Pitfalls in J. O. S Ayomike’s Critique of British “Treaties of Protection” with Urhobo Communities in Warri

Urhobo Historical Society


By Peter P. Ekeh
Urhobo Historical Society


Many people who will be reading this posting will be previously unaware of the issues involved in J. O. S. Ayomike’s passionate campaign against my interpretation of “Protection Treaties” which British agents entered into in the 1880s and 1890s with Itsekiri Chiefs in Benin River and with Urhobo communities in Warri, in Nigeria’s Western Niger Delta. They may also wonder why Ayomike’s vitriolic attack on me deserves a response at all.  Ayomike has written two extensive and agitated papers in response to a few paragraphs of introduction to the British treaties with the Itsekiri and Urhobo in Nigeria’s Western Niger Delta (see http://waado.org/UrhoboHistory/BritishColonialRule/ColonialTreaties/EditorsIntroduction/EditorsIntroduction.html.)

 Ayomike’s first paper drew a measured response from the Editorial and Management Committee of Urhobo Historical Society. He has now written a Part II paper, which follows his first paper, with sensational charges of forgery of British treaties, accusing me in effect of knowingly using British forgeries in promoting the interests of the Urhobo community in Warri!

Ayomike’s abusive style and his ad hominems are irritating. There is therefore a temptation to ignore the points of his papers. But he has raised two sets of issues which should be addressed because they are important in (a) the historical scholarship of the Western Niger Delta and (b) contemporary affairs of that region of Nigeria. My response will address the main issues that arise from Ayomike’s two papers in those areas, but will ignore niggling little accusations and innuendoes that sensationalize Ayomike’s presentation of otherwise important issues.

J. O. S. Ayomike’s main accusations, which bear historical importance, are two. First, he says that I maliciously inferred that the Itsekiri were people of Benin River at the time the British signed treaties with their chieftains in 1884 and 1894.  Second, Ayomike attacks the authenticity of the British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri because the manner of their signing was unlike that of the Itsekiri Treaties. Addressing these two issues will help to advance the historical scholarship of our region.


The following is one full statement of J. O. S. Ayomike’s rejection of my characterization of the British Treaties with Itsekiri Chiefs in 1884 and 1894:

(i) Treaty with Chiefs of Jakri (Itsekiri) 1884. (Prof. Obaro Ikime, the great Nigerian historian has it as Appendix II in his Merchant  Prince of the Niger Delta, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., London 1968, thus: Treaty with Chiefs of Itsekiri land, 1884: FO93/6/10).  But hurting scholarship, Prof. Ekeh has deliberately titled it (to mislead?) British Treaty with Itsekiri of Benin River, July  16, 1884.

There is no Treaty with such a title in the British Archives! Whereas he attaches the correct treaty he gives a wrong title in his work to mislead.

(ii) Treaty with Chiefs of Benin River and Jekeri Country of August 2, 1894.  (A certified true copy No. FO2/63 in inclosure 129 dated August 2, 1894 obtained in London bears the same title).  But again for reasons best known only to the Professor, he gives this false title:  British Treaty with Itsekiri of Benin River, August 2, 1894.  There was no such Treaty!  Additionally, signatories to the Treaty of 1894 that replaced the botched one of 1884, rejected by the Itsekiri leaders because of its Articles vi and vii, included not only leaders from Benin River but also from Warri, e.g. Okorofiangbe, Omatsola, Ogbe and Egbegbe, within Itsekiri country.

Professor Obaro Ikime gives a title that characterizes the 1884 Treaty in the context of the book that he wrote on Chief Nana Olumu who led Itsekiri Chiefs in signing that Treaty with the British. Ikime’s title of “Treaty with Chiefs of Itsekiri Land, 1884” was different from the first line (that is, title) of the Treaty. That official title reads as follows: “Treaty with Chiefs of Jakri (Circa Benin).” Ayomike is satisfied with Ikime’s title, even though it does not tally with the official title of  “Treaty with Chiefs of Jakri (Circa Benin).”

Ikime’s title would be perfectly understandable to those who read his book because there is a context to it. It would make less sense to an audience in the World Wide Web for whose benefits we reproduced the “Treaties of Protection.” Our title specifies the “Itsekiri Land” in Ikime’s title as “Benin River.” From where did we get “Benin River?” It was from within the two Treaties!

In the 1884 Treaty, apart from “Circa Benin” that appears in the first line (that is, its title), Benin River is the description of the Treaty that appears in the notation at the end of the Treaty, after Article IX. In the 1894 Treaty, Benin River appears boldly in its title as follows: “Treaty With Chiefs of Benin River and Jekeri Country.” In addition to its presence in the Treaty’s title, “Benin River” appears in the articles of the 1894 Treaty eight different times, making a total of nine appearances within the 1894 Treaty.

I should add the following piece of information for the judgement of the reader. The two Itsekiri Treaties were classified in our Web site along with two other sets of Treaties which we characterized as “British Treaties With Urhobo of ‘District of Warri’” and  “British Treaties With Urhobo of ‘Sobo Country.’” All three terms of description of these treaties – namely, Benin River, District of Warri, and Sobo Country – were the terms used within the documents to describe their geographical locations. I did not invent them. I did not change them.

I must reject J. O. S. Ayomike’s accusation of malice against me, of having falsely imported Benin River into these two Treaties, as wrong and without any truth. I invite the reader to inspect these two treaties which are publicly posted in our Web site at http://waado.org/UrhoboHistory/NigerDelta/ColonialTreaties/ItsekiriTreaties/1884Treaty/1884Treaty.html and at http://waado.org/UrhoboHistory/NigerDelta/ColonialTreaties/ItsekiriTreaties/1884tFirstTreaty/FristTreaty.html . The evidence from within the two treaties will clearly show that my title of  “BRITISH TREATY WITH ITSEKIRI OF BENIN RIVER” is an accurate and fair characterization of the British Treaties with Itsekiri Chiefs in 1884 and 1894.

It is remarkable that nowhere in these two treaties, signed ten years apart, was Warri mentioned as part of the interests of the Itsekiri Chiefs in 1884 and 1894.

No matter whatever contemporary circumstances may have motivated J. O. S. Ayomike to resist Itsekiri affairs being associated with Benin River, his contentions in fact flagrantly insult the facts of Itsekiri history. The Itsekiri Chieftain Nana Olomu was without any doubt the most important personality in the nineteenth century history of the Western Niger Delta. He gained his fame from his title of “Governor of Benin River.” His father bore that title of “Governor of Benin River” before him. Before his father, two other Itsekiri chieftains had borne that same title. Indeed, it was the most esteemed title in Itsekiri affairs before the War of 1894 that allowed the British to topple their former staunch ally, Chief Nana Olomu, replacing him with the man who had helped them in that deed, Chief Dore Numa. The British dubbed their new ally and friend, Chief Dore Numa, Political Agent of Benin River in 1896, replacing the Governor of Benin River as the most important office in Itsekiri affairs in the post-Nana Olomu era.

It is important to emphasize the point that Chief Dore Numa was initially appointed as the Political Agent of Benin River, not of Warri District. The man who was appointed as Warri District’s Political Agent was an Urhobo man by the name of George Eyube from Agbarho. He died prematurely in May 1901. Rather than replace him with a local person from the Urhobo area, the British decided to expand Dore Numa’s Political Agency to cover both Benin River and Warri District. That was how Dore Numa came to establish a foothold in the affairs of Warri and the rest of Warri Province, after George Eyube’s death.

In the light of the robustness and centrality of Benin River in the history of the Itsekiri well up to the last decade of the nineteenth century, it is unfair to profess that the British Treaties of 1884 and 1894 with the Itsekiri had nothing to do with the affairs and territory of Benin River.  J. O. S. Ayomike is clearly mistaken in his protest.


J. O. S. Ayomike makes two allegations with respect to our display of British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri. In his first paper, he argued that the mere fact that Urhobo communities in Warri signed treaties with the British “in the District of Warri” had no historical value, asking  “How on earth did the British regard Warri as Urhoboland in the 1890s on the basis of treaties done within Warri District?” In his second paper, his accusation becomes much more urgent. He now alleges that these treaties were in fact forgeries because they were not signed in the manner of the Itsekiri treaties. I will address both of these allegations.

The Contents of British Treaties With Urhobo Communities in Warri

In answering the first of Ayomike’s allegations, I must urge, again, that we inspect the Treaties. I will pick my illustration from the Agbarha  (Agbassa) Treaty of March 14, 1893, although it should be pointed out that the pro forma text of all the treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri is the same. Its first provision, Article I, reads as follows: “Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, in compliance with the request of the Chiefs and People of Agbassa hereby undertakes to extend to them, and to the territory under their authority and jurisdiction, her gracious favour and protection” (emphasis added). Article III affirms the “territory of Agbassa” twice. The contents of Articles VI and VII deserve to be quoted in full.

Article VI: The subjects and citizens of all countries may freely carry on trade in every part of the territories of the Chiefs party hereto, and may have houses and factories therein.

Article VII: All Ministers of the Christian religion shall be permitted to reside and exercise their calling within the territories of the aforesaid Chiefs, who hereby guarantee to them full protection. All forms of religious worship and religious ordinances may be exercised within the territories of the aforesaid Chiefs, and no hindrance shall be offered thereto.

How else would one understand the articles of these treaties outside of the fact that the British understood and recognized that the lands that were the subject of the Treaties belonged to the “Chiefs and People of Agbassa” and the other Urhobo communities in Warri District with whom the British entered into binding Treaties in the 1890s? These lands lay in Warri District, just as the Itsekiri lands of the Treaties of 1884 and 1894 lay in Benin River. That is what we learn from these Treaties. That is what we learn from their history.

Moreover, the facts of the previous history of these communities are consistent with the contents of the British Treaties of the 1890s. We learn from history that when the Portuguese first landed in the Western Niger Delta, they encountered Ijaws (“Jos”) and Urhobo (“Soubo”), besides the subject of their quest, Benin. That was in the second half of the fifteenth century. The Urhobo whose existence in the fifteenth century the Portuguese chronicled were not upland Urhobos in Okpe, Agbon, Abraka, or Ughelli. They were Agbarha people in Warri. Shouldn’t we be respectful of that history? If the Portuguese and the British, four centuries apart, recognized the same people as owners of these lands, does that fact not deserve some recognition from us? Even William Moore, the Itsekiri historian of the 1930s whose spite for the Agbarha people was legendary, acknowledged that  “Prior to the advent of the Bini Prince Ginuwa, the territory now known as the Kingdom of Itsekiri or Iwere, was inhabited by three tribes, namely Ijaws,  Sobos, and the Mahins. They [Sobos] occupied the hinterland, while the Ijaw  occupied the coastline, and the Mahin squatted on the sea-shore near the Benin River” (from William Moore, History of Itsekiri, 1936, at page 13). These “Sobos” are the Agbarha and other communities that have been in “Warri District” for many centuries. I plead again that we respect that history. We should not slander the history of those who have cultivated these lands for centuries.

The Manner of British Treaties With Urhobo Communities in Warri

In his Part II paper on this matter, J. O. S. Ayomike alleged forgery in the British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri. Let us be clear on what he is alleging. He is not saying that I forged these documents. He could not say that. After all, the same documents can be obtained through the Public Record Office in London by anyone who is willing to pay the requisite fees. What  Ayomike is alleging is more sinister. He is alleging that the British forged these documents and that I, knowing that the documents were false, went ahead and published them anyway. I must confess that I detect a note of desperation in this allegation. There is desperation because the allegation is not made for the sake of establishing historical truth. Would Ayomike give up his fight against the recognition of Agbarha and Okere people as indigenous people of Warri if it is conclusively proved that these Treaties are genuine? No, of course not. It would be only one more failed roadblock against such recognition. He will move on to erect another roadblock, once the recklessness of such an allegation is demonstrated.

What is Ayomike’s evidence for this allegation of forgery. It is largely based on an interesting conjecture that the manner of signing the Urhobo Treaties in Warri was different from the Itsekiri Treaties. Therefore, they could not be authentic. The Itsekiri Treaties were signed by high British colonial agents, whereas the Urhobo Treaties were only witnessed by lower colonial agents.

Despite its desperation, this allegation should help us to highlight the manner in which these British “Treaties of Protection” were secured. In many ways, British relations with the Itsekiri were well established long before the larger expansion of British colonial interests to the rest of Nigeria was developed. The title of the “Governor of Benin River” was created at the instance of British interests in Benin River. Britain wanted an orderly way of organizing trade in the western Niger Delta for which Itsekiri Chieftains were the middle men. Before the Treaties of 1884 and 1894, the British had signed a trade Treaty with the Itsekiri under the leadership of Chief Idiare, the first Governor of Benin River who was appointed to that office in 1851. In many ways, the texts of British Protection Treaties were perfected in their relations with the Itsekiri.

The two Itsekiri Treaties were signed on board British war ships. They were attended by high British officials. These were clear indications of the special relations between the British and Itsekiri, dating back to at least 1849 when John Beecroft was appointed by the British Government as Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra. The 1894 Treaty was signed under very tense and contentious circumstances of British preparation for war against Chief Nana Olomu. The British were intensely interested in securing the alliance of many Itsekiri Chiefs against Chief Nana Olomu. (Also see http://waado.org/UrhoboHistory/BritishColonialRule/Ethiope_Nana/NanaWarReport/ImperialReport.html.)

The mode of signing treaties in the rest of Nigeria changed dramatically in the 1890s once British expansion into upland territories commenced. In Urhobo, Yoruba, Igbo, Ukwuani, Ijaw, Ibibio, and a large number of Nigerian territories, British Treaties of Protection were embarked upon in the 1890s. Their mode of signing was identical with the way British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri were signed. These Treaties were in the thousands. They were not signed on board British warships, as the Itsekiri Treaties of 1884 and 1894 were transacted. The vast majority of these treaties in Urhoboland, Igbo, Ibibio, Yoruba, etc., were not signed by the highest British officials, as in the case of the Itsekiri Treaties. I have in my possession eight more Protection Treaties signed in Urhobo country. They will be posted in our Web site in the next several months. Their manner of signing was identical with the British Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri.

Scholarship requires a degree of humility that comes with the territory. I can assure J. O. S. Ayomike that if I knew of any Treaties that were fake, I would be the first to publish such a discovery. And it would be an important fact in the history of the Western Niger Delta. But despite his rush to judgement, his allegation is false. If he were a regular academic, I would implore him to say so publicly. But I know he would not so own up. That is not part of the duty of being an advocate for a contentious subject of “ownership” of Warri..


J. O. S. Ayomike’s two papers mention his friendship with important Urhobo chieftains so many times. On superficial view, these may appear to be the boasts of an important man in the affairs of the Western Niger Delta. But actually, a deeper examination of Ayomike’s discussions of his friendship will unearth an important rule in his friendship formations. At least that is how they emerge from his two papers.

First, Ayomike tells us in no uncertain terms that his friendship is valuable. Anyone who enjoys it is a blessed person. In other words, there are clear rewards to be gained from being friends with Ayomike. He promises us all that if the Urhobo behave properly and obey his rule of friendship, then “We visualize a situation where an Urhobo President of Nigeria, projected by Urhobo and Itsekiri together, would treat both groups as one.” Very interesting indeed! I would like to work for that prospect, but not necessarily through playing by Ayomike’s rule of friendship.

J. O. S. Ayomike’s rule of friendship has its don’ts clearly written out. There is a price that any Urhobo person who wants to participate in Ayomike’s rule of friendship must be ready to pay. He must be willing to forsake the minority Urhobo community in Warri. Don’t talk about their rights. Don’t talk about their history. Don’t talk about their contributions. They do not count. If you do, you are in danger of losing J. O. S. Ayomike’s valuable friendship. Then, as a punishment for breaking Ayomike’s rule of friendship, an Urhobo man may never become the President of Nigeria. Disobeying Ayomike’s rule of friendship can be quite costly!

What if you refuse to play by Ayomike’s rule of friendship? Well, then, be ready to be trashed. You must then be told to come home from your Diaspora abode to the Western Niger Delta to prostrate and apologize for daring to talk about the history of the Urhobo community in Warri. Urhobo Historical Society runs a huge web site, with a rate of some 6,000 visitors per month. It discusses a huge number of subjects. But its Editor has dared to include a small fragment of the history of Agbarha, a minority Urhobo community in Warri. That is outside the bounds of Ayomike’s rule of friendship. So what is demanded of that Editor? Hear J. O. S. Ayomike, in his own words:

“Recently, a large Itsekiri contingent (including me) accompanied a prominent Urhobo Chief to Benin to perform the funeral rites of his late father–in–law.  And there are several such instances that Professor Ekeh in far away Buffalo, New York, is not experiencing.  He is advised to withdraw “his” treaties and issue apology to all concerned.  When the Professor Ekehs of this world allow the Urhobo nation to see the Itsekiri cause (and that of other minorities in Delta) as their own, the skies will be the limit for the Urhobo.”

I congratulate Ayomike for participating in such important events. But I have my own advice for J. O. S. Ayomike. Let him make friends with the Urhobo people in Warri. He has narrated several stories of his friendship with upland Urhobo chiefs. What about Urhobos close to him, in Warri? Don’t they matter? Will he support an Agbarha-Urhobo man from inside Warri for President, too?

In any case, what is it that the formidable J. O. S. Ayomike wants me to apologize for writing? I will quote in full the four paragraphs about which he complained in his first paper. They are as follows:

These standard treaties were printed in Great Britain and carried to Urhobo lands by imperial agents. It is doubtful that those Urhobo chiefs who signed these treaties, willingly or otherwise coerced, ever knew that they were signing away their sovereignty. The first article is thoroughly provocative. It claims that the agreement was being made at “the request of the Chiefs and People” of these Urhobo communities. In any case, they were the treaties that introduced British power into Urhoboland from 1891 onwards. The Urhobo side of the treaties were clearly enforced.

What about the British commitments to protect the Urhobo? Here the failures of these treaties become manifest. This is because British imperial agents were cleverly scheming to escape the burden of these treaties whenever their interests were threatened. The treaties clearly recognized that the lands of the Urhobo signatories belonged to the Chiefs and People of  the communities that entered into agreements with the British. Yet, a few short years later, the British appointed their own Political Agent, Chief Dore Numa, who surreptitiously leased Urhobo lands to the British in the absence of those with whom they entered into agreements in the 1890s. Numa was an Itsekiri chieftain who had helped the British to defeat his fellow Itsekiri strongman Nana Olomu. He also aided the British to humiliate Binis and their King in the war of 1897. The British rewarded Dore Numa handsomely, disregarding earlier treaties with Urhobos. This breach of the spirit of the British treaties is the source of the inter-ethnic conflicts that have ruined Warri City, even in our times.

Who Owns Warri?

One of the most vexed questions besieging the western Niger Delta concerns the rival claims over ownership of the tri-ethnic City of Warri. One value of these treaties is that they establish, beyond any shadow of doubt, that in the 1890s the British regarded Warri as Urhobo country. The batch of treaties reproduced in these pages was uniformly branded by the British as treaties with “Sobo” communities in the “District of Warri.” By contrast, the early imperial treaties between the British and the Itsekiri recognized the lands of the Itsekiri as lying in Benin River.

The subsequent Itsekiri attempt to wrestle Warri from the ownership of Urhobos, with whose ancestors British imperial agents signed treaties in the early 1890s, has arisen from the duplicity of British colonial policies. The Itsekiri have sought to reap benefits from the largesse and corruption that the British bestowed on the Itsekiri Chieftain, Dore Numa, by ignoring these treaties and by resting on subsequent corrupt court judgements in favor of Dore Numa, British colonialism’s prime Political Agent in the western Niger Delta.

In the academic business, there is nothing like absolute truth. New facts come out and we all revise our thoughts. But J. O. S. Ayomike has not come out with any new facts that will cause me to change what I have written. I believe, ever more firmly, “that in the 1890s the British regarded Warri as Urhobo country.” That is what the treaties show clearly. My other assertion that has irritated J. O. S. Ayomike is equally true: “By contrast, the early imperial treaties between the British and the Itsekiri recognized the lands of the Itsekiri as lying in Benin River.” That is what the Treaties teach us. They are out there in the public for every individual to examine. Indeed, that is a worthy service that Urhobo Historical Society has performed that we all should be proud of. We promise to put more of these treaties and documents out for the public to study. We will ignore Ayomike’s self-serving request that we withdraw them from the public domain of the World Wide Web.
J. O. S. Ayomike’s words in his two papers are dangerously close to the conduct of several chieftains in the affairs of the Western Niger Delta in the nineteenth century. Poisoned by the evil of that century, these chieftains were obsessed with their powers and cared little about the ordinary man and those who were down-trodden. Their language was full of cursing and abuses trained at others for doing nothing but rendering their duties. I will not call on  J. O. S. Ayomike to apologize for his numerous insults. But I would implore him to steer clear of the manners of the chieftains of the nineteenth century. Our lives in the Western Niger Delta will be much less coarse if we avoid attempting to humiliate our fellow men and women.

The motto of Urhobo Historical Society is serving Urhobo history and culture and advancing the welfare of the Niger Delta, particularly its environment. In the process of such service, we must necessarily engage in discussions of matters that are sometimes contentious. We believe there are boundaries of civility that have been set up by norms of intellectual debates within which such issues can be profitably argued. These unwritten rules, which are essentially the common law of intellectual discourse in decent multi-ethnic communities, inform the conduct of Urhobo Historical Society’s participation in debates. We do not engage in gratuitous insults. We believe that the good people of the Western Niger Delta have enough men and women of intellect who will carry forward our common agenda for advancing the fortunes of our people. We will be most delighted to engage J. O. S. Ayomike in further discussions of the issues that he has raised. But they must be devoid of personal insults. Otherwise, Urhobo Historical Society and its members will decline to participate in any further such discussions as can only maim civility in our precious region of the world.

Peter P. Ekeh

Buffalo, New York, USA
March 30, 2002


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