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!
Ukhun and Idoa are two districts on the northern escarpment of the Esan Plateau; they are truly Esan Communities. All round the Esan country are border villages and by virtue of their geography are bifid, with their custom being infringed upon by the customs of their non-Esan neighbours and so cannot be entirely Esan. Examples of such villages are ERHA, AMA, AWAIN, UJAGBE, UKHUN and IDOA. Erha had been excised from Esan to join Ivbiosakon, now Owan; Ujagbe, Ama and Awain since 1895 came under the present Etsako and were all in the old Kukuruku
Ukhun and Idoa have two reasons for their custom being a bit different from that of the rest of Esan:-
(a) Geography and
As said above these Communities must have adjacent communities which might be different in ethnicity, religion etc. Intermarriage, farming, some annual ' celebrations etc could bring a-culturation. In addition these northern border communities are situated in savannah areas, open and easily accessible to marauders.
During the Nupe invasions called Nupe or Bida War of 1847 - 1850, most of these Northern Esan villages bore the brunt of the attacks and were sacked. Further inland were the thick impenetrable, wild animal infested jungles in which even dare devil Nupes themselves feared head hunters! Tsetse flies made it impossible for their horses to survive.
Most of the Communities fled and took refuge in the then Kukuruku Division and only began returning when Nupe domination came to an end after the Royal Niger Company, round about 1885, that is after nearly fifty years of separation, The survivors and their off springs came back all mixed up in their custom , religion and organisation. The Nupes who had gained full control over most of what was then Kukuruk Division had converted the people into Islam, got them to pay tribute in slaves, money, guineacorn etc. What kept the returnees together had been the Esan language and tribal marks. The original ruling families were lost and the only way to exercise discipline was through our old respect for elders - this leading to gerontocracy; the oldest men in the Community exercised authority over the Community. As each Community grew, many quarters developed and whoever was the oldest became the Community leader and on his death, the next oldest took over, often the next one came from another quarter.
"The characteristic independent political unit of Esan society is the Chiefdom ruled over by a hereditary Chief- Onojie or Onoje", wrote R.E. Bradbury, adding "that the only exception being Ujagbe and Idua which are single independent villages and Awain a group of four villages, all without hereditary Chiefs. "
One can therefore understand how this difference came about and so realize that what they are practicing is alien to Esan.
II. . UKHUN consists of ten quarters:-
1. 'Uwen-Okolo which is first among Ukhun components
The first three - Uwen - Okolo, Uwen- Ogbeta and Uwen - Ijiekhine form the one Rulig House of Oba. Succession is gerontocratic, the title going to the oldest man in the three quarter kindred. When an Onojie' dies his children have up to three months to perform the burial rites of their' father before a successor is installed. The installation is performed by Ogbuje - the custom arising from the fact that this quarter used to be part of the Oba Ruling House. An incumbent from this quarter had no male issue and his daughter married into the Uwen-Okolo quarter. When her father died she correctly performed the burial ceremonies of her father in her husband's place where she took all paraphernalia of Onojieship. This robbed Ogbuje of the right to inheritance and in compensation, installation of new Onojie became theirs.
*1. R.E. Bradbury. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo Speaking peoples of South-Western Nigeria: P. 67: 1957.
Despite the gerontocratic nature of succession, Ukhun has had its Enijie since the British arrival in Esan, It was at the beginning attached to Ekpoma but in 1909 the Onojie of Ukhun elected to go with Ewu and his people started attending Irrua Native Court.
The original ancestral site is marked by the Ukeguale Oba in Uwen-Okolo and up till today, is maintained by and is the meeting place for all Ukhun.