Urhobo Historical Society


By Osherefe Jabini
  [From Urhobo Voice, Vol. 7, No.  224, November 24, 2003]

WARRI crisis is perhaps one of the most discussed, debated, reported and misreported issues in contemporary Nigeria. The plethora of versions, perspectives and expositions put forward range from the ridiculous, the mundane to the frequent emotionally-warped accounts of the contending parties. Very seldom are attempts made to present the true facts of the story either by way of a historically and ethnographically valid analysis of the root cause(s)of the Warri debacle or a well-reasoned presentation of recent crises events.

The major  surprise here is the highly  vibrant Nigerian press which has, for  inexplicable reasons, shied away from genuine investigative journalism, choosing instead to concentrate mainly on surface-reporting of specific crises as they unfold and adducing vague or very highly marginal  reasons (oil bunkering, illiteracy, unemployment and underdevelopment) as plausible causes for the crises. For  example, no mention is made of such historic facts as the crowning of the Itsekiri monarch as “Olu of Itsekiri” in 1936 by the British and the later controversial conversion of that title to “Olu of Warri” by the Action Group  government of the Western Region in 1952.  Nor  has there been mention of the various  commissions of inquiry previously instituted to look into the crises.  If the truth, the whole truth, cannot and must not be told, how do we expect to find lasting solutions to this perennial crisis and save the people of the area, nay the oil industry, from utter destruction?

Can we rescue  Warri from its death throes by further suppression and pacification of its traumatized people (indigenes and others) through  troops and police reinforcements, machine gun placements, over-flights by military jets and choppers, stringent curfews? If we cannot face the reality of the Warri situation, are we prepared to accept the gloomy option of  perpetual military presence and curfews to forestall the inevitability of renewed fighting? If  the answer to the later is in the affirmative, does it represent the best choice alternative amongst the broad range of durable and less-expensive options in resolving  this crisis?

Perhaps, one way of deciphering the truth about Warri is  by carefully examining the ownership claims of the contending parties; the Ijaw, the Itsekiri and the Urhobo. The Urhobo and Ijaw claims to Warri show strong affinity  as far as they relate to claims of indigenousness to the portions of Warri occupied by them.  For example, the Urhobo of Warri restrict their claims to the lands occupied by the Agbassa and Okere Urhobo communities in  Warri metropolis; an area roughly three-quarter of the city and continuous territory with the rest of Urhoboland.

Very significant is the fact that the central Urhobo areas constitute almost all of Warri town but less than two per cent  of total Warri territory.  The Ijaw claims relate to the dispersed settlements and towns of the Ogbe-Ijoh, Isaba, Gbaramatu and Egbema clans all of which are in the main, located in the oil-rich Warri local governments of  Warri South-West and Warri North.
There has never been any agitation(s) by either of these groups to deny the  Itsekiri of their territories within Warri area which boundaries have been  traditionally set from time.  No Itsekiri can enter and dictate in the Urhobo or Ijaw areas in Warri and vice-versa.  Thus, there is and has always  been a  traditional  separation of these ethnic groups just as the comparatively recent governmental, political and fiscal unity  enforced in favour of the Itsekiri by the Federal Government is at the core of the Warri problem.

It will be  important here to highlight the distinction between Warri metropolis  (where the Urhobo co-habit with the Itsekiri) and what I choose to refer to as ‘Greater Warri.’  While  the former relates to the city of Warri in Warri South local government area, the later  is and will be used here to refer to the combined territories of the present Warri South, Warri South-West and Warri North local government areas.  This is a much larger territory almost three –quarter the size of Ebonyi State in southern Nigeria.  The distinction between Warri and ‘Greater Warri’ is pertinent , as  uniformed readers tend to see the Warri crisis as a struggle for Warri City.  At the other extreme are  the Itsekiri claims to complete and total ownership of  Warri as a whole; by  far the most ambitious, controversial, recent and superficially successful of all the claims. It would appear therefore that the answer to the all-important question: “Who owns Warri’ or more precisely ‘does one ethnic group own ‘Greater Warri’ ‘will constitute the most critical element  in any attempt to resolve the Warri problem.

We can begin right now  to ask ourselves; is it empirically sound to  suggest that this large expanse of land was devoid of any human habitation before the migration of the Itsekiri to  the Warri area? Beyond the façade  of court victories by the Itsekiri in colonial courts almost entirely populated by  Itsekiri clerks and interpreters, is there verifiable ethnographic and anthropological evidence to support the claim  that the Itsekiri settlements in the Warri area predate those of the Ijaw and Urhobo? When the Itsekiri  propagandize the alleged threat to their homeland (euphemistically referred to as Warri), are we referring to the   individual communities or the feudalistic and imperialistic grip of an insensitive monarchy to the entire Warri area, nay Delta State. Ironically, the so-called colonial legal victories of the Itsekiri  over some of Warri-land  are at once the strength and weakness of the Itsekiri claims.

Sometimes, ownership claims ought to and  should transcend questionable legal victories to historical and cultural proofs and artifacts.  A Bini would most proudly point to various historical and cultural artifacts that  dot Bini land as proofs of a glorious past rather than series of legal victories.  So would a Yoruba, an Igbo or Hausa.  While  these may be available in the uncontested core Itsekiri communities  of Warri  area, same cannot be said of the entire area or specifically the areas where the other contending parties settled.  Again, the Itsekiri claims have not been matched with any visible sense of commitment towards the development of Warri land, their so-called homeland.

On the contrary, the Itsekiri, like the woman in the biblical story of  Solomon, seem to have consistently worked against Warri progress.  For example, Chevron, the oil company  renown for its embarrassing subservience to the whim and caprices of the Itsekiri leadership, has no befitting  presence orcontribution  to Warri City; the oil capital of the western Niger Delta.  Its social commitment towards host  communities in the area is remarkably meager especially when it is concentrated with the fact that its 450,000 barrels  per day-oil production is principally realized  from onshore/offshore Delta State.  The various  Itsekiri host  communities in and around Escravos are mere  shadows of themselves.  The proposed new Ugborodo town (the old town of which was relocated to make way  for Chevron tank farm and gas plant) is still an unrealized dream years after its conception.  Contrast this with Finima new town in the Bonny area, a much more recent proposal which has long been completed and functional.

It was and has been rumoured that the Itsekiriprevented  Chevron from having a tangible operational base in Warri as this may, in their usual adversarial reasoning be beneficial to the  Urhobo and other ethnic  groups of the area; ethnic groups they contend do not have oil or at best very minimal  when compared to self-defined vast oil bearing territories of the Itsekiri and as such should  not  enjoy at their expense.  This explains why it could be easier for an elephant to pass through the eye of a  needle than for one to find  a pure Urhobo, Isoko and possibly Ijaw Chevron staff or major contractor.  Thanks to the Itsekiri, Chevron has no contribution to the economic life of Warri, in simple language it means that if Chevron packs up its minute  presence in Warri, not a soul will miss its absence. 

By contrast, Shell, the other major oil company in the area has  shown far greater responsibility and commitment towards Warri despite the fact that its operations cut across different ethnic groups in Delta State in spite of the perpetual Itsekiri induced crisis situation in Warri. Shell has  continued to maintain a strong presence in the town. It has three large office complexes and two residential areas in Warri town employing thousands, its clubs provide fun and entertainment to all and sundry, its fire services are available in critical emergency situations, even its hospitals and mortuary can be accessed on specific occasions, it has constructed and rehabilitated innumerable roads within Warri and environs.

At a time, Shell even rehabilitated the entire Warri/Sapele/Benin highway when it was in a dire state. Even if it is argued that the bulk of key personnel employed in Shell are not Deltans, they have nonetheless contributed in no small measure to the development of Warri. They patronize our markets, many have built houses here and even married our women and these actions have indirectly benefited us in a way. I am a Warri boy and have experienced all the above. I have never met a Chevron staff in Warri save one Itsekiri who incidentally is a Sapele boy. Continuing in the same breath, when Shell proposed a plan to build a befitting airport in Warri in conjunction with the Itsekiri-influenced Chevron, the Itsekiri expressed the same fear for Warri’s development and Chevron characteristically declined to take part in the project. An Itsekiri group, using the pro-Itsekiri Vanguard newspaper, alerted the Federal Government to the threat posed to national security if Shell (and not the FAA) continues with the project.

Thankfully, Shell was able to surmount these setbacks and the result is the modern airport in Warri today solely built by Shell putting to shame all those who have always postulated that youth restiveness is the cause of our underdevelopment, not the result of it. I have digressed a little, not particularly to sing the praises of Shell (there is still a lot to be done here) but to show in a very practical way, the modus operandi of the Itsekiri and the length it is prepared to go to stifle effective progress in the Warri area. The Itsekiri also opposed the creation of Delta State with its capital in Warri and eventually were the only visibly contented ethnic group in the core Delta that welcomed the creation of the present anomaly called Delta State with capital in far-away Asaba. There is no tangible investment in Warri by any Itsekiri despite their very many oil millionaires; the bulk of investments in Warri are principally Urhobo, Igbo, Isoko and others.

This perhaps explains the ease with which Itsekiri militants’ burn and loot property in Warri town. All the Amukas, Rita Lori-Ogbebors, the Rewanes, the Prests have their major business concerns outside Warri; their so-called homeland. If the foregoing are fallacious statements, then the total absence of any Itsekiri position paper, agitation, requests or lobby proposing or supporting a development plan of any sort for the Warri area is thought-provoking especially for such a “vibrant” “quick-to-press” ethnic group. It has been opposition all the way. What a way to own a homeland!

The totality of the Itsekiri claims appear to be more of rent-seeking and influence-peddling; rape and plunder; privilege without responsibility. They are quick to cry foul when commissions of enquiry, headed by eminent jurists, are set up to look into the Warri problem. It is either they refuse to attend commission sittings and/or they stifle the findings and recommendations of such commission, which in almost every case, have exposed the hollowness of the Itsekiri claims. A genuine owner would definitely want to be the first to tell his story in any  forum  not the one to refrain from stating his case or obstructing such a process.

The phobia for genuine development in Warri by the Itsekiri may be due in part to the fear of exposure; Warri needs to be an obscure local city so that half-truths, lies and undeserved influence presently being peddled by the Itsekiri can continue thriving. They must continually be in position to dictate and control who gets what, when and how; a position which in their narrow reasoning, could be threatened if Warri is for example, made a capital city. Such a scenario would imply sharing influence with a governor and other independent government agencies,  and development may become indiscriminate and far-reaching. This cannot be allowed to happen. If there must be a GRA in Warri, it must be concentrated solely in the small so-called Itsekiri part of town, which sadly, spans a tiny swampy fraction comprising the Esisi, Ekpen and Ajamogha roads, the settlement of which is of relative recency.

So also should all police stations(s), government offices, MTN/Econet base-stations, developmental projects of all types be located in this area. Any developmental proposal that threatens to tangibly expand the scope and beauty of Warri is proactively countered. The only police station in the Urhobo areas (three-quarters of Warri town) was burnt down by the Itsekiri, along with a huge chunk of property. Ninety-five per cent of roads in this area are untarred. This oppressive stance also applies to individual Itsekiri communities; none of which can or should be developed to the extent that they appear more attractive than the mutual area in Warri town occupied by the Itsekiri monarchy. This may explain why Arunton, an Itsekiri community in Escravos sharing a common fence with the multi-billion naira Chevron tank farm, cannot even boast of electricity some thirty years after the commissioning of the tank farm. In the eyes of the Itsekiri, too much development and exposure of Warri as say, a capital city, could be fatally detrimental to the imperialistic interests of their monarchy and the self-assumed mutual exclusivity and unfounded superiority-complex of the Itsekiri stock. Such a dynamic Port Harcourt or Lagos-like environment cannot support the tunnel-reasoning of this self-serving monarchy.

If one may offer advice to the Itsekiri ethnic stock, I would say it is now time to look outward and radically seek a pragmatic world view. Change is inevitable and I do not believe it will, in this case, lead to the strengthening of the untenable Itsekiri position. Rather, ground is being lost gradually but surely, irrespective of the so-called connection prowess of the Itsekiri. Things are not as rosy as they once were and they will not get better. Candidly, it is my pessimistic view that should the Itsekiri refuse to support, work for and with change, we may not be talking of an Itsekiri (or Warri) Kingdom in say, fifty years time. This is of course, not adduced to natural extinction or propagandist concepts like “ethnic cleansing” but rather to the natural perseverance of truth to triumph at the end of the day. I presume here that the only thing the Itsekiris live for (or have been convinced to live for as a people) is the protection of an imaginary Warri Empire; this is their only reason for existence, as such its absence by way of a once-and-for –all truthful resolution (an inevitability in itself) could result in a fatal breakdown of ethnic psyche. Life may be so hollow in the aftermath that it may not be worth living after all.

I wonder how the Itsekiri ethnic stock can survive in such a “controversy-less” environment. Every ethnic group or nation has its heroes - those who risked their lives to chart a new direction. There ought to be courageous forward-looking Itsekiri to take up the onerous responsibility of reordering priorities and reorienting the people to chart and project a Y2-compliant vision for the future rather than this eternal imperialistic assignment to confiscate other people’s territories. The Itsekiri have their individual communities not in contention with any other ethnic group. Concerted effort should be made to seek the development of these areas, most of which are located in the remote riverine areas. A cue can be taken from the Kalabari ethnic group in present day River State which used its early contact with the Europeans to create and develop thriving cities in their riverine territories rather than use such seemingly na-me-first–see-oyibo advantageous position to acquire say Port Harcourt city and adjoining areas extending up to Bonny and Akassa.

Such a re-direction for the Itsekiri should be done from the individual-in-community level rather than the all-knowing and overbearing level of the imperialistic monarchy where an Itsekiri from Ugbuwangue in Warri South is made to head the local council in Warri North or where an Itsekiri from Orugbo directs the affairs of Ugborodo usually to the detriment of core Ugborodo Itsekiri indigenes. Itsekiri should be thinking of devoting energies on how roads and bridges can be constructed to their numerous riverine communities, how state and federal parastatals, institutions and agencies can be sited in these locations, how non-oil resources could be harnessed in terms of setting up agro-allied industries, how the proposed coastal highway from Koko, through Ogheye, to Epe-Lagos can be constructed, how a genuine Delta State with capital in Warri or a nearby city should be created to bring genuine development, law and order  to the people, how  power and communication facilities can be extended to these areas.

I daresay Itsekiri land will be the envy of other Nigerians if a fraction of the resources and energies devoted to the unnecessary, wasteful and completely false struggle for a Warri Empire are expended on the aforementioned lofty goals. The new Itsekiri must strive to heed the popular Biblical injunction ‘love thy neighbour as thyself,’ to which end it must overcome the perpetual hatred for, and domineering stance over her God-given neighbours, the Ijaws, Urhobo and other ethnic groups like the Isoko and Ukwuani; superior complexes typified by acts such as the refusal of the Itsekiri monarch to be part of the  state’s traditional council except he be appointed the life chairman.

To the Urhobo I say; be strong, committed and united. Any ethnic group in present day Nigeria that is profoundly disaggregated and apolitical is doomed to perpetual slavery. The Urhobo, as one of Nigeria’s populous ethnic groups cannot afford to  imbibe laissez-fairism in the very charged political climate of today. To the Ijaws; I say suffri suffri, it is time to sheathe your sword. Don’t play into the hands of the Itsekiri whose only option now, in the face of irrefutable and popular opinion, may  be the escalation of the Warri crisis to embroil the entire western Niger Delta and possibly involve the Yoruba in the fray. Let diplomacy do the rest. I would want to reiterate here that majority of Yoruba do not even know of the existence of the Itsekiri, not to mention a belief in their ridiculous claims to Warri. Some only became aware of them with the increasing spate of the crises in Warri and propaganda reporting by the Nigerian press especially the Itsekiri owned Vanguard. The Itsekiri only succeeded in involving a fraction of the aristocratic Afenifere group to periodically issue press statements in its favour. There is really nothing spectacular about attending Afenifere meetings, even the Urhobo, Ijaw, Isoko and Bini can attend such meetings if they so desire, just as the Itsekiri attended an Arewa summit recently.

To the federal and state government,  I say, decisively take far-reaching measures to resolve the Warri crisis. By this I am not referring to curfews, shoot-at-sight orders, a million troops, tanks and military helicopters, US Marines, satellite monitoring of oil pipelines, temporary relocation(s) of governor(s) or four-hour presidential tour and the like; I am positing here that for enduring peace to reign in the Warri area, we must be deliberately and consistently focused on attempts at finding enduring answers to the all-important question; do the Itsekiri, who numbered about 85,000 in the 1990 census, own all the territories in the three Warri local government areas exclusively? An area almost three-quarters the size of Lagos State? If this is not the case,  how can we separate the three ethnic groups that cohabit this area into different local government areas? What other short-run mutually beneficial options are available in the event that the former option gets bogged down in procedural hitches and bureaucracy.

In this pursuit to fish out  the truth about Warri, I advise that greater reliance be placed on  easily verifiable ethnographic and anthropological evidence(s) rather than on a series of court victories obtained from colonial courts or citations from Itsekiri and pro-Itsekiri historians, and scholars the ranks, of which are beginning to include “erudite” scholars like Itse Sagay. Above all, the findings of any body constituted to resolve the Warri problem must be made public and implemented within a reasonable short time frame. This will prevent the recurring problem of non-implementation and disappearance of findings and recommendations as previously experienced with the Idoko and Mbanefo commissions on the Warri crisis.

Additionally, Warri should be urgently, genuinely and radically developed to the status befitting an oil city. A real Delta State with capital in Warri or Ughelli should be created to give the people a sense of belonging, regularize and protect the oil industry and hasten the developmental process. This will also help to give the town the befitting national exposure and recognition it deserves. The Federal Government may have fundamentally erred in the siting of the capital of Delta capital in Asaba, so far away from the core of the state and in an area originally in Benin province, not Delta province.