The Historic Contributions of Urhobo Progress Union to the Unity and Development of Urhobo Nation

Urhobo Historical Society

The Historic Contributions of Urhobo Progress Union to the Unity and Development of Urhobo Nation

By Peter P. Ekeh

Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society

A Lecture at the 2008 Urhobo National Day Celebrations, PTI Conference Centre, Effurun. Delta State, Nigeria, December 6, 2008

Olorogun Felix Ibru, President-General, Urhobo Progress Union

Your Majesties, Ivie of Urhoboland

Beloved Members of Urhobo Progress Union

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

The historic roots of Urhobo Progress Union run back to the turmoil that ensued from the beginnings of British colonial rule in Urhoboland in the first three decades of the 20th century. Although many Urhobo communities had signed the so-called “Treaties of Protection” with the British Imperial Government in the 1890s, actual British colonial rule did not begin until a dispute concerning colonial jurisdiction in Urhoboland was settled between two agencies of British Government, namely, Royal Niger Company and Niger Coast Protectorate Government. In 1900 the Royal Niger Company lost its bid to rule Urhobo territories as a surrogate of the British Government. Thenceforth, colonial rule in Urhoboland began in earnest.

The first three decades of colonial rule were hard times in Urhoboland. The Urhobo had eagerly awaited the coming of the famed white man about whom they had heard so much. For four centuries, from the 1480s to the 1890s, the Urhobo people were involved in international trade in which they supplied palm produce, pepper and other agricultural products that were shipped to Europe. But they did not make direct contact with the Europeans until the 1890s when European companies opened direct trade with the Urhobo at such inland river ports as Okpare, Abraka and Okpara Waterside. That direct trading experience with Europeans was quite satisfactory for the Urhobo. But the colonial rule of the 1900s that followed trade by Royal Niger Company and other European companies quickly turned Urhobo relations with the British Government sour.

The prime reason for the difficulties that arose between the Urhobo people and the new British Colonial Government was that the Urhobo felt that the Government had instituted policies that punished the Urhobo people and that disfavoured them. On the other hand, British colonial officers had difficulties in dealing with Urhobo clan-based chieftains. These bad relations were unresolved by the 1920s when several Urhobo organizations began to emerge in diverse attempts to redress grievances felt by Urhobo communities. Most of these associations were organized by young Urhobos from towns and clans that were fractions of the Urhobo whole. Two examples will illustrate them. Chief T. E. A. Salubi has cited the formation of the Association of Okpara Young Men in 1925 as a notable example of the ferment of that age. But the motives of this association were suspected by the colonial Government and by the Chiefs. Like many other clan and town associations of that period, it failed. The most successful clan association of that era was Okpe Union, which was formed in 1930. Its success was probably due to the fact that Okpe Chiefs cooperated with young literate men.

While Clan and Town Unions, such as the Okpe Union, did some good for their narrow segments of the Urhobo whole, the new age ushered in by the European presence required a large platform for expressing the needs of the Urhobo people. Until the colonial era, each clan could take care of the needs of its people. Matters were quite different in the early decades of the 20th century. The problems facing Urhobo people in the 1920s could only be addressed by an association of all Urhobos. It was in this vein that Urhobo Brotherly Society was formed in 1931 in Warri by insurgent Urhobo nationalists. It spread rapidly throughout Urhoboland and its Diaspora in colonial Nigeria. Within the decade of the 1930s, Urhobo Brotherly Society consolidated its agenda, while changing its name to Urhobo Progress Union.

It must not be imagined that Urhobo Progress Union attained its fame on a platter of gold. In the 1930s, the British Colonial Government was suspicious of nationalist organizations, such as Urhobo Progress Union. UPU’s signal moment came from events that began in 1934. In arguing for the revival of Itsekiri kingship, which had been defunct since 1848, a group of Itsekiri insulted the Urhobo by employing an epithet, which we need not repeat here, in a publication in the Daily Times of 13th June 1934. The British authorities were displeased with this publication and apparently put pressure on Itsekiri Native Authority which duly entered a disclaimer with an apology to the Urhobo people for the wanton attack from this group of Itsekiri.

That insult crystallized Urhobo resentment and sentiments and dramatically led to an event that surprised the British Colonial Government. Urhobo Progress Union and heads of several clans in Western Urhobo organized what they called Urhobo General Meeting. They chose for a series of gatherings a venue that was not under the control of the Colonial Government. Orerokpe at that time was not the headquarters of any district or division in the colonial regime. Here, leaders of Urhobo Progress Union, who were resident at Warri and Sapele and were led by Mukoro Mowoe, and the older chieftains of Agbon, Okpe, Oghara, Uvwie, and Udu met in numerous sessions to formulate an agenda of action for the Urhobo people. Chief Adogbeji Salubi tells us that chieftains from all corners of Urhoboland attended these sessions. They were presided over by Chief Ayomanor of Okpe-Sapele. Jereton Mariere served as the Honorary Secretary of these perennial sessions of Urhobo leaders of thought.

Urhobo General Meeting and the Maturation of Urhobo Progress Union

Urhobo Progress Union earned precious premium from Urhobo General Meeting of the 1930s. First, its interaction with older and experienced clan chieftains allowed the relatively younger members of the UPU to gain a great deal of experience. Second, Urhobo General Meeting provided Urhobo Progress Union a platform for the formulation of an agenda for promoting Urhobo welfare. As Adogbeji Salubi acknowledged in his presidential address to the UPU Congress of 1965, although many of these Chiefs were not members of the UPU, they assisted the younger members of the Union in their work of promoting Urhobo welfare – as their joint work in the deliberations of Urhobo General Meeting at Orerokpe amply demonstrated.

Perhaps, the most remarkable achievement of Urhobo Progress Union from the sessions of Urhobo General Meeting at Orerokpe was that the Union emerged as the singular voice of the Urhobo people. This was largely because the British Colonial Government was greatly impressed by the thoughtfulness of the Union. The Colonial Government rapidly discovered that it was beneficial to deal with the UPU whenever Urhobo affairs were being discussed. Indeed, the Colonial Government sought out the UPU and was eager to involve its participation in the governance of Urhobo country.

          It was in the 1930s that the UPU gained the trust and respect of ordinary Urhobo people as an organization that they could rely on. Urhobo Progress Union achieved extraordinary feats in the 1930s that shaped Urhobo affairs into the future. Above all else, UPU represented and protected the interests of the Urhobo people before the Colonial Government.

Urhobo Progress Union and the Urhobo Agenda

Beginning with its activities under the platform of Urhobo General Meeting, Urhobo Progress Union undertook a large number of activities that shaped Urhobo’s destiny under British colonial rule and that helped the Urhobo people to overcome what looked like overwhelming challenges from 1900-1930s. It is best to categorize the Union’s achievements under five separate headings.

First, Urhobo Progress Union was able to reverse adverse British colonial policies that were in place in the 1930s. The pernicious policies hurt the Urhobo people. The UPU successfully persuaded the British Colonial Government to change its wrongful colonial policies.

Second, Urhobo Progress Union fought hard to protect Urhobo lands and interests against alien powers that sought to poach Urhobo assets.

Third, Urhobo Progress Union embarked on the development of the Urhobo people — inside Urhoboland and its Diaspora — in those instances where it was clear that the Urhobo people could not wait for the British Colonial Government and its allied Christian Missionaries to bring change to the Urhobo people.

Fourth, a major development of Urhobo history in the modern era, beginning with colonial times, was that Urhobos migrated to other lands inside Nigeria as well as outside it. Urhobo Progress Union turned out to be the vehicle for promoting and protecting the welfare of migrants in the Urhobo Diaspora from the dangers that faced migrants away from home.

Fifth, while promoting the welfare of Urhobo people, Urhobo Progress Union was fully engaged in building up a positive image for the Urhobo nation. UPU’s regime of image management included a tough fight against those Urhobo people who were doing damage to the good name of the Urhobo people.

I will now proceed to analyze each of these categories of achievements of Urhobo Progress Union, from the 1930s well unto the 1980s.

Reversing Bad Colonial Policies

Urhobo Progress Union changed the way the Urhobo people dealt with the new Colonial Government. In previous decades, before the 1930s, Urhobo grievances against British colonial policies were settled in violent ways, resulting in a score of riots and arrests of several local Urhobo leaders. The new way of Urhobo Progress Union was to persuade the British of the wrongfulness of their colonial policies and to make positive suggestions of alternative policies. This new methodology was tried out with respect to several major wrongful colonial policies.

Of immediate urgency for the Urhobo in the 1930s was the wrongful name by which the British called them. Unable to handle the compound consonant “rh” in Urhobo language, the British conveniently changed it to “s.” Thus, the British colonizers called the Urhobo “Sobo,” just as they changed Urhiapele to Sapele and Urhonigbe in Benin to “Sonigbe.” But the Urhobo resented this name of “Sobo.” Urhobo Progress Union persuaded the Colonial Government to restore the proper name of Urhobo by which the people call themselves. The British made the correction in a special Gazette in 1938. It is noteworthy that other ethnic nationalities were also misnamed by the British. Thus, they changed Itsekiri to “Jekri” and Ukwuani to “Kuale.” But only the Urhobo were able to regain their proper name as early as the 1930s, thanks to the persuading power of the UPU.

Such persuading prowess was employed by Urhobo Progress Union to great effect in a tougher area of interrogation that challenged core colonial policies regarding the allocation of Urhobo clans to colonial administrative divisions. Well up to the 1930s, several Urhobo clans were allocated by British colonial policies to a variety of administrative divisions outside of Urhoboland. Abraka and Orogun were assigned to Aboh Division. Idjerhe (misnamed as Jesse by the British) was part of Benin Division in Benin Province. Udu, Uvwie, Okpe, Agbon, and Oghara as well as Agbarha and Okere territories were administered as part of the so-called Jekri-Sobo Division, with headquarters in Warri. These administrative arrangements were considered by the Urhobo people as illegitimate and unjust. Urhobo Progress Union spent much of its capital in attempts to persuade British colonial authorities to reverse the policies that balkanized the Urhobo people into so many units. In effect, UPU wanted these splintered Urhobo fractions to enjoy the integrity that was then available to Eastern Urhobo, with headquarters at Ughelli.

Of these instances of misallocation, that of Idjerhe was the most threatening. That was so for two reasons. First, Idjerhe was assigned to Benin Province, outside of the Urhobo homeland. Second, Idjerhe was grouped with the seat of the old Benin Empire. Both factors portended the possibility of Idjerhe being lost from the Urhobo totality. Urhobo Progress Union fought hard for the return of Idjerhe to the Urhobo fold. Chief Mukoro Mowoe and Urhobo Progress Union were directly involved in negotiating the boundaries between Idjerhe and Benin and they assisted Idjerhe Chieftains in setting the conditions for the return of Idjerhe to the Urhobo fold. Of the various instances of misallocation of Urhobo clans, Idjerhe’s case was the first to be settled. In January 1937, Idjerhe was transferred from Benin Division and Benin Province to the Jekri-Sobo Division in Warri Province. One must pause here to praise the steadfastness of Idjerhe Chiefs in fighting for the integrity of their clan lands within the wholeness of the Urhobo nation. In my humble view, the same Urhobo Progress Union, which fought for the integrity of the Idjerhe people in the 1930s, must continue to oppose at the dawn of the 21st century attempts to balkanize Urhobo cultural entities. We must not allow the brashness of our age to sacrifice the fine achievements of Urhobo history and of the UPU on the altar of so-called modern politics.

Second, Urhobo Progress Union doggedly fought against the fusion of Urhobo affairs with Itsekiri politics in the so-called Jekri-Sobo Division. The issue involved in this instance was a lot more sinister than most people recognize. Although Itsekiri chieftains liked this arrangement, its origin did not come from Itsekiri pressure. On the contrary, it was in a nasty British colonial experimentation of marrying what many colonial officers saw as the wisdom of the Itsekiri with what they perceived as the dynamism of the Urhobo people. Many of them argued that bringing the Itsekiri and Urhobo together under the same government would overcome the leisurely ways of the Itsekiri and the inexperience of the Urhobo while matching Urhobo dynamism with Itsekiri experience in government. Urhobos rejected this logic and craved a separation from the Itsekiri. Urhobo Progress Union pursued its campaign for separation in two stages. First, the UPU persuaded the colonial officers to separate Urhobo Treasury from Itsekiri Treasury. This was accomplished in September 1937. Second, Urhobo Progress Union pressed for the separation of the government of the Itsekiri from that of the Urhobo. This was achieved in June 1950 when Itsekiri Division was created and Udu, Uvwie, Okpe, Agbon, Idjerhe, and Oghara were transferred to Urhobo Division.

Finally, the transfer of Orogun and Abraka from Aboh Division to Urhobo Division in January 1951 completed the campaign by Urhobo Progress Union for the grouping of all Urhobo clans under a single Colonial Division. The only exception was the unique instance of Okere and Agbarha-Ame whose lands constitute the Provincial headquarters at Warri.

It is important to stress that in successfully campaigning for the transfer of these misallocated clans back to the Urhobo fold, Chief Mukoro Mowoe and his colleagues of Urhobo Progress had achieved what few organizations could boast of in the colonial history of Africa. We will realize the enormity of this achievement by posing the following question: What if Urhobo Progress Union had not fought for the wholeness of the Urhobo nation during the 1930s and 1940s? It was entirely possible that Idjerhe might have wrongfully been assigned to Benin and that Abraka and Orogun might have remained under Aboh or Ukwuani Division. In any case, it was a sterling achievement.

Protecting Urhobo Lands and Assets against Alien Powers

There was a dramatic difference between the peaceful circumstances of the lands that were termed Eastern Urhobo and the threats to Urhobo lands in Western Urhobo during colonial times and indeed in the post-colonial era. Already in the 1920s, attempts had been made to alienate Urhobo lands in Warri Township from their indigenous Agbarha-Ame owners. Although the Agbarha people did not lose legal ownership of their lands, politically their freedom as a land-owning people was threatened.

In the 1930s, Urhobo Progress Union boldly stood behind the Idjerhe, Okpe and Oghara people to ward off fresh attempts to poach their lands in northwestern Urhobo. As already indicated, mature discussions on Idjerhe-Benin boundaries led to an amicable resolution of the land relations between the Benin and Urhobo in this area. However, the Itsekiri claims over Okpe and Oghara lands were serious and protracted. The Oghara land disputes were two. First, Urhobo Progress Union boldly helped the Oghara people to contest an Itsekiri attempt to wrestle lands at Ogharefe from their indigenous owners. Oghara and Urhobo Progress Union won this case in the Warri High Court in 1936 and in the West African Court of Appeal in 1939. Second, at the urging of Urhobo Progress Union, Oghareki people went to court over a land dispute between the Itsekiri and Oghareki people over Aja-Igbodudu. In April 1941, Justice J. J. Jackson entered a consent agreement, demarcating the boundary between the Itsekiri and Oghareki that is now referred to as the Jackson line. This legal determination was fully satisfactory to Urhobo Progress Union.

The most dramatic success scored by Urhobo Progress Union was unquestionably on the Sapele land case. With the help, and at the urging, of Urhobo Progress Union, the Okpe people went to court to claim ownership of Sapele Township against Itsekiri claims of ownership. In May 1941, Justice J. J. Jackson of the Warri High Court awarded ownership of Sapele Township to the Okpe people. Itsekiri appeals to the West African Court of Appeal failed in 1943. Urhobo Progress Union, at home and in Lagos, helped the Okpe Chiefs who pursued this protracted case.

The struggle to protect Urhobo lands dragged on unto the 1970s when major Itsekiri chieftains and the King of Itsekiri took Chief Daniel Okumagba to court to lay claims to Okere lands in Warri. Daniel Okumagba was a key member of Urhobo Progress Union, having once served as its Secretary. He took for his lawyer another UPU devotee, Dr. Mudiaga Odje. In many senses, therefore, Urhobo Progress Union was wholly involved in this important case. As in the Sapele case of the 1940s, the Itsekiri lost their legal claim to Okere-Warri in a judgement of the Mid-Western High Court sitting at Warri and delivered by Mr. Justice Ekeruche. In 1974, the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld this judgement that awarded ownership of the relevant Warri lands to the Okere people.

I have chosen to highlight these cases because the history of Western Urhobo would have been considerably different from what it is today if Urhobo Progress Union had not helped Okpe, Oghara, and Idjerhe people to fight for the protection of their indigenous lands. All Urhobos have good reason to celebrate the leadership of the UPU. Urhobos in Western Urhobo should especially appreciate the fact that without the decisive intervention and help of Urhobo Progress Unions, the integrity of their lands would have been very badly compromised.

Development of Urhobo People and Urhoboland

From the above catalogue of achievements by Urhobo Progress Union, it might appear that this organization was well endowed from the 1930s through the 1950s. Nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary, the hard reality that confronted the UPU in the 1930s was that it had very little to work with. It was very clear to the leaders of Urhobo Progress Union that in the new era of European colonialism, Urhobo people were seen as backward in comparison to other ethnic nationalities.

An example of the hardship that confronted the Urhobo people could be illustrated from an event from one of the several meetings that UPU leaders held with colonial officers in the 1930s. At a meeting with the Resident, the highest Colonial Officer of Warri Province, UPU leaders complained that there was not a single Urhobo clerical staff in the Resident’s Office. The Resident confessed that that was odd. He then asked the Urhobo leaders to supply a candidate with a First School Leaving Certificate, which was earned at the completion of elementary school education, for immediate employment as a clerical staff in his office. To their utter embarrassment, the UPU leaders searched in vain for such an Urhobo young man.

It was clear to Urhobo Progress Union in the 1930s that the Urhobo people could not wait for the Government or the Christian Missions to train the personnel that the Urhobo people needed in order to function adequately in the new colonial era. By 1936, the Lagos Branch of the Union had suggested a scholarship scheme that would entail the mass academic training of Urhobo young men. This suggestion was accepted by the Home Union (that is, the Warri Branch of UPU) who nonetheless insisted that the Urhobo people should embark on the building of an elementary school that would produce clerical staff and similar categories of lower-scale employees. UPU branches in the Urhobo Diaspora preferred a secondary school. It was this disagreement that caused undue delay in the UPU”s Urhobo Education Scheme. Chief Mukoro Mowoe helped to resolve this serious dispute in favour of a secondary school along with a dual scholarship to two young Urhobos who would man the secondary school.

Today, no one doubts the wisdom of this initiative that was originally conceived by Apolo Ikutegbe of the Lagos Branch in 1935. We need not delay in assessing the significance of Urhobo College. Chief T. E. A. Salubi has elaborated on this gigantic undertaking by Urhobo Progress Union. A number of illustrious alumni of Urhobo College, including Professors David Okpako and Omafume Onoge, have given good accounts of the significance of Urhobo College. I will not belabour the fact that Urhobo Progress Union sponsored the education of Urhobo’s first two graduates and that Messrs M. G. Ejaife and E. N. Igho returned to found an impressive secondary school that was appropriately named Urhobo College. Few other organizations in Africa can boast of such history of achievement in the sphere of education.

However, it would be a mistake to limit the contributions of Urhobo Progress Union in the sphere of educational development in Urhoboland to the Union’s extraordinary achievements in the founding and management of Urhobo College. The truth of the matter was that the Union served as a facilitator in bringing educational and allied institutions to Urhoboland. Even before it built Urhobo College, Urhobo Progress Union had engineered the transfer of Warri (that is, Government) College from its restricted environment in Warri Township to its more ample grounds in Ughelli, in the Urhobo hinterland. Furthermore, UPU was involved in discussions of the start of a new Catholic Parish in Okpara Inland, in 1947, in the interior regions of Urhoboland. It also had expressed vested interests in the planning of Eku Baptist Hospital, if only because Reverend John Ejovi Aganbi had close ties to Urhobo Progress Union. As late as the 1960s, Urhobo Progress Union regularly showed active interest in the beginnings of new secondary schools, for boys and girls, in Urhoboland. Progress and development were the mantra of the Union and any new venture that would bring development to Urhoboland was warmly embraced by the UPU.

In addition to its sponsorship of the coming of Western missions, schools and hospitals to Urhoboland, Urhobo Progress Union must be credited with a successful campaign for the enhancement of the indigenous institution of kingship in Urhoboland. At the onset of British colonial rule in the Western Niger Delta in the 1890s and 1900s, kings were rare in the region. The Itsekiri and Ijaw had no kings. In Urhobo country, the Ovie of Ughelli and Ovie of Ogor existed to represent the traditional practice of clan kingship in Urhoboland. It was not until 1936 that the Itsekiri revived their kinship which had been suppressed by powerful merchants in Itsekiri affairs since 1848. In the later half of the 1930s, Urhobo Progress Union mounted major campaigns to create kings in Urhoboland. When the Okpe people decided to ask for the revival of their kingship, which had been vacated, probably for centuries, they found a powerful ally in the Urhobo Progress Union in the attempt to persuade the British Colonial Government to allow the revival of the royal title of Orodje of Okpe. The installation of Esezi II in 1945 was celebrated not only in Okpe, but by numerous UPU branches, especially in the Urhobo Diaspora. Today, when we see our galaxy of kings, in whom we take great pride, we must be reminded that we see in their glory the vision of Urhobo Progress Union from the 1930s.

All in all, Urhobo Progress Union saw itself as the agency of progress in Urhoboland. It invested most of its capital in the development of a future generation of Urhobo men and women. In one way or the other, we who are assembled here today – kings and commoners, professors and students, wealthy men and women and the poor, etc., etc., — we all are the bearers of the progress which the visionaries of the Urhobo Progress Union wrought in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s and well beyond.

Urhobo Progress Union and the Welfare of Migrants in the Urhobo Diaspora

Until the arrival of colonial rule in the 1890s, Urhobos were largely confined to their homeland in the rainforests and creeks of the Western Niger Delta, with occasional forays to fishing grounds of the Ijaws and sometimes to Ukwuani country for those who dared to pursue livelihoods outside Urhobo country. By 1893, the British colonizers had penetrated Yoruba country. Following British conquest of Benin in 1897, Benin was also open. In both instances, the British colonizers discovered that there was little exploitation of palm produce. The encouragement of Urhobo migration to Ikale lands of the Yoruba and to Benin country began quite early in the colonial era. A large number of Urhobos soon settled in rural Yoruba and Benin territories where they gainfully exploited palm trees for their productive nuts.

Similarly, hundreds of Urhobos poured into colonial townships where they plied several types of occupation, including trading in agricultural produce. Some worked in the colonial service. In the Yoruba towns of Ibadan and Lagos, a sizeable population of Urhobo men and women had developed by the 1930s.

In both of these instances, the welfare of Urhobo migrants was endangered. Until the 1930s, there was no organized way of handling the rapid growth of Urhobo immigrants in Yoruba country and elsewhere. Exploitation by host communities was not uncommon. In addition, quarrels among Urhobos were also common. The rise of Urhobo Progress Union in the 1930s came as a blessing to these migrants, both in rural areas and the new colonial townships. The rapid growth and popularity of Urhobo Progress Union among migrants of the Urhobo Diaspora owed their urgency to the functions which this new organization performed in the Diaspora.

Urhobo Progress Union was responsible for the welfare of Urhobo people in the Diaspora. Moreover, the UPU served as the custodian of Urhobo culture in many fragments of the Urhobo Diaspora. Thus, the UPU assumed essential cultural roles in marriages, deaths, and indeed socialization of children. In instances of undue hardship, individual Urhobo migrants turned to the UPU for help. Urhobo Progress Union helped Urhobo migrants who were unfairly taken to colonial courts. The UPU also played quasi-legal roles. For instance, in many fragments of the Urhobo Diaspora, the UPU handled cases of divorce between Urhobo couples.

Perhaps, a sense of the pervasive role of Urhobo Progress Union in the affairs of Urhobo migrants may be captured from the extraordinary history of one Urhobo leader in Benin. For over fifty years, Chief Agbontanren Udih was the source of refuge for Urhobo migrants who settled in Benin and the numerous Urhobo travellers who came through Benin in their journeys to other parts of Nigeria. Up to the 1950s, Benin City was the main artery of transportation between southwestern, eastern and the Delta Province regions of Nigeria. At many times, travellers faced great dangers as they landed in Benin at night and had to spend the night there. The great Chief Udih and his emissaries would be waiting for Urhobo travellers at the Armel’s terminal from where they led these weary sojourners to Udih’s home to spend safe nights. It was all in the name of Urhobo Progress Union.

It needs to be added that these roles of Urhobo Progress Union were unique to the Urhobo Diaspora. In other words, other traditional structures assumed these roles in the Urhobo homeland. However, away from the Urhobo homeland, away in distant lands, Urhobo migrants relied on Urhobo Progress Union to perform roles that their extended families attended to in the safety and traditions of their homeland.

Urhobo Progress Union and the Making of Urhobo Image

Any fair and fulsome assessment of the contributions of Urhobo Progress Union must include the critical role played by the Union in re-making the image of the Urhobo nation. In the 1930s, Urhobo Progress Union inherited a rotten image of Urhobo. While it fought unfair and malicious attacks on the Urhobo people by outsiders, Urhobo Progress Union recognized that much of the awful characterization of the Urhobo people in immoral terms arose from the unacceptable and bad behaviours of a few Urhobo people. In particular, there was a class of professional tricksters and trouble-makers who caused a lot of pain for many people. The UPU had a name for them: “payan.” Urhobo Progress Union had to confront them first, because they gave a bad name to the Urhobo people and second, because many of their victims were Urhobo men and women. The payan specialized in planting false evidence against their targets and then dragging their victims to court. By the 1930s, many of them had formed their own associations.

Urhobo Progress Union barred many of these people from membership of the Union. The membership qualification of “good character” that was inserted into various constitutional statements of the Union was in many instances aimed at barring so-called payan people from membership of Urhobo Progress Union. Particularly in Lagos, there was persistent outbreak of hostilities between Urhobo Progress Union and the associations formed by these unsavory characters whom the Union blamed for giving a bad image to the Urhobo nation.

Let me cite two instances of disputes between Urhobo Progress Union and the payan groups in Lagos that affected a prominent member of the UPU in order to illustrate the passion with which the battles between the UPU and the payans were fought. These incidents were narrated by Chief Adogbeji Salubi from his own experiences of fighting those he regularly referred to as “payan” people.

The first incident occurred in 1935-36. The Lagos Branch of the UPU was opened in November 1934. Shortly thereafter in 1935, the Lagos Branch began its campaign for scholarship funds for Urhobo youngsters. In an attempt to raise good funds, the Lagos Branch of the UPU decided to bring stilt Ikenike dancers from the Ilaje area to Lagos for public performance for which the UPU would charge requisite fees. At great expense, the UPU successfully brought the dancers to Lagos. It then began to plan for the performance at a respectful venue and at a good time. However, members of the Union received information that the dancers were co-habiting with Urhobo prostitutes. The Union was thoroughly alarmed when it learned further that the payan group, working with Urhobo prostitutes, had taken over the dancers and had arranged their own public display of the Ikenike dancers. The UPU was naturally furious. It went to court to obtain an injunction against public performance of the Ikenike dancers under the banner of the payans. It also wanted the court to restrain these disreputable prostitutes and payans from posing as the true representatives of Urhobo culture. The UPU hired a Lagos lawyer to present its case to the court. On their part, the payans and prostitutes hired an English lawyer who was practicing in Lagos to present their case. Incredibly, the UPU lost this case and the payans and prostitutes won it decisively. The UPU was ordered not to interfere with the performance of the Ikenike dancers whom they had spent money and time to bring to Lagos.

The second dispute was even more deadly. In 1943, the Welfare Officer of Lagos Colony was making moves against prostitutes who were accused of corrupting under-age girls into their trade. The Government authorities had sought the help of Adogbeji Salubi, who was then an Assistant Labour Officer in Lagos, with respect to the conspicuous Urhobo prostitutes. This was a subject that the Lagos Branch of the UPU had pursued without success in the past. Salubi willingly gave help and information to the authorities. Meanwhile, the Urhobo prostitutes got information from payan pimps that Salubi was helping the authorities against them. About the same time, news broke that Adogbeji Salubi had won a Government scholarship to study in England. He was the first Urhobo man to receive such a scholarship award and there was much rejoicing in the Urhobo community in Lagos – but not among the payan groups and their allies among the prostitutes. Instead, the prostitutes assembled to curse Adogbeji Salubi, praying that a bomb from the enemy of World War II would fall on him or that he would drown at sea. Alarmed by the destructiveness of this quarrel, the eldest Urhobo man in Lagos summoned a peace meeting. The prostitutes were asked to undo their curse, which they reluctantly did. They joined all others to pray for Salubi’s safety in his travel during the War and for his safe return to Urhoboland.

I have narrated these incidents of UPU’s confrontation with those they considered as unsavory characters and whom the Union accused of ruining Urhobo’s image. Fighting to improve the image of a people is not an easy task. In the end, it is probably correct to say that of all the achievements of Urhobo Progress Union, the most difficult was the improvement in Urhobo image. It is also probably the least recognized. Up to the 1950s, there were many Urhobos who were ashamed to publicly acknowledge their Urhobo heritage. That is not the case anymore, at least since the 1960s. That turnabout owes a great deal to individual achievements of hardworking Urhobo men and women. The rise of Michael Ibru and David Dafinone in business and numerous others who have followed their footsteps; the excellence of Gamaliel Onosode in the corporate boardroom; the academic achievements of Frank Ukoli and several other academics in our universities; the rise of religious leaders like Bishop Agori Iwe, John Ejovi Aganbi and Monsigneur Stephen Umurie: all these remarkable achievements built a powerful positive image for the Urhobo nation. We all must salute all of them.

The fact remains, however, that the overall positive image that the Urhobo nation enjoys today owes a great deal to the work of Urhobo Progress Union. It fought relentlessly against evil efforts to malign the Urhobo people by outsiders. It also had the internal fortitude to fight against fellow Urhobos whose behaviours had given a bad name to the Urhobo people.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I suppose there are some in this audience who will wonder whether we have not exaggerated the contributions and achievements of Urhobo Progress Union. They may well ask: Are there no other associations that have achieved as much for their people elsewhere in Nigeria and Africa?

I believe that is a fair question. My answer would be that in terms of African history of the colonial period, Urhobo Progress Union ranks quite high in comparison to the most celebrated of the indigenous associations. I am aware that Urhobo Progress Union has been compared to the African National Congress of South Africa in terms of their achievements. But the ANC is quite different from the UPU. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was from its beginning a multi-racial and multi-ethnic association that was empowered by the ideals and ideologies that were long in existence in the West. In an important sense, the African National Congress was not an indigenous organization. On the other hand, Urhobo Progress Union was an indigenous association whose ideals were homegrown.

Among Africa’s indigenous associations of the colonial era, it would be difficult to pick associations that rival Urhobo Progress Union in terms of their contributions to their people’s existence and welfare. The reason for such an outstanding placement of Urhobo Progress Union is because it has a unique character in terms of who owns the organization. Let us compare Urhobo Progress Union with, say, Egbe Omo Oduduwa, Yoruba’s cultural association of the colonial era. Formed in London in 1945, and launched in Lagos in 1948, Egbe Omo Oduduwa was an elite organization that sought to harness the political resources of the Yoruba elite. On the other hand, from its beginning Urhobo Progress Union was designed to be an organization of ordinary people.

The Urhobo people owned Urhobo Progress Union in at least two senses. First, its prime goals were for the advancement of ordinary Urhobo people. From its inception, Urhobo Progress Union was primarily concerned about the welfare of the ordinary Urhobo person. The Union’s most visible achievement was to create space and opportunity for the future growth of young Urhobo men and women. Urhobo College was designed to be the training ground for the ordinary Urhobo man’s child. Up to the 1960s, branches of the Union pressed and petitioned for centres of the Entrance Examination to Urhobo College to be in such locations as Zaria, Jos, Okitipupa, and Kano because Urhobo migrants wanted their sons to go to Urhobo College. In the Urhobo Diaspora, the duties of Urhobo Progress Union included funeral services, marriages, protection against false arrests – all of which benefited the ordinary man.

There is a second sense in which the ordinary man and woman owned Urhobo Progress Union. They contributed their share to the resources of the Union. In the 1940s, ordinary men and women contributed their little amounts – their widow’s mite – whenever Chief Mukoro Mowoe visited their towns to raise funds for the building of Urhobo College or for the overseas scholarship of the two undergraduates who were then being trained overseas for the sake of running Urhobo College on their return to Urhoboland.

Let me cite an event from the era of Chief T. E. A. Salubi as President-General of the Union in order to demonstrate UPU’s traditional concern for the circumstances of the ordinary Urhobo person. In 1964, His Excellency Chief Jereton Mariere toured Ishan Division in his capacity as Governor of Midwest Region. At Zuma Memorial Hospital, Irrua, a young boy of about nine years of age was introduced to Chief Mariere as an Urhobo orphan whose mother died at child-birth and whose father died shortly thereafter. Stephen was abandoned in the Hospital as an orphan. Chief Mariere immediately wrote a letter to the President-General, Chief Salubi expressing his shame as an Urhobo man that an Urhobo boy should be abandoned that way. He asked the President General that UPU should take up the matter. The Executive investigated this case and found out that the orphan boy hailed from Uwherun. Chief Salubi urged Uwherun people to do something about this young man. In his Presidential Address of 1965, Chief Salubi complained that Uwherun people were not taking this matter seriously. After the 1965 General Meeting, Chief Adogbeji Salubi and his wife decided to adopt the young orphan boy, vowing not to allow Urhobo to be so shamed. Stephen grew up in the Salubi household. This was done in the name of the Union. That, I daresay, revealed the character of Urhobo Progress Union.

The uniqueness of Urhobo Progress Union also arose from the remarkable character of those who led the Union in the 1930s through the 1960s, at the least. They were ordinary men who did extraordinary things for their nation. They took their responsibilities most seriously. For them, the motto of the Union, namely, Unity is Strength, meant what it said. They were convinced that if all the sub-cultural units of the Urhobo nation were united, Urhobo’s future would be brilliant. Clad in their famous UPU uniform of blazers, they worked as foot soldiers in an army that has fought for our future. We are their children. We live and perhaps prosper today because they worked for us. Can we match their strength? They have passed the torch to us. Can we pass it on to the next generation? Because the UPU worked for the ordinary people of Urhoboland, many of us, from ordinary families, could go to secondary schools and to universities. We who come after them should not do less than these patriotic pioneers have achieved. Remember that the earlier pioneers who built this wonderful organization did not have the luxury of attending secondary schools. But they were great people because they were committed and they were patriots. Let us imitate their ways and push Urhobo into a greater future – greater than the pioneers left it.

I thank you for listening to me. Wa ko b’ iruo.

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