The tradition of primogeniture entails the total non-negotiable handing over of power of attorney over properties, titles, positions etc, to the eldest son of a family. This is a very common practice all over the world. The eldest son is looked upon as the pretender to the throne. And as soon as the king dies he is crowned as the new king. Thus he is always regarded as the king-in-waiting.
In the African primordial setting, the tradition of primogeniture was looked upon as the only formula for ensuring peace, continuity of family totems and upholding atavistic relics within the family setting. It was looked upon as sacrilegious and a blatant breach of ancestral injunctions to deviate from it. Sometimes curses were invoked and the culprits were placed under the yoke of excommunication.
Among the Masai tribe of Kenya, Junkun, Gwari and Bini speaking ethnic groups of Nigeria, primogeniture is still paramount, both in traditional institutions and family hierarchy. It is so uncompromisingly entrenched in the lives of the people that it is sometimes likened to the inseparability of the tortoise and its carapace syndrome.
Historical and anthropological investigations show that there was once an Edo king who was a certified moron, but his imbecilic fancies did not deter tradition from holding sway. As the eldest son, he mounted the throne of his fathers. The Bini speaking people of Nigeria – Esan, Etsako, Owan, Igarra and Okpameri- still uphold the tradition of primogeniture with Trojan zealotry. It is upheld with religious devotion, notwithstanding the incursions of western civilization, vide education, religion and technology. The present Oba of Benin kingdom, Omo N’ Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo is the eldest son of his late father, Oba Akenzua.
But amongst the Itsekiris and of late some of the Urhobo-speaking people of Delta State, the tradition of primogeniture has been consigned to the unfathomable dungeon of placebos, both in traditional institutions and in family affairs. This is because of the politicization and monetization of kingship, and sometimes because of the unfitness of the heir apparent.
In Urhoboland, where kings litter every nooks and crannies, the politicization and monetization of titles has led to the wanton proliferation of kingdoms and kingships without any regard for succession formula. Some argue that this is because the Urhobos are “republicans” by nature and bearing. But some posit that republicanism does not thrive on anarchy.
In Okpe Kingdom, for example, the system of primogeniture to the kingship does not hold sway. Igboze, the ancestral founder of the Okpe Kingdom, had four gates. The “Adane Okpe” featured Esezi, Orhoro, Orhue and Evwreke. We have had Esezi the first, Esezi the second, Orhoro the first and now Orhue 1. After our revered Orodje must have lived for 1,000 years, God willing, are we going to have an Orhoro the second or Orhue the second or will it be Evwreke the first? This, I do believe, will be left for the Odogun Okpe and the Okpe people to decide. But wouldn’t it have been much better if there was a responsible and reliable formula bereft of politics, money and influence peddling?
In his keynote address titled Tradition and Governance in Okpe Kingdom and delivered on September 1, 2007, at the 3rd Annual Convention of the Okpe Union of North America held at Marriott Hotel, College Mark Maryland, USA, HRM Orhue 1, Orodje of Okpe Kingdo, posited that “the Okpe people are patrilineal in their family structure. Perhaps, this is the reason, as I tried to indicate earlier, that our oral history tends to play down on the matrilineal side of the Okpe people. Inheritance is by primogeniture. In Okpe, the heir to the family is not expected to lord authority over all the off springs of the family. He is only first, although an important first, among all the children. This explains why the male heir is regarded as “the priest” (owharan) of the family, that is the shrine where the ancestors are being venerated.
“In the absence of the first male born, then any other male descendant, regardless of age, functions in that capacity. In Okpe, no female can play the role regarded for the male child in accordance with the tradition, yet female descendants are never disinherited in Okpe, not even after years of marriage to other families”.
In modern day Urhobo families, the survival of the fittest has taken over the tradition of primogeniture, especially in polygamous homes where the father is weak and susceptible to the diabolical manipulations of some of the wives, uncles and friends etc. The first son is hated by his father (utuoma) and he becomes, if he remains alive, the punching bag of the father, wives, brothers, sisters and uncles because of hereditary rights.
To be continued
Chief Gbinije BINIJE, founder of Mandate Against Poverty, wrote from Warri