Iyoba Idia: The Hidden Oba of Benin

The task of piecing together women’s history has been difficult. So acute is the dearth of information, particularly documentary evidence, that some of the outstanding women in history have been mistaken for men and their achievements, attributed to male rulers!
— Bolanle Awe 1992, vi.


Present Benin history is the product of several reconstructions that commenced after the accession of Oba Eweka II in 1914. Two central problematics shaped these reconstructions, namely, the glorification drive of cultural nationalism, and the male privileging ethos of a patriarchal gender ideology. The cultural nationalist project of restoring Binis’ pride after the humiliating dissolution of the kingdom in 1897 meant that the first phase of historical reconstruction was steeped in romantic mystification, resulting in a literal account of history (Egharevba 1968, 1961, 1953, 1934; Akpata 1938, 1937). The second phase occurred within a scholarly convention and a view of history that devalued women through assuming their irrelevance in political matters (Bradbury 1973) and through focusing exclusively on European archival materials, giving scant attention to Benin oral and performative traditions (Fagg 1963, 1953; Ryder 1969, Sargent 1986).1 Because the two types of project with the exception of Sargent’s were undertaken during colonial times, they embody a gender ideology that affirmed men as the measure of all things.2 The scholarly paradigm of the second phase went much further in infusing Benin history with a strong masculine ethos that, in subsequent scholarship, shut down the possibility of claims that women had autonomy in old Benin (Okpewho 1998; Kaplan 1997, 1991; Curnow 1997; Mba 1982). Babacar M’bow’s injunction in the introduction of the catalog, Benin: A Kindom in Bronze, is relevant in reminding us that “African discourse on its art is a discourse of struggles that must be waged outside of the context of western epistemological hegemony.” Mindful that not just foreigners are ensnared by this hegemonic framework, we heed the injunction to move the boundary of discourse outside of this epistemological framework in which male hegemony is uncontested and men are the only subjects of history.

Relocating to an African epistemological framework requires us to adopt a different methodological strategy and to contest the ideology of male dominance. We approach historical evidence cautiously, considering various possibilities, centering African concepts and value-systems, and seeking justification for our interpretations. We question the view that the value system of Benin culture remained unchanged in the face of violent externally imposed, economic, political, and social changes (Kaplan 1997, 74). We reject unsubstantiated suggestions or any underlying assumption that sixteenth century Bini families resemble modern late twentieth-century “traditional” Benin families, or that the latter fundamentally reflect the Bini family of yesteryears (Emovon 1997; Kaplan 1997; Oronsaye 1995). Such a notion of stability is incongruent with the dynamic processes of change, the multipronged and multilayered impact of Christianity and Islam, the patriarchal sexist capitalist values of colonialism, and the white supremacist ideology of westernization on Benin society and the Edo family system since 1897.

An uncritical subscription to a static view of history propels scholars to miss the possibility that some of the initiatives, events, and acts that have been ascribed to an Oba in old Benin may, in fact, have been conceptualized, initiated, and implemented by an Iyoba (Mother of Oba ).3 The supposition that this could not possibly be true is based on the still unproven assumption that the gender ideology of the the sixteenth century is identical to that of the twentieth century and that only males were actors in Benin dynastic history. But oral tradition and the history performed in annual festivals, as well as the pioneering work of Bini cultural historian, Jacob Egharevba, falsify this assumption4

So what if, in the fluid political conditions of the expansion of the Benin empire, some of the initiatives that were attributed to Oba Esigie (1504-1550) were the initiatives of Iyoba Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie? No research has yet been done to exclude this possibility.5 Taking seriously the tales and legends about Idia that proliferate in modern day Benin City as well as the dramatized histories at the heart of the Igue, Emobo, Ugie Azama, and Ugie Oro festivals,6 this essay explores the relationship between Idia and Esigie in order to ascertain the influence of Iyoba Idia in Benin political affairs, and her role in bringing into fruition some of the major accomplishments that have been attributed to Oba Esigie. The questions the essay will answer are, what is the political significance of Idia in Benin dynastic history? Why was the Iyoba institution created? From where did Oba Esigie derive the idea of the institution? What political advantage did he gain from it? And why did Idia exert on him the kind of influence that she did?

Iyoba Idia’s visage is the most widely known face of an African royal woman after the Egyptian Queen, Ahmose-Nefertari or Nefertiti. Her face has gazed on us from countless museum pedestals the world over. It has been widely reproduced on commemorative trays, cups and plates, jewelry, ebony and brass plaques, and on textiles, specifically george materials of the Intorica and Indian Madras labels, wax design cotton prints, and tee-shirts.7 Idia’s face was immortalized in the sixteenth century ivory mask presently in the British Museum. It became famous when the Nigerian military government chose it as the emblem for the Second Black Festival of Arts and Culture, known as FESTAC ’77, that Nigerian hosted in 1977. The visibility of the mask increased when the British Museum refused to release it on loan to Nigeria even after demanding two million pounds, which the Nigerian government put up. The late Oba Akenzua II, then reigning Oba of Benin, broke the impasse by commissioning the Igbesamwan (ivory carvers guild) to produce two replicas of the Idia mask that had been looted by British soldiers of the 1897 punitive expeditionary force. The fine workmanship of the replicas established that modern Benin ivory carvers are consummate artists as were their forebears, and like the latter, responded with pride and reverence to the royal commission.

It is unclear if the Nigerian military government officials who approved the mask as the symbol of FESTAC 77 would have done so if they knew the face was that of a woman. There was a time scholars such as George Parrinder declared that the face belonged to an Oba (1967, 108). Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan explains that these kinds of interpretations were proffered because the Iyoba’s “sexuality is muted and rendered ambiguous in [Benin] art” (Kaplan 1997, 89; 1993, 55). While this may be true, the perception that these ivory masks depicted Obas’ also stem from two misguided assumptions: one is the European artistic convention of how females and female bodies should be rendered in art; and the second is the view of old Benin as “a society suffused with strong male ethos” (Kaplan 1993, 63) in which women did not command any power. The result of these two misconceptions is that figures that may have been female are described as male.

The identified Idia mask in the British museum, for which replicas were carved, is one of several such ivory masks commemorating Iyoba Idia looted by British soldiers after the 1896 Benin Expedition. These ivory masks were carved as memorials to Iyoba Idia after her death together with the cast copper alloy Uhunmwun Elao (or ancestral heads) that Oba Esigie commissioned the Iguneromwon (brass casters guild) to produce for his mother’s altar.8 These ivory face masks were typically carved with a chisel and file without any models or design. They are part of a collection of pendant plaques that Benin Obas’ wear around the waist during the annual Igue festival to strengthen the Oba and the Emobo ceremony that commemorates Esigie’s defeat of his brother, Aruanran. These belt pendant plaques were produced in the same historical period that the Igbesamwan was carving fine, intricately carved ivory tusks, saltcellars, daggers, and spoon for the Portuguese market (Bassani and Fagg 1988).9

The face on the FESTAC mask is Idia’s because of the two parallel vertical striations running down her forehead. Iron and copper inserts were embedded in these cavities in the original model and formed part of the decoration. Some have claimed that these cavities were receptacles for embedded magical potions, and there is a historical explanation for them. The striations were the result of incisions a local doctor-diviner made to disfigure Idia and render her unattractive to Oba Ozolua.10 As narrated by the present Oba Erediauwa, Idia’s parents did not wish her to become an Oba’s wife, and the oracle they consulted advised that they mar her beauty to make her ugly to the Oba (Kaplan 1993, 59). The two incisions not only scarred her face but, to make assurance double sure, they also contained potent medicinal potions which the consulting physician-diviner had assured them would repel Oba Ozolua. The royal explanation is that the plan failed because the Oba sensed that something was wrong before he even saw Idia and quickly neutralized the effects of the medicine.

As the illustration shows, that these ivory masks were meticulously carved with ornate designs that reflect the dignity of Iyoba Idia. Through their workmanship and designs, the Igbesamwan as well as the Iguneromwon visually celebrated Esigie’s reign as a period of expanded trade and diplomatic contacts with Portugal. They produced ivory sculptures and cast copper alloy works whose motifs of leopards, oba, warriors, Portuguese mustekeers, traders, Ohensa priests, mudfish forms, ibis (ahianmwen-oro or “bird of prophecy,” sometimes referred to in older texts as vulturine eagles), horses, ukh urhe (rattle staff), mirrors, and eben (ceremonial sword of state) spoke to the power, prestige and splendor of the times. The tiara of the mask in the British Museum (as well as a similar mask in the Metropolitan Museum New York) displays exquisitely carved miniature heads of Portuguese soldiers. These frame the crest of the Iyoba’s lattice-work, coral beaded cap. An intricate border frames the lower part of her face, made up of alternating images of Portuguese merchants and of deep ocean fish and heads, symbol of the god Olokun as well as the royal symbol of ocean-derived wealth and riches (Bassani and Fagg 154). By contrast, the equally exquisitely sculpted ivory mask in Linden Museum, Stuttgart is framed with fine, intricately carved miniature forms of deep ocean fishes. Like the fish design, the stylized Portuguese heads are integral to the overall design of this ivory pendant mask, and like the former, they proclaim the power, pomp and pageantry of Iyoba Idia, and the formidable presence of the then newly created Iyoba title in Benin political affairs.

A testimony of the enduring power of Idia’s political influence is that a replica of this mask continues to be worn by a reigning Oba during the main annual rededication ceremonies. Oba Erediauwa confirmed that of the two strings of ivory pendants he wears during the Igue festival and for the Emobo ceremony, one is the ivory pendant of the face of the Iyoba (Kaplan 1997, 93). The fact that the spirit of Idia, expressed through this pendant, still looms large over contemporary royal rites, leads us to ask, what really was Iyoba Idia’s true role in Benin political organization, and what exactly was the nature of her relationship to Oba Esigie.

Who is Idia?
The official story is that Iyoba Idia is the mother of Esigie, the Oba who reigned from 1504-1550. We do not know the exact date of her birth or death, but she was alive during the Idah war in which her army and war general secured a resounding victory for Benin (Oronsaye 1995, 61; Ebohon 1979, 60; Egharevba 1968, 28). An Edo woman, Idia was born in Ugieghudu, in the Eguae area of Isi (Oronsaye 35, 61 Egharevba 28). By the time she died, probably by the end of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, she had substantially altered Benin’s dynastic history as well as defined its course of history. For one, the victory over Idah not only eliminated it as a potential threat, but it also enabled Benin to gain and consolidate its imperial advantage in the north-south Niger river trade route that stretched all the way to the commercial centers of the Songhai empire and to the Atlantic ocean (Sargent 1986: 421-2). Secondly, she promoted and fought relentlessly to wrest the Obaship for Osawe (the personal name of Oba Esigie), an action that allowed Benin to reach its apogee. Before Esigie gained control of the imperial administration, and even after, she was the power behind the throne. Finally, the establishment of the institution of Iyoba (Mother of the Oba) not only accorded power to royal mothers in the running of the kingdom, most profoundly, it shifted the longstanding administrative protocol that conferred power to females from daughters, who are of royal blood, to wives, who are nonroyals.

Without Idia’s political savvy, it is doubtful if Esigie would have succeeded his father as Oba. This point is not made often enough even though her cultural inventions are freely acknowledged. Idia’s social and cultural accomplishments such as her invention of the Ekassa dance for royal funerals and the creation of the ukpe okhue or parrot beak’s Iyoba’s cap, have been recorded in numerous writings. In the political domain, she has also been credited for using her knowledge of the occult to seize the throne of Benin for her son (Blackmun 1991, 60-61) and to defeat the enemies of her son (Egharevba 1968; Kaplan 1997, 1993; Blackmun 1991). The yearly Orhu festival dramatizes the sacrificial food offering she made to help her son become Oba (Blackmun 1991: 60-61). Ceremonial rites of the Ugie Iye Oba festival assert that she drew on her esoteric knowledge to treat her son “during a fit of madness caused by the cursed royal beads he wrested from his older brother” (Blackmun 1991, 60). In oral and written literature, Idia emerges as an extraordinarily powerful personality who continues to loom large in Benin cultural imagination. She is extolled for “fighting with a double-edged sword” (Nevadomsky 1986, 44) and for being “the Womb of Orhue” (pure white kaolin clay) (Ikpomwosa Osemwengie personal communication in Blackmun 1991, 59).

The tributes and accolades to Idia draw attention to her various actions in the service of Benin, but in a random, disconnected way that mutes the audacity and far reaching nature of her achievements. If these were all brought together to build a composite picture, a magnificent portrait of a shrewd political actor and a substantive Oba would emerge. Scholars have explained that Idia earned the accolade “womb of orhue,” because she was a mother who gave birth to an Oba (Kaplan 1997 and Blackmun 1991). But this is only half the story. She was “womb of orhue” because she gave birth to a son who, although was chronologically the third in line, dramatically ended up becoming the Oba of Benin. But much more importantly, this womb created her pathway to ultimate power. Herein lies the specialness of her womb. It was a womb that defied all odds, halted the femicide of mothers of obas, and radically transformed Benin empire.

A series of events brought about Esigie’s accession. First, Esigie was named the second son at birth even though he should have been declared the third son. Aruanran (sometimes spelled Arhuanran) , the son of Oloi Ohonmi had been born earlier in the day before Esigie. Yet, Esigie’s birth was officially announced to the Oba before Ohonmi’s son enabling him to claim second place. Next, Esigie moved up in line to first place when the first son, Ogidogbo, lost his obaship rights. He had fractured his leg in a competition with his two younger brothers, Aruanran and Esigie, and became a cripple (Egharevba 25). Although this tragedy was represented as an unfortunate mishap, a case of children competing against each other, many at the time saw Idia’s hand behind it. For them, this surreptitious mode of altering physical reality from a supra physical level represents Idia’s mode of fighting on two planes. It also signified her double-edged sword that could both create or wreak havoc.

If we treat these testimonies of oral tradition and the performances of the Ogbelaka (royal bards) as coded representations of history, then what they are stating metaphorically are the sorts of rapacious palace intrigues that Idia was involved in, even before she attained supreme power. The two stories of Esigie’s path to power allude to usurpations of the principle of primogeniture in which Idia was the central actor and beneficiary. To switch the order of births in the royal palace in order to bring herself closer to power was no mean feat. It required political savvy, extensive political connections, phenomenal coordinations, and deep collusion with a network of critical actors—women ritual specialists in the palace, the Okaerie who trains the new iloi (royal wives’ residence), the Eson or first wife whose duty is to manage the erie (palace), titled wives, the Ibiwe and other key palace chiefs such as the Uwangue and Osodin who looked after royal wives and their children, and cared for them when they were pregnant.

Although the principle of primogeniture had not yet been instituted in Benin at this time, royal wives needed to promote the candidacy of their sons by eliminating potential competitors. The elimination of Ogidogbo as the first son dramatically improved the chances of Idia’s son becoming the next Oba. Idia’s role in this nullification was not lost on Aruanran whose enmity towards his brother intensified that he tried to assassinate him. A noted warrior and conqueror of the fierce town of Okhumwu, Aruanran was bigger and stronger, and could easily have trounced the weaker Esigie, whom Oba Ozolua had sent to attend the Portuguese mission school after his baptism (Ryder 1969, 50). Aruanran’s assassination attempts could have succeeded were it not for Idia who was reputedly skilled in magical arts and whom he knew was a formidable opponent he had to overcome. Realizing he had to acquire supernatural powers if he wanted to take on Idia who was her son’s spiritual protector, oral tradition recounts that Aruanran retreated to Uroho village to learn the art of black magic from an old sorceress, Iyenuroho (Okpewho 1997, 21; Egharevba 25). That he chose a woman as teacher is clear recognition that his opponent was a woman, and that he had to learn the ways of women’s mystical powers to be assured of victory. We should note that it was Esigie’s possible lack of combat experience, the result of having to attend the school of Portugese missionaries, rather that join his father in fighting wars, that explains why Idia had to lead an army to war to ensure that Benin soldiers fought valiantly against the Idah army.11

One could argue that the range of forces that led to Esigie being named the second born were completely outside Idia’s control given that at the time she must have been a young inexperienced girl. It would be far easier to lay the blame at the door of politically experienced palace officials who must have promoted her interests for their own personal gains. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it robs Idia of her agency and reduces her to an object of exchange and manipulation. It also falls foul of a patriarchal line of thinking that assumes that the past mirrors the present, that men are in total control, and that royal wives then were passive, submissive beings they are today. Sandra Barnes makes a valid point when she cautions scholars to always recognize women’s subjectivity, namely, “their ability to play active, competitive, and even conflictual roles in public affairs” (1997, 4). The emphasis on Idia’s naivety too readily assumes that men were always in control political and social affairs without considering the possibility that there were numerous women centers of social, political and spiritual powers in sixteenth-century Benin palace. It totally ignores too that Idia may have allied with older, more experienced iloi (royal wives) and ritual female specialists in the palace who were responsible for shielding the Oba from witchcraft. It could very well be that her fellow iloi were terrified of her precocity and cowed by her magical powers.

Moreover, we do not know whether Esigie was born to a mature or a young Idia, but we do know that she was “a beautiful and strong willed woman”(Oronsaye 1995, 61) whose biographical sketch reveals that she had been medicinally fortified before her marriage to the constantly warring and constantly absent Oba Ozolua. Even if Idia was a young woman, she was not a naïve one at that; she possessed skills which few people had. Besides, we must not forget that girls emotionally matured faster than boys and in that historical period were prepared early in life for their future role as wives. So even if Idia was a young girl, she was not clueless. Constant references to her occult powers in oral accounts suggest, not that she was being used by male palace chiefs, but that by virtue of these powers, she was reasonably well connected with all the key players and powerful figures in Oba Ozolua’s erie (royal wives residence). It is not inconceivable that she may have had excellent relations with the Uwangue and Osodin, and other palace officials some of whom or their mothers’ may have come from her Ise district.12 But even if these groups were promoting her interests for their own personal objectives, to the extent that she chose to align her interests with theirs, she astutely protected these interests to achieve her own objective. She has displayed her subjectivity and agency and we must acknowledge that fact.

Idia entered the royal household after she caught the fancy of Ozolua during a dance performance in the capital (Oronsaye 61). Once the Oba initiated the marriage process, her parents knew she would become an Oba’s wife and eventually took the precaution of medicinally seasoning and “cooking” their daughter for her future life. This preparation strengthened her to cope with whatever vicissitudes palace life would throw at her. The “strong willed” Idia and her parents would have surmised that life as an Oba’s wife may be tumultuous, but was indeed an excellent route to power and wealth. It would have made sense for them to take advantage of all the excellent opportunities it offered to advance their Ugieghudu family and Idia’s own personal line.

Restoring agency to a sixteenth-century oloi, royal wife, is crucial since it enables us to reevaluate contemporary rationalizations that are used to portray women, and such a woman in particular as passive objects of exchange. One of such rationalizations is the explanation offered about the marks on Idia’s forehead. What today is being described as a failed attempt to prevent her marriage to the Oba masks the sixteenth-century social scheme in which the Oba was the most powerful figure in that universe; and in which it makes no sense for any girl or her parents to rebuff his marital overtures. Second, this concealment of the social scheme enables twentieth-century chroniclers to hide that Idia’s supernatural powers and medicinal knowledge were enhanced through initiation; hence ensuring that this act of Idia was not emulated by contemporary oloi. Thirdly, the fact of initiation establishes why we should not hastily write off Idia as an ignorant slip of a girl who was politically clueless and unprepared for palace intrigues. The initiation reveals a family’s politically ambitious response to the Oba’s interest in marriage, and to a daughter schooled in the science of esoteric laws. Yes, Idia’s family would have been thankful that their daughter’s ehi (guardian spirit or destiny) dealt her a good hand but it was up to them to ensure that she stood out from the countless other iloi amassed in the erie (royal wives’ residence).

The trouble with the official story of Idia’s facial scarification is that it promotes the omniscience of Oba Ozolua and all other Oba’s in history. Although the goal is to protect the Oba from poisoning, psychological control, or some other dreadful act by a wife, today it works to cow oloi and to enthrone the ideal of a good wife as unambitious and submissive. It discourages the very real possibility that a future wife may be strong willed and ambitious enough to look to her marriage as an avenue to power. She may then try to fortify herself medicinally and psychically before she becomes a royal wife. Obas and Ibiwe chiefs are well aware of the danger such a strong, force-filled, and knowledgeable woman poses to their power. Once she has completed such an initiation no antidote, short of death or madness, could reverse the knowledge acquired or close off the expanded consciousness.

The Importance of Magical Prowess

A knowledgeable person is a reflective being. Idia’s successful entrance into the royal palace meant that she came with an elevated consciousness that situated her in an empowered, knowledgeable position. African religion scholar, Jacob Olupona, explains that in early African cultures, the “ability to display magical prowess and medicinal knowledge . . . were viewed as signs of bravery and valor when channeled towards the benefit of the community”(1991, 29). Bradbury reinforces this point when he contends that “the sanctity of the king’s authority lay in acceptance of his ability to control those mysterious forces on which the vitality of [Benin] society depended (1973, 75). These explanations remind us of other ways power is conceptualized in certain cultures and in different historical times. Where today economic power is the route to political power, in old Benin, magical prowess was a well trodden path to political power and riches. The case of Okpota, the famed Ishan ritual specialist and doctor in Oba Ozolua’s court is a case in point (Egharevba 24). Power is not always conceptualized in physical terms to be used and forcefully applied over others. Supernatural power is preferred, revered and feared because of the mysterious way in which it works. Insubstantial, unseen, and hidden, only a ritual specialist who understands its operative principles can manipulate physical and material reality to produce desired effects.

Possession of supernatural knowledge bestows power, because one becomes an unseen causal agent. Possession of this power is not determined by gender but on how psychically strong one is. Herbalists, doctors, ritual specialists, and priests were not all men in Oba Ozolua’s time as the case of his oloi, Enaben, “a great sorceress” attests (Egharevba 24). Women ritual specialists and priestesses were as powerful as their male peers, if not more powerful, which is perhaps why they were the one who had the onerous task of psychically protecting the Oba against witchcraft. Centering African experience allows us to see that the force of an Oba’s supernatural powers was politically crucial for “the multitudinous ritual functionaries who were directly beholden to him, and by the chiefs whose authority, in the eyes of the people, derived from him” (Bradbury 1973, 75). It also allows us to integrate this category of magical prowess into our interpretive framework even if it disrupts the dominant empiricist framework of scholarship that dismisses anything metaphysical or supernatural as nonsensical. Acknowledging that possession of esoteric knowledge was important in the social and political universes of ancient Benin, enables us to understand Esigie’s investment in Idia’s prowess since the supernatural arena is the realm in which real power resides.

For the sixteenth century historical period, the ability to display magical powers was crucial and was tied to political survival. The greatness of Oba Ewuare was substantially based on his reputed skill as a magician and doctor as well as on his skills as a warrior. Ozolua’s reign as a warrior-Oba was consolidated and extended with the help of ritual specialists including Okpota. The same was required of Oba Esigie when he needed to gain control of the throne and win the Idah war. In order to firmly assert his authority in the kingdom so soon after his accession, he had to be an adept manipulator of mysterious supernatural forces, or he needed to be seen as having the resources to do so. Idia provided this invaluable component to his reign, knowing his limitations in this area and knowing that ferocious hostile forces were arraigned against him. Her charms, magical prowess, and supernatural powers were deployed for the administration of Benin empire.

Idia came to the palace fortified with her medicinal knowledge and magical powers as her war dress for the 1515-16 battle indicated. According to the royal bards, on her head was a distinctive coral war crown peculiar to her alone. Resting on her forehead was “ugbe na beghe ode, eirhu’ omwan aro,” a charm with four cowries that ensured any oncoming stone or missile will not blind her. On the back of her head was “iyeke ebe z’ukpe,” the charm known as boomerang. On her neck was “iri okina” (precaution rope) with four leopard teeth tied to it. The rope reminded her to be careful and to avoid danger. On her chest was “ukugbavan” (a day belt) designed to ensure that whatever the nature of the problem dawn will always come. Hidden under it was “uugba igheghan odin,” the belt of dumb bells used to hypnotize her enemies while her “ukugba igheghan” (the belt of bells) jingled to frighten enemies.

Because of the nature of warfare in that historical period and the difficulty of setting up a camp to cook, it was crucial for Idia to have “ukugba ohanmwen,” a hunger protector that prevented her from feeling hungry. Underneath her loin cloth was the twin medicines. The first was, “aidede okherhe vb’igban” (you don’t embrace a young oil palm tree full of thorns) that erected a psychic barrier to prevent enemies from daring her; and the second was “atete iwi y ogho” (a traditional tray never gets lost while being used for hawking) that guaranteed her safe return. All of the enumerated medicinal items were propped by “ukugba ason” (the sacred belt of the night witches) to accord her victory over enemies. Mystics were aware that unless the forces of the night ruled in one’s favor, one will never win. The various packets of charms were sewn, hooked and fastened to the war dress made from the full skin of a mature leopard with the head, fore and hind legs completely intact to make her invincible to accident and defeat, and also to scare enemies away. Two “agbada” (daggers) hung in their sheaths on the two sides of her hips. She had three “ifenmwen obi” (amulets) and poisonous arrows on her left arm known as “ebei k’awe y’ uhun erhan” (danger never meets the Awe bird while perching on a tree). On her right hand is the “etebetebe” (the war sword) and a charm seized from an herbalist sent by the Attah (king) of Idah to spy is on her left hand.

Idia’s outfit and entourage would evoke the scene of standard sixteenth century war bronzes since sexuality is ambiguously rendered in Benin art. It is crucial to make this point to underscore that it would be difficult for present-day viewers to easily differentiate between male or female personages in battle gear in royal plaques. Because sexuality in Benin artistic practice prior to the twentieth centry was muted, Western and twentieth century Nigerian assertions that figures in sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Bini plaques were male are typically based on assumptions and hypothesizations of male dominance in history. Yet, in the depiction of important historical events, the Igbesamwan and Iguneromwon of the period were not concerned about anatomical sex as they were about projecting the power, pomp and awesomeness of the personage. With this information as a backdrop, we have to recognize that since the customary mode of dressing for both men and women in the aforementioned historical period were wrappers, this would make the battle dress of a male general indistinguishable from a female general.

Iyoba Idia went to war as Iyoba and a general; not as a woman! The medicinally fortified belts and sashes she, like other generals, wore for protection would be the focal point of interest for the Igbesamwan and Iguneromwon, not her breasts, which like that of other male generals, would have been covered by the range of accoutrements, belts and sashes they all wore. It bears restating that there is a crucial difference between Western and Benin artistic frameworks. Unlike standard European artists and sculptors who created in a hyper-sexual infused framework, the artictic concern of the Igbesamwan and Iguneromwon was not sexual titillation, breast objectification, or realistic anatomical representation. They sculpted in broad strokes depicting concepts, symbols, official roles, and cryptic historical scenes. Prior to Idia’s invention of the Iyoba’s parrot beak coral hat, she would have had to wear a coronet of coral beads and coral bead shirt that signifies her royal status (Bradbury 1961, 129). Thus, in battle, her outfit would have resembled that of an oba, and artistic focus would have been placed on the office and the warrior, not on the female body.

As the grand protector of the kingdom, Idia’s powers were particularly crucial during the major military challenge Esigie faced as a new Oba. The Idah army was on its way to the capital. The fratricidal accession battles had left behind a fragmented army and dispirited Bini soldiers. Matters were not helped when the ibis, conceived as a bird of prophesy, flew over the soldiers marching to battle shrieking and flapping its wings. The rattled royal diviners predicted military disaster and urged retreat, but resolute Idia drew upon her strength and reputation in supernatural powers and neutralized their prediction of doom. Closely heeding the counsel of his mother who was on the battlefield with her own army, Esigie (probably Idia) ordered the bird to be shot. Fortified by her powerful presence, and at her urging, Esigie rallied his dispirited soldiers to a victorious battle.13 Idia’s role here is not unlike the role of the Omu (female monarch) of Aboh whose magical shield and war canoe always led Aboh soldiers to war, and without which they would not fight (Ekejiuba 1992, 102-03; Nzimiro 1972).

Ritual knowledge was extremely important in sixteenth-century Benin political administration as well. An Oba was supposedly divine, and the stability of the empire depended on his spiritual strength and power for which a vast array of rituals were performed. Against this background of the importance of magical prowess, we begin to grasp the importance of Idia to Esigie’s political administration. Lacking those sorts of powers himself, he entrusted his mother to supernaturally protect him. He trusted her completely, knowing that she was his main ally and that she would not betray him. He relied on Idia’s metaphysical powers to clear away all psychic and physical obstacles and impediments, which presumably freed him to attend to other matters within his area of competence. The information Idia gained from her visionary insight and supernatural powers enabled her to offer better political counsel, to amplify his omniscience and omnipotent qualities, to enhance the awesomeness of his divinity, and to make his reign much more outstanding. Where his warrior father, Oba Ozolua was unsure about trade with the Portuguese, Esigie, the political strategist, was comfortable with expanding Benin’s trade with the Portuguese having been taught by them. He confidently defined the terms of external trade to suit Benin’s national and imperial objectives, rebuffing Portuguese demands for slaves, by limiting its export (Ryder 1969, 45). Sargent contends that this embargo on slave export, the result of deep psychic insight and a long-ranged vision, “was striking evidence of Benin’s paramount concern for legitimate commerce and elite exploitation of the legitimate aspects of east-west , north-south, and European coastal trade potential” (1986, 418).

Contemporary theorists and scholars continually understate the importance of testimonies from Benin oral tradition that speak about Idia’s supernatural powers. We rarely accord them the requisite weight they deserve and the impact they had in political affairs of the time. Working within an empiricist framework of knowledge, we fail to appreciate that these were crucial powers for holders of any political office, and that Idia’s possession of them gave her superordinate rights and allowed her to participate in political decision making. We know that Esigie did not possess this power and, while he had royal diviners, priests and priestesses who attended to spiritual matters, he leaned heavily on his mother. He relied on her to cross-check the veracity and accuracy of their spiritual recommendations as she had done in the field of battle. Even in present-day Benin, Idia’s possession of these powers are celebrated, indicating that every Bini indigene knew that she used it for political affairs for the enhancement and glory of Benin. Remarkably, in spite of the modern gender ideology in place in contemporary Benin, current day Binis still understand and appreciate that this is why Idia was such an important factor in Oba Esigie’s reign. An appreciation of this point by theorists and scholars of Benin is crucial for understanding why it is misguided to frame Idia’s through a western framework that exclusively construes women as wives, and that envisions them as nonthreatening and apolitical, and structurally relegates them to a subsidiary position.14

Reconceptualizing Iyoba

Contemporary evaluations of Iyoba Idia tend to underscore her role as royal wife (and mother). Kaplan contends that an Iyoba’s power was rooted in her success in childbearing, in bringing forth the reigning Oba, and in ensuring the continuity of the family and the state. In other words, it is because Idia fulfilled her roles as wife and mother that Esigie created the title of Iyoba to honor and reward her in her lifetime so she will remembered thereafter (Kaplan 1997, 59). If this is true, then this office of Mother of Oba should have been created not for Idia, but for Erinmwide, daughter of Osanego, the ninth Onogie of Ego, and mother of the very first Benin oba, Oba Eweka I. She was more deserving of the title for she is the Edo anchor of the Eweka dynasty. The fact that this was not done for Erinmwide, or in her name, or for previous iye obas (mother of Obas) indicates that maternity per se was not the rationale or basis for the creation of the office of Iyoba.

This qualification does not mean that motherhood is unimportant or disconnected from the office. Rather, what it states is that we have to make a clear distinction between the political office of Iyoba and the material fact of being an iye oba or Oba’s mother. The distinction may seem unimportant since the occupant of the office is the Oba’s mother. Indeed, the convergence of the two states makes it difficult to separate the political institution; but there is a radical difference that the focus on being a mother obscures. The creation of the Iyoba title was compelled by sociopolitical conditions of the time which will be explored latter. As a political office with a court, chiefs, and retinue, the office of Iyoba was a political experiment that constitutionally modified the previous or old political system. This modification created and made provisions for the category of Supreme Motherhood, in which the occupant of the office functions as the Mother of the Nation. The political powers that were vested in this office were not parallel to that of the Oba, who created it, or equal to the Oba’s power. Because the moral and social authority of a mother supersedes that of her offspring, the moral, social, and spiritual powers of Iyoba superseded that of the Oba because the Omo (child) is subordinate to the parent. Thus, if the Oba was the spiritual embodiment of Edo people, the Oba n’Osa (An Oba who is god to his subjects), and the Uku Akpolokpolo (The mighty one that rules) of Benin, the Iyoba was Iy’Oba n’Osa (The Mother of the Oba who is god to his subjects). Note that on this scheme no father exists!

The office of Iyoba defines a position of supreme moral authority and power. Officially, the occupant of the office was the Supreme Mother of the nation as well as the political mother of the Oba. While she supersedes him by virtue of her womb and maternal role, she does not need to threaten nor undermine his political powers. Rather she shores it up, strengthens it, and functions as his strong political and moral center while guaranteeing his safety in the turbulent politics of the kingdom. For all this to work constitutionally, an iye oba’s maternity has to be transformed and radically reconstituted at the supranational level so that the occupant is no longer an individual with a personal history. This transmutation is required because the individual to whom she was his mother no longer exists. He has ritually died, and been reborn in a divine state as Oba, and exists as the soul of the nation. The political accession of an Oba paves his way into divinity, and his mother, if alive, would equally undergo a similar transformation to continue the task of nurturing the soul of the nation. Thus, on accession to office, an Iyoba metamorphoses into a boundless fluid state in which she assumes, embodies, and becomes the collective histories of past occupants of the office as well as of the spiritual mother of the Oba and all Edo people. Creating the office of Iyoba, may be Idia’s and Esigie’s way of constitutionally enshrining and centering Erinmwide or the Edo component in the making of the second dynasty. Whatever the implications, the office was created on the basis of the qualities Idia brought to government.

This clarification is important not just because it tries to grasp the philosophical worldview underpinning the creation of the Iyoba office, but because it explains why occupants of the office should not be represented as “queen mothers.” Such a representation diminishes their stature and power in that it amplifies their royal wife (queen) identity that is not part of the political rational underpinning the institution or of the rituals transforming an iye oba into Iyoba. The state of wifehood introduces an unacceptable incestuous relationship between the Oba as “soul of the nation” and Iyoba as “mother of the nation” that is not part of the spiritual transcendence and divine conceptualization of Iy’Oba n’Osa. The trouble with accounts of the Iyoba as “Queen mother” is that they are too closely tied to the sexualized, empirical, male supremacist mode of thinking that sexualizes social relationships and is used to secure gender ideology. This western epistemology misses the spiritual symbolism that is central to the processes of transformation enacted in African rituals and rites of initiation and governance.

Although located within a western epistemological framework and she used the term “queen mother,” Barbara Blackmun’s portrayal of Idia is closer to the historical figure because she stresses the skill and knowledge resource that Idia brought to office (1991). She acknowledges Idia’s status as a mother without circumscribing her potentialities; she correctly explains that the most admired feature of Idia is her knowledge of the occult; but she does not explore the political implications of the concept of Iyoba and the Iyoba’s office for the kingdom of Benin. Although Blackmun is aware that being knowledgeable in the occult may define a woman as a witch, she is quick to note that it is not considered evil in a responsible woman like Idia. The relevance of this observation is that it shifts the basis of Idia’s power from procreation to knowledge possession, and to the type of knowledge she brought to Esigie’s administration. A study of these show that she was feared and that her political opinions, pronouncements, or acts, were respected. The areas where Blackmun’s analysis runs into difficulties, in her review of the “Queen Mother tusks of Set IV,” is when she slid into the western gender framework and failed to see that those tusks may actually be stating a radical fact about the political institution of Iyoba and that some Iyobas may actually have ruled for their sons (1991, 61).15

An Initiate’s Path to Power

The question the foregoing prompts is, can an Iyoba rule Benin? The short and simple answer today is no, but we should not rule it out. The more interesting question that allows us to probe deeper whether that could have occurred in history is, why did Esigie repose complete confidence in his mother? Under what sociopolitical conditions was the title of Iyoba created? In short, why was it created? Tales about Idia’s magical powers and prowess offer more than a cursory commentary of historical events. To the extent that they accord her a prominent role in the narration of Esigie’s rule, they speak of her power, leadership role, and and underscore her considerable influence in directing the course of Benin’s dynastic history.

We should explore fresh lines of interpretation that are consistent with these narratives about Idia, that offer a different view of her personality, and that falsify the view that she did not rule Benin. In fact, narrative coherence requires that we explore the ways in which the creation of the office of Iyoba and its location in Uselu is gesturing to something important about Idia’s role in the creation of a new imperial administration, and the consolidation of the Oba’s power against the Uzama Nihinron (the highest order of Benin chiefs). Fundamentally, these legends are tales about politics, power and a powerful woman, not tales about women’s marginalization (Okpewho 1998, 128; Mba 1982, 15-20) or filial endearment (Kaplan 1993, 59).

Benin history makes clear that women have ruled the kingdom during the Ogiso dynasty so the issue of women as rulers is not a contentious one. Under the Oranmiyan dynasty too, Esigie’s grandaunt, Edeleyo was crowned the Edaiken (crown uvbi [princess]) and was on her way to becoming Oba when the Uzama Nihiron and Eghaebho n’Ore subverted her candidacy (Egharevba 76). While history shows that for females the legitimate constitutional path to the throne is typically through daughters, the idea of a wife as ruler does not seem to be part of Edo culture. Daughters were rulers because the tie of consanguinity made them legitimate claimants while the same was not true for wives, who were often nonroyals. Prior to Idia, there was no account of a wife in a prominent political position let alone one that ruled with, or in stead of her husband. The absence of this phenomenon raises a number of critical questions. What madness could have possessed Oba Esigie to create the title of Iyoba since there was no precedence to guide or base the act? How did he get away with creating this title and investing in it the range of powers that he did? Why was this modification of the political structure allowed?

The death of Oba Ozolua, Esigie’s warring father, unleashed a vicious struggle for power between his two eldest sons, the warrior giant Aruanran and the Portuguese-baptized Osawe—Esigie’s personal name (Egharevba 26). The tussle ended with the accession of Oba Esigie. Refusing to concede defeat, Aruanran retreated to Udo, fifteen miles from Benin, from where he attacked the capital with his army and deployed his newly acquired magical prowess against Esigie. According to the rites of the Emobo ceremony, Aruanran placed spells on the coronation beads which drove Esigie mad, causing him to sing irrationally and loudly, and to play a double bell once he wore them.16 But for the assistance of his astute mother’s followers and slaves, Oba Esigie’s insanity and deranged behavior could have nullified his candidacy. It is instructive that paradoxically the Emobo ceremony dramatizes the event, given the stigma that is attached to mental illness and to madness, and given that it does not enhance Esigie’s prestige.17

While the historical dramatization explains that Esigie was escorted safely home, it is silent on the psychotherapy work that was required to cure him; and on how long it took. The cure for dementia is hardly instantaneous and even when one recovers, one is not entirely cured of its effects. Any undue stress destabilizes the patient’s equilibrium and sends him or her into an episodic state. Meanwhile, the crucial question that demands an answer is, what happened when Oba Esigie was undergoing treatment? Who ran the empire while he was temporarily incapacitated?

The ancestral altar tusks that Blackmun analyzed (the “Queen Mother tusks of Set IV”) provides a compelling visual answer in the iconic motifs that the Igbesamwan and Iguneromwon created, and which have passed down through generations (1991, 61). According to her analysis, these iconic motifs acknowledged the the protective force of “the Iye Oba . . . by placing her image immediately next to Benin’s supportive triad motif . . . in which the Oba is supported on either side by an elaborately dressed enobore, or attendant. The Idia or Iye Oba motif is sometimes duplicated so that it flanks this triad protectively, or it is placed above or below the group, and she or one of her female assistants is often pictured with a rectangular mirror charm to deflect hostile spiritual forces” (61). Although Blackmun’s analysis does not make this claim, I contend that the origin of these icons go back to Idia. Blackmun identifies the tusks as Iyoba Osemwede’s, but the Iyoba’s image and its visual deployment depict historical events in which Idia was at the center. On these occasions, the Oba or Esigie was not only backed by female energies of considerable power (61), these were the energies that protected him and his obaship.

Alan F. C. Ryder would have us believe that “effective control of government passed into the hands of Osodin and Uwangue, at that time the most powerful of the palace chiefs” (his emphasis; 1969, 51). Unfortunately, his account does not square with the record of historical events preserved in the annual rites of Igue and Emobo festivals as well as in the iconography of the ivory tusks, bronze plaques, and bronze works, including the Iyoba ikegobo (altar to the hand).18 Contrary to Ryder’s analysis Bini annual rites dramatize the ascendancy of Idia rather than of the Osodin and Uwangue. The plaques, ivory tusks, and cast brass works visually record this fact and the constitutional changes that followed soon after in the establishment of the Iyoba title tell us that Idia was the dominant power in the empire.19

The iconography of the Iyoba tusks (corroborated by the Emobo drama) shows that Idia responded to Oba Esigie’s medical emergency by promptly surrounding him with trusted followers, ritual specialists, and her own protective force. She knew that any rumors of Esigie’s madness would result in his dethronement, as is well illustrated by the dethronement of Oba Ohen (circa 1334) when his physical disability was discovered. As such, it was crucial to present a façade of normalcy to throw off the still politically powerful and restive Uzama (Bradbury 13, 136-138). It was possible to pull off this subterfuge because at this material point in history, the Eghaebho n’Ore or town chiefs including the Iyase (the leader of the town chiefs) were loyal to the Oba having been created by Oba Ewuare as a bulwark against the still powerful Uzama (Bradbury 67, 138). The Eghaebho n’Ogbe or palace chiefs as well as of the town chiefs who had rallied to Esigie’s candidacy had no choice but to support this course of action since their political fortunes were now tied to Oba Esigie and Idia. In supporting Esigie’s candidacy, they had alienated themselves from Aruanran who by then resided in his stronghold in Udo. In fact, it would be extremely risky for them to now betray Esigie since Aruanran and his supporters viewed them as enemies.

Bradbury is correct in stating that the best strategy of an Oba who feared deposition was not to accept the role of a passive constitutional monarch, but to use his power to maintain competition and dissension between his chiefs (77). Idia adopted this strategy to maintain power and to forestall Esigie’s removal while he was still incapcitated. She kept his ill-health a secret and took charge of political administration while he recovered. Her postmenopausal age and status as the mother of the Oba gave her the moral authority to do so, and her reputed magical prowess would forestall any opposition and quell any calls for her death as had traditionally been the case for past mothers of obas. The proof that this is what transpired is that Idia became Iyoba, her supporters lived to tell their partisan tale of victory, and they created the annual ceremonies that dramatized the different ways in which she promoted, fought for, and secured the reign of her son. Idia’s political role and power must have grown at this time since she was able to thwart her own execution which should have taken place before her son’s accession and which the Uzama demanded.20 Not only was she powerful enough to stay her execution, but she was so strongly entrenched that she could permanently revoke the historic practice of executing an Oba’s mother’s following her son’s accession.21

The Court at Uselu

On this reading, Osemwegie Ebohon’s contention that Idia was banished to Uselu because the Binis did not want to deal with two Obas is incongruent with the fluid, expansionist politics of the sixteenth century in which the Oba of Benin was a supreme power, and had not been confined to the palace as were his seventeenth-century counterparts. The fact that Iyoba Idia relocated to Uselu did not mean she was banished, or that the two did not see each other, or that it prevented Idia from exerting considerable influence in local politics, trade, external relations, and military matters.22 The value of Ebohon’s comment, however, is that it correctly apprehends the formidable, Oba-like powers of Idia. It recognizes that: “the mother of the Oba would command equal power with her son if not more” (61).

A careful reading of the political affairs of the period reveals a different interpretation of this move. The location of the Iyoba court to Uselu was politically motivated in much the same way as was the Edaiken’s relocation to Uselu, when the office of heir apparent was first created. Oba Ewuare created the post of Edayi n’iken (deputy of Iken) not to get rid of his eldest son, but to secure and appropriate the wealth of the powerful, extremely rich, great warrior and chief, Iken (Egharevba 14). The fact that in later years the Edaiken’s court in Uselu may have been used to keep ambitious sons away from the palace does not alter or override its founding history. The same is the case with the office of Iyoba which Idia must have created in the name of Esigie as part of the royal prerogative accorded to all new Obas. Political considerations were behind its creation and the siting of the court in Uselu. An appreciation of the physical layout of old Benin helps to explain why the Iyoba’s court was sited there. Within the massive inner walls of the city, the city space was divided into two unequal spaces: the smaller space of the Ogbe, containing the Oba’s palace and the houses of his Palace chiefs; and the larger Orenokhua, containing the district and homes of the Town chiefs and their subjects (Bradbury 54-55). Outside of the main city wall to the western and southern end, a second wall enclosed the section of the Ihogbe priests of the past Oba and the living Oba’s head as well as the villages of the six Uzama. Outside the perimeter of this second wall to the northwest was the court of the Edaiken in Uselu, and to its south, at lower Uselu, was the court of the new Iyoba.

Prior to the accession of Oba Esigie, the Uzama had challenged the Oba’s authority, trying to wrest power for themselves. The Oliha (the leader of the Uzama) was the main protagonist of the Oba (Bradbury 58). Although past Obas (Ewedo, Ewuare and Ozolua) had addressed this constitutional problem in bold moves,23 the struggle on the division of powers between the Oba and the Uzama continued until the reign of Esigie when it was finally settled (Bradbury 1973, 13, 137). With the installation of Esigie as Oba, the court of the Edaiken was vacant. Meanwhile, Aruanran, and after his death, Osemwughe the Iyase of Udo, continued to challenge Esigie’s authority (Egharevba 26). At the same time, the political threat from the Uzama intensified. The mentally incapacitated Esigie needed a formidable, trustworthy ally in Uselu to stand up to the Uzama, one who could deal with any possible trouble they may try to foment with rivals. The location of the Iyoba’s court to this site is not unconnected to these developments. Idia moved to Uselu to outflank the Uzama with her vast entourage of retainers, supporters, domestic slaves, and her retinue of non-domestic slaves who were under the command of her head slave, Oro.24

For a variety of reasons that may have included the creation of the post of Iyoba without their customary permission, “the Uzama showed their disaffection by refusing to play their part in the king’s rituals” (Bradbury 136). Earlier Bradbury had noted that such a refusal by the Uzama, in their sanctified roles as representatives of the people, made it impossible for the Oba to fulfill his ritual and mystical functions (75). The refusal was the most powerful weapon the Uzama could use against an Oba and its use signaled a grave constitutional crises in the kingdom, one that calls for his dethronement (75). The basis of this crises may probably be rumors of his madness. Or, probably Esigie’s decision not to execute his mother in accordance with prior custom. The Oliha, who probably may have been an Aruanran sympathizer and possibly alarmed at the growing political power of Idia, opposed Esigie’s wishes, contending that Idia should be executed because she could not be trusted or be faithful. The fact that the Oliha went on to declare that his wife, Imaguero, was the most faithful woman in the kingdom meant that there was a public exchange in which he was either flaunting or protesting his wife’s honor, although he overstated it (Egharevba 27). That Oba Esigie camp chose to make the unfaithfulness of Oliha’s wife a matter of state priority proves that more was at stake than the mere fact of a besotted husband heatedly proclaiming his wife’s virtue (Egharevba 27).25 The Oliha’s proclamation of his wife’s virtue probably occurred in a heated exchange and in the act of taking an oppositional stance against the Oba.

In the tumultuous politics of the day, Iyoba Idia’s residence at Uselu served to check the activities of the Uzama and to prevent the latter’s alliance with Aruanran’s forces until the end of the Idah war. Flush from victory over the Attah of Idah, Idia and Esigie was finally in a strong position to drastically curb the power of the Uzama, especially the Oliha, who was central in starting the Benin-Idah war. Under Idia’s counsel, Esigie introduced a set of radical constitutional amendments that punished the Uzama. First, he nominated a new set of Uzama to replace the old; secondly, he decreed that all titled chiefs must pay yearly homage to Erinmwin Idu; thirdly, he introduced the dance with the staff of the ahianmwen-oro (ibis bird) as part of the Ugie Oro festival, and fourthly, he introduced the Ague fast. The constitutional crises was resolved when the displaced Uzama accepted the new changes Idia and Esigie wanted and swore to become evien-Oba (Obas’s slaves) in exchange for restoration to their former position as Uzama and for the Oba to respect the principle of hereditary succession for them (Bradbury 138). This submission and final capitulation of the Uzama was solemnized by a series of oaths (58) and commemorated in the festival of the Ugie Erhoba (festival in memory of the reigning Oba’s father).

Reformulating the Office of Iyoba

It was customary for a new Oba to create new titles to reward his closest allies (Bradbury 72). Under advisement, Oba Esigie formally validated Idia’s political activities by consolidating her powers, prestige, and duties in a title created especially for her. Because the office of the Iyoba was created out of political expediency, it did not have a primeval model. Idia fashioned the office in accordance with the pressing needs of sixteenth-century Benin kingdom. Isidore Okpewho offered a very useful way for understanding the history of the period by attending to the the rites, rituals, and narratives former vassals have preserved about Benin (1998). We should look to these accounts not necessarily as counter narratives or competing histories but, as accounts of Benin history that were not subject to official editing. One way to grasp the office of Iyoba at the time of Idia is to look to the political institutions of communities that left Benin during the reign of Esigie and Iyoba Idia. One such political institution is the Omu institution that exists among western Igbo migrants who had preserved Benin-type institutions in their communities (Okonjo 1976, 45-58; R. Henderson 1972, 309-314; H. Henderson 1970, 222-3; Ekejiuba 1992, 1966). When we do, with regard to the office of Iyoba, we discern the full form of Idia’s office of Iyoba, as a political institution, in the Omu institution of Aboh, Obamkpa, Onitsha Olona, Ossamari and Onitsha. The communities preserved an image of the office prior to its degradation in Benin’s power politics of the seventeenth century.

Like the Omu institution, the early Iyoba title was an office with extraordinary powers and duties much higher than its present status of senior chief, that contemporary accounts represent as equivalent in status to the Eghaebho n’Ore or town chiefs. Because it was a supranational office with royal status, the office of Iyoba was much more higher that town chiefs. Owing to the elevated nature of her office, she alone with the Edaiken, and the Ezomo can wear a coronet of coral beads and coral bead shirt like the Oba (Bradbury 1961, 129). She alone, like the Oba, could raise an army. Philip A. Igbafe points out that the status of the Iyoba puts her in the extremely small category of Bini chiefs who had supreme powers over life and death (1975, 412). Besides the Oba, she is one of only four chiefs—Ezomo, head of the army; Ero who looked after the Oba’s mother; Oliha, head of the Uzama chiefs, and Iyoba—who, regardless of the odious nature of the act, had the royal sanction to perform human sacrifices. Of all the chiefs, she is the only one who holds court with chiefs and retinues whose roles parallel those in the Oba’s court. Unlike the Ezomo and Oliha, but like the Oba, she possessed the right to commission ivory and cast copper alloy works of art such as ikegobo (altar to the hand) and urhoto (rectangular altarpieces) for personal and religious uses. Furthermore, she is represented in these objects in formal wear, consisting of a blouse of coral beads, wrapper, and the coral parrot beak hat. Lastly, like deceased Obas, deceased Iyobas were commemorated with cast copper alloy memorial heads fitted with carved ivory tusks and displayed on royal altars. A careful accounting of all the privileges the Iyoba enjoys today shows that her office was much more elevated than that of the town chiefs and Uzama.

When all is said and done with, Oba Esigie was still his mother’s child despite his madness. Their destinies were bound together in unfathomable ways, which the office also reflected. Although he was an Oba and a god to his subjects, he remained the child of Idia who made him her personal project. Esigie’s affection for his mother was unabashedly strong, and he must have been devastated by her death. The ivory tusks and masks he commissioned to immortalize her speak eloquently to this depth of emotion. Descriptions of African male psyche within the western epistemological framework generally problematize the idea of African men as sensitive, loving men. The descriptions take on grotesque proportion when the psychological profile is that of Bini men given the vivid bloodthirsty accounts disseminated by Britain and Benin’s former vassals. What emerges in this framework is a picture of Benin men as coarse, oppressive alpha males, in short, brutes. The ideological force of the portraits prevents us from seeing the emotional, needy, dependent side of Oba Esigie, who comes down to us in history as a formidable ruler and an oppressive slave-selling tyrant. All that may be true, but the picture is false when the relation is between mother and son. To love is to be human and Esigie loved his mother. Until she died, she was there for him, and she fought with him to conquer his demons. Oba Ewuakpe’s lament for his mother shows the strong bond between Obas’ and their mothers.26

Bereft of his mother’s strength, Oba Esigie turned to his favorite wife Elaba, whom Idia must have groomed, for his comfort and to be his confidante. The death of Idia paved the way for Elaba to become the next dominant female in the region. She accompanied Esigie to many battles and whatever crises he faced that compelled him to return to Benin by way of Uzeghudu, Elaba probably faced it with him. He stayed in Uzeghudu. for a year before being pressured to return by the chiefs at Benin. Even before her son, Oba Orhogbu (1552), honored Elaba as his Iyoba, Oba Esigie honored his favorite Oloi with a chieftaincy title in her name to give political backing to her duties. She must have been the first holder of that title, as it would have been awkward and highly improbable for anyone—male or female—to hold that title while she was alive. Her personality and position would so fully overshadow and dominate the holder of that title.

In summary, the contention of this essay is that Idia was the hidden power and de facto force behind Oba Esigie. The contention does not undermine the fact that Esigie remained an Oba for the rest of his life or does it prove that she was the reigning power because he was mentally incapacitated for the rest of his reign. The argument is that as the supervenient force in the empire, she stepped in periodically to hold the reign whenever he was incapacitated. She was the pillar of his administration, and before she died, she remained a close confidant and political strategist. This power was not merely advisory, but were visibly manifest as when she rallied the flagging spirits of Bini soldiers and led her own army to war. Or, when she sent her army after Eze Chima and his group, resulting in the establishment of a number of communities eastwards, including Onitsha (Ohadike 1994; Henderson 1972, 78; Nzimiro 1972).27 Or, when she gave advice on political matters, collected tribute, and was a judge. The thesis of Idia as hidden Oba is consistent with Bini oral history that is preserved in its ritual ceremonies and visual works.28

Unfortunately, Iyoba Idia’s role in Esigie’s political administration has never been properly articulated because modern readings of historical events proceeds from a female devaluing lens and tend to emphasize the subordinate aspect of Idia’s identity, thereby limiting her dynamism and power. Having “femininized” and turned her into just a royal wife and just a mother, it is then difficult to see the dynamic, political strategist, who rose in the sixteenth century to play an extraordinary role in securing and consolidating the power of Benin Obas. She shored up Esigie’s political base, participated in the strategic defeat of the Uzama, of Aruanran and his Iyase and military commander, and of the Idah army. Although these stories and legends acknowledge that she raised an army and went to war, they all fail to appreciate that for her to participate at this level in government, she must have been the most formidable power in Benin kingdom.


Sourced: Nkiru Nzegwu. “Iyoba Idia: The Hidden Oba of Benin” JENDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies: Issue 9, 2006.