Benin Moat: Neglected Monument In Search of A Rescuer

culled from GUARDIAN

Mr. Osahon Edobor lives on first East Circular Road,
just some few kilometres from the ancient Benin City
walls and moat. He recalls how his father built the
family house in 1964. As a boy of 15 then, he joined
in the excavation of sand from the moat walls, which
was used for the foundation of the building.

After the foundation was laid, his father hired a
dumper and workmen, who excavated sand from the moat
wall. Dumped at the construction site, the red earth
would then be turned into mud by mashing and mixing it
with water. Shovelled into straws by the bricklayers,
the mud turns into perfect redbrick when heated in the
scorching sun. The mud red brick were used for the
building of the large family house. Contrition twines
him anytime he sees the present sorry state of this

At 55, and with the benefit of hindsight, he regrets
partaking in what he referred to as the 'infamous rape
of the Benin moat and walls.' Now, he lives with sour
memories and gnashes his teeth anytime he walks past
the historical monument.

Sighing deeply, he explains that it was, and still is,
a common practice for people to excavate sand from the
moat walls for building and other purposes. In fact,
it is a general phenomenon. "The only difference is
that people now build with cement instead of sand, if
not the moat walls would have been completely eroded,"
he remarks.

Edobor reveals that the moat was also used as a
makeshift refuse dump. The family refuse was routinely
dumped inside the moat. All sorts of refuse from the
city found their way to the moat. Moats and walls,
which surrounded the old Benin Empire, were kept very
clean in those days. It was strictly forbidden to dump
refuse inside the moat or round the vicinity. In those
days, the Oba, as a supreme and absolute monarch, was
the custodian of the moat and nobody dares defy his
decree as regards the maintenance of the moat.

On June 1, 1967 the inner and outer city walls, some
of which were surveyed and mapped were proclaimed
national monuments with the following citations:
"These are the most highest point, the walls are 30
feet high and the ditch (moat), 30 feet deep."
Unfortunately, in the past few years, the walls have
been extensively used as a source of building

The former curator at the Benin Museum and
co-ordinator of the Nigeria World Heritage Programme,
Dr. Joseph Eboreime, reveals that the iya (moat)
consists of inner and outer sections intersected by
gates marked up to the 1950, with visible chairs at
the point of entry to Benin.

Besides these, Eboreime contends that there are
earthworks surrounding Benin villages. For instance,
Ehor on the Benin-Agbor Expressway and Udo which are
both under the consideration of the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
(UNESCO), as part of the two Great Benin civilisation
for the World Heritage citation.

To keep this magnificent moment from encroachment, the
Federal Government Gazette prescribed a buffer zone,
which says in part: "The town walls of Benin and the
sites thereof comprising the land lying within 50ft of
the crest of the wall on the outside, shall be deemed
lawfully erected as long as they exist."

The ex-curator mourns that from the citation in the
1967 gazette, it was obvious that the city walls were
already being encroached upon by the time they were
declared a national property. The proclamation of the
ancient walls as national monuments were meant, among
other things to check further excavation, encroachment
and discretion and also, a recognition of the walls
and moats as unique relics of the ancient Benin

Talking about the significance of this heritage, the
Oba of Benin, Omo N'Oba Eradiawa described these chain
of moats as representing the historical evolution of
Benin, as well as the spiritual development of the
kingdom. Many cultural ceremonies were incomplete
without visits to the once revered and awe-inspiring

But sadly today, significant portions of this great
heritage have been destroyed by urban expansion
resulting from increased socio-economic and
demographic activities. The moats and walls, widely
described as one of the world's largest ancient
earthworks, have fallen on bad times. In fact, they
face extinction unless something urgent is done. These
extensive earthworks must be preserved for its
educational, historical, cultural and tourism

The rape of the moat prompted Mr. C.A Edior, of the
Directorate of Land and Housing, to say that the
original locations of the moats and walls are hardly
noticeable or excessively exaggerated in many areas.
The reasons he adduced for this include sand
excavation, refuse dumping, road construction, illegal
building, encroachment, soil erosion creating deep
gullies, years of local agricultural activities, long
period of sand deposit, and conversion into urban
drainage channels.

The former General Manager of the Edo State
Environmental Protection Agency (EDSEPA), Mr. Robert
Aghayedo, laments that the ancient city walls and
moats had been seriously misused and degraded over the
years through human activities. It is a known fact
that some portions of it have been reclaimed for
infrastructural development, while it serves as a
point of disposal of refuse in many other cases, he

For Nnimmo Bassey, the Director of the Environmental
Rights Action (ERA), "the ancient walls must be
recognised for what they are - great works of
ingenious men who had a very high sense of
engineering. These local engineers worked with
available local materials and building techniques to
achieve a purpose which was at the same time, cultural
and practical. The massive earth walls were backed by
deep moats and are supposed to be Africa's version of
the Chinese Great Wall, a tourist honeysport, a
potential money spinner."

It is noteworthy, observes the environmentalist, that
unlike other outstanding monuments in Africa which
have attracted controversies as to their origins, no
one has disputed the fact that the extensive Benin
walls were designed and built by the people of the
great Benin Kingdom. "In the case of monumented
structures such as the Great Zimbabwe, historians for
a long time held that persons who met there from
outside Africa built them,'' he concludes.

In the words of Peter Garleke: "To them, African had
not got the energy, will, organiastion, foresight or
skill to build these walls. Indeed, he appeared so
backward that it seemed that his active race could
never have accomplished the task at any period."

Looking at the walls today, a broken-hearted Bassey
laments that they have suffered neglect and that
majority of the people have invariably forgotten their
centrality to the history of the city and the kingdom.

"The government sees them as drainage channels. Rather
than comprehensively handling the municipal drainage
scheme of the city and the environs, the moat has to a
large extent, become the default drainage channel of
the city. Some streets such as the ones around Costain
Road and Victory Street areas of New Benin terminate
at the edges of the moat. This is very regrettable,"
he says.

It is a thing of great concern to him that the
monument, which ordinarily should have received
preferential treatment from developers, is now seen as
an impediment to development. It should not be looked
upon as a barrier but rather as a gateway and it also
act as a block against infiltrators to the city.

"The sad thing really is that this perspective is very
widespread. It cuts from the ordinary folks to high
ranking government officials. I have lived in Benin
for 23 years, and I am yet to see any governor take
any special interest in these walls."

In Bassey's imagination, the moat in its earlier days,
reveals the lofty heights they rose to and the great
depths they have been plunged to now. Again, he sees
the reverence they attracted, the sense of security,
and the pride of the people. The citizens were careful
not to do anything that would deface or erode the
magnificent walls.

To the ERA director, the ancient walls have better
claim as place makers than the many monuments and
recent creations that have been erected elsewhere. As
a respected seat of black history, whenever visitors
come to Benin, they should not need to ask before the
presence of the moat would present itself, adding that
outside the Oba's palace and the Arts section of the
historical Igun street, the city is virtually devoid
of place markers.

The truth, according to Braimoh Isu, Education Officer
at the Edo State Ministry of Education, is that the
encroachment on the walls is as old as the walls
itself. The moats just after they were dug were said
to have been converted to the dumping of sacrificial
victims, worn out artefacts of various types and the
performance of rituals. This practice could be
referred to as the beginning of the moat's

Isu identified ignorance, greed, poverty, population
pressure and lack of information as some of the
factors responsible for the rape of the moat,
emphasing bitterly that the ruinous degradation of the
moat could be likened to a very big catastrophe. "In
fact, we have almost lost a valuable treasure which is
almost irredeemable," he enthuses.

Today, modern man and his western civilisation and
technological development have eroded the conceptual
environmental culture of the people, unlike in time
past, when it was a taboo to build any structure close
to the walls and moats. It was then a traditional way
of conserving the walls and the moats for posterity.

What is to be done

Eboreime argues that since cultural tourism is the
bedrock of international tourism, for a start, the
state government should integrate cultural assets and
material resources of the people into her future
social and economic objectives at local and state
This is the way countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya,
Ghana and India are developing international tourism
within the content of poverty alleviation and youth
employment via rural tourism and craft development

The curator further says that some steps must be taken
to enhance the aesthetics of the city walls and moats
as part of the tourism agenda of the state within the
dynamics of the millennium. "There is the need to
commission a management and strategic plan for the
cultivation of the cultural resources of Benin and Edo
State within an integrated development agenda, that
will attract UNESCO and the World Bank funding for
international tourism development. This is the world
of heritage developers, town planners and

He is, however, happy with the African Renaissance
Association, steered by Chief Lugard Aimiuwu and
Lawson Omokhodion, which has set itself the task of
globalising Edo heritage for excellence, development
and oneness.

Advising that this should involve networking by the
Edos with Africans in the diaspora, and all other
people who are committed to the development of the
model, Eborieme notes that Benin has more than two
chances to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage
list. There is its incontestable potential for full
employment and poverty alleviation, urban and rural
integration development within the context of cultural
and professionally guided pro-active approach to this
noble agenda.

To Bassey, the correct presentation of these monuments
must entail the full restoration of parts of it for
the education of Nigerians, for cultural and
historical reasons, and for its great tourism
potential. It will take courage to invest in the
project, he concedes; but quickly stressed that the
results will be more than worth it.

Like the Benin walls and moats, for many centuries,
the Great Wall of China remained neglected until the
Chinese communists restored three sections of it as an
attraction for visitors. Today, the wall is so central
in the history of China that knowledge of its
existence is one of the first things people learn
about the nation.

He painted a vivid picture of the multiplying effects
of the restored city wall on the economy of the state,
saying when "one beholds even the most degraded
portions of the moats today, it is still possible to
see the great potential in them. Where remnants of the
walls have been kept from destruction as in sections
of the University of Benin, there are beautiful
landscape features. The vegetation on them stands them
out in a delightful way."

Recommending that selected portions (at least five
kilometres) of the wall and moats be fully restored to
their initial splendour every year, Bassey, an
architect, says that with conscious efforts at
restoration and preservation, variations of intensity
of light can be utilised to direct the motion of the
eyes to specific purpose. The presence of trees that
do well at all seasons would be necessary to maintain
the aesthetic and practical enjoyment of these walls.

He has a vision: "When one beholds even the most
degraded portions of the walls today, it is still
possible to see the great potentials in them. Where
people see spaces for the dumping of refuse, I see
great open air amphitheatres on the banks of these
walls. I see people taking historical walks in the
bottom of these great moats."

The government, Bassey insists, must go beyond
lip-service and take active interest in the
restoration and preservation of the moats. If the
moats were restored or preserved, it would not be out
of place for government functionaries to take state
visitors on tour of sections of the great ancient
walls. "Let us join to ensure that the walls are
restored, " he pleads.

Isu wants the locals to retrieve their attitudinal
values and start now to conserve the relics, through
literacy awareness campaigns with particular reference
to environmental education as the tools to sustainable

The educationist advises that people should bear in
mind that only development, which is environmentally
sound, could also be socio-economically sustainable;
and that human development and environmental
conservation must be integrated for a society to be

He further maintained that checking this menace will
involve the introduction of environmental education to
the school curriculum through interdisciplinary
approach and the formation of environmental
conservation groups, since the degraded monuments are
aspects of environmental problems.

The Edo State Commissioner for Culture and Tourism,
Lady Omorede Osifo, also bemoans the pathetic state of
the moat and warned those encroaching on the moat to
beware, as the government is seriously considering
demolishing such illegal structures.

The Edo State government, she says, has a great plan
for the moat and has not given up on the monument. "We
want to clear it up like the Great Walls of China
where the communist country makes a lot of money. This
present administration is determined to give the moat
a new look. We hope to concentrate on some parts of
it, Osifo adds.

Remorseful Edobor wants the government to enforce the
law no matter the personalities involved. The law says
that nobody should build a house too close to the
moat. Those that build houses within 50 feet of the
moat should have such houses demolished as prescribed
by the law.

He predicted dolefully: "I guess the monument would be
totally lost in a few years time, if something urgent
is not done to avert the trend. The government, the
Bini monarchy and the people must do something about
this. To sit down and lament the state of the moat and
walls is the easiest way to let the moat rot.
Something concrete must be done to stop the rape of
the moat before it totally disappear."

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