This Moment in Urhobo History

Urhobo Historical Society

An Address at a Grand Reception Held in His Honour by the Urhobo Community in Lagos
Tafawa Balewa Square, Saturday, January 22 2005

Governor of Delta State, Nigeria

Today marks one of the brightest moments in Urhobo history. It is a day to celebrate the solidarity of the Urhobo people and their fraternity with their host community. The event also symbolizes the resurgence of the spirit of nationalism that has sustained Urhobo identity in Nigeria in the past seven decades. It is appropriate, therefore, to give thanks to Almighty God for all He has done for us, the Urhobo nation and Delta State.

The magnificent galaxy of dignitaries present today is a measure of the goodwill which the Urhobo enjoy in their immediate host community of Lagos State and in the larger Nigerian society. I am humbled by gesture of this reception and I would like to express my gratitude for being considered worthy of this honour. I heartily welcome our Chief Host, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the Governor of Lagos State, for his generous heart and friendship. I extend my felicitation to all the other Governors, national figures, fellow Deltans and friends of Delta State who are gathered here to share the day with us.

I am aware that those who initiated the programme of this reception faced considerable political risk in doing so. At the time the idea was first mooted, the legal storms of my so-called ex-convict saga were still raging in the Abuja High Court. On November 8 last year the tempest brought joyful tidings with my unconditional acquittal by the jury of the Abuja High Court. I would like to salute the organizers of this programme for their stubborn optimism in the face of doubt and uncertainty. Delta State and I are eternally grateful to all those who stood by us throughout the period. Above all, I give thanks to God Almighty for seeing us safely through the gale of that tribulation.

Before embarking on the campaign in 2003 for a second term as Governor of Delta State, I came here to Lagos to give account of my stewardship and to solicit for your support. Thanks to your prayers and contributions to the campaign, I was returned to a second tenure. This occasion offers me an opportunity to pay homage to all Deltans and their friends for ensuring our success at the polls.

It is significant that this reception is taking place in Lagos, the city where Urhobo men and women of enterprise have enjoyed abundant prosperity and peace for decades. With the possible exception of the former Gold Coast (now Ghana), Lagos was the ultimate western destination of migrants from Urhobo and the Niger Delta. For over 100 years, Urhobo frontier men and women have struck good fortune in Yoruba lands. The rural migrants engaged in the oil palm industry are ubiquitious in the Ikale area of the Okitipupa Division of the old Ondo Province. The urban-based Urhobo migrants found Lagos and its environs an enabling environment to ply their various trades and skills.

Today, Lagos has the largest concentration of Urhobo people outside of Delta State. The accomplishments of the Urhobo in Lagos are best expressed in the epic stature of the Ibru family. In the 1970s, the Ibru Organisation which was started and nurtured in Lagos was Africa’s most gigantic indigenous business consortium. The richest and most prominent Urhobo entrepreneurs and professionals are also based here in Lagos. A significant proportion of musicians and entertainment exponents practising in Lagos are from Delta State. Lagos also provides a conducive environment for Delta talents in football and sports to achieve stardom. The Urhobo in Lagos own the biggest hotels and hospitality and also the most influential national newspapers. I, too, was initiated into investment in Lagos. In this respect, this reception is like a home-coming for me.

Lagos is not just Africa’s most populous city. Lagos is the economic heartbeat of Nigeria and the first industrial centre in sub-Sahara Africa. Lagos is to Nigeria what New York or California is to the United States of America. Lagos is the Nigerian equivalent to London in the United Kingdom, Frankfort in Germany or Shangai in China. Some experts are of the view that the volume of economic activity in Lagos is larger than that of the rest of West Africa put together. Permit me, therefore, to welcome you to our Lagos, our home-coming.

Although this is not a political gathering, I would like to make a few remarks that are pertinent to the love and daring spirit that have fired Urhobo nationalism since the 1940s. My first reference is an invocation of that immortal statement of the Late Chief Mukoro Mowoe (Oghenemohwo) of blessed memory, the President-General of the Urhobo Progress Union (U.P.U.) from 1937 – 1948. Chief Mowoe presided over the affairs of the Urhobo at a critical juncture of the anti-colonial mobilization in Nigeria. His generation of Urhobo leadership was unequivocally committed to the emancipation of the Urhobo in particular and the Niger Delta region and Nigeria in general. That epoch called for men and women whose humanity was defined not by material possessions but by how much sacrifice they made to advance the frontier of their nation’s civilization and progress. It was in the context of this quest for selfless devotion that Chief Mowoe made this following statement:

My belief is that every being born into the
world has a duty to perform to his people …
any one of you who should fail to play his or
her part for the upliftment of our people, it
were better that she or he had not been born at all.

Chief Mowoe addressed his message to those of his time who displayed a lukewarm attitude to the urgent tasks of freeing the society from the shackles of oppression and domination by foreign, colonial forces. Like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Mowoe and his fellow nationalists mobilised an otherwise docile population and thus created the foundation for the freedom and accomplishments that we now claim as common heritage.

My second illustration of Urhobo nationalism is embodied in the stirring words of the Urhobo anthem which we listened to earlier today. The anthem was composed about sixty years ago when the fire of the fight for freedom burned in every heart. The relevant section is as translated below:

Hail Urhobo, land of freedom
Hail Urhobo, land of equity
My love for Urhobo land suppasses
that for any other
In my next coming to the world
I will be born as an Urhobo

These few lines convey the affirmation of patriotism, self worth and dignity that every Urhobo person is known for. Freedom, equity and democracy are dear to the Urhobo. They believe that their land is well endowed for these humanistic ideals to flourish. So much so that they proclaim their determination to reincarnate as Urhobo.

The patriotic sentiments expressed in the charge by Mowoe and the Urhobo anthem constitute a benchmark for assessing the contribution of those of us who inherited the gains of that era. In whatever we do, we should ask the question: “Am I living up to the lofty ideals of selflessness enunciated by the generation of Mowoe and his successors?” On each occasion that we hear the anthem intoned, we should search our conscience to ascertain whether we are qualified to make the vow to be born again as Urhobo.

The high tide of Urhobo nationalism recorded several heroic achievements. The Urhobo were among the first people in West Africa to stage a successful revolt against oppressive taxation by the British colonial authourities. I am referring to the 1927 anti-tax rebellion that erupted like a tornado throughout the former Warri Province. It was the Urhobo who provided the brave leadership that mobilised the Isoko, Ukwuani, Itsekiri and Ijaw of the Province to achieve that feat. The rebellion compelled the British to introduce more liberal reforms in their Indirect Rule Programme. The anti-tax uprising incubated in the City of Warri later spread to the east of the River Niger and became known as the Aba Women’s Revolt of 1929.

Recall too that the Midwest State Movement started in the 1940s when the likes of Mukoro Mowoe were members of the Western Regional Parliament. The Urhobo threw in everything they had into the campaign for Midwest autonomy from the Western Region. The referendum for the creation of the Midwestern Region was held in July 1963. According to records kept by the Late Chief T.E.A. Salubi who was U.P.U. President-General from 1961-1982, the Urhobo divisions of the Delta Province recorded 100% “Yes” vote in favour of the new State. It was in partial acknowledgement of this spectacular performance that Chief Samuel Jereton Mariere, an Urhobo, was made the first Governor of the Midwestern Region.

During the popular uprising against military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, the Urhobo stood out to be counted. They were pre-eminent in the politics of the Social Democratic Party for its more robust pro-democracy credentials. That was why Olorogun Felix Ibru, the first elected Governor of Delta State (1992-93) won on the platform of that party. In spite of the obvious dangers, the Urhobo remained steadfast allies of the Yoruba in the titanic struggle to restore M.K.O. Abiola’s June 12, 1993, election mandate that was annulled by the General Babangida military regime.

From the above democracy-driven initiatives of the Urhobo, it is clear that they are a people who always fight on the side of progress and equality. Because of their egalitarian world view, the Urhobo are intolerant of any system that tends to diminish their sense of self worth and human dignity.

In the light of these attributes, it is understandable why the Urhobo constitute a strategic power base in the western Niger Delta. Urhobo territory is a treasureland of oil and gas. The territory hosts some of the most gigantic petroleum infrastructure in the country. Above all, the land is peaceful and hospitable to local and foreign investors. Therefore, anyone who seeks to govern this area of Nigeria without the support of the Urhobo will end up in political fiasco. The Urhobo position of economic and political pre-eminence in Delta State is guaranteed by their large population and resource endowments. With over Two million people, the Urhobo qualify to have a state of their own, albeit an independent country.

Nigeria is currently at the crossroads. Although, a democratic system was restored in 1999, many serious obstacles still lie ahead. The clamour for an equitable federation has attained new resonance. Being a minority nation in the Niger Delta, the Urhobo are victims of the rapacious exploitation of the region’s oil wealth. The struggle for resource ownership and control is yet to be won. Because of the long years of the diversion of Niger Delta resources to develop other parts of Nigeria, the Urhobo and other nations of Delta State are suffering from the menace of poverty, unemployment and social unrests.

A national conference on political reforms will soon be convoked to address some of these burning issues. I call on the Urhobo at home and the Diaspora to take advantage of the dialogue to articulate their demands. The core demands are increased autonomy for the federating units, resource ownership and control, local control of police and security, and equitable representation at the national level. These matters are so fundamental to Urhobo sovereignty and survival that we cannot be indifferent. Having done well in the face of adversity, the Urhobo cannot afford to abdicate the responsibility of shaping their destiny to other people, no matter how well-intentioned. The Urhobo have a duty to present their very best at all platforms of the impending dialogue.

Inspite of their enormous contribution to Nigeria’s development, the Urhobo have not been accorded their due in national affairs. To move away from political obscurity and marginalization, the Urhobo must now step boldly into the open arena of national politics. If our resources sustain the national economy, we can also provide national leadership to drive the country’s development. The time has come for the Urhobo to stake their fortunes in this regard.

Let me conclude by extending an open invitation to Deltans and their friends to invest in our State. Since 1991, the government of the Peoples Democratic Party has taken strides to improve the environment for profitable investment and peace. The limited monetary gains made from the resource control agitation have been put to prudent use. In five years, the government has constructed 1,500 kilometers of roads and 600 kilometers of urban and rural drains. A 40-kilometer-long dual carriage road is in progress in the twin cities of Warri and Effurun. Delta State now boasts of the best network of state-owned highways in Southern Nigeria. By March this year, the government would have spent N12 Billion to complete four major bridges to connect the oil-rich riverine areas to the main land.

We have made progress in the provision of other dividends of democracy. Over 300 communities have benefited from electricity scheme in five years. Our renovated hospitals rank among the best in the country. More than half the number of government schools have been rehabilitated. Four new polytechnics were established to boost technical education. University staff in Delta State earn the highest pay in the country. The wages and emoluments of our civil servants are at par with those of their counterparts at the Federal level.

More significantly, peace and tranquility have been restored to areas hitherto impacted by conflicts and wars, especially in the Warri Federal Constituency. With this farewell to arms, the entire State now has the enabling environment for business and social transactions to thrive. This is the time for investors to make Delta State their preferred destination. I look forward to seeing a Sheraton or Federal Palace Hotel built by the Ibrus in Delta State. I yearn to declare open a monumental complex such as the Ceddi Towers that the Dafinone Group put up in Abuja.

I urge you all to hearken to the summons of a new Delta State on the march again.

Let the drums of the Urhobo renaissance sound forth. Let us seize the tide and make the shore because this is our moment in history.



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