An encounter with Oba Ewuare II, the Oba of Benin, is an exciting one. It is a worthwhile adventure every tourist or lover of culture or student of history would die to have. During the encounter, one gets the royal father’s blessings and gains profound knowledge of his kingdom’s rich culture and tradition. The latter is like an excursion into the past.
However, this encounter comes with a price. For instance, the visitors must learn and accept to conduct themselves in a particular manner before the Oba or else the trip turns a misadventure.
This was part of the eternal lesson this correspondent learnt recently when the chance to visit Oba Ewuare II presented itself. It was like an opportunity that dropped straight from the skies, coming when the newly board members of the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR), Benin City, paid homage to the monarch.
That day, the NIFOR board members filed into the Oba’s palace, led by their chairman, Emperor Chris Baywood Ibe, an oil and gas player representing Enugu State. With him were Dr. Sylvester Ameh Agada, representing Benue State; Alhaji Solum Wakilbe, from Borno State; Mr. Lawrence Nwezze from Ebonyi State; Mr. Ben Kure, Kaduna State; Chief Wole Arowomale, Oyo State; Husami Aliyu Garko, representing Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria; and Dr. Charles Aisagbonhi, acting director/CEO, NIFOR, and his staff, among others.
Earlier, the board members had visited Mr. Godwin Obaseki, the Edo State governor, but were told that he had gone out of his office on an assignment.
For the first-time visitor, a trip to the Oba’s palace is no less a tourist trip. The arena is expansive, housing an array of buildings from the ancient to the modern. The palace is tucked deep in the heart of Benin City and has been there for ages.
Every day, it was learnt, the Oba’s palace plays host to thousands of guests, from Bini indigenes bringing up communal issues to government and company officials desiring royal blessings before commencing work in Bini Kingdom. The palace also receives crowds of foreign tourists.
Once cleared to see the Oba on his throne, guests go into an exclusive zone fenced with some welded metal mesh, with men of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) ready to restrain any erring person.
Guests are ushered into an open pavilion, where other individuals and groups are seated waiting. It is like a departure lounge. Then, a palace functionary lumbers in, wearing all-white apparel, a robe upon skirt and a long, yellow beaded necklace that every Bini chief wears around his neck. He announces a set of strict rules all must obey or be shipped out.
“The moment you come into the Oba’s presence,” he thundered, “first, you must kneel down. Then you let out a howler ‘Oba ghato kpere!’(Long live the king). Just before you speak, you rob your palms together and howl again ‘Oba ghato kpere!’”
He then went on to announce the rest of the rules; of course, all cell phones must be switched off. Guests must rehearse the rules until the palace functionary is satisfied that he has been understood.
There is this aura of serenity that clearly envelops everyone he comes face-to-face with the Oba and his chiefs. After paying him compliments, all take their seats. Then the announcer introduces guests.
On this occasion, officials of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), Edo State Command, were present; they were granted waivers because of their uniform. No one else gets that. When it is the turn of any group, its members introduce themselves.
Rising from his seat, the NIFOR board chairman, Emperor Baywood Ibe, began to speak: “Your Majesty, I’m honoured to be here as the head of this Federal Government delegation. I also bring you greetings from Enugu State. I’m a businessman, a believer in the Nigerian project and a youth advocate.
“We are here to honour you. We are here to seek your support in reviving NIFOR.
“You will recall that, a long time ago, the Malaysians came here and picked some palm seedlings with which they developed their own oil palm industry. Today, Malaysia and some other countries in the world have overtaken Nigeria in palm produce production and export.
“But I’m happy that the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is committed to changing the current face of agriculture in the country. And we believe that we can start with NIFOR.
“We are here to seek your royal blessings to revive oil palm in the country and push it to be next after crude oil in terms of earnings. This could have been achieved long ago if not that the sector was neglected.
“I have been in the oil and gas industry in the past 28 years; I’m confident that we can turn NIFOR around the same way government has turned around rice production via the Anchor Borrower’s Scheme. We can deploy business ideas and achieve this through the co-operation of stakeholders. I’m sure that we can make a lot of difference.
“We can grow NIFOR to employ additional 1,000 more skilled and unskilled workers. This will mean a lot of wealth creation. And I’m sure we can realise this.
“I’m also sure that we can make NIFOR a tourism destination by building a farm settlement, rather than the bush we currently have there. In doing this, we need the support of the state government; we need an enabling environment and your support too.”
After Ibe’s speech, the head of the chiefs presented kola nuts and spirits as a symbol of goodwill and hospitality. He offered the NIFOR board chairman some spirit and asked him to sip from a glass cup and he did.
When the Oba began to speak, his voice kept ringing out, reverberating all around.
“I welcome you and your formidable board members on behalf of the chiefs and the royal family, and thank you for this visit.
“When you said that you were from Enugu State, I figured out that you might not know my connection with Enugu. I had my primary school at St. Patrick’s Primary School, Asata, Enugu; I still have fond memories of the school.
“Then when you introduced yourself as an emperor, a titled you said you received in Ethiopia, I never knew that after late Emperor Haile Salessor, they also gave out similar title to a Nigerian. Thank you for showcasing the Nigerian image in that country.
“I’m happy that you are committed to turning around things at NIFOR. While you spoke, you touched on very interesting things about the agency, which I will be happy if you will address.
“I want to thank the Federal Government for constituting the board of NIFOR, which was long overdue. At the same time, I wish to appeal to you and the Federal Government to consider providing jobs through NIFOR and other agencies for the teeming youths who have no jobs, especially the ones that were brought back recently from Libya, as a way of alleviating their current plight. I plead with the Federal Government to also encourage them to set up small-scale businesses of their own,” he said.
The Oba also expressed his readiness to work with the new NIFOR board and government in bringing about a change of fortune at the agency.
“I would advise the Federal Government to reach out to international agencies, especially the one I know in Brazil, so as to bring about improvement in the oil palm sector through research and constant brainstorming. You can facilitate an improvement at NIFOR through improved collaboration. I task your formidable board to work towards realising this.
“The need for things to change at NIFOR is our collective duty, bearing in mind that it was from here that Malaysia picked its first set of oil palm seedlings decades ago. That is why I want the place resuscitated.”
He tasked the board to draw up a road map so that all the stakeholders would not work in the dark, pledging that he was prepared to look at the document himself and to make useful contributions with a view to improving on grey areas, should there be any.
As the delegation filed out from the Oba’s presence, there was a sense of awe about the monarch around everybody, with his voice seemingly echoing and resonating with royalty and authority. These evoked a clear feeling of emotion, leaving everyone quietly pondering over how deeply embedded the Bini Kingdom is in its age-long culture and tradition.