|URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY|
THE LAND FACTOR IN
INTER-COMMUNITY FEUDS IN WARRI
A Colonial Legacy
Dan A. Obiomah
In this paper reference is made constantly to the Itsekiris. Would it were otherwise, because it is probably true that less than one percent of Itsekiris know little of the spectre that flatters and haunts their lives, making them reactionary. When the Midwest was part of the then Western Region ruled by the Yoruba Action Group Government, the Itsekiris were opposed to being part of a Midwest State if it was created. They discovered that the Ijebu were their kith and kin and preferred to remain in the West. Now that the Yoruba principalities and powers have no favours to trade for Itsekiri electoral support, the latter no longer think of joining Ondo Province or Ijebu to be with their kith and kin in the same State. On the contrary they are a friendless minority who could be swallowed up in the Delta State proposed by some groups of people. So in their recent release in the Daily Times of 22nd April, 1975, they ask for the constitution of Warri Division into an autonomous province for the Itsekiris who, no doubt, are to tyranise the other ethnic groups who are not their friends and of whose existence therefore they imply total ignorance. Otherwise, underlying the call is the assumption that Warri Division is exclusively Itsekiri property. The astonishing thing is that so many signed the curious document who could not have expected to do so, an act which seriously challenges scholarship. For every competent Midwestern school boy drawing a divisional map of the State knows that Urhobos and Ijaws are extensively in Warri Division. From this point it is one step to asking the prime movers of the Autonomous Province of Warri to produce a map.
But the purpose of this paper is not to throw challenges and join battle but to disseminate information as a way of breaking the barriers of bigotry and fostering understanding.
It is hoped, therefore, that what follows will bring to many, useful information such as will stimulate thought, right resolve, and action.
1. In 1906, 1908 and 1911 Chief Dore Numa, a colonial Political Agent of the British Government, and Ogbe Youren — both Itsekiri men — purporting to be acting for and on behalf of the “Chiefs and people of Warri” surreptitiously leased certain lands in Warri to the Colonial Government for a term of 99 years. These lands which included the Village of Agbassah (which is Urhobo) constituted the greater part of Warri Town. To set these events in historical perspective, the protectorate of Southern Nigeria was proclaimed in 1900 and the penetration of the hinterland – the establishment of effective colonial occupation — was being inexorably forged by jingoistic British officials.
2. The subject – matter of this discourse is Warri Town distinct from the conglomerate of lands and peoples known as Warri Division. Let it be emphasized here in passing that contrary to Itsekiri pretensions and make-believe the Agbassah indigenes of Warri have other territories in Ogunu, Ukpokiti, Oteghele, Okorode, Edjeba, within Warri Division while the Ijaws also have Ogbe-Ijaw clan, Egbema and Gbaramatu. The Itsekiri in their anxiety tragically advertise, indirectly and subtly, that they are the owner of Warri Division. Then they cry on house tops that they are a minority tribe, that they are oppressed. The erring leaders who thus represent the Itsekiris are like priests with daggers under their cloak.
3. The Agbassahs claimed that the lands leased under the three leases were their bona fide property, a little portion of Okere land on the northern boundary of the 1911 lease excepted. This parcel of land belonged to the Okere people who shared a common boundary with the Agbassahs to the north of Agbassah. Years of maneuvering by the colonial administration to shield themselves and their protégé, Chief Dore, were futile.
4. Eventually the Agbassahs went to law against Chief Dore who still a Paramount Chief by virtue of his appointment since 1893 as a Political Agent for Benin River by the British Consul. His territory later extended in 1903 to Urhobo area following the death in that year of his Urhobo counterpart, Chief George Eyube of Ugbogidi, Western Urhobo. Ometa & Dore Numa was a protracted lawsuit. Commenced in 1926 with forerunner suits in 1921 and 1925 it ended in the Privy Council in 1934. The colonial administration sponsored Chief Dore so that the courts found as a fact that the Agbassahs had lost their claim of title and that the lands covered by the 1906 and 1908 leases had for many years been known as Jekri land while the area covered by the 1911 lease together with Odion, Fugbe and Igbudu were Agbassah lands subject to the overlordship of the Olu of Jekri, who, until he died in 1932 was Chief Dore. This was in 1934. Since then it has formed the basis of Itsekri claims that they are the owners of Warri town causing the sour relationship between the Urhobos and Ijaws on the one hand and Itskiris. For the Agbassahs had allowed Ijaws to settle in the area known today in Warri as Ogbe-Ijaw district from Ogbe-Ijaw clan in Warri Division but the colonial administration ejected the Ijaws in 1908. The 1906 lease included Ogbe-Ijaw. In 1952 the new Action Group Government of the Western Region compensated the Itsekiris for support at the polls by changing the title Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri.
There was a riot. Characteristically the Action Group turned deaf ears to protests. It only changed the name Warri Province to Delta Province. Thenceforth, by insidious propaganda, the Itsekiris have tried to delude Nigerians that Olu of Warri is overlord of Warri Division. This is false and deceitful. In 1959 the Action Group Government of the Western Region created an Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust. The 1906 and 1908 leases were returned to the Itsekiris and vested in the Lands Trust from the Agbasah lands now vested in them, the Itsekiris either through the Lands Trust or through their now moribund Area Planning Authority have made one predatory incursion after another upon family lands. In these matters the saying has been no less true that justice is for the rich. Moreover, the vocal clique among the Itsekiris knowing that what they now hold as theirs came to them purely by accident and not by genuine title, they lived in fear and used every opportunity of vendetta forgetting like Macbeth that “security is man’s chiefest enemy.” They parade and advertise themselves and their Olu ad nauseam to impress the world that they and no others are the natives of Warri. The Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Kano, the Oba of Lagos, the Alake of Abeokuta, the Oba of Benin. Not one of these comes for mention in the press half the number of times that the Olu of Warri appears. Yet there is not one Itsekiri man who has freehold land within the disputed area of Warri, none can point to his grandfather’s home-stead. Even Chief Dore himself who leases a total of 800 acres of Warri lands to Government was himself shortly after a tenant of Government.
The Olu came to Warri only since 1952 and his palace is built on lease-held land.
5. It is pertinent at this stage to reveal some facts of the Ometa v Chief Dore Numa case whose judgement in the Divisional and Full Court the Lords of the Privy council of his Britanic Majesty confirmed as findings of fact which they would not disturb. Eight grave doubts surround the judgement.
- Niger Treaty. Her Britannic Majesty in 1893 signed a treaty of protection with the Agbassah people. Government’s action in taking Agbassah lands and claiming that they belonged to a new found overlord was contrary to the Niger Treaty. At the trial counsel for Agbassah asked the permission of the court to subpoena the Governor General for a copy of the treaty, the Agbassah copy having been lost. The court refused permission only saying that the Treaty would be accepted as evidence if the Agbassahs could product it. They could not. But today copies duly authenticated by Public Records Office, London, are available.
- When Dore signed the leases he was merely a Political Agent and Paramount Chief of the Colonial Government, a position which he obtained through subverting traditional Itsekiri Chiefs in Benin River. Against them, including Chief Nana, he advanced the cause of colonialism in the establishment of British authority. He had by tradition no representative capacity and yet the Full Court in the preamble to its judgement said: “In this appeal the appellants belong to a Sobo tribe known as Agbasa. They are claiming the overlordship of the greater part of Warri as against the defendant who represents the Jekri tribe. The defendant in his representative capacity is at present the officially recognized owner of the land in dispute and the Government has leased a considerable area of land in Warri from him in that capacity.” In fact Dore belonged to the Ologbosere or anti-Olu faction. Chief Omagbemi of Ugbori, the Olutu Itsekiri, was the rightful Olu representative and headed the Olu faction. In answer to Itsekiri objections in 1924, Lt. Governor Moorehouse said that as far as Government was concerned Chief Dore was the Olu. Dore then was merely an obedient servant of Government when he granted the leases which he had no authority to grant.
- In 1894 the Agbassahs leased land to Mr. S. P. Wilkey in what is now Daudu or Alders Town. The British Consul witnessed and signed the deed which twelve years after was registered in the lands registry at Warri in 1905. In 1908 Government took this same parcel of land and other similar ones on lease from Chief Dore, its own Political Agent. Like the Niger Treaty the Courts decided to ignore this exercise of proprietor’s rights over parts of the 1908 lease and find as fact that the land had for many years been known as Jekri land. The evidence available is that Government knowingly took a comprehensive lease from Chief Dore and began afterwards to negotiate with small holders within the lots leased. S.P. Wilkey, Alder and Pessu to name a few come under this procedure. Agbassah was the difficult nut that could not be cracked so things had to go the way they went.
- At the trial, counsel for the Agbassahs tendered a letter dated 28th Feb. 1923 written by Chief Dore to his clients. In the letter Dore said:
- It is now further known that while the appeal was pending before the Privy Council six years after the suit was instituted and twenty-one years after the purported granting of the leases which were the cause of action the exact boundaries of the 1911 lease was not known, so that a new agreement had to be signed by Chief Dore complete with survey plan, in 1932, long after one of the signatories to the original lease agreement had died. Thus the judgement of the Divisional and Full Court in favor of Chief Dore had been a nullity at least in respect of the 1911 lease while the colonial administration carried on behind the scenes.
- Similarly that Colonial Government sublet several portions of the 1906, 1908 & 1911 leases to individuals and the firms instead of using the lands for public purposes was contrary to the Niger Treaties and also to Cap 110 and 112 of the laws of Nigeria, 1908. The matter was debated in secret Government files while the Courts went on with the case. Then in 1943 when the dust had died down after the Privy Council decision in 1934 Government entered into a supplementary agreement with the Olu of Itsekiri to legalize the subletting to individuals of native lands acquired by Government. Such subletting was in keeping with the idea of new township conceived by the colonial administration. A large number of early sublease were Itsekiris who were about 1924 being attracted in large numbers into Warri as immigrants like Ian Smith was attracting whites into Rhodesia. It was action calculated to give strength to the court’s finding of ‘fact’ that the land in dispute had been known as Jekri land for a “a good many years.” The original intention of acquiring the land had been to lay out a segregated township with three zones, a white zone, a buffer zone, and an African zone. Acquiring the lands from Dore, a Political Agent of Government, was a mere front to pass on the odium of Machiavelianism from the holy proselytizing government of Her Britanic Majesty to Chief Dore to whom by comparison Sir Francis Drake was a more superior parallel. Drake robbed the Spaniards. Dore robbed his own people. Because Government was the principal actor camouflaging behind Chief Dore Numa, Dore was pressurised at material moments to pursue the case. So it was for instance that when, oddly enough, Dore was determined at last to abandon the fight when the Agbassahs gave notice of appeal to the Privy Council the Colonial administration had to pay on behalf of Chief Dore the £400 which was the cost of arguing the appeal. It was Government’s case so why not? The reason for the payment was not merely to protect their interests as lessee but to save Chief Dore, and ipso facto the Government, from humiliation. For their interests were duly safeguarded when after failure of attempts at settlement the Resident got the Agbassahs to agree before the court that should they win they would not disturb the leases but merely claim the rents from Government instead of Chief Dore. Can so many irregularities surround a straight and honest transaction? The Colonial Secretary, Southern Provinces, discussed the case while it was on appeal to the Privy Council with a visiting office of the Colonial Office, Mr. Burke. Fears and anxieties were expressed to the visitor who expressed the hope that a favourable verdict would be recorded. The administration incontestably wanted Chief Dore to win. So indeed the Privy Council made a “finding a fact” that the Olu of the Jekri was overlord of the lands in dispute. But Mr. Fitzgerald administrative officer commenting on the verdict to the then Secretary Southern Provinces in 1935 wrote that “it is evident from what was written while the appeal to the Privy Council was pending that the decision of that august tribunal came as somewhat of a surprise to the Jekri and also the Government, their lessee.”
The theory of the overlordship of the Olu over all lands and his holding all Itsekiri lands in trust for the Itsekiris derived from a judgement given by Chief Dore himself in a matter between Olue and Edede, Dore’s first cousin one remove. As has already been stated Dore styled himself king against objections and without having any formal recognition or appointment as Olu Representative. In February 1924 Lt. Governor Moorehouse had declared that as far as Government was concerned Dore was the Olu. Dore’s judgement arose from the Resident’s instruction that Dore should intervene in the case and get it transferred to his own (Dore’s) court. Plaintiffs rejected Dore’s verdict. As a result the suit Dore V Olue was instituted. Justice A.F.C. Webber confirmed Dore’s judgement in a ‘consent’ settlement arranged by the Resident, Warri. Dore was feathering his own nest building his personal power, fostering current administration indirect rule concepts, and keeping Government fireproof over the Agbassah leases. When it became publicly known in 1924 that the Agbassahs had sued Chief Dore for what was commonly known and discussed on the quiet as Chief’s Dore’s fraud supported by Government, the Agbassah action caused so great a sensation that law and order was threatened. Markets were closed. The Police went on the rampage. Effurun men who offered themselves as witnesses to the Agbassahs were rounded up and charged before the District Commissioner’s court where they were sentenced for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. At the opening of the Agbassah claim for rents in 1925 Dore’s judgement repeated in the terms of settlement in Denedo V Dore Numa was put in by the court as Exhibit 1 although the Agbassahs had not been a party to the suit Denedo V Dore Numa.
A Persian saying has it that:
“A poor man waited a thousand years before the gate of paradise. And, while he snatched a little sleep, it opened and shut.”
The Courts believed the evidence of Chief Agbamu of Effurun who corroborated Chief Dore’s evidence that the Agbassahs rendered service to the Olu and paid tribute; that the Effurun people had boundary with the Itsekiri not with Agbassah whom he claimed to be on Itsekiri land. But the Courts failed to believe the evidence of Mr. Ikpesa of Effurun whose evidence gave the lie to Chief Agbamu’s evidence. Who was Agbamu who gave evidence under a fake name Agabase? A warrant Chief made by Paramount Chief Dore Numa, and whose daughter was married to an Itsekiri man. Also the court believed the evidence of Ikpuri, an Agbassah man as corroborating the evidence of both Chief Dore and Chief Agbamu although under cross examination Ikpuri admitted that among his own people of Agbassah he had been a persona non grata, an ostracized person. Are the facts far to see? The colonial government had acted. Successful challenge to this action would be a blow to the incipient colonial effort and must be thwarted so, by contesting it the Agbassahs were simply knocking their heads against brick walls. The action was wrong in timing. The gate of paradise was thus not intended to open to the Agbassahs. Let us recall that the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was proclaimed only in 1900. In an age when the British Government was scrambling for empire in Africa and implementing the doctrine of effective occupation as stipulated by the Berlin Act of 1885, justice was not their first pre-occupation. Indeed, attempts by local people to stand on their rights were not infrequently settled in the burning down of villages. Thus, what happened to such stalwarts as King Jaja of Opobo, Chief Nana of Ebrohimi, Oba Ovarame of Benin as individuals happened to the Agbassahs as a community. The price of resistance was subjugation and deprivation. So shocking was the capture of the Oba that the Urhobos sang:
Shall I run, Shall I walk,
Will I yet catch up with the Oba?
Shall I run, or shall I walk?
The tale is all abroad that the
Whiteman’s taken captive
Even the Oba of Benin;
And they are deporting him.
Shall I run, shall I walk?
Can I catch a glimpse, O! What a tale!
So outrageous was the deprivation of the Agbassahs that forty years after the judgement, the verdict remains unacceptable and continues to mar Urhobo/Itsekiri relations. 6. Cockeyed justice of this type is not without its parallels in African colonial history. Algeria owed money to France which she could not pay immediately. For this reason, France took over Algeria to become its colony. Conversely, France owed Tunisia money which she could not pay immediately. France alleged that Tunisia demanded the money rudely. So she took over Tunisia to become her colony. It was France that took the actions and judged the issue and France was right. Thus for many years, Algeria and Tunisia were lawful French colonies. But not so today. The matter was not res judicata.
7. In the 19th century, Britain vehemently opposed the building of the Suez Canal for reasons of empire. France built it for Egypt. Britain outmanouvered first, Egypt then France in the Condominium and became lawfully the owner of the Suez Canal. In 1956, Nasser struck and shook the world, and the Suez Canal fell from its clever owners back to its true owners. The matter had not been res judicata.
8. Namibia, Angola, Rhodesia. These cannot be res judicata as Mozambique has not. Nigeria was British as the Congo (which is now Zaire) was Belgian, as Sekou Toure’s Guinea was French. Even Lagos was ceded to the British Crown forever! None of these matters was res judicata. How can an act of colonialism be res judicata? Britain stole Agbassah lands and gave their action the cloak of law, and this is res judicata? “Britons never, never shall be slaves” Who shall be? Those whom Britons by their acts left behind to be an enclave of slaves in a Nigeria restored from slavery? All other lands leased by Dore have since Dore’s death been recovered by their proper owners. The Agbassah misfortune was that they dared to resist Dore at a time when the British administration would not, like a butcher, be deterred by the buzzing of flies. Nobody, Itsekiris and Urhobos alike, won even a single lawsuit against Chief Dore in his life time.
9. Gentlemen of the Jury, can there be res judicata where the rights and liberties of a people have been traversed? Are such peoples because of the abuse of the process of law in support of colonial Policy to continue to suffer the loss of their rights and liberties till the end of time?
10. Nigeria inherited this iniquity and yet probably is only vaguely aware of its existence. More directly, the Western Region inherited it, made further politics of it and bequeathed it to the Midwestern Government. What is the attitude of the Midwest State Government to this issue? Res judicata? The Midwest state Government is alive to the fact that the matter is no more a res judicata than the Palestinian problem is. Since 1969, the Midwest State Government has made some indeterminate efforts to resolve it. The most notable of such efforts was the appointment of an investigating Commission in 1969, headed by a High Court judge, Mr. Justice Rhodes-Vivor. Government, however, has made no pronouncement to date on the Rhodes-Vivor Report. The Report itself, has not been published by Government. So the Agbassahs continue to be deprived under the reversal of natural order that goes by the name of the overlordship of the Olu of Warri. Hence Warri continues to stand on its head. Until it stands again on its legs, stress, strain and dementia reign supreme: successive Government functionaries spend their time knowingly developing and putting out fires rather than constructing and developing the environment. Such is Heart Break House. During the civilian regime, the civil service on orders stemming from the ever advertised overlordship of an Olu, constitutionally deprived the Agbassah, the Okere and the Ijaw people of Warri Division of the right to stand parliamentary election. They could only vote. Yet is not freedom by our Constitution a right that cannot be alienated? So, if the Itsekiris as has been their tradition from Portuguese times, can again cloy the appropriate functionaries with warmth of blossom and the solace of hips the Agbassah could even lose their partial enfranchisement in this Our Sovereign Motherland when a new constitution comes to be drawn up. The Government of the Midwest and the Federal Military Government will snap their fingers at this and swear NOT in our time: So be it.
11. It is now left to enquire the attitude of the Itsekiris upon whom fortuitous treasure has been bestowed and at least 50% of whose mothers are Urhobos. Do they think that because they have no enviable land of their own they should continue to pretend to own and enjoy theft by the Colonial Government? Perhaps, some are born thieves. Some achieve thieving. Some have thieving bequeathed to them. Let the Itsekiri leadership renounce thieving thrust upon them. In the Ometa versus Dore Numa case, title was not bestowed upon the Olu. Will the Itsekiris in good faith put the issue to the test? Indeed, they filed a claim of title in 1958 and unfortunately withdrew it in 1964 after several adjustments. They can make atonement in dignity. Or, will they wryly cry, res judicata? Or, will they prefer to hope piously that the victims of deprivation will forget as time goes on and then declare “We and the Agbassah people will be friends?” There has been no such forgetting since 1934. Relationships have progressively assumed greater acrimony. It is clear that no matter how long the years of superimposed dominion, friendship can never develop between the impostor and the victim because in their nature, liberty and subjection are antithetical. The British learned this in India where they were for some three hundred years. Here in “A Passage To India”, E. M. Forester lets England and India speak through two honest would-be friends. Aziz shouted:
‘India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one! Hurrah?! Hurrah for India! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
“India a nation! What an apotheosis! Last comer to the drab nineteenth-century sisterhood! waddling in at this hour of the world to take her seat! She, whose only peer was the holy Roman Empire she shall rank with Guatermala and Belgium perhaps!” Fielding mocked again. And Aziz in an awful rage danced this way and that not knowing what to do and cried: Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out you fellows double quick I say. We may hate one another but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it is fifty five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then!”, he rode against him furiously “and then”, he concluded half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends!”
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other holding him affectionately. It’s what I want. It’s what you want”
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’
12. The question now is WHERE and WHEN? Since the Agbassahs started the struggle in
1917 it is sixty years. Since they filed a claim for title in 1926, it is fifty years. Since its notable finding of “facts” in 1934, the Privy Council has let loose the angel of discord upon the streets
and homes of Warri. It is forty years. Will it always be so? As successive administrative officers come and go, they call for cooperation among the two peoples. But there is no cooperation. Is there not in this more than meets the eye?
13. Before the Colonial Government left us, it had stayed long enough to cover the falsity of the Itsekiri situation by such acts and procedures that bestowed a legal as well as administrative tradition of ascendancy upon the Itsekiri position. (All Itsekiri was patronised rather than the chiefs and people of Warri) This and the fear of creating precedents have tended to inhibit successive governments from facing up to the problem. Significantly, the rents from the leases never went at any time to the chiefs and people of Warri who are still to be identified. When the Action Group Government of the Western Region surrendered the leases, it was not to the Chiefs and people of Warri but to all Itsekiri by instrument of the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust. This factor has exacerbated the Agbassah/Okere/Ijaw and Itsekiri feud
14. This is because in their homelands in the creeks of the Niger Delta, the Itsekiri are to be found in depressing, uneventful hamlets which are today as backward and economically damning as they had been propitious when these same creeks brought the Itsekiri into first contact with Europeans traders and made them rich as middlemen. Therefore, virtually every Itsekiri of any worth is to be found anywhere except where he belongs, a fugitive from a dim, amphibious life. As Warri offers a pretext they have swarmed the place as their motherland, essaying to colonise the Agbassah and the Okere who are Urhobos and the neighbouring Itsekiris alike. For them it is a struggle to get a foothold in God’s own earth on terra firma where you can hold a walking stick and do not have to swim, where you can ride a car in this year of our Lord, 1975, not a canoe. They scramble for preferment. They are chairman of this land and chairman of that. Six of the present incumbents of the seven Action Group recognised chieftaincies for Warri are not “people of Warri”. The seventh only is from the environs of Warri
15. Now the story is told. Where and when will peace find us? Is there any hope for the unfortunate Agbassah people? The Ofili Commission Report and the Rhodes-Vivor Peace Committee Report (both enquiries were set up by the Midwest State Government) are pointers in recent times to the permanent solution of the elusive quest for peace, peace in heart break house that is Warri. If the Government of the Midwest State will act these, Reports point to WHERE and WHEN . And it is obvious that it is well worth Government’s while to settle the problem now, because among other reasons is the fact that the feuds are bound to grow sharper, more complex and more distracting to Government and every body alike in the next five years..