Urhobo History and Identity



The view is widely held among Urhobos that Urhobos were at some distant past among the people of Ife. They migrated to Benin about the 6th Century A.D. During the Ogiso Dynasty, they began the series of migrations from Benin and by 11th Century A.D. had peopled by and large, the area now known as Urhobo-land. That area spans 22 Clans named above. Agbarha and Okere have been as controversial as the domination chant itself being indeed the troubled soul of it, with Agbarha a lot more so than Okere, and for much longer.

The various groups of migrants or clans seemed to have little of national life. The clans remained independent of one another with little to link them except:

  • a common language
  • a common way of doing things deriving from belief and religion some of it lingering from togetherness in Ife and then Benin.
  • Things done included births, circumcision, burials, festivals built around some protective god; wars necessitating the development of medicinal or voodoo power known as African science by some and superstition and fetish by others; occupation and trade, marrying from outside the Village or Clan, in some cases fairly distant places in times when travel was by foot or canoe.
  • The acknowledgment of the power of the Oba of Benin through pilgrimage to the Oba to obtain legitimacy for kingship newly established, a practice which indeed further underlined the independence of the groups. This practice overlapped into the colonial era and was abolished only fairly recently in 1917.

We say overlapped because with the inception of colonialism an old era had closed and a new one had begun. Chief T. E .A. Salubi of blessed memory, characterized these eras as Akpor’ Oba the Oba’s era and Akpor’Oyibo, the Whiteman’s era. While Akporoba meant independence and separateness the object of Akporoyibo was quite contrary, namely, to annex territory by stringing erstwhile independent peoples together under the rule of a difficult-to-contemplate, far away, and invisible Britannic Majesty. Thus without the people knowing it, a spirit was on a tramp over the land, the Bible in his left hand, the sword in his right and his martial law as a means to commerce and European politics of balance of power swelling boldly on his chest. Urhobo land like other native nationalities were strung together first by so-called treaties of protection after which the same character who only a short while before was the hard slave master appeared as a no nonsense Koboko man to whip dissent into submission in a matter graphically styled by Professor Ikime as “powder and shot and condign punishment” including, I must add, arson and exile. The period of treaties covered from 1891 to 1896. Urhoboland having been enclosed in this manner had for the first time a collective experience in national politics although it was yet to appreciate this fully.

The dawn of self-recognition as a collective began not in 1891 when the Niger Coast Protectorate Government was proclaimed, nor in 1895 when Dore Numa an Itsekiri and George Eyube, an Urhobo were appointed Political Agents. But this and subsequent events were to lead to it. Dore was appointed for Sapele District covering Itsekiri Country and some 94 towns and villages of Urhoboland including Oghara, Sapele, and Amukpe. Also 16 Warrant Chiefs all of them Itsekiris headed by Ogbe of Ugbuwangue were appointed to the Warri Native Court for Itsekiri as well as “Okpe South of Adeje, Effurun, Udu, Ughievwen, Ughelli etc.” (Salubi) George Eyube was appointed for Warri District covering Warri Town and much the same area of the native courts headed by Ogbe. There is doubt whether it is proper to categorize George Eyube, as far as this appointment goes, as an Urhobo or an Itsekiri. His father Etsemudiare was an Agbarho from Ikweghwu who settled at Ugbogidi. His sister was Emule, married to Kpekpe, brother to Chief Dore Numa. Significantly, when George Eyube died in May 1901, he was not replaced by Urhobo man but by Egbe, an Itsekiri of Ugbuwangue. Be that as it may, doubts had began to clear in 1900 when effective British administration was introduced through native council rule. All the warrant chiefs appointed for Warri district and headed by Chief Ogbe of Ugbuwangue as noted above were Itsekiris. In Sapele District, also according to Salubi, six of the eleven Chiefs appointed about 1897 were Urhobos and by 1902 when 41 members had been appointed to the courts, only the six chiefs at Sapele were Urhobos, Dore himself was now head of all the Warrant Chiefs in his capacity as Chief Political Agent for Warri and Sapele Districts. He was resident at Odogene whence he came to work in Warri, his base, by canoe.

From now on into the 1940s Urhobo corporate identify emerges as a factor in acts of resentment and protest.

Justice cannot be fully done to this development if mention is not made of the image that Urhobos had already developed to their advantage when in 1914 there was a proposal to revive the defunct Itsekiri Oluship and place Urhobos under the Olu’s rule by Lord Lugard’s administrative policy for Nigeria using native rulers with wide coverage. This was the position in the north where Emirs were used. At this time Urhobos were split between Warri, Sapele and Kwale Districts.

Comments By British Colonial District Officers

The District Officers commented as follows:


The Sobos are inland people and have little to do with the Jekri, they were never subject to the Jekri who raided them at will, they do not trust the Jekri and have good cause for the mistrust. They are still terrorized by the Jekri as they imagine that the Jekri have the power of the Government behind them. The Sobos are a difficult race and cannot unite with the Jekri, they may live on fairly friendly terms but they cannot amalgamate, they are independent in every way.  They recognize no Chiefs but those of their own towns and are usually hostile or jealous of the Chiefs of a neighboring town. In those courts in the district in which a Jekri Chief frequently sits or used to sit frequently there have been many complaints made to me, that the Jekri Chief will not allow the Chiefs to give the decision which they wish to give and that they have to give in because they fear the power which the Jekri as a European knowing person has and as their knowledge of the European is not great they give in rather than face the unknown and lay themselves to the false reports which are so easily made in this Country.

“By all means let the Jekri have their King, but let him be a King of the Jekris and have nothing to do with the Sobo, his power over the Sobo would have to be coercion by the Government


“I am of the opinion that though it will be quite feasible and perhaps advisable to re-establish a Jekri ‘Kingdom’ it would not be practicable to let it include the Sobos; to do so would be to place the latter in a position subject to the Jekris, a position against all their traditions and one they would bitterly resent.”


“As regards the unification of Jekris with Sobos under a Kingdom I do not think it would be feasible. If it is thought desirable to establish a Jekri Kingdom I submit that it would be better to limit it to the Jekris”.

“In fact, the Sobos certainly would not wish to be united under Jekri tribe, and would be great losers by it even if they submitted. One might compare the case of Ulster and Home Rule”.


“I am of the opinion that the re-establishment of the Jekri OLU will not meet with success. The only authority he will have will be that of the Government” (emphasis mine) C229/14 – CSE 5/9/28.

The District Officers of Kwale and Forcados were probably not aware of a similar comment made in 1913 by Lt. Colonel H. C. Moorehouse, Provincial Commissioner, Warri. One Dodo Ogbe, son of Chief Ogbe of Ugbuwangue, had set himself up as Robin Hood extorting money from Urhobos in the hinterland. Notwithstanding that it was an age of power and shot the British wanted nothing which could cause upheaval to the detriment of commerce and colonialism. Egbe as the Political Agent in whose area this evil was taking place had to be removed by the Governor. The provincial Commissioner, Central Province, Warri wrote inter alia to the colonial Secretary, Lagos on 112/5/1913: –

For some months past there has been reason to believe that an organized blackmailing gang of Jekris was at work amongst Sobos in the Warri District and that DODO OAGBE was one of the sons of Chief Oagbe, was at the head of the gang…..

“It seems almost incredible without a previous knowledge of the relations between the Sobos and the Jekris, that the former should have submitted to the these exactions, but there is no doubt that by trading in his father’s name and giving out that he was sent by Government, his actions had official approval”.

It is clear that from the earliest times and surely by 1914 Urhobo independence was acknowledged by the British. Secondly, the Government used and protected the Itsekiris. Thus for now, the second Urhobo experience in national politics was their subordination by the Government to the Itsekiri. This was the cause of ethnic struggle for years to come. It was a matter of experience that Itsekiris whom the Europeans had known and interacted within the creeks for centuries and whose daughters relieved their emotional hunger were made political leaders. The system would be dumped only as soon as it was no longer convenient, but not before Itsekiris began to flatter themselves as owners of an Empire.

Custom dies hard, thus where Urhobos found themselves later would depend in large measure on the pressure they could bring to bear and the choices they made. This is very important. Have they always made the right choices? If not how have their errors sustained arrogance in others and dogged Urhobo experience in national politics? The District Officer, Forcados, we would agree, was very penetrating when he went further to remark after what was quoted above:-

“I further do not think it would be advisable to establish anything of the nature of a “King” of the Sobos. The difficulties become apparent when one considers the many various division of the tribe… The customs and language of all these , vary and they are all jealous of one another”

This is a reference to what Urhobos often refer to today as individualism, an obstacle to positive Urhobo political experience at national level.

It breeds disunity and even self interest, scheming without consideration for others or the entire Urhobo whose interest may be sacrificed. Still, there is consolation in Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that “The destiny of organized nature is amelioration”. But more of the other of the twin evils of Urhobos later.

Urhobo National Politics

Urhobo experience in national politics may be summarized at this stage as follows:

a) Colonialism strapped Urhobo together and enabled them to have a corporal identity.

b) Fortuitously colonialism placed Urhobos under the Itsekiri administratively leaving them to fight for their independence and the Itsekiris to mount opposition to perpetuate Urhobo dependence.

c) The choices available in the ensuing struggle may have to accommodate the need for a “King”, which symbolically, is a common voice and a hierarchical discipline nourished by common sympathy and aims. Such a “King” need not be an individual; but a kind of authority. Such, it is submitted, is the canvas upon which the mural of Urhobo experience in national politics will emerge over the years.

National politics fall broadly into two parts, colonial politics 1900 – 1960 and post independence politics 1960 to-date. The Colonial period may be subdivided into the period of Indirect Rule by the British 1900 to 1951, and 1951 to 1960 by Nigerians under the aegis of responsible government. In the same way the post independence period may be sub-divided into the years of civilian rule and those of military rule.

1900 to 1951:  The system or administration from 1900 to 1934 was by native courts either presided over by Nigerians invariably Itsekiris or by the District Officer, when they were known as Native Councils. Urhobo Country was split among three Districts, Warri, Sapele known as Jekri/Sobo Division and Kwale/Aboh Division. Jesse, (Idjerhe) was administered from Benin until 1937 while Abraka and Orogun were administered from Kwale/Aboh. Therefore, Urhobo protest at this time centred around splitting the enforced union with Itsekiris and having their own treasury. Consequently in 1934 Urhobo Division was created with headquarters at Ughelli covering the present Ughellli North & South Local Government Areas and the two Isoko Local Government Areas. Other Urhobos were left in Jekri-Sobo Division with headquarters at Warri. By 1951, the Urhobo portion of Jekri/Sobo Division joined Urhobo Division as Western Urhobo while the estwhile Urhobo Division became Eastern Urhobo Division. Thus all Urhobos found a corporate identity save the important fact that Urhobos of Warri Division namely Agbarha and Okere Urhobo were left in what became known first as Jekri Division and later Warri Division, with the main body of Urhobos of Urhobo Division seemingly contented. Yet in all the circumstance, in particular, considering the crucial role Warri had always played in the politics and the social and economic life of Urhobos since 1891 when the Niger Coast Protectorate was proclaimed and the vice consulate established in Warri, it could be said in 1951, the Urhobos had gone away without their soul. This disembodied soul will henceforth haunt Urhobos psyche at crucial political moments. The very next year for example, that is 1952, Urhobos feared possible domination from Warri. The name Warri Province was changed to Delta Province. Urhobos beat a retreat thus establishing a pattern. The issue would recur in yet various forms without Urhobos as it were identifying it or because of individualism playing roles which undermine one another with boomerang effect on the entire Urhobo image.

Development of Urhobo Stature: But first it is necessary to trace more systematically the growth of Urhobo stature up to 1948 when Chief Mukoro Mowoe died as MEMBER FOR WARRI PROVINCE in the West Regional House of Assembly, Ibadan.

Treaties of Protection:  In the age of the treaties of protection a spirit as we have noted was on a tramp strapping individual Urhobo polities together and giving them a national identity, while at the same time putting Urhobos under Itsekiris. Some of such treaties are: –


Toree (Ekpan)25/2/1893
Edjeba (Warri) 7/3/1893
Agbassa (Agbarha)14/3/1893
Igbudu (Obodoodoo)30/3/1893

In 1884 the treaty of Protection with the Chiefs of Benin River i.e. Itsekiris, was signed. However, to ensure that members of the Itsekiri royal household were bound by the treaty (the interregnum had set in since 1848) it had to be signed again at Forcados by all concerned in 1894. So the Itsekiris signed for Benin River and Ode Itsekiri. They did not sign for New Warri where the Vice-Consulate already existed. Instead the treaties here were with the Agbarha Urhobo clan. From its inception, New Warri was administered as an autonomous administration under the Vice Consul, then by the Local Authority, a British Administrative Officer, and the elected Warri Urban District (autonomous) Council up to December, 1976 when the Obasanjo Local Government Reforms brought Urban and Rural Divisional Council together as one Warri Local Government Area, 1976 to August 1991.

In 1894, the Agbarha Urhobos of Warri sold a parcel of land at what was to become today’s Alder’s Town to one S.P. Wilkey the British Protectorate’s Clerk who registered the same in the Protectorates’ land Registry eleven years later in 1905 when the Registry was opened. The area when developed took the name initially of Wilkey Town. Three years later in 1908 the British administration seized this same piece of Urhoboland under the pretext of a lease from Chief Dore Numa of Benin River their loyal Political Agent. What is stressed here is that the British were deliberately seizing Urhoboland for political reasons. In the same year Nana was defeated in Benin River for allegedly obstructing trade and was deported . It did not end there. Chief Arigbe of Effurun, loyal to Nana was captured and the portion of Effurun, i.e., ENUORERE, Nana’s mother’s home was burnt down. Oba Ovorame of Benin’s fall in 1897 should be mentioned as part of the political events of these shaky times in Urhoboland because the Oba was brought through Agbarha, i.e. Warri to be sent on exile to Calabar. Warri experienced the capture of the mighty Oba for their education. The fact that Warrant Chiefs supplanted traditional ones and that the native courts were headed by Itsekiris and sometimes outnumbering Urhobos in courts in Urhoboland has already been mentioned. This was a version of military dictatorship. Evidently, the British had regarded Urhobos as not malleable and were taking steps to make them so. In 1908 there was an uprising at Agbassa (Agbarha-Otor) against Itsekiri domination and was violently put down and the leaders arrested. What image did this give the Agbassa of Warri? This grievous new dispensation of Akporoyibo at first made Urhobos afraid and cautious . But they soon began to wake from their dumbfoundedness as the comments of the district officers already quoted above testify. In 1921, the Agbarha of Warri, did the unimaginable. They actually took Chief Dore to court and then again in 1924 over their lands in Warri leased by him to the British Administration in 1906, (GRA or New Warri Township, and buffer zone separating white and black where there were to be no buildings) 1908 Daudu, Alder’s Town and Wilkey Town as African Township, and 1911 Agbassa Village from which it was intended to eject and re-establish them at Daudu. These isolated acts in the two Agbassas and Effurun proved Urhobos as a people with the same characteristics not prepared to be anyone’s vassals. These could be regarded as national political experiences with lasting good and bad effects in the dual meaning defined above as the events caused ripples not only in the locality but had to be reported on to the government in Lagos and the Colonial Office in London, because they made in impression on the new rulers, as matters affecting British policy of fostering British economy through trade and trade through spheres of influence and this in turn through imperialism.

Further, on the development of Urhobo stature. On the positive side in 1925, according to Otite in “Autonomy and Dependence” at page 124 a meeting was held at Okpara Waterside “by a group of Urhobos” as a result of maltreatment of Urhobos in Forcados, to discuss a common Urhobo response to events. This he suggests might have contributed to the formation of the Urhobo Progress Union which started in 1931 as Urhobo Brotherly Society in Warri.

Following the moving of administration from Benin River to Sapele and from Forcados to Warri as headquarters in 1900 these two Urhobo towns became centres of trade just as Benin River and Forcados lost out. The fast development of Warri as Provincial Headquarters brought more Urhobos from the hinterland to do business direct with European firms and by so doing cutting out Itsekiri middlemen of the river. Itsekiris similarly flocked to Warri and Sapele. In Warri the new African Township of Daudu, Alder’s Town (named after a contractor) and a civil servant interpreter at the vice Consulate) and Wilkey Town provided land for the new comers.

Urhobo Progres Union (UPU): During this period, in 1932, some Urhobos, notably Omorowhovo Okoro, Thomas Erukeme, Mukoro Mowoe, formed in Warri the Urhobo Brotherly Society as a social organisation to give them a healthy corporate image and to help one another to economic success. As has been recorded ever so often the society became known as Urhobo Progressive Union in 1934 and from 1936 as Urhobo Progress Union. This organisation did develop for Urhobo a corporate stamp necessary to national politics as its branches soon covered, not only Urhoboland but also the length and breadth of Nigeria from its Headquarters in Warri, where else could it be? Where else in Urhoboland had so much political action issued, and where else was there as much economic promise or elitism to be derived from being close to the white-man’s world? It was the hub of Proclamations, Orders, Police and Judicial authority. All this was on Urhoboland. Caveat. Those who had already tasted the honey of long association with Europeans would fight tooth and nail to retain the honey comb. In the meantime, and quickly too, the U.P.U. from Warri established on the Urhobo people a grip and authority stronger than a mere gentlemen’s agreement most probably because it was made up of the foremost Urhobomen of the time. It provided for all Urhobos a THINK TANK, an executive body, a voice to which matters could be referred to speak for Urhobos. By contrast, what Urhobos have today may be termed many voices and caucuses, very often at cross-purposes and at critical times might not result in the maximum of exhilarating national political experience.

At this stage the aims and objectives of the U.P.U. at its founding taken from pages 88 – 89 of the biography of Chief Mukoro Mowe The Member for Warri Province by Professor Ikime are very relevant:

“The aim of the Union is to maintain good reputation and so earn for the Urhobo a better place in the public…… The Union seeks to promote education in Urhoboland because it strongly believes the immense advantage of education in social and economic structure of a society. It realises that unless the Urhobo tribe extending from Oghara and Jesse on the extreme North-East is unified under the central treasury and one Native Authority, the economic, social and educational aim of the Union will be greatly hindered: and for this reason it has in mind the unification of all Urhobo clans under one supreme council by the people.”

One supreme council by the people! Politics, quite significantly, is not mentioned probably because of the times. But the requirements for success in politics are there. The bottom line of these objectives stands out. “To earn for the Urhobo a better place in the public……. the Urhobo tribe extending from Oghara and Jesse (must be) unified…… and for this reason it has the unification of all Urhobo clans under one supreme council by the people as an imperative. The means to these, it was recognised, was good comportment for good public relations and good education. As a beacon of light, the U.P.U. conceived the idea and succeeded in raising funds throughout Nigeria among Urhobos to train two graduates. Mr. M.G. Ejaife at Fourabay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone and Mr. E. N. Igho at the University of Cambridge, U.K. both later returning to man Urhobo College established in 1947 by the U.P.U. with Mr. Ejaife as the first Principal.

The need for a good public image and united action, although it is not known what part U.P.U. played on this occasion, is borne out by an event of the time. The fiery Herbert Macaulay, Wizard of Kirsten Hall, Civil Engineer, Lagosian and politician went to law against Urhobos resident in Lagos to eject them from Lagos.

The outcome? Please, let us recall and sing triumphantly the song [that celebrated Urhobo victory against the powerful Herbert Macaulay].

Urhobo ve Macaulay gu’ edjo
Urhobo ri’ ase (2ce)
Ajuwa e – e – e –
Urhobo ri’ ase,
Ajuwa – e – e – e
Urhobo ri’ ase.

[Editor’s Translation:

Urhobo went to Court
With the Great Herbert Macaulay.
Urhobo worsted Macaulay in law;
Urhobo won in law!
Oh! What a glorious victory.
Urhobo won in law!
Oh! What a glorious victory.
Urhobo won in law!]

The quest for the unification and unity of Urhobos after several administrative, reorganisations in 1932, 1934, 1937, was complete to all intents and purposes in 1948, with the separation of Urhobos, so it was interpreted, from Jekri-Sobo Division, but with Warri not reckoned perhaps as Urhobo, a costly mistake as we have already listed and as we shall see. The year 1948 is a watershed in Urhobo fortunes both in relations with the Nigerian public and the government. It was the year that the very symbol and incarnation of the objectives of U.P.U. Chief Mukoro Mowoe died. That was when the yet imperceptible decline of the U.P.U. set in. Even with Chief Mukoro Mowoe there, there was reason to believe that his idea of Urhoboland was the hinterland excluding Warri, having regard to the fact that before his death he influenced the location at Ughelli of Government College Ughelli, already started in Warri as Warri College.

The political climate in 1948 concerning Warri was that Dore Numa had died in September 1932 while the Agbarha people had lost the Agbarhaland case erroneously assumed to cover all Agbarha lands at the Privy Council in 1934; in 1936 the Itsekiri interregnum since 1848 ended with the installation of Ginuwa II…. as a new Olu of Itsekiri resident at Ode Itsekiri, the colonial government having refused Itsekiri demand [to change the title to] of Olu of Warri. When more land was acquired from the Agbarha people for the extension of the African Cemetery the commissioner for Lands hand to go to Court in 1941 to be told who should receive compensation for the land acquired. Compensation was awarded in the ratio of 5% to the Olu and 95% to Agbarha since the land fell within the area adjudicated on in the 1926/34 suit. Yet in 1948 the Agbarha people were required by the government to elect whether to be in the new Western Urhobo Division with headquarters at Orere-Okpe or in Jekri Division (later Warri Division) with headquarters in Warri. Such was the ambivalence thrown up by the facts on the ground and the theory of Court decision. Had the Agbarha opted for Orere-Okpe, Warri including the areas of Agbarha and Okere not adjudicated upon in 1926 would have been conceded to the Itsekiris thus creating a landless people administered where they had no homes. Urhobos would now have had no hold at all on Warri. Even now they enjoy the status of a people who do not belong and must accept as mere privilege what Itsekiri allow.

The stand of the Agbarha people means that the potential of the Urhoboman in Warri is still to be fully realised. If the Agbarha made the choice to remain in Warri which was the correct choice form the benefit of hind sight, even the U.P.U. based in Warri did not insist that Warri remained Urhoboland still in Jekri Division. Perhaps that had not been clearly appreciated. So now the struggle continues, the war is not over until it is won. Events in Warri as they affect the entire Urhobo daily confirm this. Had this issue been pursued consistently and resolved once and for all Warri would not remain today the pivot of Itsekiri machinations to ambush and torpedo vital Urhobo political effort.


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