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The Uzama

Edo History       Edo Empire & Civilization       Edo Mysteries       The Aruosa       Edo Ethos & Social Engineering

The Ogiso Dynasty      
After the Ogiso Dynasty       Oba of Benin Dynasty       Oduduwa's Controversy       Oba's Coronation        Palace Societies        Uselu        Uzama
 

 

The Uzama are the most ancient and the highest ranking order of Chiefs in Benin. The origin of Uzama dates back however to the era of Eweka I. In the thirteenth century. They perform the function of crowning the king, The idea that they make a king by crowning him may be correct but they do not choose a king as the Oyomesi of Oyo Empire who can make and unmake a monarch. Eweka I ordered that every Oba of Benin should be crowned by Chief Oliha, the most senior Uzama, because it was he who led the team of elders to Uhe (Ife) to persuade Izoduwa to return to Benin, to rule.

Oliha also performed a rare function of preserving the seven lice given to the team by Izoduwa for three years. No wonder he was given the appellation Ogele mun iru (he indeed preserved the lice). Today he is still called Oliha No Gele.  Izoduwa (Oduduwa) remembering the circumstances that led to his banishment refused to send his son. But after much persuasion, he agreed on the condition, that the people would subject themselves to, and pass a test of their ability to care for his son. The test was to give them seven lice to care for.


Oliha preserved them in the hair of his slaves for three years to the delightful surprise of Oduduwa. The other Uzama are Edohen, Ezomo, Ero, Eholo-nire, Oloton and Edaiken. Six of them were created by Eweka I, and made hereditary. The seventh, Edaiken, which is held by the eldest son of the Oba and Heir-apparent to Benin throne was the creation of Ewuare the Great. Immediately the Edaiken becomes Oba, the title of Edaiken automatically devolves on his eldest son.  So too any of the other Uzama titles when the holder dies. One of the Uzama, Oloton was one of the courtiers who accompanied Prince Oronmiyan from Ife. He was left in Benin among others to look after the young Eweka 1. This explains why he is the only Uzama who can be initiated into the Iweguae society. All other Uzama are initiated into the Iwebo society. The Uzama occupy unique positions outside the inner wall on the western side of Benin City. Of these Uzebu, Urubi and Uselu belonging to the Ezomo, Ero and Edaiken respectively are considerable villages. Idunmwoloton is a ward in Benin City, while ldunmwoliha, Idunmwedohen and ldunmweholo consist of little more than the immediate dependents of the Chiefs.

Each Uzama enjoys a large degree of independence in his own domain. He keeps a court with palace associations organized on similar lines to those of the Oba, though on a smaller scale. This does not apply to Oloton however because titles at ldunmwoloton are conferred by the Oba at the time of his installation. Some titles are still held at Uzebu, Urubi but the Palace societies have ceased to function. When the Edaiken moves to Uselu all the Palace societies are restored and begin to function just as those in the Oba Palace.  

Apart from this specific role of the Uzama during the coronation of an Oba, some of them had individual responsibilities in the past, With the advent of colonialism some of these responsibilities have since faded into insignificance. The Ezomo, for instance, was the senior war Chief or General. He was undoubtedly the wealthiest and the most influential of the Uzama. Ero was the guardian of the North-Western gate-way to the City and had some responsibility for the Edaiken and the Queen mother near whose Palace his own domain is situated. Oloton is the keeper of the shrine of Azama, at which special sacrifices are made at the naming of the Oba's eldest son and on other occasions. The Uzama therefore occupy a unique position In the social and political set up of the kingdom.

Oba Ewedo was crowned in about 1255 A.D. Prior to his coronation, he had become apprehensive of the power and influence of the Uzama who were almost equal to the Oba. He felt that the Uzama would constitute a great check to his political power, and so, to avoid this situation, Oba Ewedo decided to move the seat of his administration from Usama which was surrounded by the residence of the Uzama, to the present site of Oba Palace in the centre of the town. He made all necessary arrangements for the removal without informing the Uzama chiefs until the day of his coronation.

But alas the centre of the town he was moving to had as many powerful individual sectional leaders as the Uzama behind the moat. During the interregnum powerful individuals had sprung up and had carved out areas of influence for themselves all over the town centre. One of such powerful leaders was lsekherhe who laid claim to that part of the town surrounding the area now known as Ibiwe street. Another was Enekighidi of Ogbelaka off Sapele Road. The most powerful and leader of them all was Ogiamien whose father, Evian, had opposed the mission to Uhe in search of Ekaladerhan. And since post-interregnum Obas lived behind the moat, the town centre leaders felt reasonably secure until Oba Ewedo decided to move into their midst.  

On the eventful day, Oba Ewedo left Usama shortly after the ceremonies and the first of the powerful leaders he encountered en route was lsekherhe who refused to allow the Oba pass through his "territory". But after the Oba (who had a fowl hanging from his neck) had explained his mission Isekherhe let him pass but not before the Oba had paid Isekherhe a fee of a wife and the sum of "Ugiamwen" (equivalent to 65 kobo in modern currency). But the leader of them all, the powerful Ogiamien was waiting only a short distance away and he called on Oba Ewedo to return to where he came from.

The Oba explained that he was going to offer sacrifice with the fowl on his neck. But when Ogiamien pulled this off, the Oba and his followers became indignant. Fight broke out and Ogiamien fled but throwing a challenge to the Oba to meet him in battle at Ekiokpagha in seven days time. Ekiokpaha (Okpagha market) is situated along Sokponba Road near the St. Matthew's Cathedral Church.

In the subsequent engagement at Ekiokpagha, Ogiamien was defeated by the Oba. He later surrendered and made peace with the Oba. A symbolic treaty was established between them by which Ogiamien surrendered his claim to the ownership of land to the Oba to whom he also pledged loyalty. Ogiamien was in return made a Chief by the Oba and was allowed to retain his nick-name, Ogiamien, as a title and to retain authority over that part of the land he occupied subject to the superiority of the Oba.

The Isekherhe confrontation and Treaty of Ekiokpagha have since then become significant events in the coronation of every Oba of Benin. He has to cross a bridge and engage in mock quarrel with Isekherhe and Ogiamien in front of lsekherhe's house at lbiwe Street, and on the seventh day, engage in a mock battle with Chief Ogiamien at Ekiokpagha. It is also on record that Evian the father of Ogiamien had earlier tried to prevent Oronmiyan from entering the kingdom on his way from Uhe. But this attempt was foiled by a ferry man at Ovia river.  

Also at the time of Eweka I the son of Oronmiyan, a similar attempt was made by Ogiamien the son of Evian to prevent him from entering Benin City from Ego. War ensued between the people of Ego and Ogiamien at Isekhere leading to the defeat of the forces of Ogiamien. Therefore the engagement at Ekiokpagha between Ewedo and Ogiamien marked the final phase of the series of resistance put up by Ogiamien to prevent the establishment of the Monarchy in Benin City.