Urhobo Historical Society

The Itsekiris, Ijaws, Urhobos and
the Political Control of Warri Territory

 By Professor Itse Sagay
Vanguard [Lagos, Nigeria] Sunday, May 11, 2003

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, demonstrates not just the oppressive and aggressive tendency of the two supposed sister nations towards the Itsekiri, but is also increasingly taking on the appearance of obsessive and irrational hatred. 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. This is the responsibility of the Independent State Electoral Commission. On the other hand, the pogrom being executed against the ltsekiri, could be aimed at wiping them off their Warri homeland completely, and with that, the total elimination of their immemorial human and political rights in their homeland. It would appear that the utterly misguided and misdirected violence and aggression against the Itsekiris, is also partly based on ignorance; the grossly misplaced belief that they (Ijaws and Urhobos) constitute the majority in the three Itsekiri homeland local governments and are, therefore, entitled to political supremacy, namely more wards, and the right to represent Warri in the State House of Assembly and House of Representatives.

Even if it assumed, without conceding, that the Ijaw settler communities in Warri North and Warri South West local government areas have a higher population than the Itsekiri indigenes, it does not and cannot automatically follow that the Ijaws are entitled to a higher political representation than the Itsekiris, in those two local governments. The same thing applies to the Urhobos in Warn South Local Government Area who claim a higher population over the Itsekiris in that local government.

There are special circumstances recognised internationally and nationally when simplistic application of the majority concept in democratic practice is qualified and gives way to a higher principle, that of the protection of indigenous political rights. In some cases, this is coupled together with the protection of minority human, social and political rights. Where you have a defined territory, which is the homeland of an ethnic nationality, although immigration and settlements of non-indigenes cannot and should not be prohibited, steps are usually taken to protect the political rights of the indigenous population, in order to avoid a situation in which such a territory, becomes swamped by non-indigenous populations who then use their sheer physical numbers to take away political control of the homeland of the indigenous people from them.

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. The answer to the apparently difficult, (but infact simple) question, who are the traditional owners and 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 colonisers 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.

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 already stated above, there are established rights, both internationally and nationally, of minorities and indigenous people which all states are duty bound to protect.

Thus, the U.N Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides inter alia that;

Article 4: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal system while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.

Article 6: Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and to full guarantees against genocide or any other act of violence, including the removal of indigenous children from their families and communities under any pretext. In addition, they have the individual rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.

Article 7: Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for: (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities; (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; (c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim on effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

Article 19: Indigenous peoples have the right to participate fully, if they so choose, at all levels of decision-making in matters which may affect their rights, lives and destinies through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.

Article 26: Indigenous peoples have the right to own, develop, control and use the lands and territories, including the total environment of the lands, air, waters, coastal seas, sea-ice flora and fauna and other resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. This includes the right to the full recognition of their laws, traditions and customs, land-tenure systems and institutions for the development and management of resources, and the right to effective measures by States to prevent any interference with, alienation of or encroachment upon these rights.

Article 42: The rights recognized herein constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world. The U.N Declaration on the Rights of Minorities (1992) contains equally significant provisions.

It can thus be seen that the Itsekiris have a right to the political control of Warri territory and to participate in State and national affairs through their chosen representatives. They are also protected from any action which is aimed at or has the effect of dispossessing them of their social, cultural and political rights, their lands, territories on resources. They are particularly protected against ethnocide, genocide and other act of violence, directed at depriving them of any of these rights. It needs no gain saying that Ijaw and Urhobo political supremacy in Warri territory, is a gross violation of these protected rights; for political domination of Warri territory by any group other than the Itsekiri, will inevitably lead to cultural genocide of the Itsekiri and the progressive loss of their civil, social and economic rights; and their rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and individual and collective security and dignity will be endangered.

There are existing situations in several countries all over the world in which indigenous populations are protected from the political dominance of a demographically aggressive immigrant population. In Fiji for example, the indigenous population of Melanesians/Polynesians (50 per cent) was given special constitutional protection against the Indian immigrant population (44 per cent) by the 1990 Constitution.

The Indians had been brought in from India originally as sugar cane plantation workers in the 19th century. Not only did they become permanently resident in Fiji, they increased so much in population that their numbers were almost marching that of the indigenous Fijians, with the possibility of an Indian heading the Government of Fiji. This resulted in two coups and the 1990 Constitution, which gave the indigenous Fijians, a permanent majority in parliament and a guarantee of control of the Fijian government and army.

The Dayton Agreement of 1995, has also ensured that in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs, the Bosniacs (Muslims) and the Croatians, enjoy exclusive representation of their territories in the country. Indeed, a Serb Republic within the Republic of BosniaHerzegovina, called Republika Srppska was established for the Serbs, to ensure their autonomy and exclusive governance of their territory within BosniaHerzegovina.


A similar situation is developing in Papua New Guinea and in SriLanka. In Malaysia, the indigenous Malays are by consensus between them and the large Chinese immigrant population permanently in control of the state, with Chinese participation at ministerial and parliamentary levels, but in considerably lower profile positions which do not constitute a threat to the Malay political leadership and control of the state. This situation infact led to the withdrawal of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965, to establish an independent state with power and government permanently in the hands of the Chinese. So there is nothing new or, unusual in protecting the Itsekiri indigenous ethnic group of Warri, from the rampaging political ambition and aggression of their Ijaw and Unhobo guest populations.

The Itsekiris have no ambition to take over political control or achieve political supremacy of Ughelli, Effurun, Sapele, Abraka, Burutu, Focados, Patani, Bomadi etc. So the Ijaws and Urhobos should not expect the Itsekiris to accept being colonised by the Ijaws and Unhobos in Warri territory, i.e., Warri South, Warri South West and Warri North Local Government areas. It is, therefore, not surprising that when Midwest State was created in 1963 specific provisions were made in its Constitution for the protection of the political rights of the Akoko-Edos, Itsekiris, Ijaws and the Isokos, who were regarded as indigenous peoples and minorities

By sections 7,14 and schedule 1 of the 1964 Constitution of the Mid-West Region, the Akoko-Edo, Isoko, Western Ijaw and the Warri areas of the Mid-Western Region were proclaimed special areas. Under this provision, each of these minority areas was to be represented by four persons in the Mid-Western house of Assembly. The electors or voters in such areas were declared to be as follows:

The special area constitutional provisions were made to protect the minority ethnic groups in that Region from gradual assimilation or annihilation arising from influx of people from outside the special area. Additionally, it was intended to ensure that these indigenous minorities were not politically swamped by ‘invading’ majority groups who would take over political office and power from the indigenous minority by their sheer numbers.

The Western (Delta State) Ijaws did not object or complain when they enjoyed this political protection from being swamped by larger political groups but are now hell bent on swallowing up the Itsekiri and rendering them politically and socially impotent in their own homeland.

Let it not be forgotten that the Ijaws already control 12 local governments in Rivers State, all the local governments (eight) in Bayelsa and three in Delta State. In spite of all this, they want to wrest Warri North and Warri South West from their indigenous Itsekiri hosts. The Urhobos already control eight local governments in Delta State, but are also determined to seize Warri South from the Itsekiris. This cannot be based on reason but on pure obsessive hatred and opportunistic aggression against a perceived weaker neighbour.


Majority populations


However, the Itsekiri fear of being swamped by settler majority populations, cannot be considered in isolation. The status and condition of the Urhobos and Ijaws who are permanently settled in the Warri Local Governments cannot be ignored. Their own fear is, or should be, the possibiiity of never even being represented in any major legislature by their kith and kin (not political domination which they insist upon). The status of a socio-ethnic group that cannot aspire to any office in their area of permanent residence, their only home, is also not an enviable one. This equally applies to Itsekiri communities based in the Urhobo and Ijaw homelands.

The way out would involve the Itsekiris making some concessions and the Urhobos and Ijaws drastically altering their political ambitions in Warri territory. 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 over-all Itsekiri political control and right of representation of their homeland. The details can be worked out within the above context. What is important and critical is that regardless of population, the Itsekiris cannot become a political minority in their own homeland.

In this manner, whilst the rights of the Itsekiris to the political control and representation of their homeland is guaranteed, the right of the immigrant groups permanently settled in Warri kingdom to some political representation would also be recognised. The position stated above is without prejudice to the right of any community in Delta State to seek the creation of any local government for itself. In that case, the Itsekiris reserve every right to demand and obtain separate local governments for Itsekiri communities permanently settled in the Ijaw and Urhobo territories and these are many, vibrant and viable.

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.