Across cultures, history speaks eloquently that fine beliefs will always be a poor substitute for fine actions. The time of opposition comes for everyone. It came for Ogbidi Okojie, the young prince of Uromi monarchy, in the early 20th century.
Ogbidi Okojie, king of Uromi was a ruler of the Esan people in what is now present day Edo State in Nigeria, he is well known all over Esan land for his opposition to British rule.
Ogbidi Okojie was born in the seventh month of gestation, coming 14th in the line of succession to the Uromi throne.
As an African monarch, he believed in his divine right to wield absolute power. Those beliefs motivated his opposition to British Rule, which led to his first exile to Calabar in 1900.
In Nigeria, at the end of the nineteenth century, the old order was crumbling, yielding to the new British colonial system. After the Royal Niger Company transferred its territories to the British government, the latter expanded and strengthened its control, unseating the traditional rulers.
In 1897, The colonial army deployed brutal force to subjugate and finally conquer the Benin kingdom. In 1900, Uromi was invaded by the British troops numbering over 200, with 100 cannon, and several shot-guns. But unlike the Benin invasion which lasted for thirteen days (February 2-21, 1897), that of the Uromi lasted for over 50 days. The formidable resistance of the Uromi people was made possible by the military command of Prince Okojie I, who had no modern weapons, but only Dane guns, bows, arrows, and courage.
The British were surprised that despite the heavy collateral damage inflicted on the people, it did not reduce the spate of guerrilla attack. In a change of military tactics, the colonial forces focused on capturing king Okolo, the Onojie of Uromi, with the expectation that his arrest would weaken the Uromi resistance.
In the course of hostilities, the colonial forces received intelligence reports that Prince Okojie, and not the king, was the driving force behind the armed resistance. Despite the arrest of the king on March 20, 1901, and even with his death eight days after the arrest, the resistance did not subside.
Unaware that his father had died, Okojie continued to resist the British and refused to be disarmed. The obstinate disposition of the Uromi soldiers and refusal of Okojie to surrender further provoked the British and heightened their impatience. It made the Expeditionary Force to begin a spree of looting, destruction and burning of Uromi villages and farms for about 20 days. But when that didn’t work the British decided to try a different approach, they knew the locals revered their kings and chiefs so they decided publicize (even though they had already killed him) the capture of King Okolo, to demoralize the local militias.
The wide publicity of the king’s arrest (unknown to the people that the king had died) had a demoralizing effect as the british had calculated, in time most villages began to surrender but that did not deter Okojie and his troop. Eventually, the people called for a truce where the British demanded Okojie’s presence at the meeting as a condition for an effective implementation of the truce. Okojie s acceptance of the invitation was predicated on the news that his arrested father (king Okolo) would be released to him. Unfortunately, Okojie was tricked. As soon as he arrived at the venue of the purported peace meeting, he was arrested, tried, found guilty of inciting the people of Uromi against the British
As a consequence of his stiff resistance, in 30th April 1901 he was banished to Calabar, where he met Oba Ovonramwen, the then Oba of Benin, who had been exiled there by the British for obstructing British trading activities in the Benin river region.
Okojie was shortly recalled in the same year and was enthroned as the 14th Onojie of Uromi, this was after he had performed the necessary funeral rites for the late Onojie (king Okolo Aitual), his father, who was murdered by the colonial forces for resisting colonial rule.
King Okojie was also made President of the colonial-created Native Court by the British.
As president of the Native Court, Okojie was charged with administratively assisting the District officer in overseeing the Uromi territory on behalf of the Colonial authorities.
Between 1901 and 1917, Okojie seemed to have lived up to colonial expectations as Uromi had the highest number of primary school enrolment in the Esan Division, increase in revenue generation especially fines from the native court and high level of citizen participation and collaboration in colonial activities.
However, that did not mean that Okojie submissively surrendered his kingly authority as he continued to exert royal privileges from the Uromi people while meeting colonial goals, countering it with passive disobedience and maintaining his opposition to British rule. He kept governing his subjects as his forebears had always done, until he was deposed and exiled again, this time to Benin, in 1918.
Ogbidi Okojie wasn’t the first or only African king to be deposed and exiled for Opposing British rule. During Colonial times, African kings held their offices at the discretion of the colonial authorities, for example, Abdullah, who was the District Head (DH) of Zamfara in the Sokoto emirate, was deposed because he refused to completely obey British instructions in colonial Northern Nigeria. Chiefs in colonial Ghana faced series of destoolment once they were considered rebellious, a situation that was not different in Kenya as troublesome chiefs were sacked from the colonial government.
In the case of Okojie, he was banished from Uromi in 1919 because he understood the character of colonialism yet he decided to ignore it as he also considered himself an authority.
In Esan culture, a properly crowned king whether on the throne or dethroned does not change the cultural fact that he remains a king. The culture assumed that even in exile Ogbidi was still the king of Uromi.
While in exile, Okojie kept writing petitions to the British insisting in all his petitions that he was needed back home to provide leadership for his people but all his petitions went unanswered.
In 1922 he wrote to the Lieutenant-Governor, Southern Provinces telling him about his undertaking to be a private citizen if that might free him from his exile. The Lieutenant- Governor refused to honour Okojie’s request, and in a bid to silence him suggested that more of Okojie’s wives be sent to join him in Benin.
In Okojie’s absence (1919-1931), his heir, Prince Uwagbale was enthroned as the new sitting king of Uromi by the colonial authorities in conjunction with Uromi king makers. Okojie was eventually recalled to Uromi in 1931 to continue with his kingship until he died in 1944.
While alive, Ogbidi Okojie was highly influential in Esan, Agbor and Benin City. He built schools and supported higher learning. He built the roads from Uromi to Ilushi, Agbor and Ehor.
His wish for the independence of black Africa and Nigeria prompted the Nigerian founding father Chief Anthony Enahoro, one of his many grandchildren, to initiate the self-government motion in the Western House of Assembly in 1953, which eventually led to Nigerian Independence on the 1st day of October, 1960. A younger grandson is Peter Enahoro, revered pan-African journalist and author of How to be a Nigerian (1966). Other grandsons include Cardinal Anthony Okogie, the first Esan Cardinal, and Dr. Robert Okojie, a NASA scientist based in the U.S.
Okojie I, the Onojie of Uromi, was survived by over sixty wives, over forty concubines, and innumerable children and grandchildren. He is still remembered by his people as Ogbidi, the Uromi umbrella; the white son of Olokun.