|Urhobo Historical Society
YOUTH ACTIVISM, ETHNIC
HARMONY AND DEVELOPMENT OF DELTA STATE
By Obaro Ikime
Paper presented to a retreat of
Political Offfice holders in Delta State to mark the second anniversary
of the administration of Governor Chief James Onanefe Ibori in Warri
from 31st May - 2nd June, 2001.
Let me begin by thanking the organizers of this Retreat for the invitation extended to me to speak to the political office holders of Delta State. It is the first time, since the creation of Delta State, that such an invitation has been directly extended to me by any functionary of the government of my state. So, although the notice was very short, I felt a compulsion to accept it, and I thank God for making it possible for me to be present here today. Next, I congratulate His Excellency, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, Governor of Delta State, for deciding to set aside these three days, during which political office holders can spend time together and ponder over some of the challenges of development that our state faces. I do hope that at the end of the exercise, participants would feel that it has been worth their time.
As we look at the subject of youth activism, by which I understand the various strategies that our youths have devised to satisfy their yearnings for relevance and recognition, I suggest that we remind ourselves about certain truths to do with ourselves. Some of us at this Retreat have just stepped out of "youthdom" if we use the age bracket 18 - 40 years as the years of our youth. In Nigeria eighteen-year olds are regarded as legal adults, the beginning of maturity! At 40 a man or woman is regarded as having attained full maturity. Perhaps this is why it is said that a fool at 40 is a fool for ever!! Many people are near the top of their careers by the time they are forty. Take, His Excellency, James Ibori, for example. He established himself by the time he was forty, and became Governor soon after. I became Professor of History in my 37th year. If I were to ask the older ones here to talk about themselves, I am sure it will be established that many had their careers well mapped out by age forty.
How was this possible for us, including even those of us who came from rural backgrounds and whose parents were completely illiterate in English and their own languages? I believe that the explanation for youth activism will be found in the answer to this question. How was it possible for us to attain what we attained when we attained it? Permit me to make a few suggestions: ·
The answer to the question earlier posed is thus largely, though admittedly acceptable behaviour . The answer to the question earlier posed is thus largely, though admittedly not wholly, that we were adequately prepared for the society into which we were launched as young adults.
Society and Youth Activism: Youth activism, in the form in which we have experienced it in the Delta, can be said to less than three decades old, if we discountenance the Isaac Boro manifestation during the Nigeria civil war. what have been main manifestations. ·
What has the larger society got to do with the manifestations outlined above? In my view, youth activism is the reaction by our young people to what they see as the main preoccupations of the society in which they live. It is a product of the decay in societal values in the last three decades, including the decay in education. Anyone born since 1970 has grown up in a society in which money is the "be all" and "end all"; a society in which murders and assassinations, some of these engineered by the state itself, became the order of the day; a society in which sexual immorality has been on the increase, with heads of governments playing leading roles in the corruption of our young ladies; a society in which brute force symbolized by repeated military coups became the surest way of acquiring both power and wealth; a society in which merit, proven ability and commitment count for little, while place of birth, connexions and sycophancy have become the main criteria for advancement; a society in which government has not always been conceived of in terms of equitable development for all our nationalities and groups, but rather in terms of selective development for the favoured groups, creating at every level of government disgruntled nationalities and groups who would welcome youth activism directed against the governments that have side-lined them in terms of social amenities and other forms of development. We in the Niger Delta are a good example of monumental neglect by successive federal governments, despite our undoubted contribution to the national wealth through the oil extracted from the bowels of our land. If the truth is to be told, we would have to admit that youth activism in the Delta, so long as it was directed against the oil and gas-exploring companies and the federal government, was welcome! However, as is always the case, it is but a short step from violence aimed at "outsiders" to violence unleashed on "insiders". Youth activism did help to draw the attention of the federal government and, indeed, the world, to the plight of the peoples of the Niger Delta. The challenge of today is how to channel the energies of our youths away from negative applications to productive endeavours.
New Trends in Youth Activism:
As of the time of this Retreat, we have certain new trends in youth activism in Uvwie, Sapele, and Patani. There may be others unknown to this speaker. In Uvwie, youth activism has taken the form of extortion of money from lorries and trucks that have to travel through Effurun. In Sapele, the Ukpe youths have declared that no non-Ukpe persons should be buried there, since Sapele belongs to the Ukpe. I know of two persons who have died recently who would have been buried in Sapele, but whose bodies have had to be taken elsewhere for burial in order to avoid unsavoury incidents. Thus far, it would appear that the authorities of Ukpeland have not been able to call the youths to order. Manifestations of youth activism of this type are most unfortunate. Sapele is an urban, cosmopolitan centre. There are thousands of persons for whom Sapele has become home. These persons were born in Sapele and have lived all their lives as Sapele people. (Others not born in Sapele have lived the bulk of their adult lives there). They have bought land from the Ukpe owners and built their homes there, contributing thereby to the physical development of Sapele; they have established businesses in Sapele, thereby playing an important role in the economic development of the town. They pay rates and duties to the local government. The Ukpe do not say that only indigenes should pay these rates or participate in the development of Sapele. Besides all these, there are the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with regard to movement and settlement (including residence). The stance of the Ukpe youths can result in great violence if the other parties decide to resist it. Or else reprisals can be visited on Ukpe people living outside Ukpeland. It is a situation that requires to be carefully watched by the traditional authorities of Ukpeland, the local government, and the state government.
Recently, the action of Patani youths created a situation in which drivers of tankers that drop fuel at petrol stations in Warri downed tools. The youths were, so the reports say, demanding N100,000.00 from drivers of two or three tankers that had developed problems on the way, near Pahani. The youths had earlier agreed on a fee of N2,000 per tanker per night for watching over the tankers. Three days later, when the drivers returned to drive their tankers off, they wee asked to pay N100,000.0. The drivers did not have the N100,000.00 to pay. The tankers could not be driven away. When these drivers reported the development to their union, tanker drivers downed tools with consequences that must be clear to all. Youth power can have, and has had, a destabilizing effect on economic, social and other activities in the state.
How Do We Deal with the Youth Problem?
In a recent discussion of the youth problem by a fellow Isokoman, Engr. Dr. Benson E. Okah-Avae, at a meeting in Oleh, he contrasted the societal values and the education of youths up to about 1970 to the values and state of education in the last three decades, especially since the 1980s. He reached the conclusion that products of the pre-1970 period were fully equipped to perform whatever role they were called upon to play as youths in the nation. In thought and words with which I am in full agreement and which I cannot improve upon, he said:
Post-independence politics, which was initially ethnic-driven and later became oil-mineral-resource-driven, brought the worst on the Nigerian youth. Greed and avarice took over the minds of leadership, which was largely military, and national consciousness was completely blunted. Youth development became a non-issue, and in fact the youth became abused and exploited. The state couldn't care less what happened to his education or his health or how he lived, fed or clothed. He was often terrorized by horsewhip/gun toting soldiers. His psyche became maligned and dominated by negativity. His vocabulary was inundated with negative innuendos such as "419", godfatherism, kickback, "matching", ["settling"], smuggling and bunkering, etc. At the lower level, his attitude became hostile and disrespectful, as survival became the name of the game, and as nobody seemed to care about his future. I wonder if any 30-year old Nigerian can genuinely say, " I LOVE MY COUNTRY, NIGERIA" and really mean it. The Nigerian nation had turned the most powerful and delicate weapon in her arsenal to a lethal weapon of self-destruction.
Against the backdrop of that succinct analysis which brilliantly sums up all I have said earlier on, we ask the question: how do we deal with the youth problem?
I do not pretend to have the solutions to the youth problem. I merely throw up a few ideas for your consideration. A close look at the majority of those most active among the youths will, I believe, reveal that they are the not so well-educated, who cannot now be sent back to school, or/and the tertiary institution graduates who could find no jobs, but who are respected among their peers, and who sometimes (certainly not always) provide the youth leadership. These youths are angry, frustrated and embittered. They have seen how army officers have used their positions in governance to become billionaires at the expense of you and I; they have seen crooked businessmen become tycoons on whom their traditional men bestow chieftaincy titles, and who use their ill-gotten wealth to win elections. They are determined to go do likewise! We need to pay particular attention to them and to channel their energies to productive ventures. I suggest as follows:
There is a tendency on the part of government to dismiss recommendations such as I am making here as theoretical and impractical. At a time when the talk is about deregulation how can I be seeking greater government intervention in the lives of our youths? That is a valid query. My response to that query is in two parts. First, in this matter of our youths, we are, in a manner o speaking, faced with the issue of reparation. For some three decades we have paid inadequate attention to those who constitute some 40-50% of our population. We sowed the wind, and are now reaping the whirlwind. That is why I make bold to say that government must take a major hand in the rehabilitation of our youths, the wind of deregulation not-withstanding. Secondly, government involvement and intervention in some of the areas listed will not be forever. There would be a gradual pulling out. But first government must be both motivator and facilitator.
The Youths of Tomorrow:
So far, we have focused our attention on the youths on the ground. There are, however, the youths of tomorrow who, even now, are drinking in the suffocating and debilitating influences of a corrupt and decadent society. I speak here of children in primary and secondary schools. Let me here congratulate the Delta State government for the rehabilitation work that has been done in our school buildings across the state. Even my hamlet of Erohwa where no regional or state government has provided any amenity since I was born has had its school building rehabilitated! Congratulations. Your Excellency. However, we need much more than the rehabilitation of school buildings. We need, additionally, the touching of the hearts of both teachers and pupils. I taught for twenty six years at Nigeria's oldest university before the Babangida administration first threw me into detention and then retired me, though no charge was ever preferred against me, let alone guilt being proven. For most of that period, I was always proud that I was a Bendelite. Why? Every year, as we looked at JAMB results at admission time, Bendel State, Imo State, Ondo State produced the best results. Often we could not admit all our qualified students because of the quota system. Today, Your Excellency, that is no longer the case. Our educational standards have fallen woefully. Teachers are not doing their work, despite improved pay. Parents are assisting their children to cheat at examinations or else are buying marks for them. So they "pass" various examinations but have no knowledge with which to face life. University education is no better. There are university professors and lecturers who are a disgrace to the system. You call a professor's name, and it rings no bell!! What is more, many professors and lecturers have joined the rat race for ill-gotten wealth, to the detriment of the work for which they are now well paid. The youths who emerge from our educational system today are a far cry in learning and character from those of yesteryears. I have met undergraduates who, three years into their four-year course, have not bought a single textbook!! All they need is to pay the sums fixed by certain types of lecturers to get agreed marks. Your Excellency, if we do not deal with this crisis in our educational system, youth activism in another ten, fifteen years from now would put to the shade anything we have experienced thus far. The appropriate authorities must brace up to the task of re-vamping our entire educational system NOW. We owe that to our youths.
One more point - the homes. A major contributory factor to youth activism is the atrophy of parental authority; the failure or inability of parents to instill needed discipline and positive societal values to their children. Tragically, this is as true of life in our villages as in the more urbanized centres. I have seen school children in my village roaming about during school hours. Some of these are my relations. When I confronted the parents, they threw up their arms helplessly and said "children of these days don't listen to what their parents tell them!" And so they give up, leaving the children to their own devices, with ultimately disastrous consequences. There is a need to re-establish parental authority in our homes. This will take time, determination and effort. We must begin to think of counselling parents as well as children - even at village level. When illiterate youths go on a rampage they do great damage.
The atrophy of parental authority is matched by that of our traditional political authorities. The youths are a law unto themselves. Because of their numbers; because of their physical strength; because they have firearms with which to terrorize, the elders and all who stand in their way, it is not easy to confront and control them. Yet, it is undesirable to have a state within the state situation. This is the greatest challenge that we face. Over the last fifteen odd years, the youths have become accustomed to having their own way, making money through harassing not only oil companies, but their own people, and gradually building up their own authority at the expense of the traditional authorities and even certain arms of state authority. We know of situations in which policemen are used by the youths to harass innocent citizens for a consideration. In each locality the youths are organized. There is a need to identify their leaders and, as we said earlier, to enter into dialogue with these leaders at different levels. The youths need to be reminded that thy won't be youths for ever, and that unless things return to normal, their children will take over from them and they will become victims of the system they are now establishing. Such dialogue would have little chance of producing the desired results unless we put in place various programmes of youth rehabilitation.
As we dwell on youth activism, we must face up to the problem of the invasion of our living rooms by all types of television programmes, including those beamed into our homes by CNN over which we cannot exercise censorship. It is absolutely necessary that parents be selective in what they allow young children to watch. How can they be selective if they are hardly at home at the right hours? Some may think that this is not a general problem, because not every home has a television set. Let the point be made however, that every year many more homes own television sets than the previous one. There are parents who cannot send their children to school, but who would struggle to buy television sets if their villages have electricity! The danger to which I draw attention is thus becoming more widespread than it was years back. Young children are quick to imbibe all kinds of ideas, especially when these come through visuals as on television.
Among the educated and working class, we have today more broken homes, more homes in which parents are separated, than used to be the case some two decades back. Whenever there is a divorce, the children of such a home not only suffer the trauma of separated parents, they could develop serious psychological problems which can push them into cults and other vices which ultimately manifest in youth activism. We all need to pray for our homes to be more stable, more conducive to the proper rearing of children who submit to parental authority. Once the home is wrong, the offspring could go off at a tangent and become a threat to society. Once again we must harness the resources of the church. I know there are those listening to me who could retort that the church has nothing to offer, because the vices of society are found in the church. I understand such a retort; but I make bold to declare that even so there are still committed Christians in our churches, unstained by greed, avarice and sexual immorality who can be of service in saving homes from collapse.
Divorce is not the only problem. There are today many husbands and wives who are living apart in pursuit of business or careers. Since the early 1980s when the brain drain began to gather momentum, many a husband has gone out of the country, leaving the wives and children behind. Government even takes a hand in bringing about separation between husband and wife. When our state was created, I am sure that there were Delta wives to non-delta husbands who insisted on coming to Asaba to continue their careers till they could retire. The Edo State government would not, in the interest of the stability of the home, allow the Delta wives to remain in its service. Similarly, the Delta State government would not allow wives who are Edo to come serve in Asaba. Even within the same state, wives or husbands are posted to different towns from where their spouses are. When we engage in practices such as these, we hardly spare a thought on their impact upon the family; the impact on young children growing up without the presence and authority of their fathers, since usually the children stay with their mothers. In Ibadan where I live, I have seen the havoc that separation has wrought on teenagers. Some of them have gone into armed robbery; many are in cults where they terrorize other youths and society at large. I urge government to re-think some of these practices in the interest of the family unit, and as part of the battle against youth activism.
I cannot conclude this aspect of my presentation without saying to my audience, made up of political office holders in Delta State, that the youths about whom we are speaking are watching you. They are also watching our law-makers at State and Local Government levels. A common talk all over the nation now is the N120,000.00 monthly salary of local government councilors! The youths see this as mouth-watering. Even more serious is the impact on the youths of the transformation which usually takes place in our office holders' lifestyles. Expensive houses and flashy cars, all within a few years make the youths angry, then jealous and then vindictive. They hate the system that makes office holders millionaires within a few years. Then they too desire to become millionaires. Because they believe that the office holders are milking the state, they decide that they too must make their pile. How? By doing what Patani youths did recently. Ask tanker drivers to bring their N100,000.00 as payment for watching over three tankers for three nights! Or by doing what Uvwie youths have been doing for years: force all trucks travelling through Effurun to pay a toll! Or by vandalizing oil installations and doing their own kind of bunkering. The "ors" are endless. Admittedly, the labourer is worthy of his hire. But those youths out there are no fools, especially the educated ones who lead them. They know how much you, office holders, earn. They are in a position to estimate what you can save per year. It is this that they set alongside your lifestyles as compared with how you lived before you were elected or appointed into office. If they don't like what they see, they take it out on society. That is part of youth activism. Want youth activism to be curtailed? Then curtail your corruption. Live above board. Don't talk about transparency. Be transparent in your dealings while in office. Don't be tempted to bribe the youth leaders. Instead invest in youth training and rehabilitation.
What about the development aspect? You who are holding office in Delta state must know better than myself how continued youth activism is bound to affect peace and development. Imagine, for example, that on a given day, all lorry and truck drivers who have to pass through Effurun organize themselves for battle and say that they must call the bluff of the Uvwie youths! They refuse to play ball and fighting breaks out. Can you imagine the loss of life, the destruction of property and the effect this would have on the state? Effective development requires peace. Youth activism is antipathetic to peace and so, is antithetic to meaningful development. Please permit me to rest my case here under this head.
Inter Ethnic Harmony/Disharmony:
In 1952, I was a secondary school boy at Warri College, Ughelli, as it was at that time. In that year there occurred an event that has left its mark permanently on the history of Itsekiri-Urhobo relations: The Action Group government of the then Western Region changed the title of the ruler of the Itsekiri from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri. The non-Itsekiri peoples of the then Warri Province protested against the change of title, arguing that it created the impression that they were subjects of the Olu. Government stuck to their guns, but acknowledged that there was some force in the argument of the protesters by changing the venue Warri Province to Delta Province. It was in the aftermath of this that the name of my school was changed from Warri College to Government College, Ughelli. It was these events that led me to do my Ph.D. on the subject of Itsekiri-Urhobo relations.
In what is now Delta State, Warri has been the scene of quite a number of clashes between the Itsekiri and the urhobo. Perhaps the worst clashes occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. All at this Retreat know about the trauma, the destruction of property and the loss of lives that these clashes engendered.
Then came the creation of new local governments under the Abacha regime. A Warri Southwest Local Government was created. Ogbe-Ijo was announced as headquarters. Later this was changed to Ogidigben. Before we all knew what was happening, there broke upon us what can be properly tagged an Ijo-Itsekiri war that put the previous Itsekiri-Urhobo clashes to the shade. Unspeakable destruction of lives and property accompanied this war which was still ranking when His Excellency, James Ibori, took office as Governor. These Itsekiri-Urhobo and Ijo-Itsekiri conflicts should have revealed to us Deltans the horrors of war. In both instances, friends killed friends; relations through inter-marriages killed relations. The devil had a field day. Just as one hoped that there would never be a repeat performance, the news of a new Itsekiri-Urhobo conflict broke on us. Will warri know permanent peace?
The creation of Delta State and the choice of Asaba as headquarters of the state by the Babangida administration led to tensions between those of us who describe ourselves as core Deltans and our Ika and Asaba brothers. There were those who argued that the tensions between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo explain the choice of Asaba as headquarters. The Urhobo, it was argued, would have felt aggrieved if Warri became headquarters, while the Itsekiri would have been discontented if Ughelli was chosen as headquarters. Ethnic disharmony between these two groups may well have been the explanation for the choice of Asaba, though there were other explanations to do with the pedigree of the then First Lady. Luckily, the dissatisfaction of the "core Deltans" did not erupt into fighting; but the feeling of injustice persists.
When the Obasanjo administration took office and appointed an Asaba man as a Minister of State, the only one from Delta State, some of us, including this speaker, protested vehemently. I confess that apart from joining others in a petition to our governor, I expressed my views in the newspapers. I argued that at a time when the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta were crying out against neglect and marginalization, it was a slap in the face for the Delta State not to have a minister of cabinet rank while Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River and Akwa Ibom States all had cabinet rank ministers, with some of these states having two ministers. I further argued that it was bad politics not to have appointed our one minister from among the leading oil-producing areas of Delta State, as a way of assuaging the discontent of these peoples. I accused Mr. President of political insensitivity. Asaba was headquarters of Delta State; Asaba produced our only Minister; Asaba produced an Adviser to the President as well as an ambassador. I thought injustice had been done to the rest of Delta State and said so in very clear terms. As was to be expected, Asaba people responded to me with acrimony, both locally and on internet. I was called names. One respondent proceeded to teach me a new slice of Nigerian history, arguing that Asaba was one time the capital of Southern Nigeria! He was no doubt referring to Asaba having been at some point in history the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company. Fortunately, we restricted ourselves to a war of words. Let me, in the contest of this presentation, stress that that war of words had at its core the matter of justice. Ethnic conflicts arise usually, though not always, when a people's sense of justice is outraged. Whatever else I say with regard to the subject of ethnic disharmony, this aspect of the peoples' sense of justice being outraged is the core of my submission.
I am an Isoko man - and proud to be so, though both in Nigeria and in Delta State I belong to a minority group. I did not make myself an Isoko man. God did. We all need to remember this truth as we relate one to another. In recent months, there has been some tension between my fellow Isoko who live among the Ndosimili people and those among whom they live. These riverine Isoko who have lived where they are now for a century (some more than that), have been agitating for a separate local government. The Ndosimili people have, for their part, opposed the Isoko agitation on the grounds that the Isoko are migrants who have settled on their land and so must do nothing to create the impression that where they are settled is part of Isokoland. As I point out in a lecture at Oleh earlier this month, these Isoko, having lived where they are for this long, have made a new home for themselves, have married Ndosimili wives, and are bi-lingual. I appealed to my people that the path of progress is to seek accommodation not confrontation. The key to inter-ethnic harmony is to observe the biblical injunction to do unto others as you want them to do to you.
I repeat that justice is the name of the game.
Let me here, in the context of the case I am making re-visit the Ijo-Itsekiri conflict earlier mentioned. I have said in my newspaper articles that the Federal Government was to be blamed for providing the occasion for that conflict. It was unfair, having once announced Ogbe-Ijo as headquarters of the new local government, to move the headquarters to Ogidigben by fiat. The sense of justice of the Ijo was outraged thereby, just as the sense of justice of the Itsekiri would have been outraged had Ogidigben been first announced as headquarters and then another, non-Itsekiri, town made headquarters. The federal government was insensitive in its actions, but it was our peoples who paid with their lives for that insensitivity. Fellow Deltans, I pray and beseech you to seek those things which make for peace. But there can be no lasting peace without justice.
History and Inter-Ethnic Harmony/Disharmony:
Permit me now, Your Excellency, to ply my craft as a historian. All ethnic groups are a product of history. Indeed as someone has written, "Historical events have created all the basic human groupings - countries, religion, classes - and all the loyalties that attach to these" And again, "It is the events recorded in history that have generated all the emotions the values, the ideals, that make life meaningful, that have given men something to live for, struggle over, die for". What this means is that we all need a knowledge of history for us to understand how things have come to be as they are. Such understanding is crucial in enabling us to put tensions and conflicts in their proper perspective. Thus, my attitude to inter-ethnic and inter-group tensions and conflicts is determined by knowledge that in inter-group relations, we are not dealing with saints and sinners, but with sinners all! What do I mean?
Nigeria as we know it now emerged out of British colonial rule. It was the British who forced us, as it were, into one nation. It was they who subdivided us into regions, provinces, divisions, districts and sub-districts. We did not choose the province, division, etc to which we belonged. Yet once in that province or division, we developed relationships with others in the province which were of a different order from our relations with groups outside that province. Take Delta State, for example. It is made up all of those who belonged to the old Delta Province - Ijo, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Isoko, Ndokwa, Ndosimili, and part of those who belong to the old Benin Province, the Ika and the Asaba. Naturally, those who belonged to the old Delta Province feel more at home with one another than with those who belonged to the old Benin Province. For the former, Delta State, named after their old province, should have its headquarters among them, not in Asaba. It is a feeling born of history, not evidence of hatred of Asaba. Seen in that sense, Delta State as now composed is a marriage between strange bedfellows. However, if we stayed together for another, say, twenty-thirty years, a new relationship would develop. We would have deepened our understanding of ourselves, developed new mental attitudes needed to sustain the new relationships.
Once upon a time, there was a "Jekri-Sobo Division" made up of the Itsekiri and the Urhobo groups of Ukpe, Oghara, Udu, Uvwie and Agbon, with headquarters in Warri. This was in 1932. The Urhobo protested against being put in the same division as the Itsekiri, arguing among other things, that their taxes were being used to develop Itsekiriland not their part of Urhoboland. In 1937 the British eventually separated the Urhobo groups into the Western Urhobo Division with headquarters at Orerokpe. The Urhobo agitation for separation from the Itsekiri caused a great deal of tension between the two groups. Some of this tension has been passed down the years. Many who have inherited this tension have no understanding of its origins. We need to know our history for us to understand ourselves.
Once upon another time, there was a Sobo later Urhobo Division made up of the Urhobo groups of Ughienvwe, Ewu, Uwherun, Ughelle, Evbreni and all the Isoko people. This time it was the Isoko, my people, who protested against being grouped with the Urhobo in the same division. From 1932 until independence, the Isoko agitated in vain for separation. The Urhobo in this division who supported their fellow Urhobo in the Jekri-Sobo Division in their agitation for separation, vehemently and successfully opposed Isoko agitation for separation. Even until today the Urhobo still claim that we the Isoko are Urhobo, though they are not Isoko! What is the basis for this claim? The fact that the Isoko were forced to be part of the Urhobo Division by the British. The Urhobo attitude in this matter and their constant claim that we the Isoko are Urhobo led to great tension between the two groups, tension which still lingers even now. If you don't believe me, study Urhobo-Isoko relations at the Delta State University, Abraka! As the historian of both the Urhobo and the Isoko, I can state without any fear of contradiction that the Isoko and Urhobo are separate peoples. But history created a situation in which the Urhobo had the advantage of divisional headquarters being located in Ughelli in Urhoboland, and the division to which the Isoko belonged being called Urhobo Division. It was not till 1963 that, with the creation of the Midwest Region, a separate Isoko Division came into being. Do you now begin to understand what I mean when I say that in inter-group relations, we are sinners all. What the Urhobo objected to in the Jekri-Sobo Division, they upheld in the Urhobo Division. Man is incurably selfish and wicked at heart. If the situation were reversed, the Isoko would probably have behaved exactly as the Urhobo did. Today, there is still some tension in Isoko-Urhobo relations. While competition for office, etc, partly explains this tension, the struggles and hurts of yesteryears provide added explanation. The past continuous to influence the present.
Quite a bit of the inter-ethnic tensions of today have their roots in history. Our peoples need to know that history. It is not that knowledge of that history would remove the tensions and conflicts. It is, rather, that both peoples and government can more meaningfully seek accommodation when they have knowledge of that history. When parties to a conflict come to the knowledge that some of their present problems are the unintended results of history, not the criminal machinations of their neighbours, it is often easier to elicit a greater willingness to seek justice and accommodation without loss of face.
Once upon yet another time, there was a powerful Aboh Kingdom which controlled the trade and politics of the lower Niger. As one scholar put it, "The geographical location of Aboh at the apex of the Niger Delta enabled it to control the supply of the products of the hinterland to the coastal states, and the distribution of European goods upriver". Part of the hinterland with which the Aboh did business was and is inhabited by the Ndokwa (those I refer to in my published works as the Ukwuani). As was the case elsewhere in the Delta in the years up to the coming of British colonial rule, in Delta-hinterland relations, the delta peoples were dominant. They were dominant, not because of any inherent superiority, but because they dictated the terms of trade, and they had firearms with which to enforce their will from time to time. In this regard, it is necessary for me to stress that quite often a show of force was all that was necessary. Thus in Aboh-Ndokwa relations, there was, historically, a period of Aboh ascendancy. British records state that Ogume, Ashaka, Amai, Ossissa, Afo, Adiai, Okpai Uluoku recognized the authority of the Obi of Aboh. These groups may well contend this claim today. I know from my researches that not all what the British put down in writing was true or correct.
What is the point of this little slice of the history of our people that you have just listened to? Today the Aboh people belong to a local government which has within it Ndokwa groups. Aboh attitude to these groups is heavily influenced by her remembrance of the history of the past. Last month I was in Aboh and delivered a lecture on The Rise and Fall of the Aboh Kingdom. As I listened to those who spoke on that occasion, Aboh pride in her past was unmistakable. Whereas I spoke about the Aboh kingdom, they preferred to speak of the Aboh empire! The hinterland Ndokwa people the Aboh see as former vassals!! You can therefore imagine how the Aboh feel, given the fact that the Chairman of the local government to which they now belong is not an Aboh man but one of these former vassals! They feel a sense of outrage. And although I spent only hours in Aboh, it was clear to me that relations between Aboh and the Ndokwa groups in the same local government with them are not the best. There is a tension in those relations. That tension is partly a product of history. Both parties need to remind themselves that an abiding lesson of history is that no condition is permanent. Empires rise and empires fall. Those advantaged by today's political arrangements could lose that advantage when those political arrangements change. A constant reference to the day when circumstances favoured one group over another cannot, and does not, solve the problems of today. If anything, such constant reference intensifies the problems.
Your Excellency, what I have just said is also part of the explanation for lingering tensions between the coastal Itsekiri and the hinterland Urhobo. It is for the same reason that in the old Eastern Region, there was so much tension between the coastal delta peoples and their Igbo neighbours to the hinterland. Up to the end of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th, the balance of relations tilted in favour of the delta peoples. Thereafter, the balance tilted in favour of the Igbo who proceeded to use their new advantage to suppress the delta peoples until the creation of states gave the latter their own state. It requires, first, knowledge of the past and, then, political maturity to face up to the changes that history brings along with it. My plea is that our peoples should accept the non-permanency of certain advantages that may be theirs for now; that both the advantaged and the disadvantaged should cultivate political maturity and seek accommodation; for in the event of strife and conflict both sides suffer; that the state government and the local governments should accept that even those disadvantaged in today's arrangements deserve the basic necessities of life, and that they should be seen to be taking steps to provide those necessities. I am back to the gospel of equitable development and justice. I will preach this gospel so long as God gives me life, for that is the only way to lasting peace and inter-ethnic harmony.
What is in a name?
From some of what I have said earlier, about the Jekri-Sobo Division, the Urhobo Division and even the name "Delta State", it should have become clear that the names we give to political groupings like local governments can be problematic and conducive to strife and so inimical to development. Take, for example, Warri North Local Government with headquarters at Koko. Why is "Warri" part of the name of that local government? Is it so as to link it with the Olu of Warri? If so, are all the entities in that local government Itsekiri? Why do we call a local government with Otor-Ughienvwe (or Otu-Ieremi as some call it) as headquarters Ughelli South? What has Ughelli got to do with it? Obviously all that happened was that the former Ughelli Local Government was split into two, and so one became Ughelli North and the other Ughelli South. Would it surprise anyone if fifty years hence we begin to have claims that once upon a time all the settlements in these two local governments were subject to Ughelli? The same queries arise when you use terms like Ndokwa North or Ndokwa South: you create a problem if even one group within such a local government is not Ndokwa. The Ijo-Itsekiri war could well have been avoided if the word "Warri" was not part of the name of the new local government. To call a local government with Ijo settlements in it after Warri is to fish in troubled waters. My Isoko brethren among the Ndosimili might not have put the back of the latter up if they had not used the word "Isoko" as part of the name of the local government they are agitating for. The Ndosimili fear that once that word "Isoko" is used, it would indicate that the proposed local government is part of Isokoland. And that they cannot accept. In this matter of the names we give to political entities, we must be more imaginative. Take Bayelsa State, for example. That is imaginative. No group can latch on to the name of the state and say that it is their name that has been given to the state and therefore they must have special privileges. It is always possible to coin an appropriate name, using letters from the names of the groups that make up the new local government or whatever. We must stop being lazy and careless. If necessary, new names can be given to already existing local governments. As for whichever new local government may be created, we must avoid the mistakes of the past. The wrong name can cause inter-ethnic or inter-communal conflicts and so vitiate lasting development. Sometimes these names are deliberately given by government functionaries seeking to confer advantages on their own particular groups. Your Excellency, you must find a way of stopping such functionaries. A stitch in time, says the adage, saves nine. As we plan for the future, let us avoid the mistakes of the past. We are meeting at this Retreat in the wake of renewed violence in Warri. Some groups want a new local government. Other groups are opposed to the demand for a new local government. Here again, I submit that past history is involved; so is the name "Okere". I repeat: Let us be careful about the names we give to local governments, etc. They can be very emotive.
Concerning the Council of Traditional Rulers:
Traditional rulers are the repositories of the cultures of their respective peoples. However small a group may be, the traditional ruler of an unrelated group has no relevance for that group. The government of Delta State and, indeed, all states in the federation, will do well to note that which I say here. Here again, we are dealing with the results of history. It was the British who graded our traditional rulers into grades A, B, C and D. Thus the emirs of the emirates and the Obas of some of the large Yoruba kingdoms were grade A chiefs: others were grade B and so on. The higher the grade, the higher the stipend. I do not quarrel with that aspect of the matter. It can be argued that the traditional ruler of a big kingdom has more work to do than the head of a clan. When, however, traditional rulers gather together as a council, it is my view that care must be taken not to create the impression that the traditional rulers of certain groups are inferior to the traditional rulers of some other groups, simply because some groups are kingdoms and others are not. Before anyone calls for my neck, please, please remember that we are dealing with traditional rulers. In Pre-British days, the ruler of Asaba, to take an example, had nothing to do with the Odio-Ologbo of my Isoko clan. The traditional rulers of what is now Delta State did not have formal gatherings to which we can refer to establish precedence! The British-created House of Chiefs was artificially set up and did not necessarily respect tradition. I submit that inter-ethnic relations can be adversely affected if we give certain traditional rulers what is tantamount to artificial paramouncy of the type the British conferred on Chief Dogho Numa in the old Warri Province.
In Delta State, certain traditional rulers are given pride of place. They include the Olu of Warri, the Asagba of Asaba, the Orodje of Ukpe, among others. Whatever recognition government accords these rulers, none of them holds sway outside his territory! There should thus be no question of any of these being permanent president or chairman at a meeting of traditional rulers. The Council of Traditional Rulers of Delta State should be composed of equal representation from all our ethnic groups.
The traditional rulers in each ethnic group should meet to elect their representatives for an agreed number of years. In the kingdoms, the king by whatever title he is called, need not contest elections. His traditional chiefs will elect a number of themselves to join him. In the areas where there are no kings with authority over all of the respective ethnic groups, the various rulers will elect representatives from among themselves, it being understood that no rulers will run a second term until everyone has had a chance to serve on the Council of Traditional Rulers. When the representatives meet they should elect a Chairman for an agreed number of years, the principle being that the chairmanship is rotational among the various ethnic groups. The reasoning behind this submission is that that way all of our ethnic groups would be seen to be equal. In other aspects of governance population has been taken care of: Some ethnic groups have more seats in the House of Assembly than others. At the level of traditional rulers no artificial paramouncies should be created. I am sure that all who are listening to me know that the chairmanship of the Council of Traditional Rulers was a source of deep discontent in our state in years past. As we seek to build more harmonious inter-group relations, it is my view that we should consciously seek to remove whatever is antithetic to such relations.
Your Excellency, let me assure you that my views as expressed here are born out of a pre-occupation with justice and peace. If these views are unusual, it is because of the nature of our state. We are a multi-ethnic state. Our peoples have different socio-political institutions, all of which we must recognize and respect. What is more, the history of the peoples who constitute the state does not justify elevating any group above the others. Unless we are bold and just enough to face the reality of our situation, we stand the risk of fanning discontent and engendering inter-ethnic disharmony.
It is not my intention, in this conclusion, to summarize the main submissions in this presentation. What I have sought to do in the first part of the paper is to remind us of the factors that make youth activism an issue and a problem. In three decades we have bred the monster of youth activism by our insensitivity to the yearnings and aspirations of our youths; by our failures as parents, and our failures in governance; by our damnably poor examples as we enthroned mediocrity, injustice and the pursuit of filthy lucre through which we enriched individuals and impoverished our nation and our states. The monster we have bred is on the rampage, for as the word of God says, "whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7). No monster is easily tamed. Yet unless we tame this particular monster, we mortgage the future of this state. Make no mistake about it: there are some among the leaders of the youth who aspire to leadership and power at state level. If such persons carry with them their present attitudes, our state could be in serious trouble. That is why I consider it both important and urgent for us to begin to take steps that can change the mentality of our youths. It may be necessary to set up a multi-disciplinary task force to think out the best way of addressing this all-important issue of weaning our youths from the culture of confrontation, disrespect, disregard for constituted authority, extortion, lawlessness and violence. In all we seek to do, let us own up to the failures adverted to above. Let us, in repentance, seek to meet the needs of our peoples. Let us then proceed to persuade the youths of the need to be re-integrated into their respective societies and become agents of progress and development rather than of destabilization. Let us always demonstrate sympathy with, and understanding of, the problems of our youths, and let sympathy and understanding issue in specific rehabilitation and other projects designed to permanently affect the lives of our youths for good. At the moment, youth activism makes us a house divided against itself. And as we all know, a house divided against itself cannot stand. As I said earlier in the body of this paper, I do not pretend to have the blueprint for solving the problem of youth activism. All I have done is to throw up a few ideas which I commend to you for consideration. Who knows, some of those ideas may be useful.
In the second part of the paper, I look at the equally disturbing problem of inter-ethnic and inter-group disharmony. Because of the way I presented the material, you may not have identified all the conflicts and tensions that exist in inter-group relations in our state. For that reason, permit me to list them here: ·
I am sure there are others to which I have not drawn attention. Not all of these inter-group tensions manifest in open or violent confrontation. But they all vitiate meaningful development. They all affect the attitudes of political office holders as they seek to carry out their duties in the state. They affect the loyalty and dedication of civil servants who have to execute government policies. And, of course, when these tensions and conflicts erupt into violence, the loss to the state is incalculable.
Your Excellency, permit me here to wear my other cap: that of the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Genesis 4 we have the first murder in the Bible. When God challenged Cain after he had killed his brother, Abel, Cain's response was: "Am I my brother's keeper?". Yes. God's plan is that we should be our brothers' keepers. Nor is that all. God said to Abel:
God has not changed. He does not change. Nor do His laws change. Each time we shed human blood we invoke the curse of God. Never mind that state murderers have appeared to prosper. Their end is destruction. So the more blood we shed in our inter-ethnic, inter-communal conflicts, the more we earn the wrath of God and the less progress and development will attend our efforts. We don't have to believe it; but that is the way God has established it. Inter-ethnic disharmony is antithetical to development. For that reason let each one of us be an apostle of love, of justice, of peace.
We cannot, however, be apostles of love, justice and peace, unless we have understanding of the issues that lead to hatred and conflict. And we cannot have a deep understanding of these issues unless we are familiar with the history of our peoples. Unfortunately, the clear majority of our nation's political office holders, law makers and public servants know little of the history of their own ethnic groups, let alone the history of other groups. So we operate in ignorance, satisfied with the stereotypes that we have picked up as we grew up. That is why, Your Excellency, I have served participants at this Retreat with a light menu of history in an attempt to deepen - just a little - their understanding of some of the inter-group tensions which exist in our state. I consider that from time to time you all be reminded of the history of the peoples who constitute your state. Then you will come to a fuller understanding of what I mean when I say that in inter-group relations we are not dealing with saints on the one hand and sinners on the other; we are dealing with sinners all. What we regard as injustice done to us by a neighbour, we are quite willing to visit on another neighbour in pursuit of our self-interest. Only the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by His Holy Spirit can enable us to love our neighbours as ourselves. O that all of us would covet the love of God.
I cannot end without drawing attention to the section of my paper which I entitle What is a name? I do not have to re-state myself here. But I do want to say that we must be careful what names we give to local governments, etc. Any name which confers on any group some advantage, even if it is only a psychological or emotional advantage, at the expense of other groups within the local-government or other grouping must be avoided. That is the lesson of history.
Finally, inter-group tension and disharmonies are the product of history. Such tensions and disharmonies exist every where, not just in Delta State. Politicians often exploit these disharmonies, especially in the developing countries where the high level of illiteracy makes it easy to deceive the people and to whip them up into a frenzy. While we may forgive the vote-seeking politician who exploits existing disharmonies to win elections, a government that allows these disharmonies to influence the distribution of developmental projects within its area of jurisdiction stands guilty of a major crime against the people. At national level, we in Delta state are minority peoples, and have suffered neglect and injustice. I worked in a federal university and I know what I had to suffer there. We have been treated for most of the time as second class or even third class citizens. We resent this and cry out against it. We cannot, therefore, Your Excellency, practise at state level that which we condemn at federal level. Our National Anthem says:
Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria's call obey.
I have said in umpteen fora across the country that if we are to be common patriots (compatriots), we must first be common sharers of the nation's resources. I have said, again and again, that no Nigerian citizen or group that feels cheated and denied of just rights will Nigeria's call obey. What is true at the national level is true at the state level. Fair and equitable distribution of developmental projects is the antidote to inter-ethnic and inter-group disharmonies. That is why I said in my presentation that the pursuit of justice is the core of my submission. Your Excellency respected political office holders of Delta State, I pray and beseech you, in all you do, seek justice and pursue it.
Thank you very much for your attention.
WARRI: NO END TO VIOLENCE
Obaro Ikime [Opinion Piece for Wednesday 30 May] Last week end violence erupted in Warri once again, forcing government to call in the Army. The peace that Warri has enjoyed in the last ten-twelve months has broken down once again. Young men have been slain. Houses have been torched. People's lives have been dislocated as once again families are fleeing from the Ajamogha area, the scene of the latest violent eruption. Will Warri ever again know permanent peace. Poor Olu of Warri. Poor Okumagba. Poor all Warri people. According to the newspaper reports, the cause off the latest violence is the demand for the creation of a Warri Central Local Government for the Urhobo people of Agbassa and "Okere". The demand is being championed by Okumagba and his people The Itsekiri, so the reports have it, say that historically "Okere" is part of Itsekiri land, and that therefore it cannot be part of a local government created for Urhobo people. Hence the violence. I have, in the above paragraph but "Okere" in inverted commas. Why? Because I do not know where Okere begins and where it ends. This is the time for the Delta State government to do something about ascertaining the boundaries of the area that was involved in the case which the Supreme Court decided in favour of the Okumagba family.
The documents are available. I plead that the boundaries be demarcated on the ground. Let us know the exact size of the land that was involved in that litigation. As a little boy in Warri in the 1940s, I knew about Okere; and I knew about Ajamogha. Today the Okere I knew has fused with the Ajamogha I knew, and both have fused wit Okumagba Layout through what Warri people called "Avenue". This development is part of the expansion and progress that have taken place in Warri. The same thing has happened elsewhere. Yet in Warri there has been a constant struggle over ownership of "Okere". When the Urhobo wanted to have a traditional ruler, they appointed an "Otota of Okere". Which area was meant by "Okere" in this context? I am not sure that those who have been fighting and dying over the struggle about who owns "Okere" really ever knew which territory they were struggling over. The conflicts, deaths, loss of property and business and destruction of relationships built over many years do not profit the Itsekiri. They do not profit the Urhobo in Warri. Neither side has, thus far, succeeded in eliminating the other.
The balance of violence appears to be such that it is most unlikely that one side will ultimately succeed in annihilating the other. At any rate, the state government would not allow that to happen, even if there were chances of it happening. Common sense therefore dictates that both sides should seek accommodation. That is my plea to the Itsekiri people of "Okere". That is my plea to the Okumagba-led Urhobo people. I believe that the search for accommodation would be facilitated if there was proper demarcation of boundaries. This is where the state government comes in. It should not be difficult to set up a team drawn from both sides to undertake the exercise, for I believe there are Itsekiri and Urhobo persons of integrity from among the contending parties who can be trusted to undertake such an exercise. On the other hand, if the government prefers, it can set up an independent body to undertake the task, calling evidence from both sides. The time has come for us to know what territory can properly be called "Okere". The time has come for the Warri public to now what piece of land belongs to the Okumagba family. I am persuaded that properly establishing these boundaries will help all concerned in their attitudes.
Having said that, there is the need to appeal to both sides to have respect for the rights of people to seek the promotion of their interests. In this context, it is my view that any group in Warri can ask that a local government be created for them, if they satisfy the conditions laid down for the creation of such a local government. However, the current demand has in my opinion, a certain flaw. Ownership of Warri land apart, the city of Warri is a cosmopolitan town. The settlement pattern is not ethnic. Even in Ajamogha there are non-Itsekiri people. The same applies to Agbassa and what I may here call "Okumagba land" - that land that was the subject of litigation. This being so, there can be no talk of creating a local government for Urhobo people in Warri, because the Urhobo people do not inhabit only a certain area of Warri. Agbassa and "Okumagba-land" are not territorially contiguous. That being so, I do not see how meaningful development can take place in the local government being demanded in areas like water-supply, markets, parks, etc. If there is a need to break up the present Warri South Local Government, that can be done without introducing ethnicity into it. Warri, I repeat, is a city. In cities, you don't create local governments for ethnic groups. You create local governments for the people who inhabit the city, whoever they are, wherever they come from.
The Assemblymen who are involved in the current exercise will do well to be bold enough to tell the Urhobo that their posture is wrong. At the same time, if in the end a local government is created, provided it is not seen as an Urhobo local government, the Itsekiri should not fight over it. I am sure there would be Itsekiri people in whatever area may be carved out as a local government. Developments there would thus benefit the Itsekiri as well. My plea is that the Itsekiri and the Urhobo in Warri should give peace a chance. We have had enough bloodshed; enough destruction of property. They have shown what great fighters they are. Their youths have proved they are tough guys! To what purpose? What have been the gains? Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. It is time to hands off the trigger; time to sheath swords.
Enough is enough. Let peace reign for a change.