A Prefatory Statement by Editorial and Management Committee of Urhobo Historical Society on Challenge from Itsekiri Leaders’ Forum to British Treaties with Urhobo Communities in Warri

Urhobo Historical Society

 A Prefatory Statement On Challenge From Itsekiri Leaders’ Forum To the Publication of British Treaties With Urhobo Communities In Warri and Their Significance For the Dispute On “Ownership” Of Warri

By Editorial and Management Committee

In most respects, Warri is a unique city. Once a small and pleasant colonial township, it has grown into a huge megalopolis whose troublesome physical atmosphere makes it one of the most polluted metropoles on our earth. Warri City was a creation of British colonialism in Nigeria. Before British colonial rule in its territory at the beginning of the 1890s, the lands that are now known as Warri City were made up of various towns and villages belonging to Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo ethnic communities. Sitting at the conjuncture of the three ethnic groups, Warri City encompasses traditional farming towns and villages of the Urhobo as well as Ijaw and Itsekiri fishing villages and communities that have grown into one other.  These developments have arisen because British colonial rulers made Warri the headquarters of one of their Provinces. Moreover, in the post-colonial period, Warri, an Atlantic seaport, emerged as a principal shipping venue for Nigeria’s booming petroleum oil products. Its landed properties have consequently become extremely valuable.

Along with such urban and economic developments have persisted disputes on the “ownership” of Warri. These disputes date back to the early decades of the last century when British colonial rule was fresh and relied on Political Agents, an office and a class that died out as British colonialism progressed. One of the most colourful and controversial Political Agents in Southern Nigeria was an Itsekiri chieftain whose name was Dore Numa. Chief Dore Numa dominated the affairs of the new colonial Warri Province for more than three decades. In this period, the British relied on his friendship. They also rewarded him handsomely, although towards the end of his career in the late 1920s, the British appeared ready to make other choices. In these years, Ijaw and Urhobo communities in Warri accused Chief Dore Numa of taking their lands. They took him to court. Uniformly, they lost against this friend of the British, leading them to accuse the British of bias and complicity in what they regarded as theft of their lands.

These cases dragged on into the post-Numa years. However, the tide of victories turned in the post-Numa era. The first dramatic reversal was in the dispute of “ownership” of the sister colonial township of Sapele. Buoyed by Chief Numa’s victories in Warri, Itsekiri chieftains claimed that Sapele was “owned” by their King. The local Okpe families and community in Sapele, with help from Chief Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Progress Union, were able to establish that their Urhobo ancestors founded Urhiapele, whose name was subsequently corrupted by the British to Sapele. Even a colonial court  in 1941 found in favour of the Okpe-Urhobo community against Itsekiri claims of royal ownership, a celebrated judgement that was confirmed in all courts that considered this case of “ownership” of Sapele. In the post-colonial era, Urhobo litigants in Warri won a decisive case in resurrected disputes of “ownership” of areas of Warri. In the celebrated case brought against the late Chief Daniel Okumagba by Itsekiri chieftains, the Warri High Court in a 1974 judgement, subsequently confirmed in Nigeria’s Supreme Court, deposed the theory of royal overlordship on which the Numa victories were won. In settling Suit No. W/48/68, the Warri  High Court ruled that (a) the ancestors of the people of Okere-Urhobo, namely, Idama, Owhotemu, and Sowhoruvbe founded Okere; (b)  the Itsekiri King’s domain did not extend to Okere; and (c) the Itsekiri King’s over-lordship rights did not extend to Okere.

In one of the most perceptive  analyses of this agonizing dispute over Warri, a fair-minded Yoruba man has put the dispute in historical, political, and legal contexts in a fashion that will make sense to those who are far away from Warri and who are not inundated with the propaganda that has accompanied this dispute. Please read Akindele Aiyetan’s powerful summary of the dispute over the “ownership” of Warri. He writes:

So, who owns Warri? The Itsekiri claim that Ginuwa I founded Warri in 16th century; the Urhobo claim that they had founded and lived in Warri before the 16th century. To a dispassionate observer, the former claim would sound implausible because the Itsekiri king (known as Olu of Itsekiri until 1952) did not move into the present Warri until 1952, when the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo rewarded the Itsekiri for their votes in the 1952 general elections by changing the title of the Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri and establishing an Itsekiri Communal Land Trust over Warri, with the Olu as the president or chairman. The Urhobo went wild with rage and, and as law-abiding citizens, went straight to the court to cause the Olu to revert to his original title and/or at least to change the name of the Province from Warri to Delta. They failed and won: failed to get the title of Olu of Warri to revert to Olu of Itsekiri but succeeded in getting the name of the Province to change from Warri to Delta Province. But the seed of inter-tribal conflicts had been sown, I dare say, by the South-West and was watered by the South West until 1976, when the Supreme Court, the apex court of the land, pronounced its judgement on the contending claims to Warri: A group of prominent Itsekiri chiefs — D. O. Idundun, P. O. Awani, A. E. Hesse, C. A. Lorie, J. D. Oruru (for themselves and on behalf of Ogitsi family of Okere, Warri), the Itsekiri Communal Land Trustees and Erejuwa II, the Olu of Warri (for himself and on behalf of the Itsekiri people) — had sued Daniel Okumagba (an Urhobo, for himself and on behalf of Olodi, Oki and Ighogbadu families of Idimisobo, Okere Warri) over ownership of Warri. The plaintiffs (the Itsekiri) claimed against the Urhobo (the defendants), that the defendants had forfeited their rights of user and/or occupation and any other rights in the area in dispute and [and prayed for] an order of injunction to restrain the defendants, their servants and/or agents from entering the land in dispute.

As far as those of us, spectators, were and are concerned, so much depended or should depend on the ruling of the Supreme Court. In a landmark judgement, the apex court, exhibiting erudition, handed its decision to the litigants. Quoting with approval, the opinion of the lower court presided by Mr. Justice Ekeruche, the Supreme Court said:

 “Considering the traditional evidence in the case, my view of that aspect of the evidence in plaintiff’s case whereby plaintiffs have sought to establish that the land in dispute and even also Okere Village were part of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I and also their evidence that Ogitsi owned the whole of Okere land including the land in dispute in this case is that it is UNCONVINCING…” (1976, 9 & 10 SC, 227 @ 229.) Continuing, the learned Justices said:

 “The plaintiffs say that Ginuwa I founded a kingdom and that before Ekpen (an Urhobo) came to Okere the area of Okere was or would be part of that kingdom. There is no evidence of the extent or area covered by that kingdom, nor is there any evidence going to show any act or acts in history which made the area of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I before Ekpen (the Urhobo man ) came there…” (Ibid @ p230).

The Itsekiri case against the Urhobo suffered a stroke when the learned justices of the Supreme Court further stated that:

 “The evidence in plaintiff’s case only shows that Ginuwa I when he was trying to make a settlement after leaving Benin got as far as Ijalla where he ultimately settled, lived, died and was buried. There is not evidence in plaintiff’s case going to show that in the process of making his settlement or kingdom he or any persons under him settled anywhere beyond Ijalla and towards or in Okere” (ibid).

The learned trial judge in the lower court had stated: “I do not believe that any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I extended to Okere. Plaintiffs’ evidence and also evidence in the whole case do not prove such extent of any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I…” (ibid). The Supreme Court agreed with this statement.

The disputes over Warri among the three ethnic groups have not, unfortunately, been restricted to legal interpretation. Politics and violence have accompanied the claims of the three ethnic groups. From the 1950s up to our own times, politics and violence have beclouded the issues of the disputes and rival claims over the City of Warri by the Urhobo, Itsekiri, and Ijaw. They sadly escalated into a mini-war between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw from 1999 to 2001.


There are clear patterns in these multi-ethnic disputes on the ownership of Warri that should be highlighted. First, there is heavy weight placed on the opinions rendered by early colonial officers. Contacts that seemed to confer recognition of ownership have also been pressed by all three sides. In general, each of these groups had its own favourite British colonial officers who sometimes adopted the views of the ethnic groups with which they were friendly. Sometimes, one ethnic group’s favourite colonial officer was the other’s villain.  While the Itsekiri. have invoked Chief Dore Numa’s contacts with British colonial officers as clear evidence that the British recognized their “ownership” of Warri, local Urhobos in Warri inveigh against such contacts as an embodiment of corruption and oppression of British colonialism. The best illustration of this type of crossed valuation of a British officer is the case of T. D. Maxwell. Maxwell was the Judge who, in 1925, presided over the case brought against Dore Numa by the Urhobo community in Warri accusing Numa of having surreptitiously leased their lands to the British without their knowledge. Maxwell said very harsh things about the Urhobo litigants, virtually making it a personal matter. Years later, Daniel Obiomah, an Urhobo native of the local Warri community, who had good education at the University College, Ibadan, and became a District Officer under the colonial era, dug up stunning information about T. D. Maxwell. In Obiomah’s own words: “T.D. Maxwell, Puisne Judge,  who in 1925 set the ball rolling at the Warri High Court of first instance in Ogegede v. Dore Numa was the same T.D. Maxwell, Commissioner of Lands in 1906 App. 3 when the leases, the cause of action, were concluded. Thus he was presiding over his own actions. It was the age of British jingoism, trickery, and truculence.”  Such strong condemnation of T. D. Maxwell’s conduct from a prominent Urhobo spokesman is in sharp contrast to the near-adulation of T. D. Maxwell in Itsekiri historiography.

Second, there has been heavy reliance on legal cases that favour one side against the other in the multi-ethnic disputes on the ownership of Warri. In the Ugbajo Itsekiri’s presentation in 1999 to the United States Department of State on the matter of Itsekiri dispute with the Ijaw, legal cases won by the Itsekiri during Dore Numa’s era, under early British colonial rule, were brilliantly packaged as clear evidence that the Itsekiri owned Warri. Importantly, there is a menu of such cases, including Ogegede vs Numa, which the Itsekiri won against Urhobos in colonial times, that have been published as evidence of Itsekiri ownership of Warri. On the other hand, those who advocate that Urhobos do own a share of Warri have cited more recent cases which favour the Urhobo community in Warri. For instance, Chief Benjamin Okumagba’s assertions on his people’s ownership of central Warri is based on the post-Independence legal case that was won by an Urhobo community in the heart of Warri against Itsekiri claims of ownership of Warri.

Third, there is an incredible amount of weight attached to the words and views of academic historians and social scientists in this dispute. Every side to the controversy over the ownership of Warri  has spent a good amount of time reading and citing views that academics have written, even as tentative statements of positions that they were prospecting. Genuine academics must wonder why these contestants over ownership of Warri regard academic statements as the hallmark of truth. Some of these people who are cited as authorities on Warri did not even visit Warri. Some of them were merely narrating information that they were told. Two of these academics, who did visit Warri, have been quoted ad nauseam, by all sides to this dispute. Professor Obaro Ikime’s books on the Niger Delta have been savaged by numerous contestants in search of phrases, sentences, or suggestions that might appear to favour one side against the other in the fight over the ownership of Warri. Obaro Ikime has devoted his academic career to the cause of the Western Niger Delta and must be agonized that his views are being stretched in vain attempts to claim the ownership of Warri which, we are sure, he believes belongs to all western Niger Deltans. The other scholar whose articles have been mined in search of claims of ownership of Warri is a man of enormous integrity and reserve who would be wary about making the one-sided claims that are now attributed to him in the propaganda warfare over the emotional issue of the ownership of Warri. Now a grand retired Professor Emeritus from the University of Sussex, Professor Peter Lloyd, who was Peter Ekeh’s teacher at the University of Ibadan in the early 1960s,  must be amused, probably agonized, that he is regarded as an oracle in the matter of who owns the City of Warri.

What makes the problem of the contest over the ownership of Warri so very very intriguing is that “ownership” has various meanings to the different sides to this dispute. For the local Urhobo communities in Warri, ownership of Warri is about their ancestral lands. In their sense, the lands over which there is dispute are the properties of families, not the entire community, let alone the entire Urhobo people. This is also the meaning to a limited extent in the case of the Ijaw whose old Warri families point to their areas of origin in the troubled city. Itsekiri families who hail from Warri share in such local definition of ownership of Warri.  However, the dominant Itsekiri meaning of ownership of Warri is vastly different from the Urhobo meaning. From the point of view of the official Itsekiri meaning of “ownership” in this dispute, Warri is owned by the King of Itsekiri — in a sense that is close to the pre-modern meaning of the ownership of towns and cities, or even of the state, in Medieval Europe. In many instances, the contestants talk past one other in this confusion of meanings of “Who owns Warri?” Indeed, the very use of the singular, instead of the more democratic plural of “Who Own Warri?,” suggests a Medieval cast to this dispute on the ownership of Warri. Those in the Urhobo community in Warri who complain of the conduct of some Itsekiri chieftains whose original homes are in Benin River, but now claim Warri as their home, totally miss the official Itsekiri meaning of what the ownership of Warri conveys in this dispute. This is a confusion of meanings of “ownership” that has pitched a minority Urhobo community in Warri against a self-conscious Itsekiri aristocratic group that insists that royal ownership of Warri lands confers a degree of lordship on their good selves.

There is a second twist in the meaning of ownership in the dispute concerning those who own Warri. The claims of ownership by Urhobo and Ijaw communities in Warri are limited. That is, they do not exclude ownership of portions of Warri by other communities — Itsekiri, Ijaw, or Urhobo. On the other hand, the official Itsekiri claim is absolutist. No other ethnic group, other than the Itsekiri, can lay any claims to any portions of Warri. This is so because all of it is the King’s land. It is thus left for those disputing such absolutist claim to show that the King of Itsekiri does not own the lands of Warri. Sometimes, sadly, the dispute is headed in that Medieval direction.


The manner in which the Warri dispute has been discussed has encouraged a degree of obscurantism in our historical scholarship, in the Niger Delta, which is troubling in our modern times. Long series of court cases are cited in a rapid order of presentation, with every assurance that no one will be able to have access to such obscure legal documents. Fragments of old writers’ thoughts have been splashed around in efforts to win favour for one’s side of the dispute, when it is clear that such out-of-print books will not be available to the readers who are being confronted by these disputants. Ancient maps are cited when it is clear that there is no chance whatsoever for any independent verification of their contents by those who might be so inclined.

Urhobo Historical Society’s self-imposed mandate is to erase such obscurantism from the history of Urhoboland and that of the Western Niger Delta. One way of doing so is to democratize our history. We do not see any need why cited books and documents should be the preserve of a few well-endowed men in an age in which the revolution of communication has made it possible to publish such sources of information for maximum readership. We have taken two steps in this effort. First, we have begun publishing books that are out-of-print, or books that are not widely available, whose authors grant us permission to publish them. We thank Chief Daniel Obiomah of Warri and Professor Obaro Ikime, now a Reverend Minister in Ibadan, whose books we have published in this scheme. We also thank Professor Samuel Erivwo, now a Reverend Provost of the Anglican Diocese of Warri, whose books on religion in the Western Niger Delta we will be publishing in the next several months.

We have extended these efforts to the reproduction of British “Treaties of Protection” in the Western Niger Delta. We began with the oldest of these treaties, namely, two with Itsekiri (1884 and 1894) and those with the Urhobo communities in Warri. We have also reproduced the oldest upland Urhobo treaty, namely the British Treaty with “Abrakar” (1892). The editor of our Web sites has used his mature judgement in providing introductions to these treaties. Two such introductions are relevant in this presentation. One was for the Western Niger Delta and the other introduction was for the Urhobo communities in Warri.


Chief J. O. S. Ayomike is an esteemed member of Itsekiri leadership in contemporary times. He is more than a chieftain of Itsekiri contemporary affairs. He is an historian of the Itsekiri past and an advocate of contemporary Itsekiri causes who relies on his knowledge of the Itsekiri past for his advocacy. As an advocate of Itsekiri causes, the matter of Warri and the issue of the ownership of Warri are Chief Ayomike’s strong suites. He has thus been alerted to the treaties that we have posted in our Web site, especially with regard to their significance for the issue of the ownership of Warri. For ease of reference, we will reproduce the portion of the Editorial Introduction to the “Protection Treaties” with Urhobo communities  in Warri that Chief Ayomike has most trouble with. Here was what the Editorial Introduction said:

These standard treaties were printed in Great Britain and carried to Urhobo lands by imperial agents. It is doubtful that those Urhobo chiefs who signed these treaties, willingly or otherwise coerced, ever knew that they were signing away their sovereignty. The first article is thoroughly provocative. It claims that the agreement was being made at “the request of the Chiefs and People” of these Urhobo communities. In any case, they were the treaties that introduced British power into Urhoboland from 1891 onwards. The Urhobo side of the treaties were clearly enforced.

What about the British commitments to protect the Urhobo? Here the failures of these treaties become manifest. This is because British imperial agents were cleverly scheming to escape the burden of these treaties whenever their interests were threatened. The treaties clearly recognized that the lands of the Urhobo signatories belonged to the Chiefs and People of  the communities that entered into agreements with the British. Yet, a few short years later, the British appointed their own Political Agent, Chief Dore Numa, who surreptitiously leased Urhobo lands to the British in the absence of those with whom they entered into agreements in the 1890s. Numa was an Itsekiri chieftain who had helped the British to defeat his fellow Itsekiri strongman Nana Olomu. He also aided the British to humiliate Binis and their King in the war of 1897. The British rewarded Dore Numa handsomely, disregarding earlier treaties with Urhobos. This breach of the spirit of the British treaties is the source of the inter-ethnic conflicts that have ruined Warri City, even in our times.

Who Owns Warri?

One of the most vexed questions besieging the western Niger Delta concerns the rival claims over ownership of the tri-ethnic City of Warri. One value of these treaties is that they establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that in the 1890s the British regarded Warri as Urhobo country. The batch of treaties reproduced in these pages were uniformly branded by the British as treaties with “Sobo” communities in the “District of Warri.” By contrast, the early imperial treaties between the British and the Itsekiri recognized the lands of the Itsekiri as lying in Benin River.

The subsequent Itsekiri attempt to wrestle Warri from the ownership of Urhobos, with whose ancestors British imperial agents signed treaties in the early 1890s, has arisen from the duplicity of British colonial policies. The Itsekiri have sought to reap benefits from the largesse and corruption that the British bestowed on the Itsekiri Chieftain, Dore Numa, by ignoring these treaties and by resting on subsequent corrupt court judgements in favor of Dore Numa, British colonialism’s prime Political Agent in the western Niger Delta.

Chief J. O. S. Ayomike has made many little mistakes in his characterization of the Editorial Introduction. These need not delay us here. However, Chief Ayomike makes two central contentions to which we should refer briefly. One is that the editor of our Web site maliciously inserted “Benin River” in the Itsekiri Treaties of 1884 and 1894. Actually, the Chief is patently mistaken in his assertion. Both Treaties bear that evidence. In the 1884 Treaty, “Benin” appears in the title (in the first line) of the treaty and “Benin River” appears under the notation following Article IX. In the 1894 Treaty, “Benin River” boldly appears in the title of the Treaty and is repeated all over the Treaty. Nowhere in these two treaties were their Itsekiri signatories or the interests they represented associated with Warri.

Chief Ayomike’s second central contention would be amazing to anyone who is engaged in a fair-minded interpretation of the facts of these “Treaties of Protection,” which are posted in our Web site. He says that the fact that the British recognized Warri District as the home of the Urhobo communities who signed these “Protection Treaties” with British agents in the early 1890s is of no historic value and should be of no consequence. We wonder what the eminent Chief would claim if the Itsekiri Treaties bore Warri, rather than Benin River, as the District of the Itsekiri. Would he not say that that was proof positive that Warri was Itsekiri land? We do understand that he is an advocate for Itsekiri causes. But we trust that he is a fair-minded man who will understand that his statement stretches logic a bit far, even in an impassioned dispute that is as long-standing as the matter of the ownership of Warri.


We are delighted to learn from Chief J. O. S. Ayomike’s critique of our Chair and Editor that he is working for the welfare of our region of Nigeria. We want to assure Chief Ayomike and other Members of Itsekiri Leaders’ Forum that all of us, including our Chair, Professor Peter Ekeh, are committed to working for peace and justice in the Western Niger Delta. We do not see any need for continued conflicts among the ethnic communities in our region of Nigeria. We therefore applaud Chief Ayomike’s commitments. They tally with our mandate, which is to promote good relations among all the ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta.

We are aware that the matter of Warri is a touchy subject for the Urhobo communities in Warri as well as for the Itsekiri people. But we are convinced that with good will, a resolution of the problems that have troubled inter-ethnic relations in Warri since the beginning of the last century can be found. There need not be losers in such resolution. If Warri affairs are well run, and it becomes a major area for enterprise, all sides will gain from its prosperity. But we in Urhobo Historical Society must urge that we all have a duty to seek to improve Urhobo and Itsekiri rural areas which are today terribly endangered. While we quarrel over Warri, our rural communities are dying. Our streams are drying up. Pollution is killing our fishes, animals, and plants. Urhobo Historical Society urges that the Warri problem may become easier to resolve if we do not all concentrate our attention on this one city, to the utter neglect of Itsekiri and Urhobo rural areas. That is our mandate. That is our commitment.

* * *

We have reproduced, in its entirety, Chief J. O. S. Ayomike’s critique of our Editorial Introduction to the British “Treaties of Protection” with Western Niger Delta communities in the 1880s and 1890s
at http://waado.org/UrhoboHistory/NigerDelta/ColonialTreaties/Treaties-Interpretation/Warri-Ayomike/Ayomike.html of our Web site.

Members of the Editorial and Management Committee


Larry Arhagba, M.A.
Onoawarie Edevbie, M.A., M.Sc.
Peter P. Ekeh, Ph.D
Edirin Erhiaganoma, M.Sc.
Joseph Inikori, Ph.D
Isaac James Mowoe, Ph.D, J.D.
Igho Natufe, Ph.D.
Rev. Fr. Jude Obiunu, B.Th. (Urbaniana Univ., Rome), M. A. (Fordham)
Ukonurhoro Diesode Omenih
Grace Ophori, M.A.
Aruegodore Oyiborhoro, Ed.D
Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, MD., Ph.D

March 22, 2002


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