|Urhobo Historical Society|
URHOBO PROGRESS UNION, LAGOS BRANCH
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Minutes Books Containing:
Records of Meetings of the Lagos Branch Spanning 4th November 1934 to 19th June 1954
Records of the Ikenike (Stilt) Dance Committee, March-June, 1936
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By Peter Ekeh
Editor, Urhobo Historical Society
Original Mission of Urhobo Brotherly Society (U.B.S.)
Modern Urhobo history came to a head in the early 1930s. Faced with an unfolding new era of European colonial rule, whose dimensions were yet uncertain, a new group of leadership emerged from among Urhobo merchants and other professionals who had congregated in the new Township of Warri. It was there in Warri in that these new men of some commercial and literary means formed an organization that they named Urhobo Brotherly Society and that they fondly called UBS. Its mission, at least in retrospect, was threefold:
First, the Urhobo people of this new colonial era thought they were considerably disadvantaged in modern development, in comparison with other ethnic nationalities in colonial Nigeria. A leading aim of Urhobo Brotherly Society was to hasten the development of the Urhobo people and Urhoboland. The Society wanted the Urhobo people to catch up with areas that were adjudged by them as having adequate moorings of modern progress.
Second, the Urhobo people correctly saw that the new era required leadership that could convey their wishes to the Colonial Government while obtaining whatever the colonizers had to offer to them through such leadership. They also saw that the twin resources of literacy, plus Western education, and financial means were necessary elements of leadership in the new colonial era. The Urhobo Brotherly Society wanted to ensure that the Urhobo people were adequately represented in these endowments.
Third, the emerging leadership and the generality of the Urhobo people were troubled by the poor image Urhobo bore among their fellow Nigerians and the new European rulers. Urhobo Brotherly Society was intense in making sure that the rest of Nigerians saw them as decent people, and not through the misbehaviours of those who profited by misrepresenting the Urhobo nation through their immoral conduct.
Such threefold mission of Urhobo Brotherly Society rapidly spread at home in Urhoboland and in the burgeoning Urhobo Diaspora. Within a few years of its formation in 1931, the Society had spread to major areas where there were significant Urhobo migrants. While Warri retained the status of Home Union, Urhobos elsewhere formed what were called Branches of the Society. Of these branches, the most prominent was Lagos.
Lagos Branch of UBS and Urhobo Progress Union
The Lagos Branch represented the Greater Lagos area, at a time when Lagos was physically separate from Apapa and the Mainland. This Branch had three major sections: Lagos Island, Apapa, and Mushin. Lagos was the Capital of Colonial Nigeria. It had many distinctions which other branches could not claim. One of those distinctions was a strong pool of talents devoted to achieving the mission of the Society. A strong indication of this advantage could be seen in the three persons who were responsible for the two documents that we now introduce. As far as I am aware, no other records of the proceedings of the Society’s meetings exist anywhere else, not even in the home headquarters at Warri.
In one important sense, the Lagos Branch’s records tell us a great deal about Urhobo Brotherly Society and the famous organization that subsequently absorbed it, namely, Urhobo Progress Union. The three men who were responsible for compiling these records – T. E. A. Salubi, F. O. Esiri, and J. E. Odiete – eventually returned to the Urhobo homeland and provided great leadership to Urhobo Progress Union in the 1960s through the 1980s. The events that were recorded in the two minutes books assembled here not only inform us of the tedious work of running a Branch of an ambitious Society; they indicate the dedication and commitment that are required for nation-building. Although these records come from a Branch – albeit, a major Branch – of a great organization, they do provide us with the fullest story of Urhobo Progress Union.
Transition from Urhobo Brotherly Society to Urhobo Progress Union
The Lagos Branch opened its operations as Urhobo Brotherly Society on November 4, 1934. It continued its regular monthly meetings under the banner of UBS until 7th April 1935. This means that the Lagos Branch operated under the original name of Urhobo Brotherly Society for only five months. On Sunday, 5th May 1935, it transitioned to the organization’s new name: Urhobo Progressive Union.
One value of the present document is that we learn the source of the change from “Urhobo Brotherly Society” to “Urhobo Progressive Union.” Salubi tells us in his introduction to the Minutes Book as follows: “Among many other important innovations, Dr. Esiri and I introduced a new name – ‘URHOBO PROGRESSIVE UNION’ (UPU for short).” The name was approved for a short while, both in Lagos and in the Warri Headquarters. In the records of the Minutes Book reproduced here, the new name endured for just three months. The last time it was used was in the minutes of the meeting of August 4, 1935.
It was typical of the thoroughness and the passion of that era of Urhobo leadership that the change of name of the organization was not declared as a final word. Rather, the new name was given to the newly formed Urhobo Literary Committee, headed by the eminent Reverend John Ejovi Aganbi of Eku. It recommended a modification of Urhobo Progressive Union as follows: Urhobo Progress Union. In the records of the meetings of the Lagos Branch, this new name appeared for the first time on September 1, 1935.
Value of the Minutes Book
I assume that this Minute Book will be used in different ways. It offers worthwhile insight into the participants in the Lagos Branch. Unfortunately, the history of Urhobo Progress Union has emphasized the work of a few people who rose to the top. The records here tell us that a good number of patriotic and hardworking people brought the Union to its great height. These names include Mr. J. A. Uyo (in whose house the inaugural meeting was held); Mr. Susu; Mr. Iketugbe, etc. The contributions of these men deserve greater enlightenment than what has been provided so far.
There are other uses to which these records will be subjected. There are researchers who seek to know what went into so-called voluntary work in colonial times. These records tell us a great deal of the sacrifice and commitment of people whose profit from the organization that they served so passionately can never be attributed to material gains. We leave the conclusions to be drawn from them to individual researchers.
Ikenike (Stilt) Dance Committee
In 1936, the Lagos Branch of UPU appointed a special Committee to look into the problem accompanying the attempt by the Union to bring skilled Urhobo stilt dancers to Lagos. The narration of this portion of Chief Salubi’s account is interesting in large part because it relates to UPU’s enduring struggle to stop unsavory characters as representatives of the Urhobo people. As he narrates the Union’s case, the UPU had brought these famous Urhobo dancers, at great expense, to perform in Lagos. However, they were captured by Urhobo prostitutes and other seedy characters whom Chief Salubi called “PAYA” people. Frustrated, the Lagos Branch went to court to prevent these bad characters from representing Urhobo culture. But the Union lost and the prostitutes and “PAYA people”won, obviously to Salubi’s frustration. It all looks like a modern story.
The craft of Ikenike (stilt) dancers was one of the great artistic achievements of the Urhobo people. Unfortunately, it appears to be dying out of Urhobo popular culture.
T. E. A. Salubi, F. O. Esiri, and J. E. Odiete
It may well be said that there have been two peak periods in the history of Urhobo Progress Union. There was the initial period under the leadership of the Great Mukoro Mowoe who led the UPU into its limelight in the late 1930s and for much of the 1940s. Its second season of greatness and consolidation was during the leadership of Chief T. E. A. Salubi, beginning in the 1960s through the 1970s. Two other Urhobo leaders were at Salubi’s side during his era as President-General of the Union. The first was Chief J. E. Odiete, Salubi’s able Deputy President-General who ought to have succeeded him as President-General of the Union if Salubi died in office. Unfortunately, Chief Odiete died early, predeceasing Chief Salubi. When this happened, the UPU Executive reached for replacement from its seasoned ranks, fetching another veteran of UPU causes, Dr. F. O. Esiri, to serve his people as President-General of the Union in very perilous times.
It is striking that all these three men had worked together from the 1930s, starting in the Lagos Branch. Salubi was the founding Secretary of the Lagos Branch, while Esiri was the founding Assistant Secretary. Both of them worked very well together. Odiete was the young man who was made Secretary of the Ikenike Committee. Chief Salubi praised his work then as a young man in the mid-1930s. He later praised his work even more firmly in the 1960s when they worked together.
All three of these giants of Urhobo Progress Union teach one enduring lesson: service to your people is a life time’s work. They all began as young men and they continued into their old age.
Preserving UPU Records
It is rare to have preserved UPU records of meetings dating back to 1934 through 1954, which is the age of the two Minutes Books under reference. We must salute the wisdom and professional ethics of Chief T. E. A. Salubi who had them bound into book form in 1978. That we now have these two volumes available for posterity owes almost everything to his early decision to preserve these records.
When Dr. Thomas Edogbeji Akpomudiare Salubi, Chief T. E. A. Salubi’s heir, approached Urhobo Historical Society about his father’s papers, we did worry whether these manuscripts would not deteriorate, especially in our tropical climate. Fortunately, Dr. Salubi discussed this matter of the Minutes Book with Mr. Albert Esiri. Albert Esiri is, of course, Dr. F. O. Esiri’s son who is very much interested in preserving records to which his father contributed greatly. He is a successful businessman – proprietor of Turf Polo Club, Abraka, for instance. Thomas Salubi and Albert Esiri arranged between themselves on how best to preserve these valuable records. I did ask Dr. Thomas Salubi to include the possibility of reducing the documents to an electronic format for the sake of Urhobo Historical Society.
Dr. Thomas Salubi has now sent UHS the electronic products of the processing that Mr. Albert Esiri undertook. I understand that this processing included lamination of these old recordsin England. Given the huge number of pages involved, I assume that this processing would have cost a good sum of money.
Urhobo Historical Society thanks Dr. Thomas Salubi and Mr. Albert Esiri for their service in preserving these records. We understand that they venerate their fathers. In so doing they serve the Urhobo people – and they follow the mighty footsteps of their great fathers. And we thank Dr. Thomas Salubi especially for permitting us to display these two Minutes Books in our Web site.
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With Urhobo leaders who were willing to serve the Urhobo Nation as Chief T. E. A. Salubi, Dr. F. O. Esiri, and Chief J. E. Odiete have so capably done, our history of the past looks solid. And with men like Dr. T. E. A. Salubi and Mr. Albert Esiri who honour their fathers with grace and are prepared to follow their fathers’ footsteps in the service of the Urhobo people, our future history may well mimic our past achievements.
May God Bless Them All.
May the Urhobo People For Ever Praise Them.
Peter P. Ekeh
Buffalo, New York
June 1, 2008