Urhobo Youth and the Urhobo Future

Urhobo Historical Society


By Omafume F. Onoge, Ph. D.

Professor of Sociology and Anthropology

University of Jos, Nigeria

Being the keynote address at the Fifth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society, delivered at Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, on Saturday,  October 30, 2004, under the distingguished chairmanship of Olorogun M. O. Taiga.


I want to express my thanks to Urhobo Historical Society for the invitation to deliver a keynote address to this conference. I consider it to be an honour. It is also with great pleasure and deep sense of solidarity that I accepted the invitation.

I must also immediately congratulate the Historical Society for its many achievements during the short period of its existence thus far. The potentials and prospects you have opened up for future Urhobo scholarship by exploiting the facilities of the latest global technologies and other resources of your ukale locations are truly inspiring. Some of us, over the years, regardless of our disciplinary and professional backgrounds, have dreamt dreams of how we could expand the spectrum of Urhobo leadership to include, not just actors in political and business domains, but also intellectual labourers. Put in another way, the question was; must an intellectual step out of her or his professional role and seek admission, like a desperate Jambite, into the political and business classes, in order to make a contribution and receive due recognition?

For sometime, the predicament of the Urhobo intellectual in this regard was difficult for two reasons. First the late entrance of Urhobo men and women as effective players in the national movement of primitive accumulation led to the extreme valorisation of money, which Marx had described since 1848 as the “ chemical power” of capitalist society. Thus all professions that could not reliably pass the litmus test of financial solvency lost prestige easily. This shift was not lost on the Urhobo masses. I recall that G.G Darah’s field studies of Udje poetry in the late 1970’s already revealed such awareness among Urhobo poets. Many explained their shift from Udje satire to praise songs of the juju music genre by saying that this is the era of “akpo r’igho” and “ighoshemusua”. In the absence of substantiating research on this point, I nonetheless hypothesise that the mass defection of Urhobo officers from top positions in the civil service during the 70s was provoked largely by the embarrassing tauntings at public gatherings such as: “Doctor. Oshekure: onota r’igho ata na!”. It is my distinct impression that the defection was accompanied by a surge in the registration of private companies dealing with pest control and garbage disposal. It is also my impression that this also produced a boom in the development of private housing estates in Warri and Effurun areas.

A second factor responsible for status erosion was the great decline that the teaching profession as a whole suffered for several decades, through deliberate materially impoverishing state policies and neglect. The education sector is yet to fully recover from the protracted crisis of officially sponsored demoralisation.

It is therefore to the credit of the young Urhobo Historical Society to have produced the much needed leadership synergy of academics and leading lights in business and public affairs. In post-civil war Nigeria, your organisation represents the most successful effort in the progressive evolutionary struggle to get a focused Urhobo scholarship going. In this regard, we recall the first initiative of Urhobo Social Club, Lagos, which commissioned Prof. Otite and other colleagues to produce the first edition of the Urhobo People.

About a month ago, at another strategic academic brainstorming session, Dr. Mrs. Aziza and I also recalled another pioneering effort in 1992 by Emudiaga Club, Jos, and its young branch in Sapele, in organising a “First International Conference on Urhobo Studies,” here at this same venue. I remember the infectious enthusiasm of Prof. Okpako of the University of Ibadan who responded to Emudiaga invitation by stating that the mere gathering of Urhobo academics was itself a significant joyous event, even if nothing else was achieved. As it turned out, there was a harvest of papers presented from multidisciplinary and experiential perspectives. The difficulties encountered in publishing the conference proceedings have prevented the Club from a fuller acknowledgement of the financial contributions made by Chief Okitiakpe who raised money at short notice from the Urhobo community of young businessmen and professionals in Lagos to prevent conference postponement, Chief Benjamin Okumagba who accommodated several participants in Idama hotel, the Ibru Organisation which made financial donation through the late Andy Akporugho, and Chief Ofuah and his koka koka troupe who performed unpaid.

More recently we witnessed the successful sponsorship of an Urhobo Dictionary by the Atamu Social Club of Lagos. In this respect we must also acknowledge the persistent efforts of individual authors over the years who have self-financed their researches on critical challenges faced by their communities or some cultural matter of interest. Chief Daniel Obiomah readily comes to mind. The recollection – though not exhaustive- is important. It staves off despair. To my mind, however, in the unfolding history of efforts by groups and individuals to establish Urhobo Studies as an ongoing academic concern, the Urhobo Historical Society is today, its most significant development. As it is said: ‘okiemute.’

Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want now to begin my presentation by acknowledging the significance of the topic you have requested me to address. ¹ The phenomenon of ‘youth restiveness’- as it is now labelled- and its implications for our collective future as a people are truly urgent. In the closing years of the last millenium, we, the Uvwie Urhobo became the target of embarrassing jokes from neighbours, government circles, traders, companies, transporters, okada associations, landlords, etc. because of the manifestation of this phenomenon. Uvwie Local Government Council was derided in such expressions as “I go die local government”; “I no go gree”, “garage council”, “motor park council”. Uvwie Youth, often without any discrimination, were alleged to be nothing but violent, riotous “gbeghe” and “deve” extortionists; who refused to go to school, learn a trade, or work for a living. Uvwie people also felt rubbished by the external perception that we were fixated on garage politics and that the traditional authorities and elders had abandoned their supervisory responsibilities over the youth. This latter charge of abandonment of responsibilities was also a favourite thesis in Abuja circles in respect of Warri riots.

The charge of irresponsibility drew angry rebuttals from concerned Uvwie in the form of letters to the editor published in the Urhobo Voice. The rebuttals contained the counter charge that the major political parties, and an indifferent police establishment, were in fact escalating the crisis and frustrating the efforts of the traditional authorities to restore normalcy.

However, it is also true that not everyone sought to deride Uvwie by redefining Uvwie identity in terms of youth restiveness. Several Urhobo in different parts of the country were genuinely worried about its consequences for Uvwie economic development and the larger image of the Urhobo people. Such concerned persons urged that Uvwie leaders and the UPU should do something about it. As I reviewed for this address I sometimes wondered if the invitation to address the conference was based on the initial notoriety which Uvwie people endured as a prominent ‘inaugural’ site of the youth irruption in Urhobo land.

I also admit that it was not without some tu quoque satisfaction that some of us received the news reports of the later manifestations of youth violence in other Urhobo towns. Since then this restiveness, often sliding into criminality with tragic consequences, has spread to various Urhobo and Isoko communities.

I consider it a sad moral irony that its uglier manifestations in communities like Evwreni, Isoko land and riverine communities that have degenerated to battlegrounds, helped in some way to reduce the special targeting of Uvwie reputations. What the general public did not fully appreciate was that Uvwie people were even more disturbed and pained by the destructive character of the restiveness. We were the people on the spot- with no where else to call home. It was our properties that were being destroyed. It was our people who were the casualties of factional revenge violence among the youth. And it was the livelihoods of our masses that were being worst hit as economic activities in the area continued to shrink. We the victims were the ones being blamed. I shall return to this point later.

At this juncture it suffices to note that the wide diffusion of restiveness shows that it is not a problem that is the special property of any single community or ethnic nationality, for that matter. Its multiple occurrence across Urhobo land, across the state, and across the Niger Delta compels a more searching investigation. It is in fact not just a Niger Delta problem as the central organs of state power in Abuja often wish to portray it. In truth, we are in the throes of a national youth crisis. The immediate triggers of ‘youth restiveness’, and its formal manifestations may of necessity vary according to locality; but its pervasiveness and cross-cultural, cross-zonal spread indicate some underlying national causes.

Supplying a Context:

It can be safely assumed that all socio-cultural formations recognise the imperative linkage between a people’s collective future and the character of their youth. Evidence of this recognition is abundantly provided in ethnographic reports of the institutions and customary practices devoted to socialisation and enculturation of the young. The reports state, and the people confirm, that the goal of enculturation, is to enable the young acquire the appropriate behaviours, interiorise the beliefs, value orientations and identities of the group. Thus equipped, the young generation is in a position to reproduce the institutional format of the society and its cultural contents, long after the parental generation has moved on. 

As is well known, psychological anthropologists and social psychologists have done considerable work in establishing how socialisation practices ensure not just the reproduction of formal institutional structures of economy, kinship and polity, but also the emergence of “basic/modal personality structures” (a shared inner reality) which reproduce the deep psychic dispositions and anxieties, that sustain the society’s collective projective defence systems in the domains of religion, rituals and art. In fact, as we may also recall, some investigators hold that it is alterations in the socialisation of the young that constitute the best predictors of societal change when the young become adults.

In any case the point I seek to make here is that parental generations in ongoing socio- cultural systems see their youth as the custodians or ‘leaders of tomorrow’. As such, every coherent culture places emphasis on the care and proper upbringing of the young.

It is to be further noted that the leader- of – tomorrow conception does not imply complete agreement between the elderly and youth generations all of the time. There may be differences, but they are framed and resolved within the model assumption that, in general, youth must serve their apprenticeship under the superior wisdom and experience of elders.

In small scale, pre-industrial societies where there was strong predisposition towards culture conservation, the idea of change was also part of lived experience. Elders were aware that youth experimentation and venturesomeness were often sources of some cultural changes. Innovations of better techniques of production, cultural borrowing in contact situations occurred. Environmental changes or some other exogenous developments may pose fresh challenges to the new generation who were now in control. Yet the practice of socialisation and enculturation was undertaken by the retiring generation in the confident hope that their successors would make the necessary socio-cultural adaptations without ‘subverting’ the core values and identities of the collectivity.

Thus the generational differences are not antagonistic contradictions that breed disloyalties and threaten the persistence of the social fabric. If a youth lives long enough, he too will become an elder someday. Hence the confidence of the Urhobo saying: ‘There is one elder, but several children’. In the mean time, the pervasiveness of the seniority principle in social relationships ensures that the individual youth is also already enjoying the priviledges of respect and deference from his or her own age juniors.

In East Africa, several societies developed the seniority principle into a full-blown mechanism for political administration, and the orderly public transfer of decision- making power from generation to generation. Preparations for such transfer from a retiring age group to its successor were quite elaborate and involved the entire society in a series of cumulative festivals and other ceremonial rituals. There was always great and joyous expectation.

The import of such democratic political culture based on age-group constituencies was not lost on colonial dictatorships. In deed, as I once stated the colonizer’s response: “ ‘coming out’ ceremonies of age-groups- important occasions for dramatic performances of democratic transfer of political power from one generation to another- were banned in societies such as Banyakyusa and the Agikuyu, because of the fear that they could escalate into realistic dramas of anti- colonial politics”. ²

A Further Context: Imaging Dialectics

By all accounts the imaging of Nigerian youth by state officials and the general public today is largely negative. Youth is now perceived as a social problem. No week passes without some media report of disparaging comments about youth and their alleged defilement of traditional ‘core values of yore’, such as respect for elders and authority, family honour, good manners, work ethic, self discipline and the like. At the community level, The Urhobo Voice is also an unfailing source of news headlines reporting problem youth activities in Urhoboland and other ethnic groups.

In the past youth were perceived as heroes of the nationalist movement. As students and as a nascent proletariat they were the militant wing of the anti- colonial struggle. As founder- members of the Nigerian Youth Movement, the Zikist Movement, the West African Students’ Union, WASU, etc, they popularised the anti- imperialist consciousness theorised by the elder nationalists. They were thrown out of school, often detained and jailed by the colonizer who regarded them as dangerous nuisance: but they persisted. As a proletariat, in the coalmines of Iva valley, Enugu, some of them were murdered by colonial police: yet they persisted. They fought even the slightest manifestation of the colour bar- thereby arresting the introduction of any crazy racialist schemes. It was a youth, Anthony Enahoro, who first moved the motion for self-government. The broad historical record of the sacrifices made by vanguard youth in the liquidation of colonial rule is clear, even though many of them were later marginalised as spectators, the day after independence.

Nigerians came to independence with the image of youth as a precious, strategic, patriotic resource to be carefully groomed for leadership and developmental roles. Investments in youth education were considered paramount in the public consciousness, if the nation was to make rapid progress from colonial stagnation.

On the ‘morning’ of independence, Nigerian students from the University of Ibadan and the Yaba Polytechnic had demonstrated fidelity to the legacy of militant anticolonialism, by physically disrupting parliamentary sessions in Lagos to block ratification of an Anglo- Nigerian Defence Pact, secretly imposed by the British government as a conditionality for conceding independence. The public read the behaviour as patriotic: and the Judge who tried their leaders reflected this public mood and dismissed the demonstration as an instance of harmless “ youthful exuberance”.

Three decades after independence, after so many twists and turns, the famous Political Bureau Report of 1986 was still able to affirm linkages of youth and national destinies without recourse to philistine, pejorative slander. The Report devoted Chapter IX to ‘Special Groups in Nigerian Politics and Society’ such as traditional rulers, the military, women, labour, youth and students. I quote in extenso from the subsection on youth and students:

In the context of Nigeria’s historical experience, youth and students have rendered valuable contributions to the struggle for liberation and national development. They can constitute a reservoir of energy and dynamism for any national struggle or campaign if they are correctly guided, mobilized, and fully integrated in to the social fabrics of the nation. They may also constitute a threat to national survival and stability if they are allowed to drift, are unemployed, indisciplined and morally bankrupt. No nation aspiring to major national greatness can afford to ignore the youths and allow them to constitute a major social problem. They are a vital source of manpower and do possess leadership potentials, can acquire knowledge, and are full of future promises. Once these innate potentials in them are fully exploited and properly channeled, their contributions to national development can be immense. (P.163)

While sticking to the official classification of youth as persons between 6- 30 years, the Report noted that this age constituted about 59% of the nation’s population: with those between 15-30 years representing a hefty 47% of the productive population of the nation. The Report further noted that the students segment of the youth has sustained its “militant wing” heritage of the anti- colonial movement by its current political activism:

They are the most committed group in the organisation of voluntary social work or community development projects in their various localities. As students, they are always in the forefront in the struggle against injustice, oppression and exploitation. They therefore constitute a militant force in any political system. Many of these activities have been recognised and acknowledged in Nigeria. Unfortunately, however, their positive contributions have tended to be drowned by rather frequent and sometimes violent protest actions. These protest actions are promptly suppressed by the authorities and, sometimes, by ruthless means. (P.163)

A detailed sociology of the changing relationships between the Nigerian State and Nigerian Students movement has not yet been researched. I can only suggest that part of the outline will include the following phases:

i.           The switch from an inherited original perception of students’ nationalism to a critique of an alleged emergent elitism, narrow concern with campus welfare and ‘ivory tower’ divorce from public causes.

ii.            The perception that student protestant “radicalism” was short-lived; and was abandoned as they ‘joined the system’ upon graduation. That is, an allegation of hypocrisy of ‘fire-spitting’. The establishment of NYSC as “remediation”.

iii.           The post-civil war phase, as the students movement began to adopt more public causes of mass welfare, ignoring the sharp decline in student welfare (e.g. Canteen, dormitory, classroom etc. facilities); and acting as a de facto opposition, given the prohibition of politics by the military dictatorship. <>

iv.           State response of violent suppression and repression and the allegation that students’ role was to ‘face their studies’ and not get involved with public polices and ‘politics’. Directives to university authorities to confine students to their campuses, etc; and harsh treatment of Union officials.<>

v.      Phase of students’ intensification of critique of state policies, and deeper identification with radical professional associations, and mass organisations such as Labour- e.g. the signing of an accord with Labour Union; and state response of prohibition of NANS and the prohibition of “undue radicalism” in academic pedagogy; restriction of usage of classroom facilities for public seminars. <>

vi.           Phase of religiofication of campus culture and attempts by authorities to use this to fragment solidarity of unions.<>

vii.         The impact of SAP (“Structural Adjustment Programme”).

viii.        Phase of emergence of violent cult phenomenon; its unresolved controversial genesis, and its negative impact on state and public images of students.

ix.           Phase of Youth Earnestly Ask for Abacha (YEAA) and two million-man march. This was a period of active co-optation of youth by the State through the propagandistic manipulation of a theory of conflict of generations.

A well-nuanced analysis will require that the changing images of student youth during these phases take account of the dynamics of the larger political economy, and the cultural sociology of Nigerian society as well. Student youth are not insulated from the existential impacts of changes in these larger societal contexts. The Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) has been significant in the mis/fortunes of the country. Its continuation in the job retrenchments, curtailment of welfare, and obsessional fuel price increases in our ‘born- again’ democracy, unhinge real lives. A study of the changing images and behaviours of student youth will also take account of the quality of state-society relations, fresh currents of corrupt primitive accumulation; and the surge in new forms of piety as well as criminality. The study will also consider the sociological forces shaping the composition of tertiary institutions increasingly in the direction of indigeneity. I move now to observations on the current youth crisis.

Current Youth Crisis: Some Observations

Perhaps I have erred in my persistent usage of the term ‘youth crisis’. You will have observed that the thrust of my address is the ways in which various phases of our national crisis are manifested in youth attitudes, fears, hopes, and behavioural responses. Of course, there is a dialectical feedback relationship between society and its youth; but who in the relationship triggers the feedback dynamics in the ‘last instance’?

Consider this touching comment by Obi Nwakanma, which I have excerpted from his column, published in the Sunday Vanguard of October 24, 2004, page9. The title of his piece was “Chinua Achebe’s symbolic weight” and it focused on the literary icon’s public rejection of the award of a national honour by the state. He applauded Achebe’s action with the argument that government policies continue to exacerbate widespread poverty, “polluted cities, scarcity, insecurity, decay, anomie”. Let me reproduce the harsh but sad judgement of the penultimate paragraph of Nwakanma’s column, which I consider pertinent to the national youth question:

“A contemporary generation of Nigerians have psychologically rejected, and spiritually abandoned Nigeria. To them, the Nigerian project has come to an end. Those who are unable to achieve physical flight have taken a mental flight from Nigeria. As it is, only the president and a handful of those who are around him still believe that there is something of a Nigeria left to talk about. But if the President takes a look, just once, and peep (sic) out of the windows of his rock castle, he would see that Nigeria no longer exists. What exists is a fascist state. It is not the Nigeria that the then young Chinua Achebe thought about in 1958, when Things Fall Apart appeared to a joyous horizon; a country then with such hope writ large, as it moved gingerly towards final decolonization. It is not even the Nigeria that my own generation, born within the first decade after independence, knew. Most of my generation move towards our fortieth birthdays and beyond, towards middle-age, and it is increasingly clear to many of us, children of the post-colony, that we incarnated in the cannibal cycle” (emphasis mine).

And here is the first segment of his concluding paragraph:

We entered life to a meaningless existence- a nullity. And we might even be called lucky, because those coming after us will live as slaves.

To our columnist it is this government and previous military regimes “who have authored this tragedy-who have ruled Nigeria, and led her to the slaughter”.

We can of course hold that some of his statements do not fully capture the many-sidedness and ambivalences in the public mood in the social responses to certain events and policies over the decades. To take just the example of military rule: it used to be the case that some military coups received initial considerable support both from the public and ranks of the intelligentsia. Such support was founded on the theoretical and speculative expectation that military regimes would be free from corruption, ethnic partisanship, inefficiencies, and indiscipline; and would more readily attend to the technological and economic development of the country, as well as, promote a deep sense of common nationhood. It is our lived experience under a series of military regimes that has established the mythological character of the initial heraldic expectations.

The foregoing notwithstanding, the despair of the ‘post-colony’ generation is evident in Obi Nwakanma’s intervention just quoted. It is not an isolated observation. Harsh appraisals of the current state of our nation are now frequent in our print media and broadcast media under private proprietorship. Such appraisals increasingly characterise newspaper and magazine editorials. The old supportive restraint displayed by commentators, NGOs, (including labour) and others during the first term of the new democracy is evaporating. There have been shifts too in the consideration of youth question. Here is an itemisation of some of the switches.

1.  There is a national crisis on the youth front. Youth are now perceived largely as a problem-and the problem is popularly described as youth restiveness. The national dimension is reflected in formal bodies such as OPC, Arewa Youth, MASSOB, Egbesu Boys of Africa etc. These are publicly acknowledged bearers of structured political economic agendas of geo-/ethnic divisions.

2.    There are a number of other smaller youth associations in the states, local governments and towns across the country today. They must be in the hundreds, at least. This smaller type of youth smaller youth associations are without any explicit political agenda, but focus more on their welfare concerns. This is the predominant type whose activities troubles Urhobo land today.

3.    There is also a rise in organised youth delinquencies in Nigeria’s cities today. Popularly known as “area boys”, at least in Lagos, they have a neo-gang structure and specific city turfs where they operate and defend against rival groups. They have a strong lumpen subculture.

4.    Whereas in previous years, discussions of youth concentrated on the student stratum based on the assumption of a vanguardist role, the situation has changed. Discussions no longer privilege students, over other youth. The emergence of cult gangs on campuses has facilitated the assimilation and subsumption of students in the inclusive category of Nigerian youth. It is the violent restiveness of youth, which now announces their presence in the public mind; and campus cults share in this attribute. I suggest also that the rampant graduate unemployment, which now exists, has also contributed to the erosion of the status of undergraduates.

We recall that in some states of the Eastern zone, the unemployment crisis resulted in sharp decline in enrolment of boys in secondary schools. Parental preference was for early insertion into vocational training as apprentices in commerce and artisanship. It has required mass campaigns to reverse the trend.

5.    There is an increase in the number of youth who flee the country through illegitimate means in order to make a living in other lands. Global networks have emerged to facilitate this physical flight of both male and female youth, as well as child labour smuggling.

In any case the long queues of Nigerian youth at foreign embassies seeking entry visas is, in part, an indication of the “mental flight” which Nwankama mentioned.

6.    The youth who are now so characterised as restive were born during the era of military rule. – The era in which the actual use of force, or the demonstration of readiness to use force to gain advantage was institutionalised by soldiers at public service points, such as petrol filling stations with long queues. Traffic regulations were routinely violated by uniformed men. There was a resultant militarisation of youth consciousness, which the society is now reaping.

The foregoing national characteristics of the youth condition today enable us better appraise the youth question in Urhoboland. It should however be noted that just as it is the case with the rest of Nigeria, it is not all Urhobo youth that have resorted to violent restiveness. Like their counterparts in other parts, there are Urhobo youth, who work within the framework, conform to the normative order, and strive for education in order to actualise personal career goals. Some youth are of course fortunate to enjoy class privileges of their parents. There are others, who are not so advantaged, but who have been guided successfully by highly motivated parents, significant persons, or religious backgrounds. Some have also made it because of their affiliation with morally strong peers, or spatial location in rural Urhobo land not yet swamped with the chaos and anomie of unguided urbanism.

Urhobo Youth Restiveness:

Two years ago, I initiated a pilot field study of youth restiveness in selected communities in the Niger Delta, as a basis for a more comprehensive investigation of the phenomena across the zone. The goal was to generate data that could guide the formulation of informed development policies and programmes for youth. Some Urhobo communities were included in the pilot study.

Here are some of the tentative findings:

1.  Youth groups in Urhobo land were largely apolitical. They were not the kind of social movements with political economic agendas and bill of rights associated with, for example, the authors of the Kaima Declaration, or MOSOP.

2.       Urhobo youth restive groups came into existence in the 1980s as pressure groups to get paid employment for their members in companies operating in the area. This is emphatically the initial purpose of their genesis.

In some other Urhobo communities where there were oil wells, there was the additional question of the quest for fair sharing of compensations from oil companies. The presence of oil companies and the consequent promiscuous debasement of the environment has spurned the emergence of compensation agents and a veritable compensation crisis. There are accusations in a number of Niger Delta communities concerning the hijacking of such compensation by agents, and traditional authorities. Youth groups have emerged to ensure that they are not shortchanged.

3.       In the Uvwie case, the groups supplement their revenue by demanding “deve” that is development levies, from non-indigene property developers; or companies. A respondent justified the actions thus: “…government has collected most of our lands in the community with the aim of building low cost housing estate without paying compensation, but suprisingly these lands have been sold by government to various individuals who are not indigenes of the community. I see nothing wrong therefore in collecting ‘deve’ from these people. It is our land they are building these houses, making us landowners tenants. They must pay. This is the only we get compensated.

In a sense, some of us foresaw this land crisis in Uvwie kingdom more than two decades ago. In 1978, I wrote an article titled “Rural Poverty in Nigerian Bourgeois Sociology”³ in which I devoted a section to the rape of the Urhobo peasantry that had commenced with the oil rush economy. While I leaned on Darah’s collection of Udje poetry to illustrate growing mass consciousness of capitalist penetration among Urhobo generally, I used the happenings in Uvwie land to sketch the process of land alienation that had commenced. Here is a fragment of how I expressed it 26 years ago:<>

From my personal observations, the singular feature of the current state of capitalist penetration of Urhobo villages, following the oil rush, is the process of rapid land alienation. Uvwie villages, which are immediately adjacent to the city, have faced the pressure more intensely and without any advance warning. Within the short time that the city of Warri has become an administrative centre for oil prospecting activities in this part of the country, landlessness has come to characterise the Uvwie people. Within a decade the Uvwie polity has lost more of its communal, lineage and individual farmlands to non-farming private proprietors. At the time of writing, the ownership of most of the remaining parcels of communal land is tied up in court litigation.

This material haemorrhage, this massive dispossession of Uvwie peasants of the means of production, land, has been effected through the mechanisms of forcible expropriation, deceit, corruption, state acquisition and commercial transaction whose morality is unproblematic only in the fetid ethical system of bourgeois legal culture.

The leaders of this coerced proletarianization movement are big landlords who have converted the farmlands into giant housing estates, ‘layouts’ and hotels for high-class corporate tenants. Today, Uvwie villages are imprisoned in a forbidden ring of estates and layouts boldly flaunting the obscene egoism of the new lords of the land on gilded sign boards: ‘Chief Oguobi’s Estate’, ‘Mr. Ozighe’s layout; Ogbare’s Mansion’. A variegated assortment of hotels, motels, ‘guest houses’ and ‘inns’ dot the area like smallpox. My natal village Ugborikoko, is today without farmland, imprisoned, in this capitalist transformation of the ecology.

In this land racket Uvwie villagers were truly ambushed. The land pirates had the money. The villagers had no money. The land pirates could afford the best lawyers and the services of professional surveyors. The villagers could not. All that villagers had were oral chronicles of geneologies of their forebears who tamed the land. The land pirate with his money could summon emergency fake griots (who had also begun to emerge) to fabricate geneological claims on behalf of the pirate for a fee.

Meanwhile, the litigation battle is an unequal one. Desperate and pressed to the wall, the peasant villagers fall back on their only ultimate cultural resource: they sacrifice to the ancestors and summon them to come and defend their children. They perform magic before they go to court only to discover that money, the god of the capitalist age is thicker than the blood knot between peasant and ancestor. Thus defeated, some villagers capitulate and accept the “magnanimous” offer of “compensation” by the pirate. But the financial “compensation” is for this year’s crops, and not for the infinite generations of crops that future generations of the village will require for their sustenance. 

Need we probe further for the root causes of “gbeghe”-“deve” youth associations today?

4.       Membership of the organisation is not restricted to indigenes. All youth who seek employment can register as members.

5.       Definition of youth is elastic. Some have membership spanning 19-50 years of age. The driving force is really the search for employment. Some refer to the older members as “big youth.”

A non-indigene member, an artisan in his 30s from outside the Niger Delta zone said: “For years I have nothing doing. The only way to survive is to join the youth, and since I joined I have been getting some money.”

6.       Membership spans the educational spectrum. There are graduates, HND, NCE holders, artisans, SSCE and primary school certificate holders. It is not true that members are a bunch of dropouts.

7.       On how long one can remain a member? A respondent said: <>“First nobody forced you into it. Moreover, the group is not a secret cult where members remain for life. You are free to decide whether you want to be a life member or not. As for me I am no longer a member because I have very important things to do.”

8.       Membership is all-male. But they are ready to gbeghe companies for the employment of women.

9.       Groups get additional funds through membership levies and monthly contribution of a percentage of salaries earned by those who secured employment through the groups lobby; and the fines they impose on cases they settle among litigants in youth “courts”. They also make money from fees paid by persons who seek their services in recovering debts via their display of “gbeghe” (the show of force). Funds are shared by members immediately.

10.    On the critical question of personal future goals. All responses stress to  “get a job”; other expressions are “take care of my children”, “get married”, “settle down”, “to become a businessman”, “to become a politician” and, in one case, to “gain admission to University”. On Future community goals: they say they “wish to see my community developed.”

11.    The two sources of violence that has often spilt over from the groups to fracture the community itself have come from the chronic problem of Executive Committee successions; and the infiltration of the groups by rival politicians seeking to use the groups for electoral campaigns support.

The flight of business organisations because of frequent youth “gbeghe” and the Exco succession crisis, which is the occasion for much factional violence, and has sometimes led to loss of lives, property destruction and instability in the community has provoked community initiatives. Some communities have now set up committees to ensure peaceful succession and prohibited the associations from involvement in extra legal activities.

Implications for Urhobo Future:

Notwithstanding the tentative nature of the findings from the study-in-progress, they indicate that all is not lost even in sites of galloping urbanisation such as Uvwie land and Warri. This is because the members, as well as, opponents of the youth associations state emphatically, that the main goal of the groups is lobbying for paid employment from the business corporations operating in the area. When pressed for remedial suggestions, both members and their opponents urge the creation of more jobs in the area by government and other relevant development agencies.

Members state personal future goals and ambitions of ‘settling down’ and raising families as soon as “ I have a good job”. They claim they would cease to be members as soon as they have employment, to enable them focus on their careers. In deed, the study confirms several cases of such former members who quit after they secured jobs. This means that members see the association as a temporary instrument for unlocking closed employment doors. They are of course aware that the extortion of ‘development levies’ and ‘compensation’ fees from companies and individuals is illegal. These are illegal desperate acts for survival in an economic environment where legitimate alternatives are presently bare. However, the fact that they dream of personal futures of settled life outside this kind of youth association, indicates that they have not deteriorated to a mindset which celebrates idleness and survival predicated on illegal use of force. In some parts of the Niger Delta, community leaders are already expressing great anxiety about the future behavioural consequences of the huge “stand by” wages paid to some unemployed youth by oil corporations, just to buy peace.

Unemployment is a nation-wide problem, which is now further exacerbated by ongoing SAP-type ‘reforms’. It is a veritable social time-bomb: and it is already manifesting as the flash point for riots across the country, expressed in a variety of ideological colourations. Although a full resolution of the crisis requires a growing of the national economy, the local situation can still be relieved somewhat.

For example, the state government can insist that the giant companies comply strictly with the regulation restricting job positions of certain grade levels to host communities. The local governments and the Community Based Organisations (CBOs) can, through patient dialogue, persuade smaller business outfits to reserve some of their job positions to their host communities as well. This will enhance the climate of peace necessary for the orderly conduct of business and the growth of the economy. The leaders of the CBOs and the Local Government Councils ought to ensure that they bring to the attention of NDDC the concrete needs of the grassroots of their communities. That way, the NDDC can match development projects to real community needs. The current NDDC practice of explaining their master –plan to contractors and politicians at local government headquarters, does not reach down to populations in greatest need of development.

Meanwhile, the flight of companies and other commercial outfits from Urhobo land because of the violence and insecurity contributed by “gbeghe”  – “deve” violence of the youth associations- has become clear to the communities and the youth alike. The very employment, which they seek, is vanishing because of their mode of approach. A number of communities are already taking initiatives to rein in the youth associations and gradually return them to the traditional role of serving the community under the directives of ekpako. The recent move of the UPU to inaugurate a central youth body to monitor and coordinate youth associational activities, through representatives from the clans, is an appropriate initiative.

Youth in rural Urhoboland still have the advantage of early insertion into the productive family economy through availability of farmland, unlike their urban counterparts. The project of road construction and rehabilitation, which the current state government has undertaken, has already produced an impressive network of motorable roads. This has opened up market access for rural farm economies. This has also created the possibilities for youth to have their primary and secondary education within their villages and towns, with eventual access to University education less than two hours from home. The upshot of this is that rural youth can complete primary and secondary education, without being alienated from a work ethic. This is an opportunity now largely lost in the enculturation curricula of youth growing up in the urban Urhobo.

However, despite this rural advantage, educated youth will be attracted to agricultural pursuits as a long-term option only if the agrarian economy is revolutionised. Here then is a vast opportunity for Urhobo entrepreneurs’ industrial mechanisation of agriculture. Fortunately the state government is currently promoting programmes for a refocusing on agriculture: and has in fact set up a successful training facility –Songhai farm- at Amukpe. Surely, there is an urgent need for state partnership with entrepreneurs here to help relieve the unemployment and poverty burdens.

The state, the UPU, Urhobo Associations, CBOs and communities have a role to play in rescuing the youth groups from the violent lumpen regressions which now contaminate their original employment seeking goal. The aforementioned bodies need to seek ways of terminating the sources of small arms supply to the region. Where do the guns come from? The commercial networks, which drive substance abuse among youth, must also be dismantled. No nation progresses with a population addicted to substance abuse. Where the habit had taken roots, its eradication has been one of the first priority objectives of third world revolutions, as was the case of China. Urhobo Associations from UPU to the CBO levels ought to consider launching political education mass campaigns for a redefinition of politics in Urhoboland. Such a redefinition in the direction of service will remove the necessity, by politicians; to convert the vital social force of youth into armed electoral thugs, who violate the preferences of the community vote.

As I had indicated earlier, provided that some rehabilitative action is taken, youth that presently constitute the associational type that has been discussed, do not seem to me to constitute a major hurdle to Urhobo future. Fortunately, female youth are thus far, largely insulated from this associational type. Urhobo have also escaped the teenage female delinquency which first hit Urhobo youth- in the form of hotel and night club prostitution with expatriate oil workers, in the late sixties to mid seventies, when the oil rush commenced. Many teenage girls abandoned their school for the ‘easy life’ at the time. It appears also that Urhobo female youth are happily under-represented in the current international network of migrant prostitution. We must salute our mothers for so protecting our female youth in these truly trying times.

To my mind therefore there are more serious challenges facing the Urhobo future in the poly-ethnic/poly-national constituencies of the Nigerian State. I itemise them as issues, which the conference and the Urhobo Historical Society may wish to address.

Urhobo Future: Other Challenges:

We are faced with four crucial challenges. They are the questions of cultural identity, leadership, politics and nation-class tensions. I discuss them in capsule form.

1.    Cultural Identity:

Language is the key aspect of Urhobo cultural identity. And it is proper that its significance has recurred in various sessions of this conference. In deed, it has always been an agitational issue in all-important gatherings of Urhobo. I suspect that Urhobo Associations and ‘Meetings’ in ukale locations in Nigeria and abroad now require that the language be spoken whenever they convene. The language is dying especially in the homes of the successful educated middle and elite classes. Apart from the general loss of fluency in the usage of the language among most educated elite, it is not being transmitted to their children. Back in the homeland, where intense urbanisation has taken place (e.g. Warri and Uvwie Local Government areas) children of the native Urhobo populations have been overwhelmed with the Pidgin English language. It is in the rural areas where the language is regularly spoken. Of course, literacy in the language lags for behind. The death of a language is tantamount to ethnocide. It is a powerful means of communicating the knowledge, skills, symbols, and aesthetics of a culture.

The case of the Australian Aborigines is a tragic empirical lesson. One of the indices of inequities in the Nigerian polity is its neglect of the promotion of the languages of the minority ethnic groups. The system works on the assumption that national integration requirement is achieved when the languages and cultural symbols of the big three ethnic groups have been provided for. Other minority groups in the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt are also now much concerned with this problem. But it must be said also that the big three are not relying solely on federal support. They have been doing a lot for themselves in the promotion of their languages, literatures, dress modes etc. In seeking to reverse this trend with respect to Urhobo language, we can learn much from the initiatives of the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo.

In promoting the language and culture of Urhobo the Local Governments, Urhobo CBOs, and other Associations can do a lot for us without waiting for initiatives from higher organs of state power in the Federation. Among a host of things they can jointly do is the establishment of community Radio and Television stations devoted to cultural promotion. For example national and world news, discussion, enlightenment, religious and entertainment programmes can be broadcast in Urhobo in such media.

Research and publications can be funded on a regular basis if the local councils expand the notion of development beyond motor park and market stalls construction, to include culture development.

There is yet another issue: masquerade festivals used to be a fecund source for cultural renewal and community solidarity. Occupational changes among the population, the dispersal of youth from home for education and career pursuits are some of the factors that have led to their decline. But there is a new force in the land- Christian Pentecostal evangelism that now paganises cultural practices, including these masquerade festivals which, in essence, were classical indigenous Urhobo theatre. FESTAC is now denounced by these evangelists as having spiritually polluted Nigeria. Igbo annual masquerade festivals have now also come under heavy Christian censure in the East.

Are we not faced here with a major cultural cost? Is there not a middle ground? Is the ongoing uncritical demonisation of the indigenous environment not itself a source of Urhobo identity disorientation for the coming generation? The Urhobo Historical Society may wish to organise a thoughtful panel on the question.

2.    Leadership question:

After the golden age of the UPU under Mukoro Mowoe and his associates who succeeded him, this apex organisation of the Urhobo has been plagued by successive leadership crisis. The problem is now almost endemic. This problem has also been remarked upon at Urhobo assemblies. Whereas, the discussion of the language problem unites, that of the leadership question fractures the community. Whereas successful initiatives are already being contributed to the resolution of the culture problem; resolution efforts on the leadership concern continue to totter.

It is an issue still requiring deep thought. For my part I think that a serious aspect of the problem which is often neglected is followership. I hold the view that leadership is not all just charisma. The followership also matters. A leader is as strong as his followership. A weak followership can wreck leadership. In my judgement, the modern generation of Urhobo are poor followers. Ethnography of modern Urhobo public occasions will reveal a constant alteration of seating arrangements at the high table and on the front row. Everyone wants to be at the high table or front row whether or not such ‘notable’ is directly relevant to the occasion. Each is a ‘leader’ at all times.

I have usually argued that the poverty of followership stems from the deep tradition of republicanism and egalitarianism, which informed Urhobo social structures and cultures for very many generations. We do not, in my view, have long-standing traditions of living under rigid neo-feudal hierarchical structures. Such hierarchies institutionalised deep traditions of deference performance and subservience. In fact, there are several instances where mass migrations of whole communities were driven by the desire to be free of tyrannical polities. In such instances, the present kingdomite revivalisms represent a return to a past, which had been superceded. These returns are adaptations to a colonially crafted polity with structured privileges according to the degree of feudality of the constituent societies. Our colonial master-nation, we should remember, did not complete its own democratic revolution from feudal monarchism.

By my hypothesis, the stabilisation of Urhobo modern leadership in its apex organisation will therefore require deep thought about far-reaching democratisation of its constitutions.


This is another area of concern in thinking about the Urhobo future. In particular I have in mind the question of political party affiliation. Despite official and popular public thinking that Nigerian political constituencies, and voting behaviour, are ethnic, it is also the case that politics fractures ethnic communities. People also consider their self-interests and moral principles in the choice of party affiliation and the candidates to support at elections.

As a people the significant political injury suffered by the Urhobo in Warri under the Action Group government in the Western region, created a long-standing anxiety about being in the opposition. The fear and distaste of opposition is indeed a pervasive Nigerian phenomenon. It derives from the deformed values of the current political culture where control of the state apparatus is crucially for accumulation, and the settling of scores. Ethnic minorities are particularly disadvantaged if they find that their votes went to the losing political party. The consideration, come election time, is to hop on to the “winning” party wagon regardless of the relevance of its manifesto, if there ever was one. Even if the voting was a hoax, it does not seem to matter as long as one’s own ethnic minority constituency was rigged to the wining party. If the rigging is 100%, that is better: one can deploy the one hundred percent support in bargaining for appointments and other spoils.

Yet for all that political strategising about being on the winning side, no matter what, there is today general complaints that the Urhobo have not found any special favours. More fundamentally, Urhoboland suffers the disabilities of neglect, environmental damage and underdevelopment of the Niger Delta zone. It is this stagnation that is at the root of the emergence of the youth disturbances we have discussed. Fortunately due to combination of youth social movements with clear political economy and environmental protection agendas in Rivers and Bayelsa states, and the political activism of the current crop of State Governors of the Niger Delta, the problem of marginalisation can no longer be quarantined from national consciousness. Yet the same one-party winners regime, routinely threatens the fruits of this struggle-NDDC, onshore-offshore agreement- through state governments controlled by the winning party where our states are members.

It is my position that the developmental transformation of the Niger Delta zone will hugely facilitate the development of all the states and ethnic nations- including Urhobo- of the zone. On this ground, I suggest that it is time for Urhobo politicians to encourage the establishment of a Niger Delta political personality. They in association with their colleagues in the zone can form their own political party with manifesto articulating the special problems of the area. The party can then invite alliances across the country on the basis of terms that will include the core concerns of the zone. As it is, despite the revived awakening, Niger Delta zonal concerns receive grudging treatment, because our political elite now lost in the world of the big party, are reduced to the status of appendage politicians.

    Nation – Class Tensions

This is the fourth challenge, which faces the Urhobo future. However, I do not think it has usually been posed in this way, although the empirical consequences are much discussed. I consider the caption unsatisfactory; but it is for want of a better expression. In any case, by it I am referring to the sentiment of common solidarity and unity –of- interests’ assumption which informs our public discussions on occasions like this. Are there no risks in taking this common solidarity for granted? Will it hold for all instances requiring collective effort? Has it in fact held on all fronts today? Is this assumption not an exceptionalist view, which places the Urhobo outside of Nigerian history?

Yet it is the case that like other ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Urhobo have undergone and are undergoing profound changes that have brought about structural differentiation of class and personal material interests, as well as cultural changes. For one thing, the youth restiveness that is decried is an instance of some of the changes that have emerged in respect of statuses in the traditional social structure, and economic enfeeblement of the elderly voice. Are the differentiated interests emerging from the changes still so mild that they can always be dissolved under an invocation of a shared primordiality? Did some of our elite, in the recent past not question the basic foundational text of “we are all Urhobos”? Did the elite, traditional and modern, demonstrate agreement on the need for state creation at its historically most opportune moment? Has the famed reconciliational ethos of dispute settlement of Urhobo tradition, overcome the factional divide among the top politicians? The Historical Society may wish to carefully examine the carrying capacity of the common nationality identity in the light of the plurality of interest configurations constantly emerging from socio-cultural changes. In contexts where interests have become so differentiated, the efficacy of development interventions may require targeting specific groups that can be most loyal executors.


By way of conclusion, let me remind the conference that the Urhobo heritage has a time honoured technique for seeing the future, it is evwa, divination. I had no time to consult any diviner before preparing my address. One of the secular techniques for an approximate apprehension of the future of a culture or society is to do a SWOT analysis- that is the strengths and weaknesses of the internal environment, as well as, the opportunities and threats from the external environment. Although I did not follow the SWOT framework in this address, I am convinced that the Urhobo Historical Society has through the quality of participants and resources it has attracted from within Urhobo, is evidence of the peoples’ strength.

If we keep up the momentum, much poverty can be banished from this part of Nigeria through community self-effort. A therapeutic environment conducive to the rehabilitation of human dignity can be recreated. We can by our collective effort re-empower the people who have been the true custodians of the culture. A programme of cultural revitalisation is not an invitation to cultural autarky. It is an invitation to be an integral self confident, and visible player in every domain of Nigeria’s multi-cultural society.

It is therefore my hope that this programme of protecting the environment, safeguarding the livelihoods, heritage and dignity will strengthen the voices of Urhobo sons and daughters in the ongoing struggle to reformat the Nigerian state in a truly democratic direction. In this regard, other progressive constituencies, ethnic and transethnic, eagerly await our participation in the sovereign national conference.

It remains for me to thank you for your audience.

I wish to acknowledge the following persons with whom I had extensive consultations on different aspects of the youth restiveness in Urhobo land today. They are my brother T.A Onoge and our friend Rotarian Luman Gbemre, JP. Both of them are current presidents of the apex Community Based Organisations (CBOs) in the neighbouring kingdoms of Uvwie and Ughievwen, respectively.

In their capacities as presidents of the CBOs they willy-nilly engage this restiveness and its consequences for the community, business corporations, security officers and the youth themselves. They and their executive committees have frequently had to deploy a great deal of tact and patience in mediating among this quartet of forces to produce a win-win environment for all.

I also consulted with my friend Chief Raphael Okene, the Otota of Otovwodo, Agbarah Ame (Agbassa) Kingdom, Warri. He also grapples practically with the problem in his capacity as a community leader.

In conformity with the comradeship tradition of deep consultation of our movement way back at the University of Ibadan in the 1970s, I felt free to interrupt Prof. G.G Darah’s schedule several times through the medium of the GSM revolution, to test the validity of my methodology and interpretive thrust. <> 

Finally, I must here appreciate the patience of my daughter, Otome Ighofose Onoge, an undergraduate of the Faculty of Law, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria who made this presentation possible. She spent four long nights typing and retyping and retyping several unsettled drafts of this address. May her generation of Urhobo and other Nigerian youth actualise their futures in a Nigeria emancipated from the barbarism of the rule of force.


1.     Omafume F. Onoge: “Towards a Marxist Sociology of African Literature”, in George M. Gugelberger ed.; Marxism and African Literature, James Currey Ltd.; London, 1985. 

2.    Omafume F. Onoge: “Rural Poverty in Nigerian Bourgeois Sociology: A materialist Critique” in Onigu Otite and Christine Okali, eds., Nigerian Rural Society and Economy: A Book of Readings. Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Limited, Ibadan, 1980.


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