LAND, OVERLORDS & LAND RIGHTS
By D. A. Obiomah
| Originally published in Warri by GKS Printers. Published
in URHOBO WAADO by permission of Mr. D. A. Obiomah.
© D. A. Obiomah 1987, 2002
As we draw the curtain Ometan v Dore Numa becomes a household phenomenon. If the generality of Itsekiris did not know it before they must henceforth be aware that their claim of overlordship to the portion of Agbarha land based on Ometan v Dore Numa, and by false propaganda of their Leaders of Thought spread to cover every inch of Agbarha land in Warri Local Government Area, is a shameful, perfidious claim. Even that claim whatever the nature of its origin, by the operation of law, pronounced by our courts and through legislation , is now dead as the stone age.
Nor can the Isekiris now shift ground to say that the Olu's overlordship is administrative. As between the Itsekiris and ourselves we have lived our lives apart. The Itsekirs do not know and od not participate in what we do in our clan - clan meetings, festivals, joys and travails. In litigation, mostly land matters we are always opposed.
So far the impression seems to have been given by other commentators on Itsekiri claims that the Itsekiri could go to a Benin State taking with them Itsekiri lands including the portion of Agbarha lands previously affected by Ometan v Dore Numa. This is erroneous in the extreme. The lands in question are not a hand bag that the Itsekiris can pick up and take along with them. We, not Itsekiris, live distinctly on these lands. Is anyone suggesting then that the Itsekiris are feudal lords allowed by the Constitution to own serfs to be carted along, where ever they choose, were their claim of overlordship to be true?
Granting that Ometan v Dore Numa still had any validity which we have shown it has not, it gave us unequivocal possession which is nine-tenths of the law. We have not said that we would go to Benin State. If the Itsekiris now realize that our Warri holds out too precious an inducement to them to leave behind, let them swallow their conceit and learn to love and appreciate us. Through thick and thin we have remained steadfast pursuing our rights, saying our land is our own. We are not asking for favours but our entitlements as of right. Persecution hurts. We have been dealt physical and psychological blows, wrenching and atrophying, by the Itsekiris. Yet we do not now cry havoc, vengeance, blood. Only let the Itsekiris no longer stand in our way overtly or covertly as the hall-mark of their diplomacy to keep their strangle-hold on Warri treated as a colony for profit for a handful.
The Niger Cost Protectorate came into being in 1891 enabling Britain to assume direct control of the sphere of influence of the trading concern known as the Royal Niger Company. The immediate duty of the Protectorate government was, in contrast to the R.N.C. operating in the Delta and Oil Rivers, the penetration of the hinterland in order to fulfil the conditions laid down by the Berlin Act of 1885 for a rival European power to lay effective claim to territory. The corollary to this first duty was patrol and 'pacification' where there was resistance. In other words, the first duty of quickly as possible in order to keep rival European powers such as the French and Germans out. One of the important ways to do this was to tie the known African leaders to British apron strings and and use them to assert British claim to the territories under these Africans. Where any African leader proved recalcitrant he was put down and replaced by a stooge whose position derived from the wishes of the British rather than custom.
This was the rationale behind the British effort to establish a single authority within Warri Province. The many independent communities within the Province were tied to Dore as his subordinates. Obaro Ikime gives in a picturesque manner the halo of prestige accorded Chief Dore by the British Officials as seen by a visitor Blndloss; Ikime says.
"The testimony of one Binloss, a British traveller in the 1890's gives an even clearer picture of the esteem in which Dogho was held by the British administration. The Vice-Consul (Warri) was entertaining Bindloss and his fellow travellers to a dinner to which Dogho was invited."
"There sat down with a a Niger man attired in plain white linen whose name is a power in the Delta and whose counsel has been taken by Government in times of anxiety. His find white gig lay alongside the bank, flying the jack above her steer; and the writer was informed that when a newly arrived and zealous official ordered its owner to abandon the use of the flag sacred to imperial service, he received a hint to let Chief Dore alone." (Ikime: Chief Dogho: The Lugardian System in Warri, 1917-1932. J.H.S.N. Vol. 3, No. 2 Dec. 1965.)
chief Dore with his flag was essentially British. As an African by birth he was to his British maters in the nature of tally card, albeit organic, to itemise the varying components of imperial territory for effective British rival claim and control.
He was used to acquire lands for Government Station in Warri, and earned the stigma of a knave but was backed up and fully protected by the power of his masters.
Hence as an event Dore Numa was an expression of British Colonial interest the tool of our subjugation to become a part of the British Empire. The Itsekiris rejected his role. However, as a result of the Lugardian policy of indirect rule the British strove to veil their interest and actions in the name of Itsekiri custom because Chief Dore happened to be Itsekiri. In this way, Chief Dore was said by them to represent the Olu to own all lands in trust for Itsekiris. Then it suited the Government to call Agbarha lands occupied by them as Itsekiri lands under Dore's control. At the passing away of Dore, in order to lie consistently, Dore's overlordship over land, was passed to Olu Fund. Naturally the Itsekiris grabbed it. They were rid of the burden of Dore as a person. But they acceded to his legacy of 'national' assets, the leases. Yet, to think now that Dore springs from knavery to sanctity, trumpeted as the religion of res judicata, cloaked in all its bigotry and abhorrent fanaticism?
In the result the heartless Itsekiris have cut the evil pound of flesh from nearest the heart. Their Communal Lands Trust died financially indebted to Agbarha for rents and premia received on lands invaded illegally. As Itsekiris shout falsely that Urhobos are oppressors they remind their victims that individual Trustees are alive and accountable for the debt.
Historically, our lands are ours. We were cheated out of them, and the Itsekiris have used the reversion of the leases to the Itsekiri Communal Lands Trust in 1959 as building blocks for ascendancy in Warri Town, and through this to manoeuvre to own Warri Local Government Area, which they want to convert to a private state for themselves. Providentially, our lands are ours again by law. This at last is the end of British rule in Warri notwithstanding that Independence came in 1960.
The Agbarha Urhobo people are good neighbours and peace-lowing. They will not ask for blood. There are hardly anymore lands left for sequestration. All we ask now is for our full citizenship rights, of which we have hitherto been deprived, to be accorded us from now to 1992 and be granted as amateur of course thereafter. We will press for these to the hilt.
Conflict in Warri has become a war of attrition for the Agbarha people. When the disagreements and problems occasionally hit the headlines of the news media, the reaction of the general public seems to be that they want to be left alone; the matter has dragged on for too long. This not to say that the potentials of a continuing rift are lost sight of say. On the contrary, the kind of reaction arises partly from a reluctance to contemplate conflict and determine its nature. Conflict consists in the main of the combatants, their allies and sympathisers and fishers in troubled waters. Also there are those who may have no direct connection with the struggle but all the same suffer the consequences. In this case the combatants are clear. Those who suffer the consequences include the vast number of non-indigenous peoples and businesses. Among these also are to be found fishers in troubled waters either for the sake of survival or for profit. These often stay aloof and are not readily mobilised for the over-all interest of the entire community. In this regard Warri is like a cripple, a weak image of the force that it ought to be, a lamentable perversion, a loss to itself and the State. For the combatants, it is the fittest survives, not coexistence and nationhood. The stronger is ever striving to kill and the weaker ever clutching to survive and become fit. Thus conflict is resolved through the intervention of a superior and just power, stalemate or, the stronger destroying the weaker.
Of all conflicts those concerned with territory and the necessity to assert freedom are the most enduring. They will linger until equilibrium is reached or the stronger party leave off, or the weaker is destroyed. This course of conflict is by no means extra-ordinary being tied up with man's innate will to live. This is exemplified daily by the very dregs of this earth sticking grimly to life, and when they pack up, it is not by election. Viewed from this perspective, it is not naïve to regard the conflict in Warri as a humbug? If in the course of this discourse it has been amply shown that the Agbarha people have a just cause and therefore hope of life the fact that the conflict lingers on is a pointer that a superior and just power has not yet intervened effectively to save the weak.
On 31st October, 1983, "THE PUNCH" newspaper through its Bendel State Editor, David Egbedi, and on July 1st, 1984, the "SUNDAY CONCORD" though Maurice Akade made great showing to highlight the grossness in Warri under the captions, "Who owns Warri?" and "Unfriendly Neighbours". If the question is asked whether the deplorable situation which attracted the patriotism of these newspapers and their brave staff has improved, the answer of course is NO. It has worsened. How does the Bendel State Government see its role in this matter? Government should resolve it within the laws of the land. The role of Government vis-a-vis the conflict has been fully spelt out in Appendix (iv).
Before 1976, Warri Division, now Warri Local Government Council Area comprised two autonomous local government councils: a rural Warri Divisional Council with eight, non-rating, small units called Local Councils under it, and the Warri Urban District Council. In 1976, by the Obasanjo local government reforms all of Warri Division was merged as one Warri Local Government Council. Since the merger the focal point of Itsekiri intensified struggle for territory, political, social and economic power has been the Urban Council area for effective annexation.
Itsekiris have been encouraged by propaganda and misuse of governmental authority through exclusivist polices to invade Warri and seize it. An Itsekiri whose father is from Madangho or Batere or Jakpa and whose mother is not of WarriTown says he is a native of Warri and says it without blinking. While the nation desires probity in Nigerians, here, before its eyes, a whole tribe is being indoctrinated to lie, and publish it authoritatively to Nigerians and Government! Are Itsekiris talking to Nigerians or to Americans - born in Wisconson, raised in Baltimore but are New Yorkers? While Nigerians should welcome development of the American type it is as of now not the context Itsekiri behaviour, which is nothing but a ruse and conning. And they actually push so determinedly as to deny those that actually belong as natives any sense of belonging, so that both in law and in fact the situation cannot remain.
Of the fifteen members of the new council non-Itsekiris were eight. Chief D.E. Okumagba, Urhobo was elected for the position of Chairman of the Council with E.N.A. Begho, Itsekiri second with seven votes. The Governor had power of choice between the two. The Governor democratically picked Begho for Chairman. This extract from a petion to the Governor illustrates the dismay of the eight members:
"The circumstance in which Chief Begho was appointed as Chairman of the Warri Council baffled us; the government of Bendel State is not unfamiliar with the problems of the Warri Council Area: Chief Begho is Itsekiri; the present member of the Bendel Executive Council from Warri Local Government Area is an Itsekiri, the one before him was also Itsekiri; the former Local nominated Chairmen of all former Local Government Councils for the former Warri Urban Council and Itsekiris. All board members appointed from Warri Courcil Area by the past and present Military Government of the State are all Itsekiris. All these are Government actions against which the law and Urhobo indigenous Communitites of Warri Local Government Council Area continually complained to the former State Governments and the preent one. We wish to add that the Itsekiris are not the only indigenes of the geographical area now known as the Warri Local Government Area. Apart from the Itsekiri community there are the Urhobos and Ijaw indigenous communities in the Council Area. Councillor D.E. Okumagba who scored 8 votes against Begho's 7 votes in the election for the post of Chairman of the Council is himself an Urhobo indigene of the Council area.
"And now that the people of the Council area have indicated by their votes to have a suitable person who happens to be a non-Itsekiri as Chairman of the Council for a term of three years the people's choice and wish were overriden as if to stress that it is forbidden to allow a non-Itsekiri to serve in such a post in Warri Local Government Council area."
After the new council had been stalled for three months on the issue of the Chairman's appointment Government intervened by unceremoniously removing one of the eight concillors and achieved parity. It then gave chairmanship of the council to a new Itsekiri candidate less qualified than the Urhobo candidate. The two offices of Supervisory Councillors went one each to the Ijaws and Urhobos. The Council ran for 30 months and was dissolved three months before its time when the UPN Government of Bendel State came into power after the elections of 1979. The Itsekiris being UPN the membership of the new, moninated Management Committee of the Warri Local Government Council was all Itsekiri. The Government defied the court ruling that the dessolution of the old elected council and the substitute nominated one were unconstitutional. The door was thus thrown open for the perfection of apartheid that has persisted till this moment. This is notwithstanding that since the fall of the UPN's all-Itsekirimember Management Committee, on 31st December, 1983, corrective Military regimes have been in power for the better part of four years, the current one which is the Babangida administration being avowedly dedicated to the protection of human rights. Therefore, we still have hope.
What are the basic issues to be resolved? When the rivers made the Itsekiris middlemen between the European traders and the hinterland, the Itsekiri were glad to be wealthy. Then economic activity moved to land and the Itsekiris came to land to share with land dwellers. Now the creeks are bubbling with crude petroleum oil. The Itsekiris both claim that all of the Itsekiri, Ijaw and Agbarha creek areas belong to them alone, including WarriTown on land which they swear to anexe. Out of the territory of their dream they want to create for themselves a new country which they have variously called Autonomous Provice of Warri, WarriState coterminous with Warri Local Government Area. It is an obvious assumption that within the new state supposedly to be part of Nigeria, rules of human rights in the Nigerian Constitution shall not invalidate any rule of customary law, just as the Itsekiris are striving right now to mmake the 1979 Consitituion redundant to the extent that the Olu, or the Ologbotsere speaking for him, pronounces on what is acceptable and desirable by Itsekiri custom.
In the face of this, when a government exists that upholds custom above the country's Constitution such government will immediately realise that its chose path is customary tenants to their lawful homes but indeed cannot find any, for this is the only and lawful home. Conversely, there must be a program so that the Itsekiris will at last be by themselves without neighbours in the new oil paradise. But this is a far cry. Program is not in sight. The only choice therefore is co-existence in name and in fact. An Ijaw can be a Chairman, an Itsekiri can be a Chairman and an Urhobo can be a Chairman. An Ijjaw is entitiled to Government patronage, appoiintment, employment and to do contracts. Likewise, an Itsekiri, and an Urhobo. If traditional rulers exist till the end of time or for one day only, the Ijaws can have their Perc and be venerated, the Itsekiri can have their Olu and be venerated and the Urhobo their Ovie in case of Agbarha, and be venerated. Like dogs when they play, they roll over by turns; then it is apleasant. We are at a loss to appreciate Government's problems. It does not even explain. The facts and the laws are clear, and our claims have suffered repetition again and again.
How long, how much longer?
In relation to the nature of conflict discussed above the role of Government has been examined, Appendix (iv). The legal position of the Agbarha people has been stated. Their attitude towards the future has also been stated. As for their guts and stamina it must be clear to any casual observer by now that however big the Itsekiri Goliath, the Agbarha cannot be smothered. In recent times all relevant events, especially those of National consequence transcending local and parochial friendships (including those of female emissaries) the voice of the Agbarha people has been heard increaslinly louder, as during the Obasanjo local government reforms, the Justice Idigbe Land use Panel and the more recent Cookey Political-Bureau.
In the circumstance what is the duty of the Itsekiri leadership? What does commonsense dictate? To fight to the death to aggregate material gains and rights which belong to the Agbarha people, or, desist and achieve equilibrium so that both sides can live in peace together? It has been said that it takes five muscles of the face to frown and only two to smile. Why frown when one can smile in enlightened self-interest?
What is the respondibility of the Urhobo people who are not combatants in the Warri imbrolio but have time and again been taunted to the quick and made to suffer in several ways, even a present, to the extent that they have been used as a whipping horse and the means by which it is intended to torpedo the necessary purpose of the Nation to march quickly forward? The blizzard invoked by the Itsekiris purposely on account of the Agbarha has not blown on the roofs of the Agbarha people alone. A stitch in time saves nine. It was time therfore the Urhobos in particular, the Delta communities together and Nigerians took lively interest, and became fully involved in prevailing upon Government to bring a just end to Itsekiri oppression.
The reader must be asking himself by now, if despite the alleged Urhobo bugbear the Itsekirs enjoy a monopoly of rights and privileges in Warri Local Government Area while the indigenous Ijaws and Urhobos are discriminated against, what are the Itsekiris afraid of> the answer is simple. They are wailing to have oppression legitimized so they can continue to perpetuate it and thereafter gradually edge towards confederation or even worse. With the progress of Nigeria towards nationhood they feel the Nation threatens them and they must, like their colonial Dore Numa, take stand against the Nation by using one unpatriotic pretext or other to shield their real motive. Therefore the duty to bring to a speedy end the ugly status quo of unbridled deceit and reckless Itsekiri brinkmanship is an imperative one.