An Agenda for Urhobo Unity

Urhobo Historical Society

An Agenda For Urhobo Unity

By Abraham Ogbodo

The Guardian On-Line –

Sunday, May 5, 2002.

THE target of one billion naira from a single fund raising event appeared highly ambitious. But the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) insisted it needed so much to translate a number of community projects from sheer dreams to reality.

 Specifically, the UPU under the leadership of Chief Benjamin Okumagba had consulted extensively among the 22 kingdoms that constitute the Urhobo nation and emerged with a seven-point development plan which will take the Urhobo people beyond where they stand in the national equation, to some new and refreshing heights. The points are: The building of a new ultra modern Urhobo Cultural Centre to be more centrally located in Urhobo land as well as the rehabilitation and refurbishing of the existing Urhobo Cultural Centre in Warri. There are also hopes to build what one top UPU officer described as a befitting secretariat for the union, and the establishment of Urhobo library and Museum. The plan equally covers renewed efforts at developing the Urhobo language and culture.

 The UPU which is an umbrella organisation of all sons and daughters of Urhobo land has always not been too comfortable with the geographical delineation of Delta State since the state was created in 1991 and for the first time, the union came out openly and forcefully to argue that part of the expected one billion naira will be expended on efforts aimed at actualising “the creation of the true Delta State”. This will mean a Delta State that will be rightly delineated along the old provincial lines and which will exclude the state capital Asaba and the entire Anioma area.

 Beyond these, the expected funds will be channelled into other sundry issues of development of Urhobo land and its people. Evidently, the UPU has enough projects to judiciously explain its demand of one billion naira from Urhobo sons and daughters. Date, venue and other critical aspects of the fund raising ceremony were perfected. Two big sons of Urhobo land, Chief Moses Taiga and Olorogun Michael Ibru were advertised as Chief launcher of the fund and chairman of the ceremony.

 Those that were called heard and those that heard came in different colours. And so on the appointed date, April 27, the yet-to-be completed school hall of Urhobo College, Effurun was filled to capacity with top dignitaries including Delta State Governor Chief James Onanefe Ibori who attended the ceremony as a special guest of honour. The Governor was accompanied by his education commissioner, Chief Ighoyola Amori and top civil servants. Other known Urhobo political leaders that attended include, Senator Fred Brume and Mr. Emmanuel Aguariavwodo of the House of Representatives.

 From the business world came Chiefs Patrick Okitiakpe, John Agbatutu, Maxmiller Orido also a senatorial aspirant in the Delta Central Senatorial District and Engr. Moses Kragha. Others that could not make it like Senator David Dafinone, Arch. Charles Majoroh and Mr. Fred Majemite, another senatorial aspirant sent representations that were formally acknowledged. Indeed the roll call was near endless spanning prominent Urhobos from the business and professional world. There was a near 100 per cent attendance of the Ivies (kings) from the 22 kingdoms. Actually, the kings in their traditional regalia of coral beads and dominant red, added more colour than money to the fund raising ceremony.

 The UPU, which was smarting from a recession, occasioned by a protracted leadership crisis in a way used the Effurun event to test its will. It was clear from the robustness of attendance both in terms of quality and quantity that the Chief Okumagba led UPU has weathered the storm and come to enthrone once more the supremacy of the union in matters concerning the collective destiny of the Urhobo nation. In fact, Chief Okumagba while welcoming guests to the ceremony stressed the point that the UPU “has the ultimate mandate and supreme authority to speak for and give leadership to the entire Urhobo people world-wide”, adding that the day’s event was aimed at complementing “efforts of the present state government in a meaningful manner so that as a people within the Nigerian polity, Urhobos do not lag behind other nationalities in the scheme of things”.

 In an off script addendum the UPU president-general disclosed that the so-called divisions in the UPU leadership had become subsumed in the beauty and acceptance of the Effurun launching. He explained that the 90-year-old Chief (Dr) Frederick Esiri, the central character in the leadership tussle gave his “fatherly blessings to today’s event,” suggesting in effect that the basis for the continued division in the UPU leadership has ceased to exist. Chief Okumagba called on prominent Urhobo indigenes who have always pitched camp with Dr. Esiri on one side against the current UPU leadership on the other, to close rank and help in working for the judicious utilisation of the development fund.

 The governor was impressed and he showed it. He spoke glowingly of unity among the Urhobos that will see the “people line-up behind their chosen leaders and speak with one voice” on critical issues concerning the Nigerian federation especially. Chief Ibori confessed he would be happier as a governor if the in-fighting among the Urhobos could be doused and replaced with collective drive and determination towards purposefulness.

 Atamu social Club of Nigeria, a group of young Urhobos in the professions and businesses came with a complementary agenda. First, members of Atamu Social Club presented their donation which the club’s president described as “our handsome widow’s might”. The club then went ahead through Okumagba to announce “a coming attraction” defined as the launching of Urhobo Dictionary next Saturday at the PTI Conference Hall Effurun. Governor Ibori and the UPU president-general nodded approvingly from the high table because they saw in the Atamu initiative a genuine co-operation with UPU in the sub agenda of developing Urhobo language and culture.

 In the end, realisations fell sharply short of expectations. The fund was largely undersubscribed amounting only to about N15 million. This was 98.5 per cent short of the projected one billion naira mark. The chief launcher however opened the donation with five million naira. The day’s chairman followed with two million naira. Six commissioners of Urhobo origin in the Governor Ibori cabinet combined to donate one million naira. Urhobo legislators in the National Assembly followed suit with half a million naira. The governor pledged his one year salary. No value could be immediately placed on his donation because the state Accountant General was not on hand to say precisely how much the governor’s full year salary would amount to. Architect Charles Majoroh, President of African Union of Architects offered to design the proposed cultural centre free of charge.

 But Chief Okumagba is most pleased with “this good beginning”. He says it is an indication that the Urhobo nation is getting somewhere after all. “What has been gathered from this launching will help us to take off in some direction; not all directions because you can’t start off with that in all the directions.” The launching according to Chief Okumagba is not foreclosed. His words: “We will set into motion the machinery to get more. What we did on Saturday is just the beginning. It may, I say may, be necessary even to move to Lagos to raise more funds and other places including the United Kingdom and America depending, however that the cost of going does not overwhelm what is expected. It is not a bad start. There are companies we have not reached”.

 For now, a time-table for the take off of the development plan that necessitated the fund raising has not been designed. Okumagba only said that “our starting point will depend on the funds available” adding “If the funds available are only sufficient to do A, we will do A and not ABCD and then get stuck midway”.

 There is also the task of conducting a thorough search for a location that will be central to the 22 Kingdoms where the proposed new ultra modern Urhobo Cultural Centre will be sited. Chief Okumagba agreed that the search would indeed be “thorough and to be conducted by a team that would approximate the feelings of the people. “There are several clans in Urhobo land from which we can appropriate land for this central position. For instance part of Agbarho is centrally located so also is Jeremi, Ughelli, Agbon and even Okpe. Someone without a good geographical idea of Urhoboland will not know that there are many clans involved in the central location. When we are ready, we will call a meeting of the Ivies of these mentioned kingdoms and ask them to donate part of their land for this purpose,” he said.

 The UPU came on stream more than 70 years ago to articulate and chart a direction for the Urhobo people. It was officially formed on November 3, 1931 under the inaugural name of Urhobo Brotherly Society. The late Mr. Omohwovo Okoro was the first president while Mr. Thomas Erukeme was the secretary. The Lagos branch of the society was formed in 1934 with Mr. J.A. Uyo as president and Chief T.A. Salubi as secretary. At a conference held in 1935, a suggestion that the name be changed to Urhobo Progressive Union was adopted. Later, the word “Progressive” was changed to “progress” following suggestion by the Urhobo Literary Committee founded by Rev. J.E. Aganbi of Eku. The late Chief Mukoro Mowoe, Urhobo foremost leader and nationalist became the first president-general of the re-invented union while late Chief Jereton Mariere was elected secretary-general.

 At the demise of Chief Mowoe in 1948, the mantle of leadership passed over to John Ogbudu who later handed over to Jabin Obahor. Chief Salubi took over from Obahor. Chief Salubi died before election could be conducted. His first deputy president-general Dr. Esiri then stepped into the leadership of the union. Esiri’s long stay in office and his inability to conduct election precipitated a quest for a change. The 22 Ivies called a conference at which Chief James Edewor was elected the new president-general of the union. Maj-General David Ejoor (rtd) was elected 1st Deputy President-general while the incumbent, Chief Benjamin Okumagba was elected 2nd deputy president- general.

 Incompatibility within the leadership saw Chief Edewor out of office, creating room for General Ejoor to be appointed as acting president-general. On December 4, 1999 an election into all the offices of the UPU leadership was conducted. The current leadership of the union was enthroned for a term of three years following the review of the UPU constitution. Fresh election are due in December.

 Feeling aggrieved, Dr. Esiri headed for the court to stop the leadership which emerged from the December 4, election from functioning. The case was dismissed at the Warri High Court with cost. This finally cleared the way for an unhindered operations of the current UPU leadership. Ever since, there have been subtle moves to reconcile the opposing camps in the interest of the Urhobo nation.

 Save these leadership squabbles, the UPU has largely achieved its set objective of repositioning the Urhobo from their underdog status to main contenders in education, economy, politics and other areas of life. One glorious achievement of the UPU under Chief Mukoro Mowoe was the establishment of Urhobo College in the 1940s. The college became a springboard for the intellectual empowerment of the Urhobo youths. Scholarship schemes were sustained by the union for a long time. The net result is that Urhobo land, which could not produce a Cambridge Matriculant in the 1930s and early 1940s, is today a major contributor to the nation’s intelligentsia and in fact global scholarship.

 The desire of the UPU current leadership according to Chief Okumagba is “to put the union back on tract” and make it perform even better. Actually, the Urhobo Progress Union is unique. It survived the clamp down on socio-cultural organisations during the Nigeria Civil war. While similar organisations were proscribed in an attempt to stem the consuming wave of ethnic sentiments of that time, the UPU was allowed to stay. And it has managed beyond to survive the cold grip of leadership inertia on one hand and the tough gale of leadership squabbles woven in intricate web of litigations on the other, th,at have been hitting it for close to three decades now.

 The Effurun event according to Chief Matthew Origbo, 1st deputy president-general will mark a turning point in the UPU. The call now, he says, is for all to come together and offer the necessary support that will bring UPU fully back into reckoning in national matters.

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