Urhobo Historical Society

LAGOS, NIGERIA.     Tuesday, June 17 2003

Urhobos and the Warri Crisis:
A Reply to Professor Itse Sagay's Claims

By Chris Akiri

THE May 11, 2003 edition of The Sunday Vanguard carried Prof. Itse Sagay's provocative article, titled "The Itsekiris, Ijaws, Urhobos and the political control of Warri territory", in which he fruitlessly and ludicrously tried to use international law to determine the ownership of Warri territory. He helplessly found refuge in the so-called UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from which he quoted ad nauseam inapposite Articles directed at sovereign States in their relationship to the minority groups within their borders and not at three fellow minority groups of which the least populous seeks to lord it over and stand astride the other.

Traditionally, the Itsekiris are riverine dwellers, who built their stilted homesteads in the creeks along the Benin River. They had a kingdom about the 15th century whose capital" Ode-Itsekiri" was also in this area. If any Itsekiri monarch or high-class chief passes on, he is interred at Ode-Itsekiri, their ancestral home.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Itsekiris came to the limelight as middlemen between the white (mainly British and Portuguese) slave traders and the Urhobo, Isoko and Ukwani peoples to the hinterland of the Niger Delta. Armed with the white man's meretricious ornaments as gifts for their unwary victims, the Itsekiris aided and abetted the heartless white slave raiders and traders to enslave countless able-bodied Urhobo men and women, and consequently occupied a comfortable niche in the heart of the white man. To sustain this unholy alliance, innumerable Itsekiri women got married to white men with reckless abandon. The product of the wanton miscegenation between the white slave traders and Itsekiri women was a tribe of male and female mulattos. Quite naturally, the British plumbed for the Itsekiris rather than the Urhobos as henchmen. The Itsekiris have, since those pre-colonial days, effectively ingratiated themselves with any government in power as with the colonialists in order to sustain their hold on a territory in which they are no more than the Boers of South Africa.

Prof. Sagay wove his sophistic argument around two premises in a syllogistic style: The group in political control of Warri land when the British colonisers came to the area were the owners of Warri; Nana Olomu and Dore Numa (both Itsekiri people) were in political control of Warri land when the British colonisers came to the area. Therefore, the land belongs to the Itsekiris! It is like saying that the people who were in control of Port Harcourt at Independence in 1960 were the owners of the Garden City!! This fallacy of the undistributed middle ignores all the established legal ways of proving ownership of land. Sagay calls his preposterous theory "a simple expedient".

In what has become a cause celebre, Idundun & ors. Vs Okumagba & ors (1976) 9-10 SC 227 at pp.246-250, the Supreme Court, Nigeria's apex court, beyond which there is no appeal, except to God, spelt out five ways in which to prove a radical title to land, namely, proof (a) by traditional evidence, (b) by production of duly authenticated documents of title, (c) by acts of the person(s) claiming the land or part thereof, or farming on it or in a portion of it, "provided the acts extend over a sufficient length of time and are numerous and positive enough to warrant the inference that the person is the true owner" (see Ekpo V Ita,II NLR, 68), (d) by acts of long possession and enjoyment of the land and (e) by proof of possession of connected or adjoining land in circumstances rendering it probable that the owner of such connected or adjacent land would, in addition, be the owner of the land in dispute. Quite clearly, the group in control of the land when the British colonisers came is not one of the factors for determining ownership of land.

A short excursion into history would reveal that the Itsekiris, notorious for playing gossip columnists to the British, were appointed warrant chiefs even in Urhobo Native Courts. It is interesting to note that those stranger elements predominated in those courts. By 1930, according to the great historian, Prof. Obaro Ikime, in Agbon Clan, there were seven Itsekiri warrant chiefs, representing an estimated population of 180 (i.e. one chief for every 26 people) whilst nine Urhobo warrant chiefs represented an estimated population of 4,652 (i.e. one chief for every 517 people) in the Urhobo heartland! The Itsekiris were in political control. And the problem is that, puny as they are, they want to remain in "political control" forever and a day! Even the British are no longer in political control in the United States!!

The learned Senior Advocate of Nigeria is aware, no doubt, that if any of the premisses in a logical argument is false, the conclusion thereon cannot stand. In the said case of Idundun & ors. V. Okumagba & ors.(1976), the whole of the Itsekiri nation, led by their Olu, Erejuwa II, and others, including D.O. Idundun, Chief P.O. Awani, A.H. Hesse, C.A. Lorie, J.D. Oruru and the Itsekiri Communal Land Trustees, phrenetically sued the late Daniel Okumagba (for himself and on behalf of Olodi, Oki and Ighogbadu families of Idimisobo, Okere, Warri) and adduced evidence in support of their claim of ownership of Okere and other places in Warri, partly on the basis of traditional evidence and partly on acts of ownership.

In a considered judgment, the Supreme Court, presided over by Justice Atanda Fatai Williams, with Mohammed Bello and Andrews Otutu Obaseki, JJSC (as they then were), agreed with the learned trial judge, Mr. Justice Ekeruche, who vigorously observed:

"Considering first the traditional evidence in the case, my view of that aspect of the evidence in plaintiffs' case whereby plaintiffs (i.e. the Itsekiris) 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 this case is that it is unconvincing..."

The Urhobos produced irrefragable evidence to show that Ekpen (an Urhobo man) was the autochthonous founder of Okere Warri. Preferring this evidence to the plaintiffs', the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court as follows: "The plaintiffs say that Ginuwa I founded a kingdom and that before Ekpen (the Urhobo man) came to Okere the area of Okere was or would be part of that kingdom. There is no evidence of that 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 part of that kingdom founded by Ginuwa I before Ekpen came there..." The Supreme Court further agreed with the trial court that "the evidence in plaintiffs' 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 no evidence in plaintiffs' case going to show that in the process of making his settlement or kingdom he or any persons under him settled anywhere beyond Ijalla or towards or in Okere..." C'est fini, n'est pas? The Supreme Court then lamented that "the defendants (the Urhobos) did not counterclaim for title to the land." In spite of this unequivocal and definitive verdict by the Supreme Court, the indigenes of the two Urhobo kingdoms of Agbassa and Okere (Warri South), in comparison to whose population the numerical strength of all the Itsekiris on earth is a mere flea-bite on the kernel thereof, have remained quiet, preferring to adopt the policy of the ANC of South Africa which favours peaceful co-existence between the black South Africa owners of the land and the Afrikaner settlers.

But the Itsekiri Afrikaners would not give peace a chance, preferring instead to appeal against the ruling of the Supreme Court on the question of who owns Warri to the "court" of Prof. Itse Sagay, who is apparently unaware that Itsekiri fortune-hunters like Nana Olomu and Dore Numa wormed themselves into the good graces of the British and were treated as lords of the manor until Nana was cavalierly sent into exile (1894) in Accra consequent upon his refusal to stop the trade in slaves to which his fortunes were tied. Dore Numa enjoyed the singular notoriety of being a wretched lickspittle to the British, a liar, a traitor and an ingrate. In 1897, he led his British masters to defeat, try, dethrone and exile Oba Ovoramwen Nogbaisi of Benin to Calabar, where he died in 1914. It was also this Dore who, in 1894, schemed the overthrow, humiliation and exile of his fellow, even if iniquitous, Itsekiri man, Nana Olomu. Dore's compensation for his treacheries was his appointment by the British as the Political Agent in the Warri area, in which capacity he arrogated undue powers to himself.

As Political Agent (1902), King's Medalist (1907), Member of the Nigerian Council (1914), President of Warri Appeal Native Court (1915), etc., Dore Numa, the British solidly behind him, held all aces. When, in 1941, the Itsekiris, relying on the respect which the Urhobo owners of Sapele had for him, went to court to claim ownership of Sapele Town, Justice J. Jackson of the Warri High Court told them: "...I have heard bombastic claims to Royal privilege and overlordship over the Sobos (Urhobos), but not one snippet of evidence has been advanced in support of such a claim. I should have expected, at least, to have heard some evidence that a Jekri (Itsekiri) exercised some degree of authority as a Chief in this area.There is not a murmur of any such evidence..."

In Agbassa (Warri) Dore Numa told the truth for once in a letter dated February 28, 1923, at Warri, on Agbassa land, and addressed to Mr. S.L. Bucknor, counsel to Mr. Ogunu, representing Agbassa people. In the letter, Dore Numa wrote, inter alia: "I beg through you to inform your client, the people of Agbassa, that I claim no title whatever to Agbassa land either in my private capacity or as a member and representative of the Jekri Olu. Agbassa land belongs to Agbassa people although the Olu of Jekri has always had sovereign rights over all land in Warri but such rights have nothing to do with ownership of or title to land. I remain, Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, Dore."

The three history books that the Itsekiris rely on when laying a claim to ownership of Warri are "The Benin Kingdom and Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria", by R.E. Bradbury and P.C. Lloyd; "A Short History of Benin", by Jacob Egharevba and "The Peoples of Southern Nigeria", by P.A. Talbot. Both the High Court of the Mid-West, which tried the Idundun & ors. V. Okumagba & ors (1976) case, and the Supreme Court, which heard the appeal brought by the Itsekiris therefrom, read all these books and said: "Save as to the date of departure of Ginuwa from Benin City and his settling finally at Ijalla and founding a kingdom, none of the books affords any reliable basis for testing the veracity of the rest of plaintiffs' traditional evidence." One, therefore, wonders what "immemorial historical facts" Sagay was talking about. Quite clearly, the learned professor tried to use the crooked tricks of suggestibility to hoodwink the newly-appointed Lt. General T.Y. Danjuma Committee on the Warri Problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the professor has not read any of the history books. International Law will not let him; hence he made many provocative and unguarded statements, such as, "In spite of the strenuous and endless denials of the Ijaws and the Urhobos, there can be no question that Warri, constituted by the Warri North, Warri South and Warri South West Local Government Areas, is essentially the Itsekiri homeland which later accommodated immigrants and settlers from Ijaw and Urhobo territories...." All history shows that of the three nationalities in the Warri territory, the Urhobos, the Ijaws and the Itsekiris, the last" named were the last immigrants.

I dare say that it verges on rank prostitution of scholarship for a renowned professor of international law to pretend ignorance of the violence and lawlessness which the Itsekiris apotheosise. Hear him: "If the problem of the Ijaws and the Urhobos is the creation of more wards... Itsekiris do not create local government wards. This is the responsibility of the Independent State Electoral Commission" (sic). It is baffling that Sagay was unaware of the unmitigated violence which the Itsekiris hatched to prevent the Delta State House of Assembly Local Government Creation Committee, headed by Hon. (Barr.) Emeyese, from creating a new Local Government Council from the existing Warri South Local Government Area.

Prof. Itse Sagay should know that the intermixture of truth, objectivity and humility is the only antidote to the Warri problems. We need men like Steve Buwa-Udah, an Itsekiri man who, in a paid advert in the Vanguard of April 11, 2003, hit the nail on the head: "Itsekiris cannot afford the hopeless luxury of making acrimony out of every issue and winning enemies instead of friends in every situation that especially spells doom for their existence which is already in the throes of extinction...". Courageous man; not like Sagay who wants a "Republika Srppska" for the Itsekiris. Verbum sat sapienti est.