. Indeed, much depended on the opulence and affluence of the friends involved. Essentially, the value of the gifts presented was expected to be reciprocated in the future. It would appear to discern in this study, a traditional creation of bilateral relations, which could attest to the proverbial African traditional hospitality.

In the following years, the previous visitors would them host those that had previously hosted them. At this second occasion the pair friends had known themselves except in the case of nerd initiates that would choose their friends. It was obligatory for the generosity of the previous hosts to be adequately reciprocated. Indeed, the idea was to improve on the standards, previously set. In a general social situation, they had concluded a friendly alliance which was capable of weakening hostility and enhancing cordiality and solidarity. This was a common features in Esan. Where most village groups contracted.

Apart from security Esan had other uses. Esan communities had also used dance to teach the cherished societies virtues and to condemn vices which are anti-social. Promoting morality in the society was done the Ikhio dance. This dance was by women only. Unlike, the Igbabonelimin which cut across the confines of local community. Ikhio was internally organized. The dance was nocturnal. Women used songs to satirize women and men with criminal tendencies in the society. The songs were meant to ridicule the “criminals” and their families.

The effect of this was to serve as a deterrent against one’s involvement in antic social acts. By and large the Ikhio nocturnal dance was expected to serve as a social control mechanism in the Esan society.


Each Esan village had at least traditional annual festival which was celebrated during harvest periods. In some village groups two categories of festivals existed, those of women and those of men. The women festivals, like the one celebrated at Uromi called Igba–agwa–hol–sague were usually performed in June and July cereals had matured.

In most other village groups in Esanland festivals called Ugbe or Ihunlan were generally celebrated by all sundry. Its celebration marked an annual commencement of the harvesting of yams which the Esan people regarded as the “king” of farm crops.

Festivals were not celebrated simultaneously throughout Esanland, instead each village had specific periods for their own celebration. What is significant of this occasion is its provisions of a forum for contracting inter-group relations between one village group and another. The right to stipulate a day on which a village festival was to be celebrated was a prerogative of the Edion and Ekhaimo of that village. The decision would be announced with a gun shot.

The traditional agogo bell. The agogo is a very important instrument in Esanland. It is used to help keep of the rhythm of the region's various dances, and the translation of hour in Esan is agogo.

Thereafter people would begin to invite their friends form far and near to attend the festival various contact would be made through old friends to have new friends from the neighbouring villages. This period provided opportunity to increase the number of friend an individual had outside his own village group. In this process, the village generally would be drawn into vortex of inner-group relations. As a man’s social prestige and influence were determined from the number of visitors he had, each family strove to woo friends to be their guest at ceremony.

Each adult celebrant would make prodigious provision to adequately entertain his expected guest. The Esan staple food of pounded and Ohele or Ikpekpan soup were plentiful. Palm win, its distilled gin and high quantity of tobacco were provided to be consumed during the ceremony. Indeed, the period was always marked with great festival and revelry.

This period also provided an occasion for a traditional redistribution of wealth in Esanland. On the one hand, visitors were expected to bring along with them various gift ranging from the highest valuable product of yams to the lowest market product, like pepper to their hosts. On the other hand, at then of the festivals the visitor were also expected to be given gifts to take home the gifts that would finally be given to be the departing visitors would be commensurate with what the visitors had offered in the first instance.

In this process, it would seem that an enduring relationship was built by the people in one village group with the people of another group. The people of a village group who were previously visitors would not become host as they celebrated their own festival. They would expect their formal good gestures to be reciprocated. Friendship built up in this relationship would not easily terminate since the friendship jointly established were extended to wives. Therefore once such friendship was established it was bound to enhance cordiality and peaceful co-existence among neighbouring peoples.

The gifts presented during festivals celebrations or simply at harvest times had various names. Some writers had referred to this presentation as tributes. In Esanland, it would appear that people who were involved in the traditional transfer of annual gifts do not conceive of such interaction in terms of master servant connotation. Traditional rulers, Edion (elders) or vent ordinary citizens were obliged to send gifts to their distant or near fiends, landlords and godfathers especially at harvest times when one’s wealth usually increased. Strongly, such traditional exchange of gifts emphasized the individual’s determination to remain in a friendly relations. It also demonstrate the Esan people’s readiness to share one’s with others.

It is pertinent to stress that cessation of “payment” per se would not automatically provoke a reprisal since the presenter actually not under compulsion to make those gifts. It was a patterned behaviour in Esanland for a junior person to pay homage to a more senior fellow. It was conceived that juniors thrive on the blessings and goodwill of their seniors.

These extensions of gifts tribute payments had proved useful in the diplomatic relationship which existed among the Esan communities. Even Esan Enijie often sent gifts annually especially at harvest times to their counterparts in other communities, yet, this presentation hardly showed inferiority one Onojie to other. Rather, such presentation emphasized interdependence and cordial relations. These gifts were never unidirectional but was usually reciprocated by the receivers. It would appear that some Esan monarchs (Enijie) at time could withdraw annual tributes (or preferably gifts) to an Oba of Benin, if they considered that their harvest were not buoyant enough for them to enrich their Oba.

Social cultural relation in pre-colonial Esan was enhanced through the various mechanisms that were put by the people. This include the family as a unit of organisation. But the customary and peace and tranquillity that pervaded the Esan society emendated from various methods that were used by the people to enhance life.

Department of History. Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.


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