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A people whose language ‘Esan’ is also recognized in the Census of the United Kingdom. The Esan people (Esan: Ẹ̀bhò Ẹ̀sán) is one of the ethnic group in the south-south region of Nigeria; and they speak the Esan language-an Edoid language related to Edo, Urhobo, Owan language, Isoko, and Etsako. The language is considered of regional importance in Nigeria, and it is taught in primary schools in addition to being broadcast on radio and television.

The term Esan has been applied to the Esan people for thousands of years, and was used before contact with Europeans. Historians believe 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.

Esan Economy and Structure

Traditionally, the Esan’s are agriculturalists, trado-medical practitioners, mercenary warriors and hunters. They cultivate palm trees, Irvingia gabonensis (erhonhiele), Cherry (Otien), bell pepper (akoh) coconut, betel nut, kola nut, black pear, avocado pear, yams, cocoyam, cassava, maize, rice, beans, groundnut, bananas, oranges, plantains, sugar cane, tomato, potato, okra, pineapple, paw paw, and various vegetables.

Structurally, the modern Esan nation is believed to have been organized during the 15th century, when citizens, mostly nobles and princes, left the neighbouring Benin Empire for the northeast; there they formed communities and kingdoms called Eguares among the aboriginal peoples whom they met there. There are on the whole 35 established kingdoms in Esanland, including Amahor, Ebelle, Egoro, Ewohimi, Ekekhenlen, Ekpoma, Ekpon, Emu, Ewu, Ewatto, Ewossa, Idoa, Ifeku, Igueben, Ilushi, Inyelen, Irrua, Ogwa, Ohordua, Okalo, Okhuesan, Onogholo, Opoji, Oria, Orowa, Uromi, Udo, Ugbegun, Ugboha, Ubiaja, Urhohi, Ugun, Ujiogba, Ukhun, and Uzea.

Starting from 500 AD to 750 AD, these hunter-gatherers started to colonize the savannah-forest ecosystem of Esanland and the forest ecosystem of the Benin Empire. They created a pre-Esan, pre-Edo society that built advanced structures such as moats and walls around family properties. These enclosures were, at maximum, three to five kilometers in diameter, and demarcated residential and agricultural property. Those properties enlarged to become villages, and by 800 AD, these village coalesced to form kingdoms with hierarchies. Modern-day digs in the region have found that these walls were situated in the eastern Benin Empire and northern Esanland. Settlements were close to permanent springs on the northern plateau, but never next to intermittent springs.

Culture and Influence

Esanland’s culture, language and growth were majorly influenced by the mass exoduses to Esan territory from all adjacent polities Communities on Esanland’s southern and eastern fringes (Ewohimi, Ewatto, Ekpon, Amahor) were heavily populated by Igbos and Igalas (into Uroh); from the north came the Emai into Ukhun, Idoa, and Amahor and the Etsako into Irrua; and from the south came the Itsekiri (into Ekpon) and Urhobo (into Ujiogba).

The biggest influence on Esanland came from Edo, founders of Benin Empire. In 1460, Oba Ewuare passed laws of mourning that prohibited sexual intercourse, bathing, drumming, dancing, and cooking. These laws proved too restrictive for many citizens, and these citizens fled the kingdom to Esanland. This exodus shaped Esanland’s modern cultural identity and gave rise to the term “Esan,” or “refugee.” Oral tradition has heavily supported this theory. Prominent Esan and Edo historians have collected stories about this migration.

Esan Art and Music

Igbabonelimhin Cultural Display
Igbabonelimhin – Ogundiran Afolabi

Esan dance is dominated by the Igbabonelimhin, an acrobatic dance performed mostly by young males. Igbabonelimhin involves spinning and somersaulting to a timed beat. This dance was mostly performed at New Year’s. Today, the dance is taken as a unique symbol for Esans everywhere. The traditional agogo bell. The agogo is a very important instrument in Esanland. It is used to help keep of the rhythm of the region’s various dances, and the translation of hour in Esan is agogo.

Folklore and Religious Beliefs

Esan folktales and folklore, like the igbabonẹlimhin and akhuẹ, serve as forms of learning and entertainment. The Esan have prominent traditional rulers who keep order in a society where beauty and manners are intertwined. Despite the long-term impact of Christianity, the Esan are largely traditional and a large number practice 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). There have been other translation of that saying, Esan gbe Edo which means Esan have conquered Bini.

Traditional Esan religion has many similarities to traditional Edo religion, due to the Esan migration to the northeast during the 15th century from the Benin Empire. There are many deities of the Esan religion. Some of these include:

  • Osanobua, the main Edo-Esan god: This name for God was brought over to Christianity and its missionaries, and thus the translation for God in Esanland is Osanobua.
  • Esu, the Esan trickster god: This god is shared with Yoruba and Edo myth. The name Esu was used as a translation for Satan by Christian missionaries.
  • Osun, the Esan god of medicine: This is where the surname Okosun, or son of medicine, originated from.

In the pre-colonial era, Esans carried a crow’s foot tribal scar below their eyes. 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.



Ikenoube-Otaigbe, Eve (2012). The Esan People of Nigeria, West Africa. Atlanta, Georgia.: Xlibris Corporation

Okosun, Anthony (11 July 2013). “Edo Civilization, Esan War Machine and the Founding of Lagos (Expanded and Revised)”. Nigeria Village Square. Nigeria Village Square.

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This article was first published on 4th August 2019


Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Ethnic Groups in Nigeria: The Esan People”

  • There are more user are not conform the useful function are there if you are like the working add printers windows 10 you will connect the any time and more user are apply the same function on demand.

  • Jeremiah, I just received my Ancestry DNA analysis and I’ve discovered that I’m not only 30% German but also from the Esan and Yoruba tribes from Nigeria. Go Figure. #ADOS/NYC

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