Fifty years after Mukoro Mowoe

Urhobo Historical Society


Professor Onigu Otite
University of Ibadan, Nigeria

1. Introduction

The differentiation into three socio-linguistic families called Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, and Nilo-Saharan (Williamson 1971) is the ultimate basis for describing the old geographical region which later became Nigeria in 1914, as a country defined by unity in diversity. The Kwa-group of languages as part of the Niger-Congo (or sometimes called Western Sudanic) includes socio-linguistic groups such as the Edo, Efik, Idoma, Igbo, ljo, Yoruba, etc. which got separated about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago as calculated through lexico statistics and glottochronology. The Edo-speaking peoples separated into various groups such as Bini, Esan, and Urhobo at about 3,000 years ago (see Otite 1982 16-24: for references). Following this event, the Urhobo passed through several routes of friendly and hostile physical and social environments with marked continuities and discontinuities, and settled in their present territories in Delta State.

Thus, the Urhobo are part of the contemporary diversities in Nigeria (Otite 1971), being one of the 374 ethnic groups with rights, just as any other ethnic groups, to the national, political and economic resources. We are Nigerians because we are Urhobo, and we have strong claims to participate in the government, politics, and the economic system of this country, and be part of the central ruling body — provided we are united.

We have at present about 1.5 million Urhobo, being more than 53% of the population of our state, and each of us belongs to one or more of the twenty-two polities shown in Appendix 1. We were proud independent and sovereign governmental societies and peoples prior to British colonialism. We have inalienable rights to exploit our territorial resources or to negotiate compensation for their nonpolluting use by foreigners.

Fifty years is a long period in the life of an individual. The Urhobo existed before Mowoe was born in 1890, and have existed as a society since his death on 10th August, 1948. Fifty years is a short period in the life of a society. In many respects, the life of a society may be regarded as relatively timeless, unless it is terminated by natural disasters. These statements suggest that we are temporary individuals on earth. While alive, it would be improper to engage in divisive activities which destroy our society.

The Urhobo as a society can also be conceived of as a large family on the basis of biology, i.e., blood relations, and of socially accepted extended classificatory kinship. We all have an obligation to ensure the continuity of all social and associational arrangements such as the UPU, for keeping the Urhobo together as a powerful family while we are alive. This is the basic and most important challenging side of the Urhobo question today. Indeed, to modify Nkrumah’s statement, when we seek first and achieve the unity of our ethnic group, everything else that is achievable shall be added unto it. We should never shirk this ethnic group responsibility.

2.Aspects of Urhobo Social Organisation prior to UPU

A peep into Urhobo ethnohistory has been attempted (Otite 1982: 9-26) ending with loud calls to future researchers, professional historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists to undertake further work. This is the only reliable way in which knowledge grows. And this is particularly relevant in the social history of the Urhobo where many issues need to be expanded, confirmed or challenged on the basis of new convincing evidence.

The migratory history of the Urhobo through their Udo-Edo territories is a history of multiple societal separateness and common cultural continuity. The question here is whether our history or histories should be perceived as an asset or a liability when considering Urhobo unity. The fact that we do not have one centralized political system with one centrally constituted authority does not mean that we are not the same people. The Urhobo are a multi-polity people governed on the relatively micro levels of kingdoms, plutocracies, and gerontocracies. In this respect of intra-ethnic separate identities, we share common ethnic organizational features with the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, etc., but not with Benin, Itsekiri and since 1947, the Tiv and Idoma etc.

Thus as a people we have many socially organized “unities”, but not one strong macro unity, except in a cultural sense. The separate organizational identifies have been consolidated by the instruments of symbols and sentiments. Symbols are acts, objects, social formations etc. which convey meanings beyond what we see; they impel men to action. Hence kings and their royal trappings are symbols in the various polities which rally people together in cherished exclusiveness and defense of the various polities.

Subsequent to the Proclamation of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900 and the increased colonial activities up to the 1930s, the relative weakness of the separate polities became very apparent. The colonial reorganization exercises and the emergence of ethnic-cultural identities brought about a new need for larger formations or amalgams to cope with the operating demands of Nigeria’s pluralsociety. What was relevant in that scenario was not the sub-ethnic units, but the whole ethnic group in competition with others at the national level for thescarce political and economic resources.

3. UPU and the Rise of Urhobo Nationalism

There were many precursors of the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU): gatherings of a few people, informal and formal meetings, and discussions in several places attended on several occasions by Urhobo people from the various polities, etc. A receptive climate of local patriotism was formulated within the wider context of the general African renascent nationalism. This was extended from the two townships of Warri and Sapele to the rural towns and villages throughout Urhoboland. Stories of the formation of other ethnic associations in Nigeria had been known in this respect, beginning with that of the lbibio-speaking peoples in 1928.

Chief J. S. Mariere stated that the first exploratory meeting of the Urhobo people in their attempts to form a Pan-ethnic association was held in Chief Mukoro Mowoe’s residence on October 30, 1931, before the formation of the UPU on November 3, 1931. Mariere stated further that “disunity” and “clannish leanings” characterized the Urhobo people at the time (see Ikime 1977: 86-87).

However, before Mariere’s 1931 meeting, the Urhobo had started to overgrow their “clanishness.” Indeed, by 1925, “a group of Urhobo met at Okpara Waterside … to discuss the questions of self-awareness and of how best to resist ethnic discriminations allegedly made against the Urhobo particularly in Forcados” where a meeting was said to have been held in 1924 (Otite 1982: 263). Each of the Urhobo polities was relatively powerless when confronted by the discriminatory and antagonistic attitudes of other ethnic groups. By 1934, the Urhobo in their home territories and in diaspora formed many branches in Sapele, Kaduna and Lagos etc. The name of the union was changed from the Urhobo Brotherly Society at its inauguration in 1931 to the Urhobo Progress Union in 1935, on amendment from the Urhobo Progressive Union, by the Urhobo Literary Committee as suggested by the Lagos Branch. The original UPU motto, that is “Higher Thoughts-Higher Aims” was changed to “Unity is Strength” in the third (1956) edition of the UPU constitution.

Two significant issues emerge from the preceding statements. First, the Urhobo people realised early an outstanding principle of social life which sustains the continuity and development of societies, that is: materials are good in promoting individual and societal comfort, but ideas are the ruling forces in life. The idea of the formation of the UPU and of working out a motto played and still play a major role in holding us together. Second, the UPU and its motto “Unity is strength” constitute core symbols that order the life of the Urhobo as one socio-cultural entity. The symbols were mobilized from the 1930s as identity banners manifested through the proud ownership and use of UPU blazers and badges in both the rural and urban areas (incidentally, we still keep our father’s UPU blazer and badge in safe custody).

However, although we can argue that these Urhobo symbols had a firm content to regulate intra- and inter-ethnic relations from the 1930s to the 1950s, they have since become empty symbols because of our own neglect and divisions in the contemporary situation. We are all descendants and kinsmen of functionaries and members of the UPU when it was formed, that is Mr. Omorohwovo Okoro (1st UPU President), Mr. Thomas Erukeme (Secretary) and Mr. Joseph Arebe Uyo, who succeeded him as Secretary of the Warri Union, Chief Mukoro Mowoe (first Vice President and later President, and from 1937 to 1948, President-General and life President-General), Chief J. A. Okpodu (President-General from May 13, 1950 to January 23, 1957), Chief J.A. Obaho President-General from January 26, 1957 to December 29, 1961 and Chief T.E.A. Salubi President-General (from December 30, 1961 to 1983) together with UPU successor-secretaries and members etc. All these noble UPU actors may not forgive us from their graves if they were to learn of the empty symbolism of the UPU in our times.

Your Royal Highnesses, respectable Chiefs, distinguished Urhobo ladies and gentlemen, I suggest that we must all admit our offense of conscious or inadvertent disregard for the UPU legacy of unity which we inherited from our predecessors. We must have the humility to atone for the sins we have committed against the bright torch of our exclusive progressive heritage.

Chief Mukoro Mowoe was easily the most outstanding promoter of Urhobo ideals and aspirations through the UPU. In acknowledging Mowoe’s contributions to the UPU, Chief T.E.A. Salubi said as follows in 1981:

The Urhobo Progress Union was founded in November 1931. The late Chief Mukoro Mowoe, after gathering all Urhobo people into its fold, became its life President-General in December 1937. The Chief was a powerful leader, very highly respected even to the point of adoration, by his people. He was indisputably the wealthiest Urhobo patriot of his time. All the progressive elements of Urhobo, at home and abroad, gave him full support and cooperation. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that, at that time, his word in Urhoboland was law. The peoples’ confidence in his leadership was at all times unshaken. He deserved and enjoyed that confidence buoyantly until his untimely death in August 1948.” (see Odje 1993)

The general mission of the UPU was well defined at its formation. That is to be the strongest umbrella for articulating the interests and aspirations of individuals and the polities, in an effort to develop the whole Urhoboland. The Urhobo had to pull in the same direction (not in different or opposing directions) in recognition of their motto “Unity is strength.” Development was conceptualized in qualitative and quantitative terms, in measurable and immeasurable indices as well as in capacity building throughthe educational development of our human capital. It was observed that however abundant our natural territorial gifts might be, our human resources must be developed as essential capital for development purposes. Chief Mowoe and other founding fathers of the UPU realized this factor and made it a central issue in UPU development activities.

4. Some of the Achievements of the UPU under Mukoro Mowoe

One of the most significant achievements of the UPU under Mowoe was its success in sensitizing the Urhobo to recognize the need for their pan-ethnic unity. Every other achievement derived from this united front. Let me refer to just a few examples.

(i) The UPU created a tradition of a broker association in reconciling parties that appealed to it for help. In this respect, the rulers and unions of Oghara and Idjerhe kingdoms appealed to the UPU at different times regarding their disputes over land rents and benefits involving their two component units respectively, i.e. Oghareki and Ogharefe and Idjerhe town and Mosoghar (Otite 0. 1973).

(ii) The UPU piloted the struggle for the colonial government awareness of the Orodje of Okpe, Esezi 11 whom the Okpe people and the Okpe Union had duly chosen and crowned as their king. The UPU led by Chief Mukoro Mowoe resisted the colonial government’s delay in view of the fact that the neighboring kingdom of the Itsekiri had crowned with the colonial government’s notice Ginuwa 11 as Olu in February 1936, after a long interregnum as from 1848. The Okpe Kingdom also had a long interregnum and equally wanted the colonial government’s notice of its situation. It has been argued that “The Political readings made into the non-recognition of the king (Orodje), particularly vis-à-vis the king of Itsekiri, was one important reason for the involvement of the Urhobo Progress Union. Through the Union President, Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Evwreni and Member for Warri in the Western House of Assembly, the Urhobo Progress Union put up fresh arguments in Warri and in lbadan, between November 1946 and March 1947 for the colonial government to reconsider its unpopular decision on the Okpe king. So again what was supposed to be Okpe internal politics developed beyond the kingdom through the Urhobo Progress Union” (Otite 1973: 97). It is also significant to note the UPU’s further actions when its secretary, in forwarding a petition dated September 23, 1946, by the Udogun Okpe (Orodje-in-council) to the Senior Resident, Warri, stated:

“My union has examined the claim of the Okpe people for the installation of their Orodje as a clan head of their council and is satisfied that recognition by government is a step forward for the advancement of Okpe clan administration. What brought my Union into this matter is one living evidence of the Okpe peoples’ popular choice of Mr. Mebitaghan. The Odogun Council, the Okpe Union and royal house unanimously appealed for the intervention of my union in the matter… (Otite 1973: 1256; 1982: 264). Although the Orodje was installed by the Okpe people on January 1, 1945, the colonial government was made to note this fact much later.

iii) The UPU was also heavily involved in the Sapele land case of 1941-43 which the Okpe people won against the Itsekiri. It was, in fact, made an Urhobo affair.

(iv) There was also the UPU’s important achievement in the field of Education. In addition to widespread tours to enlighten the Urhobo about the need to educate their children and their efforts in awarding college scholarships, the UPU was in the forefront of collecting funds to send Chief M.G. Ejaife to study at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone and later at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Mr. E.N. Igho was similarly sent to Cambridge. Chief Ejaife returned as the first Urhobo university graduate (from 1942-48) and became the first graduate principal (from August 1948) of Urhobo College. The UPU had founded this college on its present site, first used as its temporary quarters in January 1949. This was after buying over Wey’s school in October 1946 (see Ikime 1977: 100). Mr. Igho returned from Cambridge to handle science subjects at Urhobo College. Both Chief Ejaife and Mr. Igho were versatile scholars who injected a lot of pride and enthusiasm in their students at Urhobo College. These two personalities and the college acted as one of the early catalysts for educational expansion in Urhoboland. Today, the effect is that Urhobo university students inside and outside Nigeria number in the thousands. The educational current is strong and sustained, and no one can stop it.

The moving engine behind these UPU successes and foresight in Urhobo human capital development was Chief Mukoro Mowoe. His father, Oghenemohwo, and mother, Onokporere, were both Urhobo from Evwreni. The original name of their child was Umukoro Oghenemohwo, which became shortened, corrupted and anglicised as Mukoro Mowoe. As a full-blooded Evwreni man, he grew and functioned beyond Evwreni social and territorial boundaries and made all Urhobo people the beneficiaries of his wealth, his physical and intellectual energies, and his patriotic commitments. It was this prominent man who strengthened the UPU which we have all inherited. Should we let this heritage slip out of his hands? How would we explain our failures in this respect to the living spirit of Mukoro Mowoe and all our dead UPU torchbearers? Not many of us would want to be in a team to intercede with our Urhobo spiritual world for tolerance or forgiveness. We have an option to rethink our neglect of the UPU and avoid being so badly placed.

We must be reminded that the UPU has never detracted from the political or economic stature of Urhobo individuals or groups. “The UPU is not an all-Urhobo government and does not issue binding rules on any kingdom (or polity); rather it is regarded mainly as a reconciliatory (and energizing) body to lubricate the machinery of Urhobo indigenous governments and act as their consort and assistant.” (Otite 1973: 128) The UPU is an Urhobo instrument for promoting the interest of the Urhobo people as individuals and as a group.

5.Aspects of Nigerian Politics and the UPU

The UPU is unlike many other ethnic associations with regard to the formation of political parties. For example, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Union of Oduduwa descendants) founded in 1945 by Yoruba students in the United Kingdom and by prominent Yoruba citizens in Nigeria in 1948, later sponsored the formation of the Action Group (A.G.) political party in 1951, just as the Pan-Ibo Federal Union founded in 1944 supported the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). The NCNC was formed in 1944 from the Democratic party in Lagos, and led by Nnamdi Azikiwe after the death of Herbert Macaulay in 1946. It was just as well that the UPU remained a cultural organization with members allowed free and democratic choice of their political party affiliation. By taking this stand, following the wisdom of our founders, the UPU avoided the destabilizing and fractionalizing consequences of political party organization. We thus had a chance to remain stronger in unity.

The A.G. and the NCNC were regarded as Yoruba and Igbo political parties respectively, but they had influence on the Urhobo mainly as individuals and as subjects of traditional rulers, especially as from 1951 when both parties contested the 1951 regional elections under the Macpherson Constitution. This lecture will not deal with an analysis of political party activities in detail in Urhoboland for the obvious reasons of space and time. It should, however, be recalled that because the majority of Urhobo people supported and voted for the NCNC in the elections, various legal and political procedures were put in place by the Action Group-controlled government of the Western Region for a selective penalisation of the Urhobo people.

In particular, the two Urhobo polities of Okere-Urbobo and Agharha-Ame (Agbassah) which were exclusively organized with jurisdiction over their own parts of Warri, like that of the Ogbe-Ijo peoples, were made parts of the renamed kingdom of the Itsekiri. By re-designating the Olu of Itsekiri as the Olu of Warri, these two Urhobo polities were made de jure rather than de facto parts of Itsekiri kingdom. This was an outrageous misjudgment and an abuse of party political power, by deliberately succumbing to unwarranted pressures from emergent party politicians, despite the fact that following strong protests from the Urhobo people, the colonial government had strongly rejected, many times, the Itsekiri request to change the title of the Olu of Itsekiri to the Olu of Warri. (See also Ikime 1977:84) The ruler of one of four independent and coordinate parts cannot be made the ruler of the whole of Warri. To tolerate this illogicality so long after the 1952 Itsekiri-Urhobo riots confirms the rightly stated fact that the Urhobo are a peaceful and democratic people seeking justice patiently until it is achieved.

6. The UPU during the Civil War.

The Military struck in 1966, and most Urhobo-like members of other ethnic groups and their leaders went underground. All the ethnic associations formed after and including the Ibibio Union which began in 1928, were disbanded partly because they were thought to be inimical to military government processes. The only strong ethnic association spared in this exercise was the UPU, thanks to our own Major General David A. Ejoor, a top military elite, who had friendly working relations with the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon.

What did we or could we make of this spared associational continuity of the instrument of our unity, the UPU? Conventional wisdom dictated that we had to go underground as well. The UPU could not be made visible; its activities were submerged, and hence while Chief Salubi was President-General and later succeeded by Chief (Dr.) Esiri, it appeared to many observers that the UPU and the two Presidents-General were not active.

7.The UPU after the Civil War.

The studied inactivity or even silence of the UPU has continued up to the 1980s and 1990s. One important consequence of this situation has been the emergence of multiple micro efforts towards the same theme of unity – micro unities towards one Urhobo strength. In one important sense, this is a healthy development because it demonstrates the general eagerness for the progress and oneness of the Urhobo people. Hence we must applaud the formation of the Urhobo Social Club in Lagos, The Urhobo Peoples Club, Kano, The Ufuoma Club, The Urhobo Solidarity Club of Nigeria, Emudiaga Club, The Urhobo Ladies Association, Ekugbe Association and many others. These associations cut across town and sub-ethnic associations formed to cater for the progress of home-towns and the separate polities.

The constitutions and operations of all these associations deal with the problems of leadership in a united Urhobo society. There is also the problem of how to avoid pulling down our emergent leaders in various spheres of national or sectional activities in which the Urhobo take part. The network of associations of various scales imply the existence of various centres for the promotion of Urhobo development.

Another important consequence of the civil war period consists in the diversion of attention and energies from the central all-Urhobo UPU and leadership. This partly explains why I argued elsewhere (Otite 1993:21) that “the Urhobo have many leaders in various areas of life, but they have no leader.” This should not be interpreted to mean that the Urhobo have no shepherd. We are, of course, all aware that we currently have a President-General succeeding in an unbroken line of leaders since 1931. There are now in reality several constitutional democratized shepherds as leaders of the various patriotic Urhobo Unity Clubs elected for specified periods. Here I also reiterate my 1993 argument that “The leadership and unity of the different Urhobo communities, Unions and Clubs mentioned earlier should be regarded as viable dimensions of the central leadership of the Urhobo.” (Otite 1993: 18) We have unity in parts, but not unity of the whole. We have a horizontal arrangement of micro Urhobo Unions, but these are not articulated vertically within the umbrella of our inherited UPU.

The Urhobo are not as seriously or irrevocably segmented as the Nigerian society, and we are not worse off than many of Nigeria’s multi-polity ethnic groups. We have more potential for sustainable unity and centralized leadershiponce we develop the will, particularly as the UPU has never been made a base for political party activities in our contemporary situation. We must develop the will to forge and maintain a unity of all the Urhobo as bequeathed to us by Mukoro Mowoe and other founders of the UPU. We can no longer ignore this legacy. It is the mandatory way in which we can move the Urhobo foreward.

Let me repeat the point that since the Urhobo are not descendants or extensions of other people, it is only the Urhobo as a distinct people who can move themselves forward. And the non-negotiable unity of the Urhobo is not an end in itself; it should be constituted into an instrument for mobilizing and empowering the Urhobo people to develop themselves.

The Urhobo can also use their unity in many other ways. They could bring the heavy weight of their unity to bear on the oil companies and pressure them to develop the oil-producing communities. We should prevent them, using diplomatic and non-violent means, from creating without solving the problems of ecological disaster, and from the wanton destruction of the economic life of the Urhobo without appropriate sustainable substitutes. We should prevent them from slowly destroying our societies and cultures. By accident or by design, these oil mineral-producing companies are working slowly towards the extinction of the Urhobo people, not by the barrel of a gun, but by cutting the economic base sustaining our social and political existence. Our air, land and water are polluted, and fish and other animals, as well as human beings, are dying gradually.

8. Further on our Major Possession: Land and its Resources

Let me draw together the most important issues mentioned earlier in the preceding paragraphs regarding our territorial resources. I reiterate the point that we are full citizens of Nigeria with inalienable rights to inhabit and exploit our own territory in the present Delta State. In 1993, I lamented the situation that “it is an excruciating experience that while so much wealth is produced and carried away from our (Urhobo) land, only pollution is left behind.” This situation has not changed.

My 1993 figure of 557, 595, 658 barrels of oil produced by only six oil wells in sixteen years (1970-1985) (see Appendix 11) at the fluctuating average rates of US $3.00 (1973), US $11.00 (1974) US $14.00 (1978) and at the boom rates of $35.00 (1980) and US $40.00 (1981) represented an enormous national wealth from Urhoboland.

Further research on this subject reveals that “Urhoboland produces about 64.3 million barrels of oil annually. This represents about 30% of Delta State and 10% of the national yearly total land production. At the modest price of US $14.00 per barrel, annual oil income from Urhoboland amounts to US $900,200,000 (nine hundred million, two hundred thousand dollars) or N 19, 804,400,000 (nineteen billion, eight hundred and four million, four hundred thousand Naira) at the current official exchange rate of N22 = 1 US$. (1)

Several oil companies operate in Urhoboland. These include Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Pan Ocean, Chevron, and the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Let me deal briefly with only two of these companies, SPDC (or Shell for short) and Pan Ocean.

In a period of 35 years, Shell’s annual earning of US $560,000,000 from Urhoboland added up to US $19,600,000,000 (Nineteen billion, six hundred million dollars), i.e. N 431,200,000,000 (four hundred and thirty one billion, two hundred million Naira) at the rate of 22 Naira to one dollar. Shell appears to have a near monopoly on oil exploration in Urhoboland such as in Afiesere, Arnukpe, Ekakpamre, Evwreni, Kokori, Sapele, Ughelli, and Utorogun. On the other hand, Pan Ocean operates mainly around Oghareki. With an annual production of about 2,000,000 barrels worth about US $28,000,000 (28 million dollars at US $14 per barrel), the company earned from Urhoboland in 20 years, a total amount of US $560,000,000 (five hundred and sixty million dollars), i.e. N 12,320,000,000 (twelve billion, three hundred and twenty million Naira). Delta State is the largest oil-producing State in Nigeria and about 15% of the national oil production is derived from Urhoboland.

Another territorial issue relevant to our demand on the State has to do with gas flaring, a most outrageous and most disastrous activity, viewed in the context of the chemical, physical, and other forms of the pollution of our air, land, and water. The most notorious example of flaring is probably the site at Agbarha Otor with a 70 feet inferno for the past 20 years; Otughienvwen (Otorogin) has been flaring gas since 1970, Afiesere since 1968, Kokori from 1966 until recently, and Eruemukohwarien since 1967. There is a philosophical side to Eruemukohwarien. The name means literally, we should appreciate any good thing done to us. As an involuntary host to Shell, the people expected something good from oil exploration. We are told instead that the people were taken unawares when they suddenly saw light everywhere and some actually left to stay for a week or two in the bush thinking thatthe prophesied “Armagedom,” or rapture, had come. The effect of gas flaring on them was thus traumatic from all angles.

The current value of gas flared off and wasted in Nigeria daily has been estimated at 450 million Naira. The Urhobo share of this waste is about 15%. This is good money that could be used for road dualization, urbanization and urban renewal, flyover connecting bridges, etc. And, of course, such gas could help tremendously to resuscitate and salvage the Delta Steel Company now apparently abandoned by the Federal Government.

I am aware that by Decree No 23 of 1992, the Federal Government set up OMPADEC to administer funds allocated to it from the Federation Account and tackle ecological problems among other things arising from oil production. We all probably know that the Commission was deformed structurally, misused and abused, and it became ineffective right from its creation. Several suggestions have been made to government to salvage OMPADEC. I strongly support its decentralization to bring it nearer to its intended grassroots beneficiaries who could then act as watchdogs of OMPADEC’s transparency, accountability, and proper and acceptable execution of its development programmes.

The issues of petroleum resources obtained from our land and the gas flared to eliminate or “de-develop” us and our ecosystem form the background to our rightful main demands as we shall treat shortly.

In all probability, if he were alive, in keeping with his celebrated leadership, Chief Mukoro Mowoe would be in the forefront of this struggle. He organized united demands and pressures on behalf of Urhobo interests even where individuals or only one polity benefited from such united Urhobo demands. With the heavy weight of our unity and central leadership behind the needs of specific affected communities, the UPU could provide technical advice to ensure that payments or compensations made to communities are used for the development of such towns or villages, rather than get siphoned away into private pockets. For example, such community incomes could be used in setting up rural industries and other economic enterprises.

9. Looking ahead into the 21st century

Let me draw attention to the following five ways in which we may re-order ourselves and move the Urhobo foreword. First, we must finally settle the problem of a central leadership. I have referred to some arguments in support of this issue in this lecture as I did in 1993. Let me bring the two lectures together in this respect. Our central leader need not be the richest Urhobo nor the most educated nor the oldest or wisest person. Our leader is rich if we are rich, poor if we are poor, educated in many fields if we are educated, wise if he gets wise advice from us etc. That is, our leader is what we make of him as a reflection of what we are.

Although in 1993, I drew attention to the analytical distinction between two categories of leaders reflecting the two faces of the same coin, society and culture, which is still valid, it has become obvious that, in retrospect, an objective analysis of our Urhobo experience in the past few years compels us to suggest a fortification of the UPU as the best option in blazing Urhobo uniting leadership. We must build on our past and maintain the unbroken line of Urhobo leadership begun by Omorohwovo Okoro and passing through Mukoro Mowoe.

At this point, let me make a comment to clarify my image of the UPU a little further. It should remain a non-mandatory union which all Urhobo are nevertheless urged to join. I repeat that UPU membership should remain voluntary although its desirability is emphasized. It should articulate vertically all the horizontal Unions and Associations or Clubs formed as a result of our own democratic character. The various associations already referred to in this lecture as well as all UPU Branches in Nigeria and elsewhere should function as UPU organs. But these units as organs should be free to promote Urhobo unity the way they consider fit. And when they undertake programmes even with funds from national and international donors, they should report their successes or failures to the UPU. These may be passed round as exemplary stimulants possibly for healthy competition during UPU annual or biannual meetings. The organs could pass on certain tasks to the UPU if they find it more appropriate.

Another asset the UPU has is the rural or village sustained organizational continuities in our polities. The UPU may spread its threads of incorporation through the central authorities of kings-in-council to youth and age-grade organisations to serve as centres of mobilization and of enlightenment about Urhobo Unity and development.

The UPU in structure and function should not be perceived as an overworked bureaucracy, but as an instrument of identity and communication, better placed to tap all available resources to solve intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic problems. For example, the UPU could identify some historians, lawyers and anthropologists to investigate and obtain facts about land problems which may be passed on to politicians or judicial officers for use in particular court cases. Thus the UPU can be a source of origination or coordination in particular problematic situations.

The Urhobo should maintain one strong voice which articulates the various democratic individual and group or union voices, with consensus vigorously demonstrated on national political, educational and other issues.

I should point out, however, that in spite of provocation, Mukoro Mowoe did not work for Urhobo unity in order to generate ethnicity in Warri Province and the Western Region. He, together with Omorohwovo Okoro, Erukeme and succeeding UPU Presidents-General, promoted Urhobo unity generally as a basis for a united demand for social justice and for consultations towards friendly relations and the wider unity of all the ethnic groups – Igbo, Isoko, Izon, Itsekiri, Ukwani – living in the province. Mowoe’s legacy in this respect is the strict restraint put on fighting our other ethnic brothers and sisters in Warri Province and others in the Western Region. Mukoro Mowoe did this even when it became apparent that some individuals and groups unilaterally constituted themselves into unfriendly units for persistent vicious campaigns and statements against the Urhobo people.

Mowoe’s legacy of the wider “unity of unities” should be upheld and projected as an instrument for teaming up with other ethnic groups of the Southern powerful and strategic oil-producing minorities in an attempt to close ranks and forge a united demand for adequate entitlements from oil revenue, and to fight against oil pollution and social and envirornmental disaster. In this regard, I suggest the formation of a Southern Minorities Union or the Niger Delta Peoples Alliance as a politico-economic pressure group. The Urhobo, being the most populous group in the region, with the best-developed human capital, can provide leadership or a very visible membership of such a Union or Alliance. Mukoro Mowoe’s ideological stand in this matter is exemplary; he regarded pan-ethnic unity of the Urhobo as consistent with the desirable friendly inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria, and in Warri Province in particular. As an outstanding personality, he carried out his successful business and administrative and political careers in this ideological context. Mukoro Mowoe strongly supported the Nigerian Federation at that time because it provided various reconciliating arenas of activities in which individuals, ethnic groups and regions satisfied their interests.

My second point for moving us forward is that our Urhobo leader of the 21st century must be physically energetic and mentally alert, and must respond democratically to the changing demands of the national environment as alerted by the principal actors in his social networks or connections. He must learn to be diplomatic in his approaches to people and issues. Obviously, Mukoro Mowoe’s Nigeria is different from our contemporary Nigeria. Our politico-economic environment is now more complex, and many critical variables have now to be considered before leaders take decisions and make demands on the state to benefit their people.

When there is need to meet top functionaries in Nigeria’s political-governmental systems, our leader must consult and use his pool of Urhobo experts and personalities with experience, exposure and connections appropriate to a particular issue. All Urhobo people are potential resources for constituting ad hoc action groups to deal with particular problems at the right time. May I reiterate the issue arising from this point; that is, the dire need for the Urhobo people to help one another to rise up, by assisting the needy with appointments and promotions and using our various connections to “install Urhobo people in leading positions in government and in parastatals and private establishments where they, in their turn, can help other Urhobo people. This practice seems to be quite common in contemporary Nigeria. And the Urhobo people alone cannot label it ‘nepotism’ and shy away from it, much to our disadvantage in our system of national competition. We need many Urhobo big trees to make a big economic and political forest” (Otite 1993: 19). This is an important issue which we must all face in our different positions in life as a means of moving the Urhobo forward.

I should also urge again that we stop forthwith the condemnable habit — I will not call it culture — of pulling our leaders down, instead, as it were, of fertilizing the ground around, to let the emergent leaders grow. If we destroy our own leaders, who will be in the forefront of our struggle for our rights and entitlements in Nigeria? We cannot continue to receive almost nothing in return for what goes out of our human and natural resources to build and sustain the nation.

Third, and following from the preceding paragraph, wherever and whenever we have a single Urhobo candidate contesting for a political position, we should continue to support such a candidate massively with votes, as we did in the case of Chief Felix lbru as the first Executive Governor of Delta State. The advantages for the Urhobo of continuing this voting behaviour into the 21st century can hardly be overemphasized.

Fourth, our Urhobo identity and unity will continue to be elusive into the 21st century if we fail now to preserve and pass on the cultural content of our life to future generations. Accordingly, we must set up strategies for this cultural preservation. Several ideas come to mind here:

(i) Parents and patrons must teach their children or wards the Urhobo language at home. They must speak the language and if possible read and write it, using elementary texts.

(ii) Where parents spend most of their time atwork say in urban areas, arrangements should be made for holding lessons and sessions in the Urhobo language. This is absolutely necessary in urban areas including Warri, Sapele, Lagos, Kano, Jos etc.

(iii) Cultural centres should be established in urban areas consisting of libraries of Urhobo collections- books, journals, articles, artifacts, films etc. There should be periodic demonstrations of ritual and artistic dances, and collection and documentation of folktales, riddles, proverbs, oral literature, poetry of Udje, etc.

(iv) A research unit on Urhobo culture should be established, and occasional lectures on various aspects of Urhobo culture should be organized.

(v) A Centre for Urhobo Studies should be established and possibly attached to a sponsoring university, for example, Delta State University.

(vi) The Urhobo National Day should be resuscitated and popularized for the celebration of Urhobo culture, identity and achievements.

Fifth, a Pan-Urhobo Politicians Club should be organized formally or informally now and in the 21st century. This must be an alert group of political practitioners and elders with a wealth of experience. They should follow on a daily basis the dynamics of political relations and transactions in Nigeria, to ensure that the Urhobo people are not marginalised. They may invite experts in all fields, including political scientists, political sociologists, political geographers and professional historians, and must analyse issues objectively as they occur. They should produce communiques whenever necessary, to articulate the Urhobo stand on local and national issues. They must be self-assertive, shrewd and outspoken in line with the Urhobo personality, and be diplomatic if and when necessary.

As I argued in 1993, and during my recent lecture to the University ofLagos Urhobo students, the 21st century will still provide political theatres in which the Urhobo must stand up strongly united to be counted at national central tables, make demands on the State as a group and be recognized. Otherwise, we would be strangled by smarter people of other ethnic groups who struggle to get as much as possible or even more than their own share from our limited political and economic resources.

10. The Final Question: What Do the Urhobo People Demand?

The issues of economic and political deprivations raised in this lecture gradually evolved a consciousness which compels us to support the idea of a sovereign national conference. We are confident that as true Nigerians, and the owners of our territory which generates resources to develop and sustain the nation, a sovereign national conference would provide the Urhobo people an opportuned forum for objective dialogue aimed at restructuring our national political and economic arrangements in order to remove those critical man-made obstacles which problematise our very existence and subvert our politico-economic development. However, since the present military regime has argued that a sovereign national conference is unnecessary, it should be assumed that other means will be put in place to handle the problems that would have had to be bundled together for a sovereign national conference.

I suggest that we give the present military government a chance to unfold its pogrammes of resolving the anomalies of what amount to punitive intentions of past governments and political decisions regarding our development. It would be unwise to be confrontational at this stage and under the present dispensation. Without peace and diplomacy we cannot achieve our demands. It should be emphasised, however, that being the bonafide owners of the territorial resources used to start and maintain development programmes, and to pay the salaries and wages of employees nationwide, the Urhobo have the right to demand that their marginalisation, grinding disabilities, and underdevelopment should be treated as a matter of topmost priority. They should haveunimpeded access to positions of political and economic power and seats at the central national table where sectional or regional assets and liabilities are discussed and settled. The Urhobo have abundant and highly qualified and experienced personnel to participate in these matters and in national policy formulations.

The Urhobo people are self-confident, trusting, open-minded, tolerant and accommodating to government and even to oil-producing companies. These attributes should not be taken for granted as elements of weakness or cowardice now or in the next century. They should be reciprocated. Rightly, this was one of Chief Mowoe’s life demands. Nobody should rely on deformed or distorted power to maltreat the Urhobo. We demand social justice and equity. We demand that our land be industrialised by government and the oil-producing companies, guided by a blue print for new urban centers in the next century. This should lead naturally to population concentrations and hence urbanization and the consequent investments to meet expanding and varied needs-intra and inter-town roads, water, electricity, seaports, railway, leisure facilities, schools, colleges, a University of Technology with special reference to petroleum studies, etc. Education was central to Mowoe’s achievements, and such a university should be named after him to immortalise his name further in the 21st century.


I conclude this lecture with three points.

First, we have the capacity to organize ourselves exclusively as an ethnic group defined by our own system of symbols. The UPU is the Pan-Urhobo articulative umbrella Union with which we should identify as progressives and also as conservatives now and in the 21st century. All other Urhobo associations have their democratic right to organize, but should function as organs of the UPU with their own names or as UPU branches throughout the country and in the diaspora. It would then become imperative to work with the old inherited UPU constitution and modify and dernocratize it where necessary in order to accommodate changes in our group aspirations within the dynamics of Nigeria’s multiethnic society.

Second, we are now wiser in our experiences in inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria. The Urhobo are well known and respected as individual achievers in various spheres of life. But we can certainly do more than this. We should strive always to help ourselves, forge and maintain our unity as the most viable supportive instrument for individual and group politic-economic development. In the process, we must be alert always to detect and prevent retarding climates of distrust introduced from outside through subversive human corridors, or engineered by unpatriotic elements within the ethnic group, as we move into the 21st century.

Third, we should use and develop our own cultural resources in order to engage in negotiated settlements in the resolution of conflicts involving sections and personalities in Urhoboland, especially among the ruling elite. Impersonal legal or legalistic approaches cannot solve our problem ofUrhobo unity. They can only exarcebate disunity which our self-declared unilateral enemies and rivals are only too happy to promote. Chief Mukoro Mowoe showed us on many occasions the way of peace and internal (intra-ethnic) conflict resolution before his untimely death. In his top position as President-General of the UPU, and in order to avoid the impending disunity among the Urhobo people, Chief Mowoe canceled all his tours in order to settle an internal quarrel between the UPU Headquarters and the Lagos Branch, and appealed tothe latter “to cease fire and lay down arms as (the) Home Union has honourably (and) unconditionally surrendered. In the name of (Urhobo) progress, I have made this appeal.” (Salubi 1965: 34-35: see also Ikime 1977: 99) Obviously, such a frank admission of errors and wrong decisions has its own way of enhancing and conferring dignity onhumble high office-holders.

I end this lecture on a very strong affirmative note. I have great respect for our Traditional Rulers and Chiefs, and for all Urhobo people young and old, in low and high positions in any sphere of social life. And I have absolute confidence in our capacity to achieve a bright future as individuals and as an ethnic group. I am sure that if we were given a chance to be reborn in a physical sense, we would always choose to remain Urhobo.

This being the case, we have a sacred duty to rally round all our constituted authorities and leaders, as well as our institutional and associational arrangements which will help to guarantee the continuity and unity of our Urhobo ethnic group.

I thank all of you for listening.


Ikime 0. 1977. The Member For Warri Province. The Life and Times of Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Warri 1840-1948. lbadan: Institute of African Studies.

Odje, M. 1993. Opening Remarks presented as Chairman at a Lecture on Leadership in Urhoboland: Problems and Prospects by Onigu Otite organized by the Urhobo Solidarity Club of Nigeria, Warri Branch. PTI Conference hall, Effurun 15 May 1993.

Otite O. 1971. “On the Concept of a Nigerian Society.” The Nigerian Journal of Economic and Social Studies Vol. 13 No 3.

Otite O.1973. Autonomy and Dependence. The Urhobo Kingdom of Okpe in Modern Nigeria.  Evaston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Otite 0. (Ed)1982. The Urhobo People. lbadan: Heinemann

Salubi, T.E. A 1965. TheMiracle of an Original Thought (Being the Origins of Urhobo College,  Effurun) Published by the Author.

Williamson, Kay R.M. 1971. Language families in Nigeria. (Personal Communication)

NOTES1 See paper titled “The Nigerian Petroleum Industry and Urhobo Oil Mineral producing Communities being paper by Urhobo Oil Mineral Producing Communities on the occasion of the ministerial committee visit, P.T.1 Effurum, Delta State 28. 2. 94.

APPENDIX 1: Some Particulars About Urhobo Twenty-Two Polities

For these please proceed to:

Urhobo Cultural Divisions

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