Saturday, November 15, 2008


Court life is full of maneuvering and jockeying for position, whether within Benin’s palace or at Washington’s White House. Benin’s history is replete with stories of chiefs who vied with one another, those who challenged the Ọba, or foreign rulers who dared to defy his will. Being at the palace exposes one to competitors and enemies, ready to use medicine and other weapons to bring disgrace or worse. When you put yourself forward as a great man, you must anticipate trouble and deviousness, and be ready to combat it. Rivalry may result in a few contentious moments, full loss of reputation, or complete triumph. In past centuries, war might ensue.

The Faithful Wife and Enemies of the State

Even before Ọba Ọzọlua died in the early 16th century, his two eldest sons had begun to jostle for the throne. Neither of these half-brothers had a clear claim to being the older, undisputed heir; the reporting of their birth order was in question. Chiefs began to align behind one or the other; a number of the Uzama, the so-called kingmakers, supported Arhuaran, while many others supported Ẹsigie. Civil war broke out. Ẹsigie defeated Arhuaran and went on to be crowned.

A number of the Uzama were very displeased at this outcome. One of their members, Chief Oliha, had been an Arhuaran supporter. The teenaged Ọba was well aware of his past activities and waited for an opportunity to retaliate.

During daily palace activities, in Oliha continually bragged to his fellow courtiers about his wife Imaguero. According to him, this beauty was the kindest, most faithful woman in Benin. The mischievous Ẹsigie devised a plan to put the disaffected Chief Oliha in his place. He called one of his lame porters, an elderly, low-born man, and gave him a few coral beads. With orders to tempt Imaguero, the porter set about his task.

Ọba Ẹsigie waited for an opportune moment when the chiefs were assembled and conversing. When Chief Oliha began to boast about his wife again, the king summoned his porter. In front of the entire assembly, he instructed the porter to tell the tale of Imaguero’s successful seduction for the sake of a few coral beads. Humiliated, Chief Oliha returned home and slew his wife. He then sent messengers to the Igala kingdom, promising them information and assistance if they invaded Benin and dethroned the Ọba. This led to the Idah war, which Benin won. You don’t fight the palace!

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