Urhobo Historical Society

The Need For Peace in Warri

By Akindele Aiyetan

/logo_min.gif - 1122 Bytes The Guradian On-Line - http://ngrguardinannews.com
Monday, January 28, 2002.

THE recent outbreak of violence in Warri, presumably between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri, was just one out of several skirmishes either between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo or between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw in what appears to be an unending fratricidal war in the Warri metropolis. Although a Yoruba man of Ondo State extraction, I have lived in Warri for upward of almost 40 years. Indeed, I had all my children, all of whom are now grown up and married, in this area. Now a septuagenarian, I am old, experienced and intelligent enough to know and discern the unorthodox manner in which some of the protagonists of the internecine "war" prosecute it against their neighbours.

 The questions which we, who are strangers, ask ourselves are, what are the issues involved in the perennial squabbles between the Itsekiri and the Urhobo on the one hand and between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw on the other hand? In other words, what is/are the cause(s) of the quarrel between each of the two groups? Now, we know the answers: land and politics. Those of us on the spectators' seat are at a point of vantage, where we can see almost quite clearly what goes on among the warring players: The original Delta Province (Warri Province until 1952) have five distinct groups ñ the Urhobo (easily the most populous), the Ijaw, the Isoko, the Ukwani (in Ndokwa) and the Itsekiri. The last-named had a kingdom whose headquarters was at a place called Ode-Itsekiri. Up till now, Itsekiri kings and top chiefs who pass on are taken to that village for interment. Being reverine dwellers on the Atlantic littoral, the Itsekiri were the middlemen between the white traders ñ first in slaves, procured from the Urhobo and Isoko people to the hinterland, and, later, in palm oil. The depot must be somewhere in what is called Warri today.

 So, who owns Warri? The Itsekiri claim that Ginuwa 1 founded Warri in 16th century; the Urhobo claim that they had founded and lived in Warri before the 16th century. To a dispassionate observer, the former claim would sound implausible because the Itsekiri king (known as Olu of Itsekiri until 1952) did not move into the present Warri until 1952, when the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo rewarded the Itsekiri for their votes in the 1952 general elections by changing the title of the Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri and establishing an Itsekiri Communal Land Trust over Warri, with the Olu as the president or chairman. The Urhobo went wild with rage and, and as law-abiding citizens, went straight to the court to cause the Olu to revert to his original title and/or at least to change the name of the Province from Warri to Delta. They failed and won: failed to get the title of Olu of Warri to revert to Olu of Itsekiri but succeeded in getting the name of the Province to change from Warri to Delta Province. But the seed of inter-tribal conflicts had been sown, I dare say, by the South-West and was watered by the South West until 1976, when the Supreme Court, the apex court of the land, pronounced its judgement on the contending claims to Warri: A group of prominent Itsekiri chiefs ñ D. O. Idundun, P. O. Awani, A. E. Hesse, C. A. Lorie, J. D. Oruru (for themselves and on behalf of Ogitsi family of Okere, Warri), the Itsekiri Communal Land Trustees and Erejuwa II, The Olu of Warri (for himself and on behalf of the Itsekiri people) had sued Daniel Okumagba (an Urhobo, for himself and on behalf of Olodi, Oki and Ighogbadu families of Idimisobo, Okere Warri) over ownership of Warri. The plaintiffs (the Itsekiri) claimed against the Urhobo (the defendants), that the defendants had forfeited their rights of user and/or occupation and any other rights in the area in dispute and an order of injunction to restrain the defendants, their servants and/or agents from entering the land in dispute.

 As far as those of us, spectators, were and are concerned, so much depended or should depend on the ruling of the Supreme Court. In a landmark judgement, the apex court, exhibiting erudition, handed its decision to the litigants. Quoting with approval, the opinion of the lower court presided by Mr. Justice Ekeruche, the Supreme Court said:

 "Considering the traditional evidence in the case, my view of that aspect of the evidence in plaintiff's case whereby plaintiffs have sought to establish that the land in dispute and even also Okere Village were part of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I and also their evidence that Ogitsi owned the whole of Okere land including the land in dispute in this case is that it is UNCONVINCING..." (1976, 9 & 10 SC, 227 @ 229.) Continuing, the learned Justices said:

 "The plaintiffs say that Ginuwa I founded a kingdom and that before Ekpen (an Urhobo) came to Okere the area of Okere was or would be part of that kingdom. There is no evidence of the extent or area covered by that kingdom, nor is there any evidence going to show any act or acts in history which made the area of the kingdom founded by Ginuwa I before Ekpen (the Urhobo man ) came there..." (Ibid @ p230).

 The Itsekiri case against the Urhobo suffered a stroke when the learned justices of the Supreme Court further stated that:

 "The evidence in plaintiff's case only shows that Ginuwa I when he was trying to make a settlement after leaving Benin got as far as Ijalla where he ultimately settled, lived, died and was buried. There is not evidence in plaintiff's case going to show that in the process of making his settlement or kingdom he or any persons under him settled anywhere beyond Ijalla and towards or in Okere" (ibid).

 The learned trial judge in the lower court had stated: "I do not believe that any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I extended to Okere. Plaintiffs' evidence and also evidence in the whole case do not prove such extent of any kingdom founded by Ginuwa I..." (ibid). The Supreme Court agreed with this statement.

 The Urhobo are a peaceful race, with a republican spirit. Although they have an enviable culture, they are not united under any single monarch, like the Itsekiri or the Idoma or the Efiks, etc. Which explains why the struggle over Warri is restricted to only the Urhobo of Agbarha and Okere (in Warri) and the Itsekiri. The overwhelming majority of the Urhobo in the remaining 20 of their 22 clans are uninterested, at least for now, in the Warri crisis. On the other hand, the Itsekiri have, since the early 1950s, fashioned a link with the Yoruba of the South West. Historically, the Itsekiri, like the Urhobo, originally migrated from Benin. They settled in the riverine areas where they mixed with the Ilajes and the Ijo-Apoi's (in the present Ondo State) whose patois is a dialect of the Yoruba: hence their claim to linguistic and cultural affinity with the Yoruba. To help them fight their war against the Urhobo and Ijaws, Itsekiri leaders have ingratiated themselves with the Yoruba, through Chief Awolowo, over the years. They attend Afenifere and Yoruba Council of Elders meetings. Recently, our leader, Chief Abraham Adesanya, formally welcomed the Edo-turned-Yoruba group to the Afenifere fold. And TheNews magazine of July, 2001, published a lecture by Femi Fani-Kayode, in which he said, among other things, that "...we (the Yoruba) shall expand our borders and re-establish the ancient boundaries. It is that time that we will drive the alien invaders out of Kwara and parts of Kogi, reclaim what is rightfully ours and deliver our Yoruba brothers that have been forced to languish in those parts in a sad and pathetic condition of debilitating bondage. It is at that time that we will vigorously respond to plight of our Itsekiri cousins..." I dare say that if the Itsekiri are Yoruba, then the Igala and the Nupe are also Yoruba, who should send representatives to the Afenifere and the YCE!

 I think we have more than enough problems in the present South West. To decide to "vigorously" drive the Urhobo and/or the Ijaws from their land in the Delta is like saying that the land occupied by the Itsekiri in Warri today is part of Yoruba land, just like parts of Kwara and Kogi! I recommend a copy of the judgements of the Supreme Court No. SC 9/10, 1976, to all who like to fish in troubled waters.