The Esan Polities
By Lorenz, Carol Ann

Esan consists of thirty-five political units (Fig. 2, map) recognized by the Nigerian government. These polities were established at various times, and some have only recently gained government recognition as independent units.

The Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Edict (Bendel State 1979: A81) uses the term clan to represent each of the Esan polities, and defines the term variously as “ethnic unit,” and group of towns or villages with a common language" or a common ancestry. There are problems with each of these designations. As we have seen, for example, all Esans share the same ethnic identity which has been constructed and refined over time; the term "ethnic unit" would, therefore, properly include all of the independent polities of Esan. The term "clan, on the other hand, implies that its members are descendants of a common ancestor but, as we have seen, Esan communities often have heterogenous origins. Butcher, who recognizes the inadequacy of the term clan (1936: 2-3 re: Ekpoma), prefers “village group,” which is similar to the current “group of towns or villages” used by the Nigerian government.

1.    Compare Igor Kopytoff (1987: 7) who refers to the “. . . continuing reorganization of ethnic identities … " in Africa.

The designation “village group” introduces the factor of territoriality; Butcher (1936: 3) adds that those living on an Onojie's land owe him allegiance. While the designation village group may be technically correct, this language undervalues the political structure of Esan by not fully recognizing the importance of the leader.

Thirty of the Esan groups are led by traditional rulers titled Onojie (pl. Enijie). Of the others, which have recognized clan Heads, Uzea once also had an Onojie. Egharevba, the Edo traditional historian, translates Onojie as “duke” (1957: 6); his frame of reference is from within the Benin imperial system which invests ultimate political  authority in the Oba. Also speaking from a Benin reference point, Bradbury (1957) uses the term "chief, and calls the territories of the Enijie chiefdoms. The title Onojie, however, is derived from the Edo/Esan term which the Esan people translate as “king.” The former Bendel State of Nigeria (1979: A82, A106) ranks the Onojie title in the same category as the Oba of Benin and regards each as a traditional ruler who holds the highest traditional authority within each Esan political unit. 

At the base of this semantic discussion, are two issues related by the concept of imperialism. First, the Nigerian government's use of the terms “clan” and “chiefdom,” rather than “kingdom,” to refer to Esan polities is an apparent legacy of British colonial policy which often devalued indigenous political institutions. Second, it was in Benin's interest to perpetuate the subordinate position of the Esan Enijie, who in the past were required to pay tribute to the Oba and have their titles confirmed by him. Indeed, it was only Britain's success in shattering the power of Benin that finally freed the Esan Enijie from these obligations, after centuries of struggle for independence.

Even during the period during which Benin was suzerain to Ishan, however, the Enijie had powers which are normally ascribed to kings. They have always been the highest authority within their domains, and for centuries they have bestowed chieftaincy titles upon loyal and talented subjects. They could demand tribute and labour from their subjects, and had the right to seize the property of criminals and to accumulate wives without payment or formalities. They were the ultimate upholders of the laws of the land, they had the power to execute capital offenders, and they were responsible for performing certain rituals to ensure peace and welfare within their realms. As the Esan people say, ojie kbe ebho or “the king is the community” (Okojie (1960): 164). Judging the term king" to be appropriate, then, and following the practice of the Esan people, I will use the words king or ruler" interchangeably with the Esan term Onojie in the present work. Moreover, this work will consider only those groups which have the Onojie title, plus Uzea, which lost its title because of rebellion against Benin. The remaining Esan communities at Illushi, Ifeku Island and Uroh are satellite settlements in areas with mixed ethnic populations in which Esans are in the minority. Never having had Enijie, they do not have the large public sculptures or other elite art characteristic of Esan kingdoms.

The Esan System of Government

The traditional system of government in Esan shares some features with other Edo groups in the Benin orbit, but is also distinguished from them in particular by the presence and importance of the Onojie title. Among the Northern Edo peoples of the Etsako, Owan and Akoko-Edo areas, political authority is assigned to men who have reached the status of elder in the age-grade organization and to members of voluntary title associations (Bradbury 1957: 91-92, 104-105, 115). Although age-grades are
important social institutions in Esan, the political role of elders is mostly limited to the village level, and title associations are nonexistent or politically insignificant. In the Southern Edo area, political organization is highly variable but throughout the area kinship and age appear to be the main determinants of authority on the village level although title association members and priests also have a role in councils at different levels of government (Bradbury 1957: 144-145).

2.      Historian Ade Obayemi (1985: 300) also rejects the terms "clans, village groups or chiefdoms of earlier writing" in favor of the designation "mini-states."

Both the Urhobo and Isoko peoples also have a titled official known as Ovie or “king” whose importance and functions, however, vary greatly; whereas in some  locations the Ovie has ultimate authority over his subjects, elsewhere his status is no greater than that of the head of the elders (Bradbury 1957: 146-147). The Ovie title, like the Onojie title of Ishan, appears to have originated with the domination of the area by Benin; wherever the Ovie is important, his functions are comparable to that of the Ishan Enijie (Bradbury 1957: 146).

The description of Esan governance which follows is distilled primarily from observations which I made during my fieldwork in 1980, but is supported by references from older sources wherever appropriate. In Esan, each kingdom is autonomous, and is governed in the manner of the Edo empire, although on a smaller scale. The administrative centre of each Esan kingdom is Eguare, the seat of the Onojie. Succession to the title of Onojie is normally by primogeniture, and the identity of the heir will be established by the titleholder during his lifetime. Often the heir must live in a designated quarter outside of Eguare in the manner of the heir (Edaiken) of Benin (e.g., Okojie (1960): 211 re: Uromi). Upon the death of an Onojie, it is the responsibility of the Kingmakers --usually the elders of Eguare and other royal quarters to select the heir according to custom. The Kingmakers ensure that the heir performs the burial ceremonies for his late father correctly and completely, including the Ogbe ceremony which throughout Esan is the key to inheritance of all titles and properties (Talbot 1926, vol. IV: 590; Okojie (1960): 126-127). The Kingmakers also supervise the numerous rituals which fortify the heir and purify the palace, but the actual installation ceremony is the prerogative of certain chiefs.

The Onojie administers his kingdom with the assistance of several orders of chiefs (Ekhaembon), many of whose titles and functions are patterned after Benin. The Benin related chieftaincy titles may have been adopted by Esan at various times, but the process is likely to have begun with the introduction of the Onojie title during the conquest of. Esan by Benin. The new leaders probably reproduced the system of government prevailing in the capital, including the palace and village chiefs which are crucial to the Onojie's administration today. The Ekhaembon include hereditary state council chiefs and village representatives; personal and palace chiefs; and social chiefs whose titles are in the Onojie's gift and usually lapse with the death of the holder.

3.      In many Esan kingdoms, the heir to the Onojie is known as the Edaiken, a title of Benin origin.

There is a great deal of variation from kingdom to kingdom in the ranking of the hereditary chiefs; Okojie (1960): 59) states that the traditional order of the seven most important chiefs (Ekbawmon-Ihinlon or Edion-Ihinlon)  is Oniha, Iyasere, Ezomo, Edohen, Oloton, Uwangue, and Ero, but that the Enijie manipulated the ranking in order to promote some chiefs and curtail the influence of others.

The Oniha is still usually highest in rank, and governs the kingdom in the period between the death of an Onojie and the installation of his successor. The Iyasere and Ezomo formerly commanded the Onojie's armies, and continue to be concerned with security issues. The Uwangue is usually the keeper of the royal regalia and chief of protocol, although in some kingdoms he is first in rank and takes over the throne at the death of an Onojie. The Edohen, Oloton and Ero are traditional members of the executive council, but in many kingdoms their titles have lapsed and in others they rank below the Oshodin, Adolor, Ihaza, Ologbosere, Eribo, Osuma and others. The council chiefs and other hereditary (alebbuku) titleholders are the Onojie's liaisons with the villages in which they reside.

There is another class of chiefs which is associated primarily with the person of the king and with the palace. In days gone by, personal titles such as Egbe (“body”) and Ehi (“guardian spirit”) carried with them many privileges, but the holders may have been sacrificed at the burial of the Onojie who conferred the titles upon them Butcher 1935c: 11; Okojie (1960): 58). Palace chiefs include the Ihaza who formerly functioned as a treasurer and collector of tribute, and the Oshodin, who supervises the Onojie's harem. In some kingdoms, such as Uromi and Ewohimi, palace societies (Iwebo, Iweguae and Ibiwe) similar to those at Benin are responsible for the smooth running of the palace and the proper conduct of its inhabitants (Okojie (1960):  219, 283).

The Enijie can create new chieftaincy titles for any number of reasons, and this has been an important political tool throughout Esan history. For example, Esan oral histories recount that, in early settlements, important titles such as Oniha and Iyasere were bestowed upon powerful strangers to induce them to remain and insure their loyalty (e.g., Okojie (1960): 218 re: Uromi). Although the most important Esan chieftaincy titles are now hereditary and fixed in tradition, the Enijie have generated new social titles, for example, to increase their representation in troublesome villages (Hawkesworth 1932: 20) and, in the colonial era, to enable their staunch supporters to become court members (Butcher 1935b: 22). At the turn of the century in Irrua,  

4.      The Egbe of Uromi, like some other current holders of personal titles, denied that his predecessors were buried with the deceased Onojie. He claimed that the title had been hereditary for at least eight generations (Omhelimhen Egbe, Uromi, 8 May 1980). Butcher (1935b: 22) was told that the first Onojie of Uromi established the title of Egbe, whose duty was to prepare the Onojie's corpse for burial. This responsibility was confirmed by the current Egbe and elders of his family.

the Onojie granted titles of Hausa origin in an attempt to propagate Islam (Hawkesworth 1932: 16)5. Enijie today still bestow social titles to reward loyal subjects and honour illustrious and influential members of their communities; for example, in recent times titles were conferred upon A.O. Ayewoh, a dedicated educator in Uromi, and Umuobuarie Igberaese, a famous musician in Ewu. The Enijie have also granted titles as a means of obtaining revenue.

Most titleholders in Ishan are men, although in some kingdoms the Onojie's senior wife carries the honorific title Eson (cf. Bradbury BS 316.4 re: Benin). Nowadays, a few kingdoms, such as Uromi and Ekpoma, are bestowing social titles upon prominent women of the community, but this is still rare. In Uromi, a woman must undergo initiation into the Egba society before she can be installed as a chief. Her membership in Egba confers upon her the status of a man and entitles her to carry a leather flywhisk (ijiakpa) on her shoulder in the manner of titled men (H.H. Stephen o. Edenojie I, gnojie of Uromi, 29 April 1980). Formerly, men eagerly accepted titles because of the prestige it conferred upon them, and the rewards of sharing in certain revenues and freedom from communal labor. Honor is still a factor which induces men to undertake the costly title-taking ceremonial, but their political power is limited.

5.      Bendel State (1979) recognizes titles such as Giwa, Haruna, Sedenu, Kaisaraki and Dania in Irrua. Islamic titles are also gazetted" in Ewu and Opoji.

Although the Enijie have historically considered the Ekbaemhon to be the heads of the villages, the village government system severely limits the powers of the chiefs. In most Ishan kingdoms, no chief can call a village meeting or hear a court case on his own.6 Although a chief conveys directives from the Onojie to the village, he himself may not announce them. From the point of view of the village, the chiefs are merely ambassadors from the Onojie (Okojie (1960): 62), and the non-traditional social chiefs in particular have no inherent authority in village government (Hawkesworth 1932: 16; Butcher 1936: 30; Butcher 1935d: 9). Even when a chief is highly ranked in the central administration, his rank is lower than that of the eldest man (Odionwele) of the village (e.g., Chief Edohe, Uromi, 28 July 1980). The daily administration of the village is in the hands of the elders (Edion, sing. Odion), men of sufficient age and moral stature who are at the apex of the age-grade system.

6.      In some southern Esan kingdoms, such as Ewohimi and Ekpon (Butcher 1932: 2; 1935d: 16), the Ekbaembon had more executive power than is typical.

 The Esan Age Grade System

The age-grade system (Otu) varies somewhat from kingdom to kingdom, but everywhere it organizes men into groups with well-defined public service and village leadership roles. Boys enter the age-grade system without ceremony as soon as they can assume community responsibilities, usually around eight to twelve years old. All boys who enter together belong to the same which in Esan means “company” and corresponds roughly to an age-set, several of which constitute an age-grade. The youngest grade is called Egbonughele, or sweepers of the village plaza, which is indicative of the unskilled communal work the boys do.

Graduation to the next grade, Ighene or Igbama, takes place when a man has reached maturity at about twenty-five to thirty years of age; usually he must have established a family to be eligible for promotion. After preparing a celebratory feast with his otu for those who have already achieved the level of Ighene, he takes his place among them. In the past, the primary role of the able-bodied young to middle-aged men of the Ighene grade was to defend the village as warriors. In some Esan kingdoms the Iqhene were divided not only into their age-based otu, but also into three military companies, or otuneha, comprising the right, left and center flanks of an army. A group of men selected from this grade also formed the Inotu, or police force of the community, which was at the service of the elders. Today the Ighene engage in communal road and house building, and other work which is too difficult for the young Egbonughele.

The elders or Edion are free from communal labour, but they order and direct the work of the junior Out. The elders are responsible for settling disputes, hearing civil or minor criminal cases, deciding village policy, allotting land which is held communally, and announcing directives from the Onojie. Their principle duties are to interpret and uphold Ishan custom (Butcher 1936:26), according to which they must live a model life. The elevated position of the elders is owing to their advanced age, which places them next to the ancestors and allows them to intercede with the ancestors for the well-being of the community (Hawkesworth 1932: 22; Okodua n.d.: 6). In most villages, however, one does not become an elder on the basis of age alone. Often the expensive male coming of age ceremony, irhuen (literally “I tie on cloth”), is a prerequisite of the Odion grade (cf. Scallon 1937a: 23, 31. 31; Butcher 1935e: 17). Often too, a man must have buried his father, or sometimes both parents, with all due ceremony before he is eligible to be an elder. The most universal" method of becoming Odion is through the Ilodion ceremony, which requires that the applicant give gifts and a feast to current elders, who bless him and accept him as one of themselves (Okojie 1960: 57). The four most senior men (Edion-enen) of a village are accorded special reverence, and the Odiowele or oldest indigenous man is head of the village and presides over the community council.

It is the prerogative of the Odionwele to call a meeting of the elders, which takes place in a simple but important structure in the middle of the ughele or village 85 plaza. The chief(s) of the village may attend, but they may not initiate a discussion unless they are also elders. The same is true of patrilineage heads (Omijiogbe or Omonijiogbe) who may attend these meetings as leaders of their uwenlen or family units. The elders consider the Ekbaemhon and Omijiogbe to be no more than assistants in the decision-making process. Each village also has Iko (sing Uko), or messengers, and one or more Aghale, “dividers” of food or fees (e.g., Hawkesworth 1932: 3) who assist the elders. When an important issue demands that the entire village meet, each age grade will meet separately. The leaders of the junior grades may be called upon to give the opinion of their fellows to the elders, after which the latter will deliberate and announce their decision.

Ishan Family Authority Structures

Women are normally excluded from village authority structures; although the exceptional elderly woman might become an Odion in some places, such as Okhuesan and Igueben (Bradbury IS 159), she has no place in the elders meeting house. Usually the female leader is called Ojeada, a term which also signifies the eldest woman in each family group, who is responsible for upholding the morality of women within the family (Scallon 1937a: 9-10, 20; Bradbury IS 191). The male head of the household (Omijiogbe), however, is the traditional authority of the family (uwenlen), which consists of his wives, children, junior brothers and their families, unmarried sisters, widowed mother and servants. The Omijiogbe maintains ancestral staffs (ukhure) on behalf of his extended family, which sometimes also includes uncles and their families. As the representative of the ancestors of his family unit, the Omijiogbe is permitted to join the elders at village meetings. He is responsible for family discipline, peace and general welfare, and he deals with internal disputes and petty crimes.

Several related family units comprise an exogamous idumu, commonly described as a ward or quarter of a village. The members of the idumu (or several idumu) consider themselves to be an egbele, a kin group whose members are all descended from a common ancestor. A number of idumu from different patrilineages constitute a village, which in turn is joined by up to twenty other villages to create an Ishan kingdom. An idumu has its own Odionwele, at the head of a council of elders who meet to settle issues which are minor and affect only the immediate quarter. The Odionwele of a village, however, supercedes that of an idumu, and the Odionwele of the entire kingdom is potentially a powerful leader of all the common people.

Social and Political Organization Conclusion

Esan socio-political organization reflects several important principles of interest to this work. The first is that the monarchy imposed upon Esan communities by Benin in the fifteenth century and maintained over the centuries forms a sharp contrast to more democratic village authority structures which are based on age, access to the ancestors by the elders and family heads, and individual achievement. In particular, the Otu system offers men a great deal of control over local concerns, and serves as a counterbalance to the authority of the Onojie. Okojie claims (1960: 71) that the Inotu, or special forces of the Ighene age grade, was a unified body which was almost as powerful as the Onojie. Esan history records the ouster of tyrannical Enijie by subjects who had suffered under their atrocities; in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, Ikeakhe of Ekpoma was routed (Okojie 1960: 201), and the people of  Opoji forced Onojie Okhinan into exile (Butcher 1935e: 11; Okojie 1960: 178).

A second principle of concern here is that while the Otu system incorporates all men of the village, promotion to Odion and sometimes also to the Ighene age grade often requires proof of the ability of a candidate to propagate his lineage and establish his parents among the ancestors, as well as his willingness to redistribute wealth through feasts and ceremonies such as irhuen. In effect, the Esan Otu system combines features of both age grades and voluntary title organizations. Within the junior Otu, a man has ample opportunities for demonstrating individual leadership by becoming the head of his age set, serving the elders as a messenger or divider of fees, excelling in tests of physical strength, etc. In some cases, a man is eligible for advanced promotion to the next grade based on his achieved status.

The art of Esan is different in character depending on whether it is made for royal and chiefly patrons, or for use within the village structures. As we shall see, the arts of the elites are elaborate and concerned with the perpetuation of power through displays of strength. On the other hand, the arts of the common people are often rough-hewn and simple expressions of ancestral devotion, familial solidarity, or age-based and achieved status.