|Urhobo Historical Society|
THE MEMBER FOR WARRI PROVINCE
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
CHIEF MUKORO MOWOE OF WARRI
1890 – 1948
The Member for Warri Province – As was pointed out in Chapter Five, Mowoe served for only twelve months in the Western House of Assembly before his untimely death. Yet this book has been titled The Member for Warri Province. The choice of title has been deliberate. Some may object to the title on the ground that only one chapter focuses on Mowoe’s role as a legislator who represented the then Warri Province (later Delta Province). Such an objection would have a certain validity. The main reason for the choice of title is that Mowoe’s election by the representatives of the six Native Administrations that made up the province represented, in my opinion, the crowning glory of his life. Six different ethnic groups made up the then Warri Province. None opposed Mowoe’s nomination. That was a token of his general acceptability, a recognition of his standing among the peoples of the province. It was an unquestioned vote of confidence. And Mowoe justified that confidence.
A careful reading of Chapter Five would reveal that Mowoe indeed saw himself as representing the entire province. The issues he raised showed no sectarian bias. He articulated the Yearnings of the different groups with vigour. He pressed for Government action that would promote education and the economy of the entire province. Realizing the peculiar difficulties which the terrain of the Ijaw posed for them, he drew the attention of Government to the need to provide special transport and other facilities for this often neglected group.
His concern for educational development stands out impressively. At all meetings he attended, he spoke on the educational needs of the province, urging Government to assist many more of the primary schools in the province; to invest in teacher training colleges and to stop the practice, whereby District Officers also served as managers of the Native Administration schools. Mowoe suggested that experienced teachers be trained to take over this responsibility. Mowoe did not live to see any of the issues he raised translated into concrete action; but that he raised those issues is evidence of his sensitivity to the needs of the peoples of the province he was privileged to represent.
A Self-Taught Man — Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Mukoro Mowoe is the fact that, so far as we can discover, he had very little formal education, if any. As was pointed out in Chapter One, Mowoe was baptised at the age of 29. Had he attended primary school, it is most unlikely that he would have escaped baptism. We are forced to the conclusion that he did not so much as complete primary school education, if he ever embarked on it. If this be so, then the man was largely self-taught. That makes his career even more impressive. It required iron determination to overcome the disability that a lack of formal education represented in the colonial Nigeria in which Mowoe lived out his life. Mowoe overcame that disability in large measure. His letters, his speeches, his notes on issues he raised in the House of assembly — all of which I have had the privilege of reading in his own handwriting — reveal a high level of erudition and an even higher level of understanding of the issues of his day. Besides, he, operated at the highest level of the Nigerian society of the 1940s. That he felt at how in that society, as he most certainly did, is further evidence that he did educate himself to an impressive degree. Men like that tend to make a success of life. Mowoe did make a success of his life. From very ordinary beginnings, he rose to become the most celebrated name in the Warri Province of the late 1930s and 1940s.
The Hand of Fate — In every man’s life there is what I prefer to call divine intervention. Some may call it the hand of fate. The interesting thing about divine intervention is that it is not always a function of how we stand with God. The Word of God says God will show mercy on whom He will show mercy, and will be gracious to whom He will be gracious. Divine intervention is always an exercise of God sovereignty. Because of a pugnacious and rather stubborn nature, the young Mukoro was sent away from home to Frukama, to be brought up by a relation. Frukama was a trading centre where John Holt and other European firms bought palm produce from the local producers. As a young boy Mowoe must have watched the goings on at the beach. Did this fire his imagination? We have no way of knowing. What we do know is that Mowoe became a major trader in palm produce. He began that trade at Frukama.
The aunt with whom Mowoe grew up was a member of the C.M.S. (Church Missionary Society) church in Frukama Mowoe must have accompanied his aunt to church on Sundays. That was probably the beginning of his links with a church of which he became a respected member, even if he did not live every aspect of his life in accordance with the teachings of that church. Some of those who became his close friends he met for the first time through the C.M.S. church in Warri. Thus what must have seemed a punishment at the time he was sent away from home turned out to be part of his preparation for the life he was to live. He might not have known it at the time, but God was working His purpose out in his life.
Information mailable to us indicates that Mowoe began his links with Messrs John Holt as a shop assistant. It was while working in that capacity that he met one New-Portwright, who was the General Agent responsible for John Holt’s activities in the Warri Zone. The General Agent took a liking to Mowoe. That was how Mowoe became a trading agent with a 200 pounds sterling credit facility. The poor young man without the capital to enter into trade was provided with capital through this credit facility. God was at work. It was the same New-Portwright who arranged for Mowoe to visit England in 1926 — one of the first to do so from this part of the country in the 20th century. That visit had an enduring impact on Mowoe’s trading activities. He made personal contacts with a number of firms who remained trading partners for the rest of his life. One of the firms, Darrhouwer and Company Ltd., opened accredit amount of £4,000 for Mowoe with the Bank of British West Africa (BBWA). In an age in which Africans could hardly obtain loans from the colonial banks, this facility was a life-saver. Mowoe owed it all to Mr. New-Portwright, who saw in the determined young shop assistant potential for greater achievement. Other shop assistants were not equally lucky. Again, Mowoe may not have then discerned that God had intervened in his favour. Yet He most certainly did.
A Many-Sided Businessman — It is not our intention here to repeat the details about Mowoe’s business activities as earlier given. We do consider it necessary, however, to emphasize the fact that he was a many-sided businessman. His produce business was carried out mainly in Warri, Sapele, Benin, Agbor, Eket, Calabar. He was a transporter with a fleet of some twelve lorries (at the time of his death) plying mainly the Warri-Lagos and Warri-Asaba routes. As a building contractor he worked in Warri, Ughelli, Aba, Orlu, Obubra, Opobo, Abakaliki. He was a food contractor to the prisons in Warri, Sapele, Agbor, Benin, Ubiaja, Auchi. In Warri, his headquarters, he had a large shop which engaged in both wholesale and retail business. He even tried his hand at road building, and was one of the contractors who built the Warri-Ughelli earth road. He also got involved in tin mining in the Jos Plateau and gold mining in Ilesa. Unfortunately, we have no details as to how he faired in the mining business. While the mere listing of Mowoe’s varied business interests is in itself impressive, the point we desire to emphasize are the organization and hard work needed to manage these various businesses, spread as they were over a very large area. All who knew him testify to his capacity for sustained hard work. Indeed many of his friends believe that over-work was partially responsible for his early death. Given the fact that he made a success of virtually all these businesses in the heydays of colonial rule and in the face of European and “Lebanese” competition in both the export and import trade, the conclusion is inescapable that Mukoro Mowoe was a shrewd and hard working businessman. I would like to end this recapitulation with something I said in my Memorial Lecture in 1989:
This is the point to recall Mowoe’s beginnings. He began from absolute scratch. He did not have the opportunity of a solid education. Nor did he have the opportunity of siphoning political party funds and turning these into the capital for his business undertakings. There were no corrupt politicians in office with whom to liaise for filthy lucre. The age of shameless topping of contracts had not yet dawned. Mowoe did not make easy money. He sweated for what he made.
I believe the point is made. Mowoe was not like our latter day Nigerian businessmen. His circumstances were vastly different.
A Servant of His People — Although Mowoe was larger than Urhobo, in so far as he operated on a much larger plane than Urhoboland, his services to Urhoboland as chronicled in this book constitute part of his greatness. As I said in my Memorial Lecture, if, in the area that used to be known as Warri Province, the 1880s up to 1894 were the years of Nana Olomu’s predominance; if the first quarter of this century was the age of Chief Dogho; then without question, from the mid-1930s until his death in 1948 — these years constituted the age of Chief Mukoro Mowoe. His success in business opened the way for him to be courted by a cross-section of the Warri elite, including political officers who constantly sought his advice and opinion on various issues. We would never know how many Urhobo interests were served by the very cordial relations which existed between Mowoe and the British officers. There can be no doubt whatsoever that his phenomenal success in business and elephantine-standing in the Warri society of the 1930s and 1940s brought him great respectability. That respectability not only rubbed off on the Urhobo stock from which he came, but also paved the way for him to play the various leadership roles detailed in this study among his people.
Again, we will not recapitulate the details of Mukoro Mowoe’s services to Evwreni, his clan; to individual Urhobo men and women who sought and obtained from him assistance in diverse forms, to individual Urhobo men who he helped set up in business; to the larger Urhobo community through his services in the Native Administration and his leadership of the U.P.U. for one and a half decades. If I may quote again from my Memorial Lecture:
(Mukoro Mowoe) was a towering figure in the Urhoboland of his day especially from the 1930s. At a time when British local government was promoting ethnic consciousness through the Native Administration System at a time when, thanks to various accidents of history, Itsekiri-Urhobo relations wee both sensitive and tense, there was an urgent need for a strong and dependable rallying point for the Urhobo, one of the most factious peoples of Nigeria. Mukoro Mowoe provided that rallying point. If that were all, he would have earned the undying gratitude of his people. As it turned out, he did much more than that. He led the Urhobo with dignitya and dedication and saw them win some of the greatest triumphs of their history.
What is more, Mowoe’s was largely sacrificial service to his people. The endless travels he undertook in Urhoboland; his tours as President-General of the U.P.U. — these and more — involved considerable financial outlay from his privy purse. He served his people at great cost to himself. Urhoboland gave him next to nothing in return. Those Urhobos who call themselves leaders of today and who aspire to leadership in the future must ask themselves just what their aim is — exploitation of their people for personal gain or service in the interest of those they claim to lead? Today’s circumstances are, admittedly, vastly different from those of Mowoe’s days. Yet, in all ages, real leadership always calls for great personal sacrifice. It is in this regard that one can justifiably say that Urhoboland of today can do with a few more Mowoes. Indeed so can Nigeria.
The Man — The details of Mowoe’s private life as outlined in Chapter Six reveal that he was man, not God. He had his strengths and his foibles. In life nothing succeeds like success. And in human term, success sometimes covers a multitude of sins! Mukoro Mowoe was a leading member of St. Andrew’s (Anglican) Church Warri. He was, in fact a licensed lay reader. Yet he was a polygamist with six wives and a number of concubines. He belonged to a number of organizations which today are recognized as the cults they are — Ogboni, Odd fellow, etc. Indeed at his funeral, these Orders were in full display both at the funeral service in the church and the parade through, the streets of Warri. Were the leaders of the church over-awed by Mowoe’s standing in society? Only they can answer that question.
The evidence available would suggest that Mukoro Mowoe was like many another men of his age and even of our own age. He called his home Providence House. That attests to his acceptance of God’s role in his life. The motto displayed along with the name of the house was “Ora et Labora” — “Pray and Work” — again evidence that he knew that work not blessed of God could lead to frustration. Yet he may not have been fully aware of what is meant by “Thou shall have no other gods before me”. Then as now, there were and are many who seek to marry Christianity with African traditions. That there is a basic conflict between these two is not always conceded. No wonder our Lord Jesus Christ told the people of his day, “You prefer the traditions of men to the commandments of God,” Mowoe was not alone in the position he took. That does not, however, excuse that position.
Mowoe’s standing in society led to endless demands being made upon his generosity. We will never know how much he gave out to the many who went to him for assistance. We have detailed some of the demands in Chapter Six. If, as some claim, I.O.Us worth £5,000 were outstanding at the time of his death, that gives some idea of the kind of pressure to which the most successful Nigerian in Warri of 1948 was subjected. He paid a price for his success in business.
It is not surprising that Mowoe brought up his children to cultivate the virtue of hard work. It was on hard work that his success rested, and he demanded hard work from his children. The tension which developed between him and his eldest son was largely due to the latter’s attitude to work. As indicated at the point where this matter is discussed in the text, a father who could disown his eldest child had to be capable of some anger! He was rich. He was famous. But he remained a man; he remained a father. Some time shortly before his death he was reconciled to that son who was to follow in his footsteps as a businessman.
Two other incidents discussed in the book — the Tabiowo incident and the Orodje of Okpe episode — reveal that Mowoe could be sensitive to his position and status. Did the Tabiowo incident show that Mowoe could be intolerant of criticism? Most likely. If that reaction was a mark of maturity which had the effect of healing whatever wounds had developed. As for the Orodje episode, the Okpe people may have provoked Mowoe to wrath by referring to him as a mere trader. Mowoe did not allow his anger to bum forever. In due time he let bygones be bygones and used his standing with Government to secure recognition for the Orodje. “Big” men need to have big hearts.
Mowoe an Urhobo man from Evwreni. He was an Urhobo man who made Warri his home. The Warri which he made his home was a heterogenous city. His standing in that city was as high if not higher than in Urhoboland. He served the people of Warri through his membership of the Township Board. His many-sided business life contributed to the economic well being of the city, in the social life of which he was a major figure. Mowoe was a genuine believer in inter-ethnic peace and harmony. He fought for the rights of his people without forfeiting the goodwill of their neighbours. Although he operated in the fiercely competitive business life of that city, he nevertheless maintained friendly relations with many a competitor. Mowoe was a bridge builder. He built bridges between individuals. He built bridges between groups. The more assiduously he did this, the more successful he was as a leader of his own people. He reached out in order to be more effectively reached within. That his bones lie in Warri rather than in Evwreni, his home town, is evidence that Warri had indeed become home. The member for Warri Province lies buried in Warri.
Mukoro Mowoe was a many-sided man. He played many and varied roles. He possessed ability, determination, endurance, organizational skills, foresight. In the last two years of his life, he served his people and his nation in one of the highest positions then available in the public life of the nation — as a member of the West regional House of Assembly. As a man and as a member of the society in which he lived, he was respected, sought after, honoured. He played each of his many roles creditably and worthily. The reader must reserve the right to decide, in the light of the evidence available, whether, given the age and circumstances in which Mowoe lived, he can lay any claims to greatness, by whatever criteria greatness is measured. This book has been written because I firmly believe that whatever the verdict of the reader, history has no right to pass a man like Mukoro Mowoe by.