Urhobo Historical Society

 

LET MY PEOPLE LIVE

 

By Dr. Oritsegbemi  O. Omatete

 

Presented at the Inauguration of “Itsekiri Association of Chicago” on Saturday June 28, 2003.

 

 

And the Lord said to Moses, Go unto Pharaoh and say to him, Thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me.'  Exodus Chapter 8, Verse 1. 

 

I pretend neither the Lord to be nor his prophet.  However, I do know that “the voice of the people is the voice of the Lord.”  It is in that knowledge that I appeal to the people of the world to go unto the Ijaws and tell them to let my people live, that I plead with all Nigerians to say to the Ijaws, "Stop killing Itsekiris," that I implore the people of the Delta to call unto the Ijaws not to exterminate their Itsekiri neighbors in the Delta.  Given life, the Itsekiris will continue to serve not only the people of the Delta and of Nigeria but also the people of the world and in so doing serve the Lord.

 

Ijaw’s Surprise Attack on Itsekiris


For centuries, before the British arrived and carved out
Nigeria and even since Nigeria’s Independence in 1960, the Itsekiris and the Ijaws lived peacefully as neighbors in the Nigerian Delta, subsisted on its marine life, and suffered the neglect and pollution that came with the oil exploration of the Delta.  It, therefore, came as a shock when between 1997 and 1999 without provocation, without any warning, the Ijaws launched vicious attacks on all of Itsekiri land. From Warri to Ode-Itsekiri (Big Warri), down the “Escravos” River to Madangho, Arunton and Ugborodo, the Ijaws destroyed people’s homes and lives. To villages and towns along the Benin River, they spread their mayhem.  Within two years, over 35 Itsekiri towns and villages were attacked, over 1,000 lives lost with the concomitant enormous loss of property.

 

The pattern of attack was the same.  In the middle of the night when the Itsekiri people were asleep in their villages, Ijaws armed to the teeth charged in and attacked.  They blasted homes with their occupants in them.  As those who heard the thundering sounds and explosions tried to escape, they were gunned down, especially the weak.  Because the Itsekiris are a very small ethnic group, nearly every family has lost close family members during these pogroms. In the attack in May 1999 at Arunton-Ugborodo, my own first cousin in whose house I stay whenever I visited home was shot in the head as he ran out of his house.  Then his house was torched.  Similarly, my older sister’s house was burnt to the ground.  She managed to escape in the darkness of the night. The most horrifying part of these massacres was that the Ijaw attackers would pick up young children running out of the burning houses and throw them back into the inferno.  Just think about this for a minute.  What have those poor innocent children done to meet such a ghastly ending?

 

Ijaw’s imperialism or irredentism - in the 21st Century?


During this 1997- 1999 rampage, the Ijaws attacked other neighboring ethnic groups in or near the Delta too.  They attacked the Ilajes, a Yoruba group that has lived peacefully for generations in the Delta, especially with the Itsekiris.  They attacked the
Benins and even the Urhobos.  The Ijaw aggression had become so destructive not only to peoples lives but also to the economic activities in the Delta that the Federal government sent in troops to restore some order.  This was when Ijaws of Odi captured and killed federal soldiers.  The federal troops’ outrageous reprisal attack on Odi was greeted with worldwide condemnation and brought sympathy to the Ijaws.  But the Ijaws continued with their attacks on others, especially the Itsekiris.

 

Meanwhile, the Ilajes with their large Yoruba backing fought back and stopped the Ijaws.  Similarly, the Benins negated the attacks and expelled them from their territory.  The Urhobos and the Ijaws, the two dominant in population and contiguous neighbors of the Itsekiris seem to have come to an understanding.  There has been no hostility between them.  Instead, it often appears as if there is coordinated attack by both on the Itsekiris.  Only the Itsekiris, one of the smallest ethnic group not only in the Delta but also all of Nigeria, without help from any large group, do the Ijaws continue to attack.

 

The Ijaw intentions was soon revealed when they published a declaration that included a map of what they claimed as their territory in the Delta.  Whereas this map showed boundaries between the Ijaw territory and the Urhobos, the Benins and the Yorubas, Itsekiri land had disappeared, swallowed in Ijaw claim.  Not only was this claim outlandish but also, it was a clear signal to the world of the Ijaw intentions for the Itsekiris and their homeland.   Itsekiris, who controlled the Delta from Warri through the “Escravos” and Benin Rivers, who traded with the Portuguese in 17th century and whose son, Prince Nana, fought the Royal Navy in the 19th century, no longer have a home in the Delta by this Ijaw’s map.  It is mind-boggling.

 

Between 1999 and now, the Ijaw attacks on the Itsekiris never stopped even when there were peaceful negotiations in progress.  Itsekiris were kidnapped and killed if they dared to go fishing or just move about their peaceful business.  If an Itsekiri was among oil workers kidnapped by Ijaws for ransom, he was never seen again or only his desecrated remains were found.  Itsekiri villages that were taken over and renamed are still under Ijaw control.  Itsekiris displaced in the attacks are still homeless and nobody, neither the federal nor the state government, has rendered any meaningful help or compensation. 

 

Claim of marginalization


During these negotiations, Ijaws claim that they are marginalized and by some unfathomable logic imply that, taking over and controlling Itsekiris territory will correct this. First let us look at the current political dispensation.  The Ijaws control the governorship and all the attached power and influence in two states, Rivers and Bayelsa.  They control 12 local governments in
Rivers State, all the 8 in Bayelsa and 3 in Delta for a total of 23.  The Itsekiris are supposed to control 3 local governments in Delta State, although to date, they have not been allowed to do so.  Because, on the one hand, the Ijaws make the false claim that they are more than Itsekiris in two of these local government and must control them; and other hand, the Urhobos, the Itsekiris’ other dominant neighbor, who control the governorship and all the senatorial seats and 8 local governments in Delta State, want to control the third one.  Thus, the Itsekiris in their homeland will be completely dominated by the Ijaws and Urhobos.  Who is marginalizing whom?

 

Renewed attacks on Itsekiris


In March this year, 2003, when
Nigeria was preparing for the recent elections the Ijaws struck again, as they did in 1999 just after the first democratic election.  This time all the Itsekiri villages that were not destroyed in 1997-1999 attacks came under fire.  In addition several villages were revisited and destroyed by the Ijaws. The Ijaws were now much bolder.  They came in daylight completely armed, in military fatigues and formation, to destroy the villages.  The viciousness of the attacks did not change.  People were gunned down as they ran and children were thrown in burning infernos.  The shocking pictures of burnt children taken after the wave of attacks on Koko attest to this dastardly act.

 

During the second attack on Arunton-Ugborodo, our Itsekiri women, who last year had brought the miserable plight of all Delta people due to oil exploitation to the world by threatening nudity, had to seek refuge from Ijaw attack in the oil company’s compound.  The oil company flew the injured out for medical treatment as the Ijaws attacked.  When people at Ogidigben put up some resistance, the Ijaws went for reinforcement and returned the following day to raze the town.  The Ijaws destroyed several oil installations.  An Ijaw militant claimed that they would continue to attack the oil companies and Itsekiris until the federal government meets the Ijaw demands.  The Ijaws have actually attacked oil installations but primarily only those in Itsekiri territory.

 

Is this ethnic cleansing?


I hesitate to use words like genocide, ethnocide or ethnic cleansing.  But let us examine what the Ijaws have done and are doing.  During the attacks they generally do not loot or carry away Itsekiri property.  Instead, they burn everything.  They kill as many people as they can, including children.  No Itsekiri village has been spared.  Either it has been burnt, completely destroyed or taken over and renamed.  If in addition, one considers their map that does not acknowledge the existence of Itsekiris in the Niger Delta, then their intention is clear.  Itsekiris are not being destroyed for what they have done but just for who they are. This is the classic definition of ethnocide or ethnic cleansing.   Yet, nobody in the world seems to care or notice.

 

Permit me to ask some questions.  Do the Ijaw militants or their mercenaries who perpetrate these atrocities at the end of each diabolic campaign boast of the number of children they threw into burning fires, the number of old men and women they shot in the back or head as they tried to escape?  Do Ijaw leaders who pay and send them on these missions daily congratulate themselves on the number of Itsekiris and their villages that were destroyed?  Do the Ijaws at home and abroad who contribute money to Ijaw causes know how much destruction they are causing on fellow human beings of the Delta?  If so, what joy do they derive from it?

 

People of the Delta – contemplate this


People of the Delta especially the Ijaws, the Urhobos and the lowly Itsekiris, are there forces that want us to fight each other so that we do not fully enjoy the resources in our land?  Recall it was the false announcement of the creation of a fourth local government for the Ijaws with headquarters at Ogbe-Ijaw by Col Dung a non-Delta military governor that instigated the initial Ijaw attacks.  Although from their swift action, it was obvious that the Ijaws were prepared and well armed already.  Note that due to the constant hostilities in Warri most businesses have moved out with the consequent loss of income and rental revenues from those ubiquitous estates.  Here again some of the companies moved to
Port Harcourt in Rivers State.  An area cannot develop when its people are constantly fighting each other.

 

Appeal to the World


Finally I would, once more, like to appeal to the world to let my people, the Itsekiris, live. 

 

To Human Rights Watch that was vocal in denouncing the Nigerian Federal Government during the excesses of its troops against Ijaws of Odi, where are you now that the Ijaws have continued to destroy Itsekiris in its entirety?  Do Itsekiris not deserve to exist  or do your representatives in Nigeria report only aggression against Ijaws but not when Ijaws annihilate the Itsekiris?  Please, plead the case for our continued existence with the Ijaws and the Nigerian government.

 

To Amnesty International, please listen to the cries of the Itsekiris as they are being exterminated by the Ijaws.  Plead our case before the international forum and pressure the Nigerian government to come to our assistance.

 

To the Nigerian Federal Government, discharge your responsibilities and protect law-abiding citizens of your country. You, who send soldiers to bring peace to other troubled African nations, restore some peace to the Itsekiris besieged by the Ijaws. The presence of soldiers in Warri and at oil installations does not protect the Itsekiris in their villages or restore the homes and properties that have been destroyed.  Please find an amicable solution so that the Ijaws will stop killing us.  But protect us while you work on this solution and compensate us for our irreparable losses.

 

To the Delta State Government, you are our first line of defense.   What have you done to stop the Ijaw attacks on Itsekiris?  What assistance are the injured and the homeless getting? Their villages and destroyed property have to be rebuilt and they have to be relocated to their homes.  How do you plan to this?

 

To the Benins, our royal brothers from over half-a-millennium, come to our aid.  We are being eliminated from our ancestral homeland.

 

To the Yorubas, with whom we share not only language but also the dignity of court culture, come to our assistance now. You have helped us in the past.  Plead with the Ijaws to stop killing us and burning our villages.

 

To the Urhobos, our neighbors with whom we are so intermingled and intermarried, intercede on our behalf with the Ijaws.  The Ijaws are killing your family members.  Few are the Urhobos who are not related to Itsekiris.  Remember, the Itsekiris are so small that they pose no political or economic threat to you or the Ijaws.  We just want to be allowed to exist in peace in our homeland

 

To the Ijaws, we do not know why you are killing and annihilating us.  The Itsekiris do not create local governments.  In any case, you already have 23 and the most Itsekiris are supposed to have are 3.  How does this ratio pose a threat to you?  To those Ijaw intellectuals at home and abroad who boldly and bravely defended Odi against the excesses of the federal troops, we ask that you judge the actions of your militants against the Itsekiris.  Please, plead with your militants to stop destroying Itsekiris.

 

We plead with our famous defenders of justice, Nobel laureate Wole Soynka, Mr. Gani Fawehimi and others, please take on the case of the Itsekiris.  They have become the scapegoat for Ijaw dissatisfaction with the federal government.  The Itsekiris are gradually being exterminated by the Ijaws. 

 

To the people of the world, please tell the Ijaws to let my people live.  The annihilation of the Itsekiris of the Niger Delta, who, though so small, have contributed so much to the history of Nigeria, the largest African nation, should not be allowed.  For the extermination of a group of human beings, no matter how small, diminishes all of us in the world.  This should not be allowed, not in the 21st century.

 

I thank you all for your attention.

 


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