Chapter Three of Mukoro Mowoe’s Biography

Urhobo Historical Society

1890 – 1948
Second Edition
Obaro Ikime


Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Warri, the citation which appears in the sub-title of this work, is in some ways a misnomer. While he was Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Warri in the sense that he spent the most fruitful part of his life in Warri, he could not in fact be a Warri Chief. No one can, in the strict historical sense, be a Warri Chief in so far as the Warri of today did not exist until the present century and in so far as it is made up of a collection of settlements which were, in a historical perspective, independent of each other. Hence while there could be chiefs of Okere, of Odion, of Agbassah and so on, there could be not chief of Warri. Mukoro Mowoe was certainly styled Chief at the time of his death. James, his first son, says that his father was Olorogun of Evwreni, a title he himself held at the time of my interview with him.52 He was a Chief of, and in Evwreni. He was thus in name and in deed Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Evwreni, a fact which he never forgot and was never allowed to forget by the people of Evwreni whom he served faithfully to the very end.

By the 1930s Mowoe had probably established himself as the leading citizen of Evwreni, in the sense that he was probably the best know and most successful (in a material sense) son of Evwreni. By that time also, Urhoboland as indeed all of Warri province was involved in a major administrative reorganization. This reorganization as I have shown elsewhere53 was the result of the anti-tax demonstrations that took place in the province in the years 1927-1928. As is by now well-known, the demonstrations were an indictment against the British warrant chief system as it had operated since its inception at the beginning of this century. It is not necessary here to go into the details about the working of the Warrant Chief System.54 It is enough to say that the warrant chiefs were the men appointed by the British to sit on the native courts which they established in Urhoboland. These native courts did not only administer justice; they also carried out all the other duties of local government authorities. In the period before the reorganization, only a few people in each clan (not to say in each village) were appointed warrant chiefs. This meant that, legally, many Urhobo men who had been involved in the government of their village and clan ceased to be so involved. This became a major grievance. As if that was not enough, the warrant chiefs were often extremely corrupt and high handed and with their court clerks and court messengers formed a vicious trinity which not infrequently milked the people they were supposed to serve. The fact that these same warrant chiefs were supposed, according to the British plan, to collect the tax in return for a fixed percentage of tax collected, made them even more hated, and explains why they became the major target of the accumulated venom of the Urhobo people which burst forth in the anti-tax demonstrations of 1927-28.

After the British succeeded in bringing the demonstrations under control, they had no choice but to seek some understanding of why the demonstrations had taken place. In the investigations which followed, it soon became clear to the British that the major problem was that the local government system which had been operated till that time (the Warrant Chief System) was not based on the people’s pre-colonial institutions and had therefore become a major source of dissatisfaction. From 1928 onwards, then, the British conducted inquiries into how the various Urhobo clans had governed themselves in the pre-colonial period, and proceeded to reorganize local government along pre-colonial lines.

For the Urhobo this meant as full a revival as possible of the village councils of elders; it also meant the immediate or gradual (in areas where clan loyalties were not too strong) revival of the clan councils. The 1930s were thus years in which the Urhobo were busy trying to recreate their pre-colonial social and political systems. For the Evwreni, a small clan, it meant a new clan awareness as the institutions of the Evwreni began to be revived. Mowoe thus attained eminence at a time when clan institutions were being revived.

The new village and clan councils which sprang up in the 1930s were expected to combine the functions of native courts with those of ‘native authorities’ as was the practice in pre-British days. In Evwreni the clan council became a council of the Ovie ( priest-king), his title holders and other ekpako (elders). Mowo9e would obviously have belonged to this court. By virtue of his education and his public standing as a successful businessman Mowoe would appear to have become the leading Evwreni citizen almost a court of appeal over and above the clan council over which the Ovie of Evwreni presided. It behoove him to take a traditional title if he was to play a more meaningful role. Hence although it has not been possible to fix the date when Mowoe became Olorogun, it is logical to presume that this must have been in the late thirties.

Documentary evidence of the kind of role Mowoe play in Evwreni affairs is, unfortunately, rather scarce, ti being limited to such of his letters for the year 1946 as have survived as well as a few fragments in 1945 and 1948. Oral evidence is, in this regard, not as specific as one would like, as one is left very much with general impressions such as those which claim that Mowoe “owned” Evwreni; that he ruled it or, as some would say, ‘who dread openly to defy what Mowoe had said’? These impressions leave one in little doubt as to the great influence which Mowoe wielded in an Evwreni that boasted such other well known names as J.A. Obahor and later S. J. Mariere. The documentary evidence available to me reinforces these impressions and we shall take these in some detail not only in order to prove the point here made, but also to show the kind of society in which Mowoe has to operate in Evwreni during the period.

Mowoe and the Ovie Arumu: Relations between Ovie Arumu who was the titular head of Evwreni and Mowoe would appear, on the whole, to have been cordial. The Ovie, from the few letters extant, apparently sought Mowoe’s advice on most issues, and kept him informed about affairs of the clan. Indeed he would appear to have realized that close and cordial relations with Mowoe constituted a major source of strength for him. Mowoe, for his part, treated the Ovie with the respect due to the latter’s office. He paid for the rebuilding of the Ovie’s courtyard in 1945-46, now doubt to make it a bit more dignified than it would otherwise have been.55 In July 1946, the Ovie wrote to Mowoe to say that he had to send a list of chiefs who would serve as court members to the district Officer at Ughelli. He wanted Mowoe to travel to Evwreni so that both of them could agree on the list before he forwarded it to D.O.56 In June 1948, less than two months before Mowoe’s death, the Ovie wrote to inform him that a date had been fixed for holding the Evwreni court. Mowoe was to endeavor to be present at the court meeting. “Even though you have nothing at all to do here, just come for name that you attended town’s court on such a date.”57 It was as if Mowoe’s presence was necessary to confer legitimacy on the proceedings of the court! The Ovie went on to say that if Mowoe was unable to attend on that particular day, he would postpone the meeting of the court till the next Evwreni market day. He would meet Mowoe at Ughelli so that they could drive to Evwreni together from there.58 We do not know from the records whether or not Mowoe made the trip, but the Ovie’s letters reveal the high esteem in which Evwreni held her successful and undoubtedly influential son, as well as the assiduity with which the Ovie cultivated Mowoe’s goodwill and support. 

If relations between Ovie Arumu ad Mowoe were thus cordial that did not lead to Mowoe forgetting his duties to the wider Evwreni community. Some of the extant correspondence reveals that the Ovie did not always act in accordance with the law or even tradition. A number of appeals for justice were, as we shall see presently, made to Mowoe by Evwreni citizens who felt that the law had been abused or tradition set aside for selfish considerations. In September 1946, Mowoe wrote to the Ovie:

I have to inform you that I have got an information that a man rejected by the majority of Uneni people (Uneni is one of the wards of Evwreni) not to be nominated as a member (of the Divisional Council), you and Odion have already listed him in the role (roll) of new members to be nominated.

Why is (it) that the majority of your people do reject a man and (you) take upon yourself and nominate him? I have given instructions to Uneni people to write and protest against the nomination to the District Officer and the Council.

If you think that it is wise that I should argue with you in the open council, let us try.59

On the same day that he wrote to the Ovie, he wrote to the elders of Uneni urging them to send a petition to the D.O. at Ughelli.60 Mowoe’s concern was thus not just to prop up the Ovie, but to ensure that Evwreni was run as justly as possible. Again we do not know what the reaction of the Ovie was to Mowoe’s letter, but it is unlikely that if he persisted in his attitude he could win against Mowoe in the Divisional Council at Ughelli, for Mowoe was very highly respected and regarded by the administrative staff of the province as a whole.

Mowoe and the Evwreni People: It was not only the Ovie who realized that Mowoe was a key figure, indeed the key figure, in Evwreni politics during these years. Evwreni citizens who felt miss-used would appear to have invariably appealed to Mowoe as the only person who could right the wrongs done to them. Also when certain crucial issues of development arose, people turned to Mowoe, the star of Evwreni, to give the lead required.

In Urhoboland, the development of western European education on a regular basis did not begin until the 1930s. This is a fact easy to forget in the 1970s. In the 1930s and 1940s when Mowoe was the key figure in Urhoboland, therefore, one of the most pressing problems was that of education. In Evwreni, for example, it would appear that as at 1945 there was only one school the Roman Catholic school. The C.M.S. who had been operating in the Evwreni area since the twenties apparently did not open a school there till the 1940s. This was no doubt due to the fact that the C.M.S. had what in those days was described as a Central School at Uwherun (a school which read up to standard six) and Evwreni being quite close to Uwherun was undoubtedly expected to send its children to the Uwherun school. The Roman Catholic Mission, which was by comparison with the C.M.S. a late comer to the Urhobo country, sought to win converts through the establishment of schools. As the Revd. (Dr.) S.U. Erivwo has put it, “A third and more significant method employed (by the R.C.M.) to win converts was the school. True, the C.M.S. antedates the R.C.M. in Urhobo, but it was the latter, which by 1935 planted schools in myriads of Urhobo villages and towns in which places the C.M.S. maintained only worshiping congregations. As pupils flocked to school they were coaxed or compelled to attend the Roman Catholic Church.”61 In Evwreni, then the R.C.M. established a school before the C.M.S. But as at 1946 that school read only up to standard IV. All those who desired to read beyond that level had to find another school — the kind of situation which in the forties and early fifties was responsible for the fact that many an Urhobo young boy and girl had to leave home in search of even primary education. In June 1946 the pupils of the Catholic School, Evwreni, addressed a letter to Mowoe protesting against this state of affairs. They pointed out that many of them who could not find people to live with in other towns were being compelled to give up their education. Those who found people to live with often came home during the holidays with tales of maltreatment and starvation. They appealed to Mowoe to persuade the Catholic Mission to raise the level of the school to standard six.62 In other words, even Evwreni school children knew that Mowoe was the man likely to achieve for them what they wanted. But they also knew that they should not by-pass their Ovie and elders — the letter was sent through the Ovie who, with the elders, endorsed it to Mowoe with a minute supporting the demands of the school children.63

In the same year, we also have a letter about the C.M.S. School, Evwreni, which would appear to have been opened that year. Mr. Samuel Enajero Arawore (now Archdeacon) who was stationed at Uwherun was apparently running the Evwreni school too (a not uncommon feature of C.M.S. education in those days). He wrote to Mowoe to inform him that the school had been opened and was reading up to Infant II. ‘At present there are certain difficulties which you personal influence and interest can remove’.64 These were that the elders had not arranged to have the stumps of trees on the school compound removed. (In those days it was common for the town to clear the school compound and actually put up the buildings as their contribution to the opening of the school), that a brother of J. Obahor had planted rubber on part of the school grounds and that the parents were not sending their children to the school.65 Mowoe promised to look into the situation with regard to the first two grounds for complaint. With regard to the issue of attendance at the school, ‘when I shall visit home I will make it compulsory that all members (meaning 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.’66 There is a ring of confident authority in Mowoe’s reply which indicates the kind of role he thought and knew he could play. We do not know just how well he succeeded in tackling the matters of education here raised. The main point has been to show the kind of role Evwreni expected him to play and his own response to the challenge which leadership thrust upon him.

A few other instances in which persons and groups in Evwreni looked up to Mowoe may be examined to show the many different issues about which he was consulted and requested to take action as well as to give some insight into Evwreni — and Urhobo — society some forty years after British rule had been established in the area. As had been pointed out, the immediate prelude to the administrative re-organization of the local government system was the people’s demonstration against taxation. Reorganization did not, however, mean the abandonment of the principle of taxation and the Urhobo had to pay tax as from 1928. What did change was that the old warrant chiefs gave way to village and clan councils.

The assessment of the tax payable by individuals then, as now, was always a touchy issue. By the forties certain Evwreni ‘chiefs’ or their nominees had become responsible for compiling the nominal rolls which were forwarded to divisional headquarters at Ughelli. A number of people in Evwreni cried to Mowoe over what they described as wrong assessment, urging him to intervene on their behalf. We will never know just what Mowoe was able to do in the circumstance, since he was a busy man who quite often traveled away from Warri in the interest of his many businesses and so could not always act promptly where he thought action necessary. One such letter is interesting as typifying the kind of complications which arose. In October 1946, one Anibia Onobukoraye wrote to Mowoe to say that he had been assessed as a trader while in fact he was not; he stated that the was a priest to one of the cults in the town and as such was forbidden to travel. He could not, in the circumstances, be a trader. In explanation of why he thought those responsible had done what they did, he wrote:

Been (sic) that my father judged (was involved in a law suit) which Igonowe(the chief who did the assessment) because of land hence he count me but a rich man who near to him (sic), he failed to count him (sic). I beg you very much because you are the one who is ruling the world so that I may free from this tax paying.67

There is no way of knowing whether Onobukoraye’s charge against Igonowe was true. But the point should be made that one of the consequences of colonial rule was that people found new ways of settling old scores. Sometimes this was by taking one’s opponent to court on a flimsy charge, knowing that British justice as based on evidence as adduced by witnesses rather than necessarily on the truth as proved through trials by ordeal! In this instance if Igonowe had cause to fight a court action with Onobukoraye’s family, he may well have used his position to settle an old score without, technically, being seen to break the law. This kind of situation was not an uncommon feature of the age and is still with us today.

The reference to Mowoe as the ruler of the world gives some idea of how he was regarded in the world not only of the Evwreni but of the Urhobo people as a whole. On another occasion another Evwreni man Omafuvbe Osho wrote to Mowoe in August 1946 to thank him for all that he had done for a relation, Christiana, whose fees Mowoe was paying as well as providing her with clothes, etc. Concluding that letter, he wrote, ‘It is seldom to find an oak tree, and you are an oak tree sent to the earth by God.’68 To men like Onobukoraye, Osho and undoubtedly many more, Mowoe must have appeared an extraordinary man, powerful, influential, benevolent. 

Another sector of the people’s lives which threw up problems which led to Mowoe being called upon to intervene was that which had to do with marriages. A regular complaint by many District Officers who laboured among the Isoko and Urhobo in the twenties and thirties was the large number of adultery and divorce cases which the native courts had to handle. In a sense this unwholesome development was the direct result of British rule which declared the council of elders illegal and set up new-fangled native courts which, while administering customary law, also did away with those aspects of customary law which the British regarded as uncivilized or contrary to natural justice.

In pre-British days adultery was not a common offence. To have sexual intercourse with a married woman (and this was the only valid definition of adultery in customary law) was an extremely serious offence, as it was not only an offence against the husband of the woman concerned but against society as a whole, against the ancestors and the gods who had been called to witness and to bless the marriage in the first place. The punishment was not just a fine and compensation to the husband (including a refund of the bride wealth in the event of the husband putting away the wife as a consequence); it also involved a cleansing ceremony and the offering of sacrifices to the ancestors and the gods. And it was not just what it cost in fines and compensation and providing the wherewithal for the sacrifices; it was, even more, the public shame which the malefactor had to face as the woman was made to confess in full view of the council of elders (and any who cared to watch the proceedings) and as he had to carry out his act of expiation in full view of his fellow men; it was the public disapproval which attended the act — these were the factors which served as a deterrent, which protected the married woman from the lustful desires of the menfolk. British rule destroyed all that. According to the new order all that was necessary was for the adulterer to pay damages if found guilty. If he could not pay he may go to prison, but this hardly occurred, as most men who committed adultery did it knowing what the consequences were and prepared to face them. Sometimes, the technicalities of the law even made it possible for any adulterer to be discharged and acquitted. Little wonder that in the Evwreni of the forties there were men prepared to defy the husband and their society in this regard. In October 1945, Mowoe received a letter from one Ekpu in which the latter complained that one Aboye had committed adultery with his wife and had been asked by the clan elders to pay damages. He had refused to do this claiming that ‘he was a leopard and I am a goat’!69 and that a leopard could not be expected to pay damages to a goat. He informed Mowoe that he had no choice but to take Aboye to court at Ughelli, but felt that the should first inform Mowoe and give him a chance of getting Aboye to pay the damages as requested by the elders.70 Mowoe’s extant letters show, as we shall see again and again, that this was a common trend. The D.O.s who served in this area complained often about the litigious character of the Urhobo. This trait which is still very much in evidence today (for many an Urhobo one way of demonstrating wealth and the power which wealth confers is to take his fellow Urhobo to court and ensure his conviction) was not in fact a natural trait; it was induced, encouraged and nurtured by the functioning of the native court system. Mowoe and other Urhobo leaders of the thirties and forties sought to do their utmost to reduce the incidence of litigation.

There were also problems arising from divorce. Anyone whom reads the Nigerian newspapers, especially such broadsheets as the Lagos Weekend will be shocked by the many cases of divorces in marriages under customary law. In fact there are those who argue that there are far more divorces (even if we compute them on a ratio basis) in marriages under customary law than in marriages ‘under the ordinance.’ From this argument, they go on to argue that marriage under customary law is far easier to dissolve than the other. The issue is not in fact quite as simple as that, as the social and economic pressures of today are not exactly those which operated in pre-colonial society. More basically, however, is the fact that in pre-British Urhobo society, divorce was not a matter between husband and wife as it is increasingly becoming even in non-literate Urhobo society today, especially among those away from home. Parents and relations on both sides usually did all they could to prevent separation let alone divorce: marriage in pre-colonial Urhobo society was not meant to be easily dissolved. British rule began to change that concept by the ease with which the aggrieved party, usually the husband, could secure a judgment one way or the other in a native court. Once the matter was in court, it became unwise to get involved in it, as one could be charged with interfering with due processes of the law. Evwreni society, as indeed other Urhobo societies, faced the problems posed by changes in their way of life brought about by colonial rule. Many times Mowoe received letters telling him about divorces and failure on the part of the wives’ people or new husbands’ to refund bride-wealth — the usual Urhobo practice. Sometimes, it was that husbands were taking in-laws to court not once but twice in connection with refunds already paid. Mowoe’s own mother-in-law was taken to court twice over refund of bridewealth on his sister-in-law who had been divorced from her husband.71 The letter which reported this to Mowoe urged him to put an end to this practice in Evwreni. For his part Mowoe was essentially a traditionalist in matters to do with marriage. In July 1946 he wrote two letters touching on this subject. One of them was to a Chief Ukenu of Jesse. Apparently Mowoe had been involved in one of the chief’s marriages. Some time before he wrote the letter, Mowoe had heard that Chief Ukenu had put away the woman whose marriage arrangements had involved him. In the letter to the chief, he harangued him for failing to discuss the matter with him (Mowoe) before taking it to court to demand a refund of the bridewealth. He informed the chief that he was anxious to see him and his father-in-law so as to be able to settle the matter out of court.72 In the second letter he pleaded with another chief, Chief Eyagbologha of Ughienvwe, to please take back a wife he had expelled from his home. He informed the chief that both the wife and her mother had approached him to plead with him. He had listened carefully to the story of the wife and had found that the wife was guilty of misdemeanor and had told her so. The wife had promised to mend her ways and to refrain from similar misbehavior in the future.73 Although we do not know the outcome of the two episodes, the letters reveal that Mowoe was acting very much in the true Urhobo tradition. He himself was married to quite a number of women in his life time74 and must have been quite familiar not only with the custom but with the problems which arise therefrom.

Mowoe was also sometime called upon to tackle incomplete payment of bridewealth. Urhobo custom allowed the man to take his wife even before he had completed payment of the bridewealth. In October 1946, Mr. Okpodo Ofori wrote to Mowoe to say that a certain Ikumane had married his sister but had only paid £6 out of the bridewealth. Although he had earlier promised that he would pay the balance, he now refused to pay unless taken to court (evidence of that new litigious trait?) ‘When I think it deeply’ continued Ofori, ‘I could see and know that you are the only person who will be able to settle this matter; hence I write you this letter so that you may assist in demanding the balance from him.’75 Again evidence of the high regard in which Mowoe was held among his own Evwreni people.

Earlier on in this section the claim was made that Evwreni citizens who felt ill-used often cried to Mowoe to intervene on their behalf. In October 1946, one Okporokpo wrote to Mowoe complaining that although the Ovie and the elders had awarded him compensation in a case which had been tried by them in the clan council, they had ignored the amount of money he had been forced to spend in the course of the trial. He pleaded with Mowoe to intervene in the matter and get the Ovie and his court to grant him £5 instead of the £1.10s they had granted him.76 In the same month one Abode and three others wrote to Mowoe appealing against a conviction by the Ovie and the elders for gambling. They argued that the four of them had not been involved in the game and had witnesses, including the senior inetu (the inetu — also iletu — were the war leaders), who testified to that effect, but that the Ovie and some of his elders had set aside the evidence of their witnesses for no just cause. They appealed to Mowoe to step into the matter to ensure that justice was done.77

Another incident with something of a lighter side to it is worth recording. In the same month of October 1946, one Akpowhemu wrote to Mowoe. His story was that his daughter had been married to a Mr. Akara. During a fight between that daughter and another of Akara’s wives, the daughter lost a tooth. When Akara did not do anything about the situation he, Akpowhemu, told Akara that he intended to take the matter to court. Thereupon Akara promised to take the daughter to a dentist to replace the tooth. Pressed to fulfil his promise, Akara grew angry and asked the injured wife to leave his house, and now asked for refund of his bridewealth computed at £13. Akpowhemu was ready to pay the bridewealth less what it would cost to replace the lost tooth! When the matter went before the chiefs, Akpowhemu said, the chiefs informed him that the law was that anyone who caused another to lose a tooth was to pay one guinea (£1.1s). Akpowhemu, obviously dissatisfied, wrote to Mowoe to ask if indeed that was the law!78 Unfortunately we do not know how this rather funny episode (Akpowhemu would hardly agree with this assessment of the situation) ended. It was usual for the elders to make rules about fighting, etc. in the village or town. The fines which were imposed on offenders were hardly conceived of as costs of treatment — as additional charges were usually imposed where damage requiring treatment was involved. Akpowhemu thus had every reason to be dissatisfied with the chiefs’ attitude. The incident also shows how fickle the married state was becoming in the new situation where the old had not been properly married to the new and the new to the old. 

Again and again we have said in the course of this chapter that the outcome of many of the various appeals made to Mowoe are unknown. While it is a pity that this is the case, it is hoped that enough has been said to give some idea of the various roles which Evwreni, his hometown, expected him play, as well as the esteem in which he was held. He certainly was not the kind of prophet who had no honour in his own home.


52. Interviews with Chief James Mowoe, 31 March, 1976.

53. Ikime,  Rivalry, Chapter 6.

54. For details see Ikime, Rivalry, Chapters 5 and 6.

55. File of Private Letters: Ovie Arumu to Mowoe, 15 Jan. 1946.

56. Ovie Arumu to Mowoe, 22 July, 1946.

57. Ovie Arumu to Mowoe, 13 June, 1948.

58. Ibid.

59. Mowoe to Ovie Arumu, 23 Sept., 1946.

60. Mowoe to elders of Uneni Quarter, 23 Sept. 1946.

61. Erivwo, pp. 317-318.

62. Pupils of Evwreni Catholic School to Mowoe, 11 June, 1946.

63. Ibid — Endorsement by Ovie and elders.

64. Same E. Arawore to Mowoe, 1 May, 1946.

65. Ibid.

66. Mowoe to Sam E. Arawore, 11 June, 1946.

67. Anibia Onobukoraye to Mowoe, 12 October, 1946.

68. Omafuvbe Osho to Mowoe, 4 August, 1946.

69. Ekpu to Mowoe, 16 October 1945. This kind of talk is very typical. When an Urhobo man seeks to show that he is better than the next man, he not infrequently resorts to this kind of metaphor.

70. Ibid.

71. See for example, Ighemeraye to Mowoe, 2 May, 1946.

72. Mowoe to Chief Ukemu, 2 July, 1946.

73. Mowoe to Chief Eyagbolegha, 29 July, 1946.

74. See Chapter Six.

75. Okpolo Ofori to Mowoe, 11 October, 1946.

76. Okporokpo to Mowoe, 15 October, 1946.

77. Abade and 3 others to Mowoe, 12 October, 1946.

78. Akpowhemu to Mowoe, 6 October, 1946.

Proceed to Chapter Four: LEADER OF THE URHOBO

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