The kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) was plunged into a state of turmoil at the end of the fifteenth century when the oba (king) Ozolua died and left two powerful sons to dispute succession.
His son Esigie controlled Benin City, while another son, Arhuaran, was based in the equally important city of Udo about twenty miles away. The ensuing civil war severely compromised Benin’s status as a regional power and undermined Benin City’s place at the political and cultural center of the kingdom.
Exploiting this weakness, the neighboring Igala peoples sent warriors across the Benue River to wrest control of Benin’s northern territories.
Esigie ultimately defeated his brother and conquered the Igala, reestablishing the unity and military strength of the kingdom. His mother Idia received much of the credit for these victories as her political counsel, together with her mystical powers and medicinal knowledge, were viewed as critical elements of Esigie’s success on the battlefield.
To reward and honor her, Esigie created a new position within the court called the iyoba, or queen mother, which gave her significant political privileges, including a separate residence with its own staff.
As mother of the king, Idia and later iyobas wielded considerable power. Until recent times, the queen mother, who bore the oba’s first son, had no other children and devoted her life to raising the future ruler of the kingdom, a role she was destined to play even before her own birth.
Queen mothers were therefore viewed as instrumental to the protection and well-being of the oba and, by extension, the kingdom. Indeed, obas wore carved ivory pendant masks representing the iyoba during ceremonies designed to rid the kingdom of malevolent spiritual forces.
It was Idia, the mother of Esigie, her face is the face of Festac ’77.