Esan is one of the major ethnic groups in Edo State, South-south geopolitical zone of Nigeria. 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 stutus 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).
A total of thirty four kingdoms (large villages/townships ruled traditionally by monarchs) make up Esan and many of them seem to have their own oral versions of the origin of Esan as well as its own starting point in history. One of the most popular of these is the one advocated by the group much of which constitutes the now defunct Agbazilo, one of the two former local government administrative units in Esan.
According to the Agbazilo group, made up mainly of Uromi and Uzea, Esan came into being when one of the children of Bini’s Queen Oakha and Ojiso Owodo, Prince Uzia Asokpodudu (Ojiso Owodo’s crown prince and heir apparent) founded Uzea in about 1188 AD after they fled their father's (the Ojiso's) palace following the death sentence passed on their mother, Queen Oakha, who was alleged to have committed adultery with a Bini chief, Ovior. The duo of Ozogbo and Oigi, Asokpodudu's younger brothers, escaped along with him and the mother. It is believed that not only did Prince Asokpodudu (the founder of Uzea Kingdom) escape with the mother, Oakha, relations and some palace servants, he also left with his father’s (the king's) royal trident, ‘Uziziẹnghain’, the Ojiso’s heir loom.
The Uziziẹnghain used to be the royal regalia with which the Ojiso dynasty was founded. Ozogbo later left Asokpodudu in his base in what is today known as Uzea to found Ẹgbele in present-day Uromi while Oigi went and establish a settlement with his mother, Oakha, which is today known as Ẹkperi (outside Esan land). 'Ikhio' is an annual feast celebrated in Uzea in remembrance of Oakha. While Queen Oakha and her children fled northward of Bini, Chief Ovior, her alleged lover, fled eastward to a settlement he established, which is today known as Obior (probably a corruption of 'Ovior'), near Asaba, Delta State capital.(1)
This is believed by some to be the very beginning of Esan, though the Irrua group may not readily accede to this historical contention. The very name 'Esan' was not applied to this people until the arrival of other emigrants from Bini, who fled Oba Ewuare's brutal reign. The Oba (Bini monarch) had decreed: "No making of fire to cook; no cleaning of homes; no procreation; no washing of clothes." Unable to abide by these rules, many natives fled the Bini Kingdom. When the king sought to know where many of his subjects had gone, he was told, "Ele san fia" ("They have fled"), thus giving rise to 'E-san-fia' and later 'Esan'.(2)
In other words, the name Esan was never borne by the earlier group until the arrival of the later groups. Other groups, such as Ekpoma, left Bini later to establish bases where they occupy presently. Except some historical contention to the effect that Esan has always been where they are presently, or that Bini in fact migrated from Esan to its present abode, Esan in this sense is a group/tribe of 'fled/jumped away' people from Bini for various reasons and at different periods in history. Esan largely remains a migrants' settlement just like the New World. This position has made some historians to argue that the Agbazilo group, Uromi and Uzea, are a pre-Esan group which has decided to coexist under the same banner of Esan. It was within this same group, in Uzea, that Oba Ozolua met his waterloo and buried in Ugboha's Otokhimhin, originally called 'Oto-ukhimhin' (the land of Ukhimhin tree). This is the origin of the popular saying among Esan that "Oba ii de Esan, Ozolua ii ri Edo" meaning, "A Benin monarch does not visit Esan just as King Ozolua (of Benin) will not return to Benin."
Esan land is bordered to the south by Benin City, to the south-east by Agbor, to the north and east by Etsako, to the west by River Niger. From Ewu to Benin City, the State capital, is 100 km long. No accurate demographic data of the people is available and the various local governments in Esan appear to lack reliable information in this direction. The people populate areas such as Uromi, Ewatto, Igueben, Irrua, Ubiaja, Ebele, Ehor, Ekpoma, Ewu, etc in central Edo State, South-South Nigeria. It has flat landscape, one lacking in rocks and mountains, and good for agricultural purpose. Rubber tree (used for the production of plastic products) and palm tree rank highest among Esan trees. The land's variety of fruits range from mango, orange, grape, pineapple, guava, cashew, banana, plantain, black pear, avocado pear, lime to walnut and even more. Cassava, yam, cocoa yam, sweet potato, pepper, okra and rice are some of its farm produce. It has numerous streams that are too small to afford fishing.
Replete with different dialects, Esan language is quite unintelligible to even many native speakers. For instance, the Esan word for person (or, somebody) is variously called by the different kingdoms' dialects as ọria (by Uromi, etc), ọhia (by Uzea, etc), ọyia (by Unea, etc), ọhan (by Ugbọha, etc). This obvious difficulty associated with speaking others' dialects other than one's mother dialect has given rise to the widespread use of Pidgin English, which is the local patois, a mishmash of Portuguese, English and Nigeria's local languages.
During the era of the military,the Esan had between five to six high ranking military, naval, and police officers as governors (administrators) of various states around the country at different occasions, a feat that owed much to their learning, sociability and especially their loyalty. Chief Ikimi and Chief Anenih have been known to occupy the position of chairman of two national parties — NRC and SDP — respectively.
Esan Day is celebrated at the Tafawa Balewa square, Lagos every December. During the occasions names of prominent Esan figures are read to loud ovation. Esan believe in self help, thus assisting to reach villages and towns to achieve development. Some prominent Esan are Chief Anthony Enahoro, who raised the motion for the independence of Nigeria; Peter Enahoro, who wrote How to be a Nigerian, Saintmoses Eromosele, international poet and novelist who wrote his bluckbuster first novel, "THE WINDS OF LIFE" at the age of sixteen and while still in secondary school; Tony Anenih, a top Nigerian politician and former minister of Works and Housing. Others include the late Ambrose Alli, Governor of Bendel State; Bishop Ekpu; Engr. Joshua Iboaya; Anthony Cardinal Okogie; late first lady Stella Obasanjo; Sonny Okosun, a famous musician; writers Aba Aburime I and Odia Ofeimu; Chief Tom Ikimi, a politician and former foreign affairs minister (during the reign of Gen. Sani Abacha); former Lagos state police commissioner, Oyakhilomen; former vice president of Nigeria, Augustus Aikhonmu (retired Real Admiral); former deputy commissioner of Lagos state Vincent Airebamen; Rev. Chris Oyakhilomen; late [(Justice Omosun)], former Chief Justice of the Gambia and legal luminary; Late, Dr. Victor Oje Vanni a Successful Enterpreneur and a first in many rights in Nigeria: Private Security Company-Vanni International Security Systems Ltd, Independent Airline-Intercontinental Airlines Ltd etc.
Esan are fun-loving people who have various festivities and ritualistic traditions. Their folktales and folklores serve as forms of learning and entertainment, like the famous igbabonẹlimhin and akhuẹ. They have prominent traditional rulers who keep order and sanity in a complex society where beauty and manners are intertwined. Despite the long-term impact of Christianity among Esan, the people are largely traditional in that a large number still practise 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).
Esan boasts of some renowned scholars, writers, singers, wood-carvers, storytellers, politicians, etc. The folklore and history of Esan are worth revisiting and attempt should be made to research on the various ways that the villages are related to Bini and other groups who may have occupied Ifeku Island many years ago. The Esan heritage is unique despite the variation of dialects. It has been contended that a handful of Esan families are known to possess Portuguese ancestry, resulting from links harking back to the 16th Century when Portuguese sailors, missionaries and tradesman first entered the Bini Kingdom via the coast. British arrived Bini in the wake of the Portuguese numerous expeditions to, and intercourse with, Bini.
There is a small Esan community currently residing in Upstate New York, more specifically in Rochester, New York. This small community is governed by Papa Bear, a prominent Esan elder. Like any other community there is the local town fool, the Esan named Jesse.
The 14th April 2007 gubernatorial election in Edo State saw the emergence of Prof. Oserheimen Aigberadion Osunbor from Ekpoma as the next governor of Nigeria's 22nd largest state. Before the State's creation on the 27th August, 1991, Prof. Ambrose Folorunso Alli had governed Bendel State (1979–1983), making it the second Esan to govern Edo State. Unlike the Prof. Ambrose Alli mandate/victory, Prof. Osunbor's is widely believed to be mired in controversy of widespread irregularities by the ruling party in the State. Litigation is however on and the new governor has since 29 May 2007 been sworn in for a four-year term. On the 20th March 2008, the Edo State Election Tribunal declared the former labour leader, Adams Oshiomhole, governor of Edo State. Following Prof. Osunbor's appeal, the Appeal Court's verdict of 11/11/2008 finally laid to rest the gubernatorial dispute, as the five-man panel declared Comrade Adams Aliu Oshiomhole winner and governor of Edo State. The diminutive but vocal and resilient Auchi indigene was thereafter sworn in as governor on the 12/11/2008 in a well attended ceremony at the Ogbemudia Stadium, Benin City.