By Albert Aweto, Ph.D.
Professor of Geography
University of Ibadan, Nigeria
(January 31, 2002)
Location: Western Niger Delta
Area: 5000 square kilometres
Population: 1.5 million
Main towns: Warri, Sapele, Ughelli
Climate: Humid subequatorial
Natural vegetation : Rain forest/ swamp forest
Minerals: Oil, natural gas
Main rivers: Ethiope, Warri, Kiagbodo
The Urhobo people are one of the major ethnic nationalities of the
Niger delta. They live in the western part of the Niger delta, the salient
features of which essentially encapsulate the geography of Urhoboland. The
location of Urhoboland in a delta has not only influenced the nature of
the physical environment but also the mode of life of the people. The population
of Urhoboland was 1.12 million in 1991. Today, the population is about 1.5
Urhoboland is located in the western part of the Niger delta , south
of latitude 6° N. It is a
contiguous territory of about 5000 square kilometres in the southern part
of Delta State of Nigeria. It is bounded by latitudes 5 ° 15' N and 6° N and longitudes 5° 40' E and 6° 25' E.
The whole of Urhoboland is a low-lying plain consisting mainly of
recent unconsolidated sediments of Quaternary age. These sediments are partly
of marine and partly of fluvial origin. Land elevation is generally under
50 meters above mean sea level and there is a marked absence of imposing
hills that rise above the general land surface. The area is traversed by
numerous flat-floored rivers that drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The most
important rivers are the Ethiope, Warri and the Kiagbodo. These rivers are
prone to flooding, especially during the wet season, mainly because of the
heavy rainfall, high ground water table and the flat-floored valleys. Large
stretches of most rivers, especially the lower reaches of the Ethiope, Warri
and the Kiagdodo rivers are permanently waterlogged.
As with the rest of the Niger delta, the climate of Urhoboland is
humid subequatorial with a long wet season lasting from March to October
that alternates with a shorter dry season that lasts from November to February.
The climate is influenced by two prevailing air masses namely (1) the S. W.
monsoon wind and (2) the N. E trade wind. The former prevails during the wet
season and the latter during the dry season. The S.W monsoon winds originate
from the Atlantic Ocean and they are associated with the wet season, being
warm and moisture-laden. In contrast, the N.E. trade winds originate from
the Sahara desert and their prevalence is associated with the dry season.
The effects of the dry N.E. trade winds are most noticeable in Urhoboland
from December to February when they usher in the dry and dusty harmattan.
Annual rainfall is high throughout Urhoboland, being usually up to 2500 mm.
In southerly locations such as Warri and Ughelli, mean annual rainfall is
up to 2800 mm. The beginning and end of the wet season are usually marked
by intense thunderstorms of short duration, often accompanied by strong winds
which may blow off roofs of buildings and cause destruction of property. Prolonged
and gentle showers, usually lasting several hours or a few days, are more
characteristic of the middle of the wet season. The rainfall regime is double-peak,
the two periods of peak rainfall being June/July and September which are
separated by a relatively dry period in August. Annual temperature average
in Urhoboland is about 27 °C
with no marked seasonal departure from the average temperature as the annual
range of temperature is quite small, rarely exceeding 3 °C.
The natural vegetation of Urhoboland is rain forest with swamp forest
occurring in flat-floored valleys and adjoining low-lying areas that are seasonally
or permanently waterlogged. The rain forest is floristically diverse and
structurally complex, with several layers of trees. It was a major source
of timber and the notable timber-producing species include Antiaris toxicaria,
Milicia (Chlorophora) excelsa, Ceiba pentandra and Piptadeniastrum
africanum. Other trees that feature in the rain forest include Pentaclethra
macrophylla, Chrysophyllum albidum and Irvingia gabonenesis. The two
last mentioned tree species are fruit trees which are important as sources
of income and dietary supplement for rural people. Virtually all the rain
forest in Urhoboland has been destroyed as a result of farming, especially
shifting cultivation and the establishment of small-scale holdings of rubber trees,
coupled with commercial lumbering. Today, much of the countryside is dominated
by secondary regrowth vegetation with oil palms (Elaeis guineesis
) and Chromolaena odorata, farmland, rubber "plantations" and patches
of swamp forest along rivers. Unlike rain forest, fairly large areas of
land are still under swamp forest vegetation in Urhoboland today. This is
mainly because the swampy terrain of areas under swamp vegetation hinder
access and make cultivation and timber exploitation difficult. Extensive
areas of swamp forest occur in the Urhobo- Okpe forest reserve, south of
Sapele, and in the lower sections of the Jamieson and Ethiope rivers. Raffia palms, especially Raphia
hookerii and Raphia vinifera are the dominant elements of the flora
of the swamp forest.
The soils are deeply weathered and nutrient-deficient, being derived
mainly from unconsolidated sediments of sandstone. They are predominantly
sandy. The proportion of sand in the top 10 cm of the soil may be up to
90%. Consequently, the soils are loose and poorly aggregated as they contain
very low levels of clay and organic matter. Given the heavy rainfall experienced
in Urhoboland, it is hardly surprising that the soils are intensely leached,
base deficient and acidic in reaction. Soil pH in the top 20 cm of the soil
profile is usually under 5.0 and occasionally as low as 4.0. Total exchangeable
base may be as low as 3 cmol/ kg or lower. There are however, a few patches
of clayey soil derived from shale. Such soils, usually of limited areal extent,
are waterlogged due to impaired drainage. They provide valuable raw material
for the local pottery industry that specializes in the production of clay
pots for cooking and storing water. In spite of their higher base status,
the soils derived from shale are difficult to work, being wet, sticky and
slippery during the wet season, which incidentally is the growing season.
Human occupation in Urhoboland includes farming, fishing, trading,
lumbering, mining, palm wine tapping and manufacturing. The major manufacturing
industries are concentrated in the major towns.
Farming is the mainstay of the rural economy and most people in the
rural area engage in farming which is mainly subsistence in nature. The
farmer usually grows tree crops ,especially rubber (Hevea brasiliensis)
purely in order to generate income. In discussing farming in Urhoboland,
it is convenient to make a distinction between food crop and cash crop production.
This distinction is somewhat arbitrary as the farmer occasionally sells
crops usually categorized as food crops in order to obtain money to buy
basic necessities that he does not produce. The main food crops grown in
Urhoboland include cassava (
Manihot esculenta), white guinea yam ( Dioscorea rotundata) water
yam (Dioscorea alata), plantains/bananas
( Musa spp.) cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta) and groundnuts
(Arachis hypogaea). These crops are usually intercropped with three
or more crops grown on the same field which rarely exceeds 0.2 hectare.
Plantains and pawpaw (Carica papaya ) are usually cultivated perennially
in home gardens and fertilized using household refuse. Rotational fallowing
or shifting cultivation is the main system of food crop production. Fields
to be cultivated are cleared in December/January and the cut slash of cleared
vegetation is allowed to dry before being burnt. The ash released by the
burnt slashed vegetation, releases potassium, calcium and phosphorus into
the soil, thereby giving the planted crops a head start at the inception
of the growing season. Crops such as yams, cassava and maize are planted
before the onset of the wet season, sometimes after the first rains in February
or March. Maize is usually harvested after 4 months, well before cassava
and yams which take much longer to mature. In the past, a cropping period
of 1-2 years is followed by a much longer fallow period of 7 years or longer.
During the fallow period, the cultivated field is allowed to revert to bush
and becomes colonized by fallow vegetation
in order to naturally restore its fertility which declined during cropping.
Trees in the fallow vegetation such as Albizia zygia, Albizia
adianthifolia, Baphia nitida and Sterculia tragacantha, help
to add litter to the soil and to recycle nutrients from the subsoil to the
topsoil. Owing to the rapid increase in population in Urhoboland during
the past two decades, fallow periods have been reduced to about 3 years and
in the vicinity of large towns such as Sapele and Ughelli, continuous cultivation
is emerging. The shortening of the fallow period has resulted in a general
decline in soil fertility. Consequently, yams which were widely cultivated
in the past have been largely replaced by cassava which is more tolerant
of less fertile soils.
The two most important cash crops produced in Urhoboland are the
tree crops rubber and oil palm, both of which are tolerant
of the acidic sandy soils. Attempts to introduce cocoa (Theobroma cacao)
as a cash crop have proved unsuccessful, mainly because the soils are unsuitable
for the crop. Rubber is the most widely grown crop with well over 50% of
arable under rubber production. In parts of Urhoboland (e.g. Sapele, Ughelli
and Abraka) up to about 80% of the arable land is devoted to rubber production.
Plots of rubber trees stretch almost uninterrupted along both sides of roads,
giving the erroneous impression of plantation. Most rubber plots rarely
exceed a few hectares but the plots of farmers are contiguous. Commercial
rubber plantations occur near Sapele which houses factories for processing
rubber and for making rubber sandals. Although the oil palm is one of the
most valuable indigenous trees in the forest zone of West Africa, the tree
usually grows wild and is protected by the farmer in sites cleared for cultivation.
Oil palms are a conspicuous feature of farmlands mainly on account of the
protection given them by the farmer. Most oil palm groves in Urhoboland
have become old and unproductive. Nigeria's output of palm oil and kernels
has declined considerably mainly because the bulk of the produce comes from
wild palms in peasant holdings. In fact Nigeria plummeted from the world's
leading exporter of palm oil and kernels in the 1950s and early 1960s to
a net importer of vegetable oil since the 1980s. Faced with the problems
of a huge food import bill and dwindling revenue from agricultural imports,
Nigerian government has taken measures to increase crop production. In some
south eastern states such as Abia, Akwa Ibom and Cross River, government
is assisting local farmers to rehabilitate oil palm groves and establish
plots of improved oil palm varieties. Enterprising farmers in Urhoboland
are not left out in the attempt to revitalize the oil palm industry. Many
farmers have established plantations of oil palm, although the amount of
land under such plantations is small compared to wild groves.
Livestock farming is not an important feature of the agricultural
economy of Urhoboland, given the natural forest vegetation. The savanna
patches of Urhobo plain are flooded during the wet season on account of which
they are unsuitable for all-year-round livestock grazing. Urhobo people ,
however, keep a few goats, sheep, pigs and poultry as a sideline to crop
farming. Commercial poultry production is important in the outskirts of large
towns such as Sapele, Ughelli and Warri.
Fishing is important in the main streams and rivers, especially,
the Ethiope, Kiagbodo and Warri. Nets and other fishing gears are used for
fishing. Traps are also widely employed. The catch consists mainly of tilapia
(Tilapia spp.) and catfish (Clarias spp.). As a result of
pollution of streams and rivers by crude oil during oil spills, mainly resulting
from lapses by oil producing companies, the fishery resources of many rivers
have been decimated. This has rendered fishermen jobless and they have to
migrate to cities such as Warri and Sapele in search of jobs, thereby worsening
social problems in the towns.
The once extensive forests of Urhoboland have been destroyed or denuded
of their timber resources. Trees are felled and transported by trucks or
floated on rivers (especially the Ethiope) downstream to the sawmills. Sapele
and Warri have numerous sawmills. Sapele has a large factory that produces
plywood and veneer. Owing to unsustainable timber exploitation, the lumbering
industry in Urhoboland faces a bleak future.
Warri, Sapele and Ughelli are the main centres of commerce in Urhoboland. Warri and Sapele are coastal ports and have long been established as centres of commerce since precolonial times. Warri, Sapele and Ughelli are important for wholesale and retail trade in electronics, hardware, light industrial and agricultural machinery, textiles, furniture and foodstuff. The smaller towns and villages have markets that hold periodically rather than on a daily basis. Most rural period markets hold at intervals of four days, usually on a rotational basis between settlements. When it is a "market day" in a particular settlement, itinerant traders travel from nearby settlements on foot, bicycles or by cars, buses and lorries to sell their wares. Farmers also transport their crops such as yams and plantains and also processed cassava flour ( gari) to rural periodic markets for sale. The market in Kokori holds every eight days and it is one the largest periodic markets in Urhoboland.
The mineral resources are crude oil and natural gas, although there
are deposits of clay locally utilized for pottery production. There are
numerous oil fields in Urhoboland (e.g. Ughelli, Kokori and Otorugo ) which
make a significant contribution to Nigeria's crude oil output. Crude oil
exploration has impacted negatively on the people and economy of Urhoboland.
Periodic spills have resulted in destruction of farmland, rubber plantations
and aquatic biota, thereby undermining the rural economy and leaving the
people unemployed and pauperized. There are numerous gas flare sites in
Urhoboland where natural gas associated with crude oil is burnt off. The
huge conflagration created by the continuous burning of natural gas has
not only destroyed the vegetation of such sites but has scared away wildlife
and transformed nights into permanent daylight to the chagrin of the local
f) Palm wine tapping
Raffia palms and occasionally,
oil palm trees are tapped for wine. Palm wine may be consumed while fresh
or may be used for distilling wine locally known as "agbakara". It was regarded
as "illicit" gin by the colonialists who sought to prohibit its production,
mainly because its production tended to undermine the importation of gin
from Europe. Today, gin produced from palm wine is sold freely, unlike in
colonial times. The production and sale of fresh palm assumes considerable
importance near Sapele, mainly because of the proximity of extensive swamps
dominated by raffia palms and the availability of an urban market.
TOWNS AND INDUSTRIES
The main towns are Warri, Sapele, Ughelli, Effurun. Abraka, which
houses the Delta State University, is an emerging urban centre that sprang
up on the bank of the Ethiope River. It has the potential of developing
a tourist industry based on the utilization of the clear Ethiope River for
recreational purposes, especially swimming. Effurun has expanded considerably
and merged with Warri.
Warri is one of the major ports in the Niger delta. It is the largest
town in Urhoboland. With a population of 218,000 in 1991, Warri is important
for ship building, oil refining and petro-chemical industry. The development
of Warri is hampered by chronic traffic congestion and violent conflicts between
the three main ethnic nationalities- Urhobo, Itsekiri and Izon- that inhabit
the city. Many oil companies have threatened to relocate from Warri as a
result of frequent violent ethnic clashes. The Petroleum Training Institute
is located in Effurun to the north of the city while the Delta Steel Company
is located at Ovwia- Aladja at the outskirts of Warri.
This is another important port in the western part of the Niger delta.
With a population of 110,000 in 1991, Sapele is a major commercial and industrial
centre. The African Timber and Plywood Company in Sapele , which produces
plywood and veneer, is one of the largest timber-processing factories in
West Africa. It is also important for the processing of rubber.
With a population of 54,000 in 1991, Ughelli has a hinterland that produces crude oil, natural gas, and agricultural products such as rubber and palm oil and kernels. It is important for glass manufacture and electric power generation. The Otorugo gas plant is located near Ughelli which is also an important gateway to the eastern part of the Niger delta.