His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje,
Okpara I, Ovie r’ Agbon (reigned: 1958-2012),
And the Making of Royal Traditions in Urhobo Political Culture
By Professor Peter Ekeh
Chairman, Urhobo Historical Society
In the decades of the 1940s and early 1950s, in which Chamberlain Orovwuje grew up at Okpara Inland in the Urhobo hinterland and in the midst of the colonial era, royalty was a distant marvel in Urhobo culture. True, the concept of Ovie (plural: Ivie), rightly translated into English as King, was well embedded in Urhobo culture. However, until 1945, only two of Urhobo’s twenty-two sub-cultures exercised the institution of Ovie, albeit on a small scale. These were Ogor and Ughelli in central Urhoboland, discounting the exceptional practices in Agbarha that designated its three sub-clan chieftains as Ivie. In 1945 in much greater grandeur, Okpe in northern Urhobo revived its own institution of Ovie, named Orodje, which it had abandoned for centuries after a one-time flirtation with kingship. Okpe’s violent termination of its ancient experimentation with kingship was woven into foul tales of misrule that mesmerized Chamberlain Orovwuje’s – and my own – generation who came of age in neighbouring Agbon in the 1940s-1950s.
As a notable sub-culture of Urhobo, Agbon was very much conflicted about kingship. On the one hand, Agbon sub-culture was deeply suspicious of kingship. Well up to the early 1950s, Agbon people were proud of their cultural coinage: Ọkpako r’ Agbon oy’ Ovie r’ Agbon. This adage translates into English as follows: In any Agbon community, the oldest man is Ovie (King), thus investing gerontocracy with the dignity of royalty. Up to the early 1950s, guardians of Agbon sub-culture justified its unique scepticism about kingship by invoking the historic violence that was associated with kingship in pre-historic neighbouring Okpe, proudly inferring that there was greater reign of peace in Agbon’s domain which until then never practised kingship.
On the other hand, there was plenty of sublime admiration for kingship in Agbon sub-culture, even before the 1940s. To start with, stories of “King Ogiso” (actually, Kings of the Ogiso dynasty), who reigned in lands from which the Urhobo people migrated in pre-historic times, were the main stuff of the famous Osia (story-telling) sessions that were the dominant forums of night-time entertainment in the cultural milieu in which Chamberlain Orovwuje’s generation came of age in the late 1930s through 1940s. Furthermore, British colonial rule glamorized royalty. Apart from abundant displays of pictures of King George VI (1936-1952) and his family, one-page wall almanacs adorned the Oba of Benin and the Ooni of Ife as well as several other royal chieftains. As school boys, we read these portraits of distant royalty and interpreted them to those of our parents and elders who did not read or write. There was little doubt that there was growing admiration for royalty in Urhoboland in the 1940s-1950s. Indeed, in the late 1930s, there had been a suggestion by some Urhobo opinion leaders that the Urhobo people might do well to install a king who would rule over their affairs.
Modern kingship came to Urhoboland in the mid-1950s through an unexpected route. Nigeria first became a federation in 1954 during colonial times, with the division of the country into three federal units of Northern Region, Eastern Region, and Western Region. Urhoboland was in Western Region for whose control Awolowo-led Action Group and Azikiwe-led NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons) were the contending political parties. The Urhobo people sided with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and his NCNC, bitterly resisting Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the Action Group. It was in an attempt to bring Urhobo under its column that the Action Group sought to import kingship to the rest of Urhoboland, beyond Okpe, Ogor, and Ughelli. Remarkably, there was no resistance whatsoever to Awolowo’s and his party’s attempt to expand kingship in Urhoboland. On the contrary, many fragments of the Urhobo elite grabbed this new opportunity, even though most of them continued to resist the Action Group.
The first port of call by Awolowo’s Government was Agbon, one of the two largest and most influential sub-cultures in Urhoboland. In the mid-1950s, Chief George Oyibocha Orovwuje of Okpara quickly emerged as the most qualified chieftain who contested for this new formation of Ovie r’ Agbon (King of Agbon). Chief Orovwuje was probably the most literate of the “native” Chiefs of the British Colonial administrative and judicial system in Agbon in the 1940s. Notably, he was an elementary school classmate of Thomas Erukeme, founding and pioneer Secretary of Urhobo Progress Union. George Orovwuje began his working career as a school teacher in the late 1920s, before settling down to the craftsmanship of leadership of his people in Okpara and Agbon. His gorgeous and large brick house in Iyara Street in Okpara Inland became a favourite place for visits and meetings by Urhobo elites and Chiefs in the 1940s and 1950s. Internally, in Okpara affairs, Chief Orovwuje was popular in large measure because he was a patron of education, always encouraging youngsters to go to school. There was little doubt that Okpara’s candidate for the new position of Ovie r’ Agbon was an excellent and popular choice. Furthermore, Okpara people insisted that they were entitled to claim this position in its first instance because Okpara was the oldest of Agbon’s descendants, according to Agbon’s folk history. Sadly, in the midst of the contest for kingship, Chief George Oyibocha Orovwuje took deadly ill.
It was a tragic blow for Okpara. But its people and leaders decided to replace Chief George Orovwudje’s candidacy with that of one of his sons. In the mid-1950s, Chief Orovwuje had three grown-up sons, in their 20s: Edward (eldest), Chamberlain (second eldest), and Palmer (third eldest). Following due and diverse consultation and considerations, Okpara people settled on Chamberlain Orovwouje as their candidate for Ovie r’ Agbon. Okpara’s new candidate was still a student at St. Thomas’s College, Ibusa, near Asaba, at the time of the decision by Okpara people that he should be King. Ironically, it fell to Urhobo’s – and Okpara’s -- first university graduate, Chief M. G. Ejaife, pioneer and founding Principal of Urhobo College, Effurun, to persuade the 22-year old student to abandon his academic pursuits and heed the call of his people to become their King.
Chamberlain Orovwuje’s preparation for kingship was not formal. Until Ejaife’s unexpected visit to convey to him the heavy news from Okpara, the last thing in Chamberlain’s mind was becoming King. Those of us who claimed him as a boyhood friend, from our elementary school days at Catholic Central School, Okpara Inland, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, remember Chamberlain as an ebullient and rather charismatic youth, with a discernible amount of self-confidence. Much of his personality probably developed from his closeness to his father’s privileged circumstances. Whilst many of us as children and boys admired visiting dignitaries from a distance, Chamberlain saw and received them as his father’s friends and visitors. Such informal up-bringing was probably the most training for kingship that any youth could receive in Agbon culture of the 1940s-1950s.
Chamberlain Orovwuje was installed as Ovie r’ Agbon with the moniker Okpara I in 1958 when he was barely 23. He did not inherit the throne. Before him there was no throne or any royal tradition in Agbon. His Majesty Okpara I’s great achievement is that he built up a brand new royal tradition in an Agbon sub-culture of Urhoboland that was before him sceptical about royal practices. His great success was that he presided over the political and social transformation of Agbon and helped to create an aura for royalty that modernized traditional rulership in Urhoboland. During his long reign of 54 years, from mid-20th century to the second decade of the 21st century, royal institutions not only became domesticated and widespread in Urhobo culture but, equally importantly, respect for kingship grew enormously. In other words, His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje’s beneficial legacy spills over from his Agbon domain to the entirety of modern Urhobo political culture.
I count myself as fortunate to have retained my friendship with His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje, dating back to our elementary school days in the late 1940s and early 1950s at Catholic Central School, Okpara Inland, unto our adult years. We had several private conversations about his experiences, especially in the early years of his kingship. I once asked His Majesty how he was able to cope with the early period when he was recalled from St. Thomas’s College, Ibusa. His reflections on those tense days of his new life were thoughtful: There were no existing protocols that guided his actions and others’ relationship with him. He strongly attributed his early success to help and guidance from three principals of Okpara and Agbon history. Foremost in His Majesty’s reckoning was Chief Otite Ijedia, a contemporary chieftain of his father in colonial native administration. Chief Otite was widely respected in Okpara for his fairness and sagacity in public affairs. His Majesty told me several times that Chief Otite gave him assurances and daily guidance. Secondly, Chief M. G. Ejaife stood by him, introducing him to political powers in Ibadan, capital of Western Nigeria. Thirdly, at various points in his early experiences as Ovie r’ Agbon, he received enormous help and guidance from Chief Adogbeji Salubi of Ovu, especially in matters of protocol, dress, and Urhobo history. In addition to these Urhobo celebrities from whom he gained mightily, His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje gained much wisdom from the experienced and mature Oba Akenzua II of Benin whose acquaintance he made early in his reign as a young monarch.
The young King of Agbon had to mature fast in order to tackle problems of governance in his domain. First, kingship threatened the old regime of indigenous order of administration and justice that was largely based on rule by elders. Secondly, competition for the new position of king had caused tension and disagreement among Agbon’s towns – pitting supporters of King Chamberlain Orovwuje against supporters of his main opponent in the competition for kingship. There was urgent need to heal Agbon’s wounds. His Majesty took a first critical step in these respects by appointing a prominent and influential Uhwokori personality, Chief Obodo Manuwa, as His Majesty’s Otota (Spokesman). (By the way, Obodo Manuwa was the uncle of the current Otota, Chief Efe Akpofure.) Chief Obodo Manuwa was of the same age-group as Chief George Oyibocha Orovwuje, the young King’s late father. Manuwa was most helpful to the young King in restoring Agbon’s political health, especially rivalries between Okpara and Uhwokori. Moreover, there was no radical usurpation of the role and status of the rule of elders. The King’s moderation probably helped to increase respect for the new system.
During the fifty plus years of the reign of King Chamberlain Orovwuje, all the six component settlements of Agbon – Okpara, Uhwokori, Orhoakpor, Eku, Igun, and Ovu – were transformed from medium and small settlements to sizeable towns. Three of them – Okpara, Uhwokori, and Eku – have grown into sprawling municipalities. In the case of Okpara, His Majesty was a pioneer in his gutsy decision to claim Okpara’s Aghwarode forest (“Bad Bush”) as the site for his home and Palace, overcoming a streak of superstition that haunted Okpara for centuries. This is an order of achievement that few other reigns of kings could boast of in Urhoboland. King Chamberlain Orovwuje has other more direct claims of service to Agbon. He fought tooth and nail to ensure that the Federal Government created a Local Government that had headquarters in Agbon’s ritual capital at Isiokoro. The establishment of Ethiope East LGA will remain a lasting tribute to his work to promote the welfare of Agbon. He was also directly involved in negotiating the establishment of the first Girls’ Secondary in Agbon, sited at Okpara Inland. More broadly, it is noteworthy that at the beginning of his reign in 1958, there was not a single Secondary School or Teacher Training College in Agbon. The nearest such institutions were at Aghalokpe in Okpe and at Avwraka. Under King Chamberlain Orovwuje’s reign there has been a steady expansion of education in Agbon. King Chamberlain Orovwuje may justly be called “Patron of Education” in Agbon.
King Chamberlain Orovwuje’s successes and achievements are largely traceable to his strategy for recruiting Agbon and, indeed, Urhobo elite into the service of Agbon and Urhobo interests. Of all Urhobo kings, His Majesty Chamberlain was probably unsurpassed in his inclination and ability to associate with the elite and recruit them into his royal service, as it were. This point may not be obvious to readers of this tribute who did not experience colonial times: His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje was a strong admirer of the spirit and commitment that animated the work of British colonial servants. He wanted Agbon and Urhobo elites to exhibit the same degree of dedication and commitment to the service of Urhoboland as was evident to him in colonial service. He used a sports metaphor to make the point. King Orovwuje said: “Royal service is like a relay race; fresh new actors pick up tasks when others leave off.” His Chiefs (named Ọhọvwọre and Ọkakuro) have been in the forefront of such service. A line-up of these chiefs is impressive. They included such celebrated and exemplary principals and chieftains of Agbon public affairs as Chief Obodo Manuwa, Chief Patrick Bolokor, the late Chief Justice of the Federation Ayo Irikefe (from Uhwokori), Michael Uwegba, Gordon Umukoro, Laggy Nakpodia, Onigu Otite (from Okpara), Chief Adogbeji Salubi, Johnson Barovbe (from Ovu), Chief Johnson Ukueku (from Eku), etc., etc. Outside of his chiefs, His Majesty reserved special honour for intellectuals and professionals. He was especially proud that Agbon had the largest pool of medical doctors in all of Urhoboland. King Chamberlain Orovwuje brought close to his Palace successful businessmen and professionals who brought their expertise to Urhoboland: Chief Imo Otite, Dr. Peter Obakponovwe, and the late Dr. Godwin Okpavero are outstanding examples of this class of Agbon elite whom His Majesty held in high regard. He was famous for the audiences that he granted to any visiting Agbon elites.
By the prime of his life, His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje had emerged as an Urhobo leader. This level of achievement was well earned and deserved. There were few traditional rulers who, like His Majesty, reigned during the colonial era of our history and in post-colonial times. He was a member of the Western House of Chiefs before the Mid-West Region was created in 1963. He was chairman or member of dozens of boards and panels at the level of Local, State and Federal Governments. He validly became a veteran leader of his people as the Urhobo navigated their destiny in the new Mid-West Region, Bendel State, and Delta State. He was a patriotic man who cared very much about the fate and direction of Urhobo Progress Union. King Orovwuje was regularly consulted on Urhobo affairs by a host of Urhobo leaders: Dr. Frederick Esiri, Michael Ibru, David Dafinone, David Ejoor, Felix Ibru, Edwin Clark, and Moses Taiga – to mention a representative sample of Urhobo leaders who routinely consulted with His Majesty. His Palace at Okpara Inland was a venue for settling major issues on Urhobo disputes. Beyond such Urhobo principals, King Chamberlain Orovwuje routinely received visiting Urhobo elites from outside Urhoboland.
King Chamberlain Orovwuje was a quintessential Urhoboman who would want to be judged by how well he did by his family. Anyone who was close to the late King would not hesitate to affirm that he paid premium attention to the welfare of his family. The education and proper up-bringing of his eight sons and seven daughters were always at the forefront of his consciousness. Their reciprocal dedication and love for their father is the pride of any Urhoboman. His Majesty plied a modern married life and his dedication and love for his Queen Victoria was truly inspiring.
King Chamberlain Orovwuje was endowed with a good amount of physical prowess. One of the most signal stories about the late King concerned an incident in which he surprised a man who was sent to kill him by grabbing and tossing the would-be assassin to the ground. The hapless man managed to break loose and he took to his heels. However, even strong kings are humans who are subject to the vicissitudes of ill-health. After many years of extraordinary life and dedicated service to his people and his own family, the King from Okpara was slowed down by a stubborn illness. He bore it all with an uncommon degree of fortitude. I should report to Agbon and to the Urhobo people that our beloved King always had the full attention of his family and friends in his days of need. At one stage, he requested to be taken overseas for evaluation and treatment. After exhaustive consultation that included his children and Okpara leaders (Dr. Peter Obakponovwe, Professor Chief Onigu Otite, and Chief Imo Otite), arrangements for his treatment and care were made by three other Okpara elite resident in the United States: Professor Andrew Evwaraye, Professor Akpofure Ekeh (my eldest son) and my humble self. Accompanied by his devoted wife, Victoria, His Majesty received good attention in Miami Valley Hospital, Dayton, Ohio, USA, where Dr. Akpofure Ekeh is a physician. His Majesty returned home and lived a few more years before the end came. It is remarkable that throughout, and to the very end, His Majesty retained his sharp intellect.
Every Urhobo adult male (King, chieftain, or commoner) is entitled to bear an assumed name (Odova) by which he is saluted by his peers as well as his juniors and subjects. His Majesty Chamberlain Orovwuje bore a formidable and sturdy Odova of Ogurime-Rime by which he was routinely saluted. Let me conclude this tribute to the beloved King by invoking the name that endeared him to so many.
(i) To start from the beginning: On behalf of all those who passed through the portals and blessings of Catholic Central School, Okpara Inland, we all salute Ogurime-Rime for elevating with his achievements and stature the galaxy of successful elites whom this wonderful institution enabled to compete in colonial times and beyond.
(ii) The people of Okpara have good reason to salute their hometown hero who presided over their affairs for more than half a century. We salute Ogurime-Rime for being in the forefront of bringing education and other elements of modern civilization to our home town.
(iii) The people of Agbon salute Ogurime-Rime for ensuring that the change of Agbon’s political culture from the rule of elders to kingship has been orderly. Furthermore, Agbon people salute Ogurime-Rime for successfully fighting for Agbon’s own LGA. Under his reign Agbon has continued to be a central part of the core of the Urhobo hinterland.
(iv) Lastly, the Urhobo people salute Ogurime-Rime for providing precious leadership in Urhoboland and for helping to modernize Urhobo’s traditional rulership.
May the Soul of King Chamberlain Orovwuje Rest in Blessed Peace
Urhobo Historical Society
November 6, 2012