Urhobo Historical Society



Vanguard [
Lagos], Friday, May 23, 2003

 

CHIEF J. E. UKUEKU (FPSN)

 

                                                                                                                                           

No. 2 Ukueku Close, Opposite Mandillas

P. O. Box 549

Warri-NIGERIA

19TH May, 2003

 

OPEN LETTER TO PROFESSOR ITSE SAGAY

 

Dear Professor,

 

RE:- “THE ITSEKIRIS, IJAWS, URHOBOS AND THE POLITICAL CONTROL OF WARRI TERRITORY” (SUNDAY VANGUARD, 11 MAY 2003 AT PAGES 45-47)

 

I read your article on the above. You are so highly respected by many of us – Itsekiris, Ijaws and the Urhobos, including me in a special way. I want to leave the younger Urhobos to give you an appropriate reply. Therefore, this is for your private consumption.

 

By the way, I was born in Warri some 78 years ago. It was in that year that Justice Webber delivered his judgement on the case of Agbassa land by Chief Ometan (for Agbasaa Urhobos) and Chief Dore Numa (for the Itsekiris).

 

It was an interesting issue – namely, that no court in Nigeria can deprive Agbassa people of the possession of Agbassa land or properties, provided that those properties or land are held under the overlordship of the Olu of Itsekiris, (not Olu of Warri). I make no comment. I leave that to a law professor to interprete.

 

The Supreme Court of Nigeria delivered another judgment in 1976 on the Warri contentious case of Okere. The Okumagba family acting on behalf of the other Urhobo families of Okere had another judgment in which the ownership of the Urhobos of Okere was ABSOLUTE, no condition.

 

Now, in your write up, who told you that Warri Township is the HOME LAND of the Itsekiris and not the home land of Chief Benjamin Okumagba and his other Okere brothers and even Agbassa Urhobos? Professor, I call you to a moral reasoning.

 

I know you as a brilliant lawyer whose father hailed from Edo State. I respect you and so I respect the Sagays. You all grew up at Sapele. Many are my very good friends. From your article, you appear to be a Warri man although your paternity is Edo State. Born and bred in Warri, I am not entitled to claim Warri as my home land. An Itsekiri man born in Bateren, Jakpa, Koko, etc. claims Warri as his homeland. My dear professor, but not a historian, you claim Warri as your home land. What about that? I leave all that to your research. I only hope that some Urhobo professors, as you are, would reply you.

 

What people as you and I need to do is to look for a way for a peaceful resolution of the Warri crisis. It started for no reasons. The Itsekiris and Urhobos have lived together over the years and produced children. Why are these undeserved crises between them?

 

I commend my people the Urhobos. They are very considerate in dealing with the Itsekiris. They have their children as Itsekiris. They do not want to do anything that will mar the relationship between Itsekiris and the Urhobos. Whatever happened, the Urhobo man respects that relationship perhaps to a fault. That is why you kept mentioning the Urhobos in your article. I think the Urhobos need a rethink when it concerns the Urhobos and the Itsekiris.

 

WHO ARE THESE ITSEKIRIS?

 

Historically, one of the most well known and respected Itsekiri leaders was Chief Dore Numa. That great Itsekiri man caused the exile of Chief Nana, facts unto history! Chief Dore Numa’s mother was Urhobo from Effurun. He meddled with treaties concerning the Urhobos of Agbassa and the European traders and colonizers, taking advantage of his maternal relationships to the Urhobos. The fact that he was Urhobo misled the Urhobos too. That influenced who believed in him (Chief Dore Numa) to give some of the evidence in court to support Dore Numa’s claim, unfortunately.

 

You will recall that following after was another Urhobo man. He claimed Itsekiri nationality. He was the late Chief Festus Edah Okotie-Eboh. He was born Urhobo, simple and pure. He married Chief Nana’s daughter. That made him claim Itsekiri as his ethnic group. In fact, however, his father hailed from Ewu, and his mother hailed from Orogun.

 

Another important Itsekiri family was that of the Rewanes. You also know that their mother was Urhobo from Agbarho. Very briefly, let me try to remind you that the eminent Itsekiris as you know them have close relationship to the Urhobo ethnic group. I want to mention some for you to consider why the Urhobos do not want any problems or war with the Itsekiris.

(a)    Late Justice F. O. Atake had his Urhobo father from Orogun.

(b)   Late Barrister Webber Egbe had his mother from Aladja – Urhobo.

(c)    Late Barrister Omoruwa had his mother from Abraka.

(d)   Justice Adjuya had his mother from Abraka.

(e)    Dr. Preston Egbe had his mother from Okpe-Urhobo.

(f)     Barrister Isaac Jemide had his mother from Okpe-Urhobo.

(g)    Chief K. B. Omatsheye had his mother from Otokuto-Urhobo.

(h)    Chief Nelson Utioyene had his mother from Okpe-Urhobo.

(i)      Deacon S. E. Aganbi had his father from Agbon Clan.

(j)     Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor had his mother from Kokori-Agbon, etc., etc.

(k)   Chief Gabriel Mabiaku, Itsekiri Prime Minister, maternally belongs to Eku, my home.

You can therefore appreciate why Urhobos are very thoughtful and considerate in dealings with the Itsekiris.

 

At the onset of this recent Warri crisis, a number of us showed great concern and we met. They included some eminent Itsekiris as Barrister Edodo, Barrister Isaac Jemide, and Brother Johnson Ayomike.  We also had eminent Urhobos too. We could not reach eminent Ijaws at that meeting. We discussed very frankly. One of these eminent lawyers stated amongst other points raised that Warri is the only HOME LAND of the Itsekiris. He stated that the Urhobos and Ijaws have other home lands. He referred to these other ethnic groups as settlers (just as you did). I rose to oppose that immediately. I was modest realising that I was hosting the meeting in my house.

 

I made it absolutely clear that the Itsekiris cannot claim Warri as their home land more than Chief Benjamin Okumagba on behalf of his family can lay claim to Warri as a home land. I said very frankly that three ethnic groups now lay claim to Warri as a home land. None of the three can lay absolute claim. Warri as it is today, has had more land cases than any other town that I know in Nigeria. Whoever wants a portion of Warri as it is today lays claim to that portion as his home land. I recounted the cases – especially Ometan versus Dore Numa, as said earlier. From that judgement delivered by Justice Webber and in a layman’s observation, and in practice, Agbassa has as much right to claim Warri as a home land.  All Itsekiris born in Bateren, Jakpa, Koko, Oghoye, etc., seem to claim Warri as a home land, even more than an Urhobo born in Agbassa. That will be a wrong assumption and dangerously so.

 

The Itsekiris’ claim lies on the judgment delivered in 1925 by Justice Webber. That judgement cannot justify that every Itsekiri man has a claim to the ownership of Warri. I also stated that another Urhobo group led by Okumagba family laid claim to a portion of Warri and the Olu of Warri challenged that. That matter went to court. It was resolved in 1976 by the Supreme Court of Nigeria in favour of the defendants led by Chief Daniel Okumagba. That portion of Warri is more than 1/3 (one-third) of the population of Warri today. It has a population of about 86,000 (1991 census), more than Anima North local Government area. What is very interesting is that whereas Webber’s judgment of 1925 was given on conditions, that of Okere Urhobo led by the Okumagba family was unconditional. They are immigrants from the Urhobo land of Agbarha. They settled there and the Itsekiri met them there. They leased land to the Itsekiri including eminent Itsekiris as the Rewanes and the Beghos. Resultantly, the Hussey College property was leased to them by these Okere Urhobos. In fact, the Okere-Urhobo families very graciously allowed Chief Rewane to be buried on the land, a very good and kind gesture for which the Benjamin Okumagba family must be praised and respected. How can a very good lawyer as you write what you wrote for public consumption?

 

Again, you referred to the Minority Bill of 1964 making the Itsekiris a minority in the Midwest. The bill was a product of Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh – an Urhobo full-blooded man, unlike the late Justice Atake, whose father was Urhobo but preferred to be regarded as a full-blooded Itsekiri man.

 

I was a member of the Federal Parliament of Nigeria from the Urhobo West Constituency. I rose to oppose it vehemently with applause from many. I was NPC in the Parliament having won my election with the Hoe. That was a long story. After the heated debate on the floor of the House, Alhaji Ribadu, former Minister of Defence, called both Chief Okotie-Eboh and me to order. It caused my last fate in politics, but that was it. As a law professor, if you re-appraise that bill, you know it was bogus. Any reference to it denies our intelligence to democratic practices. Itse – let’s be frank to ourselves. Let’s look back unto history.

 

The Itsekiris came into this area of Nigeria according to their various written and unwritten history. On one breath, they came from Benin. That claim came from a few Itsekiri writers and mainly from Benin writers. Another group in Itsekiri said they came directly from Yoruba and are of Ijebu stock. The latter made the difference in Itsekiri land. It brought the Awolowo’s government in conflict with the Urhobos mainly. The Itsekiri benefited immensely from that claim. One such great benefit was the change of Olu of Itsekiri to Olu of Warri in 1952. Many Urhobos, including me, were denied scholarship to study abroad. You know as a matter of fact that there was never Olu of Warri. You see, our problem in Warri has escalated since after the forceful institution of the Olu of Warri on the Urhobos and Ijaws, owners of the properties now known as Warri.

 

On our side, many of us want this unfortunate injustice buried and we live together as usual. But if learned people, as you are, whose relationship to the Itsekiri is definable, then Urhobos should start thinking twice. I hope not. It is for the benefit of us all to forget the past and crusade a new path of happy togetherness.

 

The other touching side of your write up on claims to Warri lands seemed to imply that the Urhobo claim is frivolous and oppressive. That is unfortunate.

 

You know that the Itsekiri were so very close to the early white men. They became middlemen between the interior industrious Urhobo men and women. They made the best use of that opportunity. The early white explorers, traders, etc., -- the Portuguese and other Europeans – made use of these middle men. The men for fear of mosquitoes did not bring their wives along. The Itsekiri women took advantage of that. Some became their wives and had children with them, to their advantage in exploiting the Urhobo interior hard workers.

 

One result of that was that the average Itsekiri man found it distasteful to marry their ladies. That led them to marry industrious Urhobo women who were more docile and more dependable. That accounted for the close relationship between the Urhobos and Itsekiris that I mentioned earlier.

 

THE LAND EXPANSIONIST MOTIVES OF THE ITSEKIRIS

 

Yet another observation you ignored. The Itsekiris having come from the Ijebus and Benin had no land other than those in the rivers. They took advantage of that to effect close links with the white men. They then moved into the interior Urhobo land for their trade with whites. The Urhobos did not have the opportunity so they had to lease lands for themselves on behalf of the white traders or explorers.

 

Cleverly, they entered into the Urhobo lands to acquire properties. Consequently, this became resented by some of the Urhobos. Others wanted to get close to the Itsekiris to take them to the whites. That gave room to some Itsekiris acquiring Urhobo lands. In fact, you remember Itsekiris laid claims to Sapele and Oghara as their home and litigated over them after the success of the Warri case. You recall that starting from Sapele to Obiaruku [in Ukwuani], they began to claim lands and name them after themselves – Ajagolo, Ajanomi, Aja-Igun, and the others as Enume, Ajatito, Adagbrassa, Obotie, etc. Itsekiris were so clever and so proud. In that meeting, I recounted some of this as unto history. I saluted the Itsekiris.

 

Be that as it were, I reminded everyone of the Danish invasion of England. You know Derbyshire that is a Danish name. We are in a changing world, sometimes yielding to a new culture. The Roman Empire is dead. Even the recent British Empire is gone. Let the Itsekiris appreciate that. Yesterday is gone, yielding place to a new world. Yet we must live together and leave the past to history.

 

I told that meeting that claims by Itsekiris to Warri neglecting the Ijaws and Urhobos of Warri was a vexatious claim. The Ijaws and Urhobos of Warri will resist that. There is no justification for the claim. But since the claims are predicated on court judgments, we all agreed that all three concerned should respect court judgments. You also remember that the Ijaws claimed IKPESSU and the present Reservation areas. Chief Okotie-Eboh withdrew that case for settlement. That was forcibly resisted by the late Barrister Boyo. Anyway, the Judge then wrote allowing Okotie-Eboh to withdraw the case, but should never come back to the court again – what about that?

 

OLU’S OVERLORDSHIP

 

You also remember that Justice Arthur Prest resisted any attempt to place Ugbuwangue under the overlordship of the Olu of Warri. They went to court and of course Chief Arthur Prest and his Ugbuwangue people won the case. Yet another part of Okere did the same. You see, only in Agbassa case you found the overlordship matter an ongoing affair.

 

Dear Itse, let us come together to further a lasting settlement. It is not in Abuja. It is right here with you and me.

 

I love you and respect you. This is for private consumption only.

 

God bless.

 (Signed)

CHIEF J. E. UKUEKU, FPSN

 


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