An Address to the Urhobo People


July 30 and 31, 2009

Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Nigeria


Business Session

A Call to Service: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century in Urhobo Affairs

An Address by Olorogun Felix Ibru

President General, Urhobo Progress Union


You and I are blessed to be living as Urhobo men and women in the 21st century. Our conditions may not be perfect, but they could have been much worse if our predecessors of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s had not courageously and valiantly planned for the upliftment of the Urhobo people so that we could live and work on equal terms with other advanced ethnic nationalities of Nigeria. I have invited you all to this Unity Summit so that we can follow in the bold footsteps of the founders of Urhobo Progress Union by planning anew clear-sighted solutions to the novel but deep-seated challenges that face our people in the dangerous circumstances of the so-called Global Age of the 21st century.

We will benefit from a brief review of the challenges for which Urhobo pioneering leadership of the 1930s and 1940s proffered solutions. About a century ago, British colonial rule was being established in Nigeria. It required acquisition of Western education by a new generation and the empowerment of an administrative structure for ruling the affairs of the people. It turned out that the Urhobo people were disadvantaged in both of these respects. The choice before our people was either to wait for the Colonial Government and Christian Missions to bring, slowly, these benefits to Urhoboland or for Urhobos themselves to work directly to bring them. While scheming for Government assistance and while encouraging Missionaries to come to Urhoboland, our leaders of the 1930s and 1940s decided to help to build a solid future for the Urhobo people by working directly for elements of the new civilization. In doing so, our new leaders of the 1930s and 1940s asked our people to be dedicated and to be united in what amounted to a relentless campaign for progress.

The resulting benefits of unity in Urhobo campaigns for progress are plentiful. I will cite some prime examples here.

1. First, there is the Urhobo Bible. The Christian Bible was translated into such major Nigerian languages as Yoruba, Igbo, and Benin by missionaries. It was the Christian missionaries who selected the dialects of these languages into which the translation of the Bible was rendered. But that was not the case in Urhobo. Urhobo Christian leaders themselves came together from different denominations and chose a central dialect into which they translated the Bible. The Urhobo Bible is clearly a splendid example of the benefit of employing the doctrine of unity of purpose in ruling Urhobo affairs.

2. A second example is in the educational sphere. In the 1930s and 1940s, Urhobo leaders designed and implemented an education scheme in order to offer mass secondary school education to Urhobo youngsters. They taxed themselves and the Urhobo people, raising enough funds for the training overseas of Urhobo’s first two graduates. It was these two dedicated beneficiaries of Urhobo scholarship who returned to Urhoboland to build the famous Urhobo College. That was again another beautiful example of what unity could procure for the Urhobo people.

3. A third historic example of the pursuit of unity by the Urhobo people is the successful pooling together of Urhobo Clans into one Urhobo Division during British Colonial times. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Urhobo Clans were scattered under the following colonial Divisions outside Urhobo land: Benin Division (in Benin Province), Kuale Division, and Jekri-Sobo Division. Urhobo General Meeting and Urhobo Progress Union mounted a united struggle to pool together all Urhobo Clans under Urhobo Division. That was how Idjerhe was transferred from Benin Province to Warri Province and eventually to Urhobo Division. Abraka and Orogun were similarly transferred from Kuale Division to Urhobo Division. And that was how Okpe, Oghara, Udu, Uvwie, and Agbon were separated from Jekri-Sobo Division and regrouped under Urhobo Division. All of these Clans were beneficiaries of the UNITY of the Urhobo people in their determination to be treated by the British colonizers as a united people.

4. Our fourth example of the fruits of unity concerns the UPU and the land cases in Idjerhe, Oghara, Okpe, and Warri in the 1930s and 1940s. One danger posed by the coming of British colonialism to Urhoboland was that our lands were in danger of being poached by those who were privileged by the new circumstances of colonialism. Thanks to the united front put up by Urhobo Progress Union, attempts to poach Urhobo lands in Idjerhe, Oghara, Okpe, and Warri were rebuffed. Without that unity, Urhoboland would be much smaller than what it is today.

How Have We Used the Legacies of Urhobo Unity?

The above examples are clear instances of the benefits of the pursuit of the doctrine of Urhobo unity. Urhobo Progress Union is perhaps the largest legacy left behind by the pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s. It is the very emblem of Urhobo unity. It is not by accident that Urhobo Progress Union is the oldest organization of its kind in Nigeria. It was designed to work for the welfare of the Urhobo people. In its original conception, Urhobo Progress Union gained its resources from contributions and sacrifices from Urhobos of all grades and classes. The UPU was more deeply trusted by the Urhobo people than any confidence that the Government could gain from them. One of its points of strength was that Urhobo Progress Union was independent of Government and party politics.

I am aware that there have been several complaints from sincere proponents and supporters of Urhobo Progress Union concerning many aspects of its operations. I should remind you that the UPU is now nearly eighty years of age. Any organization of that great age requires continual renewal of purpose. What is clear is that the Union belongs to the Urhobo people. It is still relevant for planning for Urhobo’s future. In order to remain effective and relevant, the leadership of the Union should be well disposed towards conversations by Urhobo leaders of thought that will enhance the capability of the Union. For instance, how far removed should Urhobo Progress Union be from party politics? Or to ask another relevant question: have the Urhobo people become too dependent on Government for their welfare? Will our fortunes improve if we rely a little more on our own efforts, as our predecessors did?

Such questioning and such retooling of Urhobo Progress Union will enable the Union to undertake its assigned constitutional role of serving the welfare of the Urhobo people. Traditions and the Constitution of the Union mandate an annual Congress where issues affecting the Urhobo people are discussed. However, there are times when major challenges require a larger platform than the Congress can offer. Such rare occasions will define problems and solutions involving the entirety of the Urhobo people, inside the technical membership of the UPU as well as outside it.

The present Urhobo Unity Summit is one such occasion. We need to delineate the nature of the challenges of the 21st century along with suggestions of possible solutions that can be referred back to the Union for implementation or for further study.

Challenges of the 21st Century

The challenges that are posed to us by the new Global Age of the 21st century are different from those that our predecessors faced in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In the early decades of the 20th century, the consequence of inactivity by an ethnic nationality was stagnation. And many groups, which relied entirely on Colonial Government’s assistance, did suffer some form of stagnation while other ethnic nationalities, like the Urhobo and Ibibio, advanced rapidly through their own efforts. The consequence of inactivity and lack of planning for the future in the 21st century is worse than stagnation. The dynamics of the 21st century are said to be so potent that those who cannot move forward will be pushed to go backwards.

Let me give two examples of the severity of the challenges of the new Global Age in our communities:

1. Global Challenges and the Digital Age. We live in a Digital Age in which those who cannot use the magical facilities of the internet will be left behind in the 20th century. Those young people who will spend majority of their lives in the 21st century will be designated as primitive if they are unexposed to the intricacies of the computer world. In many rural Urhobo communities standards are moving backwards, receding to those of the early decades of the 20th century. That is the case in many other Nigerian communities. Can we afford to wait for the Nigerian Government to wake up before we organize a response? The ultimate question for the Urhobo people is this: Is there anything we can do to ensure that our children are not left behind in the 21st century?

2. Preservation of Urhobo Language and Culture in a Global World. A frightening danger that will beset many cultures in Africa and Asia is that their languages will die in the course of the 21st century. World linguists are warning the international community that before the end of the current century thousands of languages will cease to be spoken. Such dead languages will be yielding room to more global languages. How does Urhobo fit into this looming world crisis of dying languages occasioned by globalisation? What will Urhobo language look like a hundred years from now? We know that Urhobo language and culture are already under severe stress, in part because of hostile language policies of the Federal Government of Nigeria that essentially recognizes only three languages in Nigeria. In a matter of fifty years. Urhobo language and culture may become endangered. When we project forward to 100 years from now, we may be in a disaster zone. How should we respond to such looming danger?

Two Gateway Projects as Response to New Challenges

 It is important that these slippery issues be kept alive in our deliberations in Urhobo circles – at home in Urhoboland and in the Urhobo Diaspora, by Urhobo Progress Union and by other Urhobo organizations that work with the UPU and that are engaged in planning for Urhobo’s future. Meanwhile, it is important that we build up at least two gateway projects that will serve as the means for fighting these insidious challenges that face the Urhobo people in the 21st century.

1. Urhobo State. In Nigerian political history, states have been used as instruments of advancement. Many Urhobo leaders think it is now right to demand the creation of an Urhobo State. Moreover, they are persuaded that they can convince other Nigerians that Urhobos deserve to have their own state. Needless to add, the creation of an Urhobo State should be seen as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The purpose of seeking the creation of an Urhobo State is to enable us to plan solutions for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. This purpose should be fully engrained in our campaign for the State.

2. Urhobo University. A second gateway project that will assist us in facing the challenges of the future is a 21st century Urhobo University. The name Mukoro Mowoe University has already been suggested. That will be part of the planning of such a university. A seed for that University is already planted in the Cultural Centre at Uvwiamuge that my immediate predecessor in this office, Chief Benjamin Okumagba, began. The important point to stress is that it will not be just another university. If successfully carried out, this project should lead us to a centre of excellence that will rank among the best university and research institutions in the world.

As offered here, these are broad ideas that require to be fleshed out in greater details. I will leave those details to subsequent papers, which will follow this address, in later sessions of this Unity Summit. I am hopeful that there will be ample room for discussing these ideas and that they will be enriched with your own contributions.

Some Concluding Thoughts: A Call to Service

In making this presentation to you, my beloved Urhobo people, I am emboldened to invoke the names of our predecessors who served the Urhobo so well. That pioneering generation of Urhobos challenged themselves to serve Urhoboland and Urhobo people. They did so in order to make a better future for you and me. Let me cite their principal in this campaign for a sounder Urhobo of their future, which is what we are.

During his nation-wide tour of branches of Urhobo Progress Union in 1946, Chief Mukoro Mowoe called on his audience to offer selfless service to Urhoboland in the following immortal words:

“My belief is that every being born into the world has a duty to perform to his people: either to the village he belongs or to the town or country as a whole…. Frankly speaking, any one of you who should fail to play his or her part for the upliftment of our dear tribe, it were better that she or he had not been born.” [Mowoe told his listeners that not too long before that meeting the British Governor had asked Nnamdi Azikiwe to suggest names of Nigerians who would would replace the colonial officers if they were to leave Nigeria suddenly. Zik rattled off of qualified Nigerians who would take over from the British. Mowoe continued.] “Out of these names is there any Urhoboman among the names? If no, why? I say we have no privilege of learning; otherwise I think if not more, we have the same equal brains. Are we to leave our Nation to be under, always subject to all other nations in Nigeria? If no, be up and doing. Now we have the opportunity – our clans, our councils are ready and waiting for us; every one of Urhobo man should do his bit for the upliftment of our Race. We want money to send our deserving children to England for further studies and for the building of the Urhobo National Secondary School. I am sure we shall win the race before us. I pray that God may give you strength, long life to work hard and to complete the estimate before us and our name shall be remembered for ever by our children.”

That was Chief Mukoro Mowoe’s call to service. Now standing on his shoulders, I make bold to repeat his call as we face different challenges in a different century. Whether you live in the United States, England or Abuja, Urhoboland is your corner of the Globe. Join us in our renewed effort to rebuild our institutions for the benefit of the Urhobo People. That is our call to service to all Urhobos: men and women, boys and girls – from all professions and from all walks of life.

May God Bless the Urhobo People.

Olorogun Felix Ovuodoroye Ibru

President-General, Urhobo Progress Union

July 30, 2009


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