Urhobo Historical Society


A Response To Itse Sagay's Assertions On Warri

By Emmanuel Ojameruaye, Ph. D.

International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH)
Phoenix, Arizona, USA


This article is not intended to criticize or favour any individual or group nor is it intended to generate any controversy. Initially, I hesitated to publish it for fear of being branded “this or that” or attracting the wrath of those who may not like the “tone”. However, I feel that silence will not help the reconciliation process.

I admire Prof. Itse Sagay for his profundity and commitment to the struggle and unity of the Niger Delta people. This quality was eloquently displayed in his article that was published in the Guardian of August 16, 2002, in which he stated thus:

"Okonjo called me, ... an Itsekiri man who is a political jobber for the Urhobos. On the last issue, it would appear that Okonjo has been a beneficiary of the Itsekiri - Urhobo disputes and is extremely disturbed by a possible alignment of views between the two Sister Nations. Of course the present location of the Delta State Capital in Anioma State is a fallout of this dispute, with outside opportunists stoking the embers of the dispute and making away with the rights and interests of the quarrelling sisters.... As for my so called Urhobo benefactors, it will be the happiest moment of my existence, when the Itsekiris, Urhobo and also the Ijaws start working together like one family that they have been for over 500 years. We have the same culture, food, identical mode of dressing; we have intermarried and are intertwined. The relationship can no longer be unravelled. Okonjo hopes in vain that the Urhobo/Itsekiri quarrels will prevent us from identifying our areas of common interest. He hopes in vain. Let the Urhobos be my benefactors, whatever that may mean. I accept that insult.... My crime is that I do not hate the Urhobo too, for in Okonjo's imagination, every true Itsekiri man must hate the Urhobos. Well I don't. Many Itsekiri don't. They are our kinsmen. We shall reconcile and claim back our rights together, whether in terms of resource control or our estranged capital. Okonjo's rabid outburst will be an incentive for our unity.''

However, I was taken aback by his recent article on the Warri crisis,  in the Vanguard, Sunday May 11, 2003. At the end of the article, Prof. Sagay stated as follows:

"In conclusion, let me state that it will be impossible for many of us involved in the struggle for the liberation of the Niger Delta from oppression, deprivation and political insignificance, to carry on with the struggle and sacrifice if our own homeland in the Niger Delta, is in danger of total destruction and extermination by one or more of our own sister nations in the same Niger Delta."

I could not believe that such a statement could come from Prof. Sagay. I found it difficult to reconcile this statement (and indeed the entire article) with the statements he made less than a year ago. I think this is the type of statement that the "oppressors" of the Niger Delta people would like and use to further divide and rule the Niger Delta people. What is happening? Is the Warri crisis beginning to degrade the cohort of detribalized individuals who once held the key to its resolution? I felt very depressed that Prof. Sagay in on the path of abandoning his struggle for justice in the Niger Delta because his kith and kin in the region are allegedly threatened by their neighbours - "their supposed brothers and sisters". Did the late Dr. Azikwe abandon the struggle for independence of Nigeria because of fear of annihilation or oppression of his Ibo people in a free Nigeria? Did late Mr. Julius Nkomo abandon the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe because of fear of domination of his Ndebele people by the larger Shona people? There is no doubt that this is a dilemma faced by many "freedom fighters" but most have tried not to abandon the "larger struggle" because of "local struggles or fears". The fact is that such "local struggles" will always exist in various forms. For instance, within an ethnic group you will always have struggles among the various clans/towns/villages/interest groups jostling for domination.

I strongly believe that the "Warri crisis" is not insurmountable and should not be a reason for people like Prof. Sagay to withdraw from the larger Niger Delta struggle. Come to face it, the Warri crisis has it roots in colonial and neocolonial interference. Should we continue to allow colonial and neocolonial heritage to divide us? The Warri crisis remains a serious setback to the people of the old Delta province and we need detribalized men of goodwill from the three ethnic groups to reconcile the people - "the brothers and sisters". However, a sustainable resolution of the crisis must be based on truth and the willingness of people to tell and accept the truth. In this regard, some of the "hypotheses" underpinning Prof. Sagay's recent article seem either contestable, untrue or unacceptable by some interested parties in dispute. There is therefore a need to examine these hypotheses and arrive at some form of consensus. To be sure, it is difficult to expect anybody "who is involved" to present an objective and universally acceptable picture of the crisis. Elements of subjectivity ("taking sides") will invariably creep into any analysis by anybody "who is involved" in the crisis, no matter how remotely.

However, before discussing some of these hypotheses, it is fair to mention that in the article, Prof. Sagay provided some very useful suggestions (some form of "road map") that can be developed to provide the basis for sustainable reconciliation. The suggestions include the following:

1. That the Itsekiris need local governments of their own, i.e. the ones they can control. This is implied in his statement that "Ijaws already control 12 local governments in Rivers State, ...three LGAs in Delta State, the Urhobos control eight LGs in Delta State" and the Itsekiri fears of loosing control of both Warri North and Warri South LG to the Ijaws and Warri South to the Urhobos". Given their population, the Itsekiris have an inalienable right to some LGs they can call their won. I do not think anybody will dispute this or deny them of this.

2. That "the Itsekiri fear of being dominated... cannot be considered in isolation. The status and condition of the Urhobos and Ijaws...in the Warri Local Governments cannot be ignored. Their own fear is, or should be, the possibility of never being represented in any major legislature by their kith and kin. The status of a socio-ethnic group that cannot aspire to any office in their area of permanent residence, their only home, is not an enviable one. This equally applies to Itsekiri communities based in Urhobo and Ijaw homelands".

3. That "the way out will involve the Itsekiris making some concessions and the Urhobos and Ijaws...The mutual concessions could take the form of some right of representation being specifically granted the Ijaw and Urhobo communities in Warri territory without endangering overall political control..."

4. That "whilst the rights of the Itsekiris to the political control and representation of their homeland is guaranteed, the rights of ...groups permanently settled in Warri Kingdom to some political representation would also be recognized. The position is without prejudice to the right of any community in Delta State to seek the creation of any local government for itself... "

In the above quotations from Prof. Sagay's article, I have deliberately suppressed the words "settler" or "immigrant" populations in "Warri territory" because the terms are debatable and detestable to some interested parties. One of the implications of the above statements is that the predominantly Ijaw and Urhobo communities in the Warri local government areas must be entitled to "political representation" just as the predominantly Itsekiri communities in Ijaw and Urhobo controlled LGAs, e.g. the Oguwanja community in Sapele LGA and the Ugbolokposo community in Uvwie LGA. One way to operationalise this proposal is to create electoral wards for the ethnic communities or to cluster them to form a separate LGAs if they are large enough and are viable.

Now, let me return to some of Prof. Sagay's disputable hypotheses. The first is his opening hypothesis of "oppressive and aggressive tendency of the two supposed sister nations towards the Itsekiri,..., increasingly taking on the appearance of obsessive and irrational hatred". Clearly, such a generalized assumption does not augur well for truth and reconciliation. As a young boy, I grew up with Itsekiris and Ijaws and they are still today my closest "brothers and sisters" among all other Nigerians. I feel more at home with them than other Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora. I therefore do not subscribe to the hypothesis. Despite the repeated crisis, we are still essentially brothers and sisters, having lived together for so long and intermarried so much. I think the crisis is caused and nurtured by the elites of the three groups who own lands and jostle for compensation from oil production activities and other companies in the region. The "ordinary men" are disinterested in the crisis; they intermarry and see no reason why they should hate, oppress or fight their "brothers and sisters". Unfortunately, it is the ordinary people who suffer most as a result of the crisis - the proverbial suffering of the grass when elephants fight. It is the elite (not the ordinary men) who have gone to courts and who parade "decided cases". It is the elite who hawk and sell land to anybody who can afford to pay, irrespective of ethnic background, at "Okere-Urhobo", "Okere-Itsekiri", Warri GRA, Ogbe-Ijoh, etc.

The second hypothesis is that "the present clamour by the Ijaws for political supremacy in Warri North and South Local Government Areas and the Urhobos towards the same end in Warri South Local Government Area". I do not think that the Ijaws living in Warri North and Warri South West LGAs and the Urhobos in Warri South LGA are clamouring for "political supremacy". If indeed they are, it is clearly unacceptable. From what I have read, it appears that what they are clamouring for is either "fair political representation" in the local governments or the creation of more electoral wards "of their own" or a separate local government of their own. Furthermore, the clamour is not "present". It appears that the "elite" Ijaws and Urhobos in "Warri territory" have been having a feeling of living under some form of "neocolonialism" or "overlordship" for over a hundred years now, beginning with the "overlordship" granted Dore Numa by the British colonialists and strengthened by the change of the title of the "Olu of Itsekiri" to "Olu of Warri" in 1952 by the Awolowo-led Action Group government that was allegedly sympathetic to the Itsekiris.

The third hypothesis is that "If the problem of the Ijaws and the Urhobos is the creation of more wards, then armed violence against the Itsekiris and the sacking of their towns and villages make no sense. Itsekiris do not create local government wards". From what I have read, it does appear that the problem is more than the creation of more wards. Thus creating more wards by the state INEC may not solve the problem. It appears that what the Ijaws and Urhobos want is the creation/carving out of separate LGAs of "their own" from the current "Warri territory".

The fourth hypothesis is that "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. This hypothesis underscores the complexity of the word "Warri" and underpins the crisis. To the Itsekiri people, the words Warri and Itsekiri are synonymous. Thus, they want almost 100% control of the three Warri LGAs. However, the Ijaws and Urhobos living in the Warri LGAs do not see both words as synonymous. To most people outside the area, Warri is simply a town - the oil city- like Benin City, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Abuja, etc. For instance most people outside the area think that the Petroleum Training Institute, the Delta Steel Company, the Military Barracks, the new Airport, etc are located in Warri even though they are geographically located outside "Warri territory". Most people find it difficult to distinguish "Warri metropolis" from Effurun and other parts of Uwvie LGA and some parts of Udu LGA. In fact, the Federal Government is sometimes confused in naming projects in the area. For instance, it recently renamed the David Ejoor Military Barracks as "Warri Barracks" even though it is located in Uvwie LGA, outside "Warri territory". Furthermore, the Itsekiris regard the Ijaws and Urhobos living in "Warri territory" as "immigrants", "settlers" or "tenants" but the Ijaws and Urhobos do not see themselves as such. For them, the only homeland they know and have is located in the "Warri territory" and they also claim that they have lived in this area from time immemorial like the Itsekiris.

The fifth hypothesis is that "The answer to the apparently difficult, (but infact simple) question, who are the traditional owners an d indigenes of Warri territory, is to be found by the simple expedient of considering another question; which ethnic nationality or group was in political control of Warri Land when the British colonizers came to the area? Between Chief Nana in the Benin River and Excravos areas, the Royal Princes in what is now Warri South and the Itsekiris of Okere, Warri territory was essentially, Itsekiri controlled territory when the British conquered indigenous kingdoms and took over this country piecemeal. It is significant that the man whom the British appointed to replace Nana as Head Chief of Warri territory was another Itsekiri man, Dore Numa. Therefore, all the series of cases in which the courts declared the Itsekiri as being entitled to the ownership of Warri territory, (both of Warri Town and the far flung riverine areas along the Benin and Escravos rivers), were merely confirming an immemorial historical fact. I am not a good student of history or ethnography, but I think it is not right to determine "indigenousness" or "immemorial ownership" on the basis of the "group that was in political control when the British colonizers came to the area". The pertinent question should perhaps be whether the Ijaws and Urhobos were already living in the disputed areas at the time the British colonialist came to the area? Who were the first and last group of people to migrate to this area? When the people migrated to the disputed areas, did they meet other people already settled or did not set up their settlement in "empty or no-man's" land? It is important to point out that not all parts of the "Warri territory" are in dispute. I do not think that the fact that one ethnic group was in political control of the area at a point in time necessarily confers "immemorial ownership" on the group. Various factors can explain why a group may be in political control at a point in time. For instance, the fact that the whites were in political control in South Africa during the apartheid period did not confer "immemorial ownership" or "indigenous rights" on the whites. History is replete with cases where immigrants or "later arrivals" exercise political control over "indigenous people" or "earlier arrivals" in an area. In the absence of strong archeological evidence, it is difficult to determine "immemorial ownership". I believe it is futile and unnecessary to pursue this case, as we will continue to have divergent and conflicting positions. The fact is that all three groups have lived in the area for more than a hundred years and they all regard the area as "their permanent home, their only home". Under such a situation, it appears insulting and offensive to refer to any group as "immigrants", "settlers" or "tenants". This also applies to Itsekiri communities who have lived in predominantly Urhobo and Ijaw areas for over a hundred years.

It is important to stress that most of the ethnic and communal conflicts in Nigeria and other parts of the world have something to do with this "settler/immigrant" syndrome. In modern democracies, this "settler syndrome" is dying fast. People are free to move and settle in any part of their country and enjoy the rights of "permanent residents" after a relatively short period of time. This should be our goal in Nigeria. In fact, there is need to enact a law on permanent residency which will make it possible for any Nigerian to claim permanent residency in any community/LGA/State if he/she or his/her parents have lived in the area continuously for a specified period of time, say 10 years. Such a law should also proscribe the use of the term "immigrants, tenants or settlers" to refer to any group of Nigerians living anywhere in Nigeria. The law can provide for "temporary residency" and should also proscribe the use of the term "indigenous people" or "sons-of-the-soil" and replace them with "permanent residents". Personally, I see the word "indigenous people" as demeaning and I would not want to be classified as such even in my "own village".

The sixth hypothesis is that "For the purpose of this article, what the above means is that the Itsekiris, are the only indigenous people of the territories of Warri, and are therefore entitled to the full protection of their political and human rights; even more so, if they are minorities in their own territory". As I have indicated above, the Ijaws and Urhobos living in the "Warri territory" also claim to be "indigenous" in the area. Even if their forefathers migrated there hundreds of years ago, this area is now their "home" and they can hardly claim another "home", just like the Itsekiri communities in "Urhoboland" or "Ijawland". They are all therefore entitled to "full protection of their political and human rights; even more so, if they are minorities full protection of their political and human rights; even more so, if they are minorities".

Now, let us return to the issue of reconciliation. The Warri crisis has resulted in a lose-lose situation not only for the direct disputants and combatants but also for the entire region and all of Nigeria. We simply cannot allow the crisis to continue ad infinitum. We must aim for a win-win situation though a Truth and Reconciliation process. This process has been adopted in bringing reconciliation and peace to many conflict-torn areas of the world including South Africa, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, East Tomir, etc. This process is based on Truth. According to Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji of UNAMSIL, "Truth is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation ...without trust and reconciliation, communities will not heal the deep social and personal wounds inflicted by years of conflict. Without trust and reconciliation, grievances will remain deep-seated, reintegration will be illusory, development will remain a mirage and peace may be no more than an interlude between periods of war". The process involves the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Technically, the main purpose of the TRC is "to investigate serious attacks on human dignity which have usually taken place during a period in the past and within the confines of a single country. These attacks may constitute serious violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and international criminal law". However, TRCs have existed in a wide variety of different situations. Thus. Although human rights abuse is not the fundamental issue in the Warri crisis, the process can also be adapted and adopted. It is important to note that TRCs are public sector bodies and do not have judicial powers and are required to safeguard evidence relating to the events they are investigating. For instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of East Timor has 3 main functions, namely: a) Trust Seeking; b) Community Reconciliation; and c) Recommendations to Government.

It is gratifying to note that the Governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, has identified "peace" as his cardinal agenda in his second-term. The newly appointed Secretary to the Government, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, has been quoted as saying " The main focus of that address (i.e. inaugural address of the Governor) was peace, peace with ourselves, peace in our homes, peace in our environment, peace in our workplace, including motor parks, peace in our communities, peace in our wards, peace in our local government areas, peace in our state and indeed peace in our country. All other things, good health, sound education for our children, physical and infrastructural development, individual empowerment, etc can really be achieved within a peaceful environment. May I therefore say that the theme for the next four years is project peace" To achieve this dream, the Delta Sate Government must set up a TRC for the Warri Crisis as soon as possible. This TRC will be different from the Danjuma-led Panel on there Warri Crisis recently set up by the Federal Government. With due respect, I do not think the Danjuma panel, like other previous panels set up the Federal Government, can bring about a lasting solution to the Warri crisis. I think Danjuma is too busy with controlling the Armed Forces and preventing coups and will not be able to devote the time needed to resolve the Warri crisis. Most of the members are also too remote from the crisis. In fact, they may exacerbate the crisis by imposing "solutions". What we require is a group of well-respected and "detribalized" people of goodwill from the affected area to be sworn-in as members of the TRC with a "neutral" Chairman and Secretary who must be indigenes (permanent residents) of Delta State. The TRC should examine the crisis, take oral and written evidence from people, hold public forums and make far-reaching recommendations to the Delta State Government for approval and endorsement by the affected communities through a referendum. The TRC should be given about six months to complete its work. I believe the Government can assemble men of integrity to do this job and I believe peace will return to the area. In fact, the Warri TRC can become a model for other conflict-torn areas in Nigeria like Ife-Modakeke.