By Sinafi Omanga
As a serving Corper with the Nigerian Observer Newspaper, I walk pass the magnificent Oba of Benin’s palace on my way to work from the popular Ring Road Junction. Each time I sight the palace, I would have a reverberant curiosity of how the palace looks like on the inside. I imagined that the palace most hold a lot for my curious mind.
Alas, dreams come true and I was at the Oba’s palace last week for the Ugie Ododua Festival with my other senior colleague reporters. It was exciting to be where I had longed to be. Enquired what the festival is about and an elderly man in the audience replied that it was a ceremony for the purification and sanctification of the land, to ward off evil and appease the gods for bountifulness in the land.
To say that Benin Kingdom was and is still rich in cultural heritage is almost cliche. The vividity of the cultural cosmology of the Benin people is not only in the history books that we read but also the oral traditions and customs of the people give credence to their cultural aesthetics. A trip to Benin city will leave you with out a doubt of its cultural renaissance.
A few meter away from the Oba’s palace is the Benin National Museum which houses some of the finest arts and crafts of the Benin people. It serves as a tourist attraction to visitors seeking to know more about the ancient great Benin Empire.
The Ugie Ododua festival usually takes a period of fourteen days. The first seven days are observed as indoor activities while the later seven days are observed as public performances, the one we attended being the grand finale with dignitaries far and near in attendance. While the palace was crowdy, the atmosphere was solemn. As a cultural enthusiast nothing could be more gratifying than to witness the epic festival.
During the festival, seven Ododua masquerades dressed in red regalia come out in a single file from Ugha-Erhoba accompanied by members of the Iwebo Palace Society, chiefs Osague, Osa and Osuan of Benin Kingdom. Each of these seven masquerades represent a deity in the kingdom.
With unique drum beats, dance steps and incantations, each masquerade marched to the throne of the Oba ( King) to offer supplication and pay homage. The Benin people see the Oba as both political and spiritual head of the kingdom.
There were also the Ononges ( the dukes of the kingdom) and the members of the royal family who were all dressed in white paraphernalia. They all made obeisance to His Royal Majesty. I indeed feasted my eyes on the legendary display of culture.
Speaking of the historical background of Ugie Ododua festival, the Benin people trace the origin to Oba Eweka1 who used the festival to commomerate the successful return of Oramiyan the son of Ododua to his ancestral home, the Benin kingdom which also marked the return of of Obaship era after a period of interregnum.
“Today, the festival is celebrated at the instance of OmoN’ObaN’Edo, Aku Akpolokpolo to offer prayers to Ancestors for blessings and protection of Oba, members of the Royal family, chiefs and the entire people of the kingdom and beyond.” Remarked a titled chief.
But the sanctity of Benin Kingdom had suffered a setback in 1897 when the British colonial forces razed Benin City, massacring an unknown number of people and bringing a violent recess to the advancing civilization to the Kingdom of Benin, which had thrived for centuries as one of West Africa’s major powers. The invasion was to avenge the killing of an earlier force by the soldiers of the Oba.
There are records that during the raid, British troops looted at least 3,000 precious artifacts made by the Edo people, including ivory statues, carved elephant tusks, ceramics, masks, carved portraits of Obas (or kings) and their mothers, and more than 1,000 intricately decorated brass plaques that once adorned ancestral altars and court buildings in the city’s royal palace.
In the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests that re-echoed around the globe of injustices against the black people around the world, there is an invigorating call for the restitution of looted treasures from the African continent by the Western countries during the dark years of incursion and colonialism. Many museums and organizations across the Europe where these looted artifacts especially the Benin Bronzes are kept have heeded the call.
As reported by BBC in April, the German Culture Minister, Monika Gruetters has disclosed that “the first return of the looted treasures were expected to take place in 2022”.
The tragic retaliatory invasion of Benin Kingdom by the British government seemed to be the end of the once ebullient kingdom but we know that the history of mankind is replete with rise and fall or fall and rise as the case maybe. Benin rose again and about a century and half later, the sanctity of the people’s culture is still upheld with a stylish dignity.
Sinafi Omanga is a serving corps member with the Nigerian Observer.