The newly crowned Oba of Benin, HRH Ewuare 11, flanked by chiefs and palace aides. (Photo courtesy Edo House)

[By Pelu Awofeso]

On our way to the King’s Square to witness the coronation of 40th Oba of Benin, HRH the crown prince Eheneden Erediauwa, Ediaken N’Uselu, my  guide Wajeed Obomeghie says it is important that I see the Holy Aruosa Cathedral, situated on Akpakpava Road.

“As far as I know, it is the only traditional church in the world,” he tells me as we walk down the road, passing life-size congratulatory banners and posters bearing images of the prince bedecked in brilliant white and red dresses and residents going in the opposite direction, towards the Square. “As a rule, services here are conducted strictly in Bini language. And it is here that the new king will worship on Sunday after he receives his staff of office today.”

The church’s walls, inside and outside, is white but its roofing is a deep shade of red. “It has not been changed in a long time,” Mr Obomeghie says as we step into the auditorium. Save for occasional voices, it is quiet here and feels almost like walking into a concrete cave.  Workmen are busy adding fresh coats of paint and new decor to the interiors. To make room for some of the work to be done, pews have been moved from their usual positions, to be re-arranged later on.

The setup is no different from the typical orthodox church. On the altar in the far distance, I see large bronze replicas of the Ada and Eben, symbols of the king’s authority.

Soon we’re on our way to the Square, which is already packed with residents and tourists; most of the people, I gather, have been here for at least four hours. There are barricades and armed security officials everywhere to manage the influx. The crowd is in constant motion, moving to situate themselves at the best spot possible so as to catch a good glimpse of the king when he takes his first walk into the palace, with an entourage of his chiefs and priests.

VIP guests–governors, diplomats, kings from  different parts of the country, billionaire CEOs and other celebrities–stream into a marquee, take their allocated seats and their presence announced by the comperes.

Spectators  follow the coronation proceedings from multiple giant display screens positioned around the King’s Square

Residents who couldn’t be bothered to leave their homes monitor the event on radio and television.  “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event and I am only too glad to be here,” one man says, his five-year-old son by his side. “During the coronation of the deceased king Oba Erediauwa in 1979, I was just a little boy. I knew something was happening around me but I was too young to grasp it. Now I know better.”

It’s a cloudy afternoon but it is unlikely to rain. Mr Obomeghie points to two monuments around the Square, erected in memory of past kings of Benin Kingdom–Omo N’Oba Erediauwa (1979-2016) and Ovonranwen Nogbaisi (1888-1897), possibly the most famous monarch in the history of the Benin Kingdom for reasons of the infamous British punitive expedition in the last year of his reign.

The Square–formerly known as Ring Road–was also named in his honour in 2014, the centenary anniversary of his death.

Everyone waits in anticipation of the king’s royal procession

The publicised coronation rights takes place over a fortnight, to terminate on the Sunday when the new king will participate in a thanksgiving service at the Holy Aruosa. It involves a series of rituals at various landmarks and shrines, including a stop at Use village “for the ceremony of choosing a name”, the name the king will adopt throughout his reign, a practice similar to what happens at the Vatican when cardinals choose a new pope. His given names becomes history.

Shortly, there is a long procession of a clan dressed in white wrappers and robes, many among them holding a bewildering array of traditional totems propped on wooden poles above their heads. “We are the ones who officially announce the king’s adopted title,” one of them tells me as they make their way to the palace.

The ones who consult with the king at the ceremony to choose a new name. (Photo courtesy Edo House)

I squeeze my way through the crowd, emerging minutes later some feet from the palace gates, where the excitement is on a higher decibel. A red rug stretches for several metres, separating onlookers on either side of the walkway; they sing, clap, dance and chitchat; smartphones in hand, they take pictures and  record videos of practically everything unfolding before their eyes.

Every now and then, a young boy sweeps sand and dirt off the rug every, while a posse of men wearing black t-shirts,  wrappers, cowrie-speckled head- and arm-bands, and wielding black bows and arrows patrol the vicinity to keep the crowd from stepping on the rug.

At first sight they look like a fearsome lot, but I soon realise that they are genial and only recreating a tradition that was once a key feature of the old Benin Kingdom. “We are freedom fighters and the king’s traditional guards, his police and soldiers,” one of them, Victor, tells me. “As it has been from time immemorial, we fight against the enemies of the Oba–we shoot them with the arrows and they die.”

Victor lets me in on the fact that the arrows are potent and the warriors take special care not to let them touch bystanders, especially the women. “If that happens, they may not see their menstruation again for the rest of their lives,” he says, looking in my eyes intently for a moment–as if for emphasis. I’m alarmed.

Not too far from where we stand, a band of women chant choruses in praise of Osalobua (the Bini word for God).

His Royal Highness, the Oba of benin, Ewuare 11 (Photo courtesy of Edo House)

Just before dusk, the royal procession marches towards the palace. The crowd, animated, press back and forth, jostling for prime position from where to watch the king take slow and measured steps towards his new home. I am pinned to an uncomfortable spot close to the wall nearby, unable to do much else other than to hold tightly to the rails so as not to stumble and be trampled.

A drone flits to and fro, buzzing noiselessly as it does. I try to imagine what the stampede would look like from its lenses. After all the traditional procedures are done with, it is announced that the king’s new name will be Ewuare 11.  In an instant there is an uproar, in and out of the palace.

“The events of today mark the end of activities prescribed by customs and tradition for my ascension to the revered throne of this ancient kingdom,” the king begins his coronation speech, paying tribute to his late father, the immediate past king, and his mother, who passed away decades ago. “The time-test, rancor-free succession process bequeathed to us in our customs and traditions, is a great tribute to farsightedness and wisdom of our forefathers and our people.”

The king then traces the ancestry of the Binis back to the 12th century, pointing out its historical and mythical links to Ile-Ife in Yorubaland, southwestern Nigeria. By so doing, he addresses a long-drawn dispute between both cultures but acknowledges the fact that history is not absolute and there may be “some differing views”.

“I therefore stand before you today as the 40th Oba of Benin, a direct descendant of Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa whom the Benin people of that era knew as Ekaladerhan, their self-exiled prince who later became ruler in Ile-Ife,” he says.

It is a subject Mr Obemeghie has tackled in his book, “The Benin-Ife Controversy“, published in 2013. “I spent the better part of a decade working on it, contacting all the authors whose writeups are collected in it for their approvals.”

On my way out of the Square, I hear locals discussing the king’s new title so passionately. “Ewuare 1 was a warrior, bold and fearless,” one says. “The new king is telling us that he is going to be fighting many battles in years to come.”