Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi: When History Becomes Drama

OBARUDUAGBON. Today is your day: tomorrow belongs to another!

ESASOYEN. Indeed: the Whiteman who is stronger than you will soon come! (Ola Rotimi 6)

The above reminds me of the words of a great Zulu Chief (Chaka) to his assailants. The difference this time is that the setting is the ancient Benin Empire and the words are not coming from a dying king but from subordinates who have just been sentenced to death by their Oba for murdering his trusted adviser. Nonetheless, it is a great inciting action for Ola Rotimi’s eponymous play, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi.

You might not like Ola Rotimi’s other plays, but Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is a play I am sure you cannot help loving. Aside Kurunmi (another historical drama by Ola Rotimi), this play is for me the best from the playwright. Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is a play that further establishes Rotimi’s talent as a great African dramatist. His ability to rework history and breathe life into it on stage leaves me with nothing but admiration.

It is ancient Benin Empire and the ruler is Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, a young king who does not wish to be taken for granted by his subject considering his young age, he pronounces death upon the first set of rebel chiefs arrested in his kingdom to serve as a deterrent to others who might be thinking of toeing the same path of rebellion. The still defiant chiefs prophesy the conquest of the kingdom and the coming of the white man who would effect it. Against pleas by both the chiefs and the palace jester, Ovonramwen insists that his decision would not be rescinded.

There are troubles within the empire as little towns under Ovonramwen’s kingdom are beginning to show signs of revolting yet Ovonramwen quashes these troubles to keep the kingdom a united entity. Since Ovonramwen succeeds in repressing internal rebellion, would he succeed in suppressing the aggression from external forces?

As prophesied by Esasoyen, the Whiteman came; with the intention to trade in rubber; but Ovonramwen is not impressed by the Whiteman’s antics, was it not them who went about fixing a different price for oil after the Oba had chosen a certain price for the same commodity? How could the Whitemen call themselves his friends when they went about encouraging his people to rebel against his authority by selling commodities for different prices? This settled the issue for Ovonramwen and he refused to sign the trade treaty, neither would he accept the gifts of the Whiteman whose love only shows on the face but not in the heart.

Despite Ovonramwen rejection of the trade treaty, the White man’s greed for the untapped resources in the Benin Empire would not let him turn his back to it as he makes another attempt to see the king but he has come at a wrong time; it is Ague ceremony and culture and tradition forbids strangers or visitors from making an incursion into Benin throughout the period of this ceremony and neither is the king allowed to see nor entertain visitors. The insistence of the group led by the Whitemen to make an incursion into Benin despite the refusal of the Benin police would lead to the group being attacked and killed by the warriors of Benin who take away the heads of the Whitemen as part of the spoils of war.

There is a reprisal attack from the British authority and it is terrible, with it came the fall of the Benin Empire and the takeover of the Benin Empire by the European authorities in the land. Oba Ovonramwen was arrested after attempting an escape and whisked away to Calabar, the colonial headquarters.

The play is a historical presentation of the fall of a great king, it describes a clash of interest between two opposing forces (the Benin Empire and the British Authority cum colonialist), it also shows the disregard and disrespect shown by the British authorities for the African cultural norms and traditions, and it reminds us of how African artifacts now deposited in European museums were looted or (to use the right word) stolen at the behest of an insensitive and greed inspired conquest.

Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was forced off his throne and land (an abomination!) , so was Jaja of Opobo, and so Nana of Ijekiri, all kings who refused an unjust trade system introduced by British authorities. In Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, we are reminded of these great men who stood up and said “nay” when fear made all others say “ye”.

The play is replete with the rich use of various Nigerian languages, such as the Benin language, Yoruba, and Hausa language, aside from the English language used in producing the play–Ola Rotimi’s love for various Nigerian languages is obvious, being from a mixed race himself (Yoruba and Benin), we see a better incorporation of various languages in another of his play, Hopes of the Living Dead. Also, the ornamentation of dialogues and speeches with myriad proverbs leaves one marvelling at the depth of the writer’s knowledge of the oral repertoire, along with the various songs, they make the play a beautiful piece!

“Ikpema! Oba gha to o kpere!”

Rest on Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the home leopard, rest great king!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2017

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