February 2, 2017




This is a chapter on the inter-group or intra-group relations with particular emphasis on pre-colonial Esan polities. In other words the chapter presupposes the absence of an emphasis on the integrative nature of study. The political organization and the practices contained in themselves inherent features that militated against the formation of a large centralized government similar to that of Benin. The Onojie fought relentlessly to foster within his chiefdom a state that was loyal and subservient to his rule vis-a-vis the village gerontocracy.

This existence of Esan in its present location pre – dates Oba Ewuare’s reign in the fifteenth century.  This is corroborated by the fact that Oba Ewuare invited Ekakulo warriors from Esan communities. An extension of an invitation from Oba Ewuare to Esan settlements is indicative of the fact that a people with a political system of government already existed. Furthermore, Esan antiquity could be gleaned from their cultural traditions e.g. as manifested in their morning greetings. A vast majority of Esan males and females greet with A’esan and Laijesan meaning ‘Hail Esan’ and “may it please you, the king of Esan’ respectively. Another evidence to examine is the names borne by the people. The first traditional ruler of Udo according to Udo Oral tradition was name Ijesan. Emmanuel Eghulu records the founding of Esan to about 1030, A. D. it may be stressed that the invitation sent out by Oba Ewuare to Esan Ekakulo i.e. warriors met Oghu, the leading personality at Ivue sick and therefore unable to honour the invitation he persuaded his senior son Oghala to represent him without success, instead his junior brother Ikiesan went to Benin on this occasion. The irrelevance of this point is to show that before the mid – fifteenth century Esan people had borne and used names that gave testimony to an already existing Esan identity. Esan’s existence in the literature has been seen as a Bini “Newfoundland” Where Benin culture prevailed per excellence. Contrary to the above, Esan’s culture though has some Bini traits had some peculiarities. These differences may have been due to the factor of diverse origins of the people.


The first settlement in Esanland were in wards. These in most case were exogamous. As population increased naturally and through the immigration the wars continue to expand. By the fourteenth century Esan population had began to increase. The first ward in Uromi is said to be in Egbele in the Okhiode group of Uromi military organisation. While the Odeva ward settle first in the Obiruan and Obiyon groups. At Ubiaja the first settlement was Idumu-Eboh where Ojieromon lived. Oghu ward in Ewohimi appears to be the first settlement and in fact claims to be the first settlement.  This is for the ward claims to have “dropped from the sky”. In Irrua the area of first settlement would be within the wards Akho. The common characteristics of these original wards are that they possess the land shrine of each chiefdom. They are regarded as the owners of the land. For this reason, these words often do not pay tributes and sometimes are exempted from offering some services to the Onojie. Instead, the Onojie makes some presents to the Edion and priest in those wards for specific rituals as recognition of their special rights.

It is difficult to defend a conquest theory in the amalgamation of wards into villages in Esan, because the evidence in support of the theory is negligible. What is therefore evident is an amalgamation through mutually contracted alliances, marriages and sometimes through diplomacy. In Uromi, for instance, Amedokhian village consists of Odeva and Omi wards. The coming together was as a result of Omi’s lobbying to secure land from Odeva. Omi and Odeva therefore began to co – exist and the amalgamation was finally cemented with Omi’s marriage into the Odeva family. With time, some wards split, either as a result of quarrels or calamity, to found another ward elsewhere. Through claims of common origin, extensive migration, kingship relations arising from inter – ward marriages and the purpose of defensive alliances wars merged into villages.

In consequences each village became an agglomeration of heterogeneous peoples who were wielded together for political expediency. The Esan villages have no claim to a single descent and would therefore not be regard as a clan. The villages began to be organised on the principles of seniority. It may be asserted that societies that are dominated by seniority are often very conservative and slow to change. This would be seen as major obstacles to the formation of a central administration by an Onojie.

Royalty in Esanland develop after the villages had been formed. Onojieship was derived from outside Esanland most probably from Benin in the fifteenth century. In each chiefdom after the institutions of the Onojie, a collection of some wards moved out to join the Onojie’s ward to form the Eguare. There are some exceptions to this. At Ubiaja, an Eguare quarter was the latest of the villages to be formed by the voluntary movement of some people in some wards to where the Onojie lived. Villages outside the Eguare or capital which has no close kinship ties with the ruler were collectively referred to as the Igule. It is doubtful whether Eguare or Igule were originally Esan words. I suspect that these terminologies came into Esanland from Benin since Bini used these terms to create the Eguare.

Ekpoma oral traditional states that Ukugbe which later emerged as the Eguare came third in hierarchical order of seniority. However, in Irrua the Eguare in Otoruwa was a later development which was consequent upon the arrival of Amilele with Iriowa his wife from Benin. At Uromi, Ikiesan who later became the Onojie was neither the founder of Uromi nor a senior son of the founder. Uromi oral tradition attributions of the right of Ikiesan to rule to a foreign source i.e. Oba Ewuare of Benin in the 15th century.

In Ewohimi the Ezeghumhanghun in Oghu was the Odionwele from whom Ikhimi seized power or had power thrust upon him because of his relationship or association with the Oba of Benin. Almost in all Esan chiefdoms the ruling families were not the original settlers.

From the foregoing, it is clear that villages were formed before the Eguare came into being. This phenomenon becomes clearer in the formation and composition of equals in Uromi. That Eguare was said to have been inhabited largely by slaves while the princes lived at Ebhoiyi, the villages therefore had organized themselves politically long before the introduction of “royal domination” in the second half of the 15th century. The introduction of the Onojieship in Esan was consequent upon the diplomatic manoeuvre of Oba Ewuare who conferred titles on those Esan who honoured his invitations.

There were in each community, leaders who had distinguished themselves in wars as Ekakulo or in wealth and therefore became outstanding. From Ubiaja, Ughoha, Ewohimi, Irrua, Emu, Ohordua, Ekpoma and Uromi such leaders were invited to Benin by Oba Ewuare. He tutored and groomed these Esan respective communities. They in turn, brought into Esanland the paraphernalia of royalty including the Eguare and Igule terminologies. It is including not therefore an omission as some historians assume on the part of Egharevba for not including Esan on the list of those towns, villages and rulers Oba Ewuare captured. When they returned from Benin they claimed that Oba had made them Enijie. Soon they alienated themselves from the people and consequently migrated to new sites where they established their Eguare. The introduction of Onojieship into Esanland and its striving towards the monopoly of power and authority produced tensions and stresses in the Esan political system in the pre-colonial era.


The government of the village (egbele) was a gerontocracy or government by the elders. The Odionwele or the eldest man in the village was the head by virtues of his age. His importance, in the village was further buttressed by spiritual consideration in the sense that by his age, he was regard as the nearest of the relations and contact with the ancestors of the village. Such council constituted the highest political, administration and judicial powers within each village in pre-colonial Esanland. All disputes and conflicts between members of the same village would be settled by the village council for adjudication. No judgement was given until all disputants had stated the causes of their grievances and witnesses had testified. Through the elders vast knowledge and experience in the traditions of the land would be used to consider the issues raised and an amicable resolution found.  Cases that were irreconcilable at the village level could be referred to the Onojie’s palace, but an incident of such was rare. This was because the villages were jealous of their authority and autonomy. Failing to resolve a case in the village council and transferring it to the Onojie’s palace meant sacrifice of autonomy. In order to avoid such humiliation the elders were compelled to be judicious.

However, as might be expected certain villages were more successful than others in defending their autonomy. Occasionally, a village had lost its autonomy to the extent that it ceased to be headed by an Odionwele but rather by a titled official (Okhaemon) of the Onojie. Much depended on the personality of the Onojie and his Ekhaemon in each village. Such autonomy was usually regained by the elders of the village through relentless struggle for power. It may also be realized that in each chiefdom villages stood in different relationships to the Onojie. From the foregoing, it would become clear that the essence of Esan political system is centred on the continuous tension between the popular pressure for village autonomy and the controlling tendencies of the chiefdom by the Onojie and his titled officials. This is why no Esan chiefdom was able to develop a centralized system of government similar to that Benin.

At the village council the seniority principles was dominant. The Edionene and in some other place Edionihilon presided over the council. They neither informed the Onojie nor sought his consent in their decisions. Each village was independent of the other and to a high degree some villages were virtually independent of the Onojie at the Eguare. Ahia in Ubiaja, Ivue in Uromi, Ujoelen in Ekpoma, Okaigben in Ewohimi are a few examples of villages that enjoy such relative autonomy. The intriguing question is how a village became remained independent of the Onojie. Apart from the fact that evolution of monarchy was allow, the attempt of village gerontocracy to maintain its autonomy against the controlling authority of the Onojie had been continuous. Some villages in the past were more autonomous than in later generation. In Uromi, for instance, Oghu the father of Ikiesan repudiated the oath his son had taken with the Oba of Benin that conferred on Ikiesan the Onojieship. However, Ikiesan left Ivue to found his Eguare. Since Ikiesan’s tendency was to control the Ivue gerontocracy Oghu migrated in protest. Consequently, Ikiesan made overtures of reconciliation to Oghu and granted him and the Ivue people concessions of virtual independence. Ivue would neither be troubled nor offer services to the Onojie at Eguare. “By diplomacy and unusually humility Ikiesan healed a dangerous breach in his family.” The tradition that the Onojies of Uromi shares games meat with the Odionwele of Ivue is still in force.

In Ekpoma the Ujoelen claim to independence must have been derived from the founders close relationship with Benin, because the founder married Oba Ozolua’s daughter in the 2nd half of the fifteenth century Iruekpen also in Ekpoma is strongly believe to have been independent of the Ekpoma Onojie even though the Onojie appointment of his palace officials in the outstanding wards in Iruekpen broke their autonomy. The first of the titled holders, the Oniha, lived in Irukpen. Such a method was also used in Uromi to make Amedokhian amenable to the Onojie by patronising members of the Omi family who had integrated with the Odeva wards of Amedokhian and Efandion. A series of violent hostilities were mounted by the Odeva wards against the Onojie. It would appear that at the end of the hostility, one of the concessions Amedokhian granted to the Onojie was to allow his title holders permanent seats in the village council even though they were not elders.


The Onojie within his chiefdom could be said to have been an absolute ruler like the Oba of Benin. He was regard as a divine kind, having the power of life and death over his subjects. He was praised as Onjie –nenin i.e. “the kind elephant” and Akponokpono enormous size. Here is the situation where ideology differed significantly from practice. In practice, the Enijies in Esan were not absolute and the resultant powerlessness had in part, made some of them wicked and callous.

The Onojieship in Esanland was created out of diplomacy and its sustenance was through marriage alliances. In an effort to reconcile particular villages to the Onojie, he contracted marriages with the daughters of dominant figures in such villages. The Onojie’s desire for many wives among other things was aim at fostering alliances. Some villages had prohibited their daughters from marrying their Onojie even though they had no close kinship relation. Such villages were determined to frustrate the Onojie’s efforts to erode village autonomy through inter – marriages.

Usually the heir apparent did not grow up in the palace; he lived outside it. In Irrua and Uromi, he lived at Oyomon village. At Ubiaja the heir live at Idumi –Ehalen. The determining factor in the choice of the village for the heir was diplomacy. A village, having dominant personalities, was given the heir. The fundamental reason for this separate residence was aimed at bringing together the loyalty and participation of the villages in the palace administration. The princes, those numerous sons who had no claim to the thrown also lived elsewhere, as in Uromi at Eboiyi which was another attempt to woo the loyalty of the villages. It had been argued that the princes were rascals and troublesome. They were kept outside the Eguare to prevent political intrigue and sexual misdemeanours with the numerous wives of their father.

The village gerontocracy was infiltrated by the Onojie’s appointment of tilled officials called Ekhaemon. These represented the interests of the Onojie in their villages. Ekhaemon, being agents to the Onojie; were thus duty bound to frequently report to the palace the happening in their respective villages. Such reports to a large extent kept the Onojie abreast of events within the chiefdom.  The Onojie purposefully appointed diviners, priest, servants and Ibhiugha.  This is a name given to the first sons of the prominent men in the village who were sent to the palace voluntarily or no request to grow up there. This group of young able – bodied males constituted the labour force of the palace. They defended the land provided for the palace and created links between their respective villages and the palace. In this arrangement, the Onojie attempted to build up a web which knitted the various villages together and in turn, each villages was encouraged to constitute to the maintenance and sustenance of the palace.

This effort notwithstanding, the tension between the Onojie’s government and the villages had remained severe. Many villages freed themselves from either paying tributes or providing services for the Onojie. Some villages were virtually free villages which had won their freedom under some Enijie of the past. Although it was customary for everybody to pay tributes to the Onojie, in practice, some villages or people claimed exceptions. There was no sanction against any village that failed to pay tributes to an Onojie. Indeed, village organisation remained unimpaired even up to the first decades of this century.

When an Onojie become despotic or tyrannical villagers had frequent migrated. Even wards migrated from one chiefdom to settle in another to avoid their Onojie and as protest against the Onojie’s encroachment on a village’s autonomy. Egoro Naoka moved out of Egoro to settle elsewhere as protest in this regard. And in Ekpoma, Ehanlen migrated because Onojie Uda was becoming too audacious. Enraged by the high handedness of the Onojie of Ewohimi Omi killed him and migrated to Uromi because he refused to live under a king “who was not subjected to any constitutional check”.

No Onojie could resort to arbitrary accts. The voice of the people was too significantly important for him to ignore. Any Onojie that acted ultral-vires would be regard as a tyrant and would be rejected and subsequently enthroned. The immediate reaction of the villages to royal oppression would largely depend on the ability of the palace officials in manipulating the villagers vis-a-vis the power and influence of the Edion. If the Edion became dissatisfied with the behaviour of the Onojie, they withdraw their attendance at the palace. This would be followed by withdrawing of tributes and the palace youths who formed the bedrock of the Onojie’s labour force and men of valour. The villagers would announce both in the day and night the rejection of their Onojie. Between the 16th and 17th centuries many Enijies were thus dethroned in various Esan chiefdoms. Even in the 20th century from 1923 to 1926 two Enijies, Anowa and Okojie were dethroned at Ubiaja in protest against what was claimed as inhuman treatment of the villagers received from the Europeans while on Ilushi road construction.

In conclusion the Onojie had less power in Esan in the pre-colonial times. The colonial administrators were not satisfied by this position since the sought powerful kings to operate the indirect rule system.  However, by the nineteenth century the Onojie’s palace titles had become hereditary. It is an assumption to believe that those titles in all the Esan chiefdoms were hereditary. Naturally, all families which held titles have every reason to insist that they have always been hereditary.  For the Onojie to tilt the balance of power in the struggle between the monarchy and gerontocracy, he appointed his official as often as he found it politically expedient. Some titles lapsed either because of hostility of the family to the specific Onojie or from lack of wealth to carry out the obligations association with the titles. In such situations, the Onojie had opportunities to offer the title to new people. The family members who had bestowed on someone else often returned in another generated to claim it as hereditary theirs. Occasionally, therefore, two families claimed the same title. Given the friction this engendered some Enijie allowed the title to lapse entirely.

An Onojie gave titles to those personalities in a village he believes would enhance his control of that village. Indeed, an Onojie had to be sagacious to be able to infiltrate the strength of a village gerontocracy and manipulate the Edion for his own political ends.  It is not easy to say categorically whether the Edion or the Enijie were more power in the chiefdoms. No Onojie had overwhelming political authority in his chiefdom such that he could ignore the Edion in the village. Decisions reach in the villages except the age-grades of that village gave approval. For a decision to materialize in chiefdom, it had to secure the consensus of the Edio in the village.

It is not all Ekhaemon that were loyal to the Onojie even though they were his agents in the villages. An Onojie might at times create friction in the certain ward. In such wards he might not bestow any title on its citizen except he was certain of a man’s loyalty. Some wards like Odeva in Amedokhian and Efandion refused subordination to the Onojie by accepting royal titled offices. There were wards from which title holders for fear of causing commotion against him. In Ubiaja the Onojie could not give a titled office to anybody within the Eguare. But Uromi the situation was reversed.

Eguare came to contain nobody likely to cause friction for the Onojie but only those whom nothing but cringing obedience was expected.

Thus there existed a significant measure of stress and tension between the villages and Eguare in pre-colonial Esan.

Department of History. Edo State University Ekpoma, Nigeria.