A Summit to Unite Urhobo

Urhobo Historical Society

A Summit to Unite Urhobo
Sunday, August 09, 2009

By Abraham Ogbodo

Deputy Political Editor, Guardian Newspapers

For two days, between July 30 and 31, key segments of the Urhobo nation made propositions amid oppositions at a summit to discuss common issues, but managed in the end to arrive on a common ground. They accepted the urgency to bridge all dividing gaps and move the Urhobo people to a more competitive level in the contest for rights and privileges in the Nigerian Federation. DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR, ABRAHAM OGBODO who was at the Urhobo Unity Summit presents the undercurrents that induced the call for a new beginning among the Urhobo.

THE beauty is that there is something to look up to for a clear direction in the renewed search for unity among the Urhobo. Everybody agrees that the founding fathers — and these include, Chiefs Mukoro Mowoe, Thompson Salubi and Jereton Mariere – who did not have the benefit of sound western education and large scale exposure that today’s leaders enjoy, did so well to define the parameters. And decades after they had played and vacated the stage, the subsisting generation is still struggling to add new things and raise the bar.

Not too much has been achieved largely because the later drivers changed gear and lost the momentum that made things to happen under the old brigade. Specifically, the unity and exceptional spirit of patriotism that fired Chief Mowoe and his contemporaries even beyond the limit of their own dreams, resulting in such great feats as the founding of Urhobo College, Effurun, in 1946, got dissipated midway. The Urhobo view point, which was about the only point under the old leadership, receded deeper and deeper into the background as the stage became suffused with personal contentions.

At some point actually, the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), which is the official organ for the articulation of Urhobo interest within the larger socio-political contexts, was defined more by its inaction than otherwise. After a fairly turbulent transition scheme that saw the union leadership shifting from Dr Esiri to Chief James Edewor and to General David Ejoor (rtd) in quick succession, Chief Benjamin Okumagba was elected president-general in 1999. He was understandably taken in by an obsession to give the UPU some bite. And under him, the UPU did come around to earn its name and place.

But in the hard restoration drive under Okumagba, who is now the Oruosue (king) of Okere Urhobo Kingdom, Warri, some quarters were displaced or felt displaced. Also, the build-up to the 2007 governorship election in Delta State and the position of the then Okumagba-led UPU on the issue of an acceptable Urhobo flag bearer for the governorship race, created new contentions that deepened the feeling of alienation among people that were opposed to the direction that the UPU was charting. Even when the 2007 elections had been put behind and it became time for the UPU to do its own transition in December of that year, there were reverberations of the deep-seated animosity which came very close to stalling the process.

In fact, while the delegate conference that culminated in the election of Senator Felix Ibru as president-general of the UPU was going on at the conference hall of the Petroleum Training Centre (PTI), Effurun, a parallel exercise was afloat at the palace of the Orodje of Okpe in Orereokpe, with most of the 23 kings in Urhobo land in attendance, to elect General John Obada, former federal commissioner for works, also as president-general of the UPU. In the end however, Ibru triumphed.

This was the background and Senator Ibru who also loves to be addressed as Ambassador of Peace was immediately taken to task. He understood, even on day one, that the work of rebuilding the crumbling Urhobo house was enormous. While accepting his election as the new president-general, he had noted that his tenure would only be meaningful if all hands came on deck with him and the hitherto proposing and opposing voices fused into one strong call for the good of Urhobo land. He said he should be treated as a willing messenger and that those who had put him on course should not turn around to cause rain to impede his speed and capacity to deliver.

And for about one and half years, Senator Ibru had characteristically operated behind the scene to mend broken fences. For instance, he has been able to bring back the Ivies (kings) who had suspended their participation in UPU activities in the heat of the propositions and counter propositions that drove the union in multi directions. The last Urhobo National Day celebration in December 2008 drew the full compliments of the kings including that of Mosogar which had just been adopted as the 23rd kingdom of Urhobo land by the General Assembly at the 2008 UPU Delegate Conference.

This was the first dependable sign that the UPU under Ibru would be able to reconcile the rowdy Urhobo house and make all the family members work together again. In other words, the two-day (between July 30 and 31) Urhobo Unity Summit, which was first of its kind, since 1931 when the UPU was founded, was actually to show case what had been quietly achieved backstage. And it turned out a very good show. The Organising Committee headed by Deacon Gamaliel Onosode even went beyond the core content to make it a mini summit of all the ethnic nationalities in the Western Delta.

Days before the d-day, an implementation committee comprising former communication minister, General Patrick Aziza as chairman, Olorogun Moses Taiga, Elder john Onojakpor, Chief Young Abenobe among others met for long hours at the resident of Senator Ibru in Ughelli to cross the Ts and dot the Is. There was apprehension even when General Aziza, also the First Deputy President-general of the UPU had assured that things were in their proper places and that he was in “full control of my artillery and there will not be cross fire.”

All was, indeed in place for the opening ceremony. Two time governor of old Bendel State, Dr Samuel Ogbemudia represented the Binis with whom the Urhobo have maintained cultural and economic ties for centuries. He described the decision to call the summit as “very remarkable and timely” and pleaded that the exercise should be used to “set in motion, the irreversible process of achieving a united Urhobo” that will inspire up-coming generation as well as engender prosperity and stability in Urhobo land.

Chief E.K Clark sent in a sweet message on behalf of the Ijaw ethnic nationality. He said the UPU, which has always remained a rally point for all Urhobo people should be strengthened so that it would continue to play effectively that role in the times ahead. He lamented the non-committal attitude of the younger generation whom, he said were always driven by personal considerations and advised Senator Ibru to use “this important occasion to appeal to all our politicians, young and old, to return to the path of honour and give the Urhobo nation, the pride of place in Nigeria.”

Other ethnic neighbours of Urhobo namely, Isoko, Itsekiri and Udokwa, which was represented by Prof B.I.C Ijomah, agreed that a united Urhobo would mean well for all the ethnic groups in the Western Delta. Elder Peter Erebi president-general of Isoko Development Union acknowledged “the Urhobos as our big brothers who should lead the path for us to follow.” Amb. Ralph Uwechue, the president-general of Ohaeneze Ndigbo said the “Urhobos are on their way to teaching this very divided country a few useful lessons on unity.”

Provision was also made for representatives of other major ethnic groups who were invited but could not attend the Urhobo summit. On the bill were Gen, I.B.M Haruna, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief Olu Falae, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Chief Tony Anenih and Chief Isaac Jemide.

The welcome address by Senator Ibru had struck the right chord. He painstakingly traced a network of relationships and interdependence between the Urhobo and the Binis, Itsekiris, Ijaws, Ukwuani and the Isokos.. It was a small piece of history that gave illuminating insights into the shared aspirations and affinities between the Urhobos and their immediate neighbours.

Delta State governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan who also represented the special guest of honour, Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan said the turbulence in the polity especially in the Niger Delta required unity among all ethnic groups in the region. Specifically, the governor said he and his fellow governors in the South-south would need the kind of unity that the Urhobo had initiated to do an effective battle at the centre regarding recent issues on oil exploitation and accruing benefits to oil producing states in the Niger Delta.

His predecessor, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, himself an Urhobo man, confessed that the choice of Senator Ibru was well made in spite of initial misgivings about the electoral process that produced him as the UPU president-general. “He (Ibru) has proved to all of us that he is indeed an ambassador of peace and a bridge builder” Ibori said.

After the opening ceremony, the summit broke into business sessions where hard presentations and arguments on the way forward for Urhobo land were made. Professor Sam Ibodje of the Political Science Department of the University of Port Harcourt presented a paper titled “Key Challenges of Urhobo Nation.” Another, titled “Urhobo Strategic Interest And Plans,” was presented by Professor Peter Ekeh, President of the United States based study group, Urhobo Historical Society. There were other written and oral presentations from many of the accredited participants, all of which formed the kernel for discussions at the business sessions.

In the end, a five-page communique was hammered out to articulate the issues raised. The main points are that the summit resolves to strengthen the existing cordial relationships between the Urhobo people and their ethnic neighbours; to reposition the UPU and insulate it from partisanship for it to be able to contain the challenges ahead; to put in place machinery for the revitalization of Urhobo language and save it from extinction; to oppose the relocation of the Petroleum University and the PTI from Effurun to any other part of the country and to set up a committee that will work out modalities for the establishment of Urhobo Unversity. It is also part of the resolutions to oppose the Petroleum Industry Bill; to set up a machinery for the creation of Urhobo State; to work towards the eradication of electoral malpractices and to reach out to all those who were aggrieved by the events of the 2007 general elections in the spirit of true reconciliation.

It is a new template that requires a new tempo. Senator Ibru knows this. He told The Guardian after the summit that “the good thing is that we were able to sit, discuss and agree on key points” stressing, “what remains is the commitment on the part of all of us to follow up effectively.”

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