Social Organization. The basic organizing principle within both the village and the urban ward is the division of the population into age sets. Every three years, boys who reach the age of puberty are initiated into the iroghae grade, whose main duties within the village include such tasks as sweeping open spaces, clearing brush, and fetching water. After the age of 25 to 30, they pass into the ighele grade, which executes the decisions made by the senior age set, the edion. The elders are exempt from physical labor and constitute the executive and judicial council of the village, led by an elected senior elder ( odionwere ).
Precolonial Benin society had a clearly demarcated class structure: a mostly urban elite, comprising the governmental, religious, and educational bureaucracies; a commoner group, consisting of lower-status urbanites, such as artisans; and the peasantry. Formerly, the king and chiefs had slaves, primarily acquired through warfare, who constituted an agricultural workforce for the elite. In contemporary society, factors such as the extent of one's Western education and the nature of one's employment—or lack thereof—play a role in determining one's position in the multidimensional system of social stratification.
Political Organization. At the summit of precolonial society was the king ( oba ), who was the focal point of all administrative, religious, commercial, and judicial concerns. He was the last resort in court matters, the recipient of taxes and tribute, the controller of trade, the theoretical owner of all the land in the kingdom, and the chief executive and legislator. As the divine king, he crystallized generalized ancestor worship in the worship of his own ancestors. It is in his office, then, that the various hierarchies met.
The members of the king's family were automatically part of the nobility. His mother was a title holder ( iyoba ) in one of the palace societies and maintained her own court near Benin City, and his younger brothers were sent to be hereditary chiefs of villages throughout the kingdom, thus constituting part of a limited, rural-based elite. Besides the king and his family, the political structure consisted of the holders of various chiefly titles, who were organized into three main orders of chiefs: the seven uzama , the palace chiefs, and the town chiefs. These various orders of chiefs formed the administrative bureaucracy of the kingdom, and their main concern was to augment the king's civil and ritual authority. They constituted the state council, which had an important role in creating laws, regulating festivals, raising taxes, declaring war, and conducting rituals. The king controlled the granting of most of these chiefly titles and used this power to consolidate his control over governmental processes. Once granted, a title could not be rescinded unless treason could be proven.
The kingdom was formerly divided into a number of tribute units, which corresponded to local territorial groupings. Each was controlled by a title holder in Benin City, who acted as the intermediary between the villagers and the king and whose main duty was to collect taxes and tribute in the form of money (cowries) and goods (cattle, yams, etc.). The income the king received from these sources enabled him to carry on elaborate state rituals. The king could also call on villagers to supply labor for the upkeep of the royal palace.
Kings varied over time in their ability to control the political situation. At the end of the eighteenth century, for example, senior chiefs rebelled against the king, and a long civil war ensued, which the king finally won. According to oral traditions, several obas were in fact deposed.
In contemporary Nigeria, Edo State officials consult with the Benin king and chiefs. Since 1966, the federal level of government in Nigeria has vacillated between military and civilian rule, with the exact relationship between federal and traditional authority changing under each new circumstance. In 1993 the newly established military government dissolved all existing state bodies and prohibited political activity. Supreme executive and legislative power was vested in a military-based Provisional Ruling Council and an Executive Council, both headed by the commander-in-chief, who is also the head of state. Plans for a return to civilian rule have been announced.
Social Control. The principle of the judicial system was that every head of a compound, quarter, village, or town heard cases within his jurisdiction, but serious issues—murder, treason, or succession disputes—were formerly brought before the king's council in Benin City. Trial by ordeal was used in cases of theft, perjury, and witchcraft (if the offender denied the charge). The British established a bipartite judicial system, with a supreme court administering British law and native courts for maintaining customary law. In 1947 the new Nigerian constitution established a federal system of government with a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, and a High Court at the federal level. Edo State, like others in the federation, has its own High Court, as well as a Customary Court of Appeal.
Conflict. In precolonial times warfare was an important component of the state polity. It apparently was the custom for kings to declare war in the third year after their succession to the throne. Ruling princes of the empire who refused to pledge their allegiance at that time were considered rebels, and war was declared against them and their towns. Economic factors were undoubtedly central to Benin's expansion: the Edo were intent on increasing their income from tribute, protecting and developing trade, and augmenting their army with captives and allies. There was a military organization involving specific chiefs who each had a core of warriors attached to his household but also recruited soldiers from their villages. For long campaigns, the soldiers built camps where they lodged and grew food for themselves.