|Urhobo Historical Society
The Historic Contributions of Urhobo Progress
By Peter P. Ekeh
Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society
Lecture at the 2008 Urhobo National Day Celebrations, PTI Conference
Your Majesties, Ivie of Urhoboland
Beloved Members of
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen
The historic roots of Urhobo Progress Union run back to the turmoil that ensued from the beginnings of British colonial rule in Urhoboland in the first three decades of the 20th century. Although many Urhobo communities had signed the so-called “Treaties of Protection” with the British Imperial Government in the 1890s, actual British colonial rule did not begin until a dispute concerning colonial jurisdiction in Urhoboland was settled between two agencies of British Government, namely, Royal Niger Company and Niger Coast Protectorate Government. In 1900 the Royal Niger Company lost its bid to rule Urhobo territories as a surrogate of the British Government. Thenceforth, colonial rule in Urhoboland began in earnest.
The first three
colonial rule were hard times in Urhoboland. The Urhobo had eagerly
coming of the famed white man about whom they had heard so much. For
centuries, from the 1480s to the 1890s, the Urhobo people were involved
international trade in which they supplied palm produce, pepper and
agricultural products that were shipped to
The prime reason for the difficulties that arose between the Urhobo people and the new British Colonial Government was that the Urhobo felt that the Government had instituted policies that punished the Urhobo people and that disfavoured them. On the other hand, British colonial officers had difficulties in dealing with Urhobo clan-based chieftains. These bad relations were unresolved by the 1920s when several Urhobo organizations began to emerge in diverse attempts to redress grievances felt by Urhobo communities. Most of these associations were organized by young Urhobos from towns and clans that were fractions of the Urhobo whole. Two examples will illustrate them. Chief T. E. A. Salubi has cited the formation of the Association of Okpara Young Men in 1925 as a notable example of the ferment of that age. But the motives of this association were suspected by the colonial Government and by the Chiefs. Like many other clan and town associations of that period, it failed. The most successful clan association of that era was Okpe Union, which was formed in 1930. Its success was probably due to the fact that Okpe Chiefs cooperated with young literate men.
While Clan and Town
such as the Okpe Union, did some good for their narrow segments of the
whole, the new age ushered in by the European presence required a large
platform for expressing the needs of the Urhobo people. Until the
each clan could take care of the needs of its people. Matters were
different in the early decades of the 20th century. The
facing Urhobo people in the 1920s could only be addressed by an
all Urhobos. It was in this vein that Urhobo Brotherly Society was
1931 in Warri by insurgent Urhobo nationalists. It spread rapidly
Urhoboland and its Diaspora in colonial
It must not be imagined that Urhobo Progress Union attained its fame on a platter of gold. In the 1930s, the British Colonial Government was suspicious of nationalist organizations, such as Urhobo Progress Union. UPU’s signal moment came from events that began in 1934. In arguing for the revival of Itsekiri kingship, which had been defunct since 1848, a group of Itsekiri insulted the Urhobo by employing an epithet, which we need not repeat here, in a publication in the Daily Times of 13th June 1934. The British authorities were displeased with this publication and apparently put pressure on Itsekiri Native Authority which duly entered a disclaimer with an apology to the Urhobo people for the wanton attack from this group of Itsekiri.
Urhobo resentment and sentiments and dramatically led to an event that
surprised the British Colonial Government. Urhobo Progress Union and
several clans in
General Meeting and the Maturation of Urhobo
precious premium from Urhobo General Meeting of the 1930s. First, its
interaction with older and experienced clan chieftains allowed the
younger members of the UPU to gain a great deal of experience. Second,
General Meeting provided Urhobo Progress Union a platform for the
of an agenda for promoting Urhobo welfare. As Adogbeji Salubi
his presidential address to the UPU Congress of 1965, although many of
Chiefs were not members of the UPU, they assisted the younger members
Perhaps, the most
achievement of Urhobo Progress Union from the sessions of Urhobo
Meeting at Orerokpe was that the
It was in the 1930s that the UPU gained the trust and respect of ordinary Urhobo people as an organization that they could rely on. Urhobo Progress Union achieved extraordinary feats in the 1930s that shaped Urhobo affairs into the future. Above all else, UPU represented and protected the interests of the Urhobo people before the Colonial Government.
Beginning with its
under the platform of Urhobo General Meeting, Urhobo Progress Union
large number of activities that shaped Urhobo’s destiny under British
rule and that helped the Urhobo people to overcome what looked like
overwhelming challenges from 1900-1930s. It is best to categorize the
First, Urhobo Progress Union was able to reverse adverse British colonial policies that were in place in the 1930s. The pernicious policies hurt the Urhobo people. The UPU successfully persuaded the British Colonial Government to change its wrongful colonial policies.
Second, Urhobo Progress Union fought hard to protect Urhobo lands and interests against alien powers that sought to poach Urhobo assets.
Third, Urhobo Progress Union embarked on the development of the Urhobo people -- inside Urhoboland and its Diaspora -- in those instances where it was clear that the Urhobo people could not wait for the British Colonial Government and its allied Christian Missionaries to bring change to the Urhobo people.
Fourth, a major
of Urhobo history in the modern era, beginning with colonial times, was
Urhobos migrated to other lands inside
Fifth, while promoting the welfare of Urhobo people, Urhobo Progress Union was fully engaged in building up a positive image for the Urhobo nation. UPU’s regime of image management included a tough fight against those Urhobo people who were doing damage to the good name of the Urhobo people.
I will now proceed to analyze each of these categories of achievements of Urhobo Progress Union, from the 1930s well unto the 1980s.
Reversing Bad Colonial Policies
Urhobo Progress Union changed the way the Urhobo people dealt with the new Colonial Government. In previous decades, before the 1930s, Urhobo grievances against British colonial policies were settled in violent ways, resulting in a score of riots and arrests of several local Urhobo leaders. The new way of Urhobo Progress Union was to persuade the British of the wrongfulness of their colonial policies and to make positive suggestions of alternative policies. This new methodology was tried out with respect to several major wrongful colonial policies.
urgency for the
Urhobo in the 1930s was the wrongful name by which the British called
Unable to handle the compound consonant “rh” in Urhobo language, the
conveniently changed it to “s.” Thus, the British colonizers called the
“Sobo,” just as they changed Urhiapele to Sapele and Urhonigbe in
employed by Urhobo Progress Union to great effect in a tougher area of
interrogation that challenged core colonial policies regarding the
of Urhobo clans to colonial administrative divisions. Well up to the
several Urhobo clans were allocated by British colonial policies to a
of administrative divisions outside of Urhoboland. Abraka and Orogun
assigned to Aboh Division. Idjerhe (misnamed as Jesse by the British)
of Benin Division in
Of these instances
misallocation, that of Idjerhe was the most threatening. That was so
reasons. First, Idjerhe was assigned to
Second, Urhobo Progress Union doggedly fought against the fusion of Urhobo affairs with Itsekiri politics in the so-called Jekri-Sobo Division. The issue involved in this instance was a lot more sinister than most people recognize. Although Itsekiri chieftains liked this arrangement, its origin did not come from Itsekiri pressure. On the contrary, it was in a nasty British colonial experimentation of marrying what many colonial officers saw as the wisdom of the Itsekiri with what they perceived as the dynamism of the Urhobo people. Many of them argued that bringing the Itsekiri and Urhobo together under the same government would overcome the leisurely ways of the Itsekiri and the inexperience of the Urhobo while matching Urhobo dynamism with Itsekiri experience in government. Urhobos rejected this logic and craved a separation from the Itsekiri. Urhobo Progress Union pursued its campaign for separation in two stages. First, the UPU persuaded the colonial officers to separate Urhobo Treasury from Itsekiri Treasury. This was accomplished in September 1937. Second, Urhobo Progress Union pressed for the separation of the government of the Itsekiri from that of the Urhobo. This was achieved in June 1950 when Itsekiri Division was created and Udu, Uvwie, Okpe, Agbon, Idjerhe, and Oghara were transferred to Urhobo Division.
Finally, the transfer of Orogun and Abraka from Aboh Division to Urhobo Division in January 1951 completed the campaign by Urhobo Progress Union for the grouping of all Urhobo clans under a single Colonial Division. The only exception was the unique instance of Okere and Agbarha-Ame whose lands constitute the Provincial headquarters at Warri.
It is important to
that in successfully campaigning for the transfer of these misallocated
back to the Urhobo fold, Chief Mukoro Mowoe and his colleagues of
Progress had achieved what few organizations could boast of in the
history of Africa. We will realize the enormity of this achievement by
the following question: What if Urhobo Progress Union had not fought
wholeness of the Urhobo nation during the 1930s and 1940s? It was
possible that Idjerhe might have wrongfully been assigned to
There was a
difference between the peaceful circumstances of the lands that were
Eastern Urhobo and the threats to Urhobo lands in
In the 1930s,
Union boldly stood behind the Idjerhe, Okpe and Oghara people to ward
attempts to poach their lands in northwestern Urhobo. As already
mature discussions on Idjerhe-Benin boundaries led to an amicable
the land relations between the
The most dramatic
scored by Urhobo Progress Union was unquestionably on the Sapele land
With the help, and at the urging, of Urhobo Progress Union, the Okpe
went to court to claim ownership of
The struggle to protect Urhobo lands dragged on unto the 1970s when major Itsekiri chieftains and the King of Itsekiri took Chief Daniel Okumagba to court to lay claims to Okere lands in Warri. Daniel Okumagba was a key member of Urhobo Progress Union, having once served as its Secretary. He took for his lawyer another UPU devotee, Dr. Mudiaga Odje. In many senses, therefore, Urhobo Progress Union was wholly involved in this important case. As in the Sapele case of the 1940s, the Itsekiri lost their legal claim to Okere-Warri in a judgement of the Mid-Western High Court sitting at Warri and delivered by Mr. Justice Ekeruche. In 1974, the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld this judgement that awarded ownership of the relevant Warri lands to the Okere people.
I have chosen to
these cases because the history of
Development of Urhobo People and Urhoboland
From the above catalogue of achievements by Urhobo Progress Union, it might appear that this organization was well endowed from the 1930s through the 1950s. Nothing could be farther from the truth. On the contrary, the hard reality that confronted the UPU in the 1930s was that it had very little to work with. It was very clear to the leaders of Urhobo Progress Union that in the new era of European colonialism, Urhobo people were seen as backward in comparison to other ethnic nationalities.
An example of the
that confronted the Urhobo people could be illustrated from an event
of the several meetings that UPU leaders held with colonial officers in
1930s. At a meeting with the Resident, the highest Colonial Officer of
It was clear to
Progress Union in the 1930s that the Urhobo people could not wait for
Government or the Christian Missions to train the personnel that the
people needed in order to function adequately in the new colonial era.
the Lagos Branch of the
Today, no one
wisdom of this initiative that was originally conceived by Apolo
the Lagos Branch in 1935. We need not delay in assessing the
However, it would
mistake to limit the contributions of Urhobo Progress Union in the
educational development in Urhoboland to the Union’s extraordinary
in the founding and management of
In addition to its sponsorship of the coming of Western missions, schools and hospitals to Urhoboland, Urhobo Progress Union must be credited with a successful campaign for the enhancement of the indigenous institution of kingship in Urhoboland. At the onset of British colonial rule in the Western Niger Delta in the 1890s and 1900s, kings were rare in the region. The Itsekiri and Ijaw had no kings. In Urhobo country, the Ovie of Ughelli and Ovie of Ogor existed to represent the traditional practice of clan kingship in Urhoboland. It was not until 1936 that the Itsekiri revived their kinship which had been suppressed by powerful merchants in Itsekiri affairs since 1848. In the later half of the 1930s, Urhobo Progress Union mounted major campaigns to create kings in Urhoboland. When the Okpe people decided to ask for the revival of their kingship, which had been vacated, probably for centuries, they found a powerful ally in the Urhobo Progress Union in the attempt to persuade the British Colonial Government to allow the revival of the royal title of Orodje of Okpe. The installation of Esezi II in 1945 was celebrated not only in Okpe, but by numerous UPU branches, especially in the Urhobo Diaspora. Today, when we see our galaxy of kings, in whom we take great pride, we must be reminded that we see in their glory the vision of Urhobo Progress Union from the 1930s.
All in all, Urhobo Progress Union saw itself as the agency of progress in Urhoboland. It invested most of its capital in the development of a future generation of Urhobo men and women. In one way or the other, we who are assembled here today – kings and commoners, professors and students, wealthy men and women and the poor, etc., etc., -- we all are the bearers of the progress which the visionaries of the Urhobo Progress Union wrought in the decades of the 1930s and 1940s and well beyond.
Until the arrival
rule in the 1890s, Urhobos were largely confined to their homeland in
rainforests and creeks of the Western Niger Delta, with occasional
fishing grounds of the Ijaws and sometimes to Ukwuani country for those
dared to pursue livelihoods outside Urhobo country. By 1893, the
colonizers had penetrated Yoruba country. Following British conquest of
Urhobos poured into colonial townships where they plied several types
occupation, including trading in agricultural produce. Some worked in
colonial service. In the Yoruba towns of
In both of these instances, the welfare of Urhobo migrants was endangered. Until the 1930s, there was no organized way of handling the rapid growth of Urhobo immigrants in Yoruba country and elsewhere. Exploitation by host communities was not uncommon. In addition, quarrels among Urhobos were also common. The rise of Urhobo Progress Union in the 1930s came as a blessing to these migrants, both in rural areas and the new colonial townships. The rapid growth and popularity of Urhobo Progress Union among migrants of the Urhobo Diaspora owed their urgency to the functions which this new organization performed in the Diaspora.
Urhobo Progress Union was responsible for the welfare of Urhobo people in the Diaspora. Moreover, the UPU served as the custodian of Urhobo culture in many fragments of the Urhobo Diaspora. Thus, the UPU assumed essential cultural roles in marriages, deaths, and indeed socialization of children. In instances of undue hardship, individual Urhobo migrants turned to the UPU for help. Urhobo Progress Union helped Urhobo migrants who were unfairly taken to colonial courts. The UPU also played quasi-legal roles. For instance, in many fragments of the Urhobo Diaspora, the UPU handled cases of divorce between Urhobo couples.
Perhaps, a sense of
pervasive role of Urhobo Progress Union in the affairs of Urhobo
be captured from the extraordinary history of one Urhobo leader in
It needs to be added that these roles of Urhobo Progress Union were unique to the Urhobo Diaspora. In other words, other traditional structures assumed these roles in the Urhobo homeland. However, away from the Urhobo homeland, away in distant lands, Urhobo migrants relied on Urhobo Progress Union to perform roles that their extended families attended to in the safety and traditions of their homeland.
Any fair and
assessment of the contributions of Urhobo Progress Union must include
critical role played by the
many of these people from membership of the
Let me cite two
disputes between Urhobo Progress Union and the payan groups in
The first incident
in 1935-36. The Lagos Branch of the UPU was opened in November 1934.
thereafter in 1935, the Lagos Branch began its campaign for scholarship
for Urhobo youngsters. In an attempt to raise good funds, the Lagos
the UPU decided to bring stilt Ikenike
dancers from the Ilaje area to
The second dispute
more deadly. In 1943, the Welfare Officer of Lagos Colony was making
against prostitutes who were accused of corrupting under-age girls into
trade. The Government authorities had sought the help of Adogbeji
was then an Assistant Labour Officer in
I have narrated
incidents of UPU’s confrontation with those they considered as unsavory
and whom the
The fact remains, however, that the overall positive image that the Urhobo nation enjoys today owes a great deal to the work of Urhobo Progress Union. It fought relentlessly against evil efforts to malign the Urhobo people by outsiders. It also had the internal fortitude to fight against fellow Urhobos whose behaviours had given a bad name to the Urhobo people.
Some Concluding Thoughts
I suppose there are
this audience who will wonder whether we have not exaggerated the
and achievements of Urhobo Progress Union. They may well ask: Are there
other associations that have achieved as much for their people
I believe that is a fair question. My answer would be that in terms of African history of the colonial period, Urhobo Progress Union ranks quite high in comparison to the most celebrated of the indigenous associations. I am aware that Urhobo Progress Union has been compared to the African National Congress of South Africa in terms of their achievements. But the ANC is quite different from the UPU. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was from its beginning a multi-racial and multi-ethnic association that was empowered by the ideals and ideologies that were long in existence in the West. In an important sense, the African National Congress was not an indigenous organization. On the other hand, Urhobo Progress Union was an indigenous association whose ideals were homegrown.
The Urhobo people
Urhobo Progress Union in at least two senses. First, its prime goals
the advancement of ordinary Urhobo people. From its inception, Urhobo
Union was primarily concerned about the welfare of the ordinary Urhobo
There is a second
which the ordinary man and woman owned Urhobo Progress Union. They
their share to the resources of the
Let me cite an
event from the
era of Chief T. E. A. Salubi as President-General of the
The uniqueness of
Progress Union also arose from the remarkable character of those who
I thank you for listening to me. Wa ko b’ iruo.