By Anote Ajeluorou
Most of the ancient architecture in sub-Sahara Africa usually made of mud, easily falls prey to the elements and begins to crumble after a few years. As such there are not many buildings that stand as legacy to a glorious African past. But the Binis of Edo State, especially the royal and priestly stock, stand as a contrast to this. The architecture of the ancient Binis stands as a testament to time, with their sturdy walls that defy the elements in their monumental but simple grandeur.
So that when filmmaker, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, decided to shoot a film on a proud African monarch, unarguably the last independent African king, Oba Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi, who resisted the British incursion into African affairs, titled Invasion 1897, he was raking up history. When he chose to use Enogie Eki Iyawe’s palace in Obazagbon in Ikpoba Okha Local Government Area on the outskirts of Benin City , as setting for the embattled Ovoranmwen, Imasuen was merely re-enacting the history of a displaced monarch in a palace he probably visited and which was left untouched by the invading British in their punitive expenditure of 1897.
At the Enogie of Obazabgon’s palace is this enduring architecture that stands visible and lonesome in its shinny red mud earth and low-hanging zinc rooftop in gazebo-like fashion. With modern brick houses springing up all around, Enogie Eki Iyawe’s palace is something of a picturesque delight. Slightly modeled after the sprawling Oba’s palace a few hundred metres from where it took root, Obazagbon’s palace is like a magician’s conjuration from the distant past. Within its walls, too, is part of ancient Benin history traceable to Oba’s royal palace just as it predates Oba Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi, who was infamously deposed in 1897 by the invading British imperialists.
It was Oba Osemwende, who in 1816 revoked the tradition prevalent at the time to execute his younger brother, Iyawe, who might nurse the idea of plotting to overthrow him. Oba Osemwende was said to have asked his chiefs if they would have their brothers killed for being made chiefs. A stalemate ensued. The reigning oba then wisely sent his younger brother away as Duke or Enogie to Obazagbon. That was how Enogie Iyawe built the current palace that will be 200 years old in 2016, and modeled after the royal palace from where he was sent to preside as Duke over the affairs of Obazagbon.
Enogie Eki Iyawe is the sixth Enogie in office in Obazagbon after five of his illustrious forebears had taken their turns. The first Enogie, Iyawe has his nephew, Adolo, succeeding his brother, Osemwende, who spared his life and gave him a dukedom to preside over; and it was from Adolo that Ovoranmwen succeeded as Oba in 1888, and which reign was brutally terminated in 1897. After a period 17 years’ interregnum, Oba Eweka II was allowed to mount the throne by the British in 1914 and reigned till 1933 when he was succeeded by Oba Akenzua II and from whom the current Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokplo, Oba Erediauwa I ascended the throne in 1979.
BUT these are not the best of times for Enogie Eki Iyawe and his ancient palace, which was officially approved a National Monument in 2011. With this significant move by the National Commission for Monuments and Museums (NCMM), the ancient edifice ought to be receiving a subvention for its upkeep and further expansion so as to attract tourists.
Being one of the few old palaces that the British invaders in 1897 did not raze down, the Enogie’s palace at Obazagbon still possesses rare and ancient Bini artworks that are hidden from public eye. At the head of the enclosed courtyard of the palace where the Enogie still holds court is the Enogie’s shrine partly hidden from view with raffia palm fronds but from which bronze heads and other great artifacts can still be spied. Enogie Eki Iyawe said those are just a few of the huge stock of ancient art works his ancestors gathered that are locked inside from public view. The others, he said, are publicly displayed during Obazagbon festival once a year.
The young Enogie is worried at government’s neglect of the 198 years monument his forefathers left in his care. The outside walls and huge pillars have begun to crack in places close to the foundation level from wear and tear from the elements, which isn’t good for further longevity of this National Monument. There’s a need to strengthen and further protect the walls from the whether. Already Enobie Iyawe is looking to 2016 when his ancestral homestead would be 200 years old to really roll out the drums and celebrate.
But before then the Duke of Obazagbon is making a passionate appeal to the authorities that the status of National Monument conferred on his palace be made real rather than the mere paper work it is at the moment. But since government is slow in doing its part, he intends to transform the monument from its current form to an attractive place for tourism. He is working hard to build the surrounding landmass, essentially a forest, into a resort that would give accommodation and other variety of entertainment to guests.
Already, tourists, particularly foreign guests that visit the main Benin Museum at King’s Square, also visit his palace. Enogie Iyawe hopes that these early converts would form the first set of tourists to taste from the haven he has conceptualized. The chalets, according to Enogie Iyawe, would dovetail into the natural trees and vegetation to give it idyllic ambience, with the monkeys and other animals often frolicking among the trees in their natural habitat. He would also erect a Bush Bar that would serve local Edo cuisines and local brew to give it a truly African flavor.
For using his ancient palace as setting for one of the illustrious Obas of Bini, Oba Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi, titled Invasion 1897, Enogie Iyawe said Imasuen’s efforts are commendable and a good development. This is moreso as it dovetails into his plans to expose the tourism potentials of the structure to the world. It was also precisely why Imasuen chose to shoot his film at Enogie Obazagbon’s palace, a palace the deposed oba probably visited while he reigned over the vast kingdom.
Also a Bini man, it’s Imasuen’s belief that the Edo culture is yet to receive the global acclaim it rightly deserves. He attributes the low patronage of Edo culture to poor management of a rich cultural patrimony by government and those saddled with such responsibility. As the last independent king in sub-Sahara Africa, the fall of Oba Ovoranmwen was the bridge to present-day Nigeria. Had the Binis defeated the British, it invariably meant there would have been no Nigeria.
It’s in this light that Imasuen wants his film viewed, as it spotlights a great patrimony that is at the core of Nigeria’s existence. When the film opens in worldwide cinemas in October, Imasuen hopes that Invasion 1897 would help restore the glory of the Edo people and the antiquity value of such structures as the Enogie of Obazagbon’s palace. As a site that has survived for almost 200 years and now captured in an epic film of Invasion 1897 stature, the Enogie’s palace would naturally generate interest from the public with a view to experiencing and appreciating it as a historical marvel that it is and also for its artistic significance as encapsulated in the film.
In this light, Invasion 1897 is history couched in high art, and the 198-year old Enogie Obazagbon’s palace is a fitting place for history and art to collide for the re-enactment of a once flourishing, glorious and proud kingdom!