Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Destiny and History

Urhobo Historical Society


Professor Peter P. Ekeh
State University of New York at Buffalo

The late Chief [Mukoro Mowoe] lived as a universal man! . . . . Kind-hearted and full of sympathy, he relieved many from sorrows and misfortunes and assisted some to achieve fortunes . . . Many will cherish his memory from age to age. . . .
Verily, Chief Mukoro Mowoe (Oyinvwin) is dead but his work liveth, shining and inspiring us, his people, to action. Let each and all of us vow and work so that the torch he handed down may not flicker out but so burn that it may generate greater light for the good and the progress of our dear land even unto posterity.— From Memorial Ceremonies and Service in Honour of the late Chief Mukoro Mowoe, 30 October 1948.

In modern times, Urhoboland has emerged as the most prominent area of the western Niger Delta of Nigeria. But it was also historically the most problematic terrain in this vital region. Positioned among the tributaries of the famous River Niger, the lands of Urhobo ethnic group possess rivers (most notably the River Ethiope), streams, and lakes that provide ample waterways and water supplies that are so very important in the histories of all the ethnic groups in this region of West Africa. But of the three ethnic groups that people the western Niger Delta, only the Urhobo have no direct link with the Atlantic Ocean. Their ethnic neighbors to the southwest, the Itsekiri, and to the southeast, the Ijo, are Atlantic peoples who inhabit the mangrove and swampy lands of this portion of the Atlantic coastline of West Africa.

These ecological traits have been important factors in the histories of Urhobo and of their ethnic Atlantic neighbors. They also proved crucial in establishing a pattern of relationships for more than five centuries of the recorded history of the western Nigeria Delta between Urhobo and their Atlantic ethnic neighbors, on the one hand, and Europeans, on the other hand. Urhobos suffered from major disadvantages in most of these centuries because they were cut off from a lucrative Atlantic trade which was dominated by the Itsekiri. It was Urhobos who supplied most of the goods that fueled the European Atlantic trade in the western Niger Delta. But they had no direct contact with the European traders for most of these centuries. On the other hand, with colonial rule, Urhobos finally had an opportunity to burst out of this encasement, exploiting their land resources and the skills that they had developed in these centuries in which they provided raw materials for an Atlantic trade that their southward neighbors controlled.

The history of Urhobos of the western Niger Delta is thus one of severe historical problems for which they organized solutions. What is most impressive about this history is the ability with which Urhobos overcame significant disabilities that they suffered as a result of their ecological location in the western Niger Delta. These efforts were crystallized in the 1930s and 40s by nationalists who sought to enhance the Urhobo share of opportunities under a new British colonial regime. Their pioneering leader was a man named Mukoro Mowoe. He and his co-nationalists faced severe problems of organizing the fortunes of a people to whom the new British rulers were not particularly friendly. Thus, they had little governmental resources for their monumental endeavors. Instead, Mukoro Mowoe and his co-nationalists pioneered a methodology of self-development that relied heavily on community efforts for achieving Urhobos’ collective goals. Judging from the relative prominence of Urhobos in modern Nigerian public and economic affairs, it is now an historical fact that Mukoro Mowoe achieved these goals, although he did not live to experience such judgment before his untimely death fifty years ago. That we who are here, an ocean away from the land that he sweated to enrich, are bearers of the fruits of his labors is a celebration of his life that would have pleased Mukoro Mowoe greatly. I dare say, though, that he was the type of historical character whose strength lay in plotting solutions to fresh problems rather than in recitations of past achievements.

The Historic Challenges Facing Urhobos in Precolonial Times

The English historian Arnold Toynbee proposed that the character of a civilization is best revealed from the challenges facing its bearers and the responses that they design and manage for meeting the problems that these challenges pose. Such a Toynbean syndrome carries with it the fullness of historical formations because it implies a continuous process. Each successful response enhances the value of a civilization; but it also instigates fresh challenges to which new responses are required in turn. The model of Toynbean challenge-and-response will do well for analyzing Urhobo history and for revealing the parts played by its pioneering nationalists in organizing responses to the heavy historical problems facing Urhobos.

These problems date back to the fifteenth century, with the arrival of Europeans and the Atlantic trade that they brought with them to the Niger Delta. When the Portuguese stumbled upon the forested West African Atlantic coast in the mid-1480s, they were in search of the Kingdom of Benin. Thanks to the enormous scholarship of one of our own intellectuals, we are now able to narrate the facts of these five centuries of history with some ease. Professor Obaro Ikime, the foremost authority of the history of the peoples of our region, tells us that Pacheco Pareira, the captain of the first Portuguese voyage to our area, named two other ethnic groups in addition to the Binis in his accounts of this maiden European journey to the Niger Delta. These were the Urhobo (whom he named  “Soubu”) and the Ijo (whom he called “Jos”). Ironically, the group not named in this initial European account became the Europeans’ most trusted partners in these five centuries of contact. In a matter of decades, the Itsekiri became the Portuguese most trusted allies, supplanting Benin which had rejected Portugal’s religious overtures.

In the four centuries spanning 1485-1894, Itsekiri merchants established themselves as the principal trading partners of European merchants who brought with them Western European wares and bought several valuable agricultural products from the region. Although their lands supplied the tropical goods so traded and although they purchased the European goods, the land-based Urhobos were cut off from this trade by Atlantic Itsekiri chieftains who used the resources and means of violence that they acquired from the Europeans. It must be stressed that this historic disadvantage was not unique to Urhobo. In roughly the same time span, the land-based Igbo were cut off from the Atlantic trade by the eastern Ijo in the eastern Niger delta. Similarly, the land-based Ibibio were prevented from establishing contact with the European traders by the Effik of the Cross-River estuary. In all three instances, the Atlantic groups (Itsekiri, Ijo, and Effik) were demographically much smaller than the disadvantaged groups (Urhobo, Igbo, and Ibibio) that they oppressed. The lots of the Igbo and Ibibio in the eastern Niger Delta and the Cross-River region were considerably worse off than the Urhobo situation because the notorious slave trade was much less in the western Niger Delta than in the east.

Ironically, the nightmare of these land-based ethnic groups began to ease in the last fifteen years of the 19th century, during the so-called European Scramble for Africa. In the mid-1880s through the 1890s, Britain was in a hurry to establish valid contacts with the lands beyond the Atlantic coast. In the eastern Niger Delta and in the Cross-River, these contacts were effectively established with the Igbo and the Ibibio. When it appeared that Jaja, a prominent merchant of Igbo ancestry operating from Opobo in eastern Ijo land, was interfering with British expansion into Igbo and Ibibio countries, they exiled him. However, the circumstances in the western Niger Delta among the Urhobo and the Itsekiri were different. At Britain’s insistence, Nana Olomu, an Itsekiri chieftain, was  appointed “Governor” in 1884 with the primary responsibility for ensuring orderly trade in this region. Nana operated principally on the River Ethiope and other waterways in Urhoboland whose palm produce was the main staple of the European trade. Between 1884 and 1894, Nana terrorized the Urhobo areas with weapons of violence that he acquired from the British.

The sour relations between Nana and Urhobo merchants came to a head when Nana assaulted and abducted Oraka of Okpara Waterside. Urhobo reactions to this outrage were severe. They resorted to a trade boycott which not only attracted British attention, but rendered the purpose of Nana’s governorship impotent. The British were clearly unhappy with Nana’s conduct and so decided to deal with Urhobos directly — a consequence that Urhobos had craved. Nana’s attempt to block direct British trading relationships with Urhobos was the principal cause of the military encounter of 1894 that led to Nana’s exile in that year. Thereafter, Urhobo merchants began to trade directly with Europeans for the first time in four centuries. (1)

Political Challenges Facing Urhobos During the Early Phases of Colonial Rule: 1894-1938

The British colonization of Urhoboland occurred after 1894, the year of the British military encounter with Nana Olomu. That hostility happened while Mukoro Mowoe, the man who was to emerge as the pioneer leader of the Urhobo thirty years later, was four years old. The British penetration into various areas of Urhoboland must have intensified in the years 1894-97, since much of Urhoboland was already under British control before the Benin War of 1897. It was after that war that the British effectively established their colony of Southern Nigeria.

With regard to access to the new European rulers, the British colonization of southern Nigeria was directly advantageous to the ethnic counterparts of Urhobo in the eastern Niger Delta and the Cross-River region. The Igbo and the Ibibio were now able to deal directly with the new British rulers, without the intermediary agency of the Ijo and the Effik, whose erstwhile monopolistic connections with Europeans now collapsed under the new colonial dispensation. In many ways, the resources of the Igbos and the Ibibios were considered by the new British rulers to be more valuable than those in the Atlantic ethnic groups of eastern Ijo and the Effik.

The British colonizers and Christian missionaries began to settle into many areas of the new colony of Southern Nigeria as from the late 1890s. Elementary schools and teacher training institutes were already being established in Yorubaland and Igboland as early as the 1900s. Benin and neighboring ethnic groups were also directly engaged with the British and the Christian missionaries, with new Western-style schools established in a number of places.

In this new colonial era, Urhobos had an unusual experience full of humiliating challenges. This uniqueness had a lot to do with the old politics of the Niger Delta. In order to capture and discipline Nana Olomu, the British needed local help which came from his Itsekiri rivals, led by Dogho Numa. Numa also helped the British in their campaign of conquest against the powerful kingdom of Benin which eventuated in the Benin War of 1897. The new British rulers richly rewarded Numa by making him the paramount agent of British colonial rule in the new Warri Province.

Dogho Numa’s reign (1897-1932) over the affairs of Warri Province effectively disrupted any wholesale direct relationships between Urhobos and the other communities of Warri Province, on the one hand, and the new British colonial rulers on the other. Urhobo agitation for direct dealings with the British was largely unsuccessful while Dogho was alive. Beneath Dogho there was the further irritation that Urhobo native courts had Itsekiri judges sitting side by side with their Urhobo counterparts whose competence British colonial officers mistrusted, thanks to Dogho Numa’s influence. Moreover, Warri Native Court of Appeal, which served as an appeal court for matters handled by the native courts, was presided over by Dogho Numa and had an Itsekiri majority.

Dogho Numa’s death in 1932 provided some relief for Warri Province, but not for all Urhobos. In the aftermath of Numa’s death, the British reorganized native administration in Warri Province. With Numa’s paramountcy no longer looming over the province, local government and so-called native courts were now organized along the component ethnic lines. The single exception to this rule was the constitution in 1932 of the  “Jekri-Sobo” Native Authority Division, which grouped Western Urhobo with the Itsekiri. While Eastern Urhobo, which included Isoko, was thus free from extra-ethnic supervision, Western Urhobo was under the forced tutelage of Itsekiri chieftains.(2) There was another development in Itsekiri affairs in the post-Numa era that threatened the Urhobo. The last king of the Itsekiri had died in 1848 without any succession, owing to internal rivalries among the Itsekiri. In the post-Numa period, the Itsekiri now wanted to revive their royalty, but with a twist. They wanted his title to be changed from the Olu of Itsekiri to the Olu of Warri. Urhobos were outraged at this suggestion. The British did revive the Itsekiri royalty, but left the title as the Olu of Itsekiri, although his ties to the hated  “Jekri-Sobo” Native Authority were a source of resentment from the Urhobos.

Social Challenges Facing Urhobos During the Early Phases of Colonial Rule: 1894-1938

Modern Urhobo destiny was shaped from the events of the 1930s. Politically, Urhobos suffered from handicaps imposed by the special relationships between the British and the Itsekiri, especially their chieftain Dogho Numa, which had roots in four centuries of European trade in the Western Niger Delta that Itsekiri chieftains so effectively controlled. But Urhobo problems were far more than political. Urhobos were plagued by a number of social problems in the first three decades of colonial rule.

First, unlike their significant neighbors, the Bini and the Itsekiri, the Urhobo had no single king or chieftain who could speak on behalf of all Urhobo. While it is true that the Igbo and Ibibio, the Urhobo’s counterpart in eastern Nigeria, had the same problem, these ethnic groups did not experience the severe political problems of the western Niger Delta which required a common voice for articulating the political grievances of Urhobos in the new colonial dispensation. It was clear that by the 1930s, Urhobos were craving for a leader who could handle their affairs with the new colonial rulers who had continued to deal with Urhobos through Itsekiri chieftains.

Second, there was a bittersweet phenomenon that opened up a fresh opportunity for Urhobos, but also exposed them to new dangerous circumstances. The new colonial era imposed heavy demands on skills that Urhobos had developed in previous centuries as a result of the European Atlantic trade. In the centuries of the European Atlantic trade, Urhobos had developed unique skills that were most useful for harvesting palm bunches, from which precious tropical palm oil and palm kernels were extracted. It was an occupation which required special techniques of climbing wild tall palm trees and of extracting oil and kernels. These were tropical products that were in great demand in industrial Europe. In tropical Africa, Urhobos became the most gifted in this occupation. By its nature, it was an occupation that demanded large land areas which were not available in Urhoboland. Indeed, Urhoboland — like Igboland and Ibibioland — suffered from relative high population densities that have resulted in emigration.

The new colonial era opened up other territories in which Urhobos could use their unique agricultural techniques. From the early 1900s, young Urhobo men began to emigrate to neighboring Benin and to more distant Okitipupa, Ilesha, and Oshogbo in Yoruba country. Colonies of Urhobos soon sprang up in these areas. But they lived in dangerous and uncertain circumstances that often required intervention from organized groups. The leadership that Urhobos craved in the new colonial order was therefore not limited to the Urhobo heartland. In addition to this form of agriculture-based emigration, Urhobos were already spreading to colonial townships in Lagos and Enugu in southern Nigeria and Jos and other cities of Northern Nigeria. A good number traveled as far as the Gold Coast [modern Ghana].

Urhobos faced a third set of problems in the first three decades of the 20th century and of the new colonial era. In the British colony of Southern Nigeria in which the Urhobo were implicated, the business of the new colonial state was transacted in English and other elements of Western education that enabled the British and colonized Nigerians to interact as well as to transact commercial business. Much of the education that enabled the newly colonized Nigerians to engage in these enterprises was imparted by Christian missions which, by the year of Amalgamation between Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria in 1914, had established either elementary schools, secondary schools, or teacher training colleges in various areas of Yorubaland, Igboland, Benin, and Ibibioland.

Urhoboland conspicuously stood out as one region where there was an absence of educational opportunities in the new British colony of Southern Nigeria. Missionaries came late to Urhoboland. Indeed, Professor S. U. Erivwo’s research shows us that there were no schools of any kind in Urhoboland up until the year of Amalgamation in 1914. By the time schools were established, the teachers who came to Urhoboland were usually either Igbo, who headed Catholic schools, or Yoruba, who headed and taught in Anglican schools. This handicap dragged on well into the 1930s. By the late 1930s, there were secondary schools or teacher training institutes in the territory of virtually every other ethnic group in southern Nigeria. There was none in Urhoboland. Indeed, until the Urhobo collectively built Urhobo College in the late 1940s, there was no such establishment in Urhoboland.

In view of these disadvantages, Urhobos judged themselves and were seen by other ethnic groups as backward in the 1930s and 1940s. While there was little doubt that they were hard workers, they were ridiculed by other ethnic groups that had gained more prominence under the new colonial arrangements. The pains from these disadvantages were obviously felt by homeland Urhobos who smarted from their inability to overcome the paramountcy of the Itsekiri chieftains in their affairs. But the pains and sense of humiliation felt by Urhobos in the diaspora were far more engaging. Everywhere in the 1930s and 1940s, Urhobos were determined to overcome their handicaps and the disabilities which the history and geography of the Niger delta had thrust upon them. Men and women of the generation of Urhobos of the 1930s and 1940s were pioneers in search of ways of overcoming their disadvantages and of catching up with those other ethnic groups whose peoples were far more advanced than Urhobos in the new ways of Western civilization that British colonialism entailed in Nigeria.

Mukoro Mowoe and the Urhobo Response to Challenges of the Colonial Era

The premier arena for organizing a response to these severe challenges was the tri-ethnic seaport city of Warri. Warri was made up of Urhobo, Itsekiri, and Ijo settlements that expanded into each other. As the headquarters of a new division of colonial Nigeria, it gave its name to one of the most important provinces of British Southern Nigeria. It was a major commercial area because it was a seaport that was also accessible to inland regions where Urhobos predominantly lived and worked. An enterprising group of Urhobo merchants settled in Warri early in the colonial era in the 1910-20s.

It was from among the ranks of such merchants that the first batch of Urhobo leadership emerged. Unlike prominent Itsekiri and Benin chieftains who tended to rise from established aristocratic families, Urhobo leadership in this new era was liable to be of a different kind. It arose from among those who had been individually successful in their own chosen occupations and were then willing to lead. Leadership among Urhobos in the 1930s entailed a lot of sacrifice and uncertainty because it was experimental and was without precedent. While divisions of Urhobos (poorly called  “clans” under colonial usage) had their aristocratic traditional rulership, they had no common platform for organizing pan-Urhobo affairs. In this respect, the Urhobo were very much like the Igbo and Ibibio but unlike their immediate neighbors, Itsekiri and Benin. The new Urhobo leadership had to satisfy the sentiments of Urhobos who, in the 1930s, craved a single voice that would match the singularity which, say, Dogho Numa’s rulership in 1891-1932, had provided for the Itsekiri. But it would also be a leadership that would organize Urhobo affairs in ways that would overcome their severe social problems, both at home and in colonies of Urhobos in various territories and communities in British West Africa. That meant that this new leadership must organize the affairs of Urhobos with the singular aim of catching up with other ethnic groups who were privileged under the new colonial era.

Urhobo merchants in Warri and the emerging cadre of junior civil servants bravely tackled these problems. In 1931, they formed the Urhobo Brotherly Society which was renamed Urhobo Progress Union in 1936. Obaro Ikime, Chief Mukoro Mowoe’s biographer, tells us that Mowoe’s house was the venue of meetings for both the Urhobo Brotherly Society and its successor organization, the Urhobo Progress Union. Initially, Omorohwovo Okoro, a prominent Ovu trader, was the premier President of the Urhobo Brotherly Society. But it was soon clear that the leadership of the new organization required a man of some financial and educational means, in large part because its branches soon sprouted up among Urhobos who were resident in townships and cities in other parts of Southern and Northern Nigeria. Mukoro Mowoe easily emerged as the second President of the Urhobo Brotherly Society and, subsequently, the President General of the Urhobo Progress Union.

Mukoro Mowoe was already a highly successful merchant, having risen from the very bottom of the trading order to become an agent of Messrs. John Holt & Co. In the 1920s he had become a prominent exporter of agricultural products which he purchased in Urhoboland for shipment to England, and an importer of European goods. By 1926, he had visited England for business purposes, a rare privilege for any trader in those days. His trading posts were spread throughout Southern Nigeria, employing many young Urhobos as clerks in his stores. He had a flourishing motor transport business. He was later to add to these enterprises the role of contractor for the colonial government in such areas as road construction, construction of prisons, and supply of food for prisons. Obaro Ikime accepts Adogbeji Salubi’s calculation that Mukoro Mowoe was probably self-educated, since there were no schools in Urhoboland, certainly in his native Evwreni, until 1914 when he would have been twenty-four years old. But there was little doubt that Mowoe acquired a good amount of education for his new leadership roles and his taxing business transactions.

By the 1930s, there was in a sense a political leadership void in Warri. The colossus of Dogho Numa had disappeared through death in 1932. With his huge success in business and his emergence as an undisputed leader of the largest ethnic group in Warri Province, Mukoro Mowoe easily became the most prominent Nigerian in Warri Province. At long last, and for the first time, Urhobos now had someone who could deal directly on their behalf with the new colonial rulers.

But it was a leadership that served the people. The Urhobo Progress Union, which Mukoro Mowoe led, was ultimately a service organization. Its name correctly conveyed its passion and commitment of bringing progress to Urhobos and Urhoboland. However, its operations were premised on a strong persuasion that in view of the disadvantages that Urhobos suffered in the new colonial arrangement, they could only achieve any progress by way of collective efforts. As the leader of the Urhobo Progress Union, Mowoe played a triple role in this quest for Urhobo progress. First, he had to ensure that Urhobos had a good share of the benefits of colonial administration by maintaining healthy relations with British colonial officers. Second, he cultivated good relations with Christian missions that were largely responsible for establishing and running educational facilities in the new colonial order. Third, he had the responsibility of coordinating voluntary efforts by Urhobos at home and in the Urhobo diaspora, all of whom were engaged in a self-willed effort to uplift the collective fortunes of Urhobos.

In the 1930s, Urhobos were frustrated with the British colonial government that grouped Western Urhobo with the Itsekiri in the much-hated  “Jekri-Sobo” Division. Mukoro Mowoe and the Urhobo Progress Union fought hard for separation and partially won it in 1934 when an Urhobo Division was established, with headquarters at Ughelli. Mowoe was a member of the council of this new colonial division when it was initiated in 1934. This success endeared the Urhobo Progress Union and its leadership to Urhobos. Their ability to prevent the title of the renewed Itsekiri monarchy from being changed from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri was also credited to Mowoe and the union he led. In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, Mowoe’s influence with the British colonial officers grew tremendously. It culminated in his selection as the member representing Warri Province in the Western House of Assembly in 1946 under the Richards Constitution. He served in this esteemed position until his death in 1948.

Mukoro Mowoe’s campaigns for Urhobo progress included attempts to persuade Christian missions to establish their branches in Urhoboland. As a prominent member of the Anglican Church (called Church Missionary Society in its colonial version), Mowoe was influential in the affairs of this Christian mission in the 1930s and 1940s. Ikime narrates Mowoe’s efforts to ensure that both the Church Missionary Society and the Roman Catholic Mission maintained functioning schools in his own birthplace of Evwreni. But his efforts in this regard were far more widespread. For instance, there is anecdotal evidence that Mowoe and the Urhobo Progress Union were involved in the negotiations that enabled a Catholic Parish to be established in Okpara Inland in 1947 and a Baptist Hospital to be built at Eku in the late 1940s.

The greatest task of leadership that Mukoro Mowoe and the Urhobo Progress Union undertook was one of coordinating voluntary efforts by Urhobos. These were in the Urhobo heartland and in the Urhobo diaspora. The Second World War (1939-1945) interrupted whatever developments were available from British colonial authorities in their African territories. For instance, those areas that had government secondary schools before the war (e.g. Edo College in Benin City, King’s College in Lagos, or Government College, Ibadan) had to maintain them on limited resources induced by war-time austerity. But those, like Urhobo areas, which had not benefited from such development had to wait until after the war. Urhobos were impatient and embarked on a huge amount of voluntary efforts. Most Urhobo towns had their own versions of  “progress unions.” In Agbon, which currently constitutes West Ethiope Local Government, there were Okpara Progress Union, Kokori Progress Union, Eku Progress Union, etc. These associations usually held annual conventions that brought together educated and well-to-do Urhobos who were  “abroad,” that is, away from the Urhobo homeland, in meetings with their hometown folk. They contributed money to build town halls, bridges, and to assist the efforts of Christian missions which required land and initial capital for schools. They also paid levies which the Urhobo Progress Union imposed for the sake of pursuing pan-Urhobo causes.

The Urhobo Progress Union was actually a federation of several unions, called  “branches,” which were formed in numerous cities and towns in Southern and Northern Nigeria and all over West Africa. In many instances, these branches served local security needs of Urhobos — including attending to the needs of newcomers, funeral arrangements for the deceased and care of their dependents, and help with those who had problems with the troublesome police and justice system of the colonial government. They were immensely popular among Urhobos in the diaspora, particularly those of them who lacked secure means of existence in the Darwinian world of the new colonial era. But these branches were also the mainstay of the Urhobo Progress Union. As its President-General, Mukoro Mowoe coordinated these branches and ensured that they contributed their fair share to the collective efforts toward Urhobo progress. A major aspect of his responsibility was visiting these various branches which often accorded him royal reception. Thanks to his biographer, Obaro Ikime, we have the rich text of an address that he delivered before one (possibly several) of these branches. Mukoro Mowoe exhorted his audience as follows:
  My belief is that every being born into the world has a duty to perform to his people: either to the village he belongs or to the town or country as a whole. . . . Frankly speaking, any one of you who should fail to play his or her part for the upliftment of our dear tribe, it were better that she or he had not been born. [Professor Obaro Ikime’s paraphrase: He reminded his listeners that not too long before that meeting the British Governor had asked Nnamdi Azikiwe with whom (Zik) would replace the white officials were the latter to leave there and then. Zik proceeded to rattle off a number of qualified Nigerians who would take over from the British. Mowoe continued] Out of these names is there any Urhoboman among the names? If no, why? I say we have no privilege of learning; otherwise I think if not more, we have the same equal brains. Are we to leave our Nation to be under, always subject to all other nations in Nigeria? If no, be up and doing. Now we have the opportunity – our clans, our councils are ready and waiting for us; every one of Urhobo man should do his bit for the upliftment of our Race. We want money to send our deserving children to England for further studies and for the building of the Urhobo National Secondary School. I am sure we shall win the race before us. I pray that God may give you strength, long life to work hard and to complete the estimate before us and our name shall be remembered for ever by our children. (Ikime 1977: 102-3.) Mukoro Mowoe was a warrior for progress. The dual campaigns that he mentioned in this address were the supreme achievements of the Urhobo Progress Union. First, he was campaigning for contributions that would enable U. P. U. to send two qualified Urhobos to England for training in British universities. The painful background to that campaign is that up to the mid-1940s, Urhobos had no single graduate, no lawyer, doctor, or anyone with post-secondary school education – in sharp contrast to most other ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria. Second, up until the end of the Second World War, there was not a single secondary school or teacher training institute in Urhoboland  – again in sharp contrast to the experiences of other ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria in whose territories were established such educational facilities which were owned and managed by either the colonial government or Christian missions. Mukoro Mowoe was campaigning for contributions that would enable Urhobos to establish their own secondary school that would be run by the graduates that the collective efforts of all Urhobos would train.

It is ironic that M. G. Ejaife, the first of the two graduates so collectively trained by all Urhobos under the auspices of the Urhobo Progress Union, arrived from Durham University shortly after the sudden death of Mukoro Mowoe on August 10, 1948. The second Urhobo graduate, E. N. Igho, again trained by all Urhobos, arrived from Cambridge University shortly thereafter. The two of them began the arduous task of upgrading Urhobo Collegiate School that the Urhobo Progress Union had purchased into Urhobo College at Effurun. It was the first secondary school in Urhoboland!

These pioneering efforts are significant for their results, but also for another important reason. The Urhobo Progress Union was the first organization of its kind in colonial Nigeria, probably in colonized Africa. Urhobo efforts to sponsor their own young persons for undergraduate training and to have their own secondary school were born out of a burning desire to catch up with other ethnic groups that had been helped by either the colonial government or Christian missions. With the arrival of these two graduates and the building of Urhobo College, Urhobos had finally joined the league for competition for Western education. Developments thereafter were to become quite rapid. Urhobo lawyers, most of whom were self-trained in England, returned home in the early 1950s. Most of these had been born in Okitipupa and in other regions of the Urhobo diaspora. The founding of Urhobo College was rapidly followed by the transfer of Government College at Warri, established after the War, to Ughelli in the Urhobo heartland — an eventuality that is fully credited by Urhobos to Chief Mukoro Mowoe’s influence with colonial officers. The Roman Catholic Mission also built St. Peter Claver’s College at Aghalope, again in Urhoboland, in 1950. Urhobo folk memory is long. A great deal of the progress that was to follow was easily ascribed to Mukoro Mowoe’s seminal efforts. It was not in vain that folk references to him were in the order of salutations from aged women who called him  “our Dogho.”

Comparing Dogho Numa and Mukoro Mowoe

The politics of Warri Province in the new British colony of Nigeria in its first fifty years, from 1897 to 1948, were dominated by two personalities whose names are seared into Urhobo collective memory. In the 1940s-1950s, the names of Dogho Numa and Mukoro Mowoe were mentioned in folk songs and stories by ordinary people as legendary Nigerians who wielded enormous power in the new colonial era. But their history and legacies were totally different.

Dogho Numa took over the reigns and authority of his family in 1891, assuming his father’s merchant and chieftain roles. He found his way into British favors, helping the Europeans to oust his rival, Nana Olomu, and to defeat the Benin in the War of 1897. As his reward, the British accorded Dogho a paramount position in the administration of the entire Warri Province when it was created at the onset of British colonization of Southern Nigeria. His dominance over the affairs of all the ethnic groups and divisions of Warri Province – Urhobo and Isoko, western Ijo, Kwuale, and his native Itsekiri  – was extensive. He presided over the  “native” judicial and administrative affairs of Warri Province. His power was clearly irksome to Urhobos.

Dogho Numa stood above all other Nigerians in Warri Province while he exercised his power. Having exploited his friendship with the British to crush his rivals in Itsekiri politics, he chose to reign supreme. He did not encourage or allow others to rise to his status. Dogho Numa received tributes from many chieftains in Warri Province. The esteemed historian Obaro Ikime has made the judgement that  “The age of Dogho Numa was one in which Itsekiri-Urhobo relations deteriorated considerably.” (Ikime 1977: 74) But ordinary Itsekiri did not benefit materially from his rule and authority, although many of them had vicarious satisfaction of his supremacy over all other ethnic groups in Warri Province. By the time he died in 1932, he was as much of a problem to his native Itsekiri as he was to Urhobos. For instance, while he was alive the Itsekiri could not restore their monarchy. Urhobos’ direct relationships with the British colonial authorities were muted while Dogho Numa ruled the affairs of Warri Province.

Dogho’s death in 1932 was a relief to the whole Province, including the British colonial administrators. It was after his death that the British undertook the reorganization of the affairs of Warri Province. His death allowed the Itsekiri to ask for the restoration of their monarchy. It is significant that the Urhobo Brotherly Society and the Urhobo Progress Union were established in the early 1930s. It is remarkable that Dogho Numa has not left behind him any legacies, either among his native Itsekiri or any other ethnic groups in Warri Province. There is very little sense of endearment for his memories among his own Itsekiri people.

Mukoro Mowoe, already a wealthy merchant, rose rapidly in the 1930s and eventually attained the same height as Dogho Numa in the affairs of Warri Province, but with a different profile and consequences. Mukoro Mowoe did not inherit wealth and status from his family circumstances as Dogho. He attained recognition by dint of hard work, taking advantage of opportunities which he squeezed from the new colonial circumstances. Having attained eminence in the eyes of his fellow Urhobos, he then decided to serve his people by leading them to exploit the virtues of hard work for which they had been prepared by their own circumstances of previous centuries. His crusade was to push up Urhobo fortunes to the same heights as more privileged ethnic groups in the new colonial era. Mukoro Mowoe used his considerable private wealth to help disadvantaged Urhobos. But his leadership forte was in urging Urhobos to embark on the new colonial opportunities which Western education endowed upon its recipients. He chided parents who refused to send their children to school. Consider this bit of information about Mowoe’s view of education. He wrote to a pioneering teacher who complained to Mowoe that attendance in the elementary school that he had just opened in Mowoe’s hometown of Evwreni was poor. Replied Mowoe:  “When I visit home I will make it compulsory that all members [of the C. M. S. Church] shall send their sons and daughters to the school. Those who fail to comply with the instruction would be punished accordingly.” ( See Ikime 1977: 54.) He used his authority to fight for the upliftment of a future generation by way of Western education. Ultimately, his historical value to Urhobos is that he led the Urhobo Progress Union in this crusade for erasing the backwardness of Urhobos in the ways of Western education.

There is another area where Mowoe’s legacy towers over Dogho’s. In the last years of his life, Mowoe had become the dominant Nigerian in the politics of Warri Province. As the sole  “Member” from Warri Province in the Western House of Assembly, Mowoe fought hard for all component ethnic groups of the Province. He was not a man who relied on taking tributes from those he sought to help. He was a modern parliamentarian who sought the welfare of his constituents, a point that Ikime has made several times. But he also sought to enhance inter-ethnic relations of his time. It is noteworthy that one of the last public services that he performed was his travel to an Ijo town in an attempt to settle a festering dispute between Ijos and Urhobos. He was not bent on any revenge on the Itsekiri in return for the misdeeds of Dogho Numa. By the time of his death on August 10, 1948, the whole Province genuinely mourned his untimely death. Remarkably, British colonial officers also mourned his loss. In a tribute to him, the acting Resident of Warri Province said:
  It is not too much to say that Chief Mukoro Mowoe gave his life to the service of the people of this province and that over-work in their interests was one of the causes of his untimely death. All will agree with me that his place in public life will, indeed, be very hard to fill. I feel that I have lost not only a wise and trustworthy fellow-worker and adviser but an old and trusted friend. (Cited in Ikime 1977:177)

The Cost of Mukoro Mowoe’s Death in Urhobo History

Mowoe’s death was a blow to Urhobos in 1948. This is in large part because they were unprepared for it. At long last, they had a leader who counted in the new scheme of colonial public affairs. In many ways, they felt lost after his death in 1948 because there was no one of his stature to replace him.

Mowoe died at the wrong time. Two days before his death he had been visited by a cohort of British colonial officers. Among them was John MacPherson, who was to become the Governor-General of Nigeria in a few short years later. It was he who ushered into Nigerian history the constitutional reforms that led to party formation and indirect elections in 1951-52. The party that became dominant in Western Nigeria was the Action Group. There are stories among Urhobos that the leader of the Action Group, Obafemi Awolowo, had been in touch with Mukoro Mowoe before his death. But the Action Group’s first public act in assuming power was an assault on Urhobos. The new Action Group Government changed the title of the Itsekiri monarch from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri, suggesting suzerainty over the entire Warri Province. Mukoro Mowoe and the Urhobo Progress Union had blocked this attempt in the 1930s. Now leaderless, Urhobos were out-maneuvered.

Urhobo reaction was explosive. Their pent-up frustration and anger was now trained on Itsekiri living in Urhobo towns on the River Ethiope and other waterways. They expelled these Itsekiri from their towns. Urhobos also resorted to a tactic that they had employed in the 19th century: trade-boycott. They refused to sell food to the Itsekiri who relied almost solely on Urhobo agricultural products. The Action Group Government sought to resolve this problem by changing the name of the province, from Warri Province to Delta Province. But the damage was already done. Once again Urhobo-Itsekiri relations had suffered from the actions of Itsekiri aristocracy who had used their influence with Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Action Group party that he led to confer a benefit that purported to enhance the prestige of the Itsekiri monarch. The Urhobo reaction was also political. Despite the large number of Urhobos who lived in Yoruba lands, Urhobos became unalterably opposed to the Action Group party. Urhoboland was the only area of Western Nigeria in which the Action Group failed to win any seats in all the years of party politics in Nigeria (1952-1966). But Urhobos took heavy punishment from a vindictive Action Group. Urhobos stubbornly stuck with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (N.C.N.C.) led by Nnamdi Azikiwe who was Mukoro Mowoe’s personal friend. The Action Group hit Urhobos where it hurt the most: young Urhobo men and women were palpably discriminated against in the award of post-secondary scholarships. However, Urhobos benefited enormously by readily exploiting the advantages of free universal primary education that the Action Group government of Western Nigeria provided.

More remarkably, the 1950s-1960s became a period of private efforts in the sphere of education. Urhobo College opened its gates to young men, rarely turning away anyone on account of inability to pay fees. Through the dint of dogged individualism, Urhobo families sacrificed a great deal in training their young men and women. Hundreds of Urhobos entered into universities, in the United Kingdom and inside Nigeria. It was a campaign of individual efforts that were linked to a collective definition of Urhobo destiny.

By the mid-1960s, there were clear signs that Urhobos were on the threshold of achieving parity with other ethnic groups. The creation of the Mid-West Region in 1963 emboldened Urhobo efforts. But this political achievement for which the Urhobos had labored hard was also accompanied by a troubling development. The separation between Isoko and Urhobo, who had jointly built up the Urhobo Progress Union, was a leadership failure whose significance is profound. It occurred at a time when Igbo and Yoruba ethnicities were rapidly expanding. Would it have happened if Mukoro Mowoe were still alive? It is difficult to say. But it is fair to note that Mowoe had close ties with the Isoko. His best personal friend was said to be Chief Akiri, an Isoko man. It is not unusual for the Urhobo elite to claim that any such modern failures would have been prevented by Mukoro Mowoe’s leadership.

Commemorating Mukoro Mowoe

In a real sense, Urhobos have mourned Mukoro Mowoe’s death (on August 10, 1948) for fifty years. It is as if they would not let go of Mowoe’s memories. In periods of difficulty, Urhobos easily resort to invidious comparisons between the fullness of Mowoe’s leadership and the perceived failures of modern Urhobo leaders. The mystique of Mowoe’s leadership has grown more complex with age. His legendary accomplishments are honored in epic terms, even among a generation born after his death.

The irony of Mowoe’s undying memorialization is that a great deal of what he planned and dreamt about have been more than achieved by several generations of Urhobos who grew up after his untimely death. This is particularly the case with educational development which was his mantra. Despite Urhobos’ late start in the race for Western education, they have caught up with most ethnic groups in Nigeria. For instance, Urhobos range only behind the well-endowed Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups in the number of university professors in the country, despite the fact that the first two Urhobo/Isoko professors (Obaro Ikime and Frank Ukoli) attained their professorial status only in 1973. Urhobos have also done very well in the professions as well as in trade and commerce.

Why then are Urhobos still craving for a surrogate Mowoe-type leadership? This is because modern Urhobos have no comparable records of collective projects, such as those that produced Urhobo College and our first two graduates. Mukoro Mowoe and his compeers divined collective challenges facing Urhobos and then planned common strategies for solving them. The shortcomings of modern Urhobo leadership flows from failures to embark on new challenges that confront the common destiny of all Urhobos. What new collective challenges do Urhobos now face?

There are huge new problems facing Urhobos that cry for collective solution. They are urgent because of the acute crisis of governance in Nigeria. We live in an era in which community efforts have once again become mandatory for groups that wish to overcome the handicaps imposed by circumstances of poor governance. Foremost among the new dangers we face is the ecological degradation of the waterways and fauna of Urhoboland. The reckless exploitation of the oil resources in the Niger Delta by the federal Government of Nigeria has ruined our lands and threaten to cause permanent damage to our region of Nigeria. Restoration of our lands and waterways will require full and single-minded leadership. Such efforts may well be regional since the belt of devastation stretches from the Cross-River Estuary and the Eastern-Niger Delta to Urhoboland in the Western Niger Delta. Can Urhobos be mobilized to embark on such an enterprise? The post-Mowoe era requires such new challenges.

There may be one piece of emotional challenge that Urhobos can respond to with some success. Over twenty years ago, Professor Obaro Ikime regretted the fact that Mukoro Mowoe had not been honored with a befitting memorial:
  It is over a quarter century since the great Mukoro Mowoe passed away. In that period Urhoboland has not produced another [leader of the stature of] Mukoro Mowoe. . . . It is, therefore, something of a pity that there is not a single memorial to him anywhere in Urhoboland. (Ikime 1977: 180) It is more than a pity. It is a shame that Urhobos who have held up Mukoro Mowoe in such high esteem have been unable to honor him in a significant way. This is a challenge that we can respond to in various ways. Will the renaming of Delta State University at Abraka as Mukoro Mowoe University be an adequate piece of memorialization? How about a scholarship fund for young Urhobo men and women who have difficulties attaining the best education available in our modern age? Or we may decide to build a Mukoro Mowoe Warri International Airport in honor of a man who was a pioneer in introducing the extant modern transportation of his times to Southern Nigeria. Chief Mukoro Mowoe would deserve these honors and much more from us who cherish his memories.


1. Professor Obaro Ikime has rejected this representation of the events of 1894 in part because he believes that it is biased in favor of British interpretation of their encounter with Nana Olomu. Ikime says:  “The view as expressed here is the typical British explanation for the Ebrohimi Expedition of 1894. The facts are rather different — see my Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta. My field work in Urhoboland convinced me beyond doubt that Nana was more a man of peace than war. That he used force occasionally to have his way is true. That knowledge of the fact that he was well supplied in arms and ammunition served him well in his trade with the Urhobo is also true. It is also, however, equally true that he married wives from quite a number of Urhobo groups. In the age in which he lived, you didn’t terrorize your in-laws. Nana was a wealthy and very influential man. That also served him well. Besides, the use of force to settle disputes was part of the accepted ways of behaviour pattern of the age of Nana.”

2. I am impressed by the following rejoinder from Obaro Ikime. I reproduce it here because the point he is making is a noteworthy one to which I had not given any great thought before now. I believe other Urhobos should share in its subtlety. Ikime comments on my matter-of-fact style of grouping Urhobo and Isoko as the same ethnic people as follows:  “It never ceases to strike me that for the Urhobo, it was okay for the Isoko to be under them! What happened here was clearly  “extra-ethnic supervision.” as far as the Isoko were concerned. . . . The Urhobos are quite happy to say that the Isoko are Urhobo. But I am yet to meet an Urhobo who says he is Isoko!!! Why is this the case?. Only  – completely and solely only – because we the Isoko were brought into the Urhobo Division by the British, just as some Urhobo groups were brought into the Jekri-Sobo Division” 


Ekeh, Peter P. (1996)  “Political Minorities and Historically-Dominant Minorities in Nigerian History and Politics.” Pp. 33-63 in Oyeleye Oyediran, ed., Governance and Development in Nigeria. Essays in Honour of Professor Billy J. Dudley. Ibadan: Agbo Areo Publishers.

Erivwo, Samuel U. 1991. Traditional religion and Christianity in Nigeria : the Urhobo people. Ekpoma : Department of Religious Studies & Philosophy.

Ikime, Obaro. 1968. Merchant Prince of the Niger Delta: the Rise & Fall of Nana Olomu, Last Governor of the Benin River. London, Ibadan: Heinemann Educational.

Ikime, Obaro. 1969. Niger Delta Rivalry; Itsekiri-Urhobo Relations and the European Presence 1884-1936. London: Longman.

Ikime, Obaro. 1977. The Member for Warri Province. The Life and Times of Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Warri 1890-1948. Ibadan: Institute of African Studies.

%d bloggers like this: