Queen Idia “Ne Iye Esigie” Africa First female Army General

Centuries after the death of Queen Idia Ne Iye Esigie, she is still considered one of the greatest women in Africa who was not born of royal blood but Africa first female Army General.

Like most young girls of that era, Idia Ne Iye Esigie was prepared in her teenage years for marriage. She grew up to be beautiful, strong willed and deeply spiritual.

What brought her to the palace though, was not just her beauty but her awesome dancing skills. Idia was the best dancer in the kingdom.

Born in Ugieghudu Quarters of Benin Kingdom, Idia went for a dance at the capital, Benin city and that was where Oba Ozolua noticed the pretty damsel who danced like no other. The Oba could not take his eyes off her.

As it still stands, the subjects go far and above to give the Oba his heart’s desire. it was with pride that Idia’s parents gave the king their daughter, when he asked to marry her.

Getting married to the Oba was the quickest and easiest route to political power not just for Idia, but for her parents and Ugieghudu quarters at large. So, logically, it was a win-win situation.

Her parents realized that destiny had brought their daughter good luck but it was their duty to lay hold and seize this miraculous opportunity to become powerful, rich, famous and influential.

Legend has it that they took their beloved daughter, Idia through many fortifications and spiritual preparations – which is generally referred to as “cooking” in order to prepare her for life in the Palace.

The palace was not a place for weaklings, the fearful or the faint-hearted. If their daughter was going to be successful, then, she had to be ready physically, mentally but most importantly, spiritually.

Her husband, Oba Ozolua was a man of war and consequently went to wars on a regular basis.

When Idia got pregnant for her first son, Oba Ozolua already had a son, while his other Oloi, Ohonmi was heavy with child. It was plain to see that Idia’s child was billed to be the third son.

As this sounds, there was almost no Queen-Mother future for her.
All she was destined to be was an a Oloi and nothing more.

But, she couldn’t accept that fact. Idia was prepared for greatness way before she married the king. This seemingly unattainable dream, set in motion a dramatic turn of mysterious events, as old as the ancient Benin kingdom itself.

History has it that she commanded great influence in the palace of Oba Ozolua. She knew all the major players and her knowledge of politics, administration, medicine and spiritual warfare, made her a vital asset.

In all of her importance, her fiery ambition was how her son, who was third in line to the throne, could become king.

Here’s how she allegedly succeeded in kicking her son’s opponents to the curb.

Queen Idia gave birth to her first son Osawe (Oba Esigie) on the same day her fellow Oloi, Queen Ohonmi gave birth to her own first son, Idubor Aruanran. The difference was that Ohonmi gave birth hours before Idia.

Oral history states that after his birth, Idubor Aruanran mysteriously failed to cry at birth. However, a few hours later, Queen Idia also put to bed and her baby, Osawe (Esigie), cried and cried…

The baby (Osawe) was therefore the first to be announced as the second son to their father, Oba Ozolua.

When Idubor finally cried much later, it was a little too late as Oba Ozolua, had already performed the traditional ceremony of announcing Osawe as his official second son.

Palace watchers and rumour mongers accused Queen Idia of masterminding the whole scenario, due to her knowledge of magic and mysticism. They claimed she spiritually shut baby Aruanran’s mouth and brought her delivery date forward with her supernatural powers, all in a bid to get her son closer the highly revered throne.

How did Osawe (Oba Esigie) who was the third son manage to become Oba?

Once, could be a mistake, twice a coincidence but the third occurrence, made the pattern obvious.

Years prior to Idia’s son becoming king, the actual first son of Oba Ozulua, Ogidogbo was declared unfit to be Oba after he fractured his leg and became crippled, following a wrestling bout with his two younger brothers, Osawe and Aruanran. Of course we know who automatically becomes heir to the throne; Prince Osawe (Esigie), Queen Idia’s son.

It was again claimed that Queen Idia had a hand in Ogidogbo’s accident, but ultimately, nothing was proven.

Many swore she orchestrated the brilliant master plan to make her son the Oba and she succeeded.

After the death of her husband, Oba Ozolua in 1504, her son Osawe (Oba Esigie) was crowned the new Oba.

This resulted in a civil war between Esigie and his giant brother, Aruanran. The two brothers battled for the throne of their father.

At this time, Aruanran was the Enogie (Ruler) of Udo, a town of great importance and his brother Osawe (Oba Esigie) was in control of Benin.

The war was long and it took three campaigns to defeat Idubor Aruanran.

Aruanran had tried to make Udo the capital of the Benin kingdom as he refused to be a subordinate to his younger brother, Osawe.

Aruanran was a huge man and a warrior who strongly opposed to his brother, Esigie, who was sent to a Portuguese missionary school by their father and had never fought in any war; unlike Aruanran who fought alongside his late father.

To defeat his giant brother, Oba Esigie had to trust and rely physically and spiritually on his gallant mother (Queen Idia).
Therefore, she led his army on some war expeditions.

It is also said that her son, Oba Esigie did not make any major decision without consulting her even after he became king.

Aruanran’s assassination attempts could have succeeded were it not for Idia who was reputedly skilled in magical arts and whom he knew was a formidable opponent he had to overcome.

Realising he had to acquire supernatural powers if he wanted to take on Idia who was her son’s spiritual protector, oral tradition recounts that Aruanran retreated to Uroho village to learn the art of black magic from an old sorceress, Iyenuroho.

That he chose a woman as teacher is clear recognition that his actual opponent (Idia) was a woman and that he had to learn the ways of women’s mystical powers to be assured of victory.

In spite of his fortification, Aruanran, the Enogie of Udo committed suicide by drowning at the Udo Lake after his defeat. He did not want to be captured prisoner and taken back to Benin.

Before jumping into the lake, he left his ´Ivie necklace,´ the precious beaded symbol of authority in Benin land, dangling from a tree branch where it could easily have been found. Only the Oba could inherit such trophies of dead or conquered leaders and nobles.

Out of excitement over his victory, Oba Esigie tied on the neck for size, his brother´s humble surrender necklace symbol. Immediately he placed the jewelry around his neck, Queen Idia’s son, the great Oba Esigie became mentally disoriented!

Removing the necklace from his neck made no difference. He was rushed back to Benin in that hopeless state.

In search of a cure for her son, Idia located a Yoruba mystic at Ugbo in Ilaje, in the riverine area of the west and brought him to Benin to work on the king´s spiritual ailment.

The spiritual consultant cured the Oba of his ailment and the Queen after rewarding him generously, prevailed on him (the Yoruba Awo) to settle permanently in Benin, in order to continue rendering his services to her son.

The mystic accepted the offer and set up home at Ogbelaka quarters where his descendants have thrived until this day.

With Aruanran`s death and her son cured of his mental ailment, Idia put her talents into the administration and protection of his son`s kingdom.

She became a noted administrator and a great Amazon and an influence on her son.

Queen Idia also supervised the famous Idah war with the Igalas.
She ensured that her son’s side won that war.

Recognizing her role, Oba Esigie introduced a special post in the administration for his mother called IYOBA – The Queen Mother

She was personally involved in many of the wars by the Oba and even led some of those battles herself.

Oba Esigie’s lack of war experience was probably the reason Queen Idia led his armies to war. But irrespective of the reason, it was no mean feat.

Queen Idia was a strategist, a political guru and a loving mother.
She had managed to make her son king, ensured he defeated his brother, Aruanran during the civil war and she even fought his wars.

Oba Esigie recognised how effectively efficient she was and instead of killing her as tradition demanded, he created a special office for her in his administration called IYOBA (Queen Mother) and gave her a private quarters in Uselu with her own staff.

After her death, Oba Esigie commissioned bronze artists to make a special portrait of his mother.

Copies of Queen Idia’s famous portrait still stare men in the face in museums the world over.

Till date, on certain ceremonies in the Benin Kingdom, the Oba still wears pendants of the Queen Mother as a symbol of protection.


– First woman to have stopped the killing of the Oba’s mother on his ascension to the throne.

– The first woman to fight and win wars in defense of a kingdom.

– The first official Queen-Mother of Benin kingdom.

Today, Queen Idia’s visage has gained global recognition, as her face which served as the symbol of FESTAC ’77, still beautifies museums, textile fabrics, jewelry, souvenirs, and other art motifs across the continent and beyond!

Idia, Ne Iye Esigie Lives On…

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