Urhobo Historical Society

Urhobo Unity and Development: Building a Bridge to the Future

By Dr. Austin Atiyota
President-General, Urhobo National Association of North America

An Address at the Urhobo Congress, Effurun, Delta State, December 3-4, 2004

His Excellency, the Governor of Delta State, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, your Royal Highnesses, our esteemed President-General of Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) worldwide, Chief Benjamin O. Okumagba (JP), respected chiefs, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud and honored to attend this year’s Urhobo Congress and to bring affectionate greetings from thousands of Urhobo sons and daughters who reside in North America.  We were all gathered at this same venue a year ago to discuss matters of interest for Urhobo progress and to celebrate our culture.  We give glory and praise to God for his mercies and grace in bringing us all together again this year.  I am glad to be here to observe, learn and consult.

Unity as a Vehicle for Progress

Once more, I have elected to stay with the broad topic of Urhobo Unity and Development.’  This topic is most appropriate for our time because unity is the vehicle through which our progress and development can be attained.  The resonance and importance of this theme cannot be overemphasized.  At the 10th Annual Convention of Urhobo in North America which took place at Los Angeles, California, U.S.A., August 29 – September 1, 2003, His Excellency, Chief James Onanefe Ibori’s speech was titled: ‘Urhobo Unity – A Time for a New Beginning.  At this same venue at the 7th Annual Urhobo Congress (December 5 – 7, 2003), I presented a paper titled: ‘Urhobo Unity and Development: A Time for a New Beginning.’  On January 10, 2004, my inaugural address as the President of Urhobo National Association of North America (UNANA) was titled: ‘Unity on Wings: Reaching for Greater Heights.’  The theme of the recently concluded 11th Annual Convention of Urhobo in North America which was held in Newark, New Jersey, U.S.A. (September 3rd to 6th 2004), was titled: ‘United for Sustainable Economic Development.’  The theme for our 12th Annual Convention which will be held in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., (September 2nd to 5th, 2005) will be aptly titled: ‘Unity, Culture and Economic Empowerment.’

My focus therefore is on unity, and this address seeks in part, to suggest strategies and initiatives that will strengthen and unify Urhobo as well as UPU––the institution of Urhobo leadership and unity––in preparation for change and development.  I must emphasize that in order to meet the challenges that confront all Urhobo people, it is incumbent on all of us to promote our collective Urhobo interest and cultivate a true and unifying spirit within our midst.  To this end, we should eschew divisive and sectional tendencies, encourage collaborative leadership, and promote the unity, strength and progress of Urhobo.

UPU and Urhobo Unity

The place and importance of UPU in promoting the Urhobo corporate interest is well documented.  The wisdom of the UPU founding fathers more than 75 years ago remains relevant today more than ever before.  The myriad of challenges that we are faced with in 21st century Nigeria are very complicated and demand our working together to ensure that meaningful and sustained solutions are put in place.  Hence, we must continue to nurture with patriotic pride the unity of the 22 Urhobo clans under the UPU umbrella.  We in North America are proud that the Annual Urhobo Congress has continued to be the focal point under the auspices of the UPU, for celebrating our cherished Urhobo unity, tradition and culture.

Urhobo Linkage Across the Atlantic

We were honored that his Excellency, Chief James Onanefe Ibori, and a distinguished entourage attended the 2003 UNANA convention.  We also deeply appreciate that the President-General of UPU worldwide, Chief Benjamin O. Okumagba (JP), has led a UPU delegation to attend our yearly conventions for the past several years including our most recent 2004 convention.  His Excellency also saw it fit to send to our 2004 convention a distinguished delegation that comprised Chief F.A.O. Agboro, (JP; Mni), Chief Thompson Atuma and Chief Ighoyota Amore, (JP).  That our leaders from home have consistently honored our invitation to visit and fellowship with us in the U.S. every year is a clear message of approval for the hard won unity and stability accomplished by Urhobo in North America.  In addition, at our recent convention the Governor, Chief Okumagba and the Nigerian delegation made substantial financial donations.  On behalf of our entire membership, let me use this opportunity to express our profound gratitude to them for their support.

On our part, I am proud to continue with the tradition established by my predecessors since the year 2000, of leading a delegation of Urhobo from North America to attend the Annual Urhobo Congress.  At this juncture, please allow me to recognize the presence of my fellow UNANA members who have accompanied me from the U.S. to attend this august occasion.  Here present with me are: Mr. Ruks Bazunu, UNANA’s Vice President; Dr. Ona Pela, former UNANA co-Chair; and Julius Akporokah, one of our members from Atlanta, Georgia.  I have no doubt in my mind that these transatlantic visits have gone a long way in strengthening the bonds between Urhobo at home and Urhobo in North America.  However, considering that this transatlantic linkage is not only an opportunity for bonding and to make merry, but also a bridge of communication between Urhobo sons and daugthers in North America and our leaders back home, we encourage all of you to endeavor to attend our 12th Annual Convention which will take place in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., from September 2nd to 5th, 2005.  Rest assured that to facilitate your early visa application with the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, we will endeavor to send you your invitation letters very early next year.

Challenging Issues in our Homeland

Since my inauguration as President of UNANA on January 10, 2004, our leadership comprising the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee have had numerous meetings to discuss the various issues of importance to Urhobo.  We continued these deliberations also at our recently concluded convention.  During these discussions, the issues that have continued to reverberate have been the concern for the high rate of unemployment and underemployment, youth restiveness, the ever-increasing crime rate, the mutually destructive ethnic conflicts at home, and the fear that Urhobo is being left behind in the contemporary Nigerian scheme of things.

Unemployment and Underemployment: As they say, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.”  In my opinion, unemployment and underemployment are the breeding grounds for most of our problems with the youths.  It’s my thesis that unemployment and underemployment are directly related to the prevalence of violent crime and insecurity in our state.  Much as I acknowledge that government cannot provide employment for all, it is my firm belief that government can act as a catalyst in this regard.  There are countless precedents in history.  The Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Germany and the massive government investments in the United States after the Great Depression, are recent examples.  In a depressed economy such as ours, government must take the initiative to jump-start the economy.  In this regard, I suggest that government sets up labor-intensive industries spread across the state.  I suggest one industry per senatorial district as a starting point.  Government should put in place honest and transparent management for these companies, or farm out their management to consultants who will run the companies for about three years and then sell them off to private investors.  The money realized can then be ploughed back into setting up new companies, and the process will then be repeated in other ventures.  This way, within a short time there will be many companies employing a lot of our youths.  Delta Glass (now Beta Glass) Company is a clear example of the employment potential of such middle-scale industries, and can serve as our model. 

In the immediate short-term, I suggest that government should take a census of privately owned companies in the state that are presently out of business, find out why they are out of business, and what government can do to assist them to get back in business.  This will greatly reduce unemployment.  We recall the days when Sparkling Breweries, Olo Cold Drinks, Superbru, AT&P, Nagro Rubber Factory, Imoniyame Rubber Factory, Pamol, Ethiope River Sawmill, etc., were all in business.  Life was much better and unemployment was almost nonexistent at that time.  Government can create soft loans and other assistance targeted at such private companies to get them back on stream.  I believe that some of these companies may require the injection of minimal capital to get them back in business. 

Government should also find innovative ways of strengthening the agricultural base of the state.  There should be a total overhaul of our agricultural policies.  Government should aggressively implement policies that will improve the productivity of our farmers and also attract young and educated people to that vital sector.  Aggressive extension services, provision of subsidized inputs, and the setting up of communal farms are some of the things government can do in the short run to remedy the situation.

On our part, UNANA is looking into ways where we can assist government in setting up agro-based cottage industries in Urhoboland so as to foster employment especially in our rural areas.  (Please see my comments regarding UNANA’s long-term projects below.)

Youth Restiveness and the Crime Rate: As we stated in our press release in The Guardian of Friday, August 20, 2004, UNANA plans to embark on enlightenment campaigns, as well as social and economic programs that are aimed at positively channeling the vibrant energies of our youths.  In that press release, we minced no words in stating that inculcating moral values and civic responsibility in the leadership and the led, must go hand in hand with any plan to reduce the soaring crime and violence in our homeland.  To reiterate: “Youth violence and widespread armed robberies can be stemmed when our leaders lead by good example, when our youths imbibe the right values that will make them good citizens, when there are jobs, when there is food on the table, and when our youths have a hope for tomorrow.”  We sincerely hope that the leaders of today should not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk when it comes to setting good examples for our youths who, as we all know, are the leaders of tomorrow.

Ethnic Conflicts: To quote Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State of the U.S.: “If history teaches anything, it is that there can be no peace without equilibrium…”  There has to be some balancing of competing political and economic interests, hence it’s imperative that the inequities in the political subdivisions in the Greater Warri area, and resource sharing amongst the ethnic groups in Delta State are addressed.  We applaud the Governor of Delta State and his team for boldly making the effort to address these issues and we want to assure you of our support as you continue your efforts in this regard.  We also believe that there cannot be lasting development and progress unless we seek win-win solutions.  Therefore, we urge everyone in political and traditional leadership to continuously work towards building bridges of communication and to seek harmony with all neighboring ethnic groups.  In our opinion, it’s only after we have achieved peace and tranquility that there can be a stable economic atmosphere that will encourage the return of companies that fled the Greater Warri area.

Addressing the Concern of ‘Being Left Behind’: I have observed that whenever Urhobo sons and daughters discuss the various issues that impact us, a recurring concern has been that we are being left behind in the Nigerian scheme of things.  It would appear that part of why the concept of ‘being left behind’ has not galvanized Urhobo in a focused direction is because even though we have made concerted efforts at nation-building both at home and abroad over the years, we have not always worked in unity to harness the storied Urhobo ingenuity and energy to focus on clearly defined goals and objectives.  The self-confident republican nature of every Urhobo person has been one of the major attributes that have enabled our achieving individual successes in all walks of life.  However, we should never forget that in the Nigerian society it is self-evident from our history that only a corporate unity of purpose (as opposed to individualism) can be the most important asset that an ethnic group should have if it wants its voice to be heard.  Thus, I will again commend each of us to always elevate the Urhobo cause above selfish, clannish and sectional interests, because it’s only in unity that our strength as a people can be manifested.  In this connection, we should identify Urhobo as one ethnic group (not 22 clans), and support all our sons and daughters in positions of leadership.  As I stated at our recent 2004 convention in the U.S., “Urhobo should not be pulling down our own leaders!  This tendency must be eliminated to ensure that we move Urhobo forward in unity, strength and progress.”

Government and Niger Delta

We are all very familiar with the issues –– resource control, sovereign national conference, sharing of the 13% derivation fund and communal unrest.  We are appreciative of the efforts of the Delta State government in taking the leadership role especially on the issue of resource control and the full implementation of the 13% derivation formula.  We in North America are of the opinion that there is still much to be done to articulate the Urhobo position regarding the many issues affecting our people.  I am hopeful that we would meet with our Urhobo political and traditional leaders––and if there is already a committee in place––with its members, to share our ideas regarding these matters, especially as it relates to the master plan for the development of the Niger Delta now in circulation by the Niger-Delta Development Company (NDDC).

What UNANA Plans to Do

We believe that rather than wait for government to do everything, we should make the effort to implement projects that would benefit our people.  Bearing in mind that we must start from somewhere no matter how little, UNANA has decided to embark on the following projects:

Short-Term Projects
Urhobo Cultural Center: We shall financially support UPU in building the proposed Urhobo Cultural Center.  At our recent 2004 convention, Chief Okumagba presented the master plan for the proposed project to our general membership.  Our members are very enthusiastic in supporting this project which when completed would be a focal point for the promotion of Urhobo tradition and culture and make all of us proud.  UNANA hereby donates $5,000.00 (five thousand dollars) in support of this project.  We hope to do more in the future.

Diabetes and High Blood Pressure Screening: The Diabetes Association of Nigeria estimates the number of people with diabetes in Nigeria to be about 10 million and about half of this number are in Lagos State because of its very cosmopolitan nature.  I believe the problem may be evenly spread nationwide and not more concentrated in Lagos State.  For one, statistical figures from inaccessible areas are lacking and there is hardly any reporting of disease conditions to a central poll or body like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States.  My belief in the prevalence of this disease emanates from the fact that there is hardly anybody you talk to about diabetes who does not have one diabetic in his immediate or extended family. 

There are a lot of complications associated with diabetes if not properly cared for.  Also, because of the expensive nature of the drugs used to treat this condition and the high price of glucometers, the instrument used to monitor glucose levels in the blood, coupled with the economic conditions back home in Urhoboland, caring for diabetes is an uphill task.  Cardiovascular events, one of the complications of diabetics, are now the number one killer of men and women in Urhoboland.

We are aware that it’s a daunting task to significantly tackle this disease, however, it’s better to do something than nothing at all.  Hence, after completion of this Annual Urhobo Congress, UNANA in collaboration with DAN will embark on a diabetes and high blood pressure screening exercise.  This exercise which is a first phase in our planned series of community healthcare initiatives, is principally to:

ü      Differentiate the diabetic from the non-diabetic and focus on educating the diabetic

ü      Disseminate free information regarding management of diabetes and high blood pressure to diabetics and the public

ü      Assist in various ways, including the procurement of meters for monitoring glucose level in the blood

ü      Create awareness of this condition in every Urhobo home, including its devastating effects and how to live and cope with it

ü      Improve the quality of life of diabetics in Urhoboland

The diabetes and high blood pressure screening exercise will take place at this venue on Monday, December 6, 2004, from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. We will continue the next day, Tuesday, December 7, 2004, at Okpe Hall, Sapele, from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Long-Term Projects :

Urhobo Institute: As I stated in my speech at this venue last year, UNANA will support the building of the proposed Urhobo Institute which will be a permanent institutional framework for advancing the Urhobo cause especially in the socio-political and economic arena.  The idea behind this initiative is to avoid “a fire-fighting approach at dealing with Urhobo issues” especially those that “are permanent in nature.”  The proposed institute which will be headquartered at a location in Urhoboland, with a branch office at Abuja, will be “established jointly by all interested organizations and associations of Urhobo people both at home and in the Diaspora.”  It is envisaged that the Urhobo Institute will attract the best Urhobo minds and ideas, and will act as a think tank and a clearinghouse for the collation, analysis and synthesis of relevant data at the grassroots level to inform policymakers in government regarding the true needs of Urhobo and Urhoboland.  The idea continues to be well received and planning for its actualization is underway.  While it’s a very laudable idea, there is much work to be done to implement it.  Though UNANA’s leadership would work towards putting the requisite planning in place, this project would require the cooperation of you our leaders at home, especially in regard to obtaining the land, supporting all aspects of construction, as well as seeking government approval for its actualization.  Please continue to think about it because we will definitely need your suggestions and support in order to bring this proposed project into fruition.

Community Development Projects in Urhoboland: For the future, we plan to work with Urhobo communities on a host of community development projects including cottage industries aimed at reducing rural-urban drift.  We plan to seek financial assistance from various multinational corporations to facilitate establishing such cottage industries.  UNANA’s long-term goal is to establish empowerment projects across Urhoboland that will enhance employment opportunities and become a catalyst for rural development, thereby stemming rural-urban drift.  We plan to first have a pilot project that over time would be replicated in several communities in Urhoboland.  The overriding purpose is to make an effort toward curbing youth restiveness in our homeland by creating jobs.


UNANA sees a very bright future for Urhobo, a vista of possibilities, of development, of progress, and of success for our people, and we are confident that as we continue to put heads together in unity, we will achieve great things. 

I cannot conclude my remarks without expressing our gratitude to our royal fathers for their wise counsel.  Finally, we want to congratulate and say a big thank you to members of the Organizing Committee of this year’s Urhobo Congress for a job well done.  We look forward to seeing many of you at our 12th Annual Convention in Chicago (September 2nd – 5th, 2005).  We are also looking forward to coming home in larger numbers for next year’s Urhobo Congress.

May God bless Urhoboland, Delta State, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria.  Thank you.