By DR.CHRISTOPHER.G. OKOJIE, OFR, DSc (Hon)
It will serve a useful purpose to remember right at the onset that there are two parts to every Esan district: the royal family and the common people. They were quite distinct, for nearly all the ancient ruling houses came from Benin City or its suburbs. The head of the ruling houses was and still is, the ONOJIE, who with his family, servants and brothers inhabited EGUARE, the administrative CAPITAL of the district. Another important thing an enquirer must take notice of is the use of the word BROTHER by Esan people. It can mean anything from a male blood relation to a very good friend. Secondly OBA's SON can mean a BINI and, in fact, it was recently, a common thing for any Bini, outside the city, to describe himself as the OBA's SON!
The correct name is UKPOZI.
After the battle of vengeance fought by war-happy Ozolua in 1480, the throne of Ekpoma was vacant until the triumphant return of valiant Uda five years later. Uda had three sons that came into the picture. The first was the quiet and diminutive OJIEIKHERE. The second was ALALA and the third was power-drunk OJIENONDIAESAN. The second and third had become so wealthy and influential that it was no surprise to anybody when like the prodigal son they informed their father that Eguare Ekpoma could no longer contain them and so wanted territories of their own! Alala was made the duke of Owele's settlement and Ojienondiaesan, the ruler of UKPOZI. It is quite incorrect to say that it was the first son that became the ruler of Egoro. Those who propounded this fallacy do so on the ground that the Onojie of Egoro traditionally ate the hearts of animals killed by the Onojie of Ekpoma. Indisputably when the three Enijie of Ekpoma, Egoro and Opoji had something to share the order of seniority maintained at the "pains of punishment from the departed ancestors, was: EKPOMA, EGORO and OPOJI taking what is left. If it was the first son that went to become Onojie of Egoro, ' tradition-loving Esan people could have made Egoro always choose things before Ekpoma. The custom of giving the heart at ALU-UESAN to Egoro came from what obtained when Uda's heir Ojieikhere, had just become Onojie and yet had no son of his own. As could have been seen under the laws of inheritance, it was Esan custom even "to adopt a brother for the purpose of any of the ceremonies for which male children were a desideratum. While at Alu-Ijesan, which is the generic name for the shrine common to all the Enijie who had reigned in that” of articular district the Onojie of Ekpoma thought of himself as the FATHER" a king the Enijie of Egoro and Opoji as his first and second sons respectively. At ALU-UDA, where he dealt directly with his own line "second dynasty), the hearts of animals slaughtered were the sole possession) of the Onojie of Ekpoma's own heir.
It would be ridiculous and illogical to think of an Onojie allowing his heir to go to settle in another district, thus laying his house open to future feuds. This conception is in agreement with the present day order amongst the descendants of UDA - Ekpoma is first, Egoro second and Opoji, third. When the third son, Ojienondiaesan demanded a world where he could be master of all he surveyed, Uda said, WE DE BHE ONON UKPOLE NIN - A (You stay at that end), and that gave name to his settlement, UKPOZI. That was about 1505 - some twenty years after the return of Uda to resuscitate the Ekpoma Ruling House.
There are seven villages in Opoji:
(i) EGUARE (923 IN 1953 - 4,256 in 1963)
This was the place founded by OJIENONDIAESAN in 1505. This association is still discernable amongst the descendants of Uda - IBHI-UDA - who are to be found today in the Royal Houses of Ekpoma, Egoro, Opoji, in Ogwa and Ujiogba.
(ii) OGHAGBO (447 - 676)
The founder came from Ehanlen in Ekpoma and still perform the traditional ceremonies in common. The Oniha of Opoji is found here.
(iii) IKI (816):
This was founded by immigrants under the leadership of USIAMEN; these people came from Iruekpen. Till this day lki people fix the date of their yearly feast of INOKHIO after Iruekpen had performed their OWA.
Iki people were first in the present Eguare, Irrua. The large body of disciplined immigrants from Benin in 1460 were so proud, domineering and so war-like that the people they found were wise to seek peace further into the jungle - to the present settlement of lid. The more stubborn ones refused to budge and even to this day, are still waiting for the return of their men who had gone off, hence their name - IDUNEKHAKPOZI (IDUMUN NE KHBUKPOZI) or the quarter waiting the return of Opoji!, and despite years of trembling before the acquisitive might of Irma, have by a miracle of equilibrium, remained a distinct entity. lki people, particularly the quarter of Usiamen were the executioners of Opoji.
(iv) UJOSANLEN (579):
This village was founded by a Benin warrior called UZAGBOMI who was later deified and to this day is worshipped at the village's yearly feast known by this name. The chief priest of the shrine holds the title of Ezomo of Opoji.
(v) OKHORE (625):
Originally to prevent undue jealousy and friction between brothers, the princes were sent away from Eguare on the death of their father; the place they lived was IDUMOHEN. This quarter gradually enlarged to form the village of OKHORE. This law was later abrogated by AKHIBI the Valiant, who felt the heir was in the name of security, left isolated and lonely by his brothers.
(vi) IKI - E.WANLE.N (389):
This village was founded by EWANLEN who advised Opoji warriors during the protracted Irrua - Opoji War.
THE IRRUA - OPOJI WAR: 1845 - 1850:
There were series of inter-c1anish clashes, culminating in this most protracted war. In fact as far back as 1463, the large body of conceited immigrants who arrived Irma were not satisfied with dominating the humble folks they met. They treated them like slaves or bush men and were overtly out to eliminate them one by one. For years the aborigines bore the crushing treatment the Benin immigrants meted out to them, but they finally had to quit leaving their land and homes for their war-like new-comers. They escaped with what they could, into the jungle and settled in the present lid area. That they had grabbed the land of the people they found, did not satisfy these greedy strangers. They sought the fugitives out and continued to harass them from Irrua for years on end.
At long last the fugitives decided to fight back and soon they raised a splendid body of warriors under indomitable leaders whose names have been engraved in the history of Opoji; these were AKPOKHIO) ONUGBENUGBE and OHIABHIDALE, all avid war-mongers themselves. Under their leadership the erstwhile fugitives began to lead retaliatory sorties to Irrua, and this very much angered OGBEIDE the Terrible, who had just come to the throne of Irrua. Ogbeide wanted their heads! He used one of their friends in Irma to trick them into one house where they were trapped and rounded up. As a respecter of bravery Ogbeide staged a trial for the three arch-enemies of Irrua. Apart from the insignificant fact that he was both the prosecutor and judge, Ogbeide gave them one of the fairest trials he had ever conducted. Said the Terror of Irrua: "And you, Ohiabhidale, you are accused of using your flute to say that nothing would please you more than seeing Ogbeide's head on your floor - truth or lie?" The fearless warrior answered that he had thought it would be a good service to all Esan to sever Ogbeide's head from his body! That was enough for the prosecutor cum judge. "Guilty!" and that rhymed with the third of three heads on the floor!
When the news of the betrayal of Ukpozi's honoured warriors got to their people, it did not require the usual war drums to work Opoji men into the required state of frenzy. Esan did not have the stupid self-deceit of formal declaration of war - telling your enemy that as from such and such a day, you will attempt to kill him at site! Thus in the case of Opoji and Ogbeide, for the next five days right from the time they learnt of Ogbeide's atrocities, heads fell indiscriminately on both sides, except that of Ogbeide. The nearest thing Ukpozi saw to that was on one occasion when Ogbeide was tricked by the sight of a deer in the day time and right in the street of his Eguare. He wanted the head of this daring animal and while he chased it down Eguare, Ukpozi warriors surrounded his palace, set it ablaze and while the terrified members sought safety in the nearby bush, they fell into the scotching embrace of Ukpozi head hunters! When Ogbeide returned and saw so many headless members of his family he demanded an Ukpozi head from every adult male in Irrua! More massacre, this time, at Iki.
That was how blood flowed between Ukpozi and Irrua until about 1850 when a man advised the people of Iki on how to exterminate the rather hungry people of Irrua. A bunch of fully ripe and succulent palm nuts was, the bait: as Irrua people came to pick the irresistible fruits, they were dropped one by one with a chopper! Heads! They were enough to end all almost 400 years of blood-shed! The strategist of that last encounter that made Irrua learn to live in peace with their neighbour was the founder of IKI - EWANLEN!
(vii) EKHU (136)
This place was founded by ILOLO said to be the son of the Oba then ruling in Benin. He was banished by his father for his cantankerous nature. He wandered with his family through the jungle until he got to a spot where the expensive necklace on his wife broke and got scattered in the bush. The whole party stopped at once and began searching for the beads. They searched high and low and by the evening they had cleared an area large enough to take two villages, Benin style still the main part of the necklace was nowhere to be found. In the evening they camped for the night - that camp led to EKHU! After a few days Ilolo scouted the area around to have his bearing, and then he came upon a settlement, where the ruler of Opoji was. Introductions were made, personal histories exchanged and the Onojie welcomed his stay near him. Until the coming of the white man the descendants of Ekhu paid their yearly tribute and homage to the Oba, direct to Benin.
In the early thirties some Opoji elders told Mr. H.L.M. Butcher, Assistant District Officer doubling as an Intelligent Officer, that the founder of Ekhu, 11010, was one of the Captains the Oba sent against the Uzea people. This would mean Ekhu is senior to even Eguare founded by Prince Ojienondiaesan himself in 1505. The Uzea war was in 1502 - 03.Today the Iyasele of Opoji is Chief (Dr.) Mike Inegbese (DBA), Atunwase of Lagos, an industrialist, an astute businessman and a philanthropist who single-handedly electrified the whole of Opoji. He is a worthy son of Ekhu.
2. NON-AGGRESSION PACTS:
Opoji's greatest enemy from history was Irrua and her best friends and relatives were Ekpoma, Egoro, Uromi and Ogwa. Thus while Opoji spilt Irrua blood with infinite relish, custom forbade her "seeing the blood" of anybody from Ekpoma, Egoro, Ogwa and Uromi. Ogwa, of course was related to Ekpoma which was the main tie. Uromi and Opoji were not at all related by blood; the only connection I have found between Opoji and Uromi was the marriage of Ozedu, the daughter of Ediale, Onojie of Uromi. This princess was the mother of Omokboa (1835 -1864) who later became Onojie of Opoji, around about the same time as Ogbeide of Irma and Akbilomen of Uromi. As seen already, a good relationship between Enijie of two districts meant a good neighbourly relationship between the people. Thus, the close tie brought about by the marriage of an Uromi princess to the Onojie of Opoji became so strong as to merit a non-aggression pact.
3. IMMEDIATE PAST ONOJIE:
Was OKOSUN II who was Pius Usianene as a Prince. He was born on the 22nd of December, 1912. He had his education at the Government Schools, Irrua, Opoji, Uromi, Sabongidda and Ekpoma, finishing at the R.C.M. School, Warri. He became a Christian in 1930, and in January, 1934 he entered the Regional Catholic Seminary, Asaba - but so violent was the parents' and Opoji public reaction, that a year after the community that insisted that what they wanted on their throne was an Onojie and not a pope, won! The young prince then left Asaba and entered the world to seek a living. Always proud of making a living from honest labour, no job was menial to him. From the lowest labourer he worked his way up to Storekeeper under the John Holts at Katerege in the then Northern Provinces. In 1949, he resigned and came home to carry on business in rubber and timber. On his father's death on the 21st of October, 1952, he began the burial ceremonies at once and at the end he was installed Onojie in November of the same year. Under Okosun II Community Development projects (some started during his father's life time), had progressed apace. With the general political awakening, the town had become infinitely more difficult to govern than it was during his august grandfather's time. He became President of Grade B Customary Court, Ishan West, till it was abolished. The Onojie, always an industrious man, relished his farm and big game hunting for which he was famous. Later in life he looked a wizened old man with a head covered with grey hairs and a perfectly white beard, but underneath it all was a Christian gentleman. He joined his ancestors at 6 a.m., Sunday, 10th August, 1986.
4. PRESENT ONOJIE:
Is His Royal Highness Ehidiamen whose illustrious father joined his ancestors on the 10th of August, 1986. He attended St. Malachy's College, Sapele, completing his secondary education at Edo Boys High School, Benin City. He left the country in search of the Golden Fleece, obtaining a diploma in Business Administration at the Centre for Economy and Political Studies in London. He also majored in marketing at the United States International University, Bushey Wartford, England in 1981. On his return he joined the Nigerian Observer as a Linotype Operator in training but left on incorporating OKOSUN Farms Limited operating in Benin and Opoji.
Though his father died in 1986, his coronation, attended by dignitaries and Mrs. Rebecca Aikhomu, wife of the Vice President, did not take place till the 18th of April, 1992.
The elders of two quarters of Eguare - UWELEN - UDA and IDIDIGBA, form the Kingmakers of Opoji. While Uwenlen-Uda consists of the descendants of Ojienodiaesan, Ididigba was founded by the second son of Onojie IDIGBA, the second Onojie. Thus it is really an off-shoot of the ruling family, and since it descended from a male member, it, according to Esan native laws and custom, qualifies for all lawful activities of the family stem.
This again reminds me of the hot denial put up by a veteran like the great Madojemu in 1932, that he was descended from a former Onojie of Ekpoma. The constitution of the Kingmakers of Opoji makes this connection obvious.
As soon as the Onojie died, the two Kingmakers' quarters assembled at the palace. They were responsible for the washing and ceremonial interment of the dead monarch. In the olden days these duties were rewarded by the heir with a present of a male and female slaves to the two quarters. The Onojie must be buried in the traditional grounds, the IWEHE - just behind the palace.
After this the heir must begin the burial ceremonies at once, completing the vital parts within fourteen days. Then he was ready for installation. This ceremony, at which the Odionwele of all Eguare and the most elderly man of Uwenlen-Uda counted the heir on the Ojiukhuo, making him take his seat at the eleventh count, was preceded by blessings (I1uobo) at the ancestral shrine, by the Osukhure who is found in Uwen-Uje quarter. The iluobo took place at Alu-Ijesan and ALU - UDA.
It is interesting to mention the post-burial but pre-installation ordeal (the last in his life) that the heir had to undergo. In Opoji custom the Onojie's children did not perform the Iruen until after the death of their father. So before the installation ceremonies the heir performed this clothing ceremony, proceeded to clear the farm path, swept and watched the village main square as an Egbunugbele, climbed a palm tree and on coming down someone challenged him to a wrestling match - the last insult of his life.
(a) AKHIBI THE VALIANT: 1749: Akhibi was a left-handed warrior who felt that being an Onojie should not make a woman of a he-man, which every inch, he was. He knew no fear, with the result that his followers, wanting to please him, were suicidal in their disregard for personal safety. He was a great magician and people used to explain away his success where nobody else could have hoped for a draw, with the belief that he had supernatural powers. This avid interest in magic and a dauntless spirit made his fame spread from Opoji.
Round about 1751, when the insulted OBI of OBOLO-UKU (UbuluVim) murdered the lovely Adesua, the daughter of the Ezomo of Uzebu in Benin City, Akhibi was one of the Esan Enijie invited by Oba Akengbuda (1750 - 1804) to lead in the series of military operations which culminated in destroying the impenetrable defences of the Obi. When all the invaders got confused by the innumerable roads supposedly leading to the inaccessible place of the proud Obi, it was thought that Obolo-Uku's famous strength in magic needed an equally great magician to break. Akhibi combined the refined thinking of a magician with the desire of a warrior to excel where others failed: the Obi's head was brought to the Oba of Benin!
Akhibi made use of his strong power of observation and though he went to Obolo-Uku for war, he took notice of all he saw in that land of beautiful singers and dancers. Thus all the drums for the various war dance in Opoji today were copied from Obolo-Uku.
As a reward for his services Akengbuda got. the images of himself and Akhibi cast in brass; Akhibi also brought the trumpet called Okolo Akengbuda from Benin after the Obolo-Uku war, but unfortunately both the brass images and the Okolo have been allowed to rust in the ancestral shrine at Opoji; and in another five years when I saw them in 1953, all that had remained to speak of the great past of this valiant monarch would have vanished forever! This is one of the loses Esan history would continue to suffer as a neglect of our shrines that I have always regarded as our archives.
Akhibi was famous for several other reasons in Opoji history. He was not the Onojie who would ask a subject to render a service he knew he could perform and perhaps, better. On one occasion after he had returned in triumph from the Obolo war, he was leading a war dance during the annual Opoji feast when jealous enemies from Irma ambushed him and shot him with a poisoned arrow. The arrow landed on the big toe of one foot; and as quickly as lightening he dealt a destructive blow with his flashing magician's hand: the toe with the poisoned arrow was neatly cur off with a dextrous swing of the Eben in his hand! Ignoring the bleeding toe, he the Onojie, gave the author of the poisoned arrow a determined chase, threw conventions to the winds, caught up with the assailant and severed his head from his body! Hence the expression which got into Esan saying – AKHIBI N'OJIE UKPOZI, OGBE OBO RA IGENE FI OMAI (Akhibi the Onojie of Ukpozi, be side-tracked his strong men and beheaded a man himself).
(b) OMOKHOA ruled as Onojie about the same time as Ogbeide of Irrua, Akhilomen of Uromi, Oguamele of Ekpoma, Agboga of Ubiaja, Aigbe of Ewohimi etc. He was a grandson of Ediale, Onojie of Uromi.
(c) OKHIHAN (1864 - 1909): Okhihan typified the Enijie of Opoji but he surpassed all others in their usual longevity. Although he did not die until 1909, by 1897 when Oba Ovomamwen was humiliated by the white men, Okhihan had became so senile that he was more in touch with spirits of his ancestors than with the mortals whose destiny he presided over. Wisely, his audacious but wise eldest son took over from him and Okhihan saw him firmly in control of Opoji before he died. Okhihan, like the Enijie of his time, could not be anything but a despot; his capacity for sheer wickedness got to such a stage that Opoji felt that they had had enough of him. They rebelled against him and in the civil war that ensued he took refuge, first in Idumu-Ekhu in Ekpoma and later, in Idumobo Ebudin. He later made peace with his subjects but by that time he had spent twenty-one years in exile! When he got back he was not himself again, for his claws had been blunted by age. Indeed by the time he died, he had lost practically everything- sans teeth, sans eyes, a veritable dummy on the throne!
(d) THE GREAT IMADOJIEMU 1909 --J946, As only death can remove a man once he had been duly installed Onojie the aged Okhihan in 1897, was advised to let his son and heir, the vivacious and sensible Imadojiemu, deputise for him at all public, functions and meetings. In 1900, he it was who was actually in command of Opoji, his father being alive only by his quavering voice. Having heard' of the fate of the all powerful Ovonramwen at the hands of the Whiteman, he had the sense to realise first that resistance to the white man who arrived Esan country in 1900 was useless and secondly, running only reduced what bargaining chances he had with these clever strangers. He received the District Commissioner from Benin with mustered friendliness and that created an indelible impression. Esan native law or not, the white men had their own methods of grading and recognition of warranted chiefs. Imadojiemun, the friendly chieftain, got his warrant sooner than any other chief in Esan, that was in the same year, 1900. By the time his father Okhihan died in 1909 he had got used to wielding authority as Onojie, limited only by the anti-slavery laws which was all the white men could do in those difficult days, when they were handicapped by ignorance of the country and its people, the certain outcome of the mosquito sting and the fewness of their number.
Imadojiemun's advice was sought on practically everything that affected Esan: Ogbidi, for instance, was returned to Uromi in 1901 through Opoji. Imadojiemun became the most powerful Onojie amongst the IBHI - UDA Rulers. Ekpoma, not to talk of Egoro, became a mere vassal of
Opoji, for he had been made the District Head (D.H.) of Ekpoma in 19201 People began thinking and actually believed that Akhimien was a minor with the great Imadojiemun wielding the great big stick of a Regent. This got to a stage when agitation for home rule began in Ekpoma. By 1930 to 1934it had almost got to a stage of overt hostility between the people of Ekpoma and Opoji who felt their Onojie was bringing Ekpoma under the humiliating heel of Opoji.by his meekness. Ekpoma and Egoro fought together and before Imadojiemun died in 1946, both places had become distinct from Opoji. The way the Onojie of Egoro and the great Imadojiemun of Opoji denied any blood relationship with Ekpoma did not help matters.
The great Imadojiemun of Opoji, in his life time raised the name of Opoji and made it equivalent to any of the originally well known Esan towns. Thus in the renowned but dreaded All-Ishan Council of 1920, he was a number for the Ekpoma - Egoro - Opoji District like Eromosele of
Irrua, Okojie of Ugboha, Ifebho of Ewohimi, Oribhabo of Ohordua and Agbebaku of Ora.
He kept up the hereditary longevity of Opoji Enijie, dying after thirty-seven years on the throne or forty-nine years as a ruler of Opoji at about the age of ninety-five years.
It is appropriate under Imadojiemun to deal finally with the true relationship between Ekpoma with Egoro and Opoji. It is historically important to touch upon the repeated, often vexatious denials of blood relationship between Ekpoma, Egoro and Opoji even by great rulers like
Imadojiemun of Opoji and Ogbebor of Egoro in the early thirties. One must remember what names mean to Esan. Names record history, events, gratitude, ups and downs of a family or community. When Ozolua came to recognize Uda, the chiefs and the Binis started calling him OBHIESAN and Ozolua in his rare moments of self-reproach felt sorry about the extinction of Ekpoma ruling house; the directive he gave was "Let Obhiesan go and repair Esan - Ne kha khian dolo Esan yi” It is this event Uda wanted to commemorate when he named his second son OJIENONDIA - ESAN- the first Onojie of Opoji. Should it not be a thing of pride to find these three royal houses are blood related?