Tribute to Dr. Chief Frederick O. Esiri

Urhobo Historical Society

Tribute to Chief Dr. Federick O. Esiri

Editor’s Note:

The material in the following appendix is taken from a UHS publication: T. E. A. Salubi: Witness to British Colonial Rule in Urhoboland and Nigeria. It contains significant discussions of the early contribution that Chief Dr. Frederick O. Esiri made to the beginning history of Urhobo Brotherly Society and Urhobo Progress Union in the 1930s and 1940s.

Peter P. Ekeh


Appendix I

Urhobo Progress Union, Lagos Branch, 1934-1954

Minutes Books Containing Samples from:

 Records of Meetings of Lagos Branch, 4 November 1934 to 19 June 1954
 Records of the Ikenike (Stilt) Dance Committee, March-June, 1936

*  *

Explanatory Introduction
By Peter P. Ekeh
Editor, Urhobo Historical Society

Original Mission of Urhobo Brotherly Society (U.B.S.)

Modern Urhobo history came to a head in the early 1930s. Faced with an unfolding new era of European colonial rule, whose dimensions were yet uncertain, a new group of leadership emerged from among Urhobo merchants and other professionals who had congregated in the new Township of Warri. It was there in Warri in  that these new men of some commercial and literary means formed an organization that they named Urhobo Brotherly Society and that they fondly called UBS. Its mission, at least in retrospect, was threefold:

First, the Urhobo people of this new colonial era thought they were considerably disadvantaged in modern development, in comparison with other ethnic nationalities in colonial Nigeria. A leading aim of Urhobo Brotherly Society was to hasten the development of the Urhobo people and Urhoboland. The Society wanted the Urhobo people to catch up with areas that were adjudged by them as having adequate moorings of modern progress.

Second, the Urhobo people correctly saw that the new era required leadership that could convey their wishes to the Colonial Government while obtaining whatever the colonizers had to offer to them through such leadership. They also saw that the twin resources of literacy, plus Western education, and financial means were necessary elements of leadership in the new colonial era. The Urhobo Brotherly Society wanted to ensure that the Urhobo people were adequately represented in these endowments.

Third, the emerging leadership and the generality of the Urhobo people were troubled by the poor image Urhobo bore among their fellow Nigerians and the new European rulers. Urhobo Brotherly Society was intense in making sure that the rest of Nigerians saw them as decent people, and not through the misbehaviours of those who profited by misrepresenting the Urhobo nation through their immoral conduct.

Such threefold mission of Urhobo Brotherly Society rapidly spread at home in Urhoboland and in the burgeoning Urhobo Diaspora. Within a few years of its formation in 1931, the Society had spread to major areas where there were significant Urhobo migrants. While Warri retained the status of Home Union, Urhobos elsewhere formed what were called Branches of the Society. Of these branches, the most prominent was Lagos.

Lagos Branch of UBS and Urhobo Progress Union

The Lagos Branch represented the Greater Lagos area, at a time when Lagos was physically separate from Apapa and the Mainland. This Branch had three major sections: Lagos Island, Apapa, and Mushin. Lagos was the Capital of Colonial Nigeria. It had many distinctions which other branches could not claim. One of those distinctions was a strong pool of talents devoted to achieving the mission of the Society. A strong indication of this advantage could be seen in the three persons who were responsible for the two documents that we now introduce. As far as I am aware, no other records of the proceedings of the Society’s meetings exist anywhere else, not even in the home headquarters at Warri.

In one important sense, the Lagos Branch’s records tell us a great deal about Urhobo Brotherly Society and the famous organization that subsequently absorbed it, namely, Urhobo Progress Union. The three men who were responsible for compiling these records – T. E. A. Salubi, F. O. Esiri, and J. E. Odiete – eventually returned to the Urhobo homeland and provided great leadership to Urhobo Progress Union in the 1960s through the 1980s. The events that were recorded in the two minutes books assembled here not only inform us of the tedious work of running a Branch of an ambitious Society; they indicate the dedication and commitment that are required for nation-building. Although these records come from a Branch – albeit, a major Branch – of a great organization, they do provide us with the fullest story of Urhobo Progress Union.

Transition from Urhobo Brotherly Society to Urhobo Progress Union 

The Lagos Branch opened its operations as Urhobo Brotherly Society on November 4, 1934. It continued its regular monthly meetings under the banner of UBS until 7th April 1935. This means that the Lagos Branch operated under the original name of Urhobo Brotherly Society for only five months. On Sunday, 5th May 1935, it transitioned to the organization’s new name: Urhobo Progressive Union.

One value of the present document is that we learn the source of the change from “Urhobo Brotherly Society” to “Urhobo Progressive Union.” Salubi tells us in his introduction to the Minutes Book as follows: “Among many other important innovations, Dr. Esiri and I introduced a new name – ‘URHOBO PROGRESSIVE UNION’ (UPU for short).” The name was approved for a short while, both in Lagos and in the Warri Headquarters. In the records of the Minutes Book reproduced here, the new name endured for just three months. The last time it was used was in the minutes of the meeting of August 4, 1935.

It was typical of the thoroughness and the passion of that era of Urhobo leadership that the change of name of the organization was not declared as a final word. Rather, the new name was given to the newly formed Urhobo Literary Committee, headed by the eminent Reverend John Ejovi Aganbi of Eku.  It recommended a modification of Urhobo Progressive Union as follows: Urhobo Progress Union. In the records of the meetings of the Lagos Branch, this new name appeared for the first time on September 1, 1935.

Value of the Minutes Book 

I assume that this Minute Book will be used in different ways. It offers worthwhile insight into the participants in the Lagos Branch. Unfortunately, the history of Urhobo Progress Union has emphasized the work of a few people who rose to the top. The records here tell us that a good number of patriotic and hardworking people brought the Union to its great height. These names include Mr. J. A. Uyo (in whose house the inaugural meeting was held); Mr. Susu; Mr. Ikutegbe, etc. The contributions of these men deserve greater enlightenment than what has been provided so far.

There are other uses to which these records will be subjected. There are researchers who seek to know what went into so-called voluntary work in colonial times. These records tell us a great deal of the sacrifice and commitment of people whose profit from the organization that they served so passionately can never be attributed to material gains. We leave the conclusions to be drawn from them to individual researchers.

 Ikenike (Stilt) Dance Committee 

In 1936, the Lagos Branch of UPU appointed a special Committee to look into the problem accompanying the attempt by the Union to bring skilled Urhobo stilt dancers to Lagos. The narration of this portion of Chief Salubi’s account is interesting in large part because it relates to UPU’s enduring struggle to stop unsavory characters from representating the Urhobo people. As he narrates the Union’s case, the UPU had brought these famous Urhobo dancers, at great expense, to perform in Lagos. However, they were captured by Urhobo prostitutes and other seedy characters whom Chief Salubi called “PAYA” people. Frustrated, the Lagos Branch went to court to prevent these bad characters from representing Urhobo culture. But the Union lost and the prostitutes and “PAYA people”won, obviously to Salubi’s frustration. It all looks like a modern story.

The craft of Ikenike (stilt) dancers was one of the great artistic achievements of the Urhobo people. Unfortunately, it appears to be dying out of Urhobo popular culture.

T. E. A. Salubi, F. O. Esiri, and J. E. Odiete 

It may well be said that there have been two peak periods in the history of Urhobo Progress Union. There was the initial period under the leadership of the Great Mukoro Mowoe who led the UPU into its limelight in the late 1930s and for much of the 1940s. Its second season of greatness and consolidation was during the leadership of Chief T. E. A. Salubi, beginning in the 1960s through the 1970s. Two other Urhobo leaders were at Salubi’s side during his era as President-General of the Union. The first was Chief J. E. Odiete, Salubi’s able Deputy President-General who ought to have succeeded him as President-General of the Union if Salubi died in office. Unfortunately, Chief Odiete died early, predeceasing Chief Salubi. When this happened, the UPU Executive reached for replacement from its seasoned ranks, fetching another veteran of UPU causes, Dr. F. O. Esiri, to serve his people as President-General of the Union in very perilous times.

It is striking that all these three men had worked together from the 1930s, starting in the Lagos Branch. Salubi was the founding Secretary of the Lagos Branch, while Esiri was the founding Assistant Secretary. Both of them worked very well together. Odiete was the young man who was made Secretary of the Ikenike Committee. Chief Salubi praised his work then as a young man in the mid-1930s. He later praised his work even more firmly in the 1960s when they worked together.

All three of these giants of Urhobo Progress Union teach one enduring lesson: service to your people is a life time’s work. They all began as young men and they continued into their old age.

Preserving UPU Records 

It is rare to have preserved UPU records of meetings dating back to 1934 through 1954, which is the age of the two Minutes Books under reference. We must salute the wisdom and professional ethics of Chief T. E. A. Salubi who had them bound into a book form in 1978. That we now have these two volumes available for posterity owes almost everything to his early decision to preserve these records.

When Dr. Thomas Edogbeji Akpomudiare Salubi, Chief T. E. A. Salubi’s heir, approached Urhobo Historical Society about his father’s papers, we did worry whether these manuscripts would not deteriorate, especially in our tropical climate. Fortunately, Dr. Salubi discussed this matter of the Minutes Book with Mr. Albert Esiri. Albert Esiri is, of course, Dr. F. O. Esiri’s son who is very much interested in preserving records to which his father contributed greatly. He is a successful businessman – proprietor of Turf Polo Club, Abraka, for instance. Thomas Salubi and Albert Esiri arranged between themselves on how best to preserve these valuable records. I did ask Dr. Thomas Salubi to include the possibility of reducing the documents to an electronic format for the sake of Urhobo Historical Society.

Dr. Thomas Salubi has now sent UHS the electronic products of the processing that Mr. Albert Esiri undertook. I understand that this processing included lamination of these old records in England. Given the huge number of pages involved, I assume that this processing would have cost a good sum of money.

Urhobo Historical Society thanks Dr. Thomas Salubi and Mr. Albert Esiri for their service in preserving these records. We understand that they venerate their fathers. In so doing they serve the Urhobo people – and they follow the mighty footsteps of their great fathers.

Peter P. Ekeh
Buffalo, New York
June 1, 2008.

Record Books of Lagos Branch of Urhobo Progress Union, 1934-1954
By Chief T. E. A. Salubi

President-General, Urhobo Progress Union

A major policy that I have cherished dearly in my life is a deep regard for the preservation of records. Such was my regard from the commencement of my tenure as the Honorary Secretary of the Urhobo Progress Union, Lagos branch, dating from 4th November 1934, that I caused to be constructed a sizeable cupboard with lock and key for the preservation of the records of the branch.

The records included files, record books for the minutes of both the General Meetings, Executive Committee meetings and an Attendance Book. These books were usually kept securely locked up in the Cupboard. I was unanimously elected and re-elected the Honorary Secretary of the Union from 1934 to 1943, nearly 10 years of unbroken service.

Dr. F. O.  Esiri – Assistant Secretary

Dr. Frederick O. Esiri, now an eminent private medical practitioner of many years standing at Warri, was also unanimously appointed Assistant Secretary from the same date. From the beginning, Dr. Esiri and I worked as if we shared the work. He took charge of recording the minutes of the Executive Committee. Because of Dr. Esiri’s busy time (studying for his medical examinations), he often found it difficult to attend the Executive Committee meetings.

Dr. Esiri was a very efficient recorder of minutes. Hardly any corrections or amendments were made to his minutes taken by him. So good was he that a prominent elderly member, Mr. J. R. Noquapo, volunteered to pay his monthly subscriptions in appreciation of his wonderful ability to take minutes. Mr. Noquapo honored his self-imposed award until Esiri was transferred from Lagos to Calabar.

Figure I.
Dr. F. O. Esiri

Before leaving Dr. Esiri, let me take this golden opportunity to say a few words about him, Dr. F. R. Esiri was a student (probably the first Urhobo Student) of King’s College, Lagos. With Chief J. C. Avwenake, he passed what was then known as Junior Clerical Civil Service Entrance Examination in 1928, each scoring, respectively, 194 and 214 over 360. I passed the same Examination a year earlier (1927) with a score of 251 over the same 360.

At that time, Government awarded a number of scholarships to students in King’s College.  Esiri was one of those students.  At the end of the course, the students were classified into three lots, according to their performances. Class A to be further trained as Medical Assistants, Class B as Dispensers (Chemists and Druggists) and Class C as Sanitary Inspectors. Esiri was grouped in A and therefore a Medical Assistant in training. That was when I knew Freddy Esiri about 50 years ago.  I think I first met him at a public lecture in an evening at the King’s College, Lagos.

I was happy – very happy – to see Freddy Esiri at the Inaugural Meeting of the Lagos branch of the Union at No. 9 Thomas Street (Mr. J. A Uyo’s house) on Sunday, the 4th of November, 1934.

One may well wonder why I have written at this length about Freddy Esiri. It is my strong view, even as I am writing this, that if Freddy Esiri was an Urhobo young man of these days, he would have had no business to come and mix so homely with us at U.P.U., let alone accepting the office of Assistant Secretary of the newly founded Union. I say this clearly without any feeling of inferiority complex. My nature has no such complex at all.

I have known Freddy Esiri for nearly 50 years now and have the greatest respect and esteem for him. It is my solid view that Freddy Esiri is an accomplished, well-bred Urhobo young man with deep affections for his Urhobo people. In spite of my high opinion of him, I disagree sharply with him in one aspect of his ways and behaviors. Both of us know this too well and we mutually agree not to allow it undermine our long friendly relationship. He is good.

Rules and Regulations of Constitution

In order of seniority or date of inauguration, Lagos was about the fourth or fifth branch. I think only Warri, (usually referred to as “Home” or “Mother” Union,) Sapele and Benin City were her seniors. I can not remember quite well whether Enugu was also senior. Doubtful!

From the very beginning, Warri or “the Home Union” had a high regard for, and dependence upon, the Lagos branch. That was why shortly after its inauguration, the “Home” Union charged Lagos with the responsibility of revising of Rules and Regulations of Urhobo Brotherly Society (U.B.S). Lagos naturally entrusted Dr. Esiri and me with that onerous duty.

Among the many other important innovations, Dr. Esiri and I introduced a new name- “Urhobo Progressive Union” (U.P.U. for short). That new nomenclature was, inter alia, approved by the Lagos General Meeting and forwarded to Warri. But the name was short-lived. When the newly-formed Urhobo Literary Committee, a subordinate body under the “Home” branch, vetted the Constitution, the word “Progressive” was dropped for “Progress.” The late Rev. John Ejovi Aganbi, a Christian Devout and a man of great wisdom and matured experience, was the Chairman of the Literary Committee. On further consultation, Lagos, without prejudice whatsoever, concurred with the change and that was how the great name, URHOBO PROGRESS UNION. came to be.

The Record Books

In this bound volume, there are four Minutes books. The first was from the 4th November, 1934, to the 15th November, 1936. The next, which was the 3rd, was from the 3rd, December, 1944, to the 2nd March, 1947. The fourth was from the 4th May, 1947, to the 19th April, 1952, and the fifth was from the 29th April, 1950, and to 19th June, 1954.

The second record book, from the 6th December, 1935 to 5th November, 1944, is a big enough book to be bound a volume by itself. It will be too bulky for all five to be bound in one volume. I therefore decided to keep it apart; five books in two volumes may be easy to handle.

Indefatigable Honorary Secretaries

The first Minutes Book (from 4-11-34 to 15-11-1936) was composed almost exclusively by Dr. Esiri. The evidence of his ability to record minutes will be seen from the clarity of the record.

Following Esiri’s transfer to Calabar, another young man named Ben-Davis was made the Assistant Secretary. Mr. Ben-Davis, a very handsome, well-dressed young man, handled the second Record Book from the 6th December, 1936, to the 5th November, 1944. When because of my change of career – transfer from my employment as Sanitary Inspector to Labor Officer in training) in June, 1943 — the Union “permitted me” to resign, I handed the U.P.U. Secretariat Lagos to Mr. Ben-Davis.

The name “Ben-Davis” was a constant cause of embarrassment to the Urhobo Union and other Urhobo people outside it. Everybody said Ben-Davis was not Urhobo and why therefore must he hold such an important office in the Union! But those who know him intimately will vouch that Mr. Ben-Davis was an Urhobo who could not speak Urhobo. His mother, Atere, descended from Ughrughele in Agbarho and begat that boy (Ben-Davis) for an unknown Ikale man. We knew the mother but certainly not the father.

From single-handedly upbringing by the mother, no one was probably more Urhobo than Ben-Davis. At the time he joined the Lagos branch, Ben-Davis could hardly make a sentence in the Urhobo language. The young man knows this too well as a great handicap in the position he held at the Union. He took it as a challenge which must be overcome within the shortest amount of time. He succeeded eminently well. After a while, that same Ben-Davis was, to the admiration of all, able to make adorable speeches with appropriate parables in Urhobo. He was a great feat.

Two others who. at one time or the other, worked in the Secretariat of the Lagos branch were Messrs. W. O. Oke and E.A. Borke.

By the time I came back from Benin to Lagos in the late 1948, the Lagos branch was virtually dead. Using Mr. M. O. Ziregbe as Secretary, I was able to revive the Union which had been seriously undermined by a violent body called the Urhobo Renascent Convention. One Mr. Igendu was the President and Mr. Yamu Numa the Secretary of that group.

Besides the Renascent Convention, the Urhobo Clans Executive Board, a body formed by the U.P.C. to help its work, also carried out activities which were not un-inimical to the Union itself. But I crushed the two ill-willed bodies.

Mr. Ziregbe used the last two Records Books from about 1949 to 1954.

Before closing the reference to Honorary Secretaries of Lagos Branch, one must not forget young men like Sunday Anaughe and Mr. Egone who played discreditable roles. These two, in spite of their profession of patriotism, were indeed Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh’s “blue-eye” boys. I would rather say no more about them.

Other outstanding Honorary Secretaries, whose names must take their proper places in this kind of record, were Mr. A. G. B. Nesiama and Mr. P. E. Okumabgba. The former was an experienced Civil Servant from the Governor’s office. He brought his great typing ability and office routine experience to bear in his discharge of his U.P.U. Secretarial duties; he left the office when he was transferred from Lagos to Ibadan.

Mr. Okumagba was a great social figure and with Chief Thomas Fofah, as his President, the Union’s work in Lagos really progressed. Both were still on the saddle when, as President General, I toured in June, 1946 to Lagos, among other places in Western Nigeria.

Figure I.2
Chief Julius Odiete

The Stilt (Ikenike) Dance Committee Minutes Book

Apart from the first five Record books, I also preserved here two other records, i.e., the Minutes Books of the Scholarship Stilt (Ikenike) Dance Committee (March – June 1936) and the Urhobo Scholarships Record Book as kept by the late Mr. C. O. Edewor, the first Lagos Treasurer.

This record book contains minutes of the meetings of the Stilt (Ikenike) Dance Committee set up in March, 1936. That was about 10 months after the Union had established the Scholarship Scheme.

In order to raise funds for the Urhobo Scholarship, the Lagos branch decided to devise various means of doing so. One, and probably the first of such means, was to organize and stage a stilt (Ikenike) Dance. Ikenike dance was very popular in Lagos. To that end, the Union sent Mr. J. Rugbare Noquapo to the Ikale area to recruit good dancers from among the Urhobo residents there.

Mr. Noquapo recruited three expert dancers but the Urhobo Friendly Society (alias PAYA) and the women (mainly prostitutes) who did not support Urhobo Progress Union, especially Lagos branch, created difficulties so that the dance might not take place. They attracted the recruited dancers away from the Union by attracting each one of them to well known harlots as girl friends.

A dispute then arose between the Union and the recruited dancers ably supported by the PAYA group. The matter came to a head when the Union was obliged to take the men to court for an injunction to restrain them from dancing for the PAYA group that was already organizing them to stage a dance. The Lagos Union engaged Mr. Akaje- Macaulay as their legal counsel while the Paya retained Sir William-Gerray, Baronet of the British Realm then residing and practising in Lagos.

The court decided against the Union and the Paya used the recruited experts to dance for them without any trouble.

Already, the Union had incurred a heavy expense on the transaction. It was to get friendly Urhobo Clans, who supported the Union, to bear some of the expenses that the Stilt (Ikenike) Dance Committee was set up. At that time, Mr. (now chief) J. E. Odiete, a young man fresh from school, was the Secretary of the Committee. Most of the record of the meetings of the Committee was written in his beautiful handwriting. Chief Odiete is now a well-known Lawyer in Urhoboland.

About 13 meetings were held between the 4th March to the 27th June, 1936. It is doubtful whether the Committee achieved much success as some of the friendly clans did not pay their allotted share of the expenditure. Further information will be found at the back pages of the Treasurer’s Record Book for the Scholarship contributions.

Record Book for Scholarship Contributions

Mr. C. O. Edewor, the efficient Treasurer, who helped the Union a great deal, kept a book. This record book was used exclusively for the Scholarship Account and was distinct from the main Union Financial Record Book.

These seven Record Books plus some Volumes and early files were the documents I was able to recover and preserve from the Archive of my beloved Lagos Branch. I know that two Records were lost from the Archives. First Minutes Book of the Executive Committee meetings, and the second was the Attendance Book showing the date of admission and the attendance thereafter of each member of the Union.

I have no idea at all as to where Secretaries like Sunday Anaughe, Egone, Nesiama, and Okumagba kept their record books. I will be surprised to see them intact anywhere today.

The break was from the latter part of 1950 when after leave, I was transferred back to Benin. I did not see Lagos thereafter until August, 1953, on my way to the United Kingdom. Upon my return from U. K. in September, 1954, I was posted to Ibadan. The last of my years in the Civil Service were served between Ibadan and Lagos until I left my desk December, 1961, on about 5 months leave prior to full retirement.

It was from that period, late 1949, that I lost contact and grip of the Union’s papers at Lagos.

Chief T. E. A. Salubi.
Akaba R’ Ode,
Ovu Inland
13th July, 1978

Return to Dr. Esiri Home Page

%d bloggers like this: