|Urhobo Historical Society|
Culled from: THE GUARDIAN
Friday, February 29, 2008
The Urhobo Nation: Current Challenges and the Way Forward
By Olorogun Felix Ibru
President-General, Urhobo Progress Union
Being an address at a reception of the UPU’s National Executive Council organised by the Urhobo community in Lagos on Saturday, February 23, 2008.
Present State Of Urhobo Nation
DISTINGUISHED ladies and gentlemen, let me state right away that the Urhobo nation today currently faces many severe challenges on a number of fronts. I shall however limit myself to three broad fronts-political, economic and cultural.
Although I limit myself to these three fronts, there is the huge challenge of environmental degradation which Urhobo land shares with the rest of the Niger Delta. As we speak, there are regular oil spillages, dumping of industrial toxic wastes, gas flares, and explosions of aged oil pipelines such as the Jesse inferno of September 1998, which consumed over 1000 innocent souls. The long-term effects of these pollutants on all forms of life in the Niger Delta region is now a cause of much global alarm and social agitation.
Located in the oil and gas belt as we are, the Urhobo nation is also victimised by a host of obnoxious laws and constitutional provisions, which exclude the communities from any proprietory rights over the oil and gas resources. On current practice, at the end of the day when these wasting assets are exhausted, we shall be left with the negative legacy of a ruined environment, unless we take remedial action now and inaugurate alternative economies. I shall not go into a further elaboration of the environmental question on the ground that the Niger Delta is now very much on the national agenda.
Upon deep reflection, the political, economic and cultural challenges which I have elected to discuss, seem to me to be quite grave as well. In fact, I consider them to be crisis points, which today face the Urhobo nation. For ease of presentation, I shall discuss them one by one.
Political challenges: On the basis of what is on the ground, the Urhobo nation is experiencing a political crisis. There is considerable apprehension that the manipulation of the political process by a significant faction of the professional political class has had the effect of sidelining and marginalising the Urhobo voice in the politics of Delta State and, perhaps, beyond.
In particular, the large-scale disenfranchisement of voters in Urhobo land during the April 14 state elections, has caused considerable anxiety among various social layers of Urhobo society today. The spontaneous massive protest demonstrations of Urhobo women for three days in Urhobo cities with chants of “We no vote, how you take win?” captures the anger and anxiety in the society. The spontaneity and range of the ewheya demonstrations against voter disenfranchisement, is also of a scale hitherto unknown in these parts in modern Nigeria. Although, as it turned out, the deliberate disenfranchisement of voters was nation-wide, in no other part of the country did women groups, the conscience of the mass, come out in such vast numbers to vocalise their protests on the streets. A distressing fact in this political marginalisation process, is the significant role played by top Urhobo political entrepreneurs for selfish myopic gain.
The Urhobo Progress Union is 76 years old, having been established in 1931, first as Urhobo Brotherly Society. Indeed, it is the oldest surviving self-improvement union founded by Nigerian peoples in Nigeria’s history.
On the African continent, the UPU is second only to the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa in terms of antiquity and continuity. This, my dear brothers and sisters, is a history that we should legitimately be proud of. It is a solid heritage that we must protect and hand over to coming generations.
The far-sighted founders of the UPU realised that in the light of the multi-clan political structure of Urhobo Society, our people needed an umbrella organisation where they can all feel at home; and where a coordinated discussion of their overall interests in the evolving Nigerian state and society created by the coloniser can be undertaken.
The UPU is the Urhobo House. The attempt to sabotage this House by rude upstart organisations on the ground of some spurious claim to political practice expertise is, in reality, an assault on the unity of the Urhobo nation. It is an open invitation to the loss of self-focus and structural balkanisation into clan autonomies. It is a myopic venture that will further diminish the Urhobo voice in the scheme of things in the state, the Niger Delta zone, and the Nigerian nation.
There are other specific challenges in the political arena that we need to create awareness of and galvanise efforts to realise or solve them.
State Creation — Urhobo State
We support the call for creation of more states in Nigeria especially in states where justice has not been done. Such state creation should definitely include an Urhobo state. As the fifth largest ethnic nation in Nigeria, the proposed Urhobo State is more populous than at least 8 (eight) existing states in Nigeria. An Urhobo State, will also be demographically bigger than over 75 countries in the United Nations System. Examples of such sovereign states are Gabon, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra-Leone, Gambia, Sao-Tome and Principe, Niger, Comorros, Seychelles and all Caribbean countries (except Cuba and Jamaica) East Timor, Papua New Guinea.
An Urhobo State would also be economically viable because of its resource potentials, contiguous territory which traverses land and coastal areas, as well as cultural homogeneity. Urhobo land has 12 oil and gas fields with over 400 oil wells. As of now, it has over 15 per cent of the Natural Gas reserves. It has the largest Gas Plant, Utorogu Gas Plant, in Africa South of the Sahara at Otu-Jeremi.
It has two gas-fired electricity plants at Ughelli and Sapele. It has other mineral resources such as Sand, Silica, Kaolin, Clay, Byrite and forest resources such as Timber, Oil palm and Raffia Palm.
Urhobo nation has 8 rivers with access to the Atlantic Ocean; two seaports at Warri and Sapele; 30 sites for river ports; one airport at Osubi for local and international flights.
In Urhobo land, we have one refinery, one Petrochemical plant, Nigerian Gas Company, one steel plant, Salt Refining Company and some industrial clusters. It has about 15 urban centers, 60 bank branches, three universities, three polytechnics and two Colleges of Education. It also has 1000 Government Primary Schools, 250 Government Secondary Schools and well over 2000 Churches, Mosques and Temples.
Bridge Building: Another aspect of the political challenge which shows up in the current perceptions of Urhobo political affairs is the imperative of bridge building and peaceful coexistence with our neighbours. As far as I am concerned, reaching out to neighbours and indeed, to all other groups in the Nigerian family is wise counsel. I go further to venture the observation that such bridge building is second nature to Urhobo who are also famously known for their ukale migrant proclivities all over Nigeria. They are also known to maintain non-intrusive cordiality with their hosts just as Urhobo land itself continues to accommodate and play host to the most global citizenry in the country today.
Modern Urhobo folklore is rich in the many benefits that have accrued from cultivating good relationships with their host communities in different parts of the country. For example, my own father was conferred with the prestigious title of Aare of Shomolu by His Royal Majesty, the Oba of Lagos. After my father moved on, the Aare title was given to our senior brother, Olorogun Michael. It is on record that a number of Urhobo civil servants rose to the top of their careers in the Lagos State public service, on the basis of their meritorious service. In the same way, Urhobo traditional rulers have frequently conferred chieftaincy titles on other Nigerians and expatriates who have lived peacefully with them and left their mark on the host community. Inter-marriages with neighbours and hosts have been a long-standing integrative practice of the Urhobo. Indeed, the cultivation of dense affinal relationships with neighbours has enabled Urhobo communities to receive and protect in-laws who were displaced from their homes during the unfortunate communal violence which Delta State experienced in 1999.
Therefore, it is clear that UPU cannot pursue an isolationist policy for the Urhobo nation. Our value system predisposes us to live in peace with our neighbours, but on the basis of mutual respect and justice.
Urhobo Voice and the Niger Delta Question
We must admit that although we are located in the Niger Delta, the Urhobo voice has been relatively weak in the articulation of proposals to address the historical neglect and exploitation of the zone. This relative aloofness of the Urhobo voice on this question has caused us some embarrassment. We certainly cannot isolate ourselves from our zonal reality. An apex organisation like the UPU shall henceforth make its regular inputs in the discussions of how to develop the Niger Delta.
As important stakeholders in the Niger Delta, we should be aware that the Niger Delta question like state creation will loom large in any National Constitutional Review Exercise. At various fora, the Niger Delta people have proposed macro structural political reforms that will drastically reduce current marginalisation of the zone in the Nation’s political economy. The reform has come to be popularly known as true federalism. The call for true federalism has two aspects. First, it is a call to move away from the over-centralised unitarist character of the present system to a truly federalist structure where the federating units and central government are recognised as mutually coordinate and subordinate one to the other.
The other critical aspect of true federalism is fiscal federalism which is the principle of ownership and control of resources by the federating units. This was the Revenue Allocation principle of the foundational constitutions of Independent and Republican Nigeria.
We must work in concert with our Niger Delta zone and other Nigerians to canvass the de-concentration of powers and resources from an almighty center. True federalism is one sure way of preventing presidential elections from being a do-or-die affair threatening the existence of the Nigerian State quadrennailly. In truth, the Niger Delta is an important dimension of the political challenge that we face.
Economic challenge: Although the political threat is the immediate trigger of the sense of crisis, which challenges Urhobo people, there also exists a serious economic challenge. This is the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment. Of course, this is not unique to Urhobo land. Poverty and underdevelopment have become defining attributes of the Niger Delta zone, just as with most of the country.
In its local manifestation, especially since 1986 when the Nigerian state official1y contracted out of direct involvement with the economy by the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), there has been a steady rise in the unemployment and under-employment of both educated and unskilled youth. The Niger Delta Human Development Report published in 2006 makes very depressing reading. Poverty levels are high and are worsening. Traditional livelihoods and occupations are being dislocated and disoriented by the environmental and social impacts of the oil and gas industry. In the absence of systematic figures on the volume of unemployment, our direct experience of the situation among Urhobo youth in the homeland is totally unacceptable.
Year in year out, too many Urhobo youth graduate into unemployment. The closure of state industries and the emigration of private business concerns from the state for exaggerated reasons of insecurity, continues to shrink the possibilities of useful employment and career development of trained youth. Who would have anticipated Okada riding and sale of cell phone recharge cards as occupations for graduates of tertiary institutions?
Below these educational levels, are also ‘armies’ of male youth consisting of school drop-out and non-literate youth who daily drown their idleness in alcohol and the smoking of Indian hemp. Some of these delinquents indulge in all kinds of extortionist deviant behaviour. Such elements become prone to recruitment for violent assignments by gun-supplying politicians and criminal gangs. Slowly but surely, protracted involvement in this deviance condition builds up a mindset in such that is thoroughly antithetical core values of work, honesty and self-respect normally associated with Urhobo cultural values. For example, who would have foreseen a time when Urhobo youth would openly beg for money with flattering chants of ‘ose!, ‘able daddy! and the like. In our youthful days such public display of deviance was unheard of. Even those who were physically challenged, did not resort to begging. The family social security network was intact and met the welfare responsibilities of such individuals. The behaviour reversal implied in public begging by able bodied persons, represents a telling assault on the self-pride of the Urhobo.
Cultural challenges: I move now to the third major crisis front which is also a source of disability to the imperative of continuous identity renewal even within the context of social change. Here again, the question of cultural change is a subject of much lamentation by older generations of Nigerians across the land. In particular, the lamentations focus on value decay.
Regular media reports and live experiences of brutal armed robberies, assassinations, rape, large scale treasury looting, political banditry, and hypocrisy signify to older Nigerians that the humanistic ethic and fellow feeling which were core attributes of our traditional cultures are today in great disrepair. The traditional community and religious sanctions, which guided behaviour have suffered decline, despite the great appearance of piety and spiritually represented in the unprecedented multiplication of religious affiliation.
Once again, despite the pan-Nigerian cultural crisis, its manifestations take on the peculiarities of particular culture areas. Here are two instances critical to the Urhobo cultural front today.
In this regard, a major weakness in the Urhobo cultural domain today is the decline in the spoken language. This observation has become a common place in a wide variety of Urhobo gathering. Western educated and urban Urhobo households are the most afflicted by the decline of the spoken language. If this process is not arrested, it would mean that the cultural processes of formal schooling and urbanisation will eventually complete the estrangement of Urhobo from the use of their language. History and reason tell us that a language with no speakers, is for practical purposes a dead language.
In our own case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the written literature in Urhobo language is also quite meagre. If the population of speakers continue to decline and there is no growth in the literary output in the language, there is no fall back position for the revival of the language at some future date. Rural Urhobo where the language is alive is experiencing economic enfeeblement. It is by and large a zone of increasing poverty, given the neglect, which rural economies have endured since oil and gas became the touchstones of national economies concerns. Therefore, as it were, what does it profit a man or woman who is fluent in Urhobo?
Yet there are intrinsic value of identity, aesthetics and the like for which a language acts as a library, beyond mere access to material resources. A people’s language sums up their experiences of several generations. It is also a vehicle for projecting their cultural wisdom especially in a federally structured political matrix such as ours. In a competitive polity, where the national question is mis-posed and answered at the expense of demographic minorities, the fate of indigenous languages is squarely in the hands of the native speakers themselves. Fortunately something can and must be done by us.
Education: The value of education for national development has regained its primacy among the variables accounting for a peoples’ collective empowerment. The plenitude of natural resources is not enough. Knowledge remains a vital driving force. Thus, while our own recent elections were driven by a banal, but violent “do-or-die’ slogan, the campaign rhetoric of political parties in the advanced industrial nations place a special premium on further modernisation and revitalisation of their educational sector. In this connection, the UPU long ago distinguished itself by founding Urhobo College, Effurun, in order to facilitate access to secondary education. Today educational institutions have greatly increased in Urhobo land. But for all that, dialogues with primary and secondary school teachers in rural and urban Urhobo land point to the existence of several pockets of Urhobo children who are unable to realise their potential, for want of school learning materials and fees for secondary school leaving certificate examination. Yet the great minds of the future may also be among such children whose educational progress is retarded, not by their innate abilities, but by the poverty of their parents or guardians. You may recall that the former American President Bill Clinton wondered aloud in his address to our National Assembly during his visit to Nigeria, about how many potential geniuses were among the public who waved to him on his way from the airports to Abuja city. He was of course reminding our legislators of the crucial responsibility to provide adequately for the educational nurturance of Nigerian children. The Urhobo nation obviously has a lot to do on the educational sector if we are not to be left behind. We must also be up and doing if we are to help Nigeria meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing mass illiteracy by at least 50 per cent in 2020.
The Way Forward
Ladies and gentlemen, now that I have indicated some of the broad problem, let me now turn to what, by my lights, I consider to be a way forward. First, it should be observed that the political, economic and cultural challenges as I have sketched them, constitute present area of weakness for the Urhobo nation. That notwithstanding, the terrain is not bleak. The Urhobo nation also has a rich pool of strengths and opportunities to arrest the slide into weakness and counter potential threats to its future as an active player in the Nigerian space. Life itself can be read as a series of challenge that is the crucial determinant of growth and disintegration.
In this regard, the Urhobo Progress Union world-wide, has a crucial leadership role to play in mobilising the Urhobo nation to respond adequately to the challenges. In doing so, the UPU will have to place emphasis on the rehabilitation of the values of integrity and service among the elite, as well as come up with strategic interventions to develop the material and human resources of the homeland. Fortunately, there are several variables in the nation which are potential sources of strength in this project of revitalisation.
I briefly itemise some of them as follows:
- Urhobo nation enjoys a contiguous territorial space.
- The territory also traverses both upland and reverine ecologies/environments. It is therefore accessible by networks of land and river transportation. It has access to port.
- In addition to the rich reserves of oil and gas, there is an abundance of natural land and aquatic resources waiting to be developed and industrially harvested in sustainable ways. Indeed, to lean on popular religious parlance of the day, Urhobo land is “richly blessed.”
- Urhobo land is the most densely populated area of Delta State today. It has the largest indigenous population of any ethnic nationality in the state, just as it attracts the largest pool of cosmopolitan immigrants because of its location, industrial and commercial advantage. The population of Urhobo land today is the most globally representative in the state. Indeed, the potential political advantage which this demographic strength confers on the Urhobo has often provoked press propaganda attacks by elite of some other ethics group. Moreover, there is now a strong suspicion that the gross undercount of populations in densely populated local council areas, as well as the marked inefficiencies in voters registration in Urhobo land during the recent census and registration exercise may, in part be due to a programmed intentional assault on the Urhobo demographic reality.
- Beyond the potential conferment of some advantages in a democratic political process, the large size of the population constitutes a huge internal market if the economic resources of the entire state are harnessed and developed.
- In those days when the UPU planned the establishment of Urhobo College Effurun, the leadership had to undertake a nationwide search to get two young men who possessed the magical “London matric” required for undergraduate admission into universities in the United Kingdom. After a long search, they found Messrs. Ejaife and Igho who were then sponsored to Durham and Cambridge universities respectively. Upon completion of their studies they returned home to assume the posts of Principal and Vice-Principal of the young secondary school. In 2007, the educational profile of the Urhobo has changed dramatically. After Urhobo College, it can be said with empirical justification that the Urhobo embraced modern education with the enthusiastic appetite of a Hungry man. Urhobo sons and daughters can now be found in practically every conceivable profession. This dramatic educational feat is much remarked upon by other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta zone. Although, we are still far behind the Yoruba nation which had a long head startin modern education, the Urhobo today have a plurality of intellectual, professional and technical competencies to develop Urhobo land.
Having sketched the territorial and human capital strengths, I now turn quickly to the factor of attitudinal strength. There are two striking attitudes, which the typical Urhobo person exhibits.
- The so-called average Urhobo person resents being treated as a fool. To express it in the fashionable contemporary popular parlance of urban Delta State, an Urhobo “does not like being obtained.” This attitudinal trait is also corroborated by outside observers.
- Second, the Urhobo is a stickler for his or her rights. When pushed to the wall by an oppressor or the weight of perceived injustice, an Urhobo will insist on his or her rights and damn the consequences.
In truth, the tradition of open criticism of injustice is institutionalised in the culture. It is manifested in the high satirical art form of Opete normally deployed in song-fests of Udje and Ighovwan where the high and mighty can be thoroughly dressed down by name, with complete ritual immunity. In the competitive inter-ethnic milieu of contemporary Nigerian society, this standing up for one’s personal rights has often been misinterpreted by neighbours as aggressiveness.
The above consideration allows me to quickly list some inherent factors of weakness in Urhobo as well
- A strong sense of individualism which co-exists with the traditional communal social organisation of Urhobo societies. Dominant explanations of this trait usually trace it to the republicanism which characterized Urhobo politics for several generations. In the modern context, this individualism is seen as a drawback to the organisation of group defence or protection.
- A related effect of the above, often remarked upon in the autocritical discussions which occur in Urhobo fora, is the claim, that the nation is often reactive rather than proactive.
- The ethnological connections of different clans with non-Urhobo nation, have not normally been summoned in a systematic way, as a potential resource for building proactive alliance with other groups. Within Delta State, the quality of our relationship with the Isoko nation (whom I have always referred to as our senior cousins) is a telling example. Today, they are like us in not having any “natural allies” outside the state.
Now that we have surveyed the factors of strength and weakness which in my view, are aspects of the Urhobo nation, we can now focus more directly on the way forward. The UPU as the apex body of the nation has a special role to play in the coordination of our response to this challenge.
Here again, I must remind you that this address is not a speech from the throne. It is an invitation for a serious family debate among all of us. My purpose here is merely to stimulate this debate which has become so urgent.
Politics and Unity Challenge
A thesis that has been advanced in the ranks of government politicians and government functionaries in defence of their current political action is that it is they who have a monopoly of expertise concerning politics, and the ‘game of politics’ in Nigeria. As such, political decisions concerning the Urhobo should be left to them – those who know the game.” An ancillary thesis advanced in reinforcement of the above is that the UPU should limit its concerns to cultural matters. It is claimed that culture – defined in a depoliticised manner – is the only sphere in which the UPU has competence. All those who hold that restrictive notion of the role of the UPU are in grave error.
Ladies and gentlemen, we must acknowledge the steadfastness of Chief Benjamin Okumagba, the immediate past President-General, for upholding the holistic role definition of the UPU throughout the period of the crisis. For record purpose, the history of the UPU shows that the theory and practice of the founding fathers, even in colonial times, was predicated on a holistic understanding of its responsibilities as both geo-political and socio-cultural. They conceived the body as the apex and umbrella organisation for the advancement of the overall interests of all Urhobo.
That is why the UPU, right from its early days, worked ceaselessly to promote the consciousness of a common political identity of an Urhobo nationhood. They engaged in a sustained agitation against inclusion in historically baseless colonial administrative creations of Jekri-Sobo division.
In line with the popular rebellion of all Urhobo clans, the UPU fought for the creation of separate Native Administration structure for the Urhobo. They took up the political campaign to persuade the colonial government to recognise the coronation of Esezi II as Orodje of Okpe, after a long interregnum. To avoid the painful experience of the ‘Agbassah land case’ of 1925, the UPU made the Sapele land case of 1941-3 an all Urhobo national affair. The organisation’s innovative venture in the educational sphere was also designed to advance the competitive position of all Urhobo in the socio-political and economic dynamics of an emergent Nigerian State and society. Need we give more instances of such holistic interventions undertaken by the UPU in its early years?
But here is a major irony. Those who now claim a monopoly of political expertise and seek to decree the UPU as incompetent to involve itself with the overall political interests of the Urhobo nation, are themselves the same actors who craved and received the political blessing of our apex umbrella organisation a few years ago. Moreover, during the middle phase of the political processes which preceded the latest election primaries, these same actors ran to the UPU to solicit support of the parent body when they had strong apprehensions that they were losing control of their party machinery in the state. Of course, these same government politicians know the truth: which is that like Afenifere, Ohanaeze and the Arewa Consultative Forum, the Middle Belt Forum, the Ijaw National Congress, just to name a few, an apex organisation like the UPU cannot be politically aloof. It must of necessity be interested in the national political dynamics without being party partisan.
The generality of the Urhobo people know this to be true, and they have demonstrated this political understanding of UPU responsibility by their steadfastness with the organisation. This is the essential unity with the people, which UPU must continue to protect and preserve. The people know that the great trust which the UPU earlier placed in government politicians was betrayed and abused. The real crisis of unity therefore, is between such politicians and the people. However, it follows from above that the best way of touching base with the people politically at all times is for the UPU to be vigilant in holding government at all levels to transparent governance. Our organisation also has to learn to align its political and moral voices with social forces in the country that are active in the defence of democracy and Niger Delta advocacy. For it is only a democratic Nigeria that can protect the concrete interests of the popular classes of Urhobo and other Nigerians.
Economy and culture
Ladies and gentlemen, I hold that the political challenge is the most delicate of the three broad challenges I talked about. Large and significant as the economic and cultural challenges are, their resolutions are more a matter of the deployment of technique and resources.
Let me simply state therefore that the eradication of poverty and the promotion of cultural and language revivals in Urhobo land, is easily within the competence of Urhobo professionals today. The knowledge, techniques and organisational skills to undertake a massive agrarian revolution and general industrialisation of Urhobo land are available.
The financial resources and fund-raising network skills are also available. What is more, the interventions required to eradicate poverty and to refurbish the cultural front can have win-win outcomes for the people and the change agents.
Ladies and gentlemen, do you doubt that there are Urhobo professionals who can profitably invest in rural industrialisation and wipe out rural poverty within a decade? Do you doubt that Urhobo businessmen and women and cultural professionals now exist who can invest profitably in radio, television and other media and who can thereby effectively contribute an Urhobo dimension to the growing Nollywood market?
I doubt that you have such doubts. But where is the will? You may ask.
By Way of Conclusion
Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude this address by reiterating more pointedly the goals of the National Executive Council of the UPU. In my acceptance speech on December 7, 2007, I stated that our vision is to build a strong, united and confident Urhobo nation, that is accorded recognition and respect, as well as its rightful place as a key player in Nigeria. It is a comprehensive vision that commits the UPU to the safeguarding of the political, economic, welfare and cultural interests of the Urhobo nation in an atmosphere of fair play, justice and peaceful co-existence in a changing Nigeria.
In this regard, it is also in our own interest to work towards rapid development of Nigeria on all fronts.
We hereby commit ourselves to the following tasks among others.
a. To work towards achieving greater unity in the Urhobo family.
b. To avoid an isolationist policy and promote peaceful co-existence with fellow Nigerians.
c. To restore the dignity and pride of Urhobo Nation and people as active and essential players in Nigeria’s political economy.
d. Completion and effective usage of our Ultra-modern Cultural Centre initiated by the last administration at Uvwiamuge, Agbarho.
e. Set up a modern secretariat with Internet facilities and UPU website.
f. To tap the vast range of human resources now available to the Urhobo Nation locally and in the Diaspora through setting up of expert committees to strategise on critical issues to move the Urhobo Nation forward.
g. To strive to correct the unfair allocation of local councils and federal constituencies in Urhobo land.
h. To use the opportunity of a National Constitutional Review to canvass for an Urhobo State.
It is clear from the above that the National Executive Council cannot achieve these goals without the regular collaborative inputs from you. We, therefore, appeal to you for your kind support by way of criticisms, suggestions and financial support.