Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Benin Royalist Movement and Its Political Opponents: Controversy over Restoration of the Monarchy, 1897-1914

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Benin Royalist Movement and Its Political Opponents: Controversy over Restoration of the Monarchy, 1897-1914

Article excerpt


The extension of British power over the Benin Empire followed the invasion and conquest of Benin in February 1897.1 With the fall of Benin, the political system of one of the most powerful precolonial empires of Africa was overturned by the imposition of colonial rule.2 Britain's determination to control the process of political change and maintain power in the face of resistance was demonstrated in the hasty trial and deportation of the king (Oba Ovonramwen) to Calabar in September 1897. The deportation of the king of Benin demonstrated that the British did not always support strong rulers, as was also the case with King Jaja of Opobo in the Niger Delta. The regulations and measures imposed by the British led to continuing crises as the power vacuum created by the exile of the king affected the political life of Benin. The British attempted to reconfigure political power among the Benin chiefs by establishing a Native Council of chiefs "who had made their submission."3 The aim was to advise the resident on custom, sit with him in judicial hearings, and help to set the government's economic, educational, and other policies in motion.4 In theory, the British were satisfied that this arrangement would be successful. In practice, the state of the times was not particularly reassuring for political stability due to the contestation of power among Benin chiefs.

The British created a new kind of structure for colonial administration in establishing a Native Council. But the Benin experience in the interregnum (the period between the conquest of Benin and the restoration of the monarchy in 1914) was quite different from the experience in Igboland, where neither a strong ruler nor a centralized bureaucracy existed.5 At the beginning of colonial administration in Benin, the British "theory" of Indirect Rule, as formulated by Frederick Lugard, was being applied in the kingdom of Buganda in East Africa and the emirates of Northern Nigeria in West Africa.6 The Benin situation, however, presented clear deviations from the policy of making use of traditional African rulers.7 The British did not rule in theory in the name of the Oba nor his nominee, but rather with the notion of the "Whiteman" as the king.

However, as British influence steadily reached out, the traditional framework of government collapsed. The collapse of traditional frameworks resulted in the disruption of the existing, well-defined class and functional relationships in the indigenous political system of Benin, as was the case in other conquered territories.8 The character and methods of governance adopted by the British foreshadowed the difficulties of colonial rule that created major crises and raised a number of issues in contending with the first phase of British colonial rule in Benin from 1897 to 1914. These were reflected in the pattern of political conflict and the course of political change.

The period of interregnum from 1897 to 1914 was the first phase of British colonial rule in Benin; a period that saw the first conflict of ideas and institutions used by the British to dominate Benin. This study is an attempt to assess how the ideas of the Benin political groups and the political elite shaped their actions within the parameters set by colonial rule. The colonial period represented the abrupt termination of the independence and sovereignty of African states.9 The political campaign of the royalists to restore the Benin monarchy was confronted with the inevitable change arising from colonial domination on the one hand, and the reconfiguration of power among the Benin chiefs on the other.

The colonial situation had created an environment of changing structures, goals, and opportunities for new political interactions and accommodation. In this circumstance, the royalist movement began in 1899 with the struggle to bring Oba Ovonramwen back from exile. The royalists' political opponents, who benefited from colonial rule but lacked the legitimacy accorded to their precolonial counterparts, began to work against the restoration of Oba Ovonramwen to the kingship of Benin, and this generated much controversy over the restoration question. …

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