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by Dr. Christopher. G. Okojie

The Administration of justice began at the village level with the Elders' Council. In this ancient judiciary system, the Edion had the power to try and award appropriate punishments in practically all disputes and crimes except for capital offenses like murder, evils of witchcraft and land disputes which were passed up to the Onojie in Eguare for decision, where he was powerful or if he was a weak ruler, to the formidable INOTU.

Usually the edion held their meeting at the Okoughele, at the centre of the village square; here the crime was investigated and all those concerned were given a fair hearing. This judicial system hinged mainly on evidence rather than proof and it was the plaintiff and the defendant who themselves would present their cases without requiring the services of any smart alec or modern day lawyer who would fabricate all sorts of gimmick to exonerate his clients, The Edionthen moved away to confer (IYI UMA), and on their return their spokesman gave their decision. Sometimes instead of the edion getting up they could delegate about four of themselves to go and FE OLE GHE (Go and look into the matter); these men would return and submit a recommended decision. The final decision might be followed by a fine (Oko) or seizure of a goat or the guilty person might be ordered to swear on a given juju to convince the elders of his innocence. Special crimes had special ways of dealing with them; prescribed punishments also differed.


(I) Laws of Adultery: (UGHELEMIN or UGBOGHELE): In the olden

days this term was strictly limited to a man having anything to do with a wife of a man of same Egbele, i.e . members of the same patrilineage or people who descended from one father. Strictly, in the olden days (AGBON OBA) it would be difficult for a man to charge another man from another Village with adultery. If a man tried to seduce another man's wife in the district market; the husband would waylay the seducer and attack him, Where the two men belonged to the same village the matter would be referred to the village council. If the charge was admitted, he would be fined a goat which was slaughtered at the ancestral shrine of the Egbele; certain additional fines were made to be given to the aggrieved husband for purification of the woman before she and her husband could live as man and wife again. The clothes she used on the material day had to be discarded an an MNKHUIAN (A married daughter of the Egbele) had to perform the purification rite consisting of touching the body all round with a few day old chick and spitting of partially chewed alligator pepper on the sinner' body, referred to as UHNMNEGBEA.

 If the accused denied the allegation he had the following alternatives: h invited his accuser to swear on a named juju, which if done he would be prepared to suffer any just punishment the Edion might prescribe; he might elect to swear on a given juju, which if he did, before the living, he was innocent. If the crime was one viewed with real seriousness particularly the woman was the wife of a great personage of the village, recourse might be had to trial by ordeal -ITAN.

In the punishment for adultery the woman suffered the greater physical atonement crowned with subjection to a public ridicule and indignity as ' deterrent to other women of the village. All the married women of the village, gathered at the dion IKHUO IDUNMUN (Senior of the married women and the delinquent woman was sent for. She was then shaved (In this case to humiliate her), stripped of all her clothes and the terrible stinging nettle, leaves were wrapped round her waist and body; a heavy load made so cumbersome that it would require the two hands to balance on the head, was put on her and with her hands already employed for this purpose, she could not scratch her intensely itchy body! She was asked to sing and with this she was danced round the village with her load made heavier by the addition of rubbish which was picked up at every corner of the village. She was mocked and flogged and when her tormentors were at last tired, she was returned to her husband's house, a disgrace to herself and her husband. The goat bought by her co-respondent was slaughtered at the family ancestral shrine. Egbele shared the flesh, blessing the man with U-DN-LOBH, which means, you have done bad, but we are praying our ancestors that this will not end with loss of libido! You will always be a man!

It took that for her crime to be forgiven by the departed ancestors, but it took years for the odium of this crime by this woman to be forgotten by this living. This, with the superstitious belief that if the crime was not reported and necessary punishment suffered, either she or her children or queerly, her innocent husband, would fall ill and die, made Esan women very faithful. 

(a) Adultery with the Onojie's Wife: This was a crime equivalent to murder and the punishment was death for both the man and the woman. But where the man was a very dose relative of the Onojie, as for example, his son or only maternal brother, the Onojie in his absolute discretion, could waive the death sentence and substitute banishment. Similarly, if the woman was a particularly loved one or was the mother of the most favourite son, her life might be spared and she had the option of being sold as a slave. In this case of adultery with the ruler's wife, the man suffered the greater punishment. 

(b) Incest: There were certain crimes more of incest than adultery.

(i) If a man had a carnal knowledge of his mother-in-law, it was a serious crime crying to the spirits of the departed ancestors for immediate vengeance: it was punishable not only by the usual payment of a goat but by forfeiture of the wife, the erring woman's daughter. This was the customary punishment for any man who committed adultery with any member of his wife's family. Again, for emphasis, I repeat that the Octopus called Onojie, who was an institution all by himself, could go beyond what among commoners was known as adultery: he could marry two sisters! 

(ii) 'Adultery' with one 's own mother (it happened occasionally amongst psychopaths of great moral depravity), was followed by a special prescribed punishment; the man had to be born again as he had fouled his present life beyond atonement. The female members of the family were. called together and the mother had to treat her equally stupid son as if he was a new born baby; he was carried on the lap, washed, his face smeared with chalk and camwood, was given the breast to suck, carried on the back and the idiotic mother had to carry her son on the lap to be fed. It must be a most degrading ordeal for both the mother and the incestuous son! 

(iii) Sexual relationship between a brother and a sister or people of blood relationship up to SECOND COUSIN, was not permissible but there was no prescribed punishment; usually the 'crime' was undetected until one of the sinners fell ill or a native doctor in a charm session told the parents of either. Reparation consisted of the slaughtering of EBHE IBHALEN (I-do-not-know goat) at the ancestral shrine. Again the woman suffered the heavier punishment and shame; in theory the two sinners had to provide the goat, but in practice the man paid a nominal amount of anything from a few cowries to half the cost of a goat; all that was required of him for appeasement of the disapproving dead ancestors was that he must put something towards cost of the goat. 

(c) Rape (OBHIGDU): If the girl was still with her father there" no prescribed punishment, but married or unmarried, the crime was qu rare, in that the custom of clitoridectomy successfully acted as a detern against premature sexual knowledge. If a girl did have such a knowled before circumcision, on the circumcision day, the Owenan (native surgec publicly declared her not a virgin to the great shame of the parents and girl herself. There were fines to be paid to the Owenan: a cock, all every-day wearing apparels and the mat she slept on. The disgrace of having used a cock to have her circumcision done, far exceeded the pain of a full and to escape this all girls behaved themselves. Such a girl would be known as a girl 'Nn gbe kpa ruele' - the girl who used a cock to have hers circumcised! 

Few erring girls (moral standards were very high before the advent, Christianity, education and parents' failure to do their customary duties owned, up to their parents at great pains and the Owenan was bribed heavily with the usual fines doubled. At such false ceremony there were exclusive dancing and booming of guns! 

(d) Definition of Adultery (OGHL): Esan sensitivity to interfere with their wives could be imagined from what custom accepts as constitute adultery. Any of the following, unless immediately reported, was and in practice the immediate report to one's husband only exonerated the woman but not the man. 

1. Actual carnal knowledge or the expression of wish for same there could be no joking with making the request!

2. Stepping over the extended legs of a married woman.

3. Putting a leg on her.

4. Touching her clothes or her waist beads.

5. Shaking her hand.

6. Tickling her particularly behind and below the lower ribs.

7. Making eyes at her (like winking at her).

8. Sitting on her or allowing her to sit on a man's lap.

9. Sitting on the same bed with her.

10. Beckoning to her while the man is in a room.

11.Giving her monetary presents or lending her money without the husband's knowledge or approval.

12. Putting a hand round her waist or neck. 

With the exception of the actual act, most of these are expressed simply as MN-AWAA (Forbidden word), and the accused man was in for an inquisition before the Edion at the Okoughele! 

2. Witchcraft: Suspicion of witchcraft might follow frequent deaths in a compound, an epidemic in a village, or one might be involved because a very sick person had 'CONFESSED HIM' as a fellow criminal in the evils of the land, or in some cases, particularly amongst Ugboha people, and also amongst native doctors, a man might just to enhance his prestige in the community and to strike awe into his fellow beings, publicly-declare that he is a wizard! 

During my studies of Esan custom, I took a very keen interest in these confessions and my profession which makes me a frequent witness to the last few hours of people on earth, has given me the signal opportunity of studying the method of obtaining these confessions and their effects on the rest of the community. There are two types of confessions which I have come to term, COLD and HOT. A cold confession is one in which a person, usually an anxious and terrified mother, seeing her child gravely ill and being warned by the juju priest that it is her crime that is making her child ill and that unless she confesses it the child must die, is urged to confess all her lapses, usually in connection with adultery by actual deed, words or intention. In many cases the woman's anxiety over her child's illness makes her too willing to commit crimes against herself. In this world it will be hard to get a woman who has never answered a word of salutation from a man who is not her husband, or whose clothes have never been touched willingly or unintentionally or who has never returned a kind smile from a man in the circumstances that lead to a cold confession, all these are compatible with adultery! So the poor woman racks her brain for something to say - anything that might save her sick child. If she was totally innocent and fully aware of the insistent warning that it is her crime and her crime ALONE that is making her child face an untimely death, she invents a crime which she knows in her tortured soul she has never committed, if only her child lives! Rubbing his wicked hands gleefully, the native doctor tells the woman what to do as atonement. This of course is quickly done, but the child still dies and the marriage is broken. 

The hot type consists of pieces of words or incoherent sentences mumbled by a delirious patient suffering from such high fevers as accompany acute, malaria, pneumonia (EFN IFNMN LINMIN, meaning THE CHEST WITH THE DEVIL'S ARROWS), Meningitis etc, and pieced together by " over-zealous relatives. No one cares to know or notices that the unfortunate person can never be made to repeat what he has just said and in every case, that after the illness he denies every word he is said to have spoken! He has made a confession often against himself and this may concern a crime from stealing, through adultery to witchcraft. If any person's name is mentioned, and like a man in a game of dominoes, quickly follows with another name f of a person who is dead, the relatives and herbalists sitting around, treacherously fill the gap and within a few minutes the story filters through the village that the sick man has made a confession that he caused the death 'of the dead man. Sometimes if a person's name was mentioned in connection with any death in the village, the suspected person is later brought to the village square and subjected to an inquisition which is painful, whichever way the accused takes. If through fear he admits the allegation, he may escape sure death by being drummed out of the village as an undesirable. In the olden days rather than drum him out of the village with ignominy that would make it impossible for him, to get an asylum within a radius of some thirty miles, he was sent onto the Onojie where he became a slave if his life was spared. If fully aware of these grave consequences, the accused denies the allegation, it will be hard for us in modern times to imagine what was such a man's fate only ninety years ago. He was more or less doomed. Justice for a man suspected of witchcraft but denying it, consisted of TRIAL BY ORDEAL. There were two methods, each painful to the extreme.

(a)  Itan: This was essentially a trial of endurance and in most cases the result depended upon the vagaries of the Itan Priest: if he himself suspected the accused or if he knew public opinion was heavily against the man, or if the Onojie was interested in the man's guilt, the result was definite - GUILTY, would be the verdict! 

The actual trial consisted of the suspect being taken to a circle marked with chalk. Kneeling and protruding his tongue, he was told the charge and the priest repeated: "you are said to be a wizard; if you are innocent may you be WHITENED but if you are not, may you be caught right here ", and he proceeded to pass a thick cock's feather, root first, through the tongue of the unfortunate man. The ordeal of passing a blunt ended feather through a man's tongue can only be imagined. With the person in utter agony, salivating and the priest repeating the incantations, the ordeal went on until he succeeded in lacerating the tongue through with the feather passing from below upwards. This could only happen if he wanted the man freed or whitened or the man is so dead to pain that he just allowed the priest to tear his tongue as much as he pleased. If the accused was a coward, as soon as the pain was beyond what he could bear, he begged the torturer to stop and pronounced himself guilty. Sometimes even where he was realIy courageous, the priest after pulling till he was himself tired stopped and pronounced the man guilty. This verdict was obtained by his saying that the feather had become stuck halfway and nothing on earth could get it through. Everybody at the trial including the accused man's immediate family like his wife or mother took that as a fair trial and left the arena believing their beloved man QUITE GUILTY: The man then was left to face the prescribed punishment. 

(b) Sasswood: Again this depended more or less upon what the public thought and their feeling towards the accused, although in some fortunate cases where the feeling of antipathy was so strong that the public desired immediate death, the trial was over-enthusiastic and queerly, the person was saved by his God. 

A man accused of witchcraft who denied it was taken to the sasswood centre and a decoction from the bark of the Sasswood tree was made; this was given to the man to drink with the words, "If you are guilty may this fluid kill you and if you are innocent may you vomit and recover". If the public feeling against the accused was strong, one or both of two things might happen: at the centre an extra-large dose was given him to drink with a vengeance. Because of the extreme and excessive distension of the stomach vomiting began early before enough of the alkaloid was assimilated into the blood stream to cause a sure poisoning. The man vomited copiously, thus ridding his stomach of all the decoction he had taken a short while ago! Such a man recovered due to overdose! A less lucky and much hated man after drinking the potion was subjected to a wicked physical strain that told,)., mortally on his heart and body: he was made to run and dance up and down the village square with the village Igene and Inotu at hand to ensure j death. They danced round him as he stopped now and then to have bouts of " vomiting that sapped one's strength: as soon as he was through with that they urged him on, running and dancing until he collapsed and died of sheer '& physical exhaustion, even before the poison did its work! He was declared is guilty and was given a burial befitting a rat. 

Lesser crimes had their prescribed punishments of lesser measure than those described above: - 

3. SEIZURES: (a) Seizure of fowls: This was the common punishment for an Egbonughele who failed to tum up for street sweeping, cleaning inter-village paths or any villager who failed to turn up for communal labour. In the. evening he would go to the head of his age grade and if his reasons and apology were genuine, he might be forgiven and the fowl returned. If not he might redeem the seized fowl which might belong to anybody in his Uelen or family compound, with the payment of a small monetary fine not, necessarily equivalent to costs of a fowl. If he was too proud to go and beg" the fowl was sold and any amount realised from the sale was shared by his " age grade. This (seizure of a fowl) was the limit of Egbonugheler competence. 

(b) Seizure of Goats: This was the common punishment for the more serious of the lesser crimes, and was inflicted only by the Edion. Adultery " was punished by the guilty man paying a fine of a goat which was slaughtered by the Egbele at the ancestral shrine. Still more serious crimes like beating of one's parents, setting fire to one's family house in anger, attempted suicide, stealing of planted seed yams amongst members of the same family etc., were punished with seizure and killing of a goat against the offender even without a formal trial first. Since there was no trial, there was no appeal in such cases. In nearly all these cases the slaughtering of a goat was accompanied with a fine all together being termed ODEWE Bll ELANM~N EA (A she-goat plus cowries worth in modem times II0/3K). In the olden days this was a hellish lot to rake together for this 11-2/3K was equivalent to twenty Ikikh or 2,800 cowries! 

OSTRACISM: (Amunlen Obiro):

This punitive measure was reserved for crimes tending to mar peaceful village life. For example, non-cooperation in the village, where all other punitive measures at the disposal of the Edion or Egbele had failed to cause change of heart. Such a man might refuse to take part in a lawful. communal labour, or might be guilty of dis-loyalty to the community, as for example, trying to undermine the authority of the elders or selling his people to another village during a land dispute etc. In such cases the whole village gathered together at the square and using their respected KPEOION NE NN, a law was made that from then on nobody was ever to greet or answer the greetings of the man in question, no one was to enter his house for fire nor was he to enter another's house to take fire; he was thus given the most dreaded punishment the gregarious Esan people haver. Social Ostracism, with its devastating psychological effects. Finding himself cut off from the rest of the community including members of his own family, he either had to go on his proud knees and pay heavy fines or he quitted the village altogether. Begging is made infinitely difficult because he cannot enter anyone's house for intercession. 

5. BANISHMENT: (ANLFN UBI KUA): For this punishment to be inflicted the crime must be grave, second only to crime for which the punishment was death. Such crimes as persistent practice of witchcraft, having hands in causation of diseases, possession of bad medicines etc., all merited this punitive measure. 

The punishment consisted of the two lower grades; (gene and Egbonughele, assembling with drums, sticks, coconut palm branches minus the leaves, brooms etc. at the man's house. He was asked to make a load of his most valued possession which he carried on his head. As he left his house with the people drumming and singing, his footprints were systematically swept off the village street. he was led up to the village boundary and left to his fate which might be death at the hands of wild beasts or capture by slave raiders. 

6. IKPOTA, ISUNFIA: There were other and rather similar methods of achieving good riddance of a man of ISUSU (troublesome man), a wizard, a man suspected of evil juju or medicine etc. 

First IKPOTA means purification of the earth. It might be because of frequent deaths or alleged impending epidemic that an oracle was consulted at the village square by the whole community. At this IKHUEB, the native doctor decreed that the ground had been fouled and must be purified. In serious cases particularly at Eguare the purification needed anything from an animal to a human head. A man chosen for this, actually a slave, had a chicken and palm fronds tied to his waist, and a stout rope tied round his neck. Starting from one end of the village he was dragged by means of the rope along the round, and fully alive, with much excitement and recitation j of prayers all urging the departed spirits and any interested members of the ;1 world beyond to accept the sacrificed victims and remove their evil eyes from their village. By the time they got to the usual dumping grounds for sacrificed victims (lZOBO), the unfortunate man was dead, if he was lucky. In certain places such victims became the property of known bodies. For example, in Ebelle all proceeds of Ikpotoa became property of the Onojie of Ezen before that territorial unit became extinct. 

lSUNFIA: Which meant absolute banishment is not much different from ANNLN UBI KUA. In this case the angry people following do not go into the bother of sweeping, since the unfortunate man dragged on the ground automatically did all the necessary sweeping! 

After trial and judgement at the square, sentence of ISUNFIA was passed on the accused, usually an evil-minded one. Ojomen (palm fronds) were tied round his waist; the head of a dog, a whole rabbit (the two signifying ISUSU - trouble or unrest) - a chicken, and a tortoise were tied to the fronds with all dragging along the ground. The Igene and Egbonughele came after him drumming and jeering. As he was drummed out of the village in utter disgrace, his footprints were swept off by the ojomen and junks which raised dust after him. 

Long after the white man came into Esan land these more severe punitive measures were still practiced all over Esan. For example, round about 1906, a woman called Ojolo was strongly suspected of witchcraft at Ihunmidumum Illeh. Ikhalo the renowned native doctor of the village who was looking after the sick son of Eigbe, convinced the community that Ojolo was the cause of the child's illness. Despite the fact that the child recovered, the unfortunate woman was publicly disgraced and drummed off the village. Even in the whiteman's era at the beginning of this century, no one, however daring, would risk returning to the village where his or her footprints had been swept off, since any other mishap ever, would be placed at his or her door. 

These 'crimes' with the punishment they invited were in the main figments of imagination - mere allegations. A good number have disappeared with the advent of the whitemen but many, still far too many, are still a scourge in the villages, causing hatred, disaffection, confusion and unhappiness. A man, who while he was gravely ill, said things he was not responsible for, was forever surrounded with the odium of adultery or witchcraft: a man, another had confessed as a wizard is looked upon as such for the rest of his life. Many times after such confession, the patient still dies but the family, the village etc. is left in dis-array and hatred, brothers divided against themselves, husbands against wives! The way out? only a stringent application of the laws of libel and defamation of character can efface these wicked allegations in our life time. 

Before Leaving this subject I will describe an incident that occurred on the 23rd of September, 1993. I had been away on an assignment as the Hon. Secretary of Health and Social Services. I returned on 15thSeptember at the end of my tenure. Asusual with me every Thursday, I went to attend to my people at Okojie Welfare Centre Ugboha on this Thursday. A young man was called in and he told me he had been ill for some twelve days with high fever and cough. He could not breathe and he could not sleep. On examination he was very pale, anxious and dyspnoeic even at rest. It was a case of bilateral Lobar Pneumonia and it was surprising how he had survived for so long. I carefully explained his condition, advised immediate admission and warned him he could die with no further warning and if he died his people would say as usual it is his sins that caused his death. He thanked me and said he was going to report to his people what I had said. On getting to my house told my brothers about this man and they informed me that very morning they we really summoned to come and see the sick man who pleaded that what he needed was for them to arrange divination to know what caused his illness. He was told I would be visiting later in the day and he should come and see me first, hence he came, for all along, he had refused to go to the hospital. 

Fortunately, on the second day he appeared at Zuma Memorial Hospital Irrua and by the fifth day he had brightened up and could talk rationally. That morning the Nurses reported the relations had come to say they had found what he had done wrong: he reported to the family that his N120 (one hundred and twenty naira) had been stolen whereas he lost nothing, bringing false accusation against members of his family. Secondly he accused a brother of having hands in his child that died. And everyone involved cursed. They had come to remove him so that he could atone for his grievous sins before he died in the hospital. When they got to the ward they were astonished to find him sitting up and freely chatting with them. They came to thank me for if he had died the family could have been disgraced and for years the odium of his sins would have endured. This was a lucky break for had been confronted with these accusations at home he would have been forced to admit them. 



Like adultery this had a limited sense; it did not mean just taking another's life. It was no offence, for instance, to kill a man from another village; on the contrary the killer had only proved to his people that he was fully a man to be able to go to another village with which there was no Okoven, and return home with a head as a trophy! Similarly, death at wrestling contest was no murder. Everybody felt sorry for the dead man, but the victor had committed no indictable offence. In those days when might was right (queerly in world politics even in the twentieth century, MIGHT IS STILL RIGHT!) murder meant the killing of a man or women from the same village or killing a person from a village under the same Okoven. 

Although the attitude of modern old men to the question "what did our forefathers do with murderers?" is shifting and ambivalent, the one point of agreement is that in those days as now, a murderer at once forfeited his own right to live. He was sent out to Eguare where he became the property of the Onojie who was lord supreme. He went into the matter not with a view of a possible acquittal of the accused, guilty or innocent, but with a view of achieving equitable reparation to the family of the deceased, and to himself who had lost a subject! If the accused had a slave, a child or a junior 106 brother, he gave ONE HEAD IN PLACE OF THE ONE LOST to the family, who was aggrieved while he himself remained at Eguare at the Onojie's pleasure. He might allow him to live as his slave, he might be sold or he might be killed. His farm and house were seized by the Onojie. This was the law in districts like Irrua, Uromi and Ewohimi which had the more atrocious Enijie. In other places like Ekpoma, Ugbegun etc with less greedy and oppressive rulers, the accused was brought to Eguare and was led to the bush to die by self-hanging. No one must beat him or touch him lest he too became a murderer. He was merely led to the bush and advised on the quickest way to overcome the horror of self-destruction by hanging. The village to which the man killed belonged went to loot all the offender had. Sometimes if the deceased had powerful and influential relatives they went to loot the family of the accused. 

In Irrua, particularly during Eromosele the Great's time - Abuede (1876- 1921), it was not only the family of the criminal but his village of birth that suffered the looting leaving only the belongings of the immediate family of the deceased. 

Killing a person from another village merely meant the killer had drawn his own village into an inter-village free shooting and where the killer's village felt it was unprepared for war, it saved the situation by handing over the culprit to the angry village. 

From the above it would appear as if Esan law on murder was confused and inadequate, since the treatment of murderers was not uniform or even definite anywhere. The cause of these apparent irregularities was the Onojie. Where he was powerful and dreaded his word was of course, law and any murderer with all he possessed automatically became his property: The act also gave him an inroad to loot and plunder the village of the murderer. Where the Onojie was weak and constitutional, the dreaded Inotu - the strength of the masses, handled the matter, from trial to judgement. After the trial preceded with a terrifying war dance, the men did exactly what they wished. He might be killed on a stake, or asked to buy himself at an exorbitant rate (NON DUBI), a rate few men could afford as it ranged from ten to twenty ebo which equals about 373,322 cowries weighing 33.3 cwt or about 1,696 .88 kg, requiring some sixteen hefty-men to carry (see Arithmetic of Cowries), today about NI5.56, but in modern value, equivalent to about N60.00 to N1OO.OO (NOT the Nigerian useless Naira of 107 1994), or the Inotu might sell him outright and share the proceeds. The power of the Inotu waned after the establishment of the first Native Count in Uromi, in 1903. 

There were other offences which Esan native laws and custom classifiec as capital offences like murder although the punishments were not as severe as for all categories of murder. The seriousness of these crimes were admitted by the swiftness of the Edion who inflicted the prescribed punishments. For example: - 

(a) Ivio Uvun is the heinous crime of stealing the seed-yams a farmer had already planted. This crime is equivalent to murder, not of the farmer alone but of all his family, since once a man had planted his yams he was sure of surviving the famine season, which is usually during the months of March to June. All the seed yams he has are planted and the rest are sold: that is the invariable Esan custom; having planted his seeds he goes about other business while waiting for his yams to germinate. He may start to re-roof his house or he goes to hunt with the result that for a long time he may never reach his farm again; in fact, what is more likely to bring him early to the farm will be the rains which signify time for corn planting. Thus, -in the olden days by the time a man got to his farm to discover that his planted seed yams h-ad been stolen, it might be that other farmers had planted, sold or eaten their remaining seed yams. That meant that he had been rendered useless for that year. There would be no hope of his getting yams, which form the mainstay of our diet in Esan land. He either had to go and be someone's servant or face the bitter prospect of a killing famine for himself and his family. Any wonder that our forefathers visited such a crime with the severest punishment short of taking the offender's life! 

(b) Kneading Mud Over Another's Ijie:

This was strictly forbidden. One's ancestral building site is one's Ijie or Ueken. Similarly, the first person to build over a site owned the spot of ground which thus becomes his DIE. If he left the house to build in another place within or without the village whether the house fell or not, he still had ownership of his old building site or Ijie. If anyone wanted to build there, he must seek the consent of the owner and if he did otherwise it was a crime punishable by the Edion. But once he had given his consent to another man to build there, his ownership lapses. The site now belonged to the man who built on it last; hence people are very chary before granting permission to 108 others to build on their Ijie. 

(C) Climbing an Oil Palm on which a Man was already Up:

In short this meant that no two persons could be on the same palm tree at the same time, except of course, for the purpose of going to save the life of the first climber who might be in difficulties. For example, a man had climbed up a palm tree but got into trouble from losing one of the ropes (Esan people climb palm and coconut trees using two ropes), or losing his grips and hanging precariously, it would be the duty of any man having the means of climbing to go up to him to save him from a fifty feet drop. That would be commendable both before the eyes of the living elders and those of the departed forefathers. That which requires the blood of a goat to appease the spirits, in Esan custom, is to climb up to a man in anger either to prevent his getting the fruits or wine or overtly to attack him. The punishment is swift and up till now, consists of slaughtering a she-goat at sight against the offender. As usual it is easier for the Edion in their dignity to add Elanmen ea, (this is twenty Ikiokho or 2800 Cowries a hefty sum then, but today equivalent to 11.2k); this constant addition which the Edion always tag to tines is the real benefit for the living!

Unlike the Ibos Esan traditionally climb oil palm trees with two ropes - one across
the right thigh and the other under the left foot. It is a crime akin to murder
to climb in anger to meet another climber.


(d) One Hunter Driving Another from Egbai:

Most good hunters have watching platforms - EGBAI - which are usually erected near the lairs of beast or their usual trails. The hunter sits on the form waiting for the animal which is shot when it comes to rest, feed or; have a drink. Now the hunter who builds the form own it. But should he arrive to find another hunter usurping what belongs to him, Esan law and custom forbid him challenging the usurper there and then. He must return home and report the matter to the Edion. Should he give a challenge there and they both return home alive, the punishment of the challenger would far exceed that of the thief, for our forefathers foresaw the possibility of two armed men-fighting it out to a mortal finish in the jungle. Even if they did not kill themselves a watching platform is the very last place to have a brawl - for once the animals knew of the presence of human beings around their grounds they would never come near the spot again. That would spoil the chances not only of the quarrelsome hunters but of all hunters in the village who might have succeeded in killing animals there. This would mean real loss to the Edion who might have got some free meat by virtue of their being Omijiogbe of the lucky hunters' family. 

(e) Tying Ojomen round a Farmland or Another's House:

The Ojomen has special significance amongst Esan people. It could signify; rejoicing while under different condition it could mean a taboo either for the sacredness of the object round which it had been tied or because that object has been cursed. Thus, during some feasts e.g. eating of new yams, the palm fronds in Esan custom, are tied at every gateway and in the streets.  That signifies great rejoicing in Esan. But if a man does not want people to use a path after himself, he ties Ojomen across it, or if he found a palm with ripe nuts and he does not want another man to reap them he ties Ojomen round the tree. In Esan custom that ban is inviolable. Knowing the s awe with which Esan regard such a ban it is a great offence for a man to use Ojomen lightly. For example, during the beginning of the farming year, a man goes to tie OJomen round a certain bush he himself has no intention of farming; by that action he has made a one-man law as prohibitive as if it were made by the most autocratic and dreaded Onojie in the land. In fact, neither himself nor any other villager can farm on that parcel of land that year. Therefore, if a man tied these fronds across the entrance of a house no one else will dare enter the house again. Truly have our ancestors viewed the irresponsible use of Ojomen with all seriousness. Such stupid acts in Esan, are followed with immediate slaughtering of a she-goat against the offender. 

(f) Abuses with the Genitals:

It was strictly forbidden to curse a man with the genitals, particularly the female private parts which were up to this day reserved for warding off evils like epidemics befalling the village. Under such circumstances the village women gathered to curse the people with evil intents using the name of their organs; then and then only was the use of these parts for cursing another permissible. If a woman in anger used it against a man or worst still, against her husband, she drew a heavy punishment from the Edion. Similarly, no justification can be pleaded ever, for cursing another with children or in any way wishing for the death of an opponent's children. The '. punishment for this crime which was equivalent to cursing another with the female genitals, was as severe as the Egbele could make it; nothing but "Odewe bi Elanmen ea" would satisfy the Elders. 

(g) 'Cutting of Kolanut Tree:

To Esan People it is practically correct to say that the kolanut tree is sacred, for it bears the kolanut which is used at all occasions of purification, worshipping ancestors or juju, blessings, swearing on juju, revoking oaths, installation of Edion etc. No host has welcomed a visitor until he has first apologized for the scarcity of kolanuts and then producing some. There is nothing to beat kolanut in converting a shy, glum gathering into one of active arguments. Even where they have been produced at the appropriate time and the correct man was asked to break them, there was bound to be some arguments over age, clan or over lTEKPN (Correct Channel Findings!). 

Usually with people of common descent, the oldest in the gathering breaks the nuts and since till this day, many Esan know no birth certificate and depend upon wars fought or place farmed when someone was born, any attempt to decide the oldest in the gathering is followed by brisk arguments! 

This question of breaking of kola nuts, particularly in modem times when politics has divided homes, villages and clans, has generated a lot of acrimonious arguments especially when there is a gathering of all Esan. Where members of a village gather there is an understood system of deciding who breaks the nuts - usually age of settlement or cultural affinity decides. In Ugboha for instances, where there are four villages, Ekebho and within it, Emaudo, must break the nuts. In a gathering of Uromi and Uzea, Uzea man has the honour, being senior of the founding brothers. Among Irrua people, Unogbo (Amese's Ijie) automatically takes precedence over kola nut breaking. 

Since the declaration of Akenzua I (1710-1733) making Ikhihibhojere the Ojirrua, the QKAIJESAN about 1723, in a mixed gathering, it is the Benin man that takes precedence, no matter his age. If no Benin man, it is an Irrua man that has the honour. I spent a considerable time trying to get any unanimity on who comes next but found no order after Irrua. Some say if it is a gathering of Uromi and Ubiaja, an Uromi man breaks the nuts if the venue is Ubiaja and vice versa. This to me, is a recent arrangement, for Uromi and Ubiaja were perpetually at each other's throat in those days: actually Ubiaja Eguare moved from Oyomon Ubiaja to the present site because of incessant head hunting! The truth is various communities had their agreement on order of breaking of nuts. Such agreements could only be made where there was an Okoven - and since Okoven is only possible between two adjacent villages even in different clans and not between the clans themselves, the non-existence of order among Esan clans can be understood. The important thing to remember is, there was never a rush until a peaceful tracing of the correct man to perform the important duty of breaking the nuts was made. 

There was nothing in Esan land one wanted to do that was complete without kola nuts: the only tree that bears these culturally precious nuts must itself be a treasure, hence to cut any such tree down was equivalent to doing the owner a grave harm, a wilful attempt to impoverish him. This is understandable when one realises that it takes up to ten years for the tree to start bearing fruits. Even where the owner has given his witnessed consent for the tree to be cut down, as for example when it is standing over a building site, no one may cut it unless the owner holds the cutter's hand to make the first stroke! 

Here is a convenient place to say a few words about the breaking of kolanuts which is so culturally unifying and fundamental in Esan. Since the accession of Alhaji Momodu II in 1971 he had pursued the recognition of his Okaijesan tittle in a more determined manner than his grand -father, Momodu I who was rightly recongnized as the Senior Onojie (despite Okojie of Ugboha's untiring challenge in the thirties). After the death of Chief Okojie of Ugboha, Momodu I made known to the British administration in 1939, his desire to be recognised as the Okaijesan; both the British and the other Enijie opposed it, although the following year he was chosen to represent Esan Enijie at the Abeokuta Conference of Chiefs. With the determined efforts of Momodu II, bitterness erupted between Irrua and the ' rest of Es,1O Enijie led by Onosegbe II of Ewohimi. It is this bitterness that led to attempt to break the age old order of kolanut breaking in Esan, to the extent that at meetings of Esan elders initiated by Chief Anthony Enahoro and held in Zuma Memorial Hospital, Irrua under the chairmanship of Dr. Gbelokoto Okojie OFR vigorous attempts were made to abolish the service and use of kolanuts at Esan gathering. The unfortunate resolution of I. P.U. at Ewohimi on 21st December, 1991 and an earlier conference held at Ugboha on 19th March, 1991, to the effect that from then on kolanuts should be broken by the oldest Onojie at a gathering must have followed unawareness of the Esan words of wisdom - AKHA LU EBE EI KA LU KHE AKI KHA MIEN EBE ABHA SE MIEN KHE, (when you start doing what was never done before, you start seeing things which were never seen before!) 

I as a traditionalist, found these attempts and resolutions shocking, shortsighted and kept me wondering if these Esan people are ignorant of the Esan proverb - AKHA RANMUNDE OGHIAN ORIA RU ELO, EI YE MIEN ELO RE DAGHE OMOE ORIA - if through hatred for an enemy you blind yourself, you will not be able to see your friends. The question for these Esan agitators for a change is "Is the universal use of the kola nuts in Edo land a good thing? Does it serve a cultural purpose? Does it show maturity or patriotism to start abrogating our ancient custom as each family, each town, each community gets aggrieved?" 

It is commendable to observe that at every major Esan gathering in Esan or even in Benin, Uromi, the single largest community in Esan land, Ubiaja, Igueben and Ugboha (as evidenced by Chief John Eko at the Chief Enahoro initiated Irrua meetings), have consistently given unequivocal backing to the Esan tradition on the use and breaking of kola nuts by Irrua. 

The confusion surrounding “KAIJESAN” title in Esanland is as a result of disrupted history by Akenzua I in 1723. A political title spread divisions. The question is, why would Akenzua I enact a title that orchestrate division in Esanland knowing too well that Ewohimi, one of the oldest founded village in Esanland by Ogiso’s and other oldest Esan town will see that as a threat to their earliest existence. Was it a deliberate political move to undermine these towns, who perhaps opposed his leader rules?

This subject will always be controversial until the title of “KAIJESAN” is abolished and in Esan gathering -meetings the oldest Onojie or elders should be given the right to break kolanuts.

Editorial Team 


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