What caused the collapse of the 1,000-year- old Benin Kingdom? Are similar forces at work in today’s world? By Onyekachi Wambu
After nearly 1000 years, with a golden age in the 1700s, the Benin Kingdom collapsed – first gradually, then suddenly over a period of 50 years.
A kingdom that had controlled its resources and territories, established an impressive trading empire, which included receiving tribute from surrounding weaker states, and produced fine artworks, was unable to protect itself and was utterly destroyed by the British in 1897.
Ovonramwen, the resisting Oba/King, was exiled away from the Kingdom (dying in exile), while his more compliant son was imposed by the Brits as part of their system of indirect rule. What was responsible for such a disaster?
Of course, Benin was not unique. Two separate processes had unfolded over 50 years – one external, the other internal, each creating a feedback loop. Externally, the world was changing, and the Kingdom was under geopolitical pressure. The trade it controlled (principally enslaved fellow Africans) had rightly been choked off. Outside powers engaged in trade in the new commodity, palm oil, and demanded direct and monopoly control of the plantations, local markets and other resources, driving European territorial empire-building. These powers cooperated with each other frequently (such as at the 1884 Berlin conference). Internally, the Kingdom was weakened. Neighbouring states which provided tribute had been conquered, leading to a drying up of resources, a sense of impending doom and a pathetic resort to increasing human sacrifice as a way of forestalling this doom rather than adopting a strategy of re-arming and striking alliances with unconquered neighbours. A succession battle for the throne amongst competing brothers also contributed to disunity and internal exhaustion.
International norms shredded
Venezuela’s scenario today repeats many lessons from Benin, down to the attempts to replace the country’s leader, the embargo and strangulation of the economy and the refusal of the Bank of England to return gold reserves to the President.
Venezuela sits atop the world’s biggest oil deposits and other huge mineral wealth, which is much coveted by external players. Internally, alongside a weakened economy, Venezuelans are so divided that they are on the brink of a civil war.
But like Ovonramwen, the Venezuelans should have been more acutely aware of the external, geopolitical environment that has been changing over the last 25 years, beginning with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia – as the US has struggled to impose a Western-dominated uni-polar world order, while the emerging power centres China, Russia and India are attempting to create a multi-polar alternative, based on new economic and demographic realities.
Important conflicts have taken part as part of this struggle – Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, Qatar, Turkey, Côte d’Ivoire, North Korea. Each of these is either energy/mineral rich or sitting along critical energy pipelines or trade routes coveted by the powers.
The international order is under great strain as the reconfiguration takes place and in these conflicts, as in Venezuela, international rules which have been taken for granted, are being shredded as we return once more to the law of the jungle and promotion of raw interests.
But all this is happening in messy and often contradictory ways, which also produces the risk of conflict and disintegration. So on the one hand, the Western powers appear solidly together under the American, EU and NATO tutelage. On the other hand, we can also see fissures and the unravelling of these alliances. NATO was split when France and Germany were prepared to vote against the Iraq war in the Security Council. Even though under Merkel and Sarkozy, both France and Germany subsequently returned to the fold, supporting the US line on Libya, Ukraine, Syria and now Venezuela, the split over Iraq was profound and indicates an underlying divergence of interests; for example, the Germans ignoring US objections to their Nordstream strategic energy pipeline with Russia. And now there is Brexit and the EU unravelling.
These disagreements will continue alongside the unity for raw and unbridled resource grabs that we are witnessing in Venezuela. Africa should be aware of the aggressiveness of this changing external context, build its own internal unity and resilience or suffer again the fate of Benin. NA