Esan people

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This article is about the ethnic group. For E-san, the volcano in Japan, see Mount E.
Not to be confused with Isan people.
Esan people
Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán
Ishan, Esan
Godfrey Oboabona.JPG
Ikimiadressing united nation.png
Chief Stella Abebe Obasanjo 2014-05-06 10-26.jpg
Total population
0.7 million
Regions with significant populations
 Nigeria 500,000-700,000[1]
 Scotland 33[2]
 Wales 7[3]
 England 125[4]
Esan and English
Related ethnic groups
Edo people, Yoruba people, Igala people, Igbo people

The Esan people, or Ishan people (Esan: Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán) are an ethnic group of South-southern Nigeria who speak the Esan language. The Esan are traditionally agriculturalists, trado-medical practitionals, mercenary warriors and hunters. They cultivate yams, cassava, maize, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, and various vegetables.[5]

The modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during 15th century, when citizens, mostly nobles and princes, left the neighbouring Benin Empire for the northeast; there they formed communities and kingdoms called eguares among the aboriginal peoples whon they met there. For example, in Ewu Kingdom, the aboriginal people are known as the Ehanlen people. But the Benin immigrants founded their Eguare at a clearing near Ehanlen and installed the Onojie. There are on the whole about 35 established kingdoms in Esanland. They include; Irrua, Ekpoma, Ubiaja, Uromi, Igueben, Ewu, Ewohinmin, Ewatto, Uzea, Egoro, and others.

The Esan kingdoms often warred among each other. The Irrua - Uromi wars are classic examples. Despite the wars, the Esans kept a homogenous culture which was chiefly influenced by the Benin Empire. However, these kingdoms of Esanland, along with were other kingdoms hitherto under the defunct Benin Empire to the British Empire during the twentieth century, precisely in September 1897, only gaining independence 63 years later in 1960 when Nigeria became independent from British Colonial rule. After independence, the Esan people have suffered from civil war, poverty, and lack of infrastructure.

The Esans primarily speak the Esan language, an Edoid language related to Urhobo, Isoko, Edo,Etsako..[6]

The Esan language is considered a regionally important language in Nigeria, and it is taught in primary schools in addition to being broadcast on radio and television. The Esan language is also recognized in the Census of the United Kingdom.[7]

It is estimated that the Esan people who reside in Esanland number about half-a million to 700,000 citizens in Nigeria,[8] and there is a strong Esan diaspora. Esan-speaking communities exist in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Pan-Esan groups such as the Esan World Congress have kept the Esan community tight-knit.


The term Esan has been applied to the Esan people for thousands of years, and was used before contact with Europeans. It is believed by many historians that the name 'Esan' (originally, 'E san fia') owes its origin to Bini (meaning, 'they have fled' or 'they jumped away'). 'Ishan' is an Anglicized form of 'Esan', the result of colonial Britain's inability to properly pronounce the name of this ethnic group. It is believed that similar corruption has affected such Esan names as ubhẹkhẹ (now 'obeche' tree), uloko (now 'iroko' tree), Abhuluimẹn (now 'Aburime'), etc. Efforts have however been made to return to status quo ante.

For academic purpose, Esan refers to

  1. the ethnic group that occupies central Edo State;
  2. (plural unchanged) a person or the people collectively from this ethnic group;
  3. the language of these people which, linguistically, is of the Kwa subdivision of the Niger-Congo language family;
  4. something of, related to, or having Esan origin e.g. uro Esan (=Esan language), otọ Esan (=Esan land), ọghẹdẹ Esan (=Esan banana).


Main article: Esanland
Further information: Esanland § History

A total of thirty four kingdoms (large villages/townships ruled traditionally by monarchs) make up Esan and many of them seem to have their own oral versions of the origin of Esan as well as its own starting point in history. One of the most popular of these is the one advocated by the group much of which constitutes the now defunct Agbazilo, one of the two former local government administrative units in Esan.

According to the Agbazilo group, made up mainly of Uromi and Uzea, Esan came into being when one of the children of Bini’s Queen Oakha and Ojiso Owodo, Prince Uzia Asokpodudu (Ojiso Owodo’s crown prince and heir apparent) founded Uzea in about 1188 AD after they fled their father's (the Ojiso's) palace following the death sentence passed on their mother, Queen Oakha, who was alleged to have committed adultery with a Bini chief, Ovior. The duo of Ozogbo and Oigi, Asokpodudu's younger brothers, escaped along with him and the mother. It is believed that not only did Prince Asokpodudu (the founder of Uzea Kingdom) escape with the mother, Oakha, relations and some palace servants, he also left with his father’s (the king's) royal trident, ‘Uziziẹnghain’, the Ojiso’s heir loom.

The Uziziẹnghain used to be the royal regalia with which the Ojiso dynasty was founded. Ozogbo later left Asokpodudu in his base in what is today known as Uzea to found Ẹgbele in present-day Uromi while Oigi went and establish a settlement with his mother, Oakha, which is today known as Ẹkperi (outside Esan land). 'Ikhio' is an annual feast celebrated in Uzea in remembrance of Oakha. While Queen Oakha and her children fled northward of Bini, Chief Ovior, her alleged lover, fled eastward to a settlement he established, which is today known as Obior (probably a corruption of 'Ovior'), near Asaba, Delta State capital.(1)

This is believed by some to be the very beginning of Esan, though the Irrua group may not readily accede to this historical contention. The very name 'Esan' was not applied to this people until the arrival of other emigrants from Bini, who fled Oba Ewuare's brutal reign. The Oba (Bini monarch) had decreed: "No making of fire to cook; no cleaning of homes; no procreation; no washing of clothes." Unable to abide by these rules, many natives fled the Bini Kingdom. When the king sought to know where many of his subjects had gone, he was told, "Esan fua" ("They have fled"), thus giving rise to 'E-san-fua' and later 'Esan'.(2)

In other words, the name Esan was never borne by the earlier group until the arrival of the later groups. Other groups, such as Ekpoma, left Bini later to establish bases where they occupy presently. Except some historical contention to the effect that Esan has always been where they are presently, or that Bini in fact migrated from Esan to its present abode, Esan in this sense is a group/tribe of 'fled/jumped away' people from Bini for various reasons and at different periods in history. Esan largely remains a migrants' settlement just like the New World. This position has made some historians to argue that the Agbazilo group, Uromi and Uzea, are a pre-Esan group which has decided to coexist under the same banner of Esan. It was within this same group, in Uzea, that Oba Ozolua met his waterloo and was buried in Ugboha's Otokhimhin, originally called 'Oto-ukhimhin' (the land of Ukhimhin tree). This is the origin of the popular saying among Esan that "Oba ii de Esan, Ozolua ii ri Edo" meaning, "A Benin monarch does not visit Esan just as King Ozolua (of Benin) will not return to Benin."

The logo of the Esan Voice Association.
The traditional agogo bell. The agogo is a very important instrument in Esanland. It is used to help keep of the rhythm of the region's various dances, and the translation of hour in Esan is agogo.


Esan land is bordered to the south by Benin City, to the south-east by Agbor, to the north and east by Etsako, to the west by River Niger. From Ewu to Benin City, the State capital, is 100 km long. No accurate demographic data of the people is available and the various local governments in Esan appear to lack reliable information in this direction. The people populate areas such as Uromi, Ewohimi, Ewatto, Igueben, Irrua, Ubiaja, Ogwa, Ebele, Ekpoma, Ohordua and Ewu in central Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It has a flat landscape, lacking in rocks and mountains, and good for agricultural purpose.

Geographically, Esanland is on a plateau, surrounded by slopes down to the lower Niger river, the valley and wetland towards Etsako, the Kukuruku Hills and the plain around Benin city the state capital. The tableland though reddish-brown in colour, is a fertile land for farming, which is the main occupation of the Esan people. There is a dense thick forest, nutritionally rich in economic crops and herbal plants. However, it is suffering from bush burning, and wood felling for timber and as a major source of fuel (which is in high demand) for the increasing population of the Esan people.


Rubber tree (used for the production of plastic products) and palm tree rank highest among Esan trees. The land's variety of fruits range from mango, orange (ate), grape, pineapple (edinenbo), guava, cashew, banana (oghede), plantain, black pear, avocado pear, lime to walnut and even more. Cassava, yam, cocoa yam, sweet potato, pepper, okra and rice are some of its farm produce. It has numerous streams that are too small to afford fishing.

Beyond all of the agricultural products listed above are numerous edible fruits and plants without English name. Oruru, for example, seems to belong to the berry family. Purple or violet in colour as the specie maybe, is a very delicious fruit, common at the beginning of the dry season, which formerly comes up in late September/October yearly, But due to climate change, these month are no longer guaranteed. A lot more research work is needed in the areas of available fruits and plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. in Esanland.


Main article: Esan language

The various Esan dialects are mutually intelligible. Irrua dialect, also spoken in Ewu, is used in education.


Esan kingdoms did not have standing armies; rather, kingdoms set up emergency programs in which all of the able bodied men in said kingdom would fight. If a kingdom was attacked, the onojie would contact the edionwele to mobilize the forces. The onojie or odionwele would then appoint a commander, or ‘’okakulo’’ to control forces. The ‘’okakulo’’ would usually be a noble, physically strong, of the ‘’Igene’’ age group and a feared medicine man and man of valour. Typical Esan weapons would include the bow and arrow, crossbow, barbed cudgel and machete, in addition to Dane guns used after the fifteenth century. War would be declared if the kingdom was attacked, if a wife was seized, or if a man was killed (if the latter two occurred, the kingdom could choose to make reprisals.)


The 14 April 2007 gubernatorial election in Edo State saw the emergence of Prof. Oserheimen Aigberadion Osunbor from Ekpoma as the next governor of Nigeria's 22nd largest state. Before the State's creation on 27 August 1991, Prof. Ambrose Folorunso Alli had governed Bendel State (1979–1983), making it the second Esan to govern Edo State. Unlike the Prof. Ambrose Alli mandate/victory, Prof. Osunbor's is widely believed to be mired in controversy of widespread irregularities by the ruling party in the State. Litigation is however on and the new governor has since 29 May 2007 been sworn in for a four-year term. On 20 March 2008, the Edo State Election Tribunal declared the former labour leader, Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State. Following Prof. Osunbor's appeal, the Appeal Court's verdict of 11 November 2008 finally laid to rest the gubernatorial dispute, as the five-man panel declared Comrade Adams Aliu Oshiomhole winner and governor of Edo State. The diminutive but vocal and resilient Etsako indigene was thereafter sworn in as governor on 12 November 2008 in a well attended ceremony at the Ogbemudia Stadium, Benin City.

National holiday[edit]

Esan Day is celebrated at the Tafawa Balewa square, Lagos every December. During the occasions names of prominent Esan figures are read to loud ovation.

Notable Esans in Nigeria[edit]

Obayojie Napoleon Bishop. General Overseer and head of a Christ Victory Life Church

Religion and folklore[edit]

Esan folktales and folklore, like the igbabonẹlimhin and akhuẹ, serve as forms of learning and entertainment. The Esan have prominent traditional rulers who keep order in a society where beauty and manners are intertwined. Despite the long-term impact of Christianity, the Esan are largely traditional and a large number practice traditional beliefs in the form of worship of ancestral spirits and other gods. A large percentage of Esan are Christians, mostly Catholic and recently of other denominations. Esan has various dialects all of which stem from Bini and there is still close affinity between the Esan and the Bini, which leads to the common saying "Esan ii gbi Ẹdo" meaning, Esan does not harm the Ẹdo (i.e. Bini).

Traditional Esan religion has many similarities to traditional Edo religion, due to the Esan migration to the northeast during the 15th century from the Benin Empire. There are many deities of the Esan religion:

  • Osanobua, the main Edo-Esan god. This name for God was brought over to Christianity and its missionaries, and thus the translation for God in Esanland is Osanobua.
  • Olokun
  • Eshu, the Esan trickster god. This god is shared with Yoruba and Edo myth. The name Eshu was used as a translation for Satan by Christian missionaries.
  • Osun, the Esan god of medicine. This is where the surname Olokun, or son of medicine, originated from.

Esan Local Government Areas in Edo State[edit]

The autonomous clans/kingdoms in Esan land are currently administratively arranged as follows under the current five local government areas:

  1. Esan-North-East LGA, Uromi: Uromi and Uzea
  2. Esan Central LGA, Irrua: Irrua, Ugbegun, Opoji, Ewu
  3. Esan West LGA, Ekpoma: Ekpoma, Idoa, Ogwa, Urohi, Ukhun, Egoro and Ujiogba
  4. Esan South East LGA, Ubiaja: Ubiaja, Ewohimi, Emu, Ohordua, Ẹwatto, Okhuesan, Orowa, Ugboha, Oria, lllushi, Onogholo, Inyenlen
  5. Igueben LGA, Igueben: Igueben, Ebele, Amaho, Ẹwossa, Udo, Ekpon, Ugun, Okalo,

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rolle, Nicholas. [1], University of California in Berkeley, Berkeley, October 17, 2012. Retrieved on 1 November 2014.
  2. ^ [2], National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2011. Retrieved on 25 December 2014.
  3. ^ [3], StatsWales, Cardiff, 2012. Retrieved on 11 February 2015.
  4. ^ [4] National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, London, 2011. Retrieved on 11 February 2015.
  5. ^ Unknown. [5], SIL International, Dallas, 2009. Retrieved on 30 May 2015.
  6. ^ Unknown and to a limited extent, the Fulani language [6], U.S. Center for World Mission, Pasadena, 2014. Retrieved on 1 November 2014.
  7. ^ Unknown. [7], Department for Education , London, 2014. Retrieved on 30 May 2015.
  8. ^ Rolle, Nicholas, [8], University of California in Berkeley, Berkeley, October 17, 2012. The aforementioned population data is contentious because there has not been any acceptable population enumeration regarding tribes in Nigeria. Retrieved on 1 November 2014.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]