|Urhobo Historical Society|
THE MEMBER FOR WARRI PROVINCE
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
CHIEF MUKORO MOWOE OF WARRI
1890 – 1948
By Obaro Ikime
The Western House of Assembly rose on 31 July, 1948. Mowoe was at that meeting — his third and last. We do not know whether Mowoe drove straight back to Warri after the meeting or whether he went on to Lagos to see to his business there before returning to Warri. If he drove straight back to Warri, he would have arrived on 2 August, 1948. If Salubi is correct in his claim that Mowoe was already down with malaria before he journeyed to Ibadan for the meeting of the House, then he must have returned a very weak and tired man. In any case, by 8 August, Chief Mukoro Mowoe was ill in bed.
The events of the last two days are a bit confused. Chief J.A. Akir in an interview with the writer claimed that he visited Mukoro Mowoe on the 8th of August. As of that day, Mowoe was confined to bed by illness. By his sick bed, when Akiri arrived, sat the Acting Resident, Warri Province, Mr. R.P.V. Wilkes and the Chief Commissioner, Western Provinces, Mr. John MacPherson, later Governor of Nigeria. That these senior British political officers were by Mowoe’s sick bed shows the kind of man he was, and the esteem in which he was held. Mowoe was able, on that day, to see his visitors to the door.
According to Akiri’s account, Mowoe’s illness had taken a turn for the worse by the morning of the next day. When Akiri arrived at Providence House on the morning of the 9th of August, Mowoe was attempting to have a Quaker oats breakfast in bed. Akiri recalls how Mowoe’s hand trembled vehemently as he sought to take the spoon to his mouth, and how Mowoe shook his head sorrowfully and said to him (Akiri) “erovwo doro-oo“, meaning “things are tough”.171
The one point which remains unclear is why Mowoe had not been taken to hospital by the time of Akiri’s visit on the 9th. Was it that Mowoe refused to go into hospital? Or was it that the only doctor in Warri (recall Mowoe’s advocacy in the House for a second doctor to be posted to Warri) was away from the town. Akiri claims that Mowoe asked that a doctor be fetched from the Baptist Mission in Eku. A Baptist dispensary had been opened in Eku in 1947 and the hospital was formally opened in 1950.172 I have been unable to ascertain whether as of August, 1948, there was a resident doctor in Eku. Any way, Akiri claims that Mowoe ordered a doctor to be fetched from Eku. Then, it would appear, the fates took a hand in the affairs of that day. Mowoe’s car had broken down, probably as a result of the long journey to and from Ibadan. Mowoe’s close friends — Akiri, Obahor and Mariere — sought to borrow a car from the vicar of C.M.S. Church who lived next door to Mowoe. The vicar’s car was also out of order; so was that of Mr. Palmer, another prominent figure in the Warri of 1948. In desperation the agitated relations and friends put alorry on the road to Eku only to discover, according to Akiri s story, that the doctor was away on leave. It was as if the fates ordained that Mowoe’s time had come. It was against this background that Mowoe was rushed to the Warri hospital in the late evening of 9 August. Chief Akiri recalls how, as Mowoe was being carried to hospital, he constantly bit his finger — a sign of anguish and sorrow — as if he realized that the end had come. He died in the early hours of 10 August, snatched from the world he had served by a combination of malaria and jaundice.
It was not till the evening of that day that the generality of the town of Warri heard of the death of the man who had dominated the business, social and political life of Warri for over a decade. By that time, Providence House was already packed full of all who mattered in the Warri of 1948, as the town got ready to do honour to a most worthy resident and faithful servant. In death as in life the many-sidedness of the man came to the fore. Evwreni wanted that body of her leading son. Urhobo tradition demanded that Mowoe be buried at Evwreni. But Mowoe was more than an Urhobo; he had become a symbol of Warri Province. The Ogboni, the Lodge, the Odd fellows and the British political officers wanted Mowoe buried in Warri, the place where he had lived and made his name — and they had their way. It was against the law in Warri to bury anybody anywhere but the approved cemeteries. But an exception was made for Mowoe, his tomb lies right in the forecourt of Providence House. That the Resident allowed this to happen was proof that Mowoe was a personage extraordinary in the Warri of the 1940s.
On the day of the funeral the C.M.S. mission closed its schools as a token of respect to one of its leading members. Warri market was virtually deserted as the market women trooped to St. Andrew’s Church to attend the funeral service. Warri turned out in full to pay their last respects to him who had become a legend in his own life time. After the service a procession led by the Ogboni escorted the body of Mukoro Mowoe through all the main streets of Warri, the coffin draped with the uniforms of the various orders to which the late Mowoe had belonged. Brass bands pealed out loud music, Urhobo men and women took to the streets in traditional funeral song and dance; theguns boomed their farewell greetings in a Warri Township where the shooting of guns was normally forbidden. Warrigave her Mowoe a most deserving, most fitting burial. In a tribute to him, Mr. R.P.V. Wilkes, the Acting Resident at the time wrote, “It is not too much tosay that Chief Mukoro Mowoe gave his life to the service of the people of this province and that overwork 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. Ifeel that I have lost not only a wise and trustworthy fellow-worker and adviser but an old and trusted friend.”173 Mukoro Mowoe had passed to the great beyond. He was 58.
The Urhobo people whom Mowoe had served did not fail to honour his memory in their own way. Towards the end of October 1948, various memorial services were organized by the U.P.U. in honour of the late Mowoe — in Warri, Minna and Kano on 29 October, and in Lagos, Ibadan, Burutu, Forcados, Nguru and Tarkwa, Ghana, on 30 October. In each case, the memorial service was followed by a whole day of traditional Urhobo funeral dances. At the end of the events in Warri the U.P.U. and the wider Urhobo communities in Nigeria and Ghana presented a purse to the family of the deceased leader. It is pertinent to quote from the write-up in the pamphlet used for the memorial service in Warri:
The late Chief lived as a universal man! In entertaining, he was proverbially, an Abraham most liberal and lavish almost to a fault. Kindhearted 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.174
Let that posterity judge whether or not the tribute was deserved.
Evwreni people also came together to show their appreciation of what Mowoe had done for them. From all that has been said, it must be clear that Mowoe had made a success of his various businesses. It is well known, however, that successful business men, do not necessarily have plenty of liquid cash. Mowoe died so unexpectedly that he had no time to put his affairs in order. One source claims that at the time of his death he held I.O.Us. from various persons worth £5,000. Most of this had to be written off as bad debts. He too must have owed various firms and other businessmen. His eldest son, James, was thirty when his father died, but he had not been sufficiently close to him to understand the details of his business and to step immediately into his father’s shoes. The other children were all young. Moses was still reading medicine abroad. Frank was in his fourth year in grammar school. In the circumstances it was the Evwreni community led by the late J.S. Mariere who stepped in to help organize Mowoe’s affairs. It is to their eternal credit that they saw to it that none of the eighteen children left behind by Mowoe — 12 boys and 6 girls — was debarred from receiving education as a consequence of the sudden death of their father, and that a substantial part of Mowoe’s business was handed down to his off-springs.175 Today the Mowoe children can proudly number among themselves a retired permanent secretary in the Bendel Stale Public Service; two lawyers, one with a doctorate degree in law; an accountant, a nursing sister, an economist with a Ph.D degree two other graduates — one in Psychology and the other in Economics and French, not to mention Chief James Mowoe; the eldest son, who in the tradition of his father also made a success of business until he died in April 1976. In any age, any where, any father with such a legacy can rest contented even in death! The Mowoes will do well to remember the role played by the Evwreni and the wider Urhobo community in the months immediately following the death of their father. But, of course, it is not to every death that people react like they did to Mowoe’s. That reaction was a measure of the people’s appreciation of the life and services of Chief Mukoro Mowoe.
It is over a quarter of a century since the great Mukoro Mowoe passed away. In that period Urhoboland has not produced another Mukoro Mowoe. This is not to say that no Urhobo leaders have emerged since 1948. Indeed many such leaders have emerged. Herein lies the special position which Mowoe occupied in his age. While today there are many Urhobo who can lay claim to greatness in various fields of human endeavour and who therefore vie for leadership, in Mowoe’s time he was head and shoulders above every other Urhoboman in wealth and social connexions. This made it easier for the Urhobo to accept his leadership and that leadership was so dedicated, so honest, that no one challenged it for those sixteen years during which Mowoe presided over the affairs of the Urhobo.
|Proceed to CONCLUSION|