KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

 The Obongship Dispute in Calabar: A Rejoinder


Tatabonko Orok Edem


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Permit me to shed light on the dispute surrounding the stool of the Obong of Calabar.


Historically, with the introduction of Calabar into the international economy in the early part of the 18th century, the titular leadership of the Efik kingdom became a regular bone of contention amongst the ruling houses due to the economic and political power wielded by the occupant. In 1908, exactly one hundred years ago, an agreement came into force between the British and the Efik Kings abrogating the title of King and replacing it with the title - Obong of Calabar, to be borne only by the titular head of Calabar. Over the years, even though this position has lost most of its gloss coupled with the advent of the Nigerian political space, the title has been abused and sometimes split over unnecessary tussles between different contending contestants.


Your write up stated correctly that an Obong can only be selected by the Etuboms amongst their midst. It also stated correctly that there was a 1970 accord that rotated this stool between two spheres of influence, with the last Obong coming from the Atakpa area. You then went on a journey of excursion by stating inter alia: “in the morning of Sunday, April 6, an Obong of Calabar was capped at the Efe Asabo kingship shrine, in the person of Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey II.” There is a difference between selection within the Obong’s Council, which you have accepted, and “capped” which has no bearing in Efik culture. There has been a lot of propaganda and wool pooling over this incident of Mr. Bassey reportedly being spry enough to outrun and outwit all other contestants and thus – “Bassey II has effectively exploited the unbending rule of tradition to present his opponents with a fait accompli.” Who told the Guardian that being “capped”, is the “unbending rule of tradition”? The truth of the matter and as Mr. Bassey himself has severally noted, the Efik Kingdom is made up of twelve principalities. According to Efik tradition, an Obong cannot be crowned while one is still alive. If and when a sitting Obong departs, the conclave of Etuboms meet and select one Etubom amongst themselves to become the Obong on the basis of either consensus or majority vote. According to the Efik “unbending” rule of traditional, each of the twelve principalities is responsible for a traditional rite, which MUST be carried out before one could be proclaimed an Obong. In other words, one principality cannot arrogate to itself the power of making the Obong just because it has custody of one paraphernalia of an Obong installation process.


Mr. Bassey has only exploited the fact that his principality’s part of the procedure or ritual, which only involves the capping, could be carried out by a member of his Cobham Town Traditional Combined Council. The questions to ask Mr. Bassey are, could an Obong be made without the other eleven principalities carrying out their part of the rituals? If he is insisting on being “capped” as the only grundnorm for an Efik Obong to be made as per the Guardian Newspaper’s understanding of the situation, “and by tradition, no new Obong may be crowned while one is alive.” Did Mr. Bassey at any time within living memory announce the deposition of the present Obong? The truth of the matter is that the wearing of the traditional cap does not confer an Obongship. Prince Eniang Archibong in the 1960s wore it in public even when his father was alive and heavens did not fall. Does Mr. Bassey have a senior uncle who is an Etubom who would rightly serve as the capping chief priest on the basis of age? Did this uncle of his crown or cap him?


We have highlighted Mr. Bassey because the Nigerian world of journalism seems to have developed a soft spot for one of theirs. But questions must be asked that need answering. Could Mr. Bassey state categorically that he is the first son of his father, a situation that would have entitled him to the titles he is claiming? Is the first son still alive? What is the Efik tradition as to inheritance of titles? Does it not seem curious that Mr. Bassey is claiming that his great-grandfather ‘capped’ an Obong, his grandfather ‘capped’ another and ditto his father? Does it not occur to the Guardian that it follows that Mr. Bassey himself could not be capped, but could cap someone if he is the oldest surviving male child from his lineage, and if inadvertently capped, the act becomes a nullity or a non-event? It is akin to inquisitive children putting the ‘cap’ on their head and posing in front of the mirror and having fun behind their elders back.


Other arguments have been put forward as to the legitimacy of the actions of Etubom Efiok who nominated Etubom Otu as their Obong elect. It is known that an Obong can only be selected within the conclave with an over riding number of Etuboms in agreement. Much as most of these are done by prior networking and politicking, it is the majority of Etuboms that could select an Obong, and not the minority. The issue of – “In what appears as an indication of wide acceptance, the obong has been congratulated by individuals as well as groups, including the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo communities resident in his domain. Nevertheless, these cannot be the only measure of legitimacy” as stated by the Guardian does not arise. Individuals as well as groups including the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa communities can vote on whom could be governor of the state, their input is not sought nor tolerated in a matter which is an internal dispute amongst the Efiks. The Guardian’s introduction of this angle is capable of triggering off a crisis, as the Efiks would most likely close ranks when an outsider interferes in their affair. The utterance of one Dr. Akpanika, who to the best of our knowledge is from the Ikot Ishie Igbo settlement in Calabar is most unhelpful. There is nothing like the Mkpisong Efik in our traditional system of governance. Market women, elites, the young and the old, do not have a say as to who becomes the Obong. It is akin to the input of a Catholic parishioner as to who becomes the Pope. When smoke emanates from the Vatican chimneys, a Catholic has a Pope. Also, the Efik system does not crave legitimacy in the same way a modern democratic state does. It is a monarchy and relies on divine right to rule.


The Guardian should leave the Nigeria Police out of this. The Police have the constitutional duty of maintaining the peace. If an over ambitious individual decides to commit acts which might not in a sense be criminal or harmful to the public, but which is capable of disturbing the peace; the Police can effect his arrest and charge him to court if a prima facie case is made against him. Mr. Bassey’s theory of no other Obong could be made unless he dies, so the State government and the Police wants to kill him, is flippant. Does Mr. Bassey understand that an argument could be made that he stands to benefit from the death of the present Obong so he also is planning to kill him? 


Another dimension has been thrown into the confusion with the lawsuit filed on behalf of Etubom Ani representing Ikoneto. He has asked the court to prohibit the Etubom Efiok group from going ahead to elect an Obong. This case is at best academic. The truth of the matter and as things stand today is that the present Obong, Professor Henshaw is not dead but severely incapacitated. His death has not been announced, his funeral services, traditional rites and obsequies have not been carried out. It is an act of selfishness and overvaulting ambition for anyone to pronounce himself an Obong before the last one has been declared dead. The court to the best of my knowledge does not deal with speculations and even Mr. Bassey (the Obong recognized by the Guardian) is not joined in the case.


Those wishing Prof. Henshaw dead in order to wear funny caps that do not fit should hold their horses.


Tatabonko Orok Edem

Representing the Diaspora Efiks






Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The Obongship dispute in Calabar


ON Monday, March 31, according to the chairman of the Etubom Traditional Council of Calabar, Etubom Efiok, the Etuboms conclave that, by tradition, selects and installs the traditional ruler of Calabar, the Obong met and, selected Etubom Ekpo Abasi Otu to be crowned as the Obong of Calabar at a date to be announced later. But the following week, in the morning of Sunday, April 6, an Obong of Calabar was capped at the Efe Asabo kingship shrine, in the person of Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey II. It is noteworthy, however, that on the orders of the state government, the shrine had reportedly been sealed off to deny access to the conflicting parties. And yet, somehow, and strangely, this crowning took place there.


As things stand now, the peace and quiet of Calabar has come under threat, not by anti-social elements such as armed robbers or militants agitating for one right or other, but alas, by a divided traditional leadership engaged in a struggle for the seat of Obong of Calabar. This is disappointing indeed. It is even more so that many years after an arrangement for peaceful transition from one obong to another had operated smoothly as provided by the 1970 Creek Town Accord, the situation appears to be regressing into the old ways of intrigues, self-seeking scheming and intra-communal animosity.


Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey was, according to reports, instrumental to the violation of the Creek Town Accord when in the morning of August 31, 1999, he, as the chief priest and head of the Efik kingship shrine capped the immediate past obong who comes from Central Calabar. However, by the accord reached among the seven towns and tributaries that constitute Western Calabar on the one hand and Central Calabar on the other, it was the turn of the former to produce the obong. The Donald Duke government, in response to the findings of a judicial commission of inquiry, deposed Edidem Nta Elijah Henshaw I. But the damage had been done for, by tradition, no new obong may be crowned while one is alive.


Rather than implement the recommendation of the government that the next obong be selected from the Western Calabar town of Ikoneto which has never produced one, and indeed for which a prominent candidate was already being groomed, the chairman of the Efik Iboku Esit Edik Traditional Council, Etubom Ekpo Abasi Otu from the Western Calabar town of Adiabo contrived to get himself selected as the agreed candidate for the vacant stool. But selected he may be, crowned he is not.


Etubom Ekpo Abasi Otu has now been outsmarted by the chief priest who, somehow finding his way into the shrine together with his sympathisers, was capped with the Ntinya crown by a certain Etubom Ekpo Eyo who justified his role on the ground that he is a great grandson of the first king of the Efik. Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey II has effectively exploited the unbending rule of tradition to present his opponents with a fait accompli. Said he: 'Once one is crowned at the kingship shrine, it is final except the obong dies...'. Obviously, neither of the contestants for the throne desired the implementation of the government solution.


In what appears as an indication of wide acceptance, the obong has been congratulated by individuals as well as groups, including the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo communities resident in his domain. Nevertheless, these cannot be the only measure of legitimacy.


Two or so weeks into his reign, the obong is already at loggerheads with higher authorities. He has been accused by the police of conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. In turn, he has, also accused both the state deputy governor, Mr. Efiok Cobham and the state police command of plotting to kill him.


There now are two loci of traditional authority in Calabar namely the capped Edidem Bassey Ekpo Bassey II and the uncapped Etubom Ekpo Abasi Otu and each with his group of sympathetic chiefs. Given the very emotion-laden nature of chieftaincy disputes, ordinary citizens would be lining up behind the conflicting leaders with a possible clash in due course. Unless of course, government moves quickly to calm the situation. Indeed, at a time that the state government is doing so much to project the state as a tourism destination, it is important that the situation is quickly resolved.


Kingship succession has been problematic among the people until the 1970 agreement brought a large measure of orderliness and control. We would expect first, that the elders would appreciate that their personal ambition would only be realisable and indeed valid to the extent that they play by the collectively agreed rules of the game. Second, it cannot be advisable at all that any leader worth his title would jeopardise the peace and stability of his community in order to achieve, and by subterfuge too, his vaunting ambition. Two obongs cannot rule Calabar: it is a recipe for trouble. We therefore appeal to the contenders to seek an internal resolution of this dispute. If however, intransigence continues to hold sway, let both parties go to court. This is a safer and better option, rather than force Calabar and its people into a needless crisis. We would like to believe that neither of the protagonists desires this.


Still on the kingship shrine, something fishy may be going on in this matter. The Efe Asabo shrine was supposed to be out of bounds specifically to forestall access by any group plotting to install its own candidate. How then did one party gain access? The new obong has even been quoted to say that "when we went to perform our traditional processes on April 6, the police were there...'. If this is true why did the police fail to enforce the order of the state government only to turn round and accuse the obong? Commissioner of Police Mr. Innocent Ilozuoke has reportedly refused to answer questions put to him by the media. We think he has some explaining to do and it would do him, his command, and the force a lot of good to do so.

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