Urhobo National Politics

URHOBO HISTORICAL SOCIETY
WARRI, URHOBO AND THE NIGERIAN NATION
By D. A. OBIOMAH

URHOBO NATIONAL POLITICS AND WARRI

The break-up of Jekri/Sobo Native Administration was as already shown a direct result of resistance by affected Urhobo groups to Itsekiri domination imposed on Urhobos. With the prospects of regional elections in 1951 Urhobos were moving abroad out of home under the umbrella of their new-found identity into regional and national politics. Thus the implications of the thinking that developed among Urhobos when Agbarha at this point in time refused to join Sobo Division with the Headquarters in rural Orerokpe, was a significant land mark, because:

  • With the benefit of hindsight notwithstanding that the road has been tortuous and painful for the Agbara the very idea itself was awful.
  • Urhobo mental retreat from premiere Warri was capitulation and a choice of second fiddle. 
  • Hence at national level the suave representatives or delegation from Warri always one step ahead, assumed and were accorded first place while Urhobos were left to continue to run after them.

This was to be the position for many years whether under A.G./NCNC politics or subsequently, even under the military regimes. On the other hand Urhobo stature in Warri had dwindled correspondingly to that of a struggle as before to rise from the stigma of second class citizen. Such stigma of course attached to Urhobos at large. The fact was that away from home, persons from Warri Province the majority of whom were Urhobos, and Itsekiri riverine people as well identified themselves as Warri as a matter of practice because Warri bore a label of distinction as no other place in Urhoboland did. Even in the area of sports Chief Mukoro Mowoe the Urhobo leader established a famous football team, W.P. (Warri Province) United, which was known nation-wide for featuring at National Football finals in Lagos where such teams as Stationery Stores, Pan Bank, and Football King Thunder Balogun were famous. Then, the number one place was unwittingly yielded to the same old colonial tradition which Urhobos had spent years trying to break in the Urhobo hinterland. Thus paradoxically, while Urhobos claimed that Warri is Urhobo their attitude or acquiescence in the contrary has continued to reinforce the stigma being developed by exploiters from Benin River that Urhobos not they themselves, are strangers in this Urhoboland of Warri. Warri remains the launch pad of fierce Itsekiri missiles of diatribe, vitriolics, blackmail and disparagement of individual or Urhobo group activities. For this they have a standing propaganda machine in contradistinction to sporadic Urhobo outburst. This is important because unlike other ethnic groups they have acted as spoilers abroad of Urhobo image and entitlement.

WARRI A CRADLE for Delta people but…..

The combination of this factor and the characterisation of Urhobos as individualistic has tended to let the Urhoboman be a man without a cradle except quite often his myriads of separate villages of origin. To support these views let us go back. In or about 1944 the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) was formed. Urhobos joined and remained with it faithfully to 1966 when it was proscribed by the military. In 1951 the Action Group with the stigma of being a Yoruba party was formed. It was the official party for Itsekiri whereas Urhobos who joined it were looked at askance. A charismatic Urhobo, Festus Okotie-Eboh, with Itsekiri orientation joined the NCNC and became Nigeria’s first Minister of Finance. By his influence apartheid provisions were enshrined in the Mid-West constitution of 1963 making Itsekiris only to be entitled to hold political offices in Warri Division. This was a shame to the Urhobo name, O.N. Rewane, Arthur Prest joined the Action Group. A.O. Rewane was the Personal Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, founder and leader of the Action Group. While Arthur Prest became Federal Minister A.O. Rewane became Chairman each of the main revenue source of the Action Group Government, the Western Nigeria Marketing Board and the Western Nigeria Development Corporation, the spending arm. For another fourteen years Urhobos earned no comparable positions in NCNC. However, some URHOBOS OF ACTION GROUP notably Chief Mowarin, Chief Okoh, Mr. Ejaife, Chief Oteri of Ughelli, Mr. Otobo (an Isoko) were visibly successful economically and socially in the Action Group. Notwithstanding their measure of success in the Action Group, without U.P.U., backing, they could speak, not as Urhobo voice but as it were as lost sheep of the fold. Consequently, they did not possess the strength which their Itsekiri counterparts possessed. These were the BENIN RIVER/DORE axis attracting to themselves Arthur Prest of Ugbuwangue with whom they soon fell out only them to take the saddle and ride the Warri horse as they wished but, certainly, relentlessly, and brooking no opposition even internally.

Under the aegis of these triumphant Itsekiris the Urhobo contingent to the Western House of Assembly was defeated when the motion was debated in 1951 to change the title of the Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri. The title was actually changed in February, 1952, Urhobo protests having been satisfied with the change of the name of the Province from Warri to Delta to stall Itsekiri domination of the province as under Dore Numa. A terrible retreat, the second within four year. The Itsekiris of Action Group pushed their advantage home when in 1958 the Communal Lands Vesting in Trustees Law of Western Region was passed and the Itsekiri (Warri Division) Communal Lands Trust was established in 1959. Most of the lands leased in Warri in 1906, 1908 and 1911 were released by the Western Region Government of the Action Group to Itsekiris. These Urhobo lands now handed over to the Itsekiris who were themselves not of Warri origin were and have been the only communal lands owned by Itsekiri. We may quote here an extract from the memorandum written in February 1968 by an anxious Itsekiri man in his capacity as the Permanent Secretary (now Director General) Ministry of Lands and Housing:
 

“The Itsekiri Trust has limited avenue for earning any revenue. The avenue is limited to revenue accruing from state land surrendered to it by the Government…. Every land in Warri Division is owned by individuals or families or communities. Court cases have established the overlordship of the Olu over some land in Warri. It would seem that in order to establish the overlordship of every land in Warri the Trust will have to take every land owner in Warri to Court in order to secure the ruling”


At this point the worsting of Urhobos seemed complete. While the Urhobos were in retreat the Itsekiris who knew their minds were entrenching themselves. The final nail in the coffin was indeed driven in by the 1963 Mid-West Constitution already referred to when any Urhobo, including Dr. F.O. Esiri, elected Chairman of the Council, 1954 – 58 and Chief Daniel Okumagba former member of the Western House of Assembly, 1955 became locked out and ineligible for election.

Recently it has been found convenient to highlight the fair mindedness of the Urhobo by citing the fact that Major General Ejoor, it was, who returned Gbesimi Emiko, Olu Erejuwa II to his throne, retaining the title of Olu of Warri greatly resented by Urhobos in 1952, because he was satisfied as the Military Governor of Mid-Western State that the Olu had been unjustly removed and sent into exile by the N.C.N.C. government of Midwestern Region of Nigeria. The fact is that the popular Urhobo view remains that he should not have done it. If thereafter, however, Itsekiri attitude towards Urhobo changed for the better, General Ejoor would have been the man who brought it about. Unfortunately, Ejoor was to have no reward. On the other hand, General Ejoor in a political act saved the U.P.U. from the omnibus proscription imposed on all tribal unions throughout the country following the military coup in 1966. Once again the question may be asked what Urhobos made of their advantage? Apparently nothing. The two top leaders of the U.P.U. whom Ejoor brought into his government rather sought to govern him, one of them being decidedly hostile. Also up to now Ejoor is still ridiculed by the Press as “the cyclist” on the score that he rode 70 whole miles to safety from Benin to his mother’s home at Orogun during the fall of Benin to Biafra in 1967. Any girl of 16 from the Kwale/Orogun area, we know their cycling prowess, would not reckon that as a feat. Yet for a soldier the press thought and think that could not be. It is any wonder that no voice was raised in his defense, if U.P.U. supposedly alive, had gone into disarray and hibernation? Thus either way Urhobos lost. Observers might see Urhobos as having pushed their adversary up while they themselves climbed down. Experience of this nature is enacted in various forms from time to time among a people whom seem to be without any defined corporate objective pursued as cabals, scheming out or trading off one another and earning Urhobo itself a bad image often standing in the way of Urhobos being taken seriously, instead, rather cheaply, in spite of all other marks of respectability and greatness.

Urhobos have surrendered their thunder and every rumble of Mount Etna they take yet another step backward and are shy and hamstrung to reach for what is theirs. Even when they do, it is with diffidence or defensive posture under the burden of what has been styled inferiority complex. In the result they not only suffer intrinsic loss they earn a stigma, a negative image. And that seems to be the picture at state and national levels.

Culture sets out a way of life. That way of life establishes an identity. Where the culture is separate and sefl-sustaining and or sovereign the stress between it and politics may be minimal and indeed politics maybe defined in terms of culture. But where, as in Nigeria, you have plural nationalities expressing and asserting themselves at the state and national levels under a political culture super-imposed by colonialism and contact with Europeans, a new and larger identity within the dictates and parameters of this Akpo r’Oyibo becomes an imperative. Urhobos are aware of this but seem not to have conceptualised the way forward. All is vague and often self-contraditory under individualism. Therefore, Urhobo made a false outing in 1951 and had not realised it by 1963 when the Midwest was created.

For us Urhobos, Warri is the premiere place under Akpo r’Oyibo. It has been a pace-setter and fountain head of the new civilisation to the Urhobo hinterland in trade, education, elitism, politics. Not to build on this must require profound and compelling reasons.

Among Urhobos must be counted highly placed persons in the public service and the private sector. Is the problem then that of Urhobos being overly cautious, liberal or without courage? These faults may be there but more often than not as effects rather than cause. The Urhobo man who sticks his neck out for the benefit of the tribe gets praises as long as all goes well, but if things go sour, his friends and relations may help, otherwise his is nobody’s burden. The problem of Urhobos is therefore not just one of a king, a common voice but also that of a motivator and protective body to provide action, funds or pick up the gauntlet when the need arises. For now, patrons apart there is no home to fall back upon.

Should such a home and voice reside in a political party, in a governor if he is Urhobo, in a leadership chosen how, located where and with what level of authority surrendered to it by the clans? The picture approximates to that of a federation of Urhobo clans within the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Yorubas had it in the name of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. Can it be resuscitated in the present circumstances of six Yorubas States? Is it desirable? How is the Urhobo condition different? Be that as it may, Urhobos having come thus far, they may be likened to a new ship whose construction is complete and is ready to be launched to voyage in the open sea of national politics, and doggedly resisting the wave of other competing forces in order to deliver the goods of power, prestige, economic success, honour and social amenities.

Let us recall our subject matter, i.e., Urhobo Experience in National Politics. Experience may be pleasant or unpleasant, harrowing or mellow, individual or group, adequate in terms of results or inadequate.

The first fruit of the voyage is the election by an electoral College of Chief Mukoro Mowoe in 1946 as member for Warri Province in the Western Region House of Assembly. As it happen Mukoro Mowoe was the President of the U.P.U. already firmly established as the voice of Urhobo. His election and his representation of all the communities — Ijaws, Itsekiri, Ukwani and Urhobo — was a great triumph for he represented the communities effectively in tune with the aims and objectives of the U.P.U. He did for the communities of Warri Province what he and his people would be done by. He succeeded among other things, in bringing Secondary School education by moving the Government to establish a Government Secondary School in Warri Province where up to that date there had been no Secondary School. That was Warri College later named Government College, sited at Ughelli, within comparatively easy reach of the people of the province. Also, as we have seen the U.P.U. had established Urhobo College in 1947. An exclusively Itsekiri body know as “The Socio-Cultural Corporation” also established Hussey College in Warri the same year.

It is pertinent to recall two excerpts from paragraphs 11 and 12 of a memorandum dated 12th July, 1976, captioned “Proposals for Warri Local Government Authority” addressed to the Military Governor of Bendel State by Itsekiri Leaders of Thought and signed by Chief E.N.A. Begho, O.N. Rewane, A.O. Rewane, G.E. Mabiaku, Chief G.E. Ekwejunor Etchie among others whom Urhobos know very well as indigenes of Benin River. Referring to Mukoro Mowoe’s election of 1946 they said:
 

“When the Richard’s Constitution was introduced in 1946, the system of appointment of members to the Western House of Assembly was a system of electoral College known as the Provincial Meeting…. In one instance, the only candidate with qualification above Standard Six was an Itsekiri Lawyer, and he was defeated by an Urhobo with Standard Six Pass. When the Itsekiris protested an Urhobo gentleman openly said that if all Itsekiris on earth were holders of doctorate degrees and if all Urhobos were illiterates, Delta Province must accept representation by Urhobo illiterates as necessary destiny”

One may comment in passing that political choices may some times appear like the knowledge of God which passeth all understanding, as certain criteria are considered. For politics loyalty, acceptability loom high. For management, Professor Peter Drucker’s management expert view is widely accepted, that is, “The ultimate criterion of managerial competence is more moral than technical”. AmongUrhobos themselves, a Standard Six Pass candidate of the NCNC to the Warri Urban District Council defeatedMr. Igho B.Sc., Cambridge, standing for the Action Group about 1955.

The [Itsekiri] indictment continues:

“ABUSE OF THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS

“When the British system of direct election was transplanted into Nigeria in the 1950’s, the Urhobos lost no time in making a mockery of it in their attempt to install a foreign Urhobo Local Government in Warri Division. Urhobo leaders openly brought thousands of Urhobo men and women from the two Urhobo divisions to register as voters in Warri Division. During elections, Urhobos from Urhobo divisions swarmed the polling station in Warri about twelve hours before elections were due to start. These Urhobo voters openly committed the worst known electoral offences ranging from impersonation to multiple voting and the use of force to prevent Itsekiris from voting in their own homes. As a result of the above abuse of the democratic process, the Urhobos succeeded in setting up an Urhobo controlled Warri Urban District Council with an Urhobo Chairman for about a decade. They also succeeded in getting an Urhobo candidate to win one of the two seats allocated to Warri Division in the former Western House of Assembly”.

The history of Itsekiri electoral fraud in Warri will be briefly outlined later.

Interestingly, the Urhobo candidate referred to was Chief Daniel Okumagba, bona fide Urhobo indigene of Okere, Warri, standing election in his own home, which the people of far away Benin River say is their home, not Okumagba’s and yet without explaining what their actual homes in Jakpa, Koko, Deghele, Bobi, all in Benin River, are to them. Warri Urban District Council was what it was meant to be, an Urban council. The people of BeninRiver had their own puny,ineffectual Benin River local councils, but they schemed to have Warri urban. Since they had no population to win democratically they consistently resorted to blackmail and fraud, amply exemplified in the above excerpt in which they have reversed the true situation. Was it any wonder then that it was all over with Urhobo political representation in Warri by 1960 andformalised in the Midwest Region Constitution, 1963? It was as a result of clear planning meticulously executed. What is apparent meanwhile is that the Itsekiris had taken the offensive from about 1946 to reverse Urhobo self determination achieved up to 1948 from the 1930’s. As from 1951 the down turn for Urhobo had started inearnest. The position was so bad by 1985 that a leading member of Itsekiri Leaders of Thought could openlytell Agbarha leaders “You and your people do not exist”. For themAgbarha and Okere did notexist. Other Urhobos were categorised as an “army of occupation” to be routed of course.

The 1951 election to the Western House of Assembly and theNational Assembly produced no Urhobo ministers or persons holding high offices in clear contrast to the Itsekiri as we have already seen. But because it was still possible for Urhobos to win local government council, Urhobos seemed to have been lulled into a false sense of strength. But the Itsekiris having gained prominence at Regional and National level, they were to use their strength to create Warri as home for themselves and advertise Urhobos as invaders. They began a calculated plan of acquiring plots of land to encircle Warri. They encouraged Itsekiri influx into Warri inviting all and sundry to take up plots of land almost for free to build houses. For this purpose, they used the government instrument of the Divisional Planning Authority which they manned to acquire 339 acres of Agbarha land and allocated it virtually to Itsekiris only even before the acquisition was complete. Also, they laid out several acres of Agbarha land at Okorode (Ekurede Urhobo) and called it New Ode Itsekiri. The intention was clear. Having brought the Olu to Warri, they would bring Ode Itsekiri to complete the charade, of course they fully understood the psychology of lying persistently to make falsehood true. Agbarha resistance even involving imprisonment of some of its members foiled the later invasion. Happily, Okere Urhobos under the leadership of Chief Daniel Okumagba stood by the Agbarha on this occasion.

Enene, iye
Mane Urhobo ke enene, iye.

They carried through with their excesses through their characterisation of the Urhobos as the burnfire of a heap of dry leaves that flares up and dies down at once, i.e. Urhobos are impulsive without staying power. They themselves just would hold back a bit and carry on. So the Socio-cultural Corporation working in the name and style of Itsekiri Leaders of Thoughts studiously watched after and promoted Itsekiri interest. This body successfully jettisoned the Olu and became the voice of the Itsekiris, speaking in the Olu’s name. Thus while the nineteen fifties saw the gradual break down of Urhobo solidarity the Itsekiris already had taken the field in the next stage of the competition for leadership in government at a higher and more important level. It took two years for instance, for Mukoro Mowoe to be succeeded as President-General of the U.P.U. by Chief Okpodu in May, 1950`.
 

Here are some comments on the event of the 1950’s showing the relative strength of Urhobo and Itsekiri their most determined rival:

a) Change of the title of Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri Feb. 1952. Urhobos reacted feverishly and sharply. A ban was placed on all Urhobos not to sell to or buy food items from Itsekiris. Thus the Warri Big Market and Ogbe-Ijaw Market were deserted while two new Markets at Igbudu (Agbarha) and Effurun were cleared and stall sites allocated. But enthusiasm soon flagged and consequently these new markets dwindled gradually and one by one Urhobos returned to the old markets. Itsekiris triumphed. Perhaps all that was achieved was the change of name of the Province from Warri to Delta.

b) Now Urhobos belonged to a Delta Province whose capital was Warri abandoned as it were as Itsekiri territory. The Okere land case with the victory over the Itsekiris and the later true appreciation of Agbarha situation seem to converts to the Itsekiri position as after thought and subterfuges.

c) Poised to claim Warri, the Olu of Itsekiri now styled Olu of Warri moved his abode fromhis ancestral home and tribal capital, Ode-Itsekiri to Warri. This event went without notice although it was the most remarkable political event of the day. Thenceforth the Olu could be reached by land. Indeed he received many an important visitor in Warri thus stamping on the chest of the august visitor that Warri is the home of the Olu, so that Urhobo claims to Warri were regarded as false. The Urhobos remain on the defensive to their embarrassment even to this day.

d) In 1957, Nigeria held a constitutional conference in London on the initiative of the British Government. No Urhobo, it appears attended. But the case of the Itsekiris was not only pressed by the Action Group Government they were represented by an Itsekiri Lawyer who was Western Region Ambassador to the U.K. to press home their case for minorities. The upshot of this was the setting up of the Willink Commission to look into the fears, genuine or fancied, of minorities. The Itsekiri impressed the commission and were specifically mentioned in its report. Characteristically the Itsekiris seeing Urhobos as their sworn enemies made this the hall mark of their cry against Urhobo majority population until the Irikefe Commission of Enquiry into the demands for creation of more States more or less endorsed the same views in May, 1976, to wit that the fears of the Itsekiris were well founded: That in the interest of peace and humanity these fears should be allayed. “That the method of allaying these fears to be worked out should include provisions which would guarantee local autonomy for the Itsekiri people. Although this does not say that Urhobos of Warri Local Government Area should be colonised and assimilated that is what Itsekiri thinking has been and is encouraged by Urhobo acquiescence.

e) In 1958, the Communal Lands Vesting in Trustees Law was enacted and the following year Itsekiri Communal Lands (Warri Division) Vesting in Trustees law was enacted under the terms of the 1958 law. By this law most of the lands acquired in 1906, 1908 and1911 were surrendered to the Itsekiris. This fortuitous accrual of Urhobo lands to Itsekiri became the cudgel with which Itsekiris whipped Urhobos to tell them that they were strangers. Instead of the Local Authority Administration run by a British administrative Officer the Trust became thelandlord of prestine Urhobo lessees to the Okere and Agbarha Urhobos and were required to take fresh leases and agreement from the Trust on pain of confiscation. Arbitrary ground rents were demanded. Open lands were pounced upon. While the Itsekiris paid for lawsuits at Trust expense and even paid themselves retainerships individual Urhobos had to pay from their own pockets.

f) In the past as they grabbed land, honour and prestige they had handed a bit of largesse to Urhobo non-indigenes of Warri to stem possible resistance from them. From their vantage point as they grew bolder they harassed Urhobos as an “army of occupation” determined to seize their lands and destroy their culture. To such accusation the Urhobos responded, if they did at all, with diffidence. The point is that Urhobos had been cornered and the Itsekiris could have a free hand to flay Agbarha and Okere Urhobo indigenes of Warri as customary tenants, enclaves or simply as a people obdurate enough to ignore the law as pronounced by the courts. The fact is that the Itsekiris, ambitious to be known as people of Warri deliberately distorted the law by misinterpreting the Communal Land Trust Law. Thus in the decade 1950 to 1960 they hit Urhobos hard even below the belt. They forced Urhobos to submit as tenants to the Trust. Also through their single-mindedness and ringing propaganda they brought into being a coinage “Warri Kingdom” that did not exist to enhance their standing while reducing Urhobos to the status of interlopers. This is a national calamity since their rivals put Urhobos in the status of a giant rattled by a rodent and yet presented to the world as an oppressor. Thus give a dog a bad name and hang it. Unfortunately, while Itsekiris are attacked and riled as a collective, the Urhobos have no collective response, policy or plan of action.

In the result the Itsekiris are obdurately always at the heels of the Urhobos to inform against them individually and collectively behind their backs or bark at any initiative they might want to take.

This brings home luridly the import of the statement “You and your people do not exist” It applies beyond Agbarha and Okere to all Urhobos who having been deprived of existence in Warri, they are as a matter of policy to be obstructed form having an existence of their own nationally – the spoiler strategy.

You and Your People Do Not Exist

Why is this pre-occupation with Warri? Warri has provided the cause and the base of Itsekiri assaults which re-echo nationwide. With the exception of the indigenes. Agbarha Urhobos of Warri and the Okere Urhobos who joined the affray relatively recently Urhobos have been fighting an undeclared war which they fight as occasional battles when they are touched to the quick. The battles originate in Warri, where-ever may at any particular time be the actual ground, Urhobos as a collective are the target. They do not abate and so the future remains pregnant with hostility, which is certain, even if its course cannot be known, The experience of the past related to the sum total of Urhobo standing and effort shows that such malice has been like the proverbial rotten apple that has often spoilt the rest of the basket. It is instructive to recall this opening paragraph of a paid advertisement by some Itsekiris, appearing in several newspapers including the Vanguard of Thursday August 13th, 1987 and captioned, “ITSEKIRI AND DELTA STATE”:
 

For the avoidance of doubt, we the undersigned, unabatable, unmitigatable and wholesome Itsekiris, categorically state as follows”:


They state their stand and demand:

“For the foregoing reasons and more, we the undersigned, unabatable, unmitigatable and wholesome Itsekiris, indigenes of Warri Local Government Area, welcome dialogue geared towards an Accord on Non-domination anchored upon the  permanent protection of the  permanent interests of all the minorities in Delta State in general and of the ltsekiris in particular, viz:

i. The inviolability of the person and Title of “The Olu of Warri”.

ii. The paramountcy of the Olu of Warri in any Council of Chiefs or similar body or order of Precedence amongst Chiefs in Delta State.

iii. A local Government Council exclusive to the Itsekiris in which they can exclusively control and preserve.

iv. A Local Government Council exclusively to the Itsekiris in which they can exclusively control and preserve:

a) Their lands

b) Their language and customs

c) Their culture”


It speaks for itself. unabatable, umitigatable, and categorical to have exclusive rights to Warri Local Government Area (now Warri North and Warri South) and Natural headship of Olu of Warri over Ovie of Uvwie, Orodje of Okpe etc., of course where this fails to happen it becomes a violation of Itsekiri customs oppression and domination of Itsekiris by Urhobos. YOU AND YOUR PEOPLE DO NOT EXIST.

By now the inference is clear that the Itsekiri attitude is that if Urhobos acquire any political advantage they would be dominated by Urhobos, the two peoples, Urhobo and Itsekiris having been bound together by geography. Also there is the fact that Itsekiris are so few but not content to develop their riverine lands which they boast are vast. They want to annex Warri Urhobos and dominate them. The corollary to their attitude about Urhobo domination is that Urhobos cannot progress above them so, they must efface Urhobo of Agbarha and Okere through whom Warri is Urhoboland. Your people do not exist, the spoiler strategy. As long as the contest for Warri is not put to rest the problem of Itsekiri denigration and undermining of Urhobos remains, unmitigatable, unabatable, categorical, with its spoiler strategy. Have Urhobos collectively a will for the last ditch battle for Warri?

Attention is drawn to some extraneous views which our detractors may use against us although Urhobos may call such views biased. At page 19 para. 6 Justice Omosun’s Report on Ekpan Ubeji Riots 1978 Justice Omosun notes:

  • “At the proceedings, the Itsekiri witnesses and Counsel assumed an air of superiority. Their Urhobo counterparts gave the impression, without apparent reason that they were labouring under a complex. No opportunity was lost in droning it on them that they were slaves to Itsekiris in the past”. 
  • On the stigma of Urhobos being slaves it struck Professor Obaro Ikime strongly enough to comment in “Niger Delta Rivalry” quoted by Omosun at para. 10 page 46 of his Report that the Itsekiri attitude “sprang from the fact that at a point in history fairly large numbers of Urhobo slaves were to be found in Itsekiri land a situation which as commonly happens, made the Itsekiri regard as inferior to themselves not only the slaves they bought, but the stock from which these slaves came”.

Omosun continues: “The Itsekiri being accustomed to have his work done for him by slaves who were mostly (Urhobos) began to breath an air of superiority over their Urhobo neighbours. The slave trade was abolished long ago and even though this is the twentieth century this feeling of superiority persists till today.
 

 The Itsekiris may well reply, “How many Itsekiris did we sell to Urhobos in their capacity as slave owners, raiders and dealers?” Let us here take a diversion by way of a nonsense poem. It may not be so nonsensical as what Alice saw in wonderland:

“Three sailors of Bristol City
Put out for to sea….”

The Sailors took on board water and provisions to last the voyage. But they ran out of both water and food. So one of the two older ones suggested a way out of their predicament. Both of them he said were “old and tough” As to little Jimmy he was “young and tender”. So “Us must eat he” The decision having been taken little Jimmy was required to undress, to take away his ‘snickersee’. He appealed to be allowed to say his last prayers, for which he went up the mast. Lo, and behold a British ship was approaching! The Admiral in charge of the ship saved the situation so that little Jimmy was not eaten up.

This brings to mind a visiting Indian politician who addressed the students of Government College Ughelli in 1952 five years after India’s Independence. He talked glowingly about life in India since independence. He was therefore asked what Indians did to gain their independence from the British. He replied that that was for the Indians. It was up to Nigerians to devise their own means. However, Indians had been impressed by the notions expressed in “Rule Britannia”.

“Rule Britannia.
Britannia rules the waves
Britons never, never, never
Shall be slaves”.

So the Indians thought, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Who shall then? The moral of the nonsense poem and this anecdote is clever. Britons big or small would not eat up one another, they stand on their dignity and shall not be slaves.

Is it so with Urhobos? Is their situation one of the fruits of individualism?

Here is another instructive little anecdote.

Very recently a certain gentleman having been announced as such and such of U.P.U., Warri, at a public ceremony attended by several Ivie [royal chieftains], the announcement ended dramatically with the gentleman being flattered by the announcer as the Ovie of Agbarha! The proud gentleman was not even an Agbarha man. That is a funny one. The announcer who was an Urhoboman may have been garrulous, guilty of levity and breach of protocol. But there is no smoke without fire. Thus the inapposite joke would not be so surprising, tagged as it was even to the U.P.U. if it is known that some Urhobos even in Warri regard Warri as no man’s land. Hence in politics, in fun or business, it could be an all comers’ game with conflicting aims and interests. Brothers become insensitive to the plight and struggle of brothers, thoughtless of the setback brought by their actions to the struggle, no less the calamitous effects on the Urhobo collective among whom the perpetrators themselves now number as losers.

Another lamentable aspect of the situation is the subterfuge it creates for wrecker and the indifferent. While the Agbarha as the saying is in Urhobo, essay to rid the pot of tapioca the miscreants fill it and chide the Agbarha for, as they put it, doing nothing. Such are the problems.

Enough has been said already to deduce that Agbarha and Okere Urhobos of Warri are grafted to Urhobo like Siamese Twins. Therefore those who act to give these people away as a gift to Urhobo traducers are:

·  Harming Urhobo and consequently themselves;

·  No peace can come of it because it is to bring home to our doorsteps the Palestinian problem;

·  It is new slave dealing;

·  It demoralises those Urhobos who are lending their support to the labour of liberating their fellow Urhobos from the yoke of colonialism. Those who would not help should not obstruct the effort of those who do.

What are some of the arguments giving Urhobos locus standi; to fight the cause of a minority element of Urhobos to redress the Warri question?

a) As a fact Warri indigenous Urhobos are free-hold land owners in Warri in contrast to the people of Benin River who are claiming. Let Urhobo historians, sociologists and anthropologist, turn to investigate Warri. The time is ripe to rewrite the history of Warri so that the facts may be used to reject colonial expropriation of Urhobos in favour of Itsekiris.

b) The 1926 case, Ometan vs. Dore Numa does not support the facts of the ground concerning the true ownership of Warri. A political answer must be found to a political problem.

c) The Warri situation was brought about by the accident of colonialism; its current manifestation is a vestige of colonialism and inconsistent with the status offered Urhobo citizens in a free Country.

d) The Warri Urhobos are entitled to self-determination. If they are being stigmatised as customary tenants in a place where they have lived separately and distinct from the Itsekiris for upwards of two hundred years and will continue to remain when does such a stigma end as a label for Urhobos, or is it forever?

e) A law which recognises citizenship with obligations but without rights shames the country and its courts. This ought to be more than a call to arms for Urhobos.

f) It has been amply shown here that the last cause or pretext of Itsekiri assault on the dignity of Urhobos is Warri.

g) Perhaps, more important still, when it is accepted that the Warri issue must be resolved, is the disturbing fact that because Urhobos are not united, because they have no enunciated policy on Warri, the struggle for freedom by the Urhobo indigenes of Warri together with those Urhobos who support them is frustrated by the attitude and self-interest of other Urhobos who go out of their way to offer their support to Itsekiris to whom they say Warri Urhobos should be given as a goodwill present. “We have decided that Itsekiris should have Warri”, is an astonishing statement by some Urhobos but not uncommon, a kind of dog eats dog for the pleasure of the master.

Some Crucial Urhobo Losses

a) The creation of the Midwest Region from Western Region was dear to Urhobos who put their body and soul into the effort to have it created. Itsekiris opposed it. See “The Guardian”, Sunday supplement 23rd August, 1987, which graphically compares Itsekiri conduct in 1963 and 1987. Although Midwest Region was created, Delta State was not created in 1976, 1987 and in 1989. In 1987, page 6 of the Guardian of Friday, September 18th, 1987 may have contributed to failure, a case of disunity among Urhobos. But the Itsekiri did behave true to pattern, attacking Urhobo support for the creation of the state for fear as they claimed of Urhobo domination.

b) Over the years only Itsekiris have held political appointments at state and Federal Government level to represent Warri. In the result indigenous Urhobos of Warri have been sort of flotsam and jetsam or gypsies who do not belong. And that is the same image shared by other Urhobos.

c) The first governor of the Midwest Region was an Urhoboman but he had to step down for Chief Dennis Osadebey to be Premier while an Itsekiri became Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Also an Urhoboman was speaker of the Midwest House of Assembly but an Itsekiri man was more or less awarded the position of Permanent Secretary as well as the Olu of Warri becoming the permanent Vice-Chairman of the State Council of Chiefs. Did Urhobos who worked hard for the creation of the Midwest Region benefit any more than the ltsekiris? All in all Urhobos lost.

Urhobo Gains: Against this background what are the specific political gains by which to measure whether or not Urhobos have achieved success commensurate with their numerical strength and performance in other spheres of national life? Without wanting to beg the question, it is a general view that Urhobos have scored less than pass mark politically. Also, Dr. Oyaide at a lecture a couple of years ago gave detailed statistics and analysis of Urhobo standing in other fields which this conference could benefit from. How do we approach an obstacle? Capitulate and let it take its own course, accept and keep adjusting to it as an inevitable burden like a hunch back, or strive and overcome it? Under the first condition the obstacle may destroy or neutralise the Urhobo who may find cold comfort in rationalising that all things grow and die, therefore Itsekiri truculence could die of its own excess exertion in time. Under the second condition the Urhobos should remain resigned to the goading and ascendancy of the Itsekiris as divine will. But this would be a contradiction since the inevitable course of the multi-directional upsurge and quantum of Urhobo successes in various fields of endeavour as the seventh largest ethnic population in Nigeria, is ultimately towards national politics. Indeed, this is the point where Urhobos are now. It is step three of Akpo r’Oyibo. The Itsekiris know it. Thus the Itsekiri problem exists because Urhobos have not been about to capitulate or to accept with resignation the misconceived ambition of the Itsekiris notwithstanding that Urhobos have not as yet any commonly defined policy or goals on the issues. Under the third condition three options mainly are open. Appeasement in the hope that co-operation would develop, a position which is futile and without justification in this case; respond to viciousness with corresponding vivaciousness and stamp the adversary down in his place an approach which the history of guerrillas and the hope of a united Nigeria to which Urhobo must proudly contribute, cannot recommend; lastly even-handedness which is firm and clinical in establishing its own deserving. Urhobos must make up their minds and choose.

Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan” It appears that was not enough. Satan continues to breathe down the necks of mankind. A people who want others to do their work for them while they ride supreme and are conservative beyond hope of accommodating their neighbours have to be tackled scientifically under a planned programme. If the BBC and Voice of America are the places to report national issues then a categorical response is necessary world wide by Urhobos. Urhobos have been falsely informed against at national level in a manner that could have resulted in grave consequences for some top Urhobomen and also for Urhobos to fail where Itsekiris are not competing. Violent fatal eruptions in Warri against Itsekiris have been reported and found to be false. Appeasement is not the answer to these evils. Decisively asserting one’s rights in vital. It is important to appreciate also that although for some Itsekiris economic profit is the spur by and large, Warri is now merely a pretext, propaganda having elevated it to the level of the Achilles heel of Urhobo. That the Warri Question must be laid to rest is a task that must be done. The choice of course is for Urhobo to make.

RETURN TO WARRI URHOBO CONTENTS

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