Urhobo Historical Society



By Dr. Edirin Okotie Emejere

One of the factors responsible for the escalation of the Warri crisis is the making of ambiguous statements by top government officials and (mis)interpretation of such statements by the media and leaders of the feuding groups. This was played out again during and after the visit by President Obasanjo to Warri on Friday, September 19, 2003, to meet with leaders of the warring groups. Reporting on the meeting in the Vanguard of Saturday, September 20, 2003, Kingsley Omonobi and Osaro Okhomina quoted Obasanjo as saying “Accommodation should be the focus rather than separation. Some of you, who are preaching separation, there would be no end to it. I would rather support the accommodation of interests rather than separation. If you separate from one group today, what happens in ten or fifteen years' time? If you go like that you will separate again. What happens in thirty years time? You enlarge and you separate again. There would be no end to separati! on. I want to appeal to you that the word should be accommodation not separation“. But in their opening statement, the reporters conveyed a rather different message, claiming that “President Olusegun Obasanjo said yesterday that his administration would focus on finding ways to providing means of accommodating the diverse interests of the warring ethnic groups rather than supporting the proposed creation of a separate local government council by the Delta State government”.

On the other hand, the Guardian of the same day reported that “Obasanjo also criticized the separation of the ethnic groups in Warri, saying instead, they should live together as brothers as they had always done. He asked the ethnic groups to reason ahead and assess the future implication of separating themselves from one another.” The Guardian reporter did not link the “separation hypothesis” with the creation of separate local governments.

In an attempt to further amplify the Vanguard claim, Osaro Okhomina reported again, in the Vanguard of September 26, 2003, that “…the buildup of tension in the city over President Olusegun Obasanjo's tactful call for accommodation of different ethnic groups rather than a separate local government as a solution to the Warri crises…. a member of the security council meeting held told Vanguard that some ethnic groups have kicked against last Saturday’s statement of the President on the non– readiness of his administration to support separation. President Olusegun Obasanjo had insisted at an interactive session with the leaders of the three ethnic groups in the Warri crisis inside the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) that the Federal Government would only find a possible way of accommodating divergent interests rather than support the creation of separate local government councils as proposed by the Delta State government. The President who described the separation plan as another ploy to plunge the city into more delayed peace, proposing that the various ethnic groups should wait for the result of the Theophilus Danjuma Committee report that would be released soon.”

Since Obasanjo made his “separation hypothesis”, the media and the warring groups have been giving different interpretations to it. In other words, they have been trying to read the mind of the President. This is why we must ask and answer the following pertinent questions:

1) Did President Obasanjo actually say that he was opposed to the creation of separate local governments, as alleged by the Vanguard reporters and their co-travelers?

2) Has the Delta State government actually proposed to create separate local governments in Warri?

3) Is creation of separate local government synonymous with “separation”?

4) Is it true that it is only the Urhobos and Ijaws in Warri who are advocating for “separation“?

In what follows, I will attempt to answer these questions.

On the first question, media reports and sources at the meeting have confirmed that Obasanjo did not say he was opposed to the creation of separate local governments in Warri. Neither did he say that he was opposed to the alleged plan of the Delta State government to create separate local governments for the Ijaws, Itsekiris and Urhobo in Warri. Obasanjo simply preached accommodation instead of separation. However, he did not elaborate on what he meant by “separation,” thereby leaving it open for mischief-makers to give their own interpretations. Furthermore, it would have been unstatesmanlike, unconscionable and prejudicial for the President to openly oppose the alleged plan of the state government to create separate local governments in Warri. The President knows very well that under the 1999 Constitution, the matter of creation, administration, finance and organization of local government councils is exclusively left to the discretion of state governments and the state assemblies. In other words, the President and the Federal Government are not constitutionally empowered to create or restrain state governments from creating local governments.

On the second question, it is also not correct to claim that the Delta State government has proposed or is proposing to create separate local governments in Warri. I have read the so-called Gov. Ibori’s road map and I cannot find anywhere in the document where he stated categorically that the state government was going to create separate local governments in Warri. In the address titled “Warri: The Road Map to Peace," which he presented to the Delta State House of Assembly on August 28, 2003, the Governor simply charged the state assembly to come up with proposals for lasting peace in Warri. According to him “As the representatives of the people in this democracy, you have the mandate to initiate this historic process. You have a duty to assist the Warri ethnic groups to embrace this peace process in order to find a lasting solution…Government expects the outcome of your intervention without delay, so as to enable it through a legislative process, design a framework for achieving enduring peace, and harmonious inter-ethnic relationship in the State”.

In order to guide the Honorable Members, Gov. Ibori simply “made reference to relevant local government reforms and legislation of the past to stimulate our thoughts process on the way forward”. Among other things, he said: “From the recent events in our state and elsewhere, it has become apparent that the system of local government administration has not adequately responded to the aspirations for peaceful co-existence of the diverse interest groups in our state…In the peculiar Warri situation, …we have an immediate duty to stop the ethnic carnage and anarchy…The problem before us has a long history…When Warri and other towns were established in the 1890’s, a local administration system was established. It followed the principle of ethnic autonomy. In the Warri province, local councils were established for the Urhobo Isoko, Ijaw, Itsekiri and Ukwani….The crisis we have today has arisen because the process of local government reforms and creation was carried out by a central government that had little knowledge of the local peculiarities of the Warri situation.”

What is wrong with this background information? Does it imply that the government proposes to create separate councils in Warri? The fact is that some people have decided to give their own interpretations, to make inferences and draw conclusions. Those who are craving for separate local government have interpreted it as a tacit support for their cause while those who are opposed to the creation of separate local government have interpreted the reference to historical antecedents as an attempt to teleguide the Honorable members to a pre-determined solution. The fear of the latter group is that a motion to create separate local governments will be supported by an overwhelming majority of the state assembly, given the combined numerical strength of the Urhobos and Ijaws in the House and likely support of the Isokos, Ukwanis and the “Aniomas”. They are also mindful of the fact that the two previous panels on the Warri crisis (Nnameka Agu Commission, 1993 and Hassan Idoko Commission, 1997) have both recommended the creation of separate local governments.

The strategy of those opposed to the creation of local government is therefore to frustrate the road map and ensure that the Danjuma Panel does not recommend the creation of separate local governments. In addition, they continue to argue that the road map is unnecessary in view of the Danjuma Panel. For instance, in a statement opposing the road map, the Itsekiri National Youth Council stated “it is absolutely immoral and unacceptable for the governor to do anything to undermine the genuine efforts of the Federal Government “. But is this correct? With due respect, many people would argue that the Obasanjo-appointed Danjuma Panel is not the best route to peace in Warri. Constitutionally, aspects of the report of the panel that touch on local administration will have to be channeled to the Delta State Assembly and Government for consideration and implementation, if and only if they are satisfied with such recommendations. It is only the aspects of the report that touch on national security (e.g. greater militarization or federalization or declaration of state of emergency in Warri) and funding of development projects in the area that will have to go to the Federal Government for consideration and action. Thus, there is no conflict between the Ibori’s road map and the Danjuma Panel. Rather, they should be seen as complimentary. If differences emerge eventually, the appropriate authorities can resolve them.

On the third question, I think it is not correct to regard the creation of separate local governments as an act of separation in the strict sense of the word. Technically, separation is “an arrangement by which two or more parties (e.g. man and wife) live apart by agreement or by court order“. When applied to government, it is almost synonymous with secession. Viewed from this angle, it is wrong to claim that the creation of separate local governments for the three ethnic groups is an act of separation. I will therefore assume that those who use the word “separation” with regards to the Warri crisis are using it loosely or in a colloquial sense which could mean the splitting of a local or state government along ethnic lines. Viewed from this perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong in separation.

The paradox is that the ethnic groups are already separated within the same local government in a colloquial sense. This is what Obasanjo observed during his visit when remarked that “As I was going round the Warri area and looking down from the helicopter, I was being told this is this group's area, that is this group's area but when I look at the houses and people they are not different.” Yes, even though the houses and people look alike, there are well-defined areas belonging to the various groups. In order words, they are already “separated” within the same local government. The creation of separate local governments will therefore be a “de jure action for de facto situation”.

Warri town as currently constituted is made up of several ethnic communities, viz: Agbassa-Urhobo, Okere-Urhobo, Ogunu, Edjeba, Ekurede-Urhobo, Ekurede-Itsekiri, Ajamimogha, Ugbuwangue, etc. If separate local governments are created, it does not mean that people will have to relocate, neither will it result in “large scale confiscation of Itsekiri lands and forcible eviction and mass expulsion of the Itsekiri from their homelands” as alleged by Mr. M. E. Golly in the Vanguard of September 11, 2003. For instance, if “Warri-Urhobo” local government is created, the Ijaws and Itsekiris who live and own property in it will in no way be forced to relocate to their “own local government”. Neither will the Urhobos and Ijaws who live and own property in, say, “Warri-Itsekiri” local government area, be forced to relocate. There is no where in the annals of local government creation in Nigeria where people have been forced to relocate. Those who are familiar with the intertwined history, geography and sociology of the Warri area, know that this is impossible. In fact, the “co-jointness” of the area was aptly captured by Dr. Oritsegbemi Omatete in the Appeal he made at the Inauguration of the Itsekiri Association of Chicago on Saturday, June 28, 2003 when he noted that “To the Urhobos, our neighbors with whom we are so intermingled and intermarried, intercede on our behalf with the Ijaws…Few are the Urhobos who are not related to Itsekiris”.

The fear of “separation” has never been an issue in local government creation. For instance, in 1997 the then Okpe LGA was split into three LGAs -Okpe, Udu and Uvwie, corresponding to the three Urhobo clans that constituted the LGA. The creation of the three LGAs did not lead to relocation of people, except for the handful of local government staff who opted to move to the new local government offices. For the Okpes and Udus living in Uvwie, life continued as usual. The same thing applied to the Uvwies living in Udu and Okpe. The Okpes and Udus living in Uvwie who have distinguished themselves in their service to the local government can still be awarded Uvwie chieftaincy titles just as some Urhobos and Itsekiris living in Yorubaland have been conferred with Yoruba titles despite the fact that the Midwest Region (now Edo and Delta States) opted to “separate” from the Yoruba-dominated Western Region in 1963. Thus, it is not true that “separation” and “accommodation” are mutually exclusive. In other words, accommodation is still possible after “separation” and separation need not impede accommodation.

Finally, who are the “separationists”? In the wake of the Obasanjo’s “separation hypothesis”, the impression has been created that the Urhobos and Ijaws in Warri are the “separationists” while those who are opposed to the creation of separate local governments are the “accommodationists”. It is true that the Urhobos and Ijaws in Warri have long been advocating for separate local governments in order to emancipate them from domination by the Itsekiri establishment who not only treat them with contempt but regard them as “tenants, settlers and invaders” in their homeland, despite their numerical strength. For instance, for the Urhobos in Warri, it is an established fact that they are indigenes of their areas in Warri which can be regarded as “geographical elongations” of the territories of their neighboring Urhobo clans -the Udus and Uvwies.

It is also equally true that the Itsekiri establishment that is opposed to the creation of separate local governments have at the same time been agitating for the “separation” of the three Warri LGAs from the present Delta State. For instance, in the Position Paper which they presented to President Obasanjo in Abuja on April 7, 2003, they concluded as follows: “We have come to the realization that we do not belong to the State. Now, we have come to the point of no return…We owe to prosperity (sic) our precious heritage of our oil filled Warri homeland…We have decided to leave this state willy-nilly…We shall declare our homeland to be outside this state on a given day. On that day of declaration, we shall state where we shall be. ..we are not declaring a Warri Republic. What we say is that we will explore all constitutional means to take over Warri homeland, i.e. Warri South, Warri North and Warri South West local government areas from Delta State” They repeated the same chorus in their presentation to the Danjuma Committee in Abuja on May 15th, 2003 as follows: “Our first option is to get out of this State “. It is clear therefore, that the Itsekiri establishment is also “separationists”, probably greater than the Urhobos and Ijaws in Warri because the agitation for a separate state represents a higher order of separation. Obasanjo is clearly aware of the “separationist” tendency of members of the Itsekiri establishment. Therefore, his “separation hypothesis” is likely directed at all three warring groups.

In conclusion, I hope the President and other stakeholders will take note of the arguments advanced in this article and guard against actions and utterances that will further dim the prospects for peace in the area. The Delta State government should be allowed and encouraged to pursue its road map which is focused on the local administration aspects of the crisis. On the other hand, the Federal Government (through the Danjuma panel report) should focus on the broader issues of effective policing and development of the area, including canalization, effective riverine transportation, reclamations-and-filling of the swamp communities and the construction of bridges and highways to link the communities to the land area in order to reduce the struggle for “land space“ and encourage indigenes of swamp communities to stay at and visit their homes and contribute more to the development of their homelands.