In the days of constant wars among the kingdoms of the Yoruba, a warrior hero called Ogedengbe lived in the city of Ilesha. Ogedengbe ruled firmly in Ilesha, and in other kingdoms he was feared and respected, for it was said that once he had undertaken war against an enemy he would not relent or turn back until his work was finished.
He attacked enemy cities and sacked them, taking gold and slaves as his prize. He pursued his enemies to the most distant places to cut them down. Wherever the fighting was most fierce, there Ogedengbe would be. His name was heard with attention in far-off villages, and, at the rumour that Ogedengbe was approaching, people went away into the bush with their cattle and hid themselves.
In other kingdoms people asked each other: "How can Ogedengbe be disposed of? He is like a plague of ants. He comes out of the bush to eat everything that lies in his path. If Ogedengbe were not loose in the land we could go on living, each man in his fields and each city in its place. But now every city is in danger". The city of Ibadan was then ruled by another warrior chief called Ogunmola. Ogunmola decided one time that he would attack Ilesha and destroy Ogedengbe. He assembled his army. He prepared for the expedition. And when everything was ready Ogunmola's forces set out. They reached the outskirts of Ilesha.
A great battle began. Ogedengbe warriors met the army from Ibadan in the fields. When night came they rested, but when the sun rose again the battle resumed. The two armies moved from one place to another. They drifted across the land. Other cities became involved. The war spread, leaving suffering and death in its wake. Finally Ogedengbe defeated Ogunmola, who returned with his shattered forces to Ibadan.
But Ogedengbe's anger was not yet stilled. It was said that the city of Benin had conspired with Ibadan in the attack against Ilesha. So Ogedengbe decided to punish Benin. He began the expedition.
As he rode his white horse his drummers went on ahead. Their drums spoke like this: "Ogedengbe is coming. Ogunmola is finished, Now it is Benin's turn. Benin, prepare yourself, prepare to bury your corpses". The sound of the drums was heard far away. Whenever Ogedengbe's army passed through a village there was no sign of human beings and the fields were empty.
For everywhere it was said that Ogedengbe's drums and war horns spoke only the truth. When the drums said that Ogunmola had been defeated, everyone agreed that it must be so. Word of Ogedengbe's approach came to Benin. The ruler of that city met with his councillors to discuss the situation. They sent a messenger to Ogedengbe. He said: "Our people say there is no need to make war on Benin. Benin has done nothing hostile to you. The people know of your courage and achievements, and they praise you. Ogedengbe, turn back and leave Benin as it stands. This is the message I have brought you.
Ogedengbe spoke harshly. He said: "It is just as I thought it would be.
The city of Benin whimpers like a child. Hear my drums, for they speak only what is true. The drums say, 'Now it is Benin's turn.' Return to the city and tell your Oba what I have said."
The messenger returned to Benin. He reported Ogedengbe’s words.
Once again the people of Benin sent a messenger to plead with Ogedengbe not to make war on the city. Again Ogedengbe rebuffed the messenger. His army arrived at Benin, surrounded the city and dug a moat around it to prevent the inhabitants from escaping. Benin was besieged. The Oba of Benin, the subchiefs and the councillors discussed their situation. They foresaw that the city would be destroyed and their army defeated. While some said: "Let us go out and fight," others said, "No. Listen to Ogedengbe's drums. They recall his great victories over other cities. They speak only what is true."
After the argument had been going on this way for a long time, one of the elders of Benin said: "Can Ogedengbe's drums say only one thing? What are drums, after all? They are objects made of wood and hide. They say only what drummers make them say. Ogedengbe's drums can say other things. They can speak of Benin's greatness also." people answered: "Now, Ogedengbe's drummers are dear to his heart, for the words their drums speak remind him to be courageous, and his warriors also take courage from the sound.
Why, then, would the drummers make their drums tell of Benin's greatness?" The elder answered: "I will tell you about this thing. The drummers play what pleases Ogedengbe because he pays them well. Does a musician live who does not play what he is paid for? Very well. Let us be patrons to the drummers."The people saw merit in it. They collected cowries from whoever had cowries, and the Oba and the subchiefs gave the greatest share. They appointed a messenger. In the dark of night the messenger took the cowries and went out of the city to the place where the drummers were resting.
The messenger said to them: 'Tour drumming has been heard. In the city the people have praised it. They say you are truly great musicians and poets. The tones of your drums are so perfect that no one can mistake their meanings. The people of Benin would like you to drum something for them before the battle begins tomorrow. For this small deed they will give you ten thousand cowries." The drummers talked among themselves. They agreed. They asked,
"What do you want our drums to say?"
"Why," the messenger said, "just a small phrase. Have your drums
say, 'When has Benin ever been defeated?' Have them say, 'Never has Benin been walked on by its enemies.' " He gave the drummers the ten thousand cowries and went back to the city.
The light of the morning sun began to be visible. Ogedengbe ordered his warriors to prepare for battle. They made themselves ready for the attack. Ogedengbe mounted his horse. The drums began to play.
But instead of reciting Ogedengbe's praise names and recalling his great deeds the drums said: "When has Benin ever been defeated?
Never has Benin been walked on by its enemies."
All in Ogedengbe's camp heard the drums and were surprised. Anger filled Ogedengbe as he heard the drums say over and over:
"When has Benin ever been defeated?
Never has Benin been walked on by its enemies."
Doubt came to Ogedengbe. He thought: "It is true. Benin has never fallen in war." His fury for battle softened. His warriors with their weapons in their hands, they too were thinking: "Have Ogedengbe's drums ever spoken a falsehood? What they say now is so. Benin has never been beaten to the ground. Although it has many enemies Benin has only survived and grown greater."
Ogedengbe's eagerness to attack Benin diminished, until at last he ordered his fighting men to withdraw to the outskirts of the city. There he had his drummers executed for making their drums say at the very moment of attack, "When has Benin ever been defeated?" After that Ogedengbe and his army returned to Ilesha.