Esan people

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Esan people
Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán
Total population
c. 1.5 million
Regions with significant populations
Esan and English
Related ethnic groups
Benin, Afemai, Urhobo, Isoko

The Esan people (Esan: Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán) are an ethnic group of south Nigeria who speak the Esan language. The Esan are traditionally agriculturalists, trado-medical practitioners, mercenary warriors and hunters. They cultivate palm trees, Irvingia gabonensis (erhonhiele), Cherry (Otien), bell pepper (akoh) coconut, betel nut, kola nut, black pear, avocado pear, yams, cocoyam, cassava, maize, rice, beans, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, sugar cane, tomato, potato, okra, pineapple, paw paw, and various vegetables.[citation needed]

The modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during the 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 whom they met there. There are on the whole 35 established kingdoms in Esanland, including Amahor, Ebelle, Egoro, Ewohimi, Ekekhenlen, Ekpoma, Ekpon, Emu, Ewu, Ewatto, Ewossa, Idoa,[3] Ifeku, Igueben, Ilushi, Inyelen, Irrua, Ogwa, Ohordua, Okalo, Okhuesan, Onogholo, Opoji, Oria, Orowa, Uromi, Udo, Ugbegun, Ugboha, Ubiaja, Urhohi, Ugun, Ujiogba, Ukhun, and Uzea.

The Esan Kingdoms often warred among each other. Despite the wars, the Esans kept a homogenous culture which was chiefly influenced by the Benin Empire. However, these kingdoms were colonized, along with the Benin Empire, by the British Empire during 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 Edo, Urhobo, Owan language, Isoko, Anioma and Etsako.[4] It 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.[5][6]

It is estimated that the Esan people who reside in Esanland number about one million to 1.5 million citizens in Nigeria,[7] and there is a strong Esan diaspora.

Etymology and identity[edit]

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).

In the pre-colonial era, Esans carried a crow's foot tribal scar below their eyes.[8]


Pre-historical/classical period[edit]

According to archaeological and linguistic evidence, humans have resided in the savannah-forest ecotone in Esanland for at least 3000 years ago.[9] These people were likely associated with the Nok people and came from the savannahs in the north to the southern forests. To this day, northern Esan dialects have more in common with Northern Edo languages such as Etsako and Owan than southern Esan dialects do, which happen to be closely related with Edo. These "proto-Edoid" peoples grew yam, oil palm and vegetables, but also hunted and gathered.

Starting from 500 AD to 750 AD, these hunter-gatherers started to colonize the savannah-forest ecosystem of Esanland and the forest ecosystem of the Benin Empire.[10] They created a pre-Esan, pre-Edo society that built advanced structures such as moats and walls around family properties. These enclosures were, at maximum, three to five kilometers in diameter, and demarcated residential and agricultural property. Those properties enlarged to become villages, and by 800 AD, these village coalesced to form kingdoms with hierarchies.[11] Modern-day digs in the region have found that these walls were situated in the eastern Benin Empire and northern Esanland. Settlements were close to permanent springs on the northern plateau, but never next to intermittent springs.

Esanland’s culture, language and growth were majorly influenced by the mass exoduses to Esan territory from all adjacent polities[12] Communities on Esanland’s southern and eastern fringes (Ewohimi, Ewatto, Ekpon, Amahor) were heavily populated by Igbos and Igalas (into Uroh);[13] from the north came the Emai into Ukhun, Idoa, and Amahor and the Etsako into Irrua);[13] and from the south came the Itsekiri (into Ekpon) and Urhobo (into Ujiogba).[13]

The biggest influence on Esanland came from Edo, founders of Benin Empire. In 1460, Oba Ewuare passed laws of mourning that prohibited sexual intercourse, bathing, drumming, dancing, and cooking. These laws proved too restrictive for many citizens, and these citizens fled the kingdom to Esanland. This exodus shaped Esanland’s modern cultural identity and gave rise to the term "Esan," or "refugee." Oral tradition has heavily supported this theory. Prominent Esan and Edo historians have collected stories about this migration.[14][15]


Esan kingdoms had a varying degree of autonomy, but were ultimately controlled by the Benin Empire. The Oba approved the enijie of Esanland, and Esan kingdoms paid tribute to Benin. Yet, several wars between Esan kingdoms and Benin were recorded. This was due to the Oba, at ascension on the throne, sending white chalk to the Esans as a term of friendship. If the chalk was rejected, then the Oba would try to invade Esanland. The varying political stabilities of Benin and the Esan kingdoms also led to warfare. Such warfare was so common that there is no recorded history of peace between all of the Esan kingdoms and Benin.[citation needed]

Esanland was extensively involved in world trade. Benin’s sovereignty over Esanland enabled it to send long-distant traders, or ekhen. Ekhen procured cloth, ivory, peppers, and slaves for European merchants in Yorubaland, Esanland, and Afenmai. Portugal primarily received blue cloth, or ukpon ododo from Esanland in exchange for tobacco, brandy, mirror, beads, and firearms, primarily through ekhen.[citation needed]

During the 16th century, the Uzea War occurred. This war was between the Uromi Kingdom and the Benin Kingdom. The war lasted from 1502 to 1503, and resulted from a refusal of friendship from Oba Ozolua of Benin by Onojie Agba of Uromi. The war ended at the town of Uzea, when both leaders were killed. However, in peaceful times Esan kingdoms would loan soldiers to the Benin Kingdom, such as during the Idah War of 1515-1516, and the sacking of Akure in 1823.[16]

During the nineteenth century, northern Esanland was continually attacked and sacked by the Muslim Nupe people in the hunt for slaves and converts to Islam, having previously taken over the Kukuruku peoples’ lands. Many Esan kingdoms from the south helped in the battle to fend off the Nupes. The battles came into the Esans’ favor; several Nupe and Etsako warriors were brought into Esan cities where their posterity reside today. The nineteenth century brought increasing influence of Europe on Esanland, as the English demanded palm-products.[citation needed]

Esan warfare and colonization[edit]

Prince Okojie and his entourage.

In 1897, the British sacked the Benin Empire, effectively leaving the Esans free from British rule. In 1899, the British led an invasion into the Esan kingdoms that lasted for seven years. Esanland proved to be harder to conquer than the Benin Kingdom because of its strong autonomy: Kingdoms chose to keep fighting the British even if its neighbors fell. Fallen Benin chiefs like Ologbosere and Ebohon were still resistant to British rule inadvertently guarded Esan soil from the west, by establishing military camps and blocking roads. This lasted from 1897 to April 22. 1899, where Ologbosere surrendered at the border village of Okemue.[citation needed]

The first kingdom to be attacked by the British was the Kingdom of Ekpon. Ekpon launched a fierce resistance against the British invasion on April 22, which nearly destroyed the kingdom. After the near genocide of Esans at Ekpon, the kingdom of Ekpon led an ambush of the British camp at Okueme, on April 29. This led British forces to retreat, consolidate their power, and kill Ologbosere in May. Subsequent attempts by the British failed as well: conquests into Irrua, for example, led to an adoption of a guerrilla warfare strategy followed by a retreat; this method was so successful that other Esan kingdoms adopted it and the British did not invade Esanland until 1901.[citation needed]

On March 16, 1901, the Kingdom of Uromi, headed by the old, yet intelligent Onojie Okolo, was attacked by the British. The Uromi resistance, led by Prince Okojie, was swift and employed guerrilla warfare. After a short time, British forces overtook the village Amedeokhian, where Okolo was stationed, and murdered him. This angered Prince Okojie so much that he killed the Captain of the British troops before reinforcements were brought in. The British then realized that Uromi was nigh impenetrable without native help, and contact local sympathizers such as Onokpogua, the Ezomo of Uromi. This succeeded in napping Prince Okojie out of the forest and deported to the British offices at Calabar.[citation needed]

This process was duplicated in most of the kingdoms that fought with Britain: guerilla warfare was excessively used by the Esans, resulting in prolonged battle time in spite of inferior weapons, and reinforcements from Benin City for the British. Even when villages were conquered, internal resistance was fierce: continued guerilla warfare in Uromi forced the British to release Prince Okojie. However, excessive cruelty on Britain’s part razed many villages and displaced many people. Finally, in 1906, Esanland submitted to British rule, and the thirty-four kingdoms became the Ishan Division.[citation needed]

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.

Performing arts/music[edit]

Esan dance is dominated by the Igbabonelimhin, an acrobatic dance performed mostly by young males. Igbabonelimhin involves spinning and somersaulting to a timed beat. This dance was mostly performed at New Year's. Today, the dance is taken as a unique symbol for Esans everywhere.[17]

Notable Esans in Nigeria[edit]

  • Victor Ehikhamenor, artist, writer, and photographer.
  • Ikhide R. Ikheloa, social and literary critic and former chief of staff to the Board of Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Maryland, (MCPS) USA.
  • Peter Enahoro, journalist, writer, columnist, and author of the book, How to Be a Nigerian.

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). There have been other translation of that saying, Esan gbe Edo which means Esan have conquered 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
  • Esu, the Esan trickster god. This god is shared with Yoruba and Edo myth. The name Esu was used as a translation for Satan by Christian missionaries.
  • Osun, the Esan god of medicine. This is where the surname Okosun, 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, Ebudin
  3. Esan West LGA, Ekpoma: Ekpoma, Iruekpen, Idoa, Ogwa, Urohi, Ukhun, Egoro and Ujiogba
  4. Esan South East LGA, Ubiaja: Ubiaja, Ewohimi, Emu, Ohordua, Ẹwatto, Okhuesan, Orowa, Ugboha, Oria, Illushi, Onogholo, Inyenlen
  5. Igueben LGA, Igueben: Igueben, Ebelle, 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 Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, London, 2011. Retrieved on 11 February 2015.
  3. ^ idoasky. "Idoa: Community: Esan: West: Edo: State: Nigeria". Idoa Community, Edo State. Retrieved 2018-12-31.
  4. ^ Unknown and to a limited extent, the Fulani language [3], U.S. Center for World Mission, Pasadena, 2014. Retrieved on 1 November 2014.
  5. ^ Unknown. [4], Department for Education , London, 2014. Retrieved on 30 May 2015.
  6. ^ Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More Than 400 Languages. New York City: Columbia University Press. pp. 162–163. ISBN 978-0-231-11568-1. Retrieved 15 November 2015.
  7. ^ Rolle, Nicholas, [5], 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.
  8. ^ Thomas, Northcote Whitridge. Anthropological Report on the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria (1910). London: Harrison. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  9. ^ Historical Archaeology in Nigeria. Asmara, Trenton: Africa World Press. 1998. pp. 178–180. ISBN 978-0-865-43610-7. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  10. ^ Wesler, Kit W. (1998). Historical Archaeology in Nigeria. Asmara, Trenton: Africa World Press. pp. 178–180. ISBN 978-0-865-43610-7. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  11. ^ Lane, Paul; Mitchell, Peter (2013). The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford, UK.: Oxford University. pp. 861–863. ISBN 978-0-199-56988-5. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  12. ^ Rolle, Nicholas (19 April 2013). Linguistic evidence for heterogeneous origins of modern Esan language and identity (PDF) (Thesis). University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  13. ^ a b c Rolle 2013. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFRolle2013 (help)
  14. ^ "Welcome /Obo'khian to the Esan World Congress". Esan World Congress. Esan World Congress. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  15. ^ Rolle, Nicholas (19 April 2013). Linguistic evidence for heterogeneous origins of modern Esan language and identity (PDF) (Thesis). University of California at Berkeley. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  16. ^ . S2CID 55893951. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ Atuegbe, Chris Omigie (14 November 2015). The Igbabonelimhin Dance: The Origin (PDF) (Thesis). Ambrose Alli University. Retrieved 11 November 2015.

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