In Defence of Frank Ukoli’s Honour

Official Logo of Urhobo Historical Society


Professor Olorogun Frank Ukoli died unexpectedly at Warri, his hometown, on December 21, 2004, and was mourned intensely and nationally by many. From the University of Ibadan to Delta State University, Abraka; from many corners of distant Diaspora abodes in Europe and America to various towns in Nigeria, Frank Ukoli was remembered as a good and decent human being and a scholar of great eminence. He left behind a legacy of truth-telling and honest public service for his many admirers and followers.

Frank Ukoli hailed from Agbarha-Ame, an Urhobo sub-cultural unit whose lands were taken by the British to establish the Township of Warri. The Urhobo people, particularly his kinsfolk in Agbarha, mourned Frank Ukoli very deeply as one of their heroes. Frank’s mother is Itsekiri. We know that his mother’s family and many Itsekiri mourned his death with a passion.

Frank Ukoli was a dedicated member of Urhobo Historical Society. In mourning his death, UHS posted an obituary along with a brilliant lecture which Frank Ukoli gave on October 29, 2004, his last public appearance. The lecture was a substantive review of a UHS book titled Warri City & British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta.

Apparently, the Itsekiri establishment has taken offence at the obituary and lecture that were published on February 1, 2005. Accordingly, “Warri” Study Group, the latest moniker of the Itsekiri establishment, launched a scathing attack on the person of Frank Ukoli and his family in a paid advertisement in Vanguard of Tuesday, March 7, 2005.

We believe that attack by “Warri” Study Group on Frank Ukoli and his family is indecorous, untruthful, and scandalous. As individuals who share so much with Frank Ukoli, the two of us, who sign this statement for UHS, have taken it upon ourselves to respond to that venomous attack on a great man whom we were proud to call friend, leader, and worthy fellow scientist while he was alive. His was an exemplary and an honourable life that, in truth, needs no defence in his death. We are compelled, regretfully, however, to respond for the record to the falsehoods and the vitriol of the “Warri” Study Group.

For the sake of full disclosure, we wish to reveal our relationship with Frank Ukoli and those attributes that we share with him, which entitle us to speak on his behalf now that he is dead. Like Frank Ukoli, we are members of Urhobo Historical Society whose supreme goal is to tell the truth about Urhobo people and their history and culture as well as relationships between them and their neighbours. Frank cherished that mission of UHS because he believed that truth-telling is the bedrock of good neighbourliness. Secondly, like Frank we are Urhobo men whose mothers are Itsekiri. Like Frank, we see no contradiction between our Urhobo patriotism and our fondness for the culture of our mothers’ people, the Itsekiri. Frank Ukoli nurtured our intellectual aspirations and guided us as we climbed along the difficult academic ladder to the peak of our professions. In addition to these common attributes, we regard Frank Ukoli’s passion for honest and truthful research as a virtue that we should emulate. Indeed, we regard Frank Ukoli as our hero. Many Urhobos and Itsekiris, and indeed numerous other Nigerians, also regard him as their hero. We believe we are duty-bound to defend him when his reputation is unfairly disparaged, especially now that he is not here on earth to defend himself.

There are two aspects of the attack on Frank Ukoli by “Warri” Study Group. The first concerns the gratuitous assault on him and his family. The second is the challenge of his views on the history of Warri in a manner that calls into question his truthfulness. We will respond to these insults, in that order. But before we do so, the two of us who sign this statement on behalf of UHS want to stress that we repudiate the authority of the so-called “Warri” Study Group to speak on behalf of our mothers’ people, who are generally decent, loving and caring people. We see “Warri” Study Group as a collection of self-serving individuals who have callously taken advantage of our collective hardship in the Niger-Delta to prey upon the fears and insecurities of the Itsekiri people.

Aspersions on Frank Ukoli and His Family

The most painful aspersion, in the view of Frank’s family at least, was the heading of the “Warri” Study Group’s assault. It brands Frank as a “son unlike his father.” Why? Because, according to “Warri” Study Group, Frank’s father, Chief Paul Ukoli, took a chieftaincy title from the Olu of Itsekiri, whereas Frank Ukoli was contesting the Itsekiri king’s claim to be the Olu of “Warri.” The Group alleges that the Itsekiri King gave a title to Frank’s father as a reward for Frank’s Itsekiri’s names and for the appreciation of the Agbarha community for the good things that the Itsekiri had done for the Agbarha people. Nowhere in the entire publication did “Warri” Study Group acknowledge that Frank’s mother is Itsekiri and that he was therefore entitled to bear Itsekiri names by the force of that fact alone. Instead, this avant-garde of the Itsekiri establishment trades on a falsehood in order to sensationalize its unwarranted charges against Frank and his family.

Successful Urhobos bear chieftaincy titles from numerous places, inside and outside Urhobo culture. Frank Ukoli himself received a title from Ogor. There are many Urhobos in Lagos who bear titles from Yoruba kingdoms. This is especially so in the case of those who marry into such non-Urhobo communities. Frank’s father was a very successful and well-respected educator in the Western Niger Delta; he travelled extensively developing schools and basic primary education in Benin River. His wife was Itsekiri. There was nothing unusual in his taking a chieftaincy title from his wife’s people. Nor was there anything abnormal in the Itsekiri Royalty acknowledging Paul Ukoli’s immense contributions to the education of Itsekiri children in Benin River. In receiving his chieftaincy tile, Chief Paul Ukoli was acting like many other successful Urhobos.

There was an additional family tie between Olu Erejuwa II and Frank’s father that accounted for his chieftaincy title from the Itsekiri King. Paul Ukoli’s eldest daughter, Violet, that is Frank’s elder sister, was married to Dr. George Emiko, Olu Erejuwa’s younger brother. It is well known in Itsekiri circles that Frank’s father accepted the title at the urging of his son-in-law, Dr. Emiko. It is therefore blatantly dishonest to concoct a bogus story in order to malign Chief Ukoli’s title as special grace of the Itsekiri people to the Agbarha community.

“Warri” Study Group also falsely alleges that while at the University of Ibadan, Frank Ukoli was uninterested in Urhobo affairs, until he sought the position of Vice-Chancellor of Delta State University, whereas he was involved in Itsekiri affairs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Fortunately, there are living witnesses who will readily testify on Frank’s leading role among Urhobos at Ibadan. As Urhobo leaders at Ibadan up through the 1980s, such as Professor Joseph Akpokodje and Professor Peter Ekeh, will testify, Frank Ukoli was fully engaged in Urhobo meetings and activities. When Chief T. E. A. Salubi received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Ibadan, Frank Ukoli was prominent in the arrangements and was recognized by Chief Salubi on that occasion as Urhobo’s first Ph.D.

Although all enlightened Nigerians, whether Itsekiri or from somewhere else, would acknowledge Professor Ukoli’s pre-eminent position in academic circles in Nigeria, the “Warri” Study Group seems to be in darkness on this issue. For many years before he accepted the appointment at Abraka, every time a search for a Vice-Chancellor was conducted for Nigerian universities, Frank Ukoli’s name featured prominently. He never expressed any interest in such a position until he was called upon by his State Governor to pioneer and develop a new University in Delta State. Whether he was Ibo, Ijaw, Itsekiri or Isoko, no one in Delta State was more qualified than Frank Ukoli for that position. He did not need to be an Urhobo to be appointed the pioneer Vice Chancellor of Delta State University.

With respect to Frank Ukoli’s role in an Itsekiri association at Ibadan, the truth is plain and simple. He and one of the signatories to this document, Professor Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, were approached by Itsekiri club officials with an appeal to become members, because, they said, the membership of the club was small. They accepted the invitation and joined the Itsekiri association. Both of them had Itsekiri mothers and both of them were teachers at the University of Ibadan. But they did not join the Itsekiri organisation at the expense of their Urhobo commitments, as anybody who knows the two of them will readily acknowledge.

“Warri” Study Group tells a further deliberate falsehood when it claims that on becoming ex-Vice-Chancellor of Delta State University, Frank Ukoli hankered after contracts and appointments “from the UPU-dominated Delta State.” Frank was not associated with the current administration of UPU, was not a member of PDP, and was not a contractor. How low these people can go!

Frank Ukoli was an honourable man. His father was a very successful man who raised a splendid family: Frank (university professor), Neville (frontline journalist), Flora (medical doctor), Preston (medical doctor), and Christie (medical doctor).  Frank’s grandfather has legendary status in the Agbarha community; he raised three very successful sons – Augustine (father of Chief Anthony Ukoli), G. M. Urhobo (founder of God’s Kingdom Society), and Paul (Frank’s father). The attempt by “Warri” Study Group to malign the reputation of such a distinguished family is simply shameful and crosses the line of public behaviour and decorum into a zone of indecency.

The Land Case between Agbarha People and the British Colonial Agent, Dore Numa

“Warri” Study Group continues its insult on the Ukoli family by saying that Frank’s grandfather accepted a verdict of overlordship in a case of the 1920s in which Agbarha people sued Dore Numa, British Colonial Agent, for leasing their lands without their knowledge. The facts of that case are clear. Relying on the forced settlement of a similar case brought against Dore Numa as British Colonial Agent by the chiefs of Ugborodo, a fraction of Itsekiri ethnicity in Escravos creeks, Dore Numa pleaded that the Olu of Itsekiri had overlord rights over Agbarha’s lands and that he was therefore entitled to lease the lands.

British colonial courts at Warri, Lagos, and London gave a two-part judgement. First, they recognized Agbarha people as landlords who were entitled to live and work in their own lands. This is how Justice Webber phrased this portion of the judgement of 30th December, 1929: “As to Agbassa, Odion and Fugbe, no court could deny the right of Agbassa to occupy same according to native law and custom provided the overlordship of the Olu of the Jekris was recognized.

The second portion of the verdict is thus, that the colonial courts subjected Agbarha’s ownership of these lands to the overlordship of the Olu of Itsekiri. It should be clearly noted that at no point was the Olu of Itsekiri called the landlord of Agbarha lands in these colonial judgements. As it was in Medieval Europe, the Olu of Itsekiri was deemed to be the overlord to whom land taxes could be paid by Agbarha landlords.

Since the verdict in colonial courts in the 1920s and 1930s, nothing has happened to change the fact that Agbarha people own their lands, that is, the first portion of the two-part verdict. But the second portion of the verdict has come into hard times. The main blows to the doctrine of Olu of Itsekiri’s overlordship came from within Itsekiri internal disputes, that is, Itsekiri versus Itsekiri court cases.

The first of these was a case from Ugborodo in which the issue of the Olu of Itsekiri’s overlordship resurfaced in 1969. Ugborodo community, represented by lawyer Godwin Boyo, an Itsekiri, took the Itsekiri Communal Land Trust to court for claiming rent on Ugborodo/Ogigban properties. Ugborodo community won this case, opening a crack in the armour of overlordship. Ugborodo is a section of Itsekiriland that traditionally contested the right of the Itsekiri King to rule over its people. P. C. Lloyd put their case this way: “The Gborodo people say that they arrived at the same time as Ginuwa migration, maintaining that until recently they did not recognize the Olu of (sic) Warri as their king” (Page 178 of “Itsekiri” in R.E. Bradbury, The Benin Kingdom and the Edo Speaking People of South-Western Nigeria.)

The second serious blow to the verdict of overlordship again came from within Itsekiri disputes, that is, in Itsekiri versus Itsekiri court cases. Aggrieved by the excesses of Itsekiri Communal Land Trust, which the Action Group Government had set up for the benefit of the Itsekiri, the famed lawyer and jurist, Arthur Prest, took the Olu of Itsekiri and the Itsekiri Communal Land Trust to court for exercising overlordship over the lands of the people of Ugbuwangwe. The verdict of the learned judge of 9th July, 1971, in Suit No. W/15/1970 defanged overlordship, restricting its scope severely. It states: 

For the avoidance of doubt, especially as there are numerous cases pending in the Warri High Court on this overlordship issue, I hereby make it abundantly clear that the defendants [the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust] have no power whatsoever in law to exercise the Olu of Warri rights of overlordship over lands owned by private individuals and families in Warri Division.

Following this far-reaching judgement, the fortunes of overlordship were in a free fall.

The Agbarha lands under judicial contention were never public lands. This ruling, upheld by Nigeria’s Supreme Court, is the subsisting court judgement that applies to lands in Warri. It is not what one Lord Atkin wrote in 1936 that applies. We know that the Itsekiri establishment does not want to be reminded about it. But it is true that Chief Arthur Prest’s suit changed the doctrine of overlordship decisively in the judicial sphere.

The third judicial blow to overlordship came from a daring attempt by the Itsekiri establishment to impose Olu of Itsekiri’s overlordship on the people of Okere-Urhobo in Warri, suing Daniel Okumagba and his kinsmen for possession of their lands. The Itsekiri establishment lost very badly. In their verdict upholding Justice Ekeruche’s primary ruling against the Itsekiri establishment’s quest to acquire Okere in Warri, the justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1976 declared as follows: “The evidence in plaintiff’s case only shows that Ginuwa I when he was trying to make a settlement after leaving Benin got as far as Ijalla where he ultimately settled, lived, died and was buried. There is not evidence in plaintiff’s case going to show that in the process of making his settlement or kingdom he or any persons under him settled anywhere beyond Ijalla and towards or in Okere.”

It is noteworthy that the above three cases that were won against the claims of overlordship — by Godwin Boyo, Arthur Prest, and Daniel Okumagba – all occurred in the post-colonial era. In general, their judgements are well informed, historically nuanced, and are superior in their reasoning to the colonial judgements on this issue of overlordship. It is striking that “Warri” Study Group and the rest of the Itsekiri establishment studiously avoid mentioning any of these cases. Instead, they rush to the colonial judgement of 1936 that has been overturned, or at least severely limited, by the subsequent judgements cited above.

It is also noteworthy that Urhobos are not the main victims of the practices of claims of Olu of Itsekiri’s overlordship. The main victims are Itsekiri. Members of the Itsekiri establishment, living in opulence in gated estates in Warri City, exploit their own people. Urhobos can and will fight back. It is the rural Itsekiri, in whose names huge fees and rents are collected, who cannot fight back because their defenders, of the stature of Godwin Boyo and Arthur Prest, have all been silenced.

The above was not the only misfortune that befell overlordship. The Land Use Law, enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution of 1979 from General Olusegun Obasanjo’s Land Use Decree of 1978, nullified any claims of overlordship, making the Nigerian Federal Government the sole overlord in Nigeria.

Now that we have stated what Frank Ukoli was saying in his review of the UHS book, we may turn to respond to the charges and insults against his family. First, about Frank’s grandfather. This is what the “Warri” Study Group said of his role in the land case: “Prof. F. M. A. Ukoli’s grandfather, UKOLI, was one of the witnesses for the Agbassa people . . . After the judgement . . . the grandfather regarded the matter as settled and closed and recognized the overlordship of the Olu of Warri.”

There is no basis for the above claim, no evidence whatsoever that Frank’s grandfather accepted the verdict and the overlordship of the Olu of (sic) “Warri.” However, before commenting further on this claim, let us publish the entire record of Frank’s grandfather’s appearance in court on November 18, 1929. It is brief and it is as follows:

UKOLI  Sworn: I am Agbasa. I am a farmer. I farm at Odion. I farmed there all my life – also my grandfather and father. I am Sobo.

CROSS EXAMINED: Chief Ogegede is head of Odion. I am not a chief.

Ukoli’s numerous descendants can be proud that their ancestor fought to pass his own ancestor’s lands on to his descendants. And it is not in vain. When Professor F.M.A. Ukoli stood on the podium of Petroleum Training Institute to make his famous “I can See Clearly Now” speech, his grandfather was proudly smiling on him.

Frank Ukoli accepted a conclusion of the authors of Warri City & British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta – a conclusion to the effect that the judicial determination of the case brought by his people against Dore Numa was handled fraudulently. The reason for that judgment appears above. It was based on the overlordship of a non-existing king. In 1929, there was no Olu of Itsekiri. In some circles in Itsekiri at that time, it was forbidden to mention the Olu of Itsekiri. The Itsekiri establishment of those days, particularly Dore Numa, had squelched kingship among the Itsekiri. At some point, Dore Numa, British Colonial Agent, called himself the Olu of Itsekiri. Frank Ukoli rightly called Dore Numa an impostor. In any case, there was no Olu of Itsekiri in 1929, except in the imagination of the membership of the “Warri” Study Group. How could Frank’s wise grandfather declare allegiance to a phantom? He did not.

“Warri” Study Group challenges Frank Ukoli’s position that the case of 1925 was not between Agbarha and Itsekiri, because Agbarha people sued Dore Numa in his individual capacity as a British Political Agent. “Warri” Study Group takes refuge in the opinion of Lord Atkin in which he narrated the submission of Dore Numa. But here was a judge who simply restated the pleadings in the submissions of Dore Numa.  The critical question is, who were the real parties in interest in the case? The answer is as simple as it is clear – Agbarha people and Dore Numa.

The title of the case was as follows: “Ometa substituted for Ogegede on behalf of himself and Agbasa People VERSUS Chief Dore Numa.” There was no point at which the Agbarha people ever pleaded that their case was against the Itsekiri or the Olu of Itsekiri. Dore Numa did not bring in the Itsekiri as a third party. Nor did the Itsekiri apply to join the case as interested persons. The reason for that should be clear from the Ugborodo case. Ugborodo, an Itsekiri fraction, sued Dore Numa on the same grounds for which the Agbarha people sued him, namely, abuse of his office as Political Agent. Dore Numa pleaded in many ways, including a declaration that he was the Olu of Itsekiri or that he was acting on behalf of the Olu of Itsekiri. But the point is that the case never involved either the Itsekiri or their king as a party in interest.

One more item from “Warri” Study Group. It cites a case of Chief  Augustin Osioh Versus Anthony Idesor and 2 others, all of whom were apparently of Agbarha origin. In it the plaintiff was said to have pleaded on the grounds of the overlordship doctrine. The judge in that case was said to have upheld the doctrine of overlordship of the Olu of Itsekiri.

Professor Frank Ukoli cannot be held responsible for uninformed presentation by a member of the bar or for lack of historical knowledge in a judgement from the bench. One hopes that more lawyers and judges will become better informed and educated on these matters. To reveal how poor and uninformed some judicial reasoning can be, one should quote a portion from the judgement cited by “Warri” Study Group. It reads as follows:

They [the Itsekiri] have always been overlords and the people of Agbassa have always been tenants. Any other person living in Igbudu or any part of Agbassa except an Itsekiri is a tenant.

Anyone who is familiar with the history and doctrine of overlordship should be saddened by the deficiencies in the underlying reasoning of this pronouncement. First of all, nowhere in the world are all members of a whole nation or ethnic group overlords. There can only be one overlord presiding over many landlords. Were all Englishmen overlords in Ireland? Of course not. It was the King of England who was the overlord. Second, overlords have no relationships with tenants. It is landlords who collect rent from tenants. Third, there cannot be an overlord without landlords. The domain of an overlord consists of landlords. One must ask a question of such a strange pronouncement from the bench: was that to say that an Itsekiri bricklayer or houseboy living in boys’ quarters in Igbudu was an overlord, just because he is an Itsekiri? Does that not make nonsense of the law? How does this judgement relate to the 1971 case in which it was ruled, in favour of Arthur Prest, that the doctrine of overlordship did not apply to properties held by individuals and families?

One supposes that Frank Ukoli would like to send copies of Warri City & British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta to some of the learned lawyers and justices involved in such cases. After reading it, they should understand the doctrine of overlordship a little more clearly.

One final note on this matter of the land case between Agbarha people and Dore Numa and all its ramifications. No matter its determination in judicial, political, or constitutional processes, the people of Agbarha are entitled to record a full history of what their ancestors did to resist an organized attempt to steal their lands. They should narrate how long ago they settled in Warri land. They were there long before the Portuguese arrived in the Western Niger Delta in the 1480s. They were there long before Prince Ginuwa was born in Benin. They were there long before Ginuwa’s descendants, with the help of the Portuguese, constructed Itsekiri nationality after the Portuguese broke commercial and diplomatic ties with Benin in 1538. Moreover, they should tell their descendants about the treaty that their ancestors made with the British in 1893. Then they should carefully narrate how the Itsekiri establishment (not the Itsekiri people) mounted a concerted campaign to steal their lands from them. We truly expect those Itsekiri who are natives of Ugborodo and Ogidigben to do the same narration about their confrontation with the Itsekiri establishment. This is the basis of oral tradition as history and it is the civilised thing to do.

Such is the responsibility of fathers and teachers. That was what Frank Ukoli attempted to achieve. We trust that his children and the next generation of Agbarha people will appreciate and admire his brilliant efforts.

British Treaties with Itsekiri and Agbarha: 1884, 1893, and 1894

In his review of Warri City & British Colonial Rule in Western Niger Delta, Frank Ukoli emphasized the cogent argument that the contents of the 1884 British Treaty (remade and ratified in 1894) with the Itsekiri painstakingly defined the boundaries of Itsekiri territory to be the banks and waters of Benin River and Escravos River. Nana Olomu, who led the Itsekiri, and the other Itsekiri signatories to the Treaty did not mention Warri as their territory. On the other hand, in the 1893 British Treaties with Agbarha and other Urhobo communities, it was clearly noted that the lands that now constitute Warri City belonged to the Urhobo Chiefs and People of these communities.

In their panicked reaction to UHS’s introduction of these treaties, the Itsekiri establishment has given many reasons why these 1893 treaties should be discounted. First, they said the mere fact that they were made in territories designated as Warri did not matter. They have now abandoned that argument. Then they said that the treaties were those of Royal Niger Company which the Company made taking advantage of war against Nana Olomu in 1894, falsely citing Professor Obaro Ikime as their authority. But that argument cannot hold because the 1893 Treaties predated the British confrontation with Nana and in fact provided some of the grounds for the dispute between the British and Nana.  Then in their presentation to President Olusegun Obasanjo on the Warri crisis, the Itsekiri establishment declared that the Warri Treaties with Urhobo communities in Warri were invalid because, in their own words, “As there is no signature of Her Majesty’s Representative on each treaty, no one can talk of a genuine Treaty as such. It takes two parties to make a treaty. As can be seen, the two treaties in respect of Itsekiri Country with Itsekiri Chiefs in 1851 and 1894 were duly signed by Her Britannic Majesty’s Representative.”

This argument turns out to be totally false and quite careless. All the Warri Treaties with Urhobo communities were signed by Arthur E. Harrison whose title clearly appears as Acting Vice Consul. Now the Itsekiri establishment is still groping for other reasons. As Mr. Oke Sikere clearly shows in his chapter in the UHS book on Warri, the Warri treaties had nothing to do whatsoever with the dispute over the treaties that the Royal Niger Company made with the Ijaws. Will the Itsekiri establishment give up its fight to take over Frank Ukoli’s ancestral lands if it is decisively proven that these treaties are bona fide treaties between the British and Agbarha communities?

Itsekiri King as Olu of Iwere or Olu of “Warri”?

“Warri” Study Group tells an outrageous falsehood when it described Olu Akengbuwa as “Olu of Warri” and claimed that all Itsekiri Kings up to 1848, the year Akengbuwa died, bore the title “Olu of Warri.” William Moore, a descendant of Olu Akengbuwa, was a royalist historian whose History of Itsekiri was almost entirely devoted to a discussion of Itsekiri kings: He consistently called them “Olu Itsekiri” or “Olu of Itsekiri,” not even “Olu of Iwere,” that is, by the nickname by which he said Itsekiri were sometimes known. The term “Warri” did not appear anywhere until the late 19th century when the British created the Township of Warri. One wonders what drives a group of people to fabricate a false title from a strange name for their king and then forsake his historic title. Is it lust for power and money or is it an unrestrained effort to perpetuate an illusionary crisis that is self-serving?

Again, “Warri” Study Group distorted the history of the Itsekiri establishment’s application to the British colonial authorities to change the title of their King from the Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of “Warri.” The British did not object to change of the title, provided it was changed to Itsekiri’s other name, “Iwere.” The British told the Itsekiri that they could change the title of their King to “Olu of Iwere,” but not “Olu of Warri.” After all, it was the British, not the Itsekiri, who invented the word “Warri.”

All that Chief T. E. A. Salubi and Professor Frank Ukoli did was to agree with the decision of the British in this instance, because it is historically sound. Until 1949, when Ugbuwangwe was incorporated into the Township of Warri, Itsekiri had no foothold in Warri town at all. Time there was when Professor Obaro Ikime was the favourite oracle of the Itsekiri establishment. Now that it has been shown decisively that its members falsified his views, P. C. Lloyd is the new favourite oracle. They quote Lloyd as saying: “The Itsekiri call themselves Itsekiri or Iwere.” That is true. If they don’t want to call their King by its historic title of Olu Itsekiri, then they should call him by the nickname “Olu of Iwere.” Warri does not belong to the Itsekiri alone. Until 1949 they had no part of it. They cannot deprive the other owners of Warri, especially its original owners, of their heritage by distorting the history of Itsekiri kingship.

What is the historic relationship between the Olu of Itsekiri and the Township of Warri? Let the Itsekiri establishment accept the following description by Professor P. C. Lloyd (at page 85 of “Tribalism in Warri” presented at the West African Institute of Social and Economic Research, Fifth Annual Conference Proceedings, March, 1956. Issued by University College, Ibadan, 1956. Reprinted by Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1963) . Lloyd says:

The struggle for the ownership of the town has been intensified by modern political developments. Warri was, in the years prior to 1955 administered as a Township and not as part of the Itsekiri Native Authority. An Administrative Officer, termed the Local Authority, was assisted by an Advisory Board, nominated by the Resident, which in 1939 consisted of two other Government officials, three representatives of the European trading firms and three Africans – two Itsekiri and one Urhobo. The Olu of (sic) Warri had no part in the government of the Township.

In 1955 the Warri Urban District Council was formed and election of councillors was by secret ballot. Of the twenty one councillors elected, fourteen were Urhobo (13 N.C.N.C., and 1 A.G.) four were Ibo (all N.C.N.C.) and three were Itsekiri (1 A.G., 2 Independent N.C.N.C.). The Olu, the President of the Council, is an Action Grouper and the six chiefs, appointed as traditional members of the council are men whose titles have no traditional status, least of all in the town; they are all prominent in the local Action Group branch.

That is to say, until 1955, in the words of Peter Lloyd, “The Olu [of Itsekiri] had no part in the government of the Township.”

Itsekiri Establishment’s Wars against the Dead

Frank Ukoli is not the first deceased person to be viciously attacked by the Itsekiri establishment. Indeed, its morbid catalogue is deep, merciless, and shameful.

Ginuwa and his descendants have re-emerged as heroes among the ranks of the Itsekiri establishment. But, in fact, for decades this family that did so much for the Itsekiri was trampled upon by the Itsekiri establishment. Following the mysterious death of the immediate heirs to Olu Akengbuwa’s throne, the Itsekiri establishment disrupted Itsekiri royalty with scurrilous allegations against members of a family that was responsible for the construction of Itsekiri nationality.

For many Itsekiri, William Moore, a descendant of Olu Akengbuwa, was a hero for raising his voice against Dore Numa and the rest of the Itsekiri establishment for maltreating his royal ancestors. Moore’s History of Itsekiri was a stout defence of Itsekiri royalty. He was not a rich man nor did he hanker after power. But he was attached to the culture of his people. He would not bastardize the title of his ancestors for mere profit. Within legitimate limitations of research, his book was a courageous and truthful account of Itsekiri history.

Upon his death, the Itsekiri establishment waged a campaign against William Moore’s shades. Because he told too much truth, the Itsekiri establishment destroyed his valuable book. This is how Professor P. C. Lloyd narrated this campaign: Moore’s book was discredited and, in Warri, copies were destroyed or hidden by their owners so that very few are now in circulation.”

There are other instances of such morbid campaigns against the dead by the Itsekiri establishment. One such campaign stands out, because of the stature of its victim. Chief Arthur Prest, native of Ugbuwangwe in Warri, served the Itsekiri in many capacities. He represented them in the Western House of Assembly and in the House of Representatives in Lagos. He was an important Federal Minister. Besides, he was a brilliant lawyer and jurist. He did not like the way his people in Ugbuwangwe were being treated under the oppressive doctrine of overlordship. He took the Itsekiri Communal Land Trust to court for over-stepping its bounds under this doctrine. His – and Ugbuwangue’s – victory destroyed the doctrine of overlordship, the source of wealth for rent-seeking members of the Itsekiri establishment. They were angry with him, but there was not much they could do to him while he was alive.

Upon Arthur Prest’s death, the Itsekiri establishment carried out its revenge. It denied him burial rights among his people, whom he had served for so long.

Now, the Itsekiri establishment has once again stepped outside the boundaries of Itsekiri culture to wage its morbid campaigns against the dead. Not only did they tell blatant falsehoods against Frank Ukoli, they had the temerity to drag his father and grandfather into the mud of their morbid campaigns. They did worse than that. They dared to disparage Chief T. E. A. Salubi’s good name. One of the cheekiest attack lines in “Warri” Study Group’s menu of insults ran as follows: “If [Chief T. E. A. Salubi] were to come down from heaven or hell and find that this matter is still in contention, he would be proud of the likes of the Ukolis, Obiomas, Ukeukus, Ejoors, Ekehs . . .” We wonder what these people enjoy in such callow sense of humour.

We cannot claim to know the Holy Will of God and His Holy Judgement on mortals. But we are reasonably sure that Chief Salubi lived a good and decent life and that he is in all probability in Heaven. We believe – and pray — that in Heaven he will meet with William Moore, Godwin Boyo, Arthur Prest, Daniel Okumagba and Frank Ukoli. They would certainly discuss the affairs of Warri. They would all agree with William Moore that Itsekiri Kings were always called the Olu of Itsekiri and that lust for lucre should not lure the Itsekiri establishment into changing the title of the Itsekiri King to the strange name of Olu of “Warri.” They would all agree with Godwin Boyo and Arthur Prest that they were right to take the Itsekiri establishment to court for the oppressive use of the doctrine of overlordship.

We are satisfied that our big brother, our mentor and great friend, Frank Ukoli, is in good company in Heaven.


Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP Formerly, Professor of Child Health & Director, Institute of Child Health, Univ. of Benin. Director of Clinical Services & Training, & Acting Chief Medical Director, UBTH. Currently, Professor of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology, Michigan State University, USA.Jackson Omene, M.D., FAAP Formerly. Professor & Head, Dept of Child Health & Provost, College of Medical Sciences, University of Benin. Chief Medical Director, UBTH. Currently, Director & CEO, Atlantic Health Care Center, Brooklyn, New York, USA.

For: Urhobo Historical Society


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