Urhobo Historical Society
ITSE SAGAY’S FAULTY ANALYSIS OF URHOBO-ITSEKIRI RELATIONS
By Peter Ekeh,
Chair, Urhobo Historical Society
On May 11, 2003, Itse Sagay wrote an impassioned article in the Vanguard essentially saying that the Urhobo have joined with the Ijaw in the ongoing Itsekiri-Ijaw conflict with the intent of driving the Itsekiri from their villages and “Warri territory.” Sagay’s article was received with considerable surprise and dismay among Urhobo leaders and intellectuals. Chief Daniel Obiomah, a main spokesman for the indigenous people of Agbarha-Warri, whose lands the Itsekiri establishment has fought so hard to dispossess from their native owners, has contended that Sagay’s paper was timed and intended to mislead the Danjuma Task Force on the Warri crisis (Vanguard May 25, 2003). Writing in the same venue, Victor Ak' Denla said that it was untrue and unfair to say that Urhobos ever attacked any Itsekiri territory. Then more recently, Chris Akiri, writing in the Guardian of June 17, 2003, argued on legal grounds the errors of Sagay’s position. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Sagay’s article has also been the subject of several opinions and conversations among Urhobos, most of them expressing anguish on what they see as Sagay’s mistaken position.
Itse Sagay has now replied to his critics (Guardian, 30 June 2003). He concentrated on the arguments of Chris Akiri, a fellow worthy member of the Nigerian Bar whom he angrily dismissed as a “nonentity.” Sadly, he did not comment on the views of the indigenous Agbarha-Warri and Okere-Urhobo peoples of Warri on this matter. Itse Sagay ended his response to Chris Akiri by admitting that discussing the Warri crisis is a difficult matter for him. In that confession he has plenty of company. Many of us from the Western Niger Delta, particularly those who know Itse so well and many who regard him as a friend, have been reluctant to join issues with him in a painful problem of the Warri crisis.
In now joining issues with him, I must start by confessing my admiration for Itse Sagay’s sincerity and fearlessness. But I am convinced that he is mistaken in three areas of his analysis and arguments on the Warri crisis. First, I believe Itse has been most unfair to the Urhobo in accusing them of joining with the Ijaw to attack the Itsekiri. His analysis of contemporary relations between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri is not only unfair to the Urhobo; it may well be counter-productive for the Itsekiri. Second, he is badly mistaken in stating the facts of Itsekiri history and how they apply to the claims of the Itsekiri establishment in its relentless efforts to grab the lands of the indigenous people of Warri. Third, with all due respect, I believe Itse Sagay has misapplied the legal cases on Warri and in Itsekiri history, repeating the catechism that the Itsekiri establishment has compiled in its fight to wrestle Warri from its indigenous owners. I will take up these points, one after the other.
Contemporary Relations between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri
The low point in Urhobo-Itsekiri relations was in 1952. A newly constituted Action Group Government of Western Nigeria had changed the title of the King of Itsekiri from Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri. The other ethnic groups of Warri Province – Isoko, Ukwuani, Ijaw, and Urhobo – were alarmed at such a brazen attempt by the new Action Group Government to impose the Itsekiri king on the province, clearly without historic precedent. The Urhobo were particularly embittered, because they would be most impacted. Their reaction resulted in a violent confrontation between the two peoples, leading to the loss of lives and properties. To correct for the patent mistake of the Action Group Government, the British Colonial Government changed the name of Warri Province to Delta Province in 1952. It was a painful experience for Urhobos, because most Urhobos have Itsekiri relatives. For the Urhobo, fighting the Itsekiri is very much like fighting their own people.
Since those sad events of 1952, Urhobos have had no stomach for any violent confrontation with the Itsekiri, although legal cases between the Itsekiri establishment and Urhobo fractions in Agbarha-Warri and Okere-Urhobo of Warri have persisted. The most violent confrontation between the Itsekiri and these Urhobo fractions in Warri occurred on June 4, 1999, and more recently in February 2003. In both instances, it was Urhobo lives and Urhobo properties that were wasted on a large scale. The fact is that most Urhobos want to avoid any violent confrontation with the Itsekiri. However, it is apparent to many Urhobo leaders that the Itsekiri establishment -- not the Itsekiri people – wants to orchestrate a violent confrontation between the two peoples in order to justify its complaint to the Federal Government that the Itsekiri are not safe in Delta State.
It is such background that makes Itse Sagay’s accusation against the Urhobo so agonizing. Can Sagay point to a single Itsekiri village or territory that Urhobos have attacked with the intention of driving away the Itsekiri from their homeland? Why blame the Urhobo when the facts show that their minority fractions in Warri have been the main victims of recent violence? In the case of the violence of June 1999, it was clear that it was a revenge attack on Urhobos of Warri because of the losses that Itsekiri forces suffered in their unfortunate war with the Ijaw. Is it fair to blame Urhobos for Itsekiri losses in an Ijaw-Itsekiri war? One theory of that unprovoked Itsekiri attack on Warri’s Okere-Urhobo in June 1999 is that the Itsekiri establishment is determined on drawing an unwilling Urhobo to join their conflict with the Ijaw in order to give an appearance of a ganging-up against the Itsekiri.
Sagay’s accusation is painful for two more reasons. There is no doubt that ordinary Itsekiris, living in Western Niger Delta’s marshlands, have suffered tremendously from the combined onslaught of oil pollution and Ijaw-Itsekiri inter-ethnic conflicts, which have ravaged their lands and creeks. Those of them who have been made homeless have fled their homeland for safety. They do not go to other Itsekiri lands or to any abode provided by the Itsekiri establishment. The majority of displaced Itsekiris have gone to Urhobo territories for safety. Some have joined Itsekiris living in Urhobo lands. Others have joined their Urhobo relatives. Should not such acts of good neighbourliness be acknowledged? I believe that it is unfair to accuse the Urhobo of attacking the Itsekiri when in fact their lands have provided safe havens for displaced Itsekiri.
There is a second reason why Sagay’s accusation is painful. Sapele is an Urhobo city. It is smaller than the contested city of Warri. But it is the epicenter of Itsekiri culture. There are more Itsekiri living in Sapele than in Warri. Itsekiri language is more widely spoken in Sapele than in Warri. The Orodje [King] of Okpe has worked indefatigably for harmony between Urhobos and Itsekiri in Sapele. Although the two cities are culturally related, from colonial times, the crisis in Warri has not spilled over to Sapele, thanks in large part to the role of the Orodje of Okpe. Shouldn’t such efforts as the Orodje’s be acknowledged and praised? Is it fair to accuse the Urhobo of attempting to wipe out the Itsekiri when one of their main cities hosts Itsekiri culture?
Let’s not run away from the truth. Urhobos and Itsekiris are not mortal enemies. It is the Itsekiri establishment, in its time-honoured quest for grabbing rent payments from foreigners for use of waterways in the region of Western Niger Delta, which now wants a new venture of rent-taking from the city of Warri. That is the cause of the crisis, at least in my estimation. Over what would Urhobos and Itsekiri be fighting? The ordinary Itsekiri has nothing to gain from the “overlord” rents that the Itsekiri establishment has hankered after. The ordinary Urhobo has nothing to gain by going to war with the Itsekiri. There are very few families in Urhoboland that do not have Itsekiri relatives. Why would Urhobos want their relatives to be eliminated? Those of us who pass as intellectuals would be doing a disservice to our people – Itsekiri and Urhobo alike -- if we follow the evil ways of those who profit from fomenting trouble between the Urhobo and the Itsekiri.
Itsekiri History and the Itsekiri Establishment
Itse Sagay relies heavily on an account of Itsekiri history given by a key member of Itsekiri Leaders’ Forum, which is the core of the current Itsekiri establishment, to justify his claims on Itsekiri “ownership” of Warri. He introduces J. O. S. Ayomike as a “revered Itsekiri historian.” That is intriguing, but also frightening. The truth of the matter is that Ayomike’s A History of Warri Kingdom, which Sagay cites, is a sanitized version of William Moore’s History of Itsekiri, first published in 1936. William Moore was a descendant of Olu Akengbuwa whose death in 1848 resulted in a hiatus in the history of Itsekiri royalty. A 1904 pioneering student of Government Intermediate School at Sapele, William Moore was the premier native historian of Itsekiri. Moore’s account of Itsekiri history has exaggerations occasioned by his contemporary bitter struggle against Chief Dore Numa and by his penchant for glorifying Itsekiri royalty that was then trampled upon by Dore Numa and the merchant Itsekiri establishment of the 1920s. Nonetheless, Moore’s History of Itsekiri contains material that would not be allowed to appear in such new and sanitized renditions of Itsekiri history as Ayomike’s A History of Warri Kingdom.
It is such hard facts that have made Moore’s History of Itsekiri unacceptable to the Itsekiri establishment. In his introduction to the book’s 1969 edition, Professor Peter Lloyd pointed out that after Numa’s death in 1932, his misbehaviours, which Moore fought so hard against, were quickly forgotten and Numa was then “remembered as the man who maintained the prestige of the Itsekiri . . . Moore’s book was thus discredited and, in Warri, copies were destroyed or hidden by their owners so that very few are now in circulation.” Apart from his harsh attack on Dore Numa, Moore’s account of Itsekiri history revealed too much truth to the taste of the Itsekiri establishment. The bare reality is that, with all its shortcomings and flaws, Moore’s premier History of Itsekiri is superior, in the facts it relates, to the doctored versions that are now being promoted by the Itsekiri establishment. (Moore was a highly opinionated author who also made impossible claims about the time-line of Itsekiri history, especially with respect to the Agbassa and Okere-Urhobo people of Warri.)
In order to gauge the validity of Sagay’s claims on Warri, which are identical with those of the Itsekiri establishment, I will piece together an outline history of Itsekiri royalty and the Itsekiri people that emerges from William Moore, with addenda from Peter Lloyd and from other Itsekiri historians and historical documents. Moore opens his engaging book as follows:
Prior to the advent of the Bini Prince Ginuwa [in the late fifteenth century], the territory now known as the Kingdom of Itsekiri or Iwere, was inhabited by three tribes, namely, Ijaws, Sobos [Urhobo], and the Mahins. The most populous among these were the Sobo. They occupied the hinterland, while the Ijaw occupied the coast-line, and the Mahins squatted on the sea-shore near the Benin River (p. 13).
According to Moore, “the Mahins (Ulaje) hailed from Akoko and Ikale in the [modern] Province of Ondo, Nigeria.” These transient Yoruba-speaking fishing communities called Mahins were thus the proto-Itsekiri. At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the western Niger Delta in 1485, Itsekiri nationality was not yet created.
It was the historical destiny of the fugitive Prince Ginuwa from Benin to create from the Mahins, and possibly other fishing communities, a people that eventually became known as the Itsekiri. The following events in the remarkable life story of the fugitive Benin Prince deserve to be highlighted. Ginuwa fled from Benin some years before the arrival of the Portuguese in the western Niger Delta in 1485. His first place of safety after departing Benin was Oghareki, an Urhobo community settled by dispersals from Agbarha. (Two older Urhobo communities that resulted from the Agbarha dispersals were Agbarha-Warri [i.e., Agbassa] and Idjerhe.) Rather than follow the path of earlier migrants from Benin who settled in Isoko and Urhobo countries in the mainland, Ginuwa took the extraordinary step of going into the difficult marshlands of the Western Niger Delta, a probable indication of the dangers he feared from the Benin authorities.
After much wandering, Ginuwa settled at Ijala where he raised a family. It was at Ijala that he met the Portuguese for the first time in 1516 (Moore, p.19). Moore tells us: “After three decades’ residence at Ijala, news reached Prince Ginuwa that the Binis had heard of his whereabouts, and were bringing war against him” (p.20). Accordingly, Ginuwa “planned further removal from Ijala . . . While this arrangement was in process Prince Ginuwa died at Ijala . . . and was buried there.” His remarkable life story was thus filled with insecurity from his pursuit by Benin authorities.
Ginuwa’s mission was continued by his two surviving sons, bearing the Benin names of Ijijen and Irame. It was they who left Ijala and arrived at Ode Itsekiri where they finally settled. It was these Princes who, for the first time, most probably in the 1520s, gave the name Itsekiri to the people whose corporate cultural existence they so remarkably created. Moore (p. 21) tells us that the name Itsekiri is taken from the “man Itsekiri, who was met there [in the island that bears his name], after whose name our nation is called.” The title of Olu was also coined at Ode Itsekiri. Ijijen and his brother Irame, who succeeded him as Itsekiri Olu, cultivated Portuguese ties aggressively.
Unfortunately, even Ginuwa’s children could not escape the wrath of the Benin authorities. Moore narrates: “When the Benin Warriors arrived at the shore on the opposite side of Warri River, they saw the people’s [Ginuwa’s children’s] settlement afar off . . . but water prevented them from attacking . . . and many were drowned. Having failed to gain their objective, the remainder . . . of the expedition, which was the third one from Benin, decided not to return to Benin City, and so they settled at the place where they generally encamped, and called it Okere.” (Moore p.21)
There is much more about Ginuwa’s descendants from Moore’s account. But we have enough for the sake of challenging the fabulous claim that Ginuwa’s children gave permission to dispersals from Agbarha-Otor to settle in Agbarha-Warri where they have resided for centuries now. We must pose the following four challenges. First, from Urhobo traditions and their oral history, Agbarha-Warri, Idjerhe, and Oghara (whose capital is Oghareki) are three communities that resulted from dispersals and migrations from Agbarha-Otor in Urhobo’s interior regions. Of these, Agbarha-Warri is the oldest, and is certainly older in formation than Oghareki. Now it was Oghareki’s citizens who graciously received the fugitive Prince Ginuwa and gave him protection and safe passage. That means Agbarha-Warri had been settled long before Ginuwa was born, most assuredly before he fled Benin. How then could his children, who were born in exile after Ginuwa’s flight, give permission to Urhobos to settle in Agbarha-Warri? Where is the evidence other than the dubious declarations of Itsekiri historians?
Second, when the Portuguese arrived in the Western Niger Delta in 1485, they recorded that they met the Ijaw and the Urhobo. The Itsekiri, as a people, were not yet in existence in 1485. The Portuguese did not meet Ginuwa until 1516, thirty-one years after their initial arrival in the western Niger Delta. The Urhobo whom the Portuguese saw were those in Agbarha-Warri, near Warri River, and not those in the interior regions. Is this not enough indication that these people have been in their lands long before Ginuwa and his children laboured so hard to create Itsekiri nationality? Is there any evidence from those who pose this most improbable theory -- of Urhobo permission from Ginuwa’s children to settle in the lands of Agbarha-Warri -- that the Urhobos to whom the Portuguese referred were other than Agbarha-Warri people?
Third, Ginuwa and his children were pursued by the Benin authorities for a long time. Those whom William Moore refers to as “Benin Warriors” posed a threat to their existence from the mainland. Their security lay in staying in the island of Ode Itsekiri. How then did Ginuwa’s children exercise their alleged authority over the Urhobos in the mainland when they were being threatened by Benin military presence in the neighbourhood?
Fourth, Agbarha-Warri folk traditions recognized the presence and influence of the Oba of Benin, which have been celebrated in song and dance. There is no record showing that such relations between Urhobos and Benin abated in the middle decades of the sixteenth century when Princes Ijijen and Irame came of age. To establish this fabulous claim that these new arrivals in the western Niger Delta became paramount, its proponents must show that Benin influence in the region was displaced by the superior presence of the fugitive princes who were struggling to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. Is there any such evidence that Itsekiri power overwhelmed Benin influence in the western Niger Delta?
Sadly, our region of the Western Niger Delta, like the rest of tropical West Africa, had the disadvantage of not having had a culture of literacy for recording its history in centuries before the European presence in the 1480s. Many have therefore taken liberties to concoct historical accounts and scenarios whose timelines are simply impossible. I suggest to Itse Sagay that the history that is currently marketed by Itsekiri Leaders’ Forum on Urhobo-Itsekiri historical relationships in Warri is bogus and illogical in the extreme. I would further suggest that it should not be the basis of any fair inferences on the status of the indigenous peoples of Warri.
Legal Arguments on “Ownership” of Warri
In his Vanguard and Guardian articles, Itse Sagay repeated the claim that the Itsekiri won a decisive and subsisting legal case against the Urhobo on the matter of the ownership of the lands on which the British colonizers of Niger Coast Protectorate (1891-1900) and Southern Nigeria Protectorate (1900-1914) built Warri in the 1890s and 1900s. I believe that I can demonstrate that Itse Sagay’s position is misinformed. The basis of any legal claims on Warri lands must flow back to the beginning documents that initiated British imperialism in the Western Niger Delta. These are two “Treaties of Protection” which the British signed with the Itsekiri in 1884 and 1894 and one “Treaty of Protection” which the Agbarha-Warri entered into with the British in March 1893.
The 1884 Protection Treaty between the British and the Itsekiri, who were at that time led by Nana Olomu, was the first of its kind in the Western Niger Delta. Two of its features deserve to be emphasized. First, it was dubbed as an agreement between the British Government and the “Chiefs and People” of Itsekiri. All references in the printed form of the agreement to the King of Itsekiri were deliberately deleted, obviously because of the fact that by 1850 the Itsekiri monarchy had been squashed by the Itsekiri merchant establishment. As far as these treaties were concerned, the King of Itsekiri had no legal standing, because his presence and title were forbidden in the documents of the Treaties. Second, the territories of the Itsekiri were clearly marked as Benin River and the lands on the banks of “Escravos” River. Nowhere in the 1884 Treaty was Warri mentioned as belonging to Itsekiri. Nor was this a careless omission. The original Treaty only mentioned Benin River. Ugborodo and other territories on “Escravos” River were added at the request of the Itsekiri because those were their lands. The 1894 Protection Treaty repeated these elements of the 1884 Treaty,
The British entered into a similar Protection Treaty in 1893 with the Chiefs and people of Agbarha-Warri [or Agbassa, in the document] whom the British clearly designated as people of Warri District. There is no shred of any doubt whatsoever that in 1893, the British regarded the lands of Warri as belonging to the Agbassa people. Nor is there any doubt from the 1884 and 1894 Protection Treaties with Itsekiri Chiefs that the British understood that the Itsekiri were people of Benin River and that their Chiefs never sought nor contested the ownership of Warri at that time.
Following the creation in 1891 of Niger Coast Protectorate, which was more or less coextensive with modern Niger Delta, and the 1894 war with Nana Olomu, the British divided Western Niger Delta into two districts, namely, Benin River District and Warri District. The British then appointed Dore Numa as their Political Agent for Benin River District, thus replacing Nana Olomu who had been deposed as Governor of Benin River. The British then also appointed George Eyube, an Urhobo man from Agbarho, as their Political Agent for Warri District. Sadly, Eyube was killed in an accident in 1901. Rather than appoint a replacement for George Eyube, the British expanded Dore Numa’s domain to the two districts, most probably as a reward for his assistance to the British in their war with Benin in 1897.
Such was the legal basis for colonial rule of the Western Niger Delta in the 1890s and 1900s. However, the British soon violated the terms of the Protection Treaties. They secretly asked their Political Agent, Dore Numa, to lease lands to them, without the knowledge of the Agbarha-Warri people with whom they had an agreement to protect their lands. Numa also leased Ijaw and Itsekiri lands to the British. He pocketed the money that he gained from these transactions. These were private lands, owned by families, not public lands. When their owners discovered what happened, they took Numa to court. Numa was to be taken to court many more times, mostly by fellow Itsekiri. He won every case brought against him. Rather, the British made sure that Dore Numa won every case that was brought against him.
The most famous of these cases brought against Numa was that of the Agbarha-Warri (that is, Agbassa) people. It is the case about which Chief Daniel Obiomah has written a book titled Warri Overlordship: Fact, Fiction and Imperialism, demonstrating why it is overtaken by time and why it was such a disgraceful chapter in the history of British imperialism in Nigeria. Apparently, Itse Sagay thinks the judgement of 6th November 1926 in this case is still valid and he urges the Agbassa people to abide by it. The contents of the case are not complicated. Numa had leased the lands of the Agbassa to the British without their knowledge. In effect, they regarded Numa to be a thief for having taken their lands. They took him to court. Numa pleaded that the Olu of Itsekiri had “overlord” rights on the leased lands, declaring at one point that he was the Olu. It should be stressed that Numa never denied that the Agbassa people were landlords. But he claimed that the Olu, King of Itsekiri, had “overlord” rights over the lands in the sense in which Medieval European Kings were the overlords of lands in their domains. In a harshly worded judgement that was contemptuous of Agbassa witnesses, Justice T. D. Maxwell found in favour of Dore Numa in 1926.
On what grounds does Chief Daniel Obiomah think that this case has been overtaken by time? On what grounds do I assert that Itse Sagay is mistaken in believing that the case still has validity? I will offer seven grounds in a mixed order. Some of these are of historical value, while others make common sense. But I believe at least two of them are of relevance on legal grounds. They are as follows.
First, the case was tried in the absence of the relevant treaty obligations that the British made with the Agbarha people which recognized their lands in Warri as belonging to the people and Chiefs of Agbassa. The Agbassa people were unable to produce the treaty, and the British were apparently unwilling to supply their copy. But copies of that document from British colonial archives have since become abundant. A copy is posted in the web site of Urhobo Historical Society.
Second, there was a notorious incidence of conflict of interest that was involved in this case. The judge who made such harsh judgement about the Agbassa ought to have refrained from trying this case. In a previous career in the Colonial Civil Service, T. D. Maxwell was the Government Surveyor who signed the deeds of the lease made between Numa and the Colonial Government. It was a terrible case of corruption on the part of the judge which Daniel Obiomah dug up from British colonial files years later.
Third, this was not a case between Urhobo and Itsekiri. It was a case between the Agbassa people and the British Colonial Government. Agbassa people did not sue the Itsekiri. They sued Dore Numa as the Political Agent of the British Colonial Government. About the same time, Itsekiri chieftains from Ugborodo were in litigation with Numa over land matters. Their grouse against him was that he had misused his authority as Political Agent of the British Colonial Government to cheat them.
Fourth, Numa invoked a fiction of the King of Itsekiri in his defence against Agbassa people. There was no such King at the time of the leases or the trial. The Treaties that underlined the legalities of colonial rule clearly deleted any mention of the King of Itsekiri. It was therefore fraudulent to invoke the fiction of kingship. After all, Dore Numa was a leader in the successful fight to eliminate the Olu. That he declared himself as the Olu at one point in the trial only highlights the fictionality of his defence.
Fifth, Okere-Urhobo territory geographically lies in-between the contested Agbassa lease lands and the expanse of water that separates Ode-Itsekiri from the Warri mainland. Now, there is a decisive court judgement that rules against Itsekiri claims of ownership of Okere. To reiterate the contents of the judgement in that case, the Supreme Court of Nigeria in Suit No. SC/309/74 found among other things: “(i) That the ancestors of the people of Okere-Urhobo kingdom namely Idama, Owhotemu, and Sowhoruvbe founded Okere; (ii) that the Olu's Kingdom did not extend to Okere; and (iii) that the Olu's over-lordship rights did not extend to Okere." If the Itsekiri cannot establish any claim to the territory near the waters that separate Ode Itsekiri island from the mainland, how is it possible to jump across Okere to Agbassa territory?
Sixth, irrespective of whether any of the above points are upheld as
invalidating the judgement made in 1926 by T. D. Maxwell or not, one
particular court judgement of 1971 clearly invalidates the 1926 ruling
by a British colonial court. This is the famous case that pitched the
Itsekiri lawyer and politician Arthur Prest against the Itsekiri Lands
Trust, which purported to hold “overlord” rights over
Warri lands. According to the proponents of the theory of
“overlordship,” this form of indirect ownership overrides
the direct ownership rights of landlords in Warri. In his judgement of
9th July, 1971, in Suit No. W/15/1970, the learned trial judge ruled
in favour of Arthur Prest and pronounced as follows:
Even assuming that the 1974 court case won by the Okumagba family had not happened, this victory by Arthur Prest invalidates any claims of "overlordship" over any portion of Warri City in which there are only family and individual land holdings. The Agbassa lands are “owned by private individuals and families” and cannot be subject to T. D. Maxwell’s ruling of 1926!
Seventh, and finally, the Land Use Law of 1979 invalidates any “overlord” rights of any traditional ruler over any lands, be they private or public. This law applies as much to the Oba of Benin and Sultan of Sokoto as to any lower-ranked kings in Nigeria. As far as I am aware, the Itsekiri establishment is not exempt from the Land Use Law. No matter however much we may object to that law, it is the law of Nigeria. It applies to Warri City as much as it applies to Lagos or Abuja.
Needless to add, T. D. Maxwell’s corrupt judgement has been overtaken by time and history. Let the Itsekiri establishment stop harassing the citizens of Warri City, employing a non-consequential colonial judgement of 1926.
The Rise of the Itsekiri Establishment and Its Gluttonous Ways
Throughout this essay, I have used “Itsekiri establishment” as a term of fact. I owe the reader an historical definition of what it means.
Any fair reading of early Itsekiri history must admit to the fact that Ginuwa and his descendants did a lot to build up a nation which they called Itsekiri, virtually from fragments of alien fishing communities. Thanks to help from the Portuguese and other European allies, they not only escaped punishment from Benin authorities; they welded together a community that did well in a marshland.
Among the achievements of the Ginuwa dynasty is building up of an Itsekiri merchant class. It was the Ginuwas and their policies that brought in the Portuguese and other Europeans from whose association a new class of Itsekiri middlemen and merchants rose to prominence. But the Ginuwas became the first victim of the greed of the Itsekiri merchant class. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the mercantile and economic power of Itsekiri society had shifted from Ode Itsekiri to Benin River. With a new alliance with the British, whom Olu Akengbuwa had brought into Itsekiri country by 1836 (see Moore, History of Itsekiri, pp. 70-76), the Itsekiri merchant class became independent of their king. The last Olu died in 1848 and the merchant class usurped all royal powers.
Itsekiri’s prolonged relations with the British were exclusively with this new merchant class. But it was not a cohesive group. The British soon learnt that in the absence of a king, its ways and the deadly rivalries among its members were prone to violence. They suggested a more orderly way of doing things and virtually imposed a new regime of Governors of Benin River in 1851. Even when the British grew more imperial and removed the fourth Governor, Nana Olomu, by force in 1894, Itsekiri kingship was not restored. Instead, Dore Numa, an ambitious anti-royalist member of the Itsekiri merchant class, was brought in to replace Nana Olomu. Remarkably, all the treaties that the British signed with Itsekiri Chiefs, under the Governors of Benin River and Dore Numa, excluded any mention of the king. Such are the greedy ways of the Itsekiri merchant class.
It was only after the death of Numa in 1932, and in compliance with the imperatives of Lugard’s Indirect Rule reforms, that a new king of the Itsekiri was crowned in 1936. Even then, he was not safe from the merchant class. A remnant of that class, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, was responsible for deposing the new Olu, an act of personal vendetta, following the creation of Midwest Region in 1964. Okotie-Eboh replaced Olu Erejuwa II with a handpicked loyalist, Moju Igbene from “Omateye Royal House,” who was crowned as Olu Akengbuwa II on 24 December, 1965. His brief reign was terminated by military rule on 20 December, 1966. Ironically, it was an Urhobo Military Governor of Midwest Region, David Ejoor, who rescued Olu Erejuwa II from exile and misery and restored orderliness to Itsekiri royal succession. There is a kernel of truth in William Moore’s regret that “when the interests of the well-to-do class became centred in self, [Itsekiri] had begun to wane, and its glory faded.”
Throughout Itsekiri history of the last two centuries, beginning with the merchant class of the 1850s, there has been a core of the Itsekiri establishment that is self-centred, pursuing policies that victimize the ordinary Itsekiri. Just consider the ways of the current Itsekiri establishment. The Itsekiri countryside is devastated while it lives in splendour in Warri, fighting for “overlord” rents. Its members have chummy and profitable relationships with Chevron which has turned “Escravos” River, the core of the Itsekiri countryside, into an evil estate of sludge. From its gated estates in Warri, the Itsekiri establishment initiates violence and conflict with the Ijaw whose youths then turn their revenge and misguided anger on helpless Itsekiri villages. Most Nigerian elite build houses in their ancestral villages and towns, associating freely with their people. The Itsekiri establishment concentrates all its wealth and resources and its attention on Warri, in a vain struggle to collect “overlord” rents, abandoning such potentially important towns as Koko which is part of Itsekiri heritage. The result is that the Itsekiri countryside, which the Ginuwas groomed into history, is dying from neglect.
Or, consider what has befallen the name “Itsekiri.” In the 1950s, a fragment of the Itsekiri establishment fought to delete their ancient King’s title of Olu of Itsekiri. Now we have Olu of Warri. The capital of Itsekiri royalty from the 1520s to 1848 and from the revival of Itsekiri royalty in 1936 up to the early 1950s was Ode Itsekiri. Now it has been moved to Warri, with the Olu of Warri living on rented lands. Well into the 1950s, there were local governments bearing Itsekiri names and addresses. Now they have been changed to “Warri.” Up to the 1960s, Itsekiri chieftaincy titles were honourable names, reflecting Itsekiri heritage and localities in the Itsekiri countryside. All those ancient titles have disappeared, replaced by new chieftaincy titles bearing Warri. William Moore’s History of Itsekiri has fallen into disuse and disgrace among the ranks of the Itsekiri establishment in part because its title bears “Itsekiri” and not Warri. All the new books coming out of the propaganda factories of the Itsekiri establishment now proudly bear Warri in their titles, discarding the word Itsekiri. Do these changes not hurt Itsekiri culture? Is the name Itsekiri no longer important? Why is Warri more important than Itsekiri? How many Itsekiri will share in the “overlord” rents for which these massive changes of a proud culture have been orchestrated?
Some Concluding Thoughts and an Appeal
I have no desire to leave the impression that I do not care about the plight of the ordinary Itsekiri. I do. If I hailed from “Escravos,” I would be devastated and would in all probability employ all my energy to fight to right the wrongs that have been done to those communities. But I humbly submit that it is utterly unfair to blame Urhobos for the devastation that has been visited upon the Itsekiri countryside. Nor do I see how the Itsekiri establishment’s employment of all its energies to fight for outdated aristocratic “overlord” rights over Warri, whose indigenous owners are Urhobo minorities, should be attractive to Urhobos or will benefit the ordinary Itsekiri. I see nothing but injustice and oppression of the indigenous peoples of Warri City whom the Itsekiri establishment has sought to alienate from their ancestral heritage.
Nor should I leave the impression that the Itsekiri establishment is the only scourge of the Western Niger Delta. Currently, Urhobos are questioning their own leadership, including the complaint that Urhobo leaders should not focus exclusively on the misbehaviours of the Itsekiri establishment. It is high time Urhobo leaders recognize that what is good for the Itsekiri establishment is not necessarily good for the ordinary Itsekiri. Urhobos must find new avenues for helping the ordinary Itsekiri, even for the self-interest of Urhobos. Their plight may overwhelm the Urhobo mainland, if displaced Itsekiri end up migrating into Urhobo country. Nor should Urhobos close their eyes to the injustice and misfortunes that have befallen the Itsekiri countryside. It is doubtful that the Itsekiri establishment would bother much about the misfortunes of ordinary fishermen. The great Mukoro Mowoe attained fame not simply because of what he achieved for Urhobos, even though that was enormous. Part of his legacy is that he worked hard to bring together the Isoko, Ijaw, Ukwuani, Itsekiri, and Urhobo of the old Warri Province. We must not betray Mukoro Mowoe’s legacy.
Nor is it clear to me that our leaders see the grave dangers that we all in the Western Niger Delta face together. If the oil resources in the Niger Delta are exploited in the manner that pleases Abuja, with the terrible casualties in oil pollution, the Niger Delta may not survive into the next century. Yesterday, it was the plight of Odi whose innocent citizens were mowed down by Nigeria’s military forces. Today, it is the poor Itsekiri fisherman who is harassed out of his ancestral home. Tomorrow, it may be Urhobos and Ibibios who will be chased out of their homes by occupying forces, domestic or foreign. We must work together and frustrate the evil ambitions of those elites among us who seek to give out Warri City or even the Western Niger Delta, in part or as a whole, to outside domination. We all – Itsekiri, Ijaw, Ukwuani, Isoko, and Urhobo – must not assume that our futures are secure. We all must work together to safeguard our common destinies; otherwise we will all perish.