Ogiamien of Utantan: The Task Before Gov. Obaseki

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By Orobosa Omo-Ojo JP 

The recent news of the restoration of Ogiamien family stool to its rightful place in Benin history, by Mr. Godwin Nogheghase Obaseki, Governor of Edo State, South-South Nigeria, has gladdened the heart of cultural historians and custodians of heritage assets within and outside Nigeria.

In doing so, the administration, through the Attorney General of the state, also dropped all charges that were brought against Ogiamien Arisco Osemwingie, the surviving defender of Ogiamien traditional house.

With the decision of government to file nolli prosequi, the squabble between the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba Ewuare II and the Ogiamien Royal Family, over the proclamation of Rich Arisco Osemwingie as the Ogiamien of Benin Kingdom without the authority of the Oba of Benin, has been brought to peaceful end by Obaseki.

Generality of Benins, home and abroad, have praised Obaseki for acting rightly, to preserve the different traditional institutions and their historical perspectives.

The resolution of the legal battle was contained in a letter dated April 29, 2022, which was signed by Mr. Oluwole Iyamu, Edo State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice.

The reprieve came seven years after Ogiamien Arisco was docked for act government claimed was capable of breaching public peace, in the run-up to the coronation of Oba Ewuare II in 2015.

The letter explained that, government decision was based on the agreement by Ogiamien Arisco to revert to his official statutory title as Ogiamien of Benin Kingdom as recognized under the Traditional Rulers and Chiefs Law and legal notices.

Following this, the Attorney General conveyed a letter to the Registrar of Magistrate Court 4 Benin, that the decision of government was also based on the readiness of the Ogiamien ruling house to withdraw all pending claims and appeals against all interested parties (state government, Benin Traditional Council or any other authority), arising from or related to any claim of sovereignty or traditional authority outside of the position recognized by the laws.

The Attorney General explained that the decision to prosecute Ogiamien Arisco in Charge No. MOR/148C/2015 for legal and administrative charges was a result of his actions and utterances at a time of traditional transition in the Benin Kingdom.

Impressed by Obaseki’s intervention, the spokesman of Ogiamien Royal dynasty, High Chief  Monday Wehere hailed the “governor’s bold move” for summoning the courage to resolve the royal dispute between them and the Palace of Oba of Benin.

He also emphasized that the Ogiamien Royal Stool was recognized by the state government “way back in 1968”, and noted with dismay that all the traditional rulers who were recognized in 1979, ten years thereafter presently use the appellation of either His Royal Highness or His Royal Majesty.

Notwithstanding the accolades that Obaseki has received, the reinstalled Ogiamien of Utantan will contribute little or nothing to the cultural heritage assets of the state, except equal attention is given to the tangibility of this very institution.

The palace of Ogiamien is listed both as UNESCO site and National Monument.

Government should as a matter of direct intervention, restore the historic and world acclaimed Ogiamien palace in Utantan, so that it can render all the attributes associated with the famed story of great Benin Kingdom that started from Ogiso dynasties in Igodomigodo.

The moribund tourism sub-sector in the state can get a reawakening from here, especially in the face of fast fading tourist destinations in Edo State.

Investigation has also revealed that the palace space has been encroached by squarters, especially those selling woods and other building materials.

Their activities contravenes the law that requires 50ft radius as set-back from heritage sites.

The first step government should take is to activate the relevant sections of the Act of the National Commission For Museums and Monuments (NCMM), which prescribes penalties for anyone (corporate or individual) that destroy or deface national heritage sites.

But before the enforcement, government should quickly recognize the palace as a tourism asset in both words and action. The Ogiamien Royal Family should enter into ‘heritage ownership’ agreement with Edo State Government, as stipulated in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) charter.

Moving ahead with the wider plan to take a sizeable chunk of Nigeria’s tourism market, the state government should put a plan in place, to take another look at the Edo State Traditional Rulers & Chiefs Law, 1979, with a view to re-establish authority and control.

In the beginning, it was the Ogiso (king of the sky in Benin) who held the reins of power in Igodomigodo as Benin was then referred to. They needed a seat of government from where they could administer the vast land and this gave rise to the Ogiamien palace.

Built in the 12th century AD, several Ogiso ruled the land from Ogiamien’s palace until the end of the Ogiso dynasty and the ascension of Oba Eweka I in 1170.

Thirty Two Ogisos or Kings of the Sky, ruled Benin, starting with Ogiso Igodo who ruled from 900-925 and ended with Ogiso Erhebor in 1170.

One of the few surviving structures of the British invasion of Benin in 1897, the historical Ogiamien palace, dates back over 1,000 years. While virtually all the significant houses (including the majestic Oba Palace) were razed down and Oba Ovonramwen was deposed, against all odds, the centuries-old Ogiamien palace was spared the wrath of the invaders.

The fall of Ogiso dynasty was signaled by the signing of the ‘Ekiokpagha Treaty’ between Ogiso Erhebor and Oranminyan’s son, Oba Eweka I, which ended the civil strife.

In recognition of the legendary role the palace played in the history of Benin Empire, the colonial government, in 1959, declared the palace a national monument.

The red clay masterpiece reminds archeologist of the traditional Benin architectural skills.

Some of the artefacts found in the palace dates back to almost a millennium and a walk in the awe invoking palace, evokes the imagery of life in 12th century Benin.

There are mythical recorded reports that only three persons pass through the mysterious ‘Gate of the Spirit’ in the Ogiamien palace, which must be broken in the night and sealed up the morning after.

Tradition has it that the ascending Oba of Benin would usually pass through the open door during his coronation.

“The wall is broken for the Oba to pass through and is sealed very early the following morning after the ceremony.” A curator and palace keeper told this writer.

History records have it that, Ogiamien Erebo signed a “peace treaty” with Oba Eweka to ensure harmony in the new kingdom.

Luckily, a remarkable part of this hereditary legacy is still standing tall in its original site on Sokponba road.

Nothing should hinder government from saving it from the incursion of those suffering from culture-degenerative-myopia.

Orobosa Omo-Ojo JP, former Special Adviser to Edo State Government on Arts, Culture & Tourism is a Journalist, Artist, founder – Tribal Heritage Centre and Museum House in Benin City

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